Tuesday, 11 September 2018

I’ll tell you why you should vote for me

I’m a better person
than you.
Harsh, I know, but true.
Just look at my suit, my cufflinks, hair,
my Bertie Wooster
aristocratic air,
my Oxford polo blue.

I don’t know much
about the World
(at least, the one you live in).
But I’m an economic
(ignore all those fraud hearings).

I understand
you’re struggling
with health
and wealth
and work.

But that’s all
someone else’s fault,
and I’m the only one
can halt
the irresponsible assault
of some

I’ll tell you
what you want to hear:
You really should
be proud.
We’re better than
those other chaps:
All that foreign
and while you are not,
as good a chap as me,
We share in the same
noble blood:
We’re just the same!
You see?

So vote for me.
Although I’m posh,
I’ll represent
your interests,
and give you
everything you need:
panem et circenses.

Monday, 3 September 2018

Is someone trying to steal your PowerPoints?

Educational technology is brilliant at many things - but one thing it is absolutely brilliant at is sharing and connecting.  You can share content across different platforms, you can share resources to students wherever they are, and you can connect to people in an almost infinite number of ways.

This all sounds great!  But one of the things that has surprised me since starting work as a Learning Technology Adviser, is a brand of protectionism demonstrated by some academics.  Their driving concern when it comes to any educational technology is that no ‘outsiders’ should ever have access to their academic resources.

The argument used to justify this concern is that they have spent a lifetime developing these resources, and they’ll be damned if they’re going to let any Professor Tea-Leaf nick them all just because they happen to be an External Examiner for the course, or another lecturer on the programme, or the Programme Manager or a student.

After all, what’s to stop anyone taking them and forging for themselves a stellar career, entirely off the back of these ill-gotten but priceless sets of lecture notes and handouts?

It is difficult to know precisely how to deal with such attitudes, firstly because I find it so hard to believe in a world where forces are so hell-bent on jeopardizing their professional integrity by stealing a bunch of PowerPoint slides (although these people do vehemently affirm that their disciplinary sector is rife with such pyrrhic skullduggery).  Secondly, the idea that anyone would ever want to steal my own course materials is something I would personally consider a compliment.  Unwise perhaps and certainly unlikely, but a compliment nonetheless.  Finally, this protectionist approach seems perfectly designed to stifle any personal or professional development.

Of course the idea of working in a bubble, where nobody can criticise or question, is tempting.  It feels safe.  You just produce the grades for your students and never have to answer questions about how you got them - or whether you could have done anything better.  And perhaps we can even convince ourselves that it’s not possible to be any better - that we’ve got it nailed, and it would be sheer vandalism to challenge such perfection.  But even were this true, while we as educators get older each year our students don’t.  Even as our experience or expertise increases the distance between our lives and theirs also increases, and as this distance increases our methods and approaches slide quietly out of tune like a rubber guitar string.

Surely, we are better educators when we are able to get feedback from others?  And we are better educators when we are able to give feedback to others?  This means drawing back the magic curtain of our pedagogy.  Demystifying the alchemical processes of our courses.  And letting people see our damn PowerPoints.

And if they did steal our slides, so what?  The whole reason I work in Education and spent so much time accumulating these poor scraps of knowledge, was so that I could give them away.  Indeed, my entirely professional value has been based on how good I am at giving it away.  And for as long as I have been in the profession, I have been (at least partly) funded by the public, so I have always felt that the public has a certain right to what I produce.

Perhaps the real concern here about jeopardizing my own self-perception?  The fear of being told that I may, possibly, not be quite as good at my job as I think?   But whether the issue is delusional paranoia, a secret academic Cold War where anyone may be an enemy agent, or a desperate desire to protect a fragile self-image - it works directly against some of the very things that make educational technology so valuable: It stops us sharing and it stops us connecting.

So - here’s the question: What can we do to support academics so constrained by these kinds of fears?  Or are they right, and am I wrong: This is simply a skullduggerous world, and I am naive to think otherwise?

Friday, 24 August 2018

Does a manager in education need to have been a educator?

Over the years I have had many different managers.  Some I have thought to be good, some bad - and some downright awful.  At UEL we have just appointed a new VC - and it will be interesting to see what happens - but one of the debates that always seems to emerge when new managers are appointed, is whether an educational manager need to be an experienced educator?

Of course they should, one argument goes.  Anyone put in the position of deciding policies and practices within an educational institution needs to understand the roles, demands and challenges of those doing the actual job.  How can an educational manager have any clear understanding of the stakeholders in their business, if they have never been exposed directly to those stakeholders?

Don't be ridiculous, says the other side, surely a good manager is one who knows how to find the right information to make the most effective decisions relating to those stakeholders?  A manager with no teaching experience, who makes decisions that override the experience and understanding of those with lots of it, is just a bad manager.  There are examples of these, yes, but there are just as many examples of experienced teachers in management positions that make decisions based only on their own narrow professional experiences - and these decisions can often be equally harmful to the institution as a whole.

At some time or another I have probably held both views with equal conviction.

I experienced managers that were terrifically qualified in educational terms, but had little conventional 'business knowledge'.  This didn't matter in the slightest though, because although they drove the aim, directions and strategies of the organisation they deferred to more specifically-qualified and experienced staff to rationalise those aims.  'Bad' management tended to occur when managers assumed that their position led them to believe that they were the best qualified to make unilateral decisions without deferment to anyone at all.

Equally, I have experienced managers that were terrifically qualified in management terms, but had little conventional experience as an educator.  This didn't seem to matter in the slightest though, because they saw themselves as supplying business rationalism and validity, but deferred to the expertise of teaching staff and students for shaping the aims, directions and strategies of the organisation.  'Bad' management tended to occur when managers assumed that their job was to unilaterally impose a specific business model on an organisation regardless of its function, and treated any opposition as evidence of an unruly staff that needed to put in their place.

Now, I have never had any interest in being involved in management.  It seems to me to be a thankless job likely to take over your life and, with accumulated stress, possibly end it sooner.  I have an inherent sympathy therefore, for anyone put in such a thankless position.   I do tend to take interest in it as a spectator sport though, as (I suspect) many of us do simply because it directly impacts whether we enjoy coming to work or not.

I have started to wonder whether the key to a good manager is humility.  Humility to know that their job is to serve the needs of their stakeholders and employees - not to rule them.  Humility to know that they are dependent always on expertise that they are expected to manage, not possess.  Humility to understand that being a manager doesn't inherently mean that they know better than everyone they manage.  Humility to accept that just because something works for them, doesn't mean it should and must work for everyone. 

Managers can make bad decisions, sure: We all make mistakes.  I wonder though, whether this kind of manager will make fewer mistakes - and be more easily forgiven for those they do...?

Tuesday, 14 August 2018

The Luxury of Despair

I remember one class I taught - and my memory may be playing tricks with me here, but I think it was about Jameson's ideas about the cultural logic of late capitalism.  Whatever the actual topic, the basic idea was about the hidden functions of society to concentrate power and wealth.

At the end of the class a student (clearly a lot smarter than I was) came and asked perhaps the most important two questions I had ever been asked as a teacher: What can we do about it, and what do you do about it?

At the time, I was able to answer to both questions - with a reasonable degree of confidence - "teach people".

Easy for me to say.  As a lecturer in cultural theory, it was what I was paid to do.  What I had to say on the subject carried value, and my poor students were obliged to listen.

So, I taught them about Jameson.  I taught them about Marx and De Beauvoir.  I taught them about Chomsky and Edward Said, Raymond Williams and Richard Hoggart, Toril Moi and Homi Bhaba.  And at the end of all that I genuinely hoped I had persuaded them to a certain degree of both cultural criticality and moral indignation.  I genuinely wanted my students to look critically at the world around them, and to understand hidden injustices and prejudices.

I wanted them to be angry about things, and to feel that they had the capacity to do something about them.

And then I stopped teaching.

The usual tale of stress and overworking was making me pretty unwell, and I was fortunate enough to get a pretty awesome job as a 'Learning Technology Advisor'.  And I love it, I really do - but it means I have let go of all the old theories and ideas that used to get me so worked up.  For the last few years I have blocked out the news that used to make me so depressed.  Stopped reading the books.  Stopped boring people about it all, whether on Twitter or this blog, in the classroom or (worst of all) to my wife.

But now I worry that all sounds a bit too much like giving up.  All those things I believe in, and that drive me, just putting them away quietly in a drawer.  And then I made the mistake of listening to the Martyn Joseph's The Luxury of Despair, where he sings:

And if the cockerel crowed what would I deny? 
I’d hope any tyranny that met my eye 
Or the right of domain over the mind of a man 
And the lie that we cannot be equal or free

Oh bloody hell.  Thanks Martyn.

Now I have to start thinking about those questions all over again:  There is injustice in this world.  There is plenty to get angry about.  So, what can do about it?  Especially now I am no longer paid to bang on about it?

Answers on a postcard, please....

Monday, 16 October 2017

There's a wrapper in my pocket

Picture by Michael Coghlan: https://flic.kr/p/dtgg4h

There's a wrapper in my pocket.
It's from a chocolate bar
I got a long, long time ago,
From a local Spar.

I ate it in a country park,
Sitting by a tree,
Soaking in the morning Sun:
The sounds of birds and bees.

It's Winter now. I'm back at work.
And many months have gone
Since that blissful country park,
And that warm Summer Sun.

I really should throw away
This wrapper in my pocket.
Although it brings fond memories,
My pocket's gone all mockett.

Thursday, 12 October 2017

'It's owned by Elsevier': Why this is relevant when choosing referencing software

Satire on corporate monopolies in 19th-century America, targeting a railway owner who once famously said "I can hire one half of the working class to kill the other half."

At my University we are currently discussing how to provide support for software that can help students and staff manage their references and sources.  There are of course many different options available on the market - some free, and some not.  During discussions I have made no secret of my preference for Zotero - which I believe offers the most intuitive and comprehensive functionality.  To this end, I have done some showcases of Zotero for various academics - which appear to illicit one of three responses from them:

  1. Oh, brave new world that has such software in it!  I had no idea - and I want it now!
  2. We already use it.  Have been for years.  So why are you telling us about it now?
  3. But don't we already have Mendeley in our official software catalogue?

I fully expected the first response - but was surprised at the number of people who came back with the second and third.  It is really rather nice to be able to tell academics who fight tirelessly each year to teach academic referencing, that there is a piece of software that can do it all for them.  More difficult were the responses about Mendeley.

Wednesday, 28 June 2017

Getting the most out of Moodle Blocks

The other week I blogged about the myth that Moodle looks rubbish compared to for-profit VLE systems.  Along a similar vein, I have begun to wonder just how many people using Moodle realise the power they have right at the end of their typing digits?

I’ll tell you why you should vote for me

I’m a better person than you. Harsh, I know, but true. Just look at my suit, my cufflinks, hair, my Bertie Wooster aristocratic air, m...