Trial by fire for VCs? a response to ( @timeshighered )

Trial by fire will test our mettle, insist VCs. (The Times Higher, 30th June 2011) – We couldn’t read a headline like that without responding suitably, and with a respectful hat tip to Christopher Lee, Britt Ekland and Edward Woodward and all others involved in one of the greatest cult films ever.


[Final Scene: After days trying to track down data on the application rate amongst students with A-levels predicted at AAB or above, the VICE-CHANCELLOR enters the Great Hall, where the REGISTRAR is preparing for the graduation ceremony. University staff and students in bizarre costumes throng the Hall]

REGISTRAR: The game is over.  

VICE-CHANCELLOR: Game? What game?  

R: The game of the hunted leading the hunter.

You came here to find new students with AAB or above at A-level , but it is we who have found you and brought you here, and controlled your every thought and action since you were appointed.

Principally, we persuaded you to think that these students were being held as a sacrifice because applications failed last year.

VC: I know applications failed. I saw the matriculation photograph.

R: Oh, yes. They failed, all right, disastrously so… for the first time since we gained degree-awarding powers. The blossom came but the fruit withered and died on the bough. That must not happen again this year.

It is our most earnest belief that the best way of preventing this is to offer to our gods of HEFCE and to the goddess of our marketing strategy is to offer the most acceptable sacrifice that lies in our power.  

Post-graduate teaching assistants are fine, but their acceptability is limited.

An entire academic department is even better, but not nearly as effective as the right kind of manager.

VC: What do you mean, “right kind of manager”?

R: You, Vice Chancellor, are the right kind of manager as our painstaking REF-able researches have revealed. You, uniquely, were the one we needed.

A manager who would come here of his own free will.
A manager who has come here with the power of the Privy Council by representing Senior Management.
A man who would come here without experience.
A man who has come here as a fool.

VC: Get out of my way. 

R: You are the fool, Vice-Chancellor – Punch, one of the great fool-victims of history, for you have accepted the role of king for a day, and who but a fool would do that. But you will be revered and anointed as a king.

You will undergo death and rebirth – resurrection, if you like. The rebirth, sadly, will not be yours, but that of our Faculty of Humanities.

VC: I am a UUK member, and as a UUK member, I hope for the wisdom of the market. And even if you kill me now, it is I who will have been of value to society, not your damned Philosophy course. No matter what you do, you can’t change the fact that I believe in the market eternal, as promised to us by our Lord Browne. 

R: That is good. For believing what you do, we confer upon you a rare gift these days – a market consolidation.

You will not only have experience the market eternal, but you will sit with the bankers among the reviled.

Come. It is time to keep your appointment with The Wicker Man.

VC: (very agitated) Now, wait! Now, all of you, just wait and listen to me. And you can wrap it up any way you like. You are about to commit murder.

Can you not see? There is no public good. There is no education for it’s own sake. Your recruitment failed because your marketing failed. Humanities is not meant to be taught in this institution. It’s against market forces. Don’t you see that killing me is not going to bring back your Faculty?

Registrar, you know it won’t. Go on, man. Tell them. Tell them it won’t.

R: I know it will.

VC: Well, don’t you understand that if your recruitment fails this year, next year you’re going to have to have another blood sacrifice?

And next year, no one less than the Registrar himself will do. If the crops fail, Registrar, next year the University Congregation will kill you on Graduation Day.

R: They will not fail. The sacrifice will be accepted.

[The VICE-CHANCELLOR is led into a Wicker Man, constructed centre-stage and surrounded by garlands in university colours. As the construction is set alight, staff and students commence to sing “Sumer Is Icumen In”]

[Fade to black]

This post represents my personal opinions, and not those of current or former employers, projects, or programmes I am or have been responsible for. This post refers to copyright material for parodic purposes and this thus not available under an open license..

How to be an eLearning Expert (module 2) – How to be Controversial

This post represents my own thoughts only, not those of my employer or the programmes and projects I am responsible for. It is available under a Creative Commons CC-0 public domain license. It is presented as an OER for personal study.

Any resemblance to celebrity e-learning experts – living, dead, or horrible flesh-eating zombie – is not intentional and is probably self-perceived due to over-active paranoia. If you *are* a controversial e-learning expert and think any of these steps are specifically aimed at you, please let me assure you that they not. Please leave a blog comment detailing which section you mistakenly think is an attack on you and why, and I will gladly change the text.
So, you’ve followed Lou McGill’s excellent guide to becoming an elearning expert. And you’ve made it!

Or have you?

Sure, you’re seen at all the cool sessions at all the best conferences, but you’re there at the bar listening to Helen Beetham talking to Diana Laurillard, Sheila MacNeill, Grainne Conole and Sarah Knight about evaluating the use of runnable learning designs in educational practice and pretending that you are intellectually capable of following the conversation by occasionally nodding and saying “mmm…mmmm…” – whilst THAT GUY* is being whisked away from his keynote address to speak to puckered-lipped senior mandarins at the Ministry before returning – you imagine – to a hotel suite filled with exotic alcohol, sherbert dips and semi-naked booth babes employed by major e-learning vendors. And gosh, you want to be THAT GUY so hard that it hurts.

What’s THAT GUY got that you haven’t?


But now, with this simple free 10 point plan, you too can experiment with controversy: the coolest bad-boy substance known to man. Feel the raw power coursing through your fingers. Feel the adrenaline rush of being up against popular opinion with only your wits and a collection of pictures from Google Images used in breach of their license to help you. Because “starting a debate” is exactly the same thing as having 600 people call you a prat on twitter.

1. IDENTIFY A HIGHER POWER AND SUBMIT TO IT. Choose market capitalism, everyone else does. Of course you wouldn’t talk directly about this to an audience of lefty academic soap-dodgers, but you can carefully structure your argument so you leave them desiring service or technology X, which is available at a very reasonable price from certain commercial suppliers. They *could* set it up and do it themselves, but if you drop in words like “cuts”, “time pressures”, “professional quality” and “advertising” it will soon put them off. If you are canny, you already own or have shares in certain commercial suppliers that provide service or technology X.

2. BUILD A STRAW MAN. There are some practices in academia that don’t work, some of the time. Hell, there are loads – here’s a few to get you started: exams, libraries, application, feedback, lectures, seminars, contact time, online learning… Pick one and argue that because it is bad sometimes, it must be bad all the time. You could cite your own personal experiences, or if you don’t have any experience (and don’t be ashamed), use a scene from an cheesy 80s film to perfectly reflect reality. In fact, if you are really confident, suggest academia is bad all the time and we should replace it with something where private companies can more easily sell services and thus support student choice.

3. SEE VISIONS, DREAM DREAMS. There needs to be a simple ideal solution to the problem you have posed under point two. The fact that there actually isn’t shouldn’t stop you getting in to some serious technologo-determinism. All students should have iPhones! All teaching should be filmed in stroboscopic surround-sound 3D! Academics should pay for the development of commercial quality games for teaching! Academics should be available 24/7/365 via a bespoke chat client and brain implant! Don’t worry about implementation, who is going to pay for it all, or whether anyone actually wants it, or even whether it would actually work the way you claim it would. You’ll never have to make it happen.

4. TILT AT A SACRED COW. Conversely, there are some things in academia that quietly work really well: try autonomy, diversity, micro-specialist subjects, local community and employer links, academic rather than business management, supporting small scale embedded innovation. But as these don’t fit in with your vision and dreams (see point 3) then they obviously don’t work. Just because they have stupid compelling independent evidence to support them does not mean that your theory is wrong. Your theory is obviously right, because you are on the stage expounding it, whilst they are sitting in rows listening. Never forget that.

5. KICK A DOG WHEN IT IS DOWN. There are some things that people love to hate. If you feel like you are losing the crowd, have a cheap shot at a complaint common among those who don’t really understand the issue in question, like PowerPoint slides, university administrators, lazy apathetic students, moaning academics or useless quangos. There – didn’t that feel good? Now everyone is back on your side again. A good time to do this is immediately before you start selling something, be that an event, a workshop or a new shiny product. Then you sound populist enough to make people think you talk enough sense that they will trust your sales pitch.

6. POTTY MOUTH. The best way to “keep it real” is to swear like a lady’s front bottom. Because your poo is from the streets and you sexually tell it like it is, incestuous person, you can really fornicate excrement up. You might initially think you sound like a cranially-mounted phallus, but really you are the canine’s gonads. And don’t you coitally forget it, female dog. (of course, if challenged, you always speak like this. Especially to ministers of state and at dinner parties with major elearning vendors.)

7. TWO PLUS TWO EQUALS FIVE. You know that deeply unpopular and stupid thing that isn’t going to work that the government have announced? Well, they’re right and the consensus of opinion amongst those who actually understand the issue is wrong. It is going to work and it’s just what we need. It may be painful and result in massive job losses/institutional closures/international terrorism/students dropping out/greater expense but really it’s for the greater good of the sector. Only you, the controversial elearning expert, understand this, by refusing to cloud your razor sharp brain with the dull grind of facts and evidence. Why, you could almost be in government yourselves.

8. GET WITH THE EDUPUNKS. No, I don’t mean proper EduPunk, which is where the likes of Jim Groom use a whole grab-bag of tools for themselves to engage with students on a personal, meaningful level and produce great art like DS106 . You don’t even need to go to the bother of selling out, because to you edupunk only means that the technology that institutions use is rubbish, and you should buy and use better stuff. Punk is simply market capitalism in funny clothes. (and note the best stuff has a logo that looks like a bit of fruit). On a similar tip, always use “disruptive” when you mean “new and probably unwise” – it makes you sound edgy and cool, and makes everyone who disagrees with you sound staid and old-fashioned.

9. THINK BIG. It’s a waste of time doing stuff on a small scale. Lots of people will never see it, and that’s bad for the ego. The only good things are those that are massive, monolithic and visible from low earth orbit. Forget doing something linked to the identified needs of a small group, forget trials and experiments, ignore building sustainable innovation: let’s mandate, baby, mandate. If everyone *has* to do it then it will definitely be good and it will definitely work. After all, we’ve had so many pilots, why not invest in some nice technical drawing instruments made by Rotring.

10. NEVER APOLOGISE, NEVER EXPLAIN. Contrition is a sign of weakness. If you turn out to be wrong about something (and you’ve about a 50% chance, statistically, just like any other monkey) the important thing is to keep being wrong, but louder. People will start to suspect that you’ve seen something they haven’t and have a deeper understanding. After this wears off, the career of a professional contrarian is open to you – a life of being THAT GUY on a plenary panel. Any you did want to be THAT GUY, didn’t you?

ONE FINAL NOTE: PLAYERS BE HATERS. Following this approach, you may find that some people begin to dislike you. If they do it is important that you appear to deal with them civily and politely. Firstly characterise them as “out of touch”. You spend all day talking to delegates at conferences, you obviously know more about what is really happening than them, stuck in their sub-specialism. Secondly, they clearly haven’t understood your argument… best repeat it to them several times in slightly different words. Thirdly, they are probably a fan of one of the things you slagged of in point three, so you can dismiss them as being self-interested. Fourthly, if all else fails, appeal to your authority. You’ve been being an elearning expert for, ooh, ages now, you even started an elearning company and got some contracts. How dare they know more than you about higher education? How very dare they?

* and THAT GUY is (almost) always a guy.

An #ukoer Christmas Carol (and 9 Lessons)

These are my personal opinions and not those of my employer, or the programmes and projects I am responsible for. The following is available under a CC-BY-SA license.

This is a particularly grim and cheerless December for Higher Education in the UK, I hope you will forgive me a brief moment of levity and Christmas cheer.

An OER Christmas Carol (and 9 Lessons)

“The VLE was dead”: to begin with. There was no doubt whatsoever about that. The register of its burial was signed by James Clay and Co at ALT-C 2009. The old VLE was as dead as a doornail.

I’d never painted out the Old VLE’s name. There it stood, years afterwards, above the repository deposit interface. Some people called it the VLE, some people called it the Learning Object repository – ’twas all the same to me.

Once upon a time – of all the good days of the year, on Christmas Eve, I sat busy at my desk. I was counting up the number of learning materials in the repository, scowling at the list of figures as they steadfastly refused to add up to the required 360 credits. And unless we could reach that magical number by the end of term, the dastardly Lord Browne would call in his debts, and the Old Repository would be as dead as the Old VLE.

“Merry Christmas, repository manager, and God save you!” called my assistant through the door I had left open to keep an eye on her as she wrote the final and completion reports. 

“Bah!” I said. “Humbug!”

“Christmas – a humbug? returned my assistant gaily. “You don’t mean that, I am sure”.

“I do,” I said. “Merry Christmas! What right have you to be merry? What reason have you to be merry? With Lord Browne’s judgement due tomorrow you will be poor enough.”

My assistant left the room prudently, without an angry word. And as the hum of our ancient RAID array filled the void, I felt myself drift towards a strange and troubled sleep. Was I indeed asleep, or awake, or in some state between the two… as I picked up a case study I had previously discarded, and began to read the words on the last piece of yellowing recycled paper… 


Conclusions and Recommendations

1. Check the licence carefully.

“All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness.” 2 Timothy 3:16

” I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this scroll: If anyone adds anything to them, God will add to that person the plagues described in this scroll. And if anyone takes words away from this scroll of prophecy, God will take away from that person any share in the tree of life and in the Holy City, which are described in this scroll.” Revelation 22:18-19

It took some effort to find the license(s) for the Bible, as they are presented in a non-standard format, and are split between two sections of the material. What we appear to have is an attribution license, with specific authorisation for use in an educational context, alongside a “no derivatives” clause, which goes into particular and alarming detail regarding the penalties for a breach of the license terms. 

Clearly under the terms of this license the Revelation of St John of Patmos should never be included in an aggregation of material, or indeed translated. However the fact that this is actually what has happened suggests that the terms of this license were not clearly understood at the AD 397 Council of Carthage.

Seeing the Bible as an aggregation also gives us an issue regarding the Second Epistle of St Paul to Timothy – what did it mean by “all scripture”? Was the apostle referring to the present collection (as codified nearly 350 after the accepted date of composition), a specific class of document marked as “scripture” (there isn’t anything in Dublin Core), or something else entirely? Unclear wording of license terms has always caused issues for end users, but seldom of this magnitude.

Our conclusions here must be that “no derivatives” licences effectively must be broken in order to allow resources to be reused in any way, and that other licenses must be clear about the work that is being referred to.

2.  Building in openness from the start is easier than repurposing existing materials.

” A voice of one calling: 
In the wilderness prepare 
  the way for the LORD; 
make straight in the desert
  a highway for our God. 
Every valley shall be raised up, 
every mountain and hill made low;
the rough ground shall become level,
  the rugged places a plain.”
Isaiah 40:3-4

Preparation is everything in open release. Rather than have the Lord do all this tedious checking of individual components, a project manager by the name of John was engaged to clear the relevant resources.  However, this did not end well as he subsequently lost his life in a bizarre ritualistic killing in a Jerusalem nightclub, to which royal links have been made. The resultant lack of preparation may have been linked to later difficulties regarding the engagement of senior stakeholders.

3. Don’t ask too for much from metadata.

“In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. (This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.) And everyone went to his own town to register.” Luke 2:1-3

This is a classic example of the way in which repository managers can fail to appreciate the inconvenience that may be caused to depositors by an emphasis on the quality of metadata. A repository manager several steps removed from the user community chose to arrange records by their provenance, which meant that materials had to be returned to their original point of creation. This caused an enormous strain on infrastructure and storage systems, and brought the entire area to a grinding halt at the busiest time of year. We would conclude that it is essential that those with responsibility for repositories balance the user experience with the need for accurate data.

4.  Authorship and ownership are different concepts.

“This is how the birth of Jesus the Messiah came about: His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be pregnant through the Holy Spirit. Because Joseph her husband was faithful to the law, and yet did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly.” Matthew 1:18-19

Here, an academic (Joseph) claimed ownership of a resource he had no part in creating, for selfless political reasons. Laudable as such an action is, this mis-attribution subsequently caused problems in assessing the provenance of the resource when it was re-used. It is important that resources are attributed to both the author, and the body claiming ownership of the work.

5. Content quality is more important than reputation

“But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah,
 though you are small among the clans of Judah, 
out of you will come for me
one who will be ruler over Israel,
whose origins are from of old,
  from ancient times.”
Micah 5:2

Despite the generally low academic standing of the then Bethlehem University College (now the University of North Jerusalem) and reports of academics being housed in conditions suitable only for livestock, some very high quality resources have been released. Increasingly in an OER world, it is the quality of material, rather than its provenance, that is seen as important.

6.  Make intelligent use of marketing.

“And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. “ Luke 2:8-9

This is one of a pair of useful examples of dissemination practice drawn from this case study. Here, a great effort has been made to draw people to visit the resources, including celebrity endorsement and son-et-lumiere. However we must compare the probable expense of this marketing with its end results, as only a small number of shepherds actually visited the site in question. It appears wasteful to go to the expense of engaging the Angel of the Lord, a host of angels singing, and covering associated AV and event management costs in order to attract so few users. Better use could have been made of this marketing opportunity.

7. Make open content visible and discoverable.

” After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.” Matthew 2:1-2

Here, a much better example of marketing used a simple tag to draw international users to resources. Despite this, the users in question needed to ask a number of contacts in the Jerusalem area for further information, suggesting that the specific resource was not, after all, easy to find. The fact that the international visitors initially went to Jerusalem rather than Bethlehem may point to an underlying issue with Bethlehem’s reputation.

On finding the resource, the visitors were startled to see the low quality of the infrastructure, but recognised the quality of the resource and left a substantial endowment. There is no audit trail regarding the use of this endowment, which we ascribe to the poor overall standard of documentation.

8.  Open, informal, learning is amazing
“Not until halfway through the festival did Jesus go up to the temple courts and begin to teach. The Jews there were amazed and asked, “How did this man get such learning without having been taught?” John 7: 14-15

There is real evidence presented here of the use of OER in informal learning, and the reputational benefits of informal learning. A community of scholars was initially incredulous, but eventually convinced by the quality of work produced. However, this led eventually to jealously and animosity from institutional managers, and serious problems faced in the later career of the academic in question. Had APEL been available within the Jewish Temple system then history could have been very different – independent learners often face difficulties in demonstrating their accomplishments.

9. Openness is (eventually) inevitable

“For there is nothing hidden that will not be disclosed, and nothing concealed that will not be known or brought out into the open.” Luke 8:17

Whereas the documentation suggests that the LORD will sit in judgement over all on a fiery throne, until that (often posponed) QA event occurs quality assurance has to be carried out by peers. There are currently two incompatible systems in place, one using a set of accredited experts and the other relying more on the layity offering advice and guidance. Simply in terms of scale the latter is more resilient, the former representing a huge overhead. Both systems suffer from disagreement and multiple interpretations of guidance documents – the hierarchical system is able to rule on these issues (though this is often criticised as ignoring the user voice), whereas the folksonomic sysem tends to fragment into competing subsystems. We await with interest the coming of the quality assurance manager, and hope that earlier predictions of this causing enormous upheaval, changes to working practices, war, famine, pestilence, death and water purity issues are overstated.

As all materials will be openly available at this point, it makes sense to recommend that users prepare for openness as soon as possible…


… rubbing my eyes, I awoke to find myself in my office, but not my office – a warm and bright place, filled with cheer and light and Christmas joy. My flushed and delighted-looking assistant pressed a glass of mulled wine into my hand. I sipped and yawned as she babbled…

“… so I put out a special request on the ALL-STAFF mailing list, and on the intranet, and on twitter with the #ukoer tag… so many people have been coming in and dropping off materials… images, text, video, audio, even SCORN-compliant learning objects… thank you!” – she smiled at the Dean of Philosophy who had put a DVD filled with correctly tagged reading lists on the pile – “… and everyone has really pulled together for the sake of OER…cheers!” – an august and bearded Professor of Applied Linguistics toasted us as he uploaded the last of his prized collection of dialect recordings to the repository – “… and look, here comes the music department…”

I heard a band playing “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” and before I knew it, I was dancing in a circle, singing, and beaming at everyone in the candlelight. I’d never felt so happy and at peace… until a black-gloved hand touched my shoulder.

“I see you are within reach of your end of year target,” purred Lord Browne in a dark, oily voice. “Allow me to contribute.”, and yes – his Report, his precious Report so written about and so feared – was disaggregated and rendered into granular objects ready for deposit. “Congratulations!”

“God bless you, you crazy old open learning repository” yelled the Academic Registrar, as around us dancers circled and church bells rang louder than the cheers of what appeared to be the whole body of staff and students. “Merry Christmas, every one of us!”.

“Till auld aquaintence be forgot, and never brought to mind…” we sang lustily, as a tiny ringing bell indicated another successful deposit…

(… and far above us, in CETIS, Wilbert Kraan had finally got his wings.)