Preview: SEDA Conference keynote ‘Learning Technology in Higher Education – challenges and opportunities’

I am really looking forward to speaking at this year’s SEDA conference and I wanted to share a preview of my talk ahead of the event. It’s a special honour to be invited to speak this year, as both SEDA and ALT are celebrating their 25th anniversary and I look forward to hearing Pauline Kneale, Pro Vice-Chancellor, Teaching and Learning, from Plymouth University and also Julie Hall, Professor of Higher Education and Deputy Vice Chancellor, Solent University Southampton as part of the conference programme.

Here is the abstract of my talk:

This talk will address the major themes of the conference – ‘meeting challenges’ and ‘supporting staff’ – from the perspective of learning technology, exploring recent developments in this area and discussing their relevance and implications for educational development and for the work of educational developers. For example, my review of initiatives and key developments from the work of the Association for Learning Technology (ALT) will include exploration of our new pathways to professional recognition and accreditation and discuss how these are mapped to other frameworks, including the UKPSF, QTL and Jisc’ Digital Capabilities. There are significant strategic challenges facing the sector and this talk will critically reflect on how we are solving these, sharing examples of research and practice from the ALT community and relating these to the  larger questions they pose in relation to ethics, student welfare and the future of technology in education. 

As well as looking at some of the challenges, my talk is going to explore how we meet them and how things are changing, specially in relation to how we engage students – and how that has changed professional practice.

One of the other areas I will explore is how we are developing professionalism in Learning Technology through openness, using examples from across the ALT community, from the Open Education Special Interest Group, to the Open Access research journal and the forthcoming OER19 Conference.

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.

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.

2018 Keynote #altc - Maren Deepwell (10)

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. 

2018 Keynote #altc - Maren Deepwell (8)

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

2018 Keynote #altc - Maren Deepwell (11)

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.

2018 Keynote #altc - Maren Deepwell (12)

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.

2018 Keynote #altc - Maren Deepwell (13)

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.

2018 Keynote #altc - Maren Deepwell (14)

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.

2018 Keynote #altc - Maren Deepwell

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.

2018 Keynote #altc - Maren Deepwell (16)

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.

2018 Keynote #altc - Maren Deepwell (17)

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.

2018 Keynote #altc - Maren Deepwell (18)

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.

2018 Keynote #altc - Maren Deepwell (20)

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.

2018 Keynote #altc - Maren Deepwell (19)

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.

2018 Keynote #altc - Maren Deepwell (21)

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.

2018 Keynote #altc - Maren Deepwell (22)

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. … 

2018 Keynote #altc - Maren Deepwell (23)

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.

2018 Keynote #altc - Maren Deepwell (25)

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. 

2018 Keynote #altc - Maren Deepwell (26)

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.

2018 Keynote #altc - Maren Deepwell (27)

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.

2018 Keynote #altc - Maren Deepwell (28)

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.

2018 Keynote #altc - Maren Deepwell (29)

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’. 

2018 Keynote #altc - Maren Deepwell (30)

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)

My week as guest curator of @femedtech


This week I’ve been volunteering as a guest curator of @femedtech. I actively work to promote equality in everything I do, so when the opportunity came up to support this growing network as a Twitter curator, I took the opportunity to help out gladly – but I wasn’t really sure what it would be like, taking over the voice of this kind of account. So one week in and with one more week to go, here is my personal reflection on how it’s going.

Fortunately I had guidance, encouragement and advice from Frances Bell and Helen Beetham from the outset and they shared their experience and advice generously. I liked their suggestion to add my own identity to the account, which I did, and then I started tweeting and re-tweeting and following and.. a few days in everything started to feel a bit easier.

I also set up a TAGS Twitter archive and TAGSExplorer for the #femedtech hashtag, to help chart and visualise the conversation as it evolves:

As you can see, it’s still a fairly small conversation, but it is starting to grow and I found it really interesting to be able to see what is going on.

Another approach I tried was to find and follow accounts with similar values or related ideas, such as @uncommon_women and the @feministintrnet for example and to welcome new followers or volunteers as they arrived. Hello to you all!

With another week ahead, I hope I’ll get a chance to generate a bit more of a conversation and prompt more contributions (tagged as #femedtech) and have the chance to contribute to the development of information for future guest curators with Helen and Frances. My long term hope is that we can help draw together some of the existing initiatives, amplify the voices of those actively working to promote feminism and equality in Learning Technology and connect more people with each other. There are certainly enough challenges out there to be tackled, so let’s hope that we can help connect the dots to make a stronger movement.

Note: this post was updated with a better TAGSExplorer view and links (thanks to @mhawksey)

#femedtech #OER18 #OER17… because equality matters for all of us

#femedtech #oer18

If you have been following the reporting on the gender pay gap in the UK, then this has been a sobering week indeed. You can search for the reports from different employers here. I have had a look through many of the education providers and sector bodies that I work with and the scale of the ‘gaps’ highlighted in some of the reports is staggering. Not a surprise, given my day to day experience of the sector, but still – staggering.

As a chief executive I have reflected much during this week on how we can change things across the system. There are so many aspects to the problem that there is definitely no shortage of things we should tackle and there is much to do in relation to the professionalisation of Learning Technology.

But on a more personal note this has also reminded me of how important it is that we continue to work towards achieving greater equality – in all its forms. So with a large international conference on openness in education just around the corner I hope that there’ll be much to learn and discuss from different, global perspectives. I also want to help give a voice to this conversation together with colleagues, and make sure that we consider equality in the context of openness.

Powerfully, Catherine Cronin spoke of criticality, equality and social justice at OER17 in London last year. In the closing plenary we were asked to respond to a call to action… #Iwill #OER17 and many participants in the room and on social media joined in, making their voices heard and sharing their aspirations, making a commitment to taking action. I think it’s time to renew our vows to take action #OER18.

Open Education Week #femedtech


Next week is Open Education Week and in preparation to giving a keynote at the launch of a new ALT Members Group in Northern Ireland on International Women’s Day on 8 March, I have been revisiting my talk on equality and open practice that I gave last year.  The talk specifically discussed the potential of Member Groups in creating greater openness and promote equality.

Talk cover image "Equality"

Over the past year, I have seen, supported and been inspired by a pletora of work being done all across sectors to promote equality, for example the Feminist Internet project, Kelsey Merkley’s @UncommonWomen campaign and the continued growth of the #femedtech community to mention only a few.

With this year’s OER conference just over a month away (if you haven’t yet had a look at the programme, you should…), it feels even more important to champion open practice for the cause of equality – open practice that empowers diversity and inclusion such as we saw discussed during #engageMOOC on Twitter recently. Open practice that fosters criticality and builds confidence, that helps better reflect the work that is being done for which there are no awards, such as the lessons we learn from managing change or failure.

Big challenge ahead: talking about equality #iltaedtech17 #femedtech #oer17 #altc

Talk cover image "Equality"

This week I am looking forward to giving a short talk at the EdTech 2017 Conference, the annual conference organised by the Irish Learning Technology Association (ILTA). This year’s theme is TEL in an Age of Supercomplexity: Challenges, Opportunities and Strategies. 

The event has what looks like a great programme. My own focus is on exploring how openness can be a tool for Learning Technology professionals to promote equality. I am going to look at three specific examples of this, starting with work that’s happening close to home in the ALT Member Community and in particular our local Member Groups – illustrating this with the visual thinkery created for ALT by Bryan Mathers. The other two examples I want to talk about are the emerging FemEdTech network and the voices still echoing from the OER17 conference. I’ve shared my slides below and I look forward to the conversations and feedback in response to my contribution – and a special thanks to Catherine Cronin who has already provided me with some very helpful comments!

Below is the full transcript of my talk:

Thank you for giving me the opportunity to share with you how individuals are taking action to promote equality in Learning Technology, equality in our profession and across sectors – equality for individuals and within institutions.

Equality. We are facing a big challenge. Looking around this room everyone among us has witnessed inequality in some form. On a global scale policy and strategy are necessary to address some of the most fundamental challenges that stand in the way of greater equality for all – but what I’d like to explore is how taking action on a personal basis, taking action as part of our professional practice, can make a difference. Make a difference through openness – openness as in for example sharing OERs, using open licencing, through open governance and open practice at all levels.

The first example is the work of ALT’s Member Groups, and also Special Interest Groups who share their practice and collaborate openly, all across the UK and beyond. Aligned to ALT’s aims the Learning Technology professionals who are active in these groups share the values we have set out as a community and sharing their experiences, both failures and success. These groups, by being inclusive and community-led, have contributed to making our membership more diverse and their work continues to contribute to strengthen equality in our profession.

Now, the emerging femedtech network is a new initiative that is led by Learning Technology professionals who are taking personal action to promote equality and to do so through open practice, conversations and events. It’s an important effort to create a safe space that is also open and inclusive. We want to celebrate and extend the opportunities offered by education in/and/with technology – to women, and to all people who might otherwise be disadvantaged or excluded. If you haven’t already, I urge you to look at the work that this network is beginning to undertake.

My last example are the voices still echo-ing from the OER17 conference convened earlier this year by Josie Fraser and Alek Tarkowski. Josie, Alek and the organising committee made a concerted effort this year to create a more diverse, inclusive programme with a distinctive all female keynote line up and a programme that inspired a lot of critical reflection and conversation long after the event – and indeed that conversation is still going on. Catherine Cronin, who was part of the closing plenary at the conference, later reflected that the themes of criticality, equality and social justice were at the heart of OER17. It was a powerful example of many individuals taking action together – through openness – and making a difference.

Days like today give us that opportunity, to reflect on how we, as individuals, as a professional community, can take action to achieve greater equality through openness, to harness technology to do so – and then to go and make a difference.

Input welcome: promoting equality in Learning Technology through openness

Image of cover slide of the presentation

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.