I’ve had one of those months that has been superficially busy, but when I look back on it, I can’t point to anything particularly significant. Sometimes it’s just about doing the work I guess.
One thing I did do was, along with some colleagues, complete an interesting internal project on community amongst open degree students. Creating a sense of community, or belonging, is important for students, there’s plenty of evidence that student who make those connections tend to persist in their studies, for example. It is more difficult for distance education students, obviously, as a lot of that community arises pretty seamlessly on campus. It is even more difficult to establish for students on the open degree, who are all studying different subjects, so don’t have that sense of belonging to a cohort. Our work found that this is not always needed, or even desired, by Open University students (they often choose this way to study precisely because they want to work alone), but others do value it. We also found that although we value community and promote it as an institution we often make decisions (for example around IT choices, or extreme GDPR concern) that hinder any community development. I would like there to be someone present in the room whose sole responsibility is to consider the impact of such decisions on community.
I started using my podcast as a means to explore revisiting the 25 Years of Ed Tech book. It’s a process as people like to say – the podcast as medium for reflection on what I think of each chapter now, the comments raised by the Between the Chapters podcast, and consideration in light of recent developments, particularly the pandemic and AI. It’s all a bit rambling, but hey, that’s the charm, right? Right?
I’ve started exercising most mornings, which means lots of audiobook time, so I got through 13 titles this month. Minnie Driver’s autobiography is well written, hilarious and whip-smart. A Revolution in the Head, Ian MacDonald’s account of every Beatles recording, is both brilliantly insightful and painfully overwritten at times. He’s certainly no mindless fan, and is savage on some recordings using words like embarrassing, tedious, shambles. But when he writes about the social significance of I Want to Hold Your Hand, or the structure of Tomorrow Never Knows, then the writing soars. He’s wrong about Helter Skelter though. AI is making a reappearance in horror fiction, from a heyday in the 70s, as witnessed by Sammy Scott’s Beta, a tale of a malicious AI house of the future. I expect AI will become the new zombies in horror – every possible variation will be explored.
Vinyl I’ve been listening to this month (if not actually released this month) has been: The National’s Frankenstein part 2 release, Laugh Track; Adia Victoria’s evocative blues in Southern Gothic; The Walkmen’s ode to calming down a bit, Heaven; Mercury Rev’s 1998 classic lush indie Deserter’s Songs.
When I used to talk and write about digital/open scholarship a lot back around 2012, my go-to example related to the work Katy Jordan had done around MOOC completion rates. It was a good example of unintended, positive consequences of operating in the open, the benefits of sharing and the relationship between traditional and digital practice.
A new, more self-centred version would relate to 25 Years of Ed Tech. It started as a blog series, became an openly licensed book, then a community audiobook which begat a podcast series, and has since returned to an ongoing blog series of 30 years of Ed Tech. All of this relied on the work being openly licensed.
And now, I’ve decided to revisit the book just for fun, in the podcast. I’m republishing the audiobook chapter with a short preface reflecting on what I think about that chapter now and considering it in light of developments such as AI and the pandemic. I’m also listening to each of Laura Pasquini’s podcasts and commenting on the points made in those.
I’m not sure if this will have sufficient legs for the whole 30 years, and the last five will be different as they don’t have audiobook or podcast additions. But it’s fun (for me at least) and I’ve found it interesting to review the chapters, some of which have stood up better than others, in the light of the two big developments I just mentioned, and the insightful comments on the podcasts often prompted me to rethink what I’d written. Maybe all this could fold into a second edition of the book, and then the whole thing could start over again.
Apart from the possibilities that open practice this example offers, I also like the idea of the book not as finished artefact, but as part of an ongoing dialogue with the subject, author(s) and different media. I can still be doing this when I’m 85 and have an immersive “60 years of Ed Tech” metaverse to explore.
There is an understandable focus on quality and excellence in higher education – we have centres of excellence, the Research Excellence Framework, the Teaching Excellence Framework. Excellence or death is the unwritten motto. And I get it, a Centre for Mediocrity might not make the same splash in a prospectus. As an aside, can we _all_ be excellent, it implies to me something above the ordinary, and if excellence becomes the norm, then that is then ordinary, and therefore not excellent?
But philosophical semantics is not the point of this post, rather the continued pressure to always be excellent or striving for excellence can be counter productive. The message that if it’s not excellent then don’t bother can be limiting and intimidating. The appeal of the web early on was that it removed the barriers to participation, and the same with social media. You can publish, broadcast, curate and cultivate. And you can do it how you want to, not how it has been prescribed. Key to this is the space to not be excellent – this is amateur hour.
The appeal was to be experimental, unpolished and, well, a bit crap. You may get better and become excellent, or at least proficient. If I may, I think I’ve become a decent blogger over the years. But my podcast is terrible. I don’t say that with false modesty and wanting you to say “no it’s fantastic”. Compared with pros it is recorded in one take, no post-production, I don’t have a great radio voice, I repeat myself, it’s not regular enough, etc. But I don’t care. It’s fun. And I’m not sure I want to get better at it – striving for excellence is not the only way to be.
The benefits to being new and unaccomplished at something are (at least) twofold I think. First, it gives you a space to explore and develop new forms of communication, and scholarly activity away from the defined approaches. This can be beneficial ‘back at the ranch’, as we saw with research dissemination, say, but it may not always be. Second is a more personal benefit, in that it’s refreshing to be the noob at something, to find your way again. The freedom from the increasing number of restrictions elsewhere in your professional life can make those restrictions more bearable also.
So, yeah, strive for excellence by all means, but leave yourself time to be fabulously sub-par also.
Via Ted Gioia’s hugely informative newsletter I came across a report from entertainment data analysts Luminate looking at trends in Q3 of 2023. In it they claim that 50% of people’s waking hours is spent engaged in entertainment. 50%! They don’t reveal their data or methodology so I can’t say how valid that figure is, but they are serious analysts so it’s not plucked from the air. Don’t people work? What I guess this attests to is the portability of entertainment – you can be watching TV, listening to a podcast as you commute, work out or walk the dogs. Even at work you can be consuming music as background. Entertainment is everywhere, even if you might have doubts about the 50% figure.
That’s a lot of hours, a lot of attention, and a lot of money for somebody. Gioia makes the point that a scant amount of this entertainment is going to the creators, who are getting poorer. It also raises a few questions for education. This government continually bashes non-stem based degrees, and we’ve long had the idea that ‘media studies’ is the epitome of a “Mickey Mouse degree”. I read quite a lot of music biographies, and one of the common threads is “they met at art college”. This is not because they were particularly interested in art, but because going to art college was what you did when you didn’t know what you wanted to do in the 70s and 80s. These local art schools (Britain had the most per capita in the world) were particularly important for working class people to enter the arts and entertainment world. And now they have largely closed down apart from the prestigious ones. Plus you need to take out student loans to attend them, which is not something you could imagine the members of The Clash, say, doing.
The current educational ecosystem then is not one conducive or encouraging to the development of arts. Which seems runs counter to the trends in the Luminate report, where time spent of entertainment is increasing year on year (soon we’ll have to abandon sleep to fit those entertainment hours in). It’s true that you don’t necessarily need to attend art school to become a creator now, the internet lowers those barriers to creation. However, as each wave of media becomes professionalised then so does the need for skills around it.
There is a risk that the damage the current climate causes is not felt for several years. As Jeff Tweedy puts it in his autobiography, “creation creates creators”. Removing a layer of creative impetus takes out a wave of creations, which in turn would have inspired further creators.
While the obvious focus is on arts education and places that foster such an approach, entertainment derives from, and requires input from all sectors – science, engineering, computer science, history, etc can all be required to create games or tv series. But entertainment goes beyond this also – listening to a popular science podcast is entertainment, or watching a history YouTube channel. Sneering at the arts or creativity doesn’t do anyone any favours. Perhaps one of the side benefits of the AI angst in education is that it will force educators to integrate creativity more into assessment.
I don’t have any neat solution to this, but I feel this disconnect between current Government and media attitudes to the arts and creativity and the direction of social attitudes to entertainment is an area that higher ed needs to be taking an active role in addressing.
Hosting a two day GO-GN workshop in Edmonton followed by the OEGlobal conference was the main activity of this month. This was the first conference post pandemic for many people, and it was good to reacquaint myself with many of the global contingent. It was also a tad wistful as it’s likely to be my last OEGlobal and possibly last international conference. So, I was potentially seeing a lot of people for the last time potentially. I got to go out on a social high note though with a trip to see the Edmonton Oilers play with these good people:
While we’re talking about OER conferences, the OER24 call for proposals is out, for what promises to be a not-to-be-missed event in Cork next March. And while we’re talking about calls for papers, JIME has a call out for a special issue on “Open learning and learning at scale: The legacy of MOOCs“, which should be an interesting topic.
Travelling allows for some good reading time, and I got through 12 titles this month. Braiding Sweetgrass was a thought-provoking and humane books that combines narrative, indigenous folklore and science. Jeff Tweedy’s autobiography was full of wisdom and honesty.
I accompanied the reading of the WIlco frontman’s autobiography with the purchase of their new album, Cousin. Middle aged men making good music was a bit of a theme this month with the release of Sufjan Stevens album of the year contender, Javelin and a Richard Hawley compilation that endorses his status as a fine songwriter.
I’ve been at an excellent OEGlobal conference in Edmonton for the past week. There was a lot of presentations about networks of open pedagogic practice, use of open textbooks to engage students, regional OER initiatives, and so on. It was impressive stuff and a significant advancement from the sort of solo-educator open textbook implementations we used to see.
We were there with the GO-GN team, celebrating 10 years of that network. This was our largest gathering, with members from 15 different countries. Robert Schuwer gave a fascinating talk on the history of the network – tip to people setting on a project that may have legs, make sure you record those decisions somewhere, otherwise 10 years later you’ll be going “I think it was your idea to call it that?”.
At the conference, there was a strong effort to hear different voices from the usual ones, starting with Darrion Letendre talking about “two-eyed ways of seeing” that combine indigenous ways of knowing with Western knowledge. I appreciated the challenge offered by Sandra Lamouche, in saying that open knowledge may violate indigenous approaches to knowledge (for example, where certain knowledge is restricted according to gender, age, geography, season). Knowledge is seen as a gift to be given, and earned, which creates some tension with the open community’s idea of open to all.
For me the conference was about voices. It was the first time many people had attended a conference post-pandemic and the first time I had seen a lot of North American colleagues since 2019. So to be reacquainted with familiar voices was a joy. Our GO-GN anniversary had a remit to bring more people from the global south, which we achieved, but even then Canadian visa issues prevented three people from attending from African countries, even though we were attempting to get this sorted right up until the day of departure. This highlighted how voices are absent through various barriers. And as I mentioned, the conference organisers made a conscious effort to bring in different voices, with three indigenous keynote speakers.
One voice that was lacking from my perspective was that of my own institution, the Open University. Our GO-GN team was the only OU representation whereas we used to have a stronger presence in this area. There were lots of interesting proejcts and innovations underway, and this disjuncture between significant open education developments and the presence of my own institution was disappointing to me personally.
I think this is something of a personal failure. I have been active in the open education field for a long time, with OpenLear, OERHub, UK OpenTextbooks and GO-GN. Internally I have advocated for the OU to take a strategic lead in the open ed field. But you would have to say, I have been largely unsuccessful in this endeavour. I would like to see the OU leading on open textbooks, open pedagogy, diamond open access publishing models and to have a strong voice in open education networks such as OEGlobal, Open Education week, or even ICDE. We should be vocal in the pushback against commercial publishers, advocating for open practice at Governmental level, exemplifying the reuse of content, challenging models of scholarship to make them more open or implementing open assessment models.
There are many excellent examples of open education practice across the OU – OpenLearn (which recently won a well deserved award), ORO, Core, Moodle open source, and open science, etc. But it tends to do these things separately and without much coherent engagement with the open education movement. I remember bemoaning once that the OU wasn’t first in a lot of these things, and my colleague Patrick McAndrew commented, “but we are very good at being second”. I think that was true, we often implemented a robust, viable version of a development after some of the initial hype (eg OpenLearn, FutureLearn). But after that successful period of engagement in the 00s we’ve stagnated somewhat despite the pockets of excellence. There’s a real benefit to the OU in situating themselves as leaders in all things open – it’s in our name after all.
And this is where I feel some responsibility. I could and should have done a better job at advocating for the benefits of a more comprehensive and innovative open education approach at an institutional level. Some people are really good at doing this and being relentless until they get success. I think I took a polite “hmm, interesting” as a result too often. I suspect “My OU Failures” is not a slim volume though, and this is not the most significant entry, but I humbly suggest that a lot could be gained by highlighting what we already do, encouraging more open practice and being actively present in this field. Come on OU, I believe the Future is Open.
But I shouldn’t let that personal grumble detract from the overall experience of a great conference. Any conference where you get to nerd out in t-shirts Terry Greene reversioned from the Edmonton Oilers logo is a great conference:
Unsurprisingly, I’ve been thinking a lot about exits recently, what with Maren leaving ALT and me announcing my (not so) imminent OU departure. I’m going to start with an ice hockey example, so for those with an aversion to such things, you may want to skip a paragraph. Last year the Chicago Blackhawks let their franchise player Patrick Kane leave for the New York Rangers. Kane had been with Chicago for 16 seasons, winning three Stanley Cups. He’s nicknamed “showtime” and yet, he went to the New York Rangers for practically nothing this year. The reason? He didn’t want to go anywhere else but also Chicago wanted to give him the exit he wanted. Their General Manager commented “we achieved what we wanted, and that was to put Patrick on a team that he wanted to go to. That’s the main goal here: hopefully get some assets here, which we feel we did, but mainly was repaying a player that’s done so much for the franchise.”
That may be just PR and behind the scenes the organisation were all furious, but let’s take it at face value for now and transpose to our slightly less well-paid lifestyles. When Maren left ALT recently it was to a timeframe that suited the organisation, but also one that allowed her the exit she desired. I’m leaving the OU in a manner that is again, mutually satisfactory – I get a nice redundancy about after 29 years, and leave having completed my term as Director of the Open Programme. Getting the exit you want and deserve is pretty rare these days.
But on that front, I know colleagues who have left the OU previously have been rather shocked at how quickly they are erased. Their email account stops working the day they leave, they immediately cease to have library access, and their keycard is rendered defunct (these impacts can be alleviated by getting visiting or Emeritus status it should be noted). One gets the sense that they would happily be digitally removed from any photographs also. I know there are security, licensing and access reasons for doing this, but as I mentioned in the post on self-sabotage, I’m pretty sure we don’t need to do it that hard. I have heard similar things from other unis, so I don’t think this is just an OU problem.
HEIs have realised effective induction policies for staff, particularly compared with when I started when it was basically “off you go.” But at the other end of the career profile, I don’t think the off-boarding (is that even a word?) is as effective, especially for those not going to other institutions immediately. There used to be a (weak) joke that with the graduation ceremony, higher education was the only business that held a celebration when its customers left. Since then all unis have become better at maintaining alumni contact. This is partly (mainly?) a business driven approach, as those people may return or if you’re a Russell Group, bequeath you a fortune from their illicit gains. But it also has some aspect of maintaining good will and connection.
Staff who leave an institution similarly may have good will towards it (they may often have ill will it should be acknowledged). They also contain a good deal of institutional knowledge, contacts and social history. There is a benefit to the institution in making that exit a positive experience, and then maintaining some informal network of ex-staff. In a career as in life, we all want the exit we deserve.
So, what about that AI eh? I get it, there’s a lot of fun to be had and it will undoubtedly be really useful in education. I’m not anti-AI (I have a PhD in it, but back when we though symbolic AI was the way to go), and I’m going to do a few more posts on it – I get why it’s everywhere at the moment, it really will have a big impact. But at the same time, I’m also just really uninterested by it all. Part of the reason I’m getting out of the game (after one last job, obviously) is that in order to stay relevant as an ed tech person, I’d have to be all over AI. And I just can’t.
Why is that? Partly it’s because the sort of educational technology I’ve always been excited by is that which creates opportunities for people to undertake education in different ways. That applies to AI to an extent, but it is also often about removing people from the process, and that’s not a vision that interests me. To be clear, there are definitely uses of AI that keep people in the loop and where it acts as a creative tool. But there are also versions that have AI generated content shared on social media, which is consumed by AI bots and reshared.
But I think I could live with fighting for the human centred version. The clincher for what makes it unappealing is the presence of so many grifters suddenly reinventing themselves as AI gurus. Mostly guys, they’ve been around ed tech for a while, and with a few prompts in Midjourney and ChatGPT they’re now the highly paid voice who can guide your institution through these turbulent waters. They are here for the AI rapture declaring “And these signs shall follow them that believe; In AI’s name shall they cast out doubt; they shall speak with new acronyms”. And I just don’t have the energy for that anymore.
It’s not always a 100% reliable sign, but the sort of people pushing themselves forward as the guides for a new tech development are a good indication as to whether you want to spend your time there. AI is ripe for grifters because we don’t really know how it’s going to play out, but we know that it will have an impact, so people are desperate for some reassurance, and confident sounding men are here to provide it. You don’t even have to convince people that it will be a big deal (the grifters associated with cryptocurrency have to work really hard making the case that this stuff will be relevant, because, erm, it won’t). All of that work is done for you with AI, you just need to sound half-knowledgeable.
Ironically, AI is actually pretty good at writing the sort of stuff these guys will present to you. For example, here’s a ChatGPT response to a prompt to write a blog post about the future of AI in higher education.
Title: Transforming Education: The Uncharted Frontier of Artificial Intelligence in Higher Education
The world of higher education has been witnessing a remarkable transformation in recent years, thanks to the integration of artificial intelligence (AI) technologies. AI is reshaping the way students learn, educators teach, and institutions operate. In this blog post, we will explore the myriad uses of artificial intelligence in higher education, highlighting its potential to revolutionize the learning experience and improve administrative efficiency.
One of the most significant contributions of AI to higher education is personalized learning. AI algorithms analyze student data, including learning styles, strengths, and weaknesses, to create customized learning pathways. This ensures that each student receives a tailored education experience, optimizing their chances of success. Adaptive learning platforms, powered by AI, provide real-time feedback, enabling students to progress at their own pace and revisit challenging concepts.
AI doesn’t just benefit students; it aids educators as well. AI-driven tools assist teachers in developing course materials, grading assignments, and providing timely feedback. For instance, AI-powered essay scoring systems can quickly evaluate student work, freeing up instructors to focus on more meaningful aspects of teaching, such as student engagement and mentorship.
Institutions can utilize AI-driven predictive analytics to identify students at risk of dropping out or struggling academically. By analyzing historical data and patterns, AI systems can alert educators and administrators to intervene with timely support, such as tutoring, counseling, or additional resources. This proactive approach increases student retention rates and improves overall graduation rates.
Especially in the face of unforeseen challenges like the COVID-19 pandemic, AI-enabled virtual classrooms have become invaluable. AI can facilitate virtual lectures, automate administrative tasks, and even monitor students’ engagement and participation. Virtual classrooms also offer accessibility benefits, allowing students from diverse geographical locations to access higher education without the constraints of physical distance.
AI-powered content creation tools are making it easier for educators to develop engaging and interactive learning materials. These tools can generate quizzes, videos, and simulations, helping instructors diversify their teaching methods and keep students engaged. AI can also aid in content curation, recommending relevant resources from the vast sea of educational content available online.
Beyond the classroom, AI streamlines administrative processes within higher education institutions. Chatbots and virtual assistants can handle routine inquiries, freeing up staff for more complex tasks. AI can also optimize resource allocation, helping institutions manage budgets and staffing more efficiently.
In the realm of research, AI accelerates the pace of discovery. Machine learning algorithms can analyze vast datasets, identify trends, and generate hypotheses. Researchers can harness AI to process large volumes of literature, making it easier to stay current in their fields. Additionally, AI can assist in automating experiments and simulations, further expediting scientific progress.
Challenges and Considerations
While the potential benefits of AI in higher education are significant, it is crucial to acknowledge and address the challenges. These include concerns about data privacy, algorithmic bias, and the need for faculty and staff to adapt to new technologies. Institutions must implement robust data security measures and ensure that AI systems are designed to be fair and equitable.
Artificial intelligence is reshaping the landscape of higher education, revolutionizing the way students learn, educators teach, and institutions operate. From personalized learning to administrative efficiency, the applications of AI in higher education are vast and transformative. As institutions continue to harness the power of AI, they are poised to create more inclusive, efficient, and effective educational experiences for all.
So you can save yourself money and just get AI to tell you about AI. It knows a lot about that subject. More seriously though, what it does mean, is that you need really good people to advise you on this topic. Ones who understand the implications, appreciate the student perspective, can avoid the hype, won’t dismiss it and know how it works sufficiently well to see where it’s going. Look carefully for those people, and avoid the grifters.
To demonstrate there is fun and a lot of pain to be had still, here is a song with the lyrics generated by the prompt “Gangsters paradise lyrics changed to be about AI”. Then using SongR I converted the lyrics to a ‘hip-hop’ song. I really can’t apologise enough:
Well, this was an eventful month in this household. Maren stood down as CEO of ALT and is off to ventures new. If you’re interested in leadership coaching or consultancy on running virtual teams, then drop her a line. And then I announced that I’ll be leaving the Open University (although not until next June). All change here!
I visited the ALT-C conference just for the dinner to see Maren get an award and have her send off. I did manage to attend one talk though, which was David Kernohan’s fascinating dive into the ALTC archive. He presented the various themes that had emerged and disappeared over the years in his data wiz style. One graph he presented really brought home how funding for educational technology has fallen off a cliff since 2018. I don’t think he’s blogged the talk yet, but it’s worth having a look at when/if he does.
Speaking of change, I also decided to finally quit Twitter this month. I felt quite emotional about it, I’d made so many friends and had such good times via that platform, it felt like the end of an era. But it hasn’t been a very engaging place for a long time and increasingly felt like hanging around the old pub where you used to have a good time hoping they’ll come back again, but the pub is now owned by a neo nazi who likes doing skinhead punk nights with his mates. Probably best to find somewhere else.
We finally got all of the GO-GN arrangements sorted for the OEGlobal workshop in Edmonton next month. There will be about 40 of us in total, so it’s taken quite a lot of organising (by Beck, Kylie and Hannah, not me I hasten to add). It’s going to be quite the event. While we’re on OEGlobal, it was an honour to be one of the people shortlisted for the OER Leadership Award. I was delighted to see my colleague Patrina Law win this, for all the truly life-changing work that they have done through OpenLearn.
On the books front I didn’t have quite as much joy this month as usual and only read nine. I started a lot of books and bailed on them. I enjoyed Tarantino’s Cinema Speculation. Whatever you may think of his films, he knows 70s genre cinema like no-one else and is an entertaining writer. The speculation part of the title is particularly nerdy and fun – what would Taxi Driver have been like if De Palma had directed? Quentin has given this sort of question way too much thought. Horror wise I read a couple of fun, if not remarkable, indie-horror books – Head Like a Hole and Mr Nightmare. The latter is an example of the “kids on bikes” genre, which is a perfect name. One book I haven’t included in the ‘finished’ pile because I’ve bee dipping in and out of it, is Ghosts, Monsters and Demons of India which is described as “An illustrated guide to the folktales and real-life stories of the ghosts, monsters and demons of India, a culture famously rich in tradition and legends”. It’s fabulous, and a good counter to the US dominance of much of the horror genre, and a reminder of the universal and unifying nature of such tales. As the author Rakesh Khanna observes “When people of different faiths start debating the relative merits of their gods, there’s always a danger that they’ll end the conversation by drawing weapons; but if the same group sits down to compare their demons and devils, they’re more likely to break out the popcorn”.
I bought some interesting vinyl this month, including Rhiannon Giddens You’re The One which straddles folk, country and blues. The best record for me was the posthumous release from Sparklehorse, Bird Machine. Completed some 10 years after the death of Mark Linkous I didn’t go into it with high hopes, suspecting that it might be something for the completists only. But it is a remarkably coherent and complete album that stands with his best work.
I’m posting this round up early as we are heading off to Crete for a week’s holiday as a means of providing an underscore to Maren’s ALT tenure. Wine and good food will be had.
If you used to follow me on Twitter, you can still find me on these platforms:
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I know I should have done it ages ago, but I’ve finally decided to leave Twitter and deactivate my account. Yes, I know you can make all the “it’s not an airport you don’t need to announce your departure” gags now – but I’ve written about Twitter pretty consistently over the past 16 years so it would be strange not to comment on the end of that identity.
It’s been a tough decision. I’ve been on that platform for over 16 years, pretty much every day. I formed friendships through it, found interesting connections, discovered new resources, explored different perspectives, and had a lot of fun. I was so enamoured by it that 14 years ago I made a naff Twitter Love Song video.
It was genuinely exciting to find others on there in the early days, and then to see how it changed public discourse and the impact it had on entertainment and news, as well as academic practice. But we can’t have nice things, because too many people are asshats and so it become distorted by misinformation, and right wing trolls, who used it effectively to manipulate the public narrative and to distort perceptions of those easily swayed. Even then though you could still argue it was worth persevering with. Personally, I found it a great source of comfort when I lived on my own – you didn’t have to be alone, there was always a conversation to be had. Professionally I wrote a lot about it on here, and was often asked to use my network to promote job adverts or new courses. Twitter was the network I had in mind most often when I thought through issues of digital scholarship. It reshaped a lot of our practice. I was once introduced as the OU academic with the most Twitter followers. I don’t know if that was actually true, but there has definitely been some ego involved in my decision to stay as long as I have.
So why quit now? I think the final, final, really final straw came with Musk’s defence of Russell Brand. To be on a communications platform owned by someone who is pro-rapist? That is too much. But you could argue, why was this the breaking point? Not the anti-semitism, or the far right accounts, or the pro-Putin stance? And I don’t have a good answer to that. I’m not a moral philosopher. It just feels that the accumulation of cognitive dissonance required to stay there has become too great. Also you could say, why suddenly have ethics here when you happily shop at Amazon, use Google, have Facebook and Threads accounts? Those companies are hardly shining beacons of virtue. And yes, you’d be right. All I can say is for this individual, the direction of Twitter and the values of a communications platform and the behaviours it encourages feel untenable now. Even if my corner of it remains relatively sane and polite it feels grubby to be there now.
I’ve seen others become quite moralistic about this, pontificating that if you’re still on Twitter then you’re essentially an evil person. I don’t align with such views – the reasons people are on there and stay there are complex. This is just where this individual is now.
In one respect (and probably one only) Musk is successful at Twitter: It isn’t Twitter any more – it is now X. If I wasn’t already on there, I wouldn’t join that platform any more than I would sign up for Truth Social. So I’m not really leaving Twitter – it has ceased to operate. I’m genuinely sad about its demise, but 16 years was a good run for a tech platform.
Here are the other (morally dubious) platforms I’m on if you want to follow me there:
If you enjoy the Edtechie blog posts, and find your inbox strangely under-filled, then why not sign up for the newsletter? It contains that month’s blog posts, links to podcast episodes, and subscriber only content – a different picture of my dog every month.
As they say, some personal news. The OU has been offering a round of voluntary redundancy, which I decided to apply for, and have been accepted. I will therefore be leaving the OU after 29 years. However, I’m doing what in the UK is known as a “Nadine“, ie announcing my departure and then not actually leaving for ages. In order to meet various commitments I’m not actually leaving until June 2024. So that leaves you plenty of time to compose either a moving eulogy or just the right side of legal slur for my departure.
The reason for announcing it with soooooo much notice is that higher ed (and the OU in particular) works on long timeframes so I’m already in meetings where we’re discussing things for 2025. I forget who I’ve told and who I haven’t so just decided on doing a blanket notice here. I mean, not that it’s a big deal to anyone but me, but at least I can say “I did mention it” in the same way the Vogons provide clear notification of local planning.
Why am I leaving? It’s not for any reasons of discontent. I’ll write more about the OU (“All good things, all good things”) nearer the time as part of a 34 departure blog post series (I jest only slightly). Mainly it’s because it provides some financial cushion to explore a potential third act in my career before full retirement. I won’t be retiring but I won’t be seeking a new full time job either. Instead I intend to develop a project portfolio across a diverse client base ie, doing some bits and bobs for people for money. So nearer the time, if you have any suggestions for working together, let me know (I can’t take on anything prior to then).
I also have a growing list of self-interest projects I want to explore. These probably won’t generate money but they might be fun. I keep spewing out new ones daily, like Alan Partridge proposing TV shows to an exec. The fact that I am generating these ideas for my own entertainment is proof enough that the impending departure is allowing some creativity to flow.
The other reason I’m leaving is that I think I’m in danger of becoming that older academic I always disliked. In all institutions things are cyclical, and when I come around to the third or fourth iteration of some organisational review, that always ends the same way, I find myself rolling my eyes and muttering under my breath. It’s dangerous to stop caring sufficiently.
I’ll probably bore you all with posts on these factors later, so for now this is just the notification to ease my conscience and memory. The redundancy scheme at the OU went by the acronym of MARS, so as is my wont, I created a playlist riffing of MARS puns and also all the sorts of activities one might undertake in post-compulsory work (see me working hard not calling it retirement). Enjoy!
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A fairly constant trend I’ve seen, but one that seems to be increasing in regularity and levels of farce, is the ability of higher education institutions to undertake forms of self-sabotage. This occurs in a number of increasingly inventive ways, but is always defined by the same characteristic of creating its own obstacles for outcomes it wants to realise. Universities increasingly come to resemble Fight Club’s narrator beating themselves up in a car park and then wondering how they got all these bruises.
One way this is realised is through an over-obedience to policies. I mentioned previously the lack of resistance from senior management, but it’s also seen through just how thoroughly and eagerly HEIs embrace every minutiae of a new policy or regulation. We can’t help ourselves – we’re academics, we do this stuff thoroughly. At the EDEN conference, Rikke Toft Nørgård commented in the questions after her keynote that when a policy was implemented in education in Denmark, it ended up stifling innovation and the policy makers said something like “we didn’t mean it as hard as you implemented it”. We always go too hard to the point of restricting ourselves, more than is actually necessary – as Rikke says “I am allowed to do much more than I think I am”.
A second means by which it is realised in through the increasing (emotional, physical, work) distance administrative people employed by HEIs have from the teams they work with. It is a common complaint of academics that administrators get in the way of all their wacky plans. I’ve never bought in to this narrative, and many of my most fruitful working relationships have been with administrators. However, as HEIs grow in complexity they have taken to outsourcing and centralising a lot of these functions. This results in less collegial relations, where you are all focused on the same outcome. When support staff are remote from the teams they support then their primary aim is not to increase research revenue, or get someone employed on a project quickly, or to promote a new module – it is primarily to make sure their unit doesn’t get in trouble, not to find solutions. It’s a bit like that idea with Freakonomics and estate agents, where you might think everyone is working towards the same goal, but different motivations are in play. For many staff who are employed and not integrated into the culture of the HEI or school, it’s better to say no, even if that prevents loss of income, than to say yes and potentially open themselves or their department up to risk. I’ve lost projects, staff members and taken on extra work because ‘no’ was the easier option for someone else to say.
The third way is to constantly call for innovation and then provide so many barriers to its realisation that it is effectively a health risk to engage in it. A lot of the time (and far more than we like to admit) those restrictions are a good thing to prevent future difficulties. But it’s also the case that one policy or strategy will be promoting one course of action, while a distinct one will be working to counter it, and the staff trying to implement will be caught in the pincers of some Guy N Smith type creation. I saw this recently with microcredentials, but you can see it in many different forms, for example trying to change assessment, online teaching, implementation of any technology in a module, OER, etc. These are not just random ideas that some academic has and then throws their toys out the pram because they can’t have funding for their yacht based pedagogy, they’re outcomes the institution often wants to realise itself. I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe – exciting modules halted by a last minute random objection from a recalcitrant Dean … I watched C-MOOCs become click and watch vocational training. All those ideas will be lost in time, like proposals to committees ….
I should also stress that I’ve worked with amazing people who have helped find the crucial wriggle room and belief to get odd projects going and make ideas a reality. Some of this post is probably just whingeing but the old adage that culture eats strategy for breakfast is relevant here, but that culture can also arise from the policy and the reality people encounter on a daily basis. It feels that culture is increasingly one that works against the desired outcome for higher ed. We need wriggle room KPIs.
Since the 25 Years of Ed Tech book finished in 2018, I have been writing an annual addition at the end of the year. The reason I started the 25 Years series was to commemorate the 25th Anniversary of ALT. This year they are celebrating their 30th, so I’m writing this one early in honour of the ALT-C conference next week.
Digital diaspora is a term that has been used variously to describe diaspora from physical communities using the internet to stay connected and to describe black participation online. This Washington Post article uses the phrase to highlight how black communities that used Twitter effectively for coordinating protests and raising the profile of movements such as BLM are now seeking other platforms following Musk’s takeover and the rise of far right activity on Twitter.
It is part of a larger pattern facing many people with any form of online identity. In a previous post I commented how when you were setting up a research project, then creating an associated Twitter account met most of your networking needs. That is definitely no longer the case. In fact two days after writing that post I had direct experience of this when we held a meeting for the new phase of GO-GN. We were considering our social media choices, as we don’t have the capacity to be across all of them. I asked all of the team to choose two of the options we had listed. Twitter was not a winner amongst them.
This creates a problem of very fragmented audiences, dispersed across platforms such as LinkedIn, Mastodon, Threads, Substack, Discord, WhatsApp, Facebook, Slack, TikTok, etc on top of dedicated sites and forums. I know some people hope Threads (as the most likely contender) will replace Twitter and we can carry on as before. But I wonder if that time has passed. The “all life is here” appeal of Twitter suited a particular phase of the online cycle. I remember having Twitter meet-ups in the early days when the main topic of conversation was “hey, you’re on Twitter! Isn’t it cool?” As a greater proportion of the population moved on to social media of some form, the generic hangout lost its appeal and people moved to more specialised communities. Even without Musk speeding it along, we were heading this way anyway.
This follows a general trend with digitisation that we have witnessed in more traditional sectors. Television saw a splintering of audiences from the days when we only had four channels to almost infinite choice. Newspapers faced consumers creating their own media diet from Facebook, blogs, YouTube, newsletters, etc. Very quickly your music, TV, and news collection was unique. That is a fairly new phenomenon. For most of recent history you would be able to talk to a stranger and have a pretty good chance that they had lots of elements in common.
So it’s no surprise that social media should go the same way. What I find interesting is that we are now sufficiently into the digital, networked era of ed tech that we are seeing previous trends being revisited. In my book Twitter was 2009’s entry, and here we are in 2023 considering how it has morphed into something else.
I’m using Twitter as something of a shorthand here since it is the most apparent example of this trend, but it stands for more. Think of the tools students use, the sites they access, and the resources they investigate are quickly beyond anything an educator may prescribe. This is a function of abundance. Generally, I think this is a beneficial development (as I was proposing in terms of masculinity), but it presents some issues for education.
Even if we confine our concerns here to just the impact of Twitter diaspora it means we have to develop- some new practices. Many conferences use Twitter as their main amplification and connection method. Communities have grown up around Twitter hashtags (eg LTHEChat and PhDChat), academics and projects have built considerable networks and reputations over the years in that platform. They could do this because a sufficiently large chunk of the desired audience was on that platform. But now what? Do you replicate across the multiple platforms, switch to another, hang in there? Whatever you decide the days of the catch-all option are probably gone now and more specialised options await. Just when you thought you’d got the hang of it as well…
Now that I no longer have a school-aged child that necessitates taking leave over summer, August has become one of my favourite work periods. The OU doesn’t operate conventional term times, so people take their leave whenever they wish, but summer is generally quieter, and the number of meetings drops away. What remains is something akin to what I always imagined being an academic would be like – working on writing, reading, developing interesting projects, walking the dog while pondering deep things.
We had a face to face (!) GO-GN meeting over a couple of days this month, planning the next phase of the project. This included revisiting our social media options and planning a website revamp. The social media discussion was interesting as it occurred a few days after my post on social media choices, and while I may have had some influence on the discussion, it bore out the sense that Twitter is no longer the place to be. We’ll be hosting a webinar about the new phase of GO-GN in September so keep an eye out for that.
I also launched the second season of my Metaphors of Ed Tech podcast. The second season is traditionally when all the murder and mayhem goes up a notch, and in that vein I have been getting guests in to discuss the 10th anniversary of GO-GN. This is a bit off topic for the podcast, but I’ve been prodding them to consider appropriate metaphors for the project also.
And while we’re talking about aspects of the blog – remember to sign up for the Newsletter to ensure you never miss a post (I mean who would want that?!). Also the newsletter now features SUBSCRIBER ONLY CONTENT – Teilo picture of the month!
I also take on a number of personal mini projects over the summer. This included a weekly walk with just Teilo (we have two dogs and sometimes the younger one, Posey, can be a bit much and he spends the day sighing heavily, so I promised him some bro time at nice Welsh beaches), cooking Cretan meals from this excellent book, getting back to running and a number of house and garden projects including setting up a bird haven.
On the book front, I got through 15 books this month (I said things were quieter). Dipo Faloyin’s Africa is Not a Country is angry, insightful and funny as he carefully exposes and demolishes stereotypes about Africa. I really think it should be on the school curriculum. I was, like many of you, saddened to hear of Sinead O’Connor’s passing. Like Terry Hall last year, she was an artist that I hadn’t listened to in a long time, and when they passed away, I went back and find myself recalling how great their music was and how much it meant to me at one time. When I first arrived in Middlesbrough doing my PhD in 1991 I spent a lot of that early peiod alone and a bit miserable. I listened to I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got a lot during this time. I listened to her autobiography this month which only came out last year. It is narrated by her and contains sentences such as “I intend to live to a very old age”, so it’s quite a heartbreaking book in this context, but it also reminds you of her strength of character, and gives voice to her great sense of humour. It is a tough read though.
Vinyl wise, I went through a bit of an Eels riff this month, picked up the restock of Wilco’s Cruel Country and discovered North Carolinian folk blues singer Rhiannon Giddens. Maren and I also spent a fun evening at the Indigo Girls gig in Cardiff.
Anyway, let’s finish with Sinead singing the remarkable Last Day of Our Acquaintance:
Let’s play an imaginary game (it might actually be real for some of you). You are applying for a large research grant, and one of the work packages relates to dissemination and community building. Beyond the standard conference papers, academic articles and workshops, there is an assumption that there will be a strong online element. What platform or approach do you write into your grant?
For the past decade or so, the go-to answer would be a Twitter account, probably with associated website and maybe a YouTube channel. The other bits may vary, but the Twitter account was often the sine qua non in getting engagement with a project beyond its immediate participants. All life was there, you could hijack hashtags for conferences or topic areas to draw attention to it, create a regular identity, follow and engage with prominent names, disseminate resources, etc. Inger has commented “Please stop encouraging academics to use social media as a way to create research impact and engagement”. It’s toxic, a mess and that takes all the fun out of it. But it would also seem odd not to use digital networks as a means to disseminate, engage and build community if those are aspects of your project.
I’ve deliberately been a bit vague as to what the purpose of social media is in this hypotehtical project, and we’ll come to that later. Amplify FE conduct an annual audit of FE related Communities of Practice. In their 2022 report (the new one is coming in Sept so will be interesting to see the impact of Musk’s twitter takeover) of the 260 CoPs they reviewed the breakdown of platform was:
Mark Carrigan provides a useful overview of your post-Twitter options on the LSE Blog. The point is, the choice is now a lot more complicated, and the audience a lot more fragmented. So let’s look at our choices for our hypothetical research bid work package, framed as 70s disco tracks (because I’m tired of writing about twitter, you’re tired of reading about it, so it may as well have a good soundtrack).
Twitter/X – it is still the largest social media site, but it’s not just a few principled people leaving now, major players are decamping, the stability of the site is questionable, functionality such as website APIs has been turned off, blue tick verification now just means you’re an asshole (to the point where people want to hide it), and, well the whole Elon Musk, white supremacy, piece of crap vibe is not really something you want to be associated with, or spend your time in. It might be worth setting up an X account still, but it feels like the whole enterprise is holed below the water line now.
Love don’t live here anymore.
Threads – the shiny new kid, with lots of privacy issues and a whole load of functionality still required to be really useful. This could be a good bet, but lots of people tried it and then went away again, so it will need to start implementing things like hashtags, web interface, APIs and searchability pretty quickly to maintain momentum. And we’re all wise now, we know a billionaire can just shut it down on a whim. Probably can’t be your only, or even main, platform at the moment.
Keep on, don’t stop till you get enough
LinkedIn – a lot of people have moved to or at least increased their LinkedIn activity post Musk Twitter takeover. The engagement is quite good, and if your goal is disseminating reports, sharing useful resources and engaging on a professional level, it is a pretty good option. It lacks the informality and personal charm of the interaction that you find on other platforms, it’s a strictly business channel, and the interface makes you want to go and look at flowers for a day to remind yourself that beauty still exists, but it is functional.
Some of the work gets kinda hard at the car wash
Facebook – this is the opposite of LinkedIn really, it’s all about family, friends, and interests. Facebook groups can be quite useful, but it is difficult to get traction in these unless it’s a subject people are really interested in (it’s unlikely your project itself will be such a subject). Distance education students make a lot of use of Facebook and groups, because they prefer it to the formal VLE forums and like being away from the formal gaze. But it tends to be more bottom-up, user generated rather than a platform you could adopt successfully, but some projects do. Also, like Twitter, lots of people have abandoned Facebook so you’re going to lose a lot of the audience.
Don’t blame it on the good times, Blame it on the boogie
Mastodon – in many ways, this should be the best choice for academia. It is open, has the functionality you want, community driven and not subject to the whim of megalomaniacs. And for those who use it exclusively, there is a vibrant community. And yet… the fediverse concept is hard to grasp, and it hasn’t had the mainstream breakthrough we saw with Threads. Funding it and relying on people to provide the labour of administration remains an issue, but your project could always consider settig up their own server. But it feels rather niche still and I’m not sure it will ever break out of that. I also have a suspicion, rather like the fans of a band who don’t want them to go mainstream, the fediverse advocates may not really want it to. It is quite hip to have your own server though.
Le freak, c’est chic.
TikTok – even before Musk’s gutting of Twitter, younger audiences were ignoring it in favour of TikTok. So it will depend on who your audience is, but I suspect most academics are probably not going to be adept at creating wicked tiktoks.
Young hearts run free, never be hung up
Blog – there is a good argument (well, I like to make it anyway) that all this disintegration and fragmentation of corporate owned social media reinforces the case for owning your own domain. It at least makes sense to have a central base you control and view other services and platforms as complementary avenues. This is probably going to be true of your project regardless of what other tools you adopt.
Feel the city breakin’ and everybody shakin’, And we’re stayin’ alive
Discord/Slack/WhatsApp – related to the above, some communities and projects have found favour in more focused apps, avoiding the noise and traffic of other discussions. This works well if your project is going to be engaging with lots of people and communities as part of its other activities, and those people are motivated enough to make a separate space sufficiently active. WhatsApp groups are something lost of people are in anyway, and the closed nature of the space makes it feel safe. The disadvantage is they are not as open, and there is a much reduced chance of serendipity because you’re not bumping into other conversations and chats the way you are in the big melting pot of Twitter. It can also be difficult to get people to come to a new space (eg Discord) if it isn’t part of their everyday digital suite.
We are family
YouTube/Podcast/Instagram – these are all probably add-ons to the main dissemination and engagement channels, but they can be enormously effective and also allow for fun and experimentation. To really work though you have to commit to regular production and build an audience over time. Podcasts for instance will work if you have a topic that can be explored from different angles and you can bring in guests over a prolonged period and can have someone as an engaging host. But when it works, it works really well.
I find romance when I start to dance in Boogie Wonderland
Newsletter – again, this is likely to be an additional channel, but newsletters can also be seen as a replacement for the fragmenting social media space. There are some great tools out there for these, and as with podcasts and the like, you can build a good audience and develop a unique voice over time. They can also integrate well with the blog and really create an identity over time. But with so much competition it is difficult for people to find you so you might want to choose platforms like Substack or Ghost to help boost some discovery.
Won’t you take me to Funkytown?
The Metaverse – LOL, only joking.
burn that mother down, (burn baby burn) disco inferno
The problem you face is knowing which of these will be the most effective. Want to try all of them? Congratulations, you are now a full time social media manager. That might not be in the budget line. The key will be to digging in to that vagueness I highlighted at the start. Why exactly do you want to use social media? Who are the key people you want to engage with? How much do you know about their social media use? What activities in the project will bring people into contact with you? Just setting up a Twitter account isn’t going to hack it any more. You’re going to have to keep searchin, searchin (for so long). Sorry.
If I was in the scenario I set out at the start, and pondering these choices for a new project (this is distinct from a legacy one, where other factors come in to play), I think my choices would be:
This gives the project scope for identity and reach. There would need to be a requisite budget allocation to these and commitment to make them work and generate content. This is probably more the case now whereas a Twitter account with some decent activity was often sufficient in the past. With the audience fragmented you have to establish a bigger pull factor and that requires a greater centre of gravity.
Anyway, here’s the playlist to help you ponder:(Featured image created in Da Vinci with prompt "70s disco glitterball")
The structure for the research for OER Reserach Hub is built around 11 hypotheses that we are testing through our work with collaborating organisations, fellowships and background studies. We are now at a stage where the collaborations are well underway and surveys are producing data and we want to bring together the views from the team around the hypotheses and reflecting on our research.
On an away day at the beginning of June we took some lessons from Agile Programming to become Agile Researchers and carried out an Hypothesis Sprint, involving Sprint Boards, T-shirt sized tasks, burndown velocity and mini-scrums!
Guided by Martin we picked one of our hypotheses and focused in on achievable tasks, reporting quick progress and then getting a reasonable result all in one morning. The method appears to work well and if it does give us more of what we need then expect we will expand…
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I have finally become a student again! What is more I am now enrolled with MIT(x) and it did not take a huge fee or any tough entry requirements. I am one of the 90,000 people who clicked the enroll button and signed in. For me there are several motivations:
So what has it been like? Well actually it has been quite hard! The level is fairly high and I have found in the first week that I have been integrating trig functions, differentiating using the product rule and writing rather a lot of symbols on pieces of paper! I have also found it quite rewarding – a bit like suduko on steroids. Puzzles that I really have to work at – and then carry on working on late at night. So far I have managed to come out the other side ok as luckily the “homeworks” all multiple attempts, I have a feeling that I have yet to get anything completely right on the first attempt.
The course itself has:
For me the homework has become the driver – quite revealing in itself though not a surprise to find assessment is taking over. The time I have spent was probably not far off the 10 hours in the first week but then a bit less as too much else has been going on in the second week.
I am enjoying doing the course though if the difficulty scales up I might fall by the wayside. I am not seeking to be critical in this post but I do agree with Brandon that a bit more effort to get the accessibility working better is needed. For the learning process I would normally expect stronger alignment between the materials and what is tested as well but actually having the homework as puzzles in themselves is quite interesting. I can then carry out a treasure hunt to see where the clues are hidden (in texts, videos, other exercises, discussions and out there in google search land).
I am not sure 6.002x should count as “Open Educational Resource” (OER), it is built on some materials already released on MIT’s OpenCourseWare site. But the addition of the textbook, the closed access to the course itself and that nothing in the design encourages transfer to another site make it more a free course than an open one.
At this point there is just time to sign up (first homework closes 18 March). So if you like mathematical puzzles, wonder if you should have done/should do electronics, and are interested in how open learning works this could be just the thing!
Important update (20 February 2012): Apple acted to change the End User License Agreement on 3 February 2012 with release 1.0.1 of iBook Author. This modified the restriction on commercial use to say “and includes files in the .ibooks format generated using iBooks Author” so it only applies to the iBook version of the text. As long as iBooks is the only platform to support that format this is no problem. So I hope it fixes most of the issues I mention. Though I must admit it still leaves me a little uncomfortable and probably still needs checking out a bit further.
Original post (20 January 2012): Following today’s Apple Education announcement I was intrigued by the CNET live blog having the comment that it was HyperCard reborn so I thought it might be worth a download. (Though still not an iPad owner.) The interface looks fine and my first thoughts were positive – this could be a way to finally knock Word off its undeserved position as the default way to pass documents around. But then just before I got going to have a play with actually doing something I noticed this:
So this says that I can only sell by Book through the iBookstore. Fine I have no intention of selling anything… BUT I think this is the first time I have come across an application that says that I can only use the output – the thing I make – in a particular way. I then went investigating into the licence that I would be signing up for if I used the software.
Pressing on the License Agreement button gave me this:
Then reading down to the small print I find this explanation of what I can do:
So condition (ii) clearly says that if you are making any money from the iBook then it must be distributed through Apple. But what about condition (i) – that sounds ok but I feel there could be a couple of catches.
Catch 1: the file format is .iba (not sure you can do much with that other than put it it iBooks I guess) but you can also get a PDF so maybe that is not so bad.
Catch 2: if I produce something I want to but a Creative Commons licence on it. In fact if I am producing something for a couple of projects that I work on I am contractually required to produce it using CC-BY. But then CC-BY allows anyone else to republish AND they may do so for commercial gain.
So either I have found a loophole – release with CC-BY then anyone else (which typically include you) can reuse your work in anyway they wish provided they attribute it to you. OR I have found a barrier – you cannot stick a CC-BY licence on anything made with iBook Author. The terms imply this is true even if you export it as PDF (or strictly probably even if you export as text).
This needs the usual health warning – I am not a legal expert, what is more I can just be plain wrong :-). Anyway I don’t like this condition and I have written this blog instead of playing with the software.
I have long been a fan of the GTD approach and have recently been rereading David Allen’s book on Getting Things Done. Indeed I bought 10 copies and passed them out to colleagues working on the OLnet project as I believe his ideas and methods can only help people. BUT in reading his book I have had some difficulty in getting the match between PROJECTS and ACTIONS. The focus is on action but unless these make sense in terms of projects then it is hard to get going and decide what to do. GTD offers good advice compressed into about a few pages (p62-p81 in my UK edition) yet somehow I could not make that advice stick or pass on the ideas to other people. Until the beginning of the summer when I came up with a variant: AVOID planning!
In AVOID planning you focus on five elements:
Notice the split between aims and vision. I have found that people are often asking for what is the vision behind a project – but then treating the result as if it was the guide to what has to be done. Splitting this into an aim and a separate vision has solved this dilemma for me.
The AIM is then something that might be relatively straightforward such as to “write a blog post about the AVOID planning”. The aim should in general something you would be happy to be held to. In effect the promise you are making yourself that you can deliver on.
The VISION is where you let yourself imagine the other side of success. In the vision think about impact and everything working out. So the vision might be “Blogging about AVOID planning helps those I work with to be more efficient and know what each other are doing and then it gets picked up as an approach for the unit, the university, the world … leading to a new role as an efficiency guru.” Visions, including this one :-), may contain aspects that you might not expect to achieve but if you miss spotting them may rein in what you do and the connections that can be made.
OPTIONS is where ideas should flow. Gathering all the things that you might do. In this section remain in brainstorm mode without being too critical about the ideas generated. Options are optional so record each idea without thinking of them as commitments. So can have options such as “Make a Powerpoint presentation about AVOID/Put an animated podcast together with voiceover on YouTube/Blog onto my personal openpad site/Link the method to olnet.org/Run a session at the next team meeting/Write an AVOID planning book/….”.
In ITINERARY is the chance to pause and put in a reality check. What actually has to be done and when by. If there are hard deadlines then they go here. This would be a good place to link up with any more traditional planning that is going on. E.g. if you want to make a Gantt chart or spreadsheet then put it here. This can also be where to describe deliverables if that is what the driver is for the outputs. For the blogging example the hard deadlines were initially missing but having now said that I will run a mini session at a meeting I have an Itinerary of “Blog post/Put slides together/Team meeting (October 12)”. [Of the letters in AVOID the I is the one I am least sure about – for a while it was Inventory but I found Itinerary fits better but is a bit tricky to spell. I would consider other options.]
Finally DO. At the planning level too much effort can go on trying to get the list of things to do right and to be sure about the options that have been selected. Rather the DO section is really a hand over to however you track your actions. What does need to be identified is the Next Action level. A project without any Next Action is one that is not going anywhere. So again in my self-referencing example the Next Action was “Set a date to talk about AVOID” and now is “Draft a blog post about AVOID”.
How to AVOID plan
I have now been running AVOID planning myself for about 3 months and shared the method with 5 or 6 other people. I have found two key ways to apply it. First as a solo activity, second as small group planning/brainstorming. The process is similar in each case but in the solo version it can be carried out fairly quickly with worthwhile results in 15-30minutes while as a group activity it will take a bit longer but combine very well with other techniques to draw out the options (for example with think-pair-share). I will describe what I do when working this through with myself of perhaps one other person:
Think about something you are working on that is perhaps just getting going or a bit stuck. E.g. writing a report. This should be viewed as a project with steps along the way. Create a document call it e.g. [project]-AVOID-[date] with headings:
Now work your way down the list as quickly as is feasible. Write the commitment under AIM (you might find at first you need to list some alternatives and refine) then let your ambitions loose and write out all that might happen when you succeed under VISION.
In independent brainstorming mode then fill in the OPTIONS. I find this can be quite liberating and make you realise that you have ideas that you need to get down before you let them go – even if you cannot see them as feasible or even necessarily good ideas. In this category for me are the ones that would be good if they happened but might cause everyone far too much work! But record it without being too critical.
Then the ITINERARY pause – what is really pressing and has to be done soon. What is the eventual target. It is often the case that there is no real end date imposed in which case put in best guesses. This can also provide the section that is a checklist of progress. If there need to be visible outputs such as progress reports, final reports etc. then note here. Treat this section as grounding after the options section but do not over plan.
Under DO it might be that there is not very much to record at this stage but there should be for yourself at least a clear Next thing to do.
Working with Toodledo
I find Toodledo a great help in running a GTD style ToDo list. Now that they have added notes it is also a good platform for organising projects and a home for AVOID plans. I won’t go into the details here but do advise signing up for a free account (following this link with note that I recommended you or just go direct).
I think most of what I have written here can be found in David Allen’s GTD book. What I have done is pick out the section that matters when planning and also come up with the AVOID acronym. Whether this makes a difference for others I don’t know; it has helped me remember and adopt this five stage approach to planning and to bring a few others on board without just saying “read the book”!
Recently at work we bought a couple of iPads. These are in the hands of Martin Weller and Karen Cropper both of whom are now keen users. Last week Karen let me have her iPad to use for a week and I expected it to hook me as well. There certainly are some nice things about the iPad – it feels good to browse with it, Flipboard is a great way to follow streams, reading books in iBooks feels slick, and playing iBubble on its large touch screen is addictive. BUT in the end it was not for me and I was able to give it back into Karen’s eager hands without any great wrench.
The reasons for this I feel fall into two parts. First there was just too much that did not feel as if it worked as well as it could. This is exactly where the strengths of Apple normally lie, but on the iPad the wi-fi was too flaky and the missing camera limits possibilities. For me the disappointing capabilities of two add-ons flag up that this machine is not as good as it could be: the VGA adapter only works for some programs, and the SD card reader only allows thumbnail views.
This brings me to my second point that the iPad underperforms as a work machine. I had thought it would be great to use the touch features for collaborative brainstorming; but I could not project to the large screen. And I expected to take photos and instantly put the camera card in to show them off; but to do this I had to slowly pick and transfer the files first. In particular I thought the iPad would be great for having PDF documents loaded to replace paper in meetings; but too cumbersome to switch between the documents so I was better off with my laptop (and best off with paper!). I also was in a meeting where five other people had iPads – the effect was of looking at the top of people’s heads as they found documents or made notes. I felt more part of the meeting behind my laptop screen.
Throughout my week I kept putting the iPad to one side and using my Macbook Pro instead. The one win at work was when I had to carry out workplan approvals – a job where I needed to bring up page after page and click a button, this was much more satisfying with the touch screen rather than a mouse.
The iPad does feel like a first generation – I remember feeling just the same when I got an early model iPod Touch. That has been transformed by software upgrades and hardware improvements so that I am now a constant user of the iPhone 3GS I have (though notably it is not my phone – that remains an ancient Nokia).
At the moment then no iPad for openpad, but I suspect I will waver in the future – though whether this time Apple has gone too far with its gradual upgrading approach and will allow others too leap ahead remains to be seen. Philosophically an openish Android would better match my views than the proprietary iPad so my colleague Liam Green Hughes may yet win in this argument!