Fire and trothing at #ALTC2010

(these are my views and not those of my employer, or of projects and programmes I am responsible for. This post is available under a creative commons CC-BY license)

I should admit, to my shame, that I had a blog post pre-prepared – I felt we know all there is to know about #altc by now. Someone waves some flashy technology around, everyone says “oooh shiny”, someone asks “what do the students think?” and then we nod sagely at this insight and move on to the next session. I was going to call it “Fear and Loathing at ALT-C” – travelling to Nottingham to find the great academic dream, systematically and self-destructively losing touch with reality, and reflecting on missed opportunities and the old high water-mark

But there were surprises in store. This was bat country.

If we started with Donald Clark trashing the cathedral, we followed it with Sugata Mitra connecting the bazaar. We’ve been critiquing the lecture for nearly 30 years (“What’s the use of lectures”), we know the arguments well, we’ve used them ourselves. It felt like cavoli riscaldati – reheating old cabbage – and the gas and the stench of negativity nearly choked us. But then out of nothing more than a hole in the wall, we saw learning (almost) unplugged and a restatement of the essentials of self-education (and really, what other kind is there) by exploring, of community and peer (and near-peer) support.

ALT-C used to be a gathering of technologists, but we seemed to be groping towards the unfashionable social sciences – anthropology, psychology, sociology, education and (most clearly) politics. We saw the birth of a star: Dave White with the golden ratio of research evidence, charisma and radicalisation managing to please the crowd whilst drawing the wool away from our eyes. And an award proved that, as our governmental ministers draw from their Oxford experiences and networks, we could now draw on TALL, and on similar departments of agitators, trouble makers and genuine post-doctorate-level awkward fuckers (see Donald, I can do it too!) elsewhere.

The technological is now political; rather than leaping at the possibilities as in the past we are sitting back to ask why? who for? and what is the real cost? There was a sense of a last gasp, we are running out of time, running out of money, and (as Richard Hall and Joss Winn made terrifyingly clear) running out of energy. Even by 2014, we could be living in a radically altered society in which we would either adapt or collapse. Kudos to the pair of them for making it sound challenging and exciting. We’re higher education, we used to love solving problems…

In my own meagre contribution, my colleagues and I tried to highlight the dangers of toying with transformative concepts without at least an aspiration of where we want to end up. We saw three delightful models of how OER could benefit the educational community, and then one neo-liberal corporate nightmare. The oncoming commercialisation of higher education is another figurative crossroads that we stand at, with a genuine and fundamental conundrum about the creative and connective capacity of humankind being used for the benefit of all, or sold back to us to benefit from the few.

But there are strange and magical powers within our creaking old dark-age institutional structures. The gaps, the synergies, the misfiring collegiate neurons and the freedoms within the way we work give us the chance to influence, to build and to organise against the oncoming storms.

Maybe Dave White won’t get to be prime minister after all, but as academics and tutors (even if we are not teaching PPE at Oxford) we can rule a nation with a microphone.

David Kernohan
twitter: dkernohan

OER futures and Universality, Inc. #altc2010

(these are my own views and not those of my employer, or of programmes and projects I am responsible for. This post is available under a CC-BY license)


In working with Sheila MacNeill, Li Yuan and Heather Price (nee Williamson) in preparing our workshop at ALTC2010 (slides) on trends and scenarios in OER, I was challenged to flesh out the following scenario:


“the radical change model in which a global university appears to serve the different needs of the learners through open access to course materials, learner support and assessment”


This was one of four, ranging from a status quo model in which OER was simply an adjunct to an institutionally focused model, on  to seeing OER as a means of facilitating institutional credit transfer, and (excitingly) to OER as a spur to widespread institutional collaboration. So clearly my scenario was on the neo-liberal nightmare edge of the spectrum.


Predicting the future is not the kind of thing I generally enjoy. I feel that I understand the present and the recent past so poorly that anything I could come up with is based more a hunch than the result of any proper analysis of trends and patterns. Unlike other future gazers, I admit this,


But I ended up with a business model that was both plausible and terrifying; contemplating “Universality Inc” where OERs are a primary means of learning alongside peer support and automatic formative assessment, with other “optional services” (like tutorials, practicals, examinations and qualification/graduation) available for a fee. Academics, in this nightmarish vision, were mainly paid to produce OERs to draw customers in to pay for other services, and employers had enough input into the curriculum to save on corporate training costs.


I frightened myself.  I stared in to the abyss and saw things that cannot be unseen.


The only thing to do seemed to be to make a pretend corporate video, featuring the range of fine acting talent you can find around the JISC offices on a Tuesday lunchtime.


Enjoy (and come along to the session in room ALTCT at 10:30 on Thursday 9th if you want to discuss).


(if anyone wants the raw materials from the video for reuse please leave a comment and I will send you anything you need. Oh, and please don’t build Universality for real. If you do, I waive the attribution part of the license. I want no part in this.)


Update: With thanks to Barbara Dieu, this video is now available with English and Brazillian Portugese subtitles

Is an OER still an OER if no-one uses it?

(note, these are my personal views and not those of my organisation or programmes and projects I have responsibility for)

I’ve been thinking a lot about the “academic reuse” angle of OER for a while now – eagle-eyed #ukoer10 attendees may have spotted that my contention that this is a peculiarly British obsession got sneaked in to Sarah Porter’s opening remarks. There are international exceptions – most notably MERLOT and Connexions at Rice – but there is a much greater focus at a global level on reuse by learners. In many ways I think this is healthier – the end users of all educational materials are learners, and academic reuse is simply an extra mediating level.

In English HE policy we have been trying to get academics to use digital materials created by other academics for at least 15 years. One of my favourite historical policy documents is a short summary of an evaluative seminar concerning the Computers in Teaching Initiative (CTI), Technology in Learning and Teaching Support Network (TLTSN) and Teaching and Learning Technology Programme (TLTP). The first two of these became the Learning and Teaching Support Network (LTSN), which mutated in to the Higher Education Academy, the latter has been (unfairly) maligned as “that big expensive HEFCE programme that produced loads of content that no-one ever used”.

One key phrase from this document  is “not invented here” – an assertion that a combination of “professional pride and pure snobbery” was a major stumbling block to the reuse of material. A more thorough investigation into the use of these materials suggested the following:

“Of the 919 departments/schools which responded to our questionnaire, 33% were using the products of one or more TLTP projects”

I’m still not sure why this was seen as a disappointing result – getting a third of any given pool of academics to do anything is nearly impossible. I would be surprised to see similar take up levels for UKOER, not through any issue with the quality of UKOER materials but more a reflection on the sheer number of materials now available out there. Thirty-three percent take up, even within a sample, would have any textbook publisher sending out for crates of Cava.

“More TLTP materials are in use in the HE sector than may be generally recognised, especially allowing for the failure of some staff to recognise the materials they were using as being from TLTP. They are embedded in conventional courses, alongside a very substantial use of other types of C&IT. Reasons for adopting these are mostly pedagogical rather than operational or tactical.”

What we were beginning to see here is an early challenge to the idea of an academic as a “delivery mechanism” for materials. An (unnamed) participant at the seminar suggested:

“The world is full of information, information is not knowledge, and wisdom is disappearing”.

Ten years later, this seems almost prophetic. Information is now fully commodified and almost without financial value, and any academic manager still making the claim that his (and it is always “his” in this case) institution is a repository of arcane knowledge would be laughed out of the annual HEFCE conference.

Knowledge and wisdom (or the application of information) is hopefully what we are imparting to our graduates, and the growth of the web as an uber-RLO has hopefully served to highlight this. The old truism is that “everything is a learning object”, I’d amplify this by suggesting that not only is everything a learning object, every learning object is connected to other learning objects – not only in a TCP/IP sense but also in a Baudrillardian hyperreal sense of a system of referentiality between objects and the idea of objects. This uber-RLO that we call the internet is available constantly from pretty much anywhere, and is constantly being added to.

We can no longer usefully look at a learning object in isolation and this to me is why the emphasis on reuse by academics is maybe missing the point. In the same way that I sit at my synthesiser and worry that I haven’t chosen the “right sound” from the billions it is able to make; I find information on the web and worry if it is the best, most complete and most comprehensible source of that particular knowledge. In both cases, I may investigate a few further links but will end up using what seems to work at that time. And being able to identify (quickly) something that just works is the skill in either case, and is what makes me (at my best) both a musician and a deep, reflective learner,

I don’t think it would be possible to gain a degree looking only at the materials that your tutors gave you – not in any meaningful sense. Students have always sought additional knowledge – in textbooks, in libraries, in conversation and latterly in on the net. In releasing OERs we are improving the pool of information that learners can freely access. Perhaps staff will use some of these materials as the centrepiece of their own teaching, in the same way as they may use a textbook or an anthology. Perhaps not. It would be interesting to know either way (and great, encouraging feedback), but it shouldn’t matter.

The point is that OER release is adding to and improving the quality of the sum of human understanding, in an even more profound way than a research paper or press release. A good OER is written to support deep learning and this is the advantage that academia, which is unique in grappling with these issues every day, can bring.

cc-by-sa 3.0 (unported)

Why is the Spending Challenge like Gillian McKeith?

(these are my opinions and not those of my employer)

No, not because it involves unqualified people sifting through a load of poo from a wide range of people with no defensible methodology.

In my last post I reported on a twitter conversation with whoever runs @HMTreasury , the upshot being that the spending challenge “consultation” was not being run within the rules set out in the usual government code of practice for consultation. So today I wondered if they were still calling it a consultation. I headed for google:

Yes, result two. But on going to the site I couldn’t fine the word consultation anywhere on the front page. How odd.

So I checked the source code:


Wow. Just wow. It’s on the page okay, but it’s hidden in the source code. Using a CSS class charmingly called “hide”. Suggesting that it wasn’t there, and was removed, but not properly.

So the government wants Google (and thus, us) to think it is a consultation, but doesn’t want to be tied to all that tedious fair, transparent co-ordination stuff – which would get in the way of taking some overwrought Mail reader’s suggestion to “BAN ALL FORRINS AND QUANGOE’S” and say that it is what the public wants.


More to follow.

Dig Your Own Hole – Coalition cuts “consultation”

(the following is my own personal opinion and not that of my employers)

(video has nothing to do with the post other than the title, but it’s great music for a Friday afternoon)

Like many I awoke to the disturbing news that David Cameron had announced that Facebook would be the “primary channel” for communicating with the public about spending cuts. Issues with the foetid and gaping all-consuming maw of Facebook aside this struck me as a pretty rubbish way of running a consultation. So 22 million people in the UK have been on Facebook – once. What about the other 60-odd million?
There is a well established and generally respected Code of Practice on public consultations – which itself suggested not only that using Facebook as a “primary channel was a bad idea, but that there were many other fundamental issues with gathering ideas in this way. The Treasury (along with most other public bodies) are signatories to this Code of Practice.
When the announcement came from the Treasury I decided to heckle and the response was interesting to say the least.
So all of this “spending challenge” is not a consultation under the accepted government definition.
Consultations are cool because:
* there’s an in built commitment to report on and respond to ideas received outside of the context of a simple policy decision.
* there is a defined start point and end point
* responses are generally in confidence unless the submitter decides otherwise.
These rules exist to stop Government departments and bodies running consultations as a sop to justify pre-existing policy decisions. Or from cherry picking the “independent” ideas that meet their own prejudices as a justification for acting on these prejudices. 
The fact that the Treasury has said that this is “not” a consultation such that the Code of Practice on Consultation (2007) would apply is telling.

Personal reflections #heaconf10 … causing trouble

(just to start by reminding all that these are personal reflections and not the opinions of my employer)

I always like to look for themes at conference, underlying points of reference that come up in a number of sessions and begin to form a narrative. CETIS conferences, especially, do this very well and you can often spot the EdTech trends just by noting what keeps coming up (Linked Data last year, in case you were asking).

At the 2010 Academy conference, given the timing, forthcoming (and existing) cuts to education funding were central to pretty much every session, coupled with a linked expectation that radical change was on the way and radical change was needed to cope with it.

I wouldn’t go as far as the panel members who claimed the cuts were an “opportunity for innovation”… certainly not for the thousands of students unable to get a university place. But clearly, people are going to try increasingly crazy stuff, and make increasingly crazy leaps. And it’s our responsibility to make sure that the outcome of all this “we must do something…” headless-chicken dancing is actually something worth doing.

Business, it appears to me, is not going to solve anything. First up, universities run businesses all the time… conference facilities, bus companies, science parks, innovation centres, cafes and restaurants. And we’re damn good at it. We work with businesses already – both on the research and teaching side, and also with stuff like business incubators and advice centres. Aaron Porter at the NUS noted that HE get about 2% of the annual business training budget – I’d argue that this was probably about the right level. So the idea we can learn from and grow with business is rubbish – we are doing it already. We could maybe do more of it, but maybe universities would be less exciting and less valuable places if we did.

Business is characterised by short-term thinking – they want skills for people to do the jobs that they need doing, and they need them now. Looking to businesses to plan long-term curricula is nonsensical – most businesses only have one long-term plan which is to grow as much as possible as fast as possible. There’s this myth within the public sector more generally that private sector management practices will save us all – this is nonsense. Management is not the strength of the private sector, profit is.

So why would HE be well placed to seriously enter the workplace skills delivery market? It’s not what we’ve traditionally done. I see HE as basically a factory for producing awkward bastards.. the kind of people who will create change and innovation, and also question and dispute poor existing practice. The private sector needs these kind of people, but it tends to think that it doesn’t. It then claims that the staff it has are not “proactive” – which is just a horrible airport management book way of saying the same things. But the “awkward squad” aren’t necessarily profit making, so it’s not what the managers (focused on their bottom line) look for from universities, colleges and trainng.

We need more troublemakers in HE too – and especially in the educational development world. The establishment of the Academy, and predecessor bodies like the LTSN and ILTHE, has added a lot of weight to the arguments around teaching quality and the student experience – issues that the rise of the fee-paying student “customer” are starting to raise in the minds of very senior university managers. Ideally, we could now just roll out what we have learned into the system and reap the benefits. But there is still a lot more work to be done, and a lot more trouble to cause – and I wonder if the structure and hierarchy of JISC, the Academy and others are the right tools for the job.

Fundamentally, we need to have the courage to get up and question stuff. There is nothing that makes me more pessimistic about the future of my profession (which I’m still going to maintain is “educational developer”) than when we let nonsense pass unchallenged, or dubious reasoning pass unargued. This happened on a few occasions at #heaconf10, and it depressed me. These are the attitudes and confidences we need to pass on to our students. Maybe we need to start closer to home.