Who’s responsible for the future of open? #femedtech #oer19

This post is for the inclusive Open Space session coming up at OER19 in April. You can read all about the session here. It is posted on the FEMEDTECH OER19 OPEN SPACE. Here is a link directly to the post.

I have chosen to focus on the question: “How do we manage sustainable spaces for exploring challenging issues around open?” and my response has also been inspired by a recent blog post by Martin Weller on ‘Learning the rules of predicting the future‘. In the post, which deserves extra credits for inspired use of Parks and Recreation gifs (note to self: up your GIF game), Martin sets out the following “rules” for predicting the future for education (I am quoting only very briefly here, so you should really read the whole post, as it makes for excellent reading):

  • The first rule to learn about change in higher education is that very little changes, while simultaneously everything changes.
  • A second rule is that technological change is rarely about the technology.
  • The third rule is to appreciate the historical amnesia in much of educational technology.
  • The fourth, and final rule I would suggest is that technology is not ethically or politically neutral.

And that has inspired me to think about rules for making sustainable spaces, which links to the broader question of who takes responsibility and how to take responsibility for the future of open spaces of all shapes and sizes. It also relates to the question of permanency on the web and in technologically mediated social spaces in general (I have written about Cemeteries of the web: parallels between Victorian burial culture and digital infrastructure previously). So here goes:

First, I would argue that in most cases planning for the long term, for sustainability in any sense, does not come into the development of new spaces, platforms or tools. So many sites and systems come and go, disappearing often with all the content we have created and without much notice or help for migration. Interoperability standards, transferable file formats and all that goes with it are rarely at the top of anyone’s priority list whilst iterative, agile approaches to development force users to move along regardless. When funding dries up or business models change repositories, community sites, communication platforms etc become unsupported, derelict collections of broken links and unanswered support requests. This is not only inconvenient, but has serious consequences: it makes it difficult to have a sustained critical debate as we constantly loose records of what we have already done; it puts the focus always on reinventing, re-establishing, re-designing new spaces and it promotes the kind of historical amnesia in much of educational technology that Martin Weller warns us about.

Sustainable spaces for exploring the challenging issues around open also require us to address the question of who has ownership of those spaces, both in a practical sense, i.e. who owns the domain, who controls access, who pays the bills, as well as the social aspects such as who controls the conversation, who records it, who can participate and who ends it. Some of the hardest questions we must ask have strong political and ethical dimensions. If the organisation or entity that hosts or supports such a dialogue has a strong agenda, be that commercial, political or social, then we need to question how that impacts on the kind of discourse we can foster and also how this may impact on the sustainability of the project. Open means many things to many people and there is a whole range of motivations to get involved and try take ownership of spaces that support open communities.

One of the things that’s really tricky about both open in education and technology in education is what Martin Weller describes as ‘very little changes, while simultaneously everything changes’. I find that is often to do with our goalposts constantly moving further ahead and at the same time the spectrum of individual and organisational practice spreading out. What I mean is that the range of challenges we ask technology to help us meet is huge – from basic infrastructure to educating millions across the globe. Similarly, when it comes to thinking about open, there is a vast array of situations to tackle. It all depends on the perspective you start from and it can be difficult to find common ground in a conversation that brings together many different contexts – this is exactly the reason why an open space like this one can help.

I don’t seem to have come up with very clearly articulated rules, but rather characteristics and questions around the lack of long term planning, questioning ownership and motivation and the need to appreciate different perspectives from which what we find challenging about open can be explored. One very generic sounding conclusion to draw is that the only rule is to make use of your voice, to continue to engage and question, not to become indifferent or disengaged no matter how difficult that can seem at times. But it is, for me, a powerful reminder that we each have agency, and that taking part, contributing something that helps others understand our way of seeing the world, our perspective on open, our world view (as a women, as a feminist, as a contributor in my case) is a meaningful and important act.

A day in the life of a #femedtech guest curator

It’s my second time to volunteer as a guest curator for the @femedtech Twitter account and in the past year, since my last time as a curator, much has changed.

In 2018, I followed Helen Beetham, being only the second person to try out how to be a guest curator. At the time, the account had 122 followers, had tweeted about the same number of tweets and we were just in the process of writing some guidance for the activity, making it up as we went along and learning from the wonderful examples of networks around us. Frances Bell contributed the slide below to the community-sourced slides for International Women’s Day 2019.

So what is it like to be a guest curator now, that the following is ten times bigger and the network is growing rapidly, organising activities around events and interests?

I start each day by checking in with the account, checking first on the notifications and new followers. Following back those who are new and welcoming them is one of the key things I try to do each day. It’s fascinating to see who follows the account and often I come across individuals and accounts I also want to connect with in my personal capacity.

Then I look for new tweets that have been tagged with the hashtag #femedtech and like or retweet those. This can open up quite a few new rabbit holes down which my time disappears as I find a new book, artist or research that I want to learn more about. In contract to my own Twitter world, there is a much more varied and unexpected range of things being posted. Here are some examples from recent days:

You can see, there is a really varied range of things being posted, so I strongly recommend you follow the account yourself and join in.

Then, each day, I try and find and contribute something new, something from my own network or frame of reference, and which I can share to enrich the conversation or open it up to include new accounts. So this week I posted:

And I also work to communicate from what the network does in my day job, for example this week I had the opportunity to speak at the 13th Research and Innovation in Distance Education, and eLearning (RIDE) annual conference  and I included a section on promoting equality in my talk, specifically focused on new analysis my colleague Martin Hawksey did of ALT’s Annual Survey focused on comparing gender perspectives, and his related post makes for interesting reading.

Being a guest curator for the #femedtech network really opens up new perspectives for me, it helps me get into the mindset of being a volunteer (and my day job relies heavily on the goodwill of volunteers, so that is particularly helpful for me) and it’s a powerful reminder that whilst we are making a lot of progress, there is always so much more to do to create a more equal and equitable society.

And on that note I’d like to mention a last opportunity to make your voice heard, to join in the conversation, which is a new open space for femedtech created in the run up to the OER19 conference. You can read all about it here and consider the following questions:

  • How do we balance privacy, openness and personal ethics?
  • How do we mediate our place in the open community, aspects of which might conflict with our personal ethics?
  • Is openness an act of conformance and / or defiance? And are there performative aspects to openness?
  • Do we feel pressured to be more open than we are comfortable with, or do our boundaries constrain us?
  • How do we manage sustainable spaces for exploring challenging issues around open?

People-powered innovation: #RIDE2019 keynote

This is a summary post for my keynote at the 13th Research and Innovation in Distance Education, and eLearning (RIDE) annual conference which takes place on 14 March 2019 in London. This year’s conference focuses on the themes ‘Professional development and student experience’ and my talk aims to consider these as challenges for digital education. You can access the full slide deck at https://go.alt.ac.uk/2EUioER.

Title slide
People-powered innovation: overcoming challenges together

It’s a pleasure to talk to an audience with a long history of addressing the challenges of scaling up technology used for teaching, learning and assessment, familiar with what it takes to engage all learners and staff at scale and passionate about the potential that innovation has for distance education. I am particularly grateful for the warm welcome from Dr Mary Stiasny, Pro Vice-Chancellor (International) at the University of London and Professor Alan Tait, CDE Fellow and Professor Emeritus of Distance Education and DEvelopment at the Open University.

My perspective and how it is informed by working with ALT Members: practitioners, researchers and policy makers

It’s particularly interesting to contribute to an event where the understanding of who learners are is more diverse, more nuanced than in a traditional undergraduate only context and where there is also a focus on understanding the the changing role of the distance learning practitioner. I chose the title for my talk because one of the key points I want to make is that change and innovation are people-powered, that it is human agency and drive that sets the pace of technological developments in education and beyond. It is easy to feel at times that we are at the mercy of technology, that it is the machines and technological progress that drive us forward and that we are constantly playing catch up. But we do have power to shape our paths, for institutions and individuals alike, and encourage each other to make use of it. To work together, across some of the traditional boundaries that can contain our practice in silos. With that in mind, here is an overview of what this talk covers in four parts:

  • Critical context and the challenges technological innovation presents
  • Insights into professional practice and trends in Learning Technology
  • Professional recognition and accreditation fit for a fast moving landscape
  • Promoting equality and working together to enhance the student experience
Part 1: Critical context and the challenges technological innovation presents

First, I’d like to briefly set out some of the critical context and look at examples of how what’s new in Learning Technology, what kinds of technologies we are currently seeing come into learning and teaching and what’s new on the horizon. It’s the interplay between learning and technology, how they effect each other to change our understanding and our practice, that is of particular interest.

Learning and Technology
The interplay between learning and technology

One of the areas of high priority identified across sectors is measuring learning, an interest in assessment and in a wide range of methods to quantify, track and chart all aspects of the learner experience. There is always a promise that with enough data and dashboards we can gain insights, leverage the power of learning analytics to understand more about how what we do impacts on progress, skills development and learning outcomes. It is up to us to develop our own capabilities in order to be able to understand fully how the more complex systems we use work, what determines when a ‘red flag’ goes up and how we should interpret and act on the information we gain in this manner. One of the last points I make in this part of the talk picks up on a section of the 2018 Horizon Report, which describes rethinking the role of educators not as a solvable or even a difficult challenge, but a wicked one, as ‘complex to define, much less address’. This is why I think the work that my organisation, the Association for Learning Technology, does is so important. We have been leading professionalisation in this context for over 25 years, charting the changing role of professionals across sectors, and these insights is what I will draw on in the next part:

Insights into professional practice 
and trends in Learning Technology
Part 2: Insights into professional practice and trends in Learning Technology

The main question I want to ask here, is how do we chart the changes in professional practice and what insights do we have. A good place to start to find answers is ALT’s Annual Survey, which in its current form has just been run for the 5th year. The survey is designed to enable us to understand current and future practice, show how Learning Technology is used across sectors and help map the ALT strategy to professional practice to better meet the needs of and represent our members. You can access the full report and all data openly, see https://go.alt.ac.uk/Survey2018 .

Changes in important current areas from ALT Annual Surveys in 2014-2018
Changes in important current areas from ALT Annual Surveys in 2014-2018

Over a period of 5 years, the survey shows how for example different areas in Learning Technology become more or less important. And one of the areas I have picked up for today specifically is Learning Technology related to assessment and also the student experience. Learner engagement has consistently been the most important enabler for the use of Learning Technology in all surveys over the past 5 years and underlines how central that is to what we do, how important people are to driving innovation and changing practice. We have that in common, no matter how different the institutions we work for, the projects we are involved with or the technologies we manage may be.

ALT Annual Survey graph

So from setting out the context of current developments in Learning Technology and the changing face of professional practice, I now want to come to talk about professional recognition and accreditation fit for a fast moving landscape.

Professional recognition and 
accreditation fit for a fast moving landscape
Part 3: Professional recognition and accreditation fit for a fast moving landscape

Established for over 10 years, the CMALT accreditation framework is the example I will focus on in this section. CMALT is a peer-based accreditation framework for all Learning Technology professionals and from the outset one of the key challenges it had to address was how to provide robust and high value professional accreditation in a context where practice changes rapidly and in which our definition of what ‘best practice’ looks like develops very quickly. One of the ways in which we solved this challenge was to set out, and to regularly revisit, shared principles that everyone, regardless of role, could relate to:

CMALT Core Principles
CMALT Core Principles

ALT’s definition of Learning Technologists is this:

You don’t have to be called a Learning Technologist to be one.

We define Learning Technology as the broad range of communication, information and related technologies that can be used to support learning, teaching and assessment.

Learning Technologists are people who are actively involved in understanding, managing, researching, supporting or enabling learning with the use of Learning Technology.

Delving deeper into what that means for professional recognition, I share examples of over a hundred different specialisms individuals have demonstrated their capability in since the scheme was launched, and specifically how specialist areas have developed in relation to engagement with learners and also how innovation has shaped the development of new specialisms. One of the areas of change that has really gained momentum is management and leadership and in particularly in the last few years we have seen increasingly senior roles, decision making roles, requiring a Learning Technology component or even focus. That is why we have piloted a new pathway for accreditation, Senior CMALT, which is due to launch in the coming months and from which I want to share some early findings.

CMALT for senior/advanced/research professionals

The new pathways continue to build an accreditation framework that empowers professionals to critically reflect on their practice and use of technology for teaching, learning and assessment. It provides robust, scalable recognition mapped to other national frameworks including the UKPSF, Jisc’s Digital Capability framework and Blended Learning Essentials. I took part in the pilot of the new senior pathway last year, and for my portfolio I chose to focus on an advanced area of practice about promoting equality in Learning Technology.

Fostering a culture of equality: Professional recognition

Some of the examples I share from my own portfolio include this, how the recognition of Honorary Life Members has changed over the past 15 years: focusing on gender balance since I become chief executive of ALT in 2012.

You can access my portfolio openly https://marendeepwell.com/?p=1805. Take a look for yourself and see how I approached the new pathway. And that brings me to the last part of my talk, which is about unpacking some of the challenges we are still facing when we work together and in particular the issue of gender equality in Learning Technology.

Part 4: Promoting equality and working together to enhance the student experience

I chose to focus on this aspect for working together partly because gender inequality is rife in the tech sector as a whole and even shapes how new technologies are developed, the data sets that AIs are trained on and the vision of the future that we see presented to us with technology. It’s also a continuous issue in this country and many others across the globe, even if we hear again and again that greater equality and more diverse workforces perform more effectively and deliver many benefits for organisations. Much of this part of my talk builds on the analysis my colleague Martin Hawksey did of ALT’s Annual Survey, and I encourage you to read his related post. This was written for an event on International Women’s Day at the University of the Highlands and Islands and presents new insights into professional practice from a gendered perspective.

ALT Annual Survey 2018

It’s interesting to see how the responses differ, particularly as we have a nearly even gender balance across all 5 years of data. So both in terms of what the areas of importance are in Learning Technology and also the enablers and drivers for the use of Learning Technology. This is the first time we have analysed the data from the survey in this way and it’s opening up new perspectives for our understanding of gender equality in our community.

Coming back to one of the key themes of the conference, re-examining the role of long-distance educators, I would like to draw you attention to the part of the survey that charts the development of professional roles amongst respondents.

As a women in a senior leadership role in Learning Technology I am reminded every day that we still have a long way to go when it coa mes to gender equality, and the broader challenge of addressing the structural inequalities in our institutions, in national policies and also, in an ever more connected world, on a global scale. I feel this has particular relevance for distance education as at the heart of our endeavour is to provide greater access to education for all, to create greater equity for all learners and how we can use technology, in an informed and reflective way, to help us achieve those aims together with a focus on learners and staff leading innovation.

Thank you for reading and if you’d like to see the full keynote you can access the CC-licenced slide desk here https://go.alt.ac.uk/2EUioER and join the conversation #RIDE2019 on Twitter.

Promoting equality in a distributed organisation

Today for International Women’s Day Martin Hawksey and I joined an inspiring day organised by the University of the Highlands and Islands Women’s Network. We contributed a joint keynote on promoting equality in a distributed organisation.

The keynote focused on sharing our perspectives on promoting equality on three levels: promoting equality as a challenge for Learning Technology professionals, promoting equality as key value in our organisational culture and promoting equality as a personal commitment.

You can access the full slides deck, including crowd-sourced slides from the generous #femedtech community https://go.alt.ac.uk/IWD19altc and all slides are openly licenced.

Martin’s part of the talk focused on a new analysis of survey data from ALT’s Annual Survey, that highlighted some very interesting differences in how male and female professionals views differ and he’s written a blog post that includes all the graphs and links to the full data set.

For my part, I want to add some reflections of my own on key parts of what we spoke about:

First, building on the perspective that Martin explored through the survey results, I shared parts of my professional development portfolio which has been accredited through ALT, making me a Senior CMALT Holder:

We heard much today about how important professional recognition and career progression is to fighting structural and organisational inequalities and in this context I felt there was an added significance to recognising different forms of promoting equality as not only a valid, but essential role of leaders at all levels, not ‘just’ specialist staff. One of the speakers today, Dr Susan Engstrand, reflected on how even small matters like keeping meetings running to time and chairing in a manner that encourages participation from everyone can make a significant difference and promote a positive culture change. It was inspiring to hear so many different voices, students included, from such a diverse university population as the communities that the University of the Highlands and Islands serves and the closing slides of our keynote added more voices from the #femedtech network to today’s discourse:


Especially as this year International Women’s Day happens during Open Education Week, it’s been a pleasure to receive contribution for this crowd-sourced slide deck, enabling volunteers within the network to help share ideas, perspectives, inspiration and practical resources. Thank you to everyone who has already contributed – and more contributions are always welcome.

As an extension of the monthly series of blog posts about leading a virtual organisation this keynote built on a recent post and podcast, focused on Martin’s and my own experiences. And so I felt it was appropriate and important that the talk followed a similar conversational format, giving our audience the opportunity to join into reflecting on our different points of view, contrasting experiences and also the similarities. It reminded me powerfully that meaningful progress can only be made if we don’t have the conversation about equality ‘just’ amongst women, or indeed any discourse about inequality of any other kind. It’s not a ‘women’s problem’ or an issue that only concerns those of us who identify as female. It’s an issue for everyone to be concerned with. In some contexts, we may make an economic argument, that mixed teams are more effective. In others there are legal, social and political realities to be confronted. But on a daily basis, there is also the difference we can each make, affecting change on a small scale, within our personal sphere of influence, as part of our families, our communities, our institutions, our networks. Thank you to everyone at the UHI International Women’s Day event for so many examples of enthusiastic, passionate and compassionate people doing just that. Every day.

Virtual Teams: special #femedtech podcast edition

Hello and welcome to this month’s post on leading a virtual team. In this post (cross-posted here) the two of us, that is Martin Hawksey (@mhawksey) and Maren Deepwell (@marendeepwell), continue our series of openly sharing our approach to leadership.

If you are new here, you can catch up on earlier posts and podcasts or find out more about ALT, the organisation we work for as senior staff. We really appreciate comments & feedback and welcome questions or suggestions for future posts.

February

Maren: In the past year we’ve each volunteered as a guest curator for @femedtech (here’s a link to my post on that). Promoting greater equality in Learning Technology and in our distributed organisation in particular has become an important part of our professional practice. In 2017 I gave this talk at EdTech17 and since then I’ve included something about equality in most of my talks, following the example of others to use my voice to raise awareness.

As my turn to volunteer as a guest curator is coming up just after International Women’s Day on 8 March and we are contributing a joint keynote on promoting equality in a distributed organisation to a related event at the University of the Highlands and Islands, I’ve started to reflect on what I’ve learnt over the past year and come up with some ideas to discuss in this post and podcast: first, I’ve discovered lots of my own blind spots – issues and inequalities that I wasn’t aware of previously. The #femedtech network and also working in the Open Education community has helped with that (although there is a lot more to learn). Also, our work on policies for remote working has prompted me to question what I can do, what I can change, to help address any structural inequality within our organisation, by for example reviewing policies for flexible working and family leave. Another thought is that reading the narratives of others, recounting personal journeys, precarious work and family situations, career challenges, work life balance problems and so forth, made me reflect on how far outside of any comfort zone I usually work. And that is a sobering thought, particularly as I am in a position of relative privilege.

Martin: It’s interesting to consider equality and diversity as part of a distributed team. A number of the discussions I’ve seen around gender equality highlight the benefits of employers providing better opportunities for flexible working. Another factor to consider is the physical workplace can be very gender bias. The allocation/distribution of toilets is often mentioned, but I think there are lots of other environmental factors which are often overlooked. I don’t know whether virtual workplaces can be gender bias, perhaps you have thoughts on this, but it’s interesting that in a 2017 survey on Jobsite they reported that 76% of female tech professionals thought businesses offering remote working were more likely to retain top talent. Blind spots is one of the biggest challenges, not just within the workplace, but society as a whole. Before attitudes and approaches can be changed the issue first has to be acknowledged. In the case of gender I think a lot of guys don’t see a problem, or even if they do see it as a problem it is something that they shouldn’t be concerned about. As part of my curation period for @femedtech I came across the “ICTs’ for Feminist Movement Building – Activist Toolkit

A part of this Frances Bell highlighted the ‘Principles of Feminist Communication’ which is part of the toolkit. A principle that caught my eye was “we produce content in a democratic manner. Women take the lead. The process serves to build positive power”. In the case of @femedtech it is absolutely important that women lead this community, but for it to be successful it has to reach those who have their own blind spots. As such I was grateful for the opportunity to curate this community for a short period. As I explained to a friend the best equality and diversity training I had ever been on.

Maren: I agree. It’s an enormously valuable experience. Physical workspace is an interesting area when it comes to promoting equality and I’d include conference/meeting spaces in that. There are many aspects to this, even the seats you sit on: for example, I was on an all women panel once conducted on a high stage on bar stools. Not great when panelists are wearing skirts and the camera is located five feet below. Or dress codes for work, including it still being legal to stipulate women wear heels. And don’t get me started on the topic of pockets

. Working closely with the tech sector a different kind of stereotype dominates, the genius young start up CEO or coder, mostly males who work all hours of the day. Having other responsibilities outside of work or not being able or willing to give up 100% of your time all of the time can easily be looked down on. If you open up your perspective to challenging discrimination based on age, disability, gender reassignment, race, religion or belief, sex, sexual orientation, marriage and civil partnership, and pregnancy and maternity then the challenges just keep getting bigger (ALT’s policy on equality & diversity underlines this). Which is why I feel so strongly that it’s also a matter of personal responsibility to help promote greater equality: everyone can make a difference within their personal practice, their immediate sphere of influence or even their own mindset. We can each educate ourselves, try and become more aware and raise others’ awareness. I am always inspired by projects such as the Feminist Internet, Women in Red, Uncommon Women and many others that do amazing things. On a related note, I saw a tweet the other day where Kelsey Merkley shared a childhood memory:

It made me smile because my dream jobs growing up were bin man (because of riding at the back of the truck), hot dog vendor (love of ketchup), astronaut (amazing science teacher), judge (inspired by Captain Picard) and my fancy dress costume of choice was Poseidon (trident) and circus director (top hat). It never occurred to me that these weren’t ‘girly’ choices. Nowadays I buy books like Garth Nix’s Frogkisser for the younger readers in my life, so they can develop imaginations in which the White Wizard can be a teenage girl. And I indulge in books like those written by Ursula LeGuin, which have diverse lead characters and cultural contexts so that my own imagination grows in richness and diversity.

Martin: I’m hoping over the generations there is more equality. One issue we have is people just live to darn long so even if this is the case we still have a long time to wait. Just before our last Trustee meeting and knowing I had the prospect of a 4am start I decided to stay up and watch The Great British Sewing Bee. My interest in sewing is largely as a spectator, but I’m quite happy to put buttons back on, I also sewed on all of my daughter’s Brownie badges. People who know me well will recognise me as a maker and DIYer so perhaps not a surprise that I’m interested in this type of programme. When I was a kid I remember one year asking Santa for a sewing machine, I don’t recall it being a particularly positive reaction to that request and think I ended up with a bike instead. As someone with their own child I feel I’m more conscious of not imposing stereotypes. Some of my friends/family are teachers and when we have spoken about this in the past they say they feel there is greater openness and acceptance in areas like sexual orientation in that generation. Thinking about this post and how it relates to equality in the workplace one question I have is there a danger that remote working will be used to allow organisations to have a diverse workforce but also prevent people having full freedom of expression? An example I have in mind is a number of organisations, notably the education sector, now provide employees with the option of branded rainbow-coloured lanyards. This is a very visible support of the LGBT+ community, an act that would have far less public impact for a remote workforce. Do remote workers have the same degree of expression as office based staff?

Maren: That feels like a good jumping off point for the podcast we are recording for this post. There’s so much to unpack. Like many of the issues we discuss in this series this is a topic that touches on very personal, human questions and reaches all the way to formal HR policies, working with diverse stakeholders and keynote speakers and even our organisation’s strategy. I’ve also explored this in my Senior CMALT portfolio to show that this is a key element of my professional practice.

There’s a person on the image below who has green hair, and that’s intentional. Sure, it’s a small thing, but it’s important because of the thought process that went into it. It’s putting values, policies even, into practice in a playful and powerful way.

More to read and listen to:

Virtual Team outtakes: tools, superstructures and keep asking ‘why’?!

I really appreciate following the work of Alice Keeler (@alicekeeler) on Twitter. I learn something new from her every week and find the tips and ideas being shared extremely accessible and easy to use. So when I saw this tweet recenlyt, proclaiming “I WANT my tech tools to become OBSOLETE” I sat back and paused – because I was just in the process of spending a few hours making one of the tools I use at work obsolete and it felt like a good point to remind myself why that is a good thing.

When we wrote about cpd and digital well being for our series on leading virtual teams, Martin Hawksey and I talked about how important it is to revisit our relationship with technology as personal habits change and professional practice develops. And I mentioned some of the more frustrating aspects of constant iteration, of ‘agile’ approaches to developing software and hardware. What we didn’t get around to talking about is what Alice’s post picks up on, the opportunity to start from scratch, with a blank slate, to improve, to re-imagine – rather than to simply edit or update. Alice’s post reminded me that it’s sometimes good when platforms or tools change because we are then forced to take a fresh look at what we are doing and why. But some processes that I work on are so fundamental, so much part of the fabric of my working world, that there’s rarely an external prompt to start from scratch.

The structures that shape workflows, processes, thinking… usually they are either complex and technologically challenging, in which case I need others to actually do the re-imagining with and for me, or they are very simple and tend to disappear into the foundation. This second category is rarely rocked by obsolescence. As tools go, spreadsheets and documents, in one form or another, don’t often change dramatically enough to really make you take a fresh look at things. So this time I am going to not focus on the ‘how’ but the ‘why’. What do I need this to do? Why is it being produced? Why is it being read? Why is it important to know? Or is it?

It’s a good thing to do, to take a fresh look at something and consider how it could do better. How it could be more efficient. Or more engaging. More transparent. More impactful. How it could be cheaper or more expensive. How it could be more fun, more enjoyable, more rewarding. And whether you need it in the first place. Does it still serve a purpose?

I am not a great fan of doing things because they have been done before. Or of doing things in a certain way simply because that’s how it was done before. That’s not a good enough reason. I always want to know why. Why, why, WHY???

There are some problems with this approach: you don’t have the comfort of accepting things as they are (and that is not to be underestimated), you can waste time and effort on something that is not worth it, you need to make sure you don’t change things for the sake of it and it’s a lot more work to constantly trying to improve everything than to simply repeat it.

There are much bigger upsides (for me): it’s not boring. You develop judgement. You can achieve more (I think). It’s fun learning new things all the time. You get to re-invent the structures that determine the shape of your work.

When I was a research student, I worked part-time in my department’s archive. A small collection of materials that students could borrow from a room filled with book cases and filing cabinets. I worked there for two years and left a new cataloguing system, the first complete catalogue, a new lending process and loans up by 100% when I left. A few hours a week sitting in a small, boring office where activity was not at all incentivised presented an opportunity for me to reinvent things from the ground up. Given time, space and a particular problem, I had enough freedom to… make things change. It never occurred to me to ask for permission.

And that’s why I liked that post from Alice and her thinking about changes in tools and platforms as opportunities to ask ‘why’? Any catalyst that get’s us to ask that question, to reflect on our work and our aims and the underlying systems, the assumptions is to be welcomed. Not ‘just’ for teachers, but for each of us.

If you have missed it, go back and read the most recent post on leading a virtual team.

Virtual Teams: When things get personal

Hello and welcome to this month’s post on leading a virtual team. In this post (cross-posted here) the two of us, that is Martin Hawksey (@mhawksey) and Maren Deepwell (@marendeepwell), continue our series of openly sharing our approach to leadership.

If you are new here, you can catch up on earlier posts and podcasts or find out more about ALT, the organisation we work for as senior staff. We really appreciate comments & feedback and welcome questions or suggestions for future posts.

January

Maren: Hi. I wanted to start this post by talking about a small professional development experiment we did this month. I came across some online courses run by Google and as we use Google Apps for Education this seemed like a nice way for all of us to do some free CPD, use a familiar platform for a new purpose and have a bit of fun as a team. Everyone was free to choose their own topic, and the plan was to report back at a team meeting and share three things: something you learnt, something you found challenging and something you would like to find out more about. I chose to spend my hour learning more about digital wellbeing (maybe not a new topic, but definitely time well spent) and one of the ideas that I took away from the course is to have ‘device-free’ meetings to encourage individuals to be more present and engage with each other. On the one hand not being distracted by notifications etc makes complete sense to me. Giving others your full attention is important. I wonder what else makes for good online meeting etiquette other than not checking notifications? On the other hand I am not sure that staring at each other’s video feed is always the best way to get people thinking or talking. That reminded me of this visual thought ‘Meeting around a document’ and how sometimes having a walk, an actual one or a virtual wander through a spreadsheet, might be a better way to connect, work, talk together. Thoughts?

Martin: I also did the digital wellbeing course, mainly because knowing you had already done it we’d have something to discuss. Bryan’s visual thinkery is very apt particularly for distributed teams where we rely on real-time collaborative documents. The thought of working on a MS Word or Excel document and emailing it around as an attachment now seems completely foreign to me. There have been some projects where this has been required because of the limitations Google Docs has when embedding complicated graphs. When I have to go back to this technique now it just seems like such an unproductive way of doing things and I see lots of benefits from ‘meeting around a document’, particularly when combined with video conferencing. It does come with some challenges, for example, making sure everyone is on the same page or spreadsheet tab. As a result I think it requires a little more awareness than if you were working on a document face-to-face. There are also small things that can easily be forgotten. For example we have two colleagues with the same name and there was a moment recently when we all had to be reminded that when meeting virtually, unlike a physical meeting, you can’t easily make eye contact and direct your comment to someone as a result we need to remember to let people know which person you are talking to. You could ask if there is any point in enabling cameras during virtual meetings as often when you are collaborating on a document you might be viewing it in the same window as the meeting but it gets lost underneath. Personally I find even in these situations having video is important, particularly when there are more than two of you. It gives me reassurance that the other person is ‘there’ and not been dropped from the call. Do you have any tips on maintaining focus while in video calls?

Maren: I have a mental checklist for meetings that I use for meetings regardless of how they happen. I’ve added a few examples of techniques specifically relevant for online meetings.

When I lose focus in a call, most of the time that’s because my priorities are wrong: instead of what’s important, I’ll focus on what’s urgent or worse, I get distracted by what’s loudest. That could be emails pinging into my inbox or notifications coming into my phone. Or it could be something more personal like having a bad hair day or feeling self conscious about my new glasses (no one actually noticed). Outside of meetings there is a bigger issue around focus I’d like to think about: in roles like ours, as senior staff, we should ideally focus on what’s important, manage what’s urgent and oversee what’s loud or noisy (noisy, but part of the day to day churn of running the organisation). In practice as the pressure we are under goes up, the higher the workload for whatever reason, the less good I become at delegating and the more prone to get stuck in and simply ‘do’. Working in a distributed team some of the physical prompts to prioritise are absent: for example, in a traditional setting you may have team meetings in one room but meet the Board or plan strategy in another. In our virtual working environment all meeting rooms are equal – it’s up to us to create a different atmosphere, a different focus. Similarly, when my former boss was in the office and working on something he would close the door to indicate that he was not to be disturbed unless it was urgent. Now, it’s up to me to shut down my inbox, tell everyone I am busy via chat or update my calendar and make that space to focus and have no distractions. It’s a bit like training for a race, preparation & practice are key. And a sense of fun/a bit of humour goes a long way to get you through rough patches.

Martin: Great checklists! I was recently invited to a meeting. The person co-ordinating the meetings was conducting interviews and used Google Calendar appointment slots to allow me select a time that suited me best. As part of the sign-up the calendar slots included some tips on meetings like the prompt “what is the desirable outcome of this meeting?” and a link to Wikihow: Prepare for a meeting. I didn’t think that the Wikihow guidance is that great but liked the idea of using appointment slots and those slots being prefilled with some guidance text with the option for the person taking the slot to edit the text. In terms of ‘noise’ I’ve followed Alan Livine’s advice and will now often put the radio on in the morning. Generally meetings later in the day mean I end up turning it off and forgetting to put it back on. To also reduce the noise of notifications I generally always have Windows 10 Focus Assist on which reduces the number of pings and alerts you get. As part of our year end we are also conducting a “home working setup – annual check-in” where we are encouraging our team to share a photo of their setup and include a couple of tips/lessons learned. As I look after ALT infrastructure and oversee our social media I never like to be too far away from being contactable – if our website goes down I want to know about it. As a result my home setup has a lot of screen real estate to help, the downside is there are a lot of potential distractions:

Something else that features in this pic are post-it notes. I’ve got various online note tools, mainly Google Keep, but still find particularly when our workload increases that the processes of prioritising what I need to achieve by writing it down very useful … it’s also always nice to cross something off when complete. One downside of physical notes relates to your comment about closing office doors when you are busy. There is no easy way for the rest of the team to see what is on my notes. What I really need is a view access only option on Google Keep…

Maren: I hadn’t tried out the calendar slot scheduling, so that’s a new tip for me. And I definitely agree we should support a feature request for view only Keep notes! With such frequent iteration on the platform, I don’t always spot new things or indeed explore the potential of innovations as they appear. A recent week of A/B testing left me rather puzzled as my interfaces suddenly looked different to everyone else’s. I suppose it’s the flipside of being “agile”… and as the in house family tech support that many of us who work in Learning Technology are, I frequently try and explain to elderly users, i.e. my mom, why indeed she has to adapt to the way things are done afresh every few months. It plays havoc with our family tech manuals (my mom was an accountant, we have manuals…) and is REALLY unhelpful for people who have trouble with technology to begin with. I am not going to mention here the problems even blogging brings with it just now thanks to the recent WordPress innovations… there’s plenty of that discussion already going on. My closing thought for this month’s conversation is really about how personal all of this is, how much of a personal issue managing our relationship with technology and our wellbeing (online and physical) is. Sure, it’s an obvious point to make, but I wonder how me having appointment slots in my calendar may feel to someone who is used to having a chat about when to meet? I often underestimate how small actions like this may come across at a human level. I feel a whole new blog post coming on, so I better pause here… any final thoughts from you?

Martin: I completely agree that our individual relationship with technology varies as does the level of confidence we individually have when faced with change. Someone you chat with to arrange a meeting might prefer picking a calendar slot. This really underlines your point that this is all very personal, one thing that works for one person might not for the next … let’s just be grateful we are a team of 6, not 60, 600 or even more than that.  

More to read and listen to:

Getting Virtual Teams Right (Harvard Business Review)

Re-posted #altc: a strategic update from the Chair and Chief Executive of ALT

One giant leap… by Bryan Mathers

Dear Members

We about to embark on the third and final year of ALT’s Strategy 2017-2020. Together we have made strong, strategic progress putting our shared values into practice and meet our aims for Members and for public benefit, too.

We reported to Members and stakeholders from across sectors in ALT’s Annual Report and at the AGM in September about the changes to our organisational and governance structures. The transition to an independent, distributed organisation, has allowed us to make huge leaps in terms of meeting our strategic goals.

Since September,  much has happened and so we are are now sharing  more of what we have been up to in the year that saw ALT celebrate its 25th anniversary:

Open research

A key area for growth has been the Open Access research published in ALT’s journal. The full back archive reaching back to 1993 is an invaluable resource for Members at a time when reliable research is increasingly important for efficient use of Learning Technology and informed decision making.

Led by volunteer Editorial Team and Nicola Whitton, Vice-Chair of ALT, who chairs the Editorial Board, the journal has covered a diverse range of topics in recent months including TEL strategies in HE, playful learning, mobile mixed reality, students’ perceptions of Twitter and smart learning environments.

GDPR and Learning Technology

Member organisations from industry including Blackboard and Moodle as well as individual experts such as DCU’s Head of the Teaching Enhancement Unit, Mark Glynn, have led a series of webinars on GDPR organised by ALT’s Chief Innovation, Technology and Community Officer, Martin Hawksey.  Much of this work has been shared with other sector bodies such as ELESIG Scotland and also fed into ALT’s recent response to the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Data Analytics inquiry into data and technology ethics.

Enhancing professional recognition

We have also completed the pilots for Associate and Senior CMALT. These two new accreditation pathways for Learning Technology professionals will launch later this month. Led by Operations Manager, Susan Greig, working closely with Certified Members and Lead Assessors, both pathways will be supported by a growing body of community-sourced resources and a baseline of example portfolios that set a robust standard for professionals at different stages of their career and across a broader range of roles than before. We invite you warmly to sign up for the launch webinars for Associate and Senior CMALT to find out more.

Postcards celebrating ALT@25 remixed by ALT Members

ALT Assembly

ALT’s Membership has now grown to over 3,500 Members and as a result many of our activities are now scaling up to support the larger community. Alongside increasing our operational capacity, the Board of Trustees led Members in the effort to update ALT’s constitution, bringing it in line with best practice set out by the Charity Commission and also to ensure that in our governance our community is at the heart of everything we do. That is why as part of the updated governance structure the new ALT Assembly committee has been established. The ALT Assembly is the overarching committee advising the Board of Trustees, supported by Tom Palmer, ALT’s Membership Manager, it will be bringing together former operational committees, publication and events related groups and boards as well as Members and Special Interest Groups. We hope that the Assembly will help improve communication for Members actively involved in ALT as well as the impact of the work we do together.

ALT marks one year operating as an independent organisation

In our report above we have focused on the work our Members do and with that in mind it seems only fitting to add a final update on developments that have seen us increase our organisational capacity to support Members across the UK. Today’s date, 1 February, marks the first anniversary since ALT began to operate as an independent, virtual organisation and employer. Whilst major restructuring and transition have been ongoing for most of the last 18 months, disruption to services for Members have been minimal. In keeping with ALT’s commitment to openness, Members have been regularly updated throughout the process and ALT’s senior staff have shared the journey informally in a monthly series of blog posts on open leadership. Having successfully weathered the transition, we now look forward to the benefits the more agile and distributed organisation structure will bring.

Thinking about the year ahead, with the results from ALT’s Annual Survey due to be published soon and a packed calendar of activities already planned, we look forward to increasing the impact of what we do as the leading professional body for Learning Technology in the UK. Members will convene the Assembly (both face to face and online) in the next month to work together and this new development inspires and reminds us that each contribution to the work we do makes a real difference to our growing Membership.

Together, and on behalf of the Trustees and staff, we thank you for helping us making many small steps into one giant leap forward over this past year.

Reposted from the #altc blog.

One year without an office…

A photo of the office with furniture but otherwise empty
The office…

A year ago this week I locked the door to this office for the last time, handed back the keys to the estate manager (never seen such a tidy move, he said) and left the building – leading my team, my organisation into the brave new world of being a distributed organisation, a virtual team.

You can read all about what happened next… the official updates for Members written by Trustees and myself, in formal reports and audited accounts and the less formal account published in a joint series of posts with Martin Hawksey, which includes even podcasts. All together these will give you insight into how resources were saved and reinvested more effectively, strategic aims achieved with more impact, lessons learnt, home working cultures established and so forth. I am proud of that record one year after closing the office and whilst this is of course an ongoing progress of transition, there is clear evidence that all the aims we set out for the transition when we originally started planning 2 years ago have been achieved and even exceeded. It’s been a team effort.

So what’s it like to be a CEO without an office?
What’s it like to represent a long established professional body without a physical base?
How does it feel to be a Line Manager, everyone’s boss, remotely?

Well, let’s start with the last one: currently I manage 6 people and 4 of the 6 were recruited as virtual team home workers, to be part of a distributed organisation. I spend the same amount of time on all the things you do to manage, support, motivate and be there for others – just the way in which we connect and the locations where we see each other are now more varied. In turn, everyone, including myself, spends just as much time and effort being part of a team – again, just in different colourways and with different challenges. Instead of dirty cups that no one has washed up or bins that overflow, we focus on the logistics of office supplies or connectivity. Instead of having light bulb moments sitting around a meeting table, we have inspiring ideas meeting around a document. It works, we deliver and perform.

As the leading professional body for Learning Technologists the Members we serve as an organisation are probably more likely to appreciate the potential of technology when it comes to running an organisation. Many people involved in ALT have experience of being part of a virtual team, collaborating with others who are not based where they are and they appreciate the power of a distributed network. So when we moved from having most staff based in one location to having staff based all around the UK, there was nothing but welcome for the opportunities that opened up. Members have hosted us for the day when we all come together or have a visit, kindly providing us with a base for the day. More support for volunteer-led activities all around the country makes us a stronger community and provides greater contact with Trustees as well. If for those already involved in the organisation it hasn’t been an issue, there have been plenty of partners and other organisations who have taken some convincing. I often meet with the question of where am I based, and when I explain that we don’t have a physical HQ anymore, they aren’t really clear how that can work?! Or indeed how professional or serious we can be if the address on our business cards is now to the website. We do of course have a registered address, and a postal one for correspondence, too – but the small amount of physical post that arrives at either (and indeed our old address one year on) is rarely more thank junk mail. Although we really do appreciate the holiday greetings 🙂 That said, as we continue to work together even for those who were initially sceptical the issue of where we are based fades into the background. We deliver what we promise, we are responsive, we work hard to help where we can and all of that builds trust better than bricks and mortar.

But the question most personal to me is probably what’s it like to be a CEO without an office. To some people, it’s a akin to what it would have been like to be upper class without an estate. The office, the estate, the shiny things within bright white rooms or dark grey rooms or brightly coloured rooms with free food and pool tables… the assistants, the clothes, the coffee, the meeting rooms, the tech, the desk, the chair – the drama of welcoming guests to your office! What kind of CEO can I be without all of that? Most of the CEOs I meet are seriously wondering (and in many cases they already have to contend with my gender, age, nationality to overcome their preconceptions). Of course, there are plenty of other CEOs and leaders who are working, and have been working for decades, without an office, based remotely or travelling a lot. That’s not a new thing in itself. But sadly in many cases those in power fit the traditional template here in the UK and so their casual insistence to visit our offices, meet over coffee etc often turns to puzzlement when there is no physical space for them to pinpoint that represents the organisation I lead. For me, it’s helpful. It can be very insightful to see how people react to the “no office… virtual organisation” answer to their question about where I am based. It helps me chose how I approach them better. For some, it endows me with tech credentials (she needs to know something about tech if she runs the organisation from home…), for others, it conveys a sense that I have a flexibility approach to work, maybe understand more about work/life/family balancing acts. It can also signal that I care about putting resources where they make the most impact for the charity, rather than having a plush office. A year in, what I know for certain is that without an office I can very much be the CEO I want to be, maybe more so than before. I love the freedom not having to manage physical space has opened up and the bigger perspective it has given me.

So this Wednesday, when the first anniversary comes around, I shall be raising a glass to mark the occasion. Not to celebrate exactly, but to remind myself of something a colleague said to me the day we handed the keys back. It’s quite remarkable what you can achieve when you put your mind to it. Cheers.

Blogging is my sketchbook: reflecting on the creative process and open practice

Line drawing of a sketchbook
‘Sketchbook’ – daily drawing from 21 Jan 2019

When I was a young teenager, I asked my parents for a (mechanical) typewriter for my birthday so that I could type my journal, plays and poetry – on coloured paper mostly. I didn’t have the internet.

When I was an art student, my sketchbooks had pockets, windows, some smelled of strange colours or oils I had tried out, some trailed plaster dust or were covered with fabric. I also had a blog filled with all of these things (no longer accessible).

When I was writing my thesis I had binders full of flyers, photos, product samples, stories, interviews and even dried plants. I also had a blog: now the cemeteryscapes archives.

Now, I have a private blog, notebooks of daily drawings, archive boxes of things I collect for inspiration, thousands of images, cups filled with stickers and badges, many places where I write and reflect and thanks to Reclaim Hosting I have my own domain. This blog.

This is the tip of the iceberg of the messy, constant creative process that is the way I think and work. It includes images and drawings and slide decks and links to things and stories and conversations and my portfolio of professional practice. It also has many typos, personal anecdotes, moments of my life that I have chosen to share.

Sometimes I write on other platforms, for my organisation, for academic purposes, to promote things, to provide commentary, to inform, to share… but usually all things I do end up at least linked to from my archive, if not backed up on this site. All together it constitutes part of my ‘sketchbook’, part of my practice, the most open part of my practice. What’s important to me is that it forms part of my process, through which I am prompted to reflect, to work out ideas, to develop my thinking and that I have a record of that.

Having a record of my work is extremely useful when it comes to appraisal time, when I want to send a link to someone, when I need examples of things I have done. It also stops me from moving always forwards without looking back, without appreciating all that I have done, even if much of it is not polished, or finished or maybe even never sees the light of day. It includes mistakes and errors and things I’ve changed my mind about. I feel I have a measure of control, because it is my own platform.

Curiosity and creativity are messy. My work is, too. Much of it is not productive, it doesn’t lead anywhere, it’s not for public consumption, for others. It’s for me. When I have a good idea in the shower or when I’m out for a run, sometimes that idea ends of being part of my work in a way that surfaces, but most of it isn’t. That doesn’t make it less important. It’s one of the things I learnt to appreciate at art school. To appreciate that I can’t always tell what may be useful to know or keep or read. To value distraction and diversions and the unexpected. Blogging can be part of that.

You reading this now is a bonus.

In my view, open practice isn’t primarily for others. When I write on my own blog, I don’t write with an audience in mind unless I am writing for a specific event, i.e. a keynote transcript for example. I take an informed decision to publish, because I want to. I want to share my practice, provide insight into what I do and to add my voice to how professional practice is articulated. I want to be visible. But it’s not for others. If no one reads this, and plenty of my posts have only a handful of readers, that is fine with me. It doesn’t make it a less valuable part of my practice. I am in a position of privilege, yes. In addition, I have the resources and skills to host my own domain to be able to do this, blog in this way. But in one way or another, this kind of writing has been part of my life for three decades, from typing onto the coloured pieces of A4 paper, leftovers from my mother’s disused work folders, to scribbling into sketchbooks to years worth of post-it notes that accumulated during my research student years.

There is a famous quote by artist Rick Beerhorst about sketchbooks that describes well how I feel about blogging as part of my creative process: …”[Sketchbooks] help me stay free and, at the same time, help me get connected to the world around me in a deeper way”.

An inspirational hour with Lorna Campbell on blogging as academic practice, which Lorna kindly facilitated for me and my colleagues inspired this blog post and I am deeply grateful to Lorna and all who’s blog posts inspire me on a daily basis. Thank you.