Crowns and cartographers: equality in the imagination

Photo of the book "Frogkisser" by Garth NixI have been reading a lot of stories recently and two of them in particular really inspired me: Frogkisser by Garth Nix and The Girl of Ink and Stars by Kiran Millwood Hargrave. Both are beautiful reads suitable for younger readers as well, but that shouldn’t put you off.

Both books take you on adventures, in one case following the perilous journey of a cartographer’s daughter across an unexplored floating island, in the other the footsteps of a princess who is leading a band of companions through danger to defeat evil and establish a universal bill of rights. Both books are excellent examples of accomplished, playful and lyrical story telling at its best – perfect for getting lost in new worlds of the imagination.

What they also do is to challenge the readers conceptions of established character types, such as princesses, wizards and heroes more generally. They talk of sisters, mothers and daughters – female leads are everywhere. In the Frogkisser for example, we visit the Tower of the Good Wizard, who turns out to be a young women with a preference for red boots… whilst Snow White is a retired wizard (complete with detachable long white beard). Garth Nix displays such playful mastery of the fairy tale tropes in the story that it makes you wonder where your earlier mental images came from and how they were fixed. As someone who has read A LOT of fantasy and science fiction I appreciate the flexibility and equality of stories such as Frogkisser especially.

Similarly, in The Girl of Ink and Stars, the narrative is wound around the process of reading maps, charting new territories and mapping out a lost, unknown place (saving everyone and the world in the process). The girl, our heroine, is at once capable and relate-able. She (re)writes history, shapes the narrative and her world through her work as a cartographer and through her eyes and measurements (explained in loving and scientific detail as her journey progresses) you can participate in the adventure. Stories, particularly poetic ones like this one, can create a world of greater equality, can change perceptions so much more elegantly, so seemingly effortlessly, than we can through policy or even direct action.

Like the women pioneers and activists and leaders and voices in our reality, the heroines of these stories help shape our imagination and our understanding of the world we live in. Get reading… or reading out loud to the younger listeners in your life.

Where my imaginary artificially intelligent friend goes on holiday

In 1995, when I first read Douglas Coupland’s Microserfs, I was fascinated by the ‘machine’s subconscious’ diary entries that cover pages and pages of the book. Outside of science fiction it was my first encounter with ideas of artificial intelligence and machines that may dream one day.

As someone who has written in their various journals near daily for three decades I was particularly interested in the relationship between what’s inside the main character’s head and the machine he confides it to.

Writing a diary or a journal is a very personal undertaking, and for many years now I find that the advantages of keeping back ups, being able to search and revisit past entries far outstrips any benefits of keeping physical records. Typing something like “Dear Diary….” into a digital interface feels a bit like having a conversation with a friend and confidant from the digital realm.  By typing, writing down my thoughts using a laptop, I’m having a very long, very one-sided conversation with an imaginary machine friend if you like.

Writing at this time of year when everyone is either on holiday or about to be, I’ve thought about where my (imaginary) artificially intelligence friend may go on holiday in the future – and I do think he (‘he’ is a he in my mind) will go on holiday, because immortality is pretty boring after a while and everyone needs a change every now and then.

Into music: how about exploring music of a particular place or time, not just audio recordings, but all records of musical expression – travelling back in history to explore the sounds of a particular people or place.

Making pottery: if in any way like Star Trek’s Mr Data, then a more tactile pursuit will appeal as a holiday activity and making something with your hands and learning a new skill could be a challenging and rewarding experience.

Sitting on top of the world: if travelling either physically or digitally to let’s say a satellite orbiting the planet, meeting up with a friend and watching the world go by (literally) could be fun.

In a spreadsheet…: or a future, more elegant version thereof. Maybe machines will build mathematical landscapes or monuments to go sightseeing in the realms of 1s and 0s. What would a souvenir from that holiday look like?

For now, I shall enjoy the sunshine in a traditional, human way, and be glad to feel a warm breeze on my skin. Summer’s here 🙂

Comedy & competition: putting a virtual race app through its paces

I was interested to read The History of the Pedometer (and the Problems with Learning Analytics) by Audrey Watters, published on 22 June 2017, in particular as this week I was putting a virtual race app to the test.

The virtual race I took part in was a paid for race, for a charitable cause, and its premise is that you can run wherever and whenever you choose, tracking your progress and then adding your results to the ‘global leader board’ – raising funds in the process. I signed up because 1) I was curious to try out the app/virtual race concept, 2) I wanted to support a good cause, even if in a small way, and 3) the idea of taking part in a race without having to physically go to one appealed to me as someone who isn’t particularly competitive and prefers running at dawn.

The marketing around the race & app was very similar to the kind of things you read in Learning Technology press releases but the reality did not quite measure up to its vision of being part of a global army of empowered fundraisers each experiencing a fun & inspiring ‘personalised’, celebrity endorsed run. Instead I came up against a lot of small, technical niggles that made using the app less than ideal and required giving it access to a lot of information on my phone before the running had even begun. The account I had to create and the data I had to share only added to this.

The actual running was supported by a prerecorded soundtrack of comedy commentary from celebrities sharing their ‘race progress’, something along the lines of “I just made it to the halfway stage – keep going!”. Personally I thought it was too simplistic to be really amusing. You could listen to your own music as well, although I failed to make that work. For runners who were more competitive and wanted to know how they were doing, the app did not deliver either. Despite tracking your progress via GPS it was unable to tell you how fast you were going, which made the whole idea of competing with the celebrity runners from the soundtrack a bit pointless. You could guess how much time had elapsed since they passed a particular time marker, but that was it. Given that the soundtrack was so limited, it seemed to me that neither comedy nor competitiveness were served well.

My 5k run was soon approaching the finish line and the end of the race was for me the most disappointing moment: a half-hearted soundtrack of cheering was interrupted by a signal and then “You can how stop running”. That was it.

When I turned to check the app I also realised that the timer had kept going, counting the minutes, although I had already crossed the virtual finish line. For a race app this seemed a fatal flaw as it felt frustrating to not have an accurate race time even for a casual participant like myself. I can only imagine what more serious runners made of this.

Having used a lot of different running apps and gadgets over the past year I think you could do a much better job building a virtual race app and organising a race – indeed I think it could be a really good experience! It has great potential. But in this particular instance neither the technology nor the delivery measured up. It was a soulless experience for me that seemed to fall flat and left no scope for the imagination and seemed to not even try to cater for or understand its users. If any actual testing of the soundtrack took place, I would be very surprised. I hope at least it raised funds for a good cause.

#RaceForLife – this year we are a mother + daughter team

In spring 2016 I started running to raise funds for Cancer Research, to give something back to those who extend my mum’s life and run my first 10k.

One year on and we are celebrating another year together by participating in a 5k charity walk. I’m also doing some 10k runs and hopefully my first half marathon later this year, but this one is something we want to do together.

Last year I was aiming to raise money, but unexpectedly running has become part of my life, something that keeps me going and that I really enjoy. There have been countless early mornings and evenings over the last year when I have been grateful to be able to put on my trainers and head outside.

Being a carer can be a full time job and I really appreciate that I have colleagues, friends and family who support, encourage and inspire me. Many of you have similar experiences and responsibilities, so all those cups of tea (and the occasional whisky), conversations and motivation are doubly welcome. Thank you. 

If you’d like to give to Cancer Research and support us – donate now.

Politics v personhood: #iltaedtech17 conversations

This week’s  EdTech 2017 Conference, the annual conference organised by the Irish Learning Technology Association (ILTA) had the theme: TEL in an Age of Supercomplexity: Challenges, Opportunities and Strategies. Some very interesting conversations have come out of the event, and you can explore the conversation on Twitter #iltaedtech17 or explore the hashtag and archive on TAGSExplorer as well as ILTA’s webpages for the programme and live streaming links with videos to follow shortly.

Last year at the event Audrey Watters gave a keynote talk called ‘The Rough Beasts of Education Technology‘ and at the time Audrey was looking at a future before the Brexit referendum or the Trump administration. One of the themes from Audrey’s talk last year that continued to resonate with me when listening to this year’s speakers was the role of machines in the future of education. Whether it’s AI, AR, VR or machine learning, one of the dominant narratives is one of inevitability, of machines taking the place of human beings, of technology dominating how we meet the challenges of our age. At the same time, there were many sessions I attended that a a focus on up-skilling and supporting staff in the deployment of Learning Technology, with the aim of building competence, confident and leadership.

Reflecting on the keynotes and breakout sessions I find myself exploring the tension between the politics of globalised, technological capitalism on the one hand and how our sense of being a person is defined by how we learn and teach on the other.

I heard of many examples of technology being used to scale up provision of teaching and assessment, to deliver content in more personalised, flexible ways, to collect and analyse data and make use of it to increase retention or enhance outcomes. The use of technology in this context is a response to solving the challenges presented by the labour market, the political climate, the shareholder – and reflects a transactional relationship between the learner and the institution that accredits the outcome. There is a sense of inevitability, of technological determinism, that points to a future in which we as human beings only find a use in education for ‘what we are good at’ or rather for what machines are not yet deemed good enough, like providing guidance or critical dialogue.

At the other end of the spectrum where a range of sessions that were focused on putting Learning Technology in the hands of the teachers and learners in more creative, empowered ways – to enhance not replace human learning and teaching. These highlighted how difficult it is to keep up with innovation and use of technology, how big a challenge it is to address ethical implications or build critical approaches while keeping pace with an ever changing technology landscape. And there were many, many examples of Learning Technology at its best: broadening access, supporting learning, transforming teaching and connecting people. One of these was awarded the Jennifer Burke Award at the conference for the #coolPE project, ‘focused on preparing pre-service teachers for the inclusive classroom in a digital era’. It showcased powerful examples of using Learning Technology to address issues like body image, bullying and confidence.

My own short talk at the conference was about how openness in professional practice in Learning Technology can promote equality. Before the conference I did a lot of reading about efforts to promote equality in different contexts, such as gender equality, pay equality, marriage equality and so forth. After the conference I thought more about how our rights are affected by the decisions of those who control the technology that increasingly shapes our understanding of who we are. These kinds of questions have been explored by writers far more eloquent that what I can write here, but it is important that events like this enable us to reflect as part of a community and continue the conversation.

Creating a #cpd #cmalt portfolio as a solo undertaking

At a recent session with a group of Learning Technology professionals we discussed how to best compile a portfolio for CPD and accreditation such as for the CMALT scheme. One of the options we discussed was to join forces either as a group within an institution or with peers elsewhere. In many instances that involves meeting up for writing sessions, progressing through the process at the same pace and sharing work in progress. There are a lot of advantages to this, but what if you don’t have that option? I wrote my own portfolio pretty much in isolation until it was very close to completion (full disclosure: it did take me three attempts over a 5 year period to actually complete it, so my approach is not necessarily the one to follow. On the other hand, I’ve learnt from the mistakes I made). So this post contains a brief overview of how to compile a CMALT portfolio as a solo undertaking.  

Step 1: I started with the structure, copying the heading structure that’s required into a blank Google doc. At the start is the contextual statement, the future plans section is last and in between are all the required Core Areas as well as a placeholder for the Specialist Area.

Step 2: I then looked at the structure and tried to write down 1-2 examples of work I had done in each section. I added no details at this stage, just enough information for me to be able to identify what I meant. It was very quickly apparent that I had a lot of examples in some sections, none in others. So I moved some around which could fit into other sections. Once I had covered all Core Areas it was easier to decide what to pick for my specialist option, basically something I hadn’t already covered.

Step 3: Once I had the structure and at least 1 example in each area, I started with the section I thought would be easiest (1b in my case) and added a description and some evidence. Once I had those, I added the reflection at the end. That’s what I did for each section in turn. Some took longer, usually because evidence was time consuming to collect or reflection felt harder. Because I already had a scaffold (i.e. the heading structure and at least 1 example for each section), working on the portfolio moved ahead at a much better pace. In previous attempts I hadn’t planned ahead and found the blank pages ahead daunting each time I moved on to a new section.

Step 4: Once all the required and the specialist areas were complete, I took a step back and started writing my contextual statement and the future plans section. That was a lot easier with the rest of the portfolio in place because the examples I used shaped what I wrote. Also, having reflected on my work made thinking about the future much more straight forward.

Optional step 5: Because I wrote my portfolio in isolation, without peers or feedback or someone to compare it with, I felt some feedback would be useful before I submitted it. I sent it to a few people and they came back with useful comments which were incorporated. I also shared it with colleagues who were directly mentioned.

Hearing about the sharing and support that groups or peers provide sounds like a great way to undertake CPD. In my case, writing my portfolio was mainly confined to odd anti-social hours and I needed to progress at my own pace. If, like me, you are on your CPD or #CMALT journey in a solo capacity, I hope this post is helpful and good luck!

Cemeteries of the web: parallels between Victorian burial culture and digital infrastructure

For over ten years I’ve been working in Learning Technology, but before then I spent five years doing research as an Anthropologist. I wrote a thesis about cemeteries and more specifically about the contested nature of cemeteries as cultural and material spaces. I often get asked what the link is between my work in Anthropology and Learning Technology and for me there are many. One of the strongest is that in both cases what I am most interested in is how we deal with change – and what’s left behind.

I’ve also been catching up on a year’s worth of The Contrafabulists podcasts and episode 18, recorded 14 August 2016, deals with questions around permanency online, ownership of domains and digital infrastructure – our control or lack thereof over these issues and so forth (it’s a great podcast series by Audrey Watters and Kin Lane so if you haven’t listened to it, I think you should).

Whilst listening it struck me that there are interesting parallels between what I studied and what this episode of the podcast was about, between Victorian burial culture and digital infrastructure. Here are some examples:

The illusion of permanency: one commonality for example is that a lot of digital infrastructure gives a promise of permanency in order to secure our engagement and content and Victorian entrepreneurs created urban cemeteries with the same promise. In the digital realm your posts, pictures or updates remain in place while their are valuable to the platform, but can disappear or become inaccessible with no or little notice. The newly created burial space in Victorian cities would similarly be described as a place for eternity, not just safeguarding bodily remains, but securing status and remembrance for future generations. And like its digital counterpart, cemeteries, too, could disappear for building projects or urban development with gravestones stacked unceremoniously against a wall or used as paving material.

Ineffective legal/governance frameworks: another commonality and a key issue common to both is lack of an effective legal/governance framework. For example platform user agreements that are too complex to understand or difficult to enforce – but in particular frameworks that do not take into account what happens when things change, what happens beyond the current profit predictions. Like the commercial cemetery companies in Victorian London, tech companies often operate and grow on the basis of quickly realised profits. Not many plan for the long term.

Perpetuating inequality: similar to the way in which digital infrastructure helps shape and control the actions of and narrative around our lives, Victorian cemeteries were design to do the same. Through their architecture, which echoed classical eras, through their layout, which privileged the wealthy and powerful, to the burial culture, which assigned places to men, women and children according to their status and station as well as religion, and even extending to the landscape and natural elements like plants and views, every element of the space was designed to construct a narrative of power. The history that Victorian burial culture records is the history of the ruling class.

There are many other examples, but what is most pertinent for me is that at the height of their popularity, Victorian cemeteries and the burial culture they embodied seemed unassailable, completely dominant. They had a deep impact on contemporary culture and development. What they celebrated and assigned value to was shaped by but also influenced Victorian society and culture in turn, spreading far beyond London and even England’s physical borders across the world throughout the British Empire. There was no notion that not even a century later very little of this culture would endure. Today, many of the most political, most powerful spaces of Victorian burial culture have become nature reserves, tourist attractions or slowly decaying urban wastelands.

Similarly, parts of our digital infrastructure can seem so dominant, to ubiquitous that it is hard to imagine what’s beyond them. In both cases we have limited control over what matters to us and enforcing it comes with compromises. In general digital platforms  operate on the premise that we either ignore or accept an uncertain future or otherwise make our own provision to whatever extent that we can – by securing our own domains and data.

CPD #cmalt as a springboard into openness and ownership

Recently there have been a lot of interesting posts on Twitter #cmalt about how compiling a portfolio of your professional practice can be an open process (if you have not come across the #cmalt accreditation scheme, have a look at the ALT website or watch this).

My own portfolio was accredited through CMALT in early 2016 and since then I’ve shared both posts about the process and the portfolio itself. But reading the recent posts made me think afresh about how undertaking CPD like compiling a CMALT portflio can be a springboard into openness and ownership – and some of the considerations I had when deciding on these issues.

Considering others: in the context of a portfolio that describes and reflects on professional practice taking colleagues into consideration is key. Even though the CMALT process requires you to focus on writing in the first person, to reflect on your individual practice, anyone with management responsibilities or who works as part of a team, needs to consider how others are portrayed in what they share. In my case, I asked colleagues for permission if it was necessary to refer to them directly and I chose examples of practice specifically because they were suitable for sharing.

Continuous reflection doesn’t have to be open: one of the key benefits of gaining CMALT for me is that it prompts me to continue my reflections on an ongoing basis as I collect evidence of practice for the update to my portfolio every 3 years. Some of this is work in progress or hastily written, so I don’t share it. I choose what I share, when and with whom and it’s valuable to have safe, closed spaces within my CMALT folders and documents that encourage critical reflection as well as recording achievements. The process of deciding what is open and what is less open in itself is a valuable experience.

Contributing to our understanding of professional practice: as well as sharing my portfolio I have also added it to the sharing initiative run by ALT. It’s not openly accessible to everyone, but only to members or individuals registered for the cmalt scheme. I think this offers the advantage of being able to contribute to a wider picture of what professional practice in Learning Technology looks like as well as helping others find useful examples in their sector, job role or specialist area. It also provides an alternative way of sharing practice instead of putting your portfolio out on the public web.

Taking ownership of what you share: I compiled my portfolio using Google Apps for Education (more info) and I use the same tools now to track my CPD and collect evidence as I go along. Loosing access to portfolios or evidence on institutional systems is a real risk for many and I wanted to keep my content for the long term. Recently, I have decided to take that a step further and started transferring my portfolio onto this site, my own domain (thanks to Reclaim Hosting!).

Some of it is already available now at http://marendeepwell.com/cmalt/  and in the fullness of time it should enable me to take even more ownership of my professional practice and the recognition I gain.

Input welcome: promoting equality in Learning Technology through openness

I am working on a slide deck to give a short presentation at the upcoming EdTech2017 conference (1-2 June, Institute of Technology Sligo, Ireland)on promoting equality in Learning Technology through openness. The proposal I submitted already includes a number of examples, but the inspiring (and still growing!) list of blog posts following the OER17 conference has made me consider what else I might include. In particular, there are two aspects of my talk I am going to be researching further and if you have any suggestions or references any input is most welcome:

  • “Where are we now”… in terms of equality in Learning Technology. I am thinking both about the edtech sector in general and the way in which the use of technology for learning, teaching or assessment can help promote equality;
  • Reading and ideas for good practice. As this is a short talk I’d like to include a list of where to go next so that participants can follow up further.

If you can contribute any references or other ideas, please leave a note in the comments or via Twitter to @marendeepwell . Thank you.

 

My #OER17: many voices taking action

What a week it’s been #OER17… As I wasn’t able to catch that many sessions while running the event, I am enjoying reading, watching and catching up with everything. And there is a lot out there – photos, drawings, presentations, videos, recorded live streams and an ever growing number of blog posts. Thank you for sharing!

Before the conference I had three hopes:

First, learn & listen about how Learning Technology can support openness. I am thinking here about technology used for learning, teaching and assessment in any context (ALT’s definition is useful here) not the more specific ‘educational technologies’ like VLEs or e-portfolios.  The huge potential of technology for all kinds of openness is evident – but what this conference made me think about is how critical it is for staff and students to gain sufficient understanding of the tools, platforms or networks to make informed use of them. That would include understanding what data about them is collected and how it is used, what footprints they may leave and for how long and so forth. Providing support for developing this kind of fluency can be difficult, in particular when in many institutions the concept of openness is contested. I came away with many questions and a sense that there is much to tackle once I get back to my desk…

Image of a Virtually Connecting Session
Photo of Lisa Taner, Lucy-Crompton-Reid & Maren Deepwell at a Virtually Connecting session at OER17 taken by Martin Weller

My second hope for OER17 was to make time for people and conversations. That was probably the most enjoyable aspect of my days, and like many other participants I was delighted to be able to connect in person with many individuals from my social networks. One of the highlights was joining a Virtually Connecting session with Lisa Taner and Lucy Crompton-Reid, facilitated by Martin Weller – and I am grateful to Maha Bali for inviting me. You can now watch it on YouTube . Meeting participants from different continents and having a conversation that bridges the physical divide was a great way of seeing things through someone else’s eyes. The social events before and during the conference were another good time for catching up and I was impressed by the bowling, ping pong and karaoke going on all around.

Together with Bryan Mathers I ran a workshop and Bryan has kindly shared all the content from the presentation and the featured image above, the ‘Live Thinkery’ I helped facilitate. The workshop was called “from Voice to Visual” (prezi is here) and we were looking at the creative journey of the ALT visual strategy. If you haven’t already, visit Bryan’s page dedicated to OER17 and find all of his visual thoughts, all licenced CC-BY – thank you, Bryan!

CC resist by @bryanMMathers
CC resist by @bryanMMathers at http://visualthinkery.com/project/oer17/

Conferences and communities like this are special to me, so my third hope was to enjoy the two days (and not ‘just’ do the day job). With so many inspiring and engaging sessions in the programme it is hard to pick out any specific ones. What brought it all together was the plenary panel. The recording of this session and the content created during the session are life affirming and I particularly enjoyed the Storify #OER17 #IWill shared by Catherine Cronin. Asking everyone to share their intention, their hope for making change and taking action was a powerful reminder of how much individual action matters, how much each of us matters. My experience of OER17 was a testament to that.

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