An open course as a tool for change: reflecting on Blended Learning Essentials

One project I am currently involved in is a course on FutureLearn called Blended Learning Essentials.  In this short blog post I want to think about how this course, or others like it, can be used as tools for change.

A bit about the course
UntitledThis is an open course about using blended learning for vocational education and it runs for a total of 8 weeks in two parts. The first part covers the ‘essentials’ and the second focuses on ’embedding’ blended learning. Content and in particular the videos are created in collaboration with teachers/learners in vocational education contexts and shaped by current practice. If you’d like to see what it’s like for yourself, parts of the course are accessible without signing up: Going beyond reflection to data https://goo.gl/cwGRtQ, collaborative learning to improve learner support https://goo.gl/LwnCnA, sharing and re-using teaching ideas https://goo.gl/gHdsp9 and managing a culture change https://goo.gl/j7q17q.

Change for learners and teachers
One of the aims of the course is to provide an entry point to using learning technology effectively regardless of what participants already know or feel confident about. While that is a big ask it also highlights the fact that there is a big disparity in the relevant competencies across the sector. At one end there are enthusiastic individuals or institutions whose learners are benefiting from technology-enhanced innovation and at the other end of the spectrum are those who don’t know where to start. Learners may or may not have access to devices and networks, but once they do, they need to gain skills that will be useful for them in what they do next and teachers need to be able to support them in that. So one way in which a course like Blended Learning Essentials can become a tool for affecting change is to provide a path to building competencies and confidence for those who deliver learning. It could be incorporated into existing internal provision, to enhance what a provider or group can offer internally – or it can act as a way to start scaling up CPD.  Similar to another course I worked on in the past, the Open Course in Technology Enhanced Learning (ocTEL) it can provide flexible chunks of CPD depending on what the participant is most interested in.

Decision makers who manage change
While learners and those who deliver learning can make use of the course, I think that those in decision making roles also have something to gain. To begin with they can participate themselves, online and at their own pace, to refresh or supplement their own skills and knowledge. Particularly if you don’t get much time to have hands on experience with learning technology, the course can help bridge the gap. The case studies and discussion forums meanwhile can be used as a frame of reference for establishing where a particular organisation is in terms of making intelligent use of learning technology, what common barriers are or how to solve problems. Particularly the second part of the course (the last 3 weeks) are relevant in this context. Given that the course is free to attend and most of its resources openly licenced, it can be an efficient tool for up-skilling and provide paths to accreditation (accreditation is the part of the course that I have worked on most, so I am going to point to further information and in particular its mapping to CMALT for those who are interested).

Some limitations
I think this course can be a useful tool for affecting or managing change, from introducing blended learning, to scaling up provision or enhancing it. But there are also some limitations:
It’s online: this is a free ONLINE course about blended learning. It requires you to get online, supports you to develop the skills to engage with it and while you can certainly participate with a group of colleagues and support each other face to face, being able and willing to learn online is a key requirement. If this is a major barrier for you or your institution the course could be a useful way to build your capabilities in this area;
Accessibility: actually, in my experience the FutureLearn platform excels at making courses accessible and if you are in doubt it’s definitely worth exploring the “how to learn” resources they provide or make an enquiry;
It’s not advanced enough: as the course is aimed at those who don’t already have advanced skills it can seem too basic for some. The discussion forums and social media conversation may be more interesting to those who find some of the content too basic or it might be a useful tool for supporting colleagues;
So what?: One of the most interesting aspects of the course for me as to see how strong a driver learners’ future success is for getting individuals and providers do more or better blended learning. As everyday life and work require more skills for using technology it becomes more urgent that we use it effectively for learning, teaching and assessment. Other drivers for using blended learning might be providing more flexible provision, broadening access, scaling up or enhancing delivery, improving feedback & assessment…

Things I’m thinking about next
Working on this course has made me reflect on the conversation about open courses, what they can be used for, what they achieve in terms of creating communities, scaling up provision and supporting professional development.
This course is a first in more ways than one, it’s the first course on this particular platform for the vocational education sector, to my knowledge it’s the first open course in this context that has attracted over 20k participants and it’s the first time we have seem a large scale response to the policy agenda in UK that is supported by some many organisations.
It’s a tool we can make use of to affect change and we can probably use every bit of help we can get in achieving effective use of learning technology across the sectors.

Sharing my approach to leadership as an open practice

photo 2It’s been nearly a year since I wrote my first post on leadership as an open practice, inspired by the 2015 OER conference. So in this post I want to reflect on how my experiment is going, what progress I have made and what’s next.

Where it all began…
In April last year, I wrote : “I’d like to try and adopt open practice in my role and connect with others who do the same. Like teachers, researchers or developers who share their practice and resources openly, I’ll try to follow their example. To make my work, which is mostly about leadership, governance and management in Learning Technology, an open practice.”

Putting the experiment to the test
Since then, I took part in the #rhizo15 course/community and the #blimage challenge, I have shared a number of conference presentations and blog posts about CPD, policy and current issues. I have been building and sharing my CMALT portfolio (specialist area: leadership as an open practice) and reflected on different aspects of open practice.  This blog has become a really helpful tool for engaging with different aspects of the work I do, share my thoughts and reflect openly. It’s certainly prompted me to do more thinking in the open and has resulted in many conversations and comments that have been helpful and stimulating (thank you!). It’s also motivated me to engage with others’ blogs and outlets, reading and commenting or contributing in turn. Sharing the template for how I built my CMALT portfolio with Google Apps is another example of this approach in action. My original aim was to share, connect and engage more openly and I think that aspect of my open practice has definitely developed.

Difficult aspects of leadership as an open practice
Although it has been hugely rewarding, leadership as an open practice has also been quite challenging. While I have certainly started to find more like-minded professionals in similar roles there have been many more false leads, e.g. blogs that are more marketing than sharing, open-sounding practice that leads to pay-walls and a definite reluctance to connect beyond networking for fear of loosing some sense of being ahead, of having the edge over others in leadership roles. At times when political or economic turmoil threatens funding or jobs open practice seems to become a lot more difficult and far less popular for people in similar roles to mine.

It has also been difficult at times to manage different aspects of my practice when my ‘day job’ as a CEO comes into contact with other work I do. When I contribute to a discussion or a twitter chat I try and make it clear whether I am representing the organisation I work for or whether I am participating in a less formal capacity, but it’s not always easy to make these distinctions. On the other hand there are real advantages to having the chance to get involved with research or practice in a more hands on way and it helps me be better at the work I do as a CEO.

With managing different identities also comes being a woman and a leader in Learning Technology and this is probably where my experiment has delivered the most rewarding examples and connections. Through a wealth of media I have become more familiar with the work other women do to drive forward technology in learning and teaching, from writers and IT Directors to CEOs and teachers both younger or more experienced than me. While in my  experiences day to day there is still a long way to go to achieve equality for women decision makers in government, industry or funding bodies my growing network makes me feel hopeful.

Take away’s
So, one year on, what are my take away’s from this experiment in leadership as an open practice? Here goes:

  1. Will I continue? Yes! It’s been such a rewarding experience, stimulating and challenging that I will definitely keep going;
  2. What’s the best bit? The freedom that an open approach help me establish, the prompts to follow whatever I was curious about and the generous feedback from peers;
  3. What’s the worst bit? For me at times lack of peers in comparable job roles who are interested in open practice;
  4. What’s next? On a practical front, more #rhizo16 this year, some opportunities to speak at events or contribute to other projects, making more of an effort to communicate and connect with others… and hopefully to become better at leadership as an open practice.

Your thoughts?
Over the past year I have had many comments/conversations prompted by blog posts or tweets and it’s been extremely helpful. So if you have any comments or feedback on my approach to leadership as an open practice or your own experience, share it below or tweet me @marendeepwell.

Google Apps for Education (#GAFE) as a #CMALT portfolio tool

Recently I was accredited as a Certified Member of ALT (find out more here) and the key component of the scheme is a peer-reviewed portfolio. You can build your portfolio in almost any format provided that it is accessible to assessors and follows the required structure.

CMALT folder
My portfolio in Google Drive

I chose to build mine using Google Apps for Education (GAFE) and here I’d like to reflect briefly on the experience:

Why use GAFE? My main reasons were that it is free to use, I am already familiar with the tools available, there is storage and authoring tools all on one place and most importantly it works long terms as I will retain access to the files or at least be able to download them easily if needed. A further advantage for me was the ability to organise all the different types of content including supplementary evidence and images into different folders and make them easily accessible to the assessors.

What did I use? I focused my portfolio around a Google Doc. I decided early on that I wanted to illustrate my portfolio and the format I was after was linear  – I wanted to build a narrative. I included screenshots, images and links and where appropriate filed these into folders on Google Drive. I also used a Google Sheet to help collect a lot of the evidence in the early stages, mainly to have a record of the various locations and links. I think that may be something I keep using as an ongoing record of my CPD activities.

What does this look like long term? Now that I have achieved CMALT the portfolio will have to be reviewed every 3 years. In that time period I’ll likely accumulate a lot of evidence of my professional development and my intention is to log it in a Google sheet, link to it where appropriate, and build up my folders of visual evidence as I go along. Then, when the time comes to review and update the main document or add to it, I should be able to draw on the information I already have. It’ll also make it easier to reflect on what I have done.

Any drawbacks? From my perspective there was no functionality that was missing and the auto-save and offline working capabilities made it fuss-free for me. Because you can share content without requiring others to have an account but you are still able to limit access I found GAFE was a useful tool indeed. Another plus was that I could share early drafts for comment and others could add to and comment on specific paragraphs.

CMALT 2

Open practice? If you are curious to have a look or indeed find inspiration for your own CMALT portfolio you can access my portfolio folder via this link https://goo.gl/44I4Bd . I have added a Creative Commons Licence so that you can access it and re-use for example the images I have included. The specialist area I have written about in my portfolio is open practice in a leadership role. Sharing my portfolio openly is part of the work I do and I am grateful for all the encouragement and feedback I have had from my colleagues throughout this process.

Feedback, milestones, reflection: appraisal in a leadership position

This is the time of year for reviewing personal and professional development, for reflecting on achievements and set goals for the following year. In short, it’s time for my annual appraisal process.

This will be my fourth in a leadership position and each year the process has evolved depending on the needs of the organisation and myself. What we have found works consistently:

  • 360 degree feedback: that includes everyone who reports to me, those whom I report to, colleagues whom I work with and external reviewers;
  • Clear assessment of goals set and progress made, milestones reached and key deliverables – in my case that encompasses most of what the organisation does or doesn’t do as my role carries overall responsibility for strategy and operations. This is where individual appraisals for others feed into my own which is really helpful;
  • Reflection on personal and professional development, often in relationship to what we had planned 12 and 6 months ago, but also anything else that has developed in response to changes in circumstance;
  • Written feedback and face to face conversation. My appraisal process is a blended process which involves a distributed group of individuals and culminates in a face to face meeting, led by the current Chair of the organisation I serve which changes annually.

Variations from year to year:

  • Emphasis on performance, support, development… depends on the context and provides some flexibility in a process which can at times become a long list of colour coded milestones;
  • Openness also varies. Some years have been very open and I have shared many parts of my appraisal feedback with colleagues, while some years are more personal and less easy to share;
  • Scale and perspective, from the proverbial helicopter view to the detailed analysis of a specific situation. That again seems to change from year to year.

As I am compiling this year’s appraisal documents I find that now in its fourth year I have more expectations, a clearer idea of what I’d like to get out of the process. And one of my aims for this year is to use the process as a way to continue my open practice. In my experience colleagues in leadership roles can find it difficult to get effective feedback and appraisals. For some, it becomes about performance management and if there are no concerns, then it’s just a formality. Others focus on providing feedback and thus get little in return. Some colleagues feel that at a certain level of seniority you should be able to do without, to reflect sufficiently on your own. And to some degree I agree with all of these perspectives. But there are some reasons why I really value taking a more in depth approach to my own appraisal:

  • Giving constructive negative feedback takes time and focus. I value honest praise but I feel it’s important to give opportunities for negative feedback, too;
  • Ongoing reflection is an essential part of my practice, but when a period of time is particularly busy I can still loose perspective. Being forced to take a step back and collect a whole year together in one place gives me an annual perspective that opens up new vistas;
  • Having a deadline makes me do things like (finally) submitting my CMALT portfolio, write a submission or review an article;
  • Writing my appraisal is a chance to not only set achievable goals, but to dream up new visions of the future and what that may hold.

All in all I think you can see why I feel this is such a valuable process. Particularly in a leadership role I think it’s a privilege to hear from others what they feel you could do better, how you might achieve more.

Looking back at delivering an online conference

As part of finishing my #CMALT portfolio I have been working on completing a section on communication. The example I am using is leading a small team in delivering an online conference, in this case ALT’s first wholly online winter conference in December last year.

Some of the things I have been reflecting on re communication are:

  • delivering live events when you are not all in the same place and using online communication methods to help bridge the gaps;
  • how online events compare with face to face events when it comes to communication and leading the delivery team;
  • how to communicate when, yes, the network you and participants depend on goes down the day before the event…;
  • using group communication as a way to manage and problem solve.

I will share what I have come up with and my reflections as part of my CMALT portfolio in due course. Sharing one example already, you can watch Martin Hawksey and me welcoming participants to day 1 of the conference in the video below:

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1hIQodYLnZA&w=560&h=315]

Sharing my #CMALT portfolio: reflecting on the why and how

Open I’ve been working in my #CMALT portfolio. Given that I haven’t yet submitted it for assessment (it’s not quite finished) you might rightly think that a blog post about sharing it is a little premature. Of course you are right – and I won’t actually share it until it has been assessed and (hopefully!) passed sometime in the future. But my intention to share it openly has definitely shaped how I have approached things and to me it’s interesting to reflect on the why and how of that process.

The main reason why I want to share my portfolio is that reading others’ portfolios has been a really valuable part of making my own. I have found it interesting to see how others have build theirs, from the technology used to reflections shared. At times, I have been humbled by what others have achieved (often single-handed) and often I have felt empathy with individuals whom I don’t know, but who were struggling with the same things I have. In what is largely solitary undertaking the portfolios of others have provided inspiration and motivation.

Creative CommonsBut sharing what is essentially a personal artifact incorporating examples of work and reflection has not been entirely straight forward. My chosen format, Google docs, makes sharing easy. I can even set up a shared folder for additional evidence and control who has access. Licencing, too, I have considered. The most restrictive Creative Commons licence seems like it might work for this purpose. Some of the examples/evidence in the portfolio is already licensed under Creative Commons so that aligns well. I should be able to produce backups, copies for updating and different formats of the portfolio quite easily and that is an important consideration for me – I wanted to make it as easy as possible for me to actually do work on it initially and subsequently keep it updated.

But what about the actual content, what I describe and reflect on – in particular working with other people? What about reflecting on failures?  In most instances I have opted for not mentioning individuals by name, using role titles or generic terms instead. This is particularly important I feel when talking about colleagues in the team I lead. While it hasn’t always been easy, the consideration that what I am writing could potentially be read by anyone has contributed to making my work more balanced. But there has also been tension between accurately describing what I do and respecting the privacy of those I work with. Now that the portfolio is nearly finished I have shared with my staff team for feedback. This way everyone who is referred to has the opportunity to read what I have written and comment on it.

A further consideration has been including things that don’t work, things that have gone wrong. Given that this is a portfolio meant to demonstrate professional experience and skills, you are more likely to include examples of things that have worked. But for me there is value in reflecting on things that could have gone better, what I could have done differently. Including that in a publicly-shared document however deserves consideration.

From the outset, the intention of sharing my portfolio has shaped how I have approached my portfolio. It’s been particularly valuable as it has encouraged me to reflect on the guiding principles of the #CMALT framework in my work – one of which is empathy with and willingness to learn from others. In that spirit, I hope that my portfolio can one day be useful to others in similar ways.

Drawing my way through my #cmalt portfolio

IMG_1010Compiling my portfolio for submission for CMALT,  ALT’s peer-based accreditation scheme, has been a long term project. Originally I started in 2011, but I didn’t complete it. Now I am close to finishing and planning to submit my portfolio (finally). As part of the process, I have made drawings for each section of the portfolio, usually one per section. The first few drawings I made close to a year ago, but I am still adding new ones. Some are illustrations based on CMALT criteria or headings, others are from my work and blog posts. Most of the drawings start life with pen and paper, but many end up being re-drawn on the paper app on an iPad and later edited again with more apps to add text, adjust colours and so forth. This kind of professional development definitely doesn’t require you to get your colour pencils out and start drawing things, so why? Here are my thoughts:

IMG_1014First, drawing is something that’s been a key part of my practice, of the way I think, long before I started working in Learning Technology and I still find it an invaluable part of my work today. Whether it’s designing open badges or trying to figure out a complex network of use-cases, I often find drawing things down helps with problem solving and communication.

Second, drawings are a good way for me to express different parts of my vision, my personality. I like using them as part of my approach because they can be more eloquent than words and allow me to contribute something more. When I contributed #rhizo15 earlier this year, I found that drawings were a great tool for participating either together with text posts or as stand alone posts. There is something about using colour and images that really connects wit the way I think about things. In the case of my #cmalt portfolio, adding drawings helped to make it feel more like me, help me focus on what I wanted to communicate about my work.

FullSizeRenderFinally, and importantly in this context, drawing takes time and focus. For me it is an excellent way to reflect and reflecting on your practice is a key part of the #cmalt framework. I often started a section with a drawing and by the time it was finished, I would be ready to start writing, having laid out the ideas in my head. The reflection is probably the most rewarding part of the process for me.

It’s not really about the drawing in itself, more about the process as a way of giving myself time and space to really think about things, figure out how I feel about something and sometimes, it ends up surprising me with unexpected ideas. That’s the best part for me.

#edtech leadership: an experiment in open practice

Leadership as open practice: an experiment (@marendeepwell)

Earlier this week I spent two days in Cardiff at the #oer15 conference on Mainstreaming Open Education. I was able to ask one of the keynote speakers, Sheila MacNeill, a question and I asked about what she would like to see happen next to help further openness. Her response was ‘getting senior decision makers engaged’ – and that got me thinking.  What would I like to see happen, what would I want, not in my capacity as CEO of the Association for Learning Technology, but as a senior decision maker and as someone who works with others who hold roles of responsibility. Something Sheila had mentioned earlier in her keynote was my answer: I’d like to try and adopt open practice in my role and connect with others who do the same. Like teachers, researchers or developers who share their practice and resources openly, I’ll try to follow their example. To make my work, which is mostly about leadership, governance and management in Learning Technology, an open practice. This is the experiment that I’m starting with this blog post.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zcd6PxNvulk]

Let me unpack what I am thinking about: this is not about transparency or democracy. Indeed, the organisation I serve has openness as one of its core values from governance to publishing to the services we provide. I am not thinking about what my organisation does, but what and how I do my job. Like a teacher who may share what they do, I’ll use what I do as a basis for sharing, reflecting and practicing in the open.  To try and conduct myself, in my role, as an open practitioner, an open leader. That’s the challenge.

A quick search shows me that there is already a lot of advice out there about how to become a better leader by using open software, by using social media, to transform an organisation through open licencing… and so forth. But I don’t intend for this, most likely a series of blog posts to begin with, to be about getting ahead by making ‘open’ work for me.  No, my main motivation is twofold: to join a community of open practitioners using my day to day work as a basis and to see if this process can make being in a position of power and responsibility less like an island.

My experience over the past three years of working with others who hold roles like mine is that most, like me, don’t have a lot of space for reflecting on their practice. I am fortunate to have excellent support from colleagues and my mentor and so I’ve always been able to create space for me to focus on what I do as well as whom I serve or represent. This experiment is about making this space open – transitioning from the safety of an audience of one, me, to the relative uncertainty of open practice. I am curious to see if in a few months or years I, too, become an open practitioner. As a first step, I am going seek others who have done the same and see what I can learn from their example.