Mentoring unpacked III: mentoring through tough times and sharing our reflections

This is the third and final part in this series on mentoring. This time, Margaret and I focus on our experience of mentoring through tough times and also reflect on what we have learnt working together over the past six years and how this has changed our professional practice.

If you have missed our earlier posts, go back to:

The last six years have had many ups and downs. Margaret has been a constant presence in my life and together we have worked through many personal and professional crisis, anything from when I had to take on the responsibility of being a carer for my mother, who has cancer, to problems at work that encompassed everything from finance and governance to management and staffing, the sad passing away of a serving President of the organisation and major restructuring. Being a CEO can feel like every month brings with it a new insurmountable problem, a steep learning curve or frustration.

It’s important, I feel, to acknowledge that there have been tough times and explain how mentoring has helped me through them. For example, when I was new in my role and had very little support or sense of what kind of support I would need or want, having a trusted mentor at my side could feel like a lifeline. Or times when we worked to identify specific issues and worked out how to address them. Making changes was successful at times, but painful, too, when things went wrong. I worked hard to grow my own network and become more resilient. Some things that used to be difficult have become easier as I’ve gained experience and I have learnt how to manage them without Margaret’s support. But even once I needed less practical support day to day, having a mentor continued to be important: it helped me face difficult questions and to be honest with myself. It instilled in me a reflective approach that prompts me to put the good of the organisation before all else, even when it’s hard to do. It seems like an obvious point to make, but I find it helpful as a guiding principle that I keep coming back to.

Margaret adds:

A key issue now is to make sure that Maren or the organisation isn’t just coasting along or that Maren isn’t getting bored. She is someone who thrives on challenge but appreciates that organisations need periods of consolidation. What is the next step for ALT, what is the next step for her and are they the same or different? Difficult questions but ones we need to come back to again and again.

Over the years, we’ve had so many conversations that I don’t even need to speak with Margaret at times as it’s enough to write and reflect on a situation and I know what she would say or ask me to think about. It’s a bit like the voice of a driving instructor in your head, reminding you to check your blind spots. I maintain a private blog, which has grown to hundreds of entries charting my professional life and that writing forms a cornerstone of my reflective practice. Margaret has helped me devise other strategies, too, to cope with problems and become more resilient – giving me the tools to navigate difficult days.

Yet, even with practical tools and the support of a mentor, there are always some things I am not prepared for, like when a journalist asked me in an interview about education policy why I don’t have children.
Or when I didn’t get to speak in a meeting as the Minister leading it didn’t know my name.
Or when someone burst into tears in response to something I said.
Or when I had to speak at a funeral in my professional capacity.
Often, it turned out to be quite a mix of personal and professional factors that made some situations unexpectedly difficult.

From working with Margaret I learnt how important it is to build trust and be able to share the highs and lows of working life with someone – but in a leadership position that can be difficult. Many things are too confidential or too personal or simply too raw to talk about with most people

Margaret adds her perspective, reflecting on a particularly tough conversation:

Probably the most difficult mentoring session we had was when Maren was dealing with a very difficult issue and felt very pissed off with her job. Maren was angry with the situation and the lack of support she was getting at the time. The issue was taking up all her time and energy and stopping her moving the organisation forward as she had planned. It was the only time, I ever saw Maren wanting to give it all up!

This all came up in a phone conversation which was very tricky to handle. More than anything Maren needed a hug but I was 150 miles away. I was really not sure what to do to help. But I can remember feeling that bad myself and looking back I realised that these difficult situations do come to an end. You just have to stick in there as a CEO and realise there is light at the end of the tunnel even with the most difficult people or problems.

So I gave Maren reassurance that her feelings were valid, that she could and would get through the issue and things would get back to normal. I remember walking round and round my sitting room while on the phone, listening and reassuring. And it worked! I was very relieved. Maren went away and sorted the problem brilliantly so she could take forward her plans for ALT.

Even reading this now, years later, I recall that moment, that phone call, as clearly as Margaret does. And yes, a hug would have been good.

But, more importantly, I learnt a lot from getting through that particularly tough spot: I learnt to trust that eventually things do go back to normal, that I am able to get through it and that I was glad indeed that I chose to stick with it.


Having a mentor and working with Margaret has been a formative experience for me. Similarly, Margaret’s approach to being mentor has been informed by our work together. Over time our relationship has changed as our practice has developed.

Margaret reflects:

Is a Mentor a critical friend?

I have heard people say that a mentor is a critical friend but I don’t agree in our case. Maren is more than critical enough in her practice and as a CEO has lots of criticism to deal with.  I think I am definitely a friend but not critical at all. Supportive, non judgemental and maybe inquisitive are better words. I am less involved in the day to day so can help Maren step back and see the bigger picture or encourage her to be really creative in finding solutions but my role is not to criticise.

In addition, here are some reflections I want to share:

Being a chief executive is a privilege. No matter how difficult things may be at times, working with Margaret has made me realise again and again that it is a huge privilege to serve my organisation as chief executive. I love what I do and an inspiring mentor who has kept challenging me has helped me do my best for the organisation.

Most of the time, I already know the answer. Often Margaret has made me see things in a new way, and has made me realise that I already know what to do to solve a problem but maybe I haven’t realised it or hadn’t wanted to face it or was afraid to do it.

I choose my own path. Margaret has helped me gain confidence in my own judgement, in my values and myself. Being a chief executive is a lonely path and you need to be able to rely on your own instincts. That’s not to say that listening to or learning from others is not essential, of course it is. But realising my own potential is something I have to do in my own way. It always comes back to asking myself what kind of chief executive I want to be. I choose my own path.

I’m a human being. Be kind to yourself, give yourself a break, reflect on how you feel, look after yourself… I am not very good at those things. A combination of high expectations, a strong work ethic and a love for my work can result in a sincere lack of empathy for myself. Margaret has reminded me again and again to do all those good things that help restore balance, perspective and calm. Over time, I’ve become better at taking into account that I’m a human being with feelings and needs and moods and to afford those around me the same consideration. It still surprises me how much of a difference it makes.

And for all these things as well as everything I haven’t mentioned I am extremely grateful. Thank you, Margaret.

We have written these three posts with the aim to reflect on and share our experiences of working together for the past six years. We have unpacked our mentoring relationship so that you can explore our perspectives and use our insights to inform your own approach to finding, working with or indeed being a mentor.

As you can tell from the narrative we have created, we have enjoyed facing the highs and lows together and we are fortunate to have had much laughter along the way.

Maren and Margaret, November 2016 Image credit: Sarah Caroline Photography

Mentoring unpacked II: A ‘blended’ approach to mentoring

Welcome to the second part of the story, for which my mentor Margaret Bennett and I have collaborated to share our insights into what it’s like to work together as mentor and mentee. Looking back at six years of working together, here we share our insights into the process. We have already recounted how we first met and got started and also discussed the benefits of having a mentor in the first part of the story. Next time, in the third and final instalment we’ll be looking at mentoring when things are tough and reflecting on what we’ve learnt.

Maren and Margaret in conversation, November 2016 Image credit: Sarah Caroline Photography

This post is about how we found an effective ‘blended’ approach to mentoring, how we have worked together using technology to bridge big distances, creating safe situations to work together on some of the biggest challenges and achievements over the past six years.

One of the defining characteristic of the mentoring approach we have developed is that we are not located close to each other. We live hours apart and with busy jobs and limited funds there was never an option to meet up in person frequently. Most of our communication is via email and phone calls, and we use online collaboration tools or shared documents if we need to work on something specific together. Meeting in person has been more or less frequent depending on circumstance and also the kinds of things we were focusing on. As I was already used to working remotely with colleagues and had previously had a Line Manager also working remotely, this was in some way not a big adjustment to make, but there are specific characteristics of the way in which Margaret and I work together that made a real difference to me:

In the early days in particular my mentoring needs could feel very urgent at times: in those instances email or phone were often the most immediate way to get help or support when a crisis arose. The responsiveness that a call afforded was much more important to me than the personal presence meeting Margaret in person could have provided. It gave me more confidence to know that help was at hand should I need it and it helped us build trust more quickly.

At the same time, things were always very busy and I rarely had the opportunity to step back from my day to day responsibilities. Thus, I came to value having the chance to have a few hours to think and to spend time with Margaret more highly. I prepared for or thought about what I wanted to talk about – sometimes leaving really hard conversations or more strategic, abstract thinking for those occasions whilst dealing with more practical matters remotely. Leading an organisation the way I like to work, in a very collegiate manner, takes a lot of thinking and time with Margaret constituted valuable pockets of inspiration.

Working with a mentor also gave me a chance to see what it takes to make a blended working relationship work from a new perspective and that helped me become a better line manager for my distributed staff team in later years. It was good practice for building trust and establishing a rapport using a blended approach. Some of this thinking still informs the work my colleague Martin Hawksey and I are doing on open approaches to leading a virtual team.

I wonder, Margaret, how typical it is in your experience to take this approach and how well it works from your perspective?

Until I worked with you all my mentoring had been face to face and so it was new to me. But as we had so quickly developed a good rapport together it became very easy to talk on the phone or via email or Google docs.

I think there is a big difference though in the type of discussions we have.

When we talk on the phone there is always an immediate practical issue that we need to work on. So our phone calls are very practical and solution focused. And while they involve a lot of moral support to they are very focused.

When we use email or Google docs, we are at our most practical: I may comment on a document, article or letter or may be sharing a risk register template or business plan structure that might work for Maren.

Sometimes we just send very short messages to each other – messages of support or congratulations, celebrating success or commiserating when things don’t quite work out.

And I think the blended approach has really helped that as by using phone calls and emails to deal with current, more practical issues, we have been able to focus our face to face time on the big picture.

So that is how our work together took shape after the first meeting we described in the earlier part of the story. We put a lot of effort into building a working relationship that fit the organisation as well as each other. We adjusted the balance of working together in person or remotely depending on circumstances over time.

When I look back at the last six years, I divide my experience of mentoring into what we worked on in pivotal moments when things were going well and how we dealt with things going wrong.

For example, ahead of the biggest changes I’ve led or milestones the organisation has reached, Margaret and I spent sessions on strategy and vision, on planning for the future and on preparing for change. That element of our work I’ve come to value a lot: Margaret got me thinking ahead, planning for the long term.

Most of the people in my working life are necessarily focused on the task at hand or the current year. But doing too much myself that’s concentrated on the here and now made me less effective in my role, less able to make a plan for what’s ahead and steer in the right direction.

There’s a degree of that strategic thinking I would do with colleagues or Trustees or horizon scanning with external input, but having a mentor really prompted me to make time to think about and nurture my own vision. And at the rate things were achieved it was constantly important to do that afresh. To be more ambitious, to challenge myself rather than to rest on whatever was achieved.

Margaret describes it here:

When we meet face to face we usually have the time and the headspace to take a step back, looking further into the future and explore long term objectives. We usually spend about three hours together and that is hugely valuable. We have the time to tease out where Maren wants to be in five years time or what difference ALT should be making on the world!

We’ve always had long term goals that we come back to over many seasons and it is so great that Maren has achieved those over the six years we have worked together

To me, in whatever manner we work together, mentoring acted as a catalyst at pivotal moments.

Another important part of our work that shaped how I work and lead has been to figure out how to be myself in my role. It’s not always been about what to achieve, but also how. So for example we talked about what kind of professional image I wanted to have, what I wanted to look like, what would be acceptable to wear in certain situations and how to have fun with it! I bought a very serious, dark blue suit when I went for my job interview and during the first year or so I often found myself in situations where wearing the most formal outfits I owned felt like the only acceptable option. That’s changed over time, as my own ideas about being a leader have changed.

Margaret adds:

I think the best leaders are those that are truly authentic. When people are new to the leadership role they may feel they need to copy someone else, or follow in the footsteps of their predecessor etc. And people don’t always realise that this needs to be thought about and proactively managed. It’s a kind of brand management but the ‘brand” has to be genuine too if a leader is going to inspire trust.

There is also something about being confident in yourself, what you believe in and how you do things rather than trying to be someone else. So when Maren and I have talked about chief executive shoes that hasn’t just been a distraction from her leadership role but about building confidence in who she is and how her image can support that. And a great pair of comfortable shoes can really boost your morale!

That’s a good point to pause our story and draw this post to a close. In the next  and final post we will be looking at how we worked together through some of the toughest times and what we learnt in the process.

Mentoring unpacked I: How it all began…

Maren and Margaret in conversation, November 2016 Image credit: Sarah Caroline Photography

Ever since I started working in a leadership role in Learning Technology I have had a mentor. My mentor, Margaret Bennett, has been a big influence on my practice for the past six years and I have come to value the relationship we’ve built and the work we have done together very highly.

As part of my commitment to an open approach to leadership, I’ve asked Margaret to collaborate with me on this three part series to share our insights into being a mentor and what it’s like to have one.

We’ve divided our story into three parts:

There are a few reasons why we want to unpack our experience and share it more widely: for us it is a useful way to reflect on the work we have done and a way to better understand each other’s perspectives; and we also hope these posts will provide inspiration for your own mentoring journeys whatever shape or form they make take.

A note on what we haven’t written about: Many aspects of mentoring, particularly in a leadership position, are around sensitive issues – both personal and professional. We have tried to find a balance between sharing insights that illustrate our experience, including the ups and downs we have worked through, and avoiding sharing details which are confidential or too personal.

Now that you know what to expect, and you are still reading, let’s go back to the very beginning, the start of our story.

How it all began… meeting each other for the first time

Margaret and I started working together in 2012 and as I had never had any formal mentoring before that, I was not entirely convinced that I needed or wanted a mentor when we first met.

Indeed, I was about to start a new and exciting job at the end of a gruelling recruitment process that had taken months and included extensive psychometric testing, practical skills exercises, presentation and interview, so I wasn’t sure whether the suggestion to have a mentor didn’t reflect a lack of confidence in my ability to succeed.

In addition, I had practical concerns, such as how we would build trust, how often we would meet or talk, what kinds of things we would discuss and to what extend I would really get something out of it. In short, I was highly doubtful whether a mentor would really be on my side and whether I had time to invest in something I didn’t see the value of when there was so much to be getting on with.

Despite these doubts I knew that I had a big challenge ahead and that I wouldn’t be very effective in my role if I didn’t listen to advice or make use of help when it was offered. So I decided to at least give mentoring a go, to at least go to the first meeting. I was also curious to meet the person whom my predecessor had recommended. That, actually, made me more doubtful about working with Margaret initially, because I felt impatient to stand on my own two feet, but the recommendation turned out to be excellent and six years later, I am still extremely grateful for what led to establishing one of the most important relationships in my life.

Back to late February 2012, when after an initial email exchange I was on my way to meet Margaret for the first time. I can recall that early morning train journey from Oxford to Sheffield very clearly. I was nervous and apprehensive, trying to decide what I would say or do if things went well and if they didn’t work out. I had nothing except a brief email exchange to go on, so I had no idea what to expect.

That’s what it was like when we first started working together from my perspective. Margaret, thinking back to that first meeting and how we got started, how did you prepare for that? What stands out from your perspective?

When I first met you, Maren, I did not know anything about you but I knew I could give practical help as well as hoping to provide emotional support. Having run some small and larger charities I have lots of practical tools and templates that I can share with Maren. Not having to reinvent the wheel and finding out how other people do things can save Maren a lot of time and energy. It isn’t essential but it meant our relationship had some quick wins.

I’d been a chief executive of a charity so knew how lonely it could be with a voluntary chair as my line manager and where I could only share so much with the staff I managed. I knew how valuable having a safe space where I could admit doubt, anger or pain could be so I wanted to provide that for Maren. And a place to celebrate and laugh without being judged.

I’d had an excellent mentor when I’d been a chief executive and later a very helpful coach when things had been very hard. I knew what good looked like for me so had an idea of what it could be for Maren too.

So that was how things started with a meeting in the Winter Gardens in Sheffield over a few cups of tea that turned quickly into a couple of hours of intense conversation. Until that meeting I had no idea how much I had to say, share and reflect on – but talking to Margaret it quickly became apparent that there was a lot to discuss.

How we made it work… and some of the benefits of having a mentor (in a small organisation)

Once we got started, it quickly became clear how many benefits having a mentor can have, particularly if you work in a small organisation. Some of these were obvious from the start, but others only became apparent over time. To some extend the benefits of having a mentor will depend on the individuals involved and the relationship you can build, but many positive aspects are more generally applicable.

From my perspective, working in a small organisation in which I was the only or later one of two senior staff, gives me limited scope for dialogue with or support from someone who is not either reporting to me or someone I report to. Particularly in volunteer-led organisations, small charities or membership bodies, it’s often difficult to provide effective support for senior staff like me.

Working with Margaret had the advantage of me being able to share ideas or concerns without the constraints of another (reporting) relationship. As an external person to work with, Margaret prompted me to step back from day to day work and look at things from a different perspective – to get out of the mindset within the organisation.

Another benefit of having a mentor when you lead a small team or organisation is that it can be difficult to advocate for yourself at times and having a more independent, external voice when negotiating for yourself can be really helpful and also provide support for your Board or colleagues. Carrying out the annual appraisal process and collecting 360 degree feedback is an example of when having a mentor proved extremely useful.

Over time and through the annual appraisal process and more strategic work, we identified a number of areas in which permanent support was needed, HR for example, and put that into place. Other areas that we worked on together resolved themselves and didn’t require permanent action or support. In that manner, mentoring helped shape my role and the support required for it for the benefit of the organisation and in a manner that would not have been possible with only input from other staff or the Board.

As well as the practical advice and support that mentoring provided for me, the sense that the organisation I work for is prepared to invest resource into a mentor for me has also made me feel valued and better supported and that has made a big difference, in particular during difficult periods.

Margaret, what do think made a difference for us, what helped us make it work?

Having the same values is really important – valuing staff, empowering people, making a difference,  exploring new ideas, having fun and being creative.
We are both quite similar characters (same Myers Briggs, I think) but that is not as important as sharing the same values. And we love working collaboratively.

We quickly found a way to be reflective and questioning – happy to share emotions and feeling and reflecting on what works and what doesn’t work.

Maren does a lot of thinking in between sessions and writes things down even if she doesn’t share it all with me. So things move on quickly even if we don’t meet for several months. It is very satisfying to mentor Maren as things get taken forward and implemented brilliantly after our sessions.

We also share a willingness to try out different ways of working together – mentoring while we walk in the park, sitting on a bench in the sunshine, or in a sauna planning strategy! You can say some things much more easily to someone you are walking beside than when you are face to face. You can be more tentative, more playful and so creative over a nice meal (and a good French red!)  Some of Maren’s bravest decisions came after some more informal chat while we were admiring the Botanical Gardens or warming ourselves in front of a roaring fire.

It’s not always about having an answer immediately but trusting that together we can find an answer if we talk things through. In the early days, I sometimes thought I have no idea what to do or say in this situation but by the end of the session we had always got to a good solution or a better place.

Sometimes just listening is enough.

Your perspectives really chimes with me and I clearly found having someone to talk to crucially important. Leading a small organisation or team can be really challenging and in particular when I first started in the role I found it difficult to find the right balance between being a leader and line manager whilst getting support from colleagues. I didn’t have the network I have now and I often felt lonely or isolated. Having a mentor meant that I could explore the more difficult, personal aspects of my work in a safe space, reflecting on how I felt, but also having someone to talk to who had experienced similar challenges for themselves. Margaret made me see commonalities with her own and others’ professional journeys, in particular how other women have succeeded in leadership positions.

One of the questions we came back to again and again is what kind of chief executive I want to be. In other words, what do I aspire to – and that is a very interesting question to ask yourself in relation to your own role. What do you want to be? How do you want to work or lead? What kind of example do you want to set? What do you want to communicate, to get across?

I have never stopped asking myself that question and as I have developed in my role and gained more experience and a broader perspective, I find that my values remain pretty constant whilst my aims keep moving on.

Having a mentor who keeps challenging me and encourages me to grow my vision has been a big influence on my practice, but also on how I support and work with others.

It has, over time, helped me to build a diverse and supportive network, find like minded people to work with, identify role models to be inspired by and to invest time and energy into building relationships that have enabled me to accomplish far more than I could otherwise have.

This is the end of the first part of our story. In the next post we will be looking at how we created a ‘blended’ approach to mentoring and our experience of mentoring when things are going well.

The serious upsides of working in pyjamas

Title image saying: The serious upsides of working in pyjamas

This post continues our series on openly sharing our approach to leading a virtual team – a joint project with Martin Hawksey (cross-posted here) for which we write a monthly blog post, some of which are special podcast/conference editions.


This month we discuss some of the more serious upsides to home working.

Maren: We’ve previously talked a lot about all the strategies we’ve adopted to support home working and the challenges it brings with it. But at the end of a few weeks of working as long and hard as we can the upside of working remotely, of not having to commute or be in an office is at the forefront of my mind. It’s the first time in ten years that I’m not heading out to work at this time of year (just after the largest event we run) and I’m finding it much easier to get on with things from home. As we are a small team, even one or two staff being absent has a big impact and that easily happens in cold & flu season. Being able to take short breaks, eat, walk around and even have a nap has enabled me to work better than I was able to in our office in previous years. In addition it’s easier to catch up on life after a week away from home. Laundry is easier to hang up when your desk is only a few steps away. Whilst I always prefer staff to take time off when sick, working from home seems often much more possible and productive when working in an office wouldn’t be. For instance, being able to wear warm, comfortable clothes, have tea, look out of the window… every small advantage of home working helps with being exhausted and I am finding that an unexpected bonus. My cat is a great home working companion and he helps get me through the day. How about you? What home working upsides are you finding helpful just now?

Martin: Being already at home for deliveries or tradespeople is a big win. It also saves money on childcare as I’m at home to see my daughter in from school. Usually I’ll get her setup with her homework and she is fine for the last couple of hours I need to work. Where it gets tricky is school holidays and when I need to travel. This has recently got harder as up until last year my wife was either doing her PhD, which gave her a lot of flexibility. Whilst her current full-time job has some work flexibility it’s not to the same degree. One of the nice things about working for ALT, even before moving to a distributed team, is its responsiveness to changes in personal circumstances and commitment to being a flexible employer. Something I was aware of when I started working from home, mainly thanks to my interest in wearables and fitness trackers, was the lack of activity I was getting each day. Whilst my office is in the attic and I get many trips to the kitchen for cups of tea it still falls short of the recommended daily activity. My solution for topping this up is to replace what would have been my morning commute with 50 minutes of exercise. As this is a mixture of a aerobic and weights it turns out it is actually better than my old commute which was a 30 minute walk to and from the station so you could argue working in a distributed team has helped me have a better lifestyle and overall wellbeing. Have you found you’ve replaced your own commute with anything?

Maren: In the past few years my personal circumstances have become a lot more complicated as I’ve become the carer for my parents. Working from home full time means I am now more easily able to juggle work and other commitments although travelling etc can also be a logistical challenge. Everyone has stuff they are trying to balance and being a distributed team makes that more possible in the long term. Regular exercise meanwhile is more of a recent addition to my lifestyle as I never found an activity I really enjoyed until I started running to raise funds for cancer research a few summers ago. What began as an attempt to give back to those who saved my mother’s life turned into an unexpected love for running. The balance and headspace I get from heading outside and clocking up miles has become very important to me, but when I was still office based the only time I could fit it in was very early in the morning and that became harder in the winter and less safe. Now, thanks to being home based, I can fit in a run more flexibly and keep active more regularly. To keep moving during the day, I also have a smart watch and one of the features it has is to remind me to get up every hour if I have sat still for too long. Other upsides for me are saving money not having to commute, eating better food and more cheaply, and being able to nap! I’ve become very good at napping and a half hour nap at lunchtime can make my afternoon more productive. There’s something here around not abusing the trust and freedom that comes with being a distributed team, about how personal and professional sides of life mix. We hear a lot about how work is starting to become more and more pervasive, but over the past 10 years I have also developed a healthy respect for how much the personal impacts on professional practice and performance. Working in a distributed team gives me a greater sense of empowerment to manage my time, but also responsibility to look out for my own wellbeing and work/life balance.

Martin: Trust is an interesting topic. When people find out I work remotely often the first question is how do I get up each morning. Some of this is actually enforced on me as I would need to get up anyway to get my daughter to school, enjoying my work is also a great motivator. My usual response to the question is it’s often not an issue to start work, the problem is to actually finish at the end of my working day. So as well as not abusing the trust in being in a distributed team, there is a degree of trust that you as an individual will look after your own wellbeing. The next question I often get asked is whether it is hard to work when the weather is sunny outside. Living in Scotland I immediately benefit from it being nice outside less often removing that temptation. When it is nice I will try and take advantage of this when I can. Our Wi-Fi extends to parts of the garden and we have various garden tables and chairs I can work from. The time I spend working outside is however restricted by tasks I can achieve on a single screen, at my desk I’ve got a 4 screen setup:

Even if I can’t work outside nicer weather is often the cue for me to have lunch outside or at least in our conservatory. Spending so much time at home I do occasionally find myself experiencing cabin fever. I only recently discovered that apparently even brief interactions with nature can go a long to ease isolation-induced depression. Unknowingly perhaps my body already knew this because as well as being a long time runner last year I bought my first road bike and often go on evening bike rides. As winter draws in these are curtailed and I find myself already trying to mentally prepare myself for the long grey winter days. What are the questions people ask you when they find out your work in a distributed team? Have you experience cabin fever yet?

Maren: The first question about working remotely I get asked is how I manage staff without supervising their work in person. How can I trust things are being done without seeing it, without being there etc. I rarely get asked how I myself cope with working culture, motivation or work life balance partly because I am a CEO and partly because of the assumption that I have it sorted (‘you are SO organised…’). My answer to the remote working question is that being part of a distributed team is a two way street. Staff need to want to do it, adjust or learn how to do things in a way that works for them AND the organisation. Everyone needs to be willing to make the most of the opportunities that being part of a virtual organisation offers, we can’t do that for them.

I struggle with loneliness and cabin fever and my mental well-being just as everyone else does, but ultimately I find working remotely liberating. I like the freedom and responsibility that comes with it and that is the biggest upside for me. The mentoring I’ve done over the past six years has shown me how important it is to me to be able to make things happen, to change a bit of the world (as cheesy as that sounds) and I feel more empowered to do that as part of a virtual team than I did when I was tied to a desk, managing an office space. Running virtual operations may take just as much effort, but there’s far more scope to improve and innovate than our previous working environment ever offered. That in turn really motivates me on dark, grey mornings or when I feel isolated. It also helps to have a bit of inspiration – which hangs above my desk:

That brings me to one last question for you: any tips for making the most of your physical work space at home?

Martin: In terms of physical space I’d certainly recommend trying to have a permanent corner in your house that you call your office. My office at home is also the spare room so I occasionally get turfed out when we have guests and whilst I can work on other parts of the house I find it hard to beat the comfort of my desk and office chair, plus everything is setup for me so on the morning I can just turn on my computer and I’m ready to go. Creating your own space is also an opportunity to think about the space/setup that’s going to work best for you. Given the rise of flexible and home based working there is a growing list of options for desk and clever storage systems that aren’t beige or grey. I know some remote and office based workers who are big fans of standing desks and treadmill desks. These aren’t options I’ve ever considered and would recommend talking to someone who uses these setups first. One of the big advantages I think of working from home is it’s an opportunity to create an environment that’s going to work for you. When I’ve been office based I’ve often encountered restrictions on how much personalisation you can do and being a home worker is an opportunity to perhaps say goodbye to that clean desk policy, restrictions on what food you can eat, or the noise you make – an opportunity to crack open the garlicky pasta, switch on the radio and keep comfortable in your PJs.  

Things we’ve been reading:

Missed a month? Here’re the links to previous posts:

Trying out the Implicit Association Test #unboundeq

This week I am participating on some of the asynchronous activities of the course (Equity Unbound, read the kick off blog post here if you are new to it), and in the course email for this week and next, Catherine Croning writes:

In Weeks 3 + 4 of Equity Unbound, between September 24th and October 7th, we will focus on the theme of Empathy & Bias. Together we will explore this theme, particularly in relation to digital spaces and interactions. Digital citizenship promotes global understanding when our digital presence allows us to share virtual space with others, regardless of geography. It is tempting, but dangerous, to imagine this virtual space as “one” — we are not all equal in that space. Some of us are louder and more visible, and some of us more vulnerable. What would it mean to develop critical digital citizenship on the premises of empathy and social justice? How can we build critical trust in our community and network exchanges in order to help us confront our own biases and blind spots?

The activity I have decided to try out is the Implicit Association Test or IAT, and the category I have selected the Gender-Career Task. I have not done a test like this before, so I wasn’t sure what to expect.

In the test, I was asked to categorise Male and Female words with Career and Family.

Once complete, I got the following result:

Your data suggest a strong automatic association for Male with Family and Female with Career.

Your result is described as an “Automatic association for Male with Career and Female with Family” if you were faster responding when Career and Male are assigned to the same response key than when Career and Female were classified with the same key. Your score is described as an “Automatic association for Female with Career and Male with Family if the opposite occurred.

In terms of how that compares to other people’s results, I found this graph helpful:

I took a few other tests, and found it interesting to try subjects I was less sure about, but the above result was quite typical of my responses, i.e. I usually found myself in a small minority of results. That in turn made me reflect on my own awareness of and tolerance for other, often dominant views and that feels like a good starting point for the next fortnight of the course.

Joining in #unboundeq – Equity Unbound

For the coming weeks I am joining into a new initiative organised by Maha Bali, Catherine Cronin & Mia Zamora. Here is what it is all about, or read more at Equity Unbound:

Equity Unbound is an emergent, collaborative curriculum which aims to create equity-focused, open, connected, intercultural learning experiences across classes, countries and contexts.  Equity Unbound was initiated by Maha Bali @bali_maha (American University in Cairo, Egypt), Catherine Cronin @catherinecronin (National University of Ireland, Galway), and Mia Zamora @MiaZamoraPhD (Kean University, NJ, USA) for use in their courses this term (September-December 2018), but it is open to all.

Equity Unbound is for learners and/or educators at all levels (e.g. undergraduate, postgraduate, professional development) who are interested in exploring digital literacies with an equity and intercultural learning focus, in an open and connected learning environment. Our motto is:

“The only way to make borders meaningless is to keep insisting on crossing them.” (Lina Mounzer)

Participants will collaborate in a series of open online activities including: collaborative annotation using open-source, social network conversations and live studio visits, a Wikipedia edit-a-thon, blogging, collaborative multimedia making, and creating their own new learning activities (inspired by the DS106 assignment bank). Activities will seek to develop critical digital literacies and intercultural collaboration while encouraging questions of equity issues such as equity in web representation, digital colonialism, safety and security risks on the web, and how these differ across contexts.

To find out more:
  • Check out our current activities on Twitter: @UnboundEq and/or #UnboundEq
  • Click An overview (in menu bar above) to see the 6 Equity Unbound themes.
  • Select an option in Weeks/Themes to see more details about the activities planned for each theme.
  • Click All Unbound voices to see all blogs posts connected with #UnboundEq.
  • Click Resources to see the growing list of resources we are using in Equity Unbound
  • Click Participate (on the About menu) to contact us about participating, or to find out more.


Beyond Advocacy: Who shapes the future of Learning Technology

2018 Keynote #altc - Maren Deepwell (1)

This is a very special keynote to me and I am grateful to the Trustees of ALT to invite me to speak at ALT’s 25th Annual Conference. This post shares the slides and some of my notes for the talk and you can also watch a recording from the conference here . Thanks to James Clay for this video sketch note of the talk.

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I wanted to introduce myself via the skin of my laptop, which has been tattooed, to borrow a phrase from Bryan Mathers, with my experiences as ALT’s CEO over the past six years. When I started to prepare for this keynote I thought a lot about how I could tell a story from my personal perspective, rather than in the voice of the organisation I lead. Because thanks to working at the heart of what ALT does, with Members from across all education sectors in all parts of the UK and beyond, I have the privilege of a very unique perspective, one that encompasses everything from global Learning Technology policy to a single teacher using a new gadget for the first time. I can’t cover all of that in less than an hour of course, but I do want to give you as much insight as I can into my perspective, what it’s like to be standing in my shoes, and so the photos in this talk are from journeys I’ve taken to work with Members from Oxford to Edinburgh, from Belfast and Galway to Cardiff and London. They paint a picture of the landscape that I work in, what the world looks like when you are standing in my shoes.

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I hope that this talk will help us to critically examine our perspective – and in particular why our gaze is always drawn to what we are promised is just around the cover, just over the horizon. In her analysis of the most recent Horizon Report, Audrey Watters updated her project to track the predictions that the report has made over the years, examining whether what advocates promise actually comes to pass. Audrey writes: ‘Your takeaway, now and then and always: do not worry about what this report says is “on the horizon.” I bet you in five, ten, twenty years time, folks will still be predicting that it’s all almost here.’ 

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What does it mean for us if we are locked into a perpetual cycle of not arriving, of advocacy for tech that does not deliver to its full potential? We can go back through the history of Learning Technology and come across solutions promising to ‘solve problems’ from cutting costs or reducing teacher workloads to improving learning outcomes or increasing student satisfaction. But have these solutions really delivered for all learners? Does the way we think about and make policy for Learning Technology work? Or does this approach when viewed on a global scale, place the UK firmly in a policy context that the Finnish education expert Pasi Sahlberg describes as market-led privatisation, text-based accountability, de-professionalisation, standardisation and competition resulting in, in his view, unsuccessful education policies? I think so.  

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Advocating for what’s just beyond the horizon causes 3 issues: first, it gives us the sense that technological innovation is the driver behind change, the only solution to solving the problems that we face. The dominant narrative here is that we are at the mercy of inevitable innovation, the endless march of the machines and that we need to keep running in order to keep pace with progress. This in turn highlights the second problem: a perspective informed by advocacy focused only on what’s ahead increases our perception that we need to compete harder in order to achieve constantly moving goal posts. Compete with other countries as we move up or down league tables, with other institutions, with each other. Instead of making the most of sharing what we have, we don’t like to adopt something that’s ‘not made here’, we re-invent, re-design and re-solve problems and create content over and over again in a race to be the first, the best, the most successful. The issue is that this perspective of continual advocacy tends to ignore the history, the research, the evidence that we do have (and we have decades worth of it by now!). Does being focused on and advocating for what’s always just beyond the horizon also absolve us from ethical responsibility? We’re always talking about the future not what’s happening now?

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I argue that we have the history, the evidence, the research to shape a different perspective, to walk a different path in the future of Learning Technology and there are an increasing number of voices that articulate how things are changing, who are shifting the discourse to a more critical ground. Martin Weller’s inspiring series on ‘25 years of Ed Tech’ is a great example of this (and definitely worth reading if you haven’t come across it yet). He emphasises the need for taking a critical approach to our thinking in Learning Technology, to examine the (commercial) interest that influence its development,  ‘for example, while learning analytics have gained a good deal of positive coverage regarding their ability to aid learners and educators, others have questioned their role in learner agency and monitoring and their ethics.’

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Another important influence on my thinking and our wider discourse work examine the role of gender and equality in Learning Technology, led by man inspiring role models including Maha Bali, Frances Bell, Anne-Marie Scott, Bon Stewart, Josie Fraser, Donna Lanclos, Melissa Highton, Clare Thomson, Helen Beetham, Lorna Campbell, Sheila MacNeill, Laura Czerniewicz, my fellow keynote speakers this year Tressie MacMillan-Cottom and Amber Thomas, and many others who I am sorry not to mention by name. In her reflective post ahead of the conference, Catherine Cronin reminds us that often ‘long-standing work in critical and feminist pedagogy, for example, was not often acknowledged in later work about MOOC/online/open teaching and pedagogy. Acknowledgement and analysis of earlier work is vitally important in education’.

With ever growing challenges facing us, and decades of research and practice to inform our thinking, it seems clear that (Ed) Tech won’t ‘save us’. It won’t save us because it shouldn’t be the driving force behind what we do. Instead, we have to move beyond advocacy for tech that is the answer to all our problems. Towards empowered, critical practice that enables us to negotiate and articulate our relationship with technology and how we use it for learning and teaching. This isn’t to say that technology doesn’t have significant potential and I don’t meant to dismiss the role that industry plays or how much technological innovation contributes to the way we learn, teach and work. Learning Technology can bring big benefits for learners and educators – but it needs to be an empowered relationship instead us being threatened to be buried under an avalanche. 

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So my questions are: How do we move beyond advocacy? How to we realise the potential of our professional practice for the benefit of learners and for the greater good? How to we move to using Learning Technology to meet some of the biggest challenges we are facing globally right now?

These are big questions. I’d like to share some examples from my own recent work as a starting point to answering these questions. Putting Learning Technologists firmly at the heart of that effort, I’m going to start by looking at how professional practice has changed, using the example of ALT’s accreditation scheme, CMALT

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Building on the work Shirley Evans, Trustee of ALT, and my colleague Tom Palmer have done in the past two years to collate information from hundreds of portfolios submitted for accreditation since 2004, I’ve started examining if and how the evolution of Learning Technology as a profession can be charted by what specialisms individuals have chosen to demonstrate their practice with. Since 2004 over 100 different areas of specialist practice have been defined and starting to group these into different categories quickly became difficult as they had to be so general as to become meaningless instead of insightful. That in itself is interesting, because it emphasises how diverse the profession is and continues to be.

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It brings us back to ALT’s definition of Learning Technology ‘as the broad range of communication, information and related technologies that can be used to support learning, teaching and assessment. Our community is made up of people who are actively involved in understanding, managing, researching, supporting or enabling learning with the use of Learning Technology.’ and reminds me of the original maxim that still holds true: you don’t have to be called a ‘Learning Technologist’ to be one. To me, it aptly reflects the reality of how differently we as individuals and within organisations approach the challenge of making effective use of Learning Technology and I feel that great strength lies in embracing and respecting this as a hallmark of our profession instead of trying to exclude or ignore words or people who don’t fit within a more narrow definition. Even if we don’t speak the same language or use the same terms to describe our work, the growing body of CMALT portfolios is a powerful example of what we do share.

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Instead then of focusing on the bigger picture, my work has focused on drilling down into the detail of how specialist areas have developed and this first example shows specialisms related to engaging learners. It is interesting to see how even the titles chosen reflect a changing relationship to working with learners, from a more distant research or evaluation approach to focusing on support and feedback and then to collaboration and engagement.

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Another interesting question to ask is when particular kinds of work became important or developed enough to constitute specialist areas of practice and this slide shows examples of ‘firsts’, i.e. when particular kinds of practice were first submitted for accreditation as specialist areas over the past ten years. It only took a year after 2012’s ‘Year of the MOOC’ for instance for it to appear on this list for example. Meanwhile, more recent examples of new specialisms include digital well being, student collaboration, analytics, gamification and leadership. More and more CMALT Holders have started to share their portfolios via ALT’s CMALT Portfolio Register, opening up their practice and at the same time contributing to our ability to gain a better understanding of how professional practice is developing and changing.

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One question we should ask is to what extent the kind of best practice usually included in portfolios submitted for accreditation, in particular if they are subsequently shared more widely, reflect the reality of professional practice? What isn’t included in this picture? What is left out? Most of the time, anything that’s gone wrong: all the times when a pilot didn’t lead to full scale implementation, when a new gadget ends up gathering dust in the back of a cupboard, when colleagues didn’t co-operate, students gave negative feedback or leadership failed. Learning Technology is a risky business and sharing what didn’t work is still not widespread. But there is something besides failures that isn’t reflected in this picture and that is all the work that is hard to put into words. Hours spent building someone’s confidence or overcoming their resistance to change. Days devoted to influencing decision makers to make the right choices when it comes to strategy or procurement. Teams who translate between faculties or directorates in order to arrive at a common consensus for the new VLE. I can think of many examples of what specialisms I’d like to see appear on the list – and I am sure you can, too.

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One of the trends however we can follow over the past ten years or so is the gradual increase in the number of people who choose a management or leadership related specialism as more and more Learning Technology professionals move into more senior roles. Their expertise in Learning Technology becomes more important as technology becomes more complex and our demands of what it can achieve for students or staff on a large scale become more ambitious.

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In consultation with Members of ALT this has informed the development of new accreditation pathways over the past 18 months, and the second pilot of both Associate CMALT (a new pathway for early career professionals or those for whom Learning Technology is a smaller part of their role) and Senior CMALT, for senior professionals whose work involves management, leadership, research or similar advanced areas of practice, are about to be concluded. These new pathways mark the first expansion of the CMALT framework since 2004 and I want to share some early findings from the pilot groups to date.

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The requirements for Senior CMALT include two (instead of one for the existing CMALT pathway) specialist areas of practice to be described, evidenced and reflected on. The subjects chosen to date reflect a broad range of practice from scholarship and Open Access publishing, to assessment, online courses and mobile learning to staff development, training and leadership. Similar to the earlier chart which showed a diverse range of different specialisms over a time these choices reflect how more senior roles in Learning Technology are developing their focus.

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A new requirement added to Senior CMALT is an Advanced Area of practice, which needs to be specifically related to the four CMALT Core Principles. The visual thought here shows the result of consultation with and discussion amongst Members who came together to re-articulate these principles afresh as part of the work to develop new pathways to CMALT. This is particularly relevant to the earlier question of how far the practice evidenced for CMALT reflects the reality of our professional everyday as to me these shared principles are a strong example of how we articulate what may be less straight forward to share about the work we do. To me these principles reflect professional practice beyond advocacy.

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Now we can see the earliest topics chosen by participants of the pilot groups for Senior CMALT and what areas of their practice they have chosen to as Advanced Areas relating to the core principles and these range from research focused topics, such as research in postgraduate distance learning or blended professional development to leadership of cpd programmes and leadership in the development of research and practice communities. At this stage the insight we can gain from this is still limited by the necessarily small numbers of professionals involved. But it does give us a glimpse of what critical approaches to professional practice in Learning Technology may develop and this will become more interesting as this pathways is fully established and the number of examples we have increases.

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I gained CMALT two years ago and I found the process very rewarding. It was valuable to step away from the perspective of having managerial oversight and put it to the test as a professional, becoming a candidate myself and seeing the other side of the process (you can access my portfolio here and note that my portfolio was assessed by Trustees of ALT to manage the conflict of interest). So when the opportunity came up to put one of the new pathways through its paces, I opted for Senior CMALT and set to work expanding my portfolio. It prompted me to reflect on how I have moved my own practice towards a more critical perspective.

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As my Advanced Area of practice I chose promoting equality in Learning Technology and I soon realised that this was harder to translate into a portfolio of evidence than I had imagined. It’s my own “CMALT Fantasy Specialism” and I am fortunate to have had some very helpful critical friends who provided input to ensure that it didn’t turn into a nightmare.

So to unpack what this part of my work is about it’s important to explain the context in which my understanding of equality is grounded and to do this I want to share an extract from what I wrote in my portfolio: 

Whilst my position is indeed one of relative privilege, it is nonetheless an experience of inequality.

As a space in which we work, Learning Technology sits at the intersection of the tech industry, education, politics and the third sector. When I started working in Learning Technology I had no concept of how much inequality there is and how much it would affect every single day of my professional practice and that of every colleague, every learner. Particularly as a Learning Technologist in a leadership position it can be sobering to see the kind of structural inequality Laura Czerniewicz (who stood in this stage 3 years ago and inspired us with her talk on Inequality in Higher Education) and others speak of on a national or global scale. But whilst the bigger picture is important to my work, examples of inequality I have experiences can be found far closer to home, in the day to day working life many colleagues can relate to, such as being the token woman on a ‘manel’ to seeing reports about empowerment illustrated exclusively by white women in high heels to being the only women on a table of policy makers representing “the sector” to having to be introduced by male colleagues as ‘the boss’ in order not to be mistaken for their PA, from not being allowed to ask questions at events to not being invited, not being funded, not being considered for an opportunity. The list of examples goes on and on and for me it’s difficult to describe dispassionately.

The need to promote equality in Learning Technology goes far beyond the personal (and as I have acknowledged in my case a personal position of privilege). Inequality is structural and political and frequently apparent in the development of Learning Technology, such as algorithmic bias shaping the way new technologies operate. I admire writers and researchers who analyse, chart or expose inequality and I actively use my position to take action to promote equality. I have specifically chosen to attempt to develop this area of my practice in my portfolio because that in itself can contribute and I have selected three examples of how I promote equality as a Learning Technologist. … 

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One of the examples of practice included in my portfolio is volunteering to support the FemEdTech initiative and at this point I’d like to give a big wave to  everyone involved in #femedtech who help us foster more criticality in Learning Technology by helping us create a more diverse, a more inclusive perspective and community. And this isn’t an effort that is relevant only to women or people of colour or any other other group that fights for equality and against discrimination. Although it may seem like an obvious point to make, equality is for everyone. It concerns all of us.

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Grass roots projects like UnCommon Women demonstrate that one of the key ways in which we can achieve greater criticality is greater collaboration, knowledge exchange and openness. Our practice is political, it’s personal and active participation in any of these initiatives makes a difference. It helps us articulate a narrative that isn’t dominated by advocacy alone and expands our personal learning networks beyond those we already know and feel comfortable with, help burst the filter bubbles that surround us. 

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For my own work, focusing on open collaborations is intensely practical and an efficient way to making things happen. I leverage this approach in my work for ALT for example for providing input to policy makers such as the call to action for policy makers collaboratively developed and published at the start of this year. Or working with start-ups and academics to bring together a guide for how to work together. Or developing ALT’s own approach to operating as a virtual organisation, a project in open leadership that I work on with Martin Hawksey.  Collaboration and inclusivity help foster criticality, inform my thinking through the different perspectives I encounter and inform strategy.

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I follow in the footsteps of others (including the outstanding teams and individuals who were amongst the winners of the Learning Technologist of the Year Award announced yesterday) who have leveraged their open practice to make change and spark more critical professional practice.

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Criticality helps ensure that we do not leave answering the big questions, facing the big issues up to others without making our voice heard. Criticality and collaboration are at the heart of professional practice that enables us to work in partnership with industry, to inform how products and services are developed and to influence policy that effectively governs our relationship with technology and the tech industry. We do have the power to shape our future and we do have a vision of what that future should look like. To close, I’d like to focus on that future.

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Who shapes the future of Learning Technology? That is what we asked participants in the LTHE chat in June, when we discussed developing critical and open approaches in Learning Technology. We asked participants as the final questions of the chat to share a hope for the future of Learning Technology. Their vision is for Learning Technology to be ‘inclusive. Not a bolt on, not an alternative, lesser experience’, that ‘all education is open’, that we will combine ‘innovation and integration’, that there will be ‘greater sharing of results, greater scrutiny of results and greater understanding of the process followed to produce the results’, they highlighted the ‘need to raise the lowest level of engagement with technology/pedagogy as well as supporting those on the cutting edge’ and they hoped that ‘a symbiotic and ultimately synergetic relationship with pedagogy is established which facilitates a revolution in society’s objectives for our education system’. 

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These are their voices, their hopes, their vision (and you can explore the conversation with TAGSExplorer). So, when we ask who shapes the future of Learning Technology – my hope is that we don’t leave it up to others. My hope is that we continue to participate in the conversation, that we make our voices heard and listen to others.

When I first stood in this theatre in 2009 I saw great potential in what could be achieved by this community and I wanted to contribute to it. Nearly 10 years later I have seen parts of that vision come true, but there are much bigger things still to come.

And that is up to all of us. So I invite you to share your hopes, your vision and make your own voice heard: 2018 Keynote #altc - Maren Deepwell (31)Last, but not least, I’d like to thank the Trustees of ALT who have given me the opportunity to speak here today and to thank you for listen (reading).2018 Keynote #altc - Maren Deepwell (32)

Pizza and virtual team dynamics


This post continues our series on ‘openly sharing our approach to leading a virtual team’ – a joint project with Martin Hawksey (cross-posted here) for which we write a monthly blog post, some of which are special podcast/conference editions.


We are at the end of the busiest month of our organisation’s year in the run up to our Annual Conference. Getting here is a big milestone for our organisation and a real test for our approach to leading a virtual team.

Maren: We have been busy with preparations for the conference and our team of six has been working with over a hundred volunteers who contribute to organising the event. It’s usual for us to work with Members all across the U.K., but during the past month we’ve had to communicate and collaborate significantly more than usual. We’ve put our still quite new processes and working culture under real pressure, and we’ve made it through the toughest weeks in good shape. We’ve learnt a lot along the way, but I’m proud how well we’ve worked together. Now, as we get ready to take the whole team to the event, my thoughts are on the face to face side of our predominantly online working lives. We put a lot of thought into delivering the best possible experience for participants of the event and we talked about this recently on Edutalk radio with the Chair and President of ALT. We all agreed that there is special value in being able to take part in person. So our job for our team is to make sure that we have a plan for supporting each other over 4 long and busy days, so that we can all do our best. I’ve been thinking about a couple of things we started to discuss in June, when we had our first team day. For example, getting together to run this event also means seeing each other and working together in person for the first time in a while or ever. That’s not insignificant. Also, each year we have colleagues for whom this is their first experience of this event and although I’ve got previous years to draw on, each year is different and we have only half a day to get ready. Talking through each day in advance, planning meals and breaks together, and being clear about expectations about when we work and when we have down time helps get us all on the same page before we arrive. It also makes it easier to adjust from working at your desk at home to being with colleagues hosting 400 participants. What are your thoughts?

Martin: Looking back over August it’s interesting to reflect on the number of conversations we’ve had on supporting our team during the conference. Confidence and expectations were areas that came up a couple of times. With many of us never fully experiencing all 4 days of our Annual Conference before I think it’s a difficult line to walk in terms of planning for some of the potential pressure points whilst not unduly impacting on our confidence. Something that I thought was very useful as part of one of our online team meetings was a round robin to see how everyone was doing in terms of conference workload. The continual challenge I see in distributed teams is maintaining group awareness. This includes knowing what others are working on, where they are up to in specific tasks and what they are planning on working on next. In the last six months the team has grown by 20% from 5 to 6. It’s nice to have an extra pair of hands or a new colleague who is able to contribute to our delivery and we are already seeing the benefits of this, but at the same time we now have a bigger team to try and maintain an awareness of what we are each are working on, more people who have a voice at our weekly team meetings. I’ve not calculated how much extra time this takes each time we have new staff join. In software development you could point to Brooks Law which states “the complexity and communication costs of a project rise with the square of the number of developers”. I think in our case this would be a gross overestimate, and even in software development a number of people have questioned Brooks Law, but it’s interesting to consider the implications of growing a distributed team. I do believe investing time in gaining better awareness is still very useful. All the planning and preparation will hopefully result in a positive experience for all. Do you feel your spending more time managing a larger team?

Maren: definitely. Half of my focus is on observing, listening, supporting, advising… it’s the busiest time of the year, it’s a crunch point, it’s naturally a big part of my work just now. But half of my focus is far in the future, 2,3 or even 10 years from now, and our conference provides essential input to navigating what’s ahead, to be ambitious, to nurture the vision in my head, in my heart. Even one year from now things will be quite different and looking back over the past five years reminds me how much things have already changed. How far we’ve come. Any highly performing team feels growing pains when moving from the success of achieving at one level to moving up to the next. Things stop working in the way they have done before new dynamics are established. Getting through a conference together is a good bonding experience to build on and I feel that this is easier to accomplish in person rather than online when everyone is distributed. It seems very achievable to build individual working relationships virtually and over the past year or two I have gained experience in that, but group dynamics are harder to establish and our blended approach, seeing each other at events and team days, is important here. Five years ago when our team grew to include your role as a second senior member of staff, I had to learn all the things I now rely on. It took time for us to figure out how we would lead things together, assess each other’s strengths and where support would be most needed. Whilst we can’t put an exact figure on it, it’s fair to say that it took a lot of time establishing a senior staff team and that we continue to invest time and effort into that as things evolve. But, it has more than doubled our achievements as a result, increased capacity and resilience in many ways. And, at this time of year, it also provides us with a safe space to assess how we are coping with pressure and I know someone has my back if the answer is not very well. It’s opened my eyes to how valuable it is to invest in communication and team work whereas before I would have probably argued to be more effective doing things myself.

Martin: The difference between building individual and team dynamics in a distributed organisation is very interesting. I was recently reading a paper on ‘Group Awareness in Distributed Software Development’ which included the conclusion that ‘occasional face-to-face gatherings assist group awareness’, something you’ve also highlighted earlier. I was wondering if the intensity of a 3 day, 400+ delegate conference was the best occasion for what will be for some their first face-to-face meeting. Thinking back to my first time being part of the ALT conference, which also happened to be when I was also a distributed member of staff, my first face-to-face meeting with a number of the team was a group lunch the day before the conference started. As a more socially focused activity it allowed there to be more spontaneous communication also I believe creating an opportunity to strengthen a shared team identity. Time is also a factor identified by Hinds and Mortensen: “relationships between distant team members become more harmonious over time as teams develop familiarity and shared processes”. The quality of the time and mix of informal and formal all hopefully support a stronger team and is also a great excuse to continue what has become the traditional team visit to a pizzeria the night before our big events.

Maren: hmmmmm… pizza. Definitely a tradition I approve of. I hadn’t come across either of the references you mention, and they make for interesting reading. It’s thought provoking to see a more analytical approach. I always see relationships and team dynamics as messy, shifting, unpredictable with many known and unknown unknowns. Every year and every conference turns out to have surprises in store and that is why the months of preparations are so important. We develop trust in our processes and plans, we form the habit to rely on our lists, we solve problems together. By the time I arrive at an event we’ve organised, I’ve got a list that keeps me on track and am ready to enjoy the experience. Whatever unexpected twists and turns the days hold in store, this is the moment when I feel really privileged to have the job I have, when I see how our values are put into practice.

Martin: With all research there is likely to be a personal call as to whether it is applicable to the context you are interested in. I haven’t delved deep into this area yet but there are a number aspects I recognise or can relate to in our own distributed team. I think it’s also interesting to consider the quotes I pulled out in the context of the conference. For a number of our delegates the conference is that ‘occasional face-to-face gathering’ that helps them gain awareness of who and what is happening across sectors. One of the real strengths of our conference is it’s an opportunity for new and existing members of our community to make an initial connection that can be continued via various means. Thinking about this I ended up with a very long list that spread across various mediums including face-to-face local meetings of ALT Members Groups and SIGs, social aspects that feature in our conference platform, various mailing lists and dedicated online social spaces, the #altc tag and more. I hope through all of this our community is able to develop familiarity and shared knowledge in learning technology. Their participation and engagement in turn will inspire our next steps in leading our virtual team.

Missed a month? Here’re the links to previous posts:

#altc keynote preview: Beyond Advocacy at ALT’s Annual Conference

I am really looking forward to giving a keynote as part of ALT’s upcoming 25th Annual Conference, and I am even more delighted to do so alongside the inspiring Amber Thomas, whose work I have followed and admired for a long time and also Tressie McMillan Cottom, whom I can’t wait to meet in person.

So, here is a preview of what the keynote is going to be about and also a link to watch it on the day 🙂

Beyond advocacy: Who shapes the future of Learning Technology?

This keynote poses the question ‘who shapes the future of Learning Technology?’. We will explore current thinking about what drives how we use technology in learning and teaching and questions the promise of tech that never quite delivers. For decades, technology has promised solutions to help us learn, teach, assess and care better, and yet these visions of the future are always just beyond the horizon.

But how do we move beyond that promise?

How do get beyond tech advocacy and realise the potential of our professional practice for the benefit of learners and the greater good?

To start answering these questions I will explore how professional practice has developed charted through new research into ALT’s CMALT accreditation scheme and share examples from recent collaborative work promoting equality in Learning Technology.

See the programme page for more details. 

Beyond hype or dystopia: Looking ahead to ALT’s Annual Conference 2043

No, this isn’t a typo, this post is actually about looking ahead to a conference in 2043, 25 years from now…

The prompt for this post is that Members of ALT are celebrating the 25th Annual Conference of the Association, which makes this year a valuable opportunity to reflect on how far we have come, all the things we have learnt and everything that has changed as well as the big challenges that are still ahead. I have been following and hugely enjoying Martin Weller’s series of blog posts “25 years of Ed Tech” so if you have missed it, go and read it now.

But what about looking forward to the next 25 years?

With the most recent Horizon Report being published this week, I have been wanting to look ahead beyond the future that futurists predict. And I enjoyed the post that Audrey Watters published “The Horizon never moves” in which she sets out some key ways in which the hype in the edtech industry is always about what’s just beyond the horizon, what’s ‘almost there’.  And then I have seen a (to me) new t-shirt appear on my Twitter feed which bears the slogan “tech won’t save us”. Thus prompted, I want to look ahead at the future in a manner that is free of predictions, free of the promise of technology or the solutions that are on the horizon. Instead this post is about stepping outside of hype and dystopia, instead sharing what I hope ALT’s Annual Conference (or an event like it) will be about in 2043:

First, I hope that there will be an independent Association for Learning Technology in the UK in 2043 and that the voice of its Members will continue to have grown in influence and reach as it has over the past 25 years. 

Also, I hope that as a professional body ALT will have as diverse a range of professionals leading it as it has today, continuing to challenge notions of professionalisation, fight for recognition of the value of the work Learning Technologists do and continue to expand our understanding and practice of how technology is used for learning, teaching and assessment. Regardless of what education and training provision will structurally look like by 2043, we will still be using technology to help us learn, develop and accredit. 

Long before 2043, I hope that the business model that supports the work ALT or similar professional bodies do will enable every Member to attend its events, with neither time nor cost being a barrier that prevents professionals to come together either in person or virtually to move their work forward.

By 2043 I hope that sharing critical reflection, pose questions and importantly disseminate failures will have become more common place than it is now. That conference sessions are less focused on reporting success or promoting solutions and geared more towards collaboration, debate and forming relationships. For that to be possible, the way in which language and in particular terminology around Learning Technology are used will have to become less divisive across sectors. I hope that we will have overcome the tendency to dismiss what we haven’t created ourselves or in-house, or what is expressed with different words than those we would use ourselves.

From a global perspective, I hope that the conference will have stronger ties with other events in the UK and across the world and contribute to the wider dialogue that addresses the fundamental questions of how we as human beings relate to technology and how we shape our future. My vision of the future is one of empowered professionalism, not one determined solely by the forces of technological determinism. 

The most powerful part of the conference in my experience is to get a sense of one’s agency within a community, to hear different voices and see contrasting perspectives that help open up new horizons and stop my professional practice from becoming too focused on internal concerns or limited to being relevant only in a cosy echo chamber.

The last point I want to add is that I hope that the future Learning Technology will be shaped less by the privileged, powerful and established than it is now. That in 2043 it is no longer unusual for people with fewer resources, people of colour, for women, for young people, for learners and others who find it hard to make their voice heard to play a part in determining what their future looks like. 

So here is to the next 25 years in Learning Technology.

I’ll see you in 2043. And hopefully in Manchester this September where our work to bring about the kind of future we want to be part of continues