Blended and online learning is now a mainstream concept, after decades treated as a niche concern. There are so many voices in this space now, journalists, practitioners, researchers, policy makers. I can’t even try to summarise the many threads of discussion. So this post is just a collection of thoughts in the hope that saying it out loud will help me or maybe even someone else.

Digital Learning in bananagram letters

Digital poverty isn’t a thing

To learn online, people need access to a device, a stable internet connection and a quiet place to sit. People who live in crowded homes, or without decent broadband or without a good computer will have problems learning online. The Labour Party was laughed at in 2019 for advocating subsidised broadband for all. Now there’s a panic about “digital poverty”. Aditya Chakrabortty writes in the Guardian (22 Jan 2021) about the framing of digital poverty alongside period poverty, food poverty, child poverty. “It must instead be broken down into discrete categories, all the better to tuck into Whitehall documents or charity campaign strategies. In that fake neatness lies both great political hypocrisy and huge social danger”. See “The problem is poverty, however we label it“. Making the education sector own the barriers created by poverty, as with free school meals, creates a smokescreen for the underlying issue.  Some people don’t have enough money to meet the cost of living. The cost of living now includes being digitally connected and feeding your kids during the day. Wages or benefits  need to increase to cover that gap, or the government needs to legislate to cap some of the costs of living. I don’t know the answer but I am increasingly uneasy with all this talk of digital poverty. At Chakrabortty says, it is a “fake neatness”.

Traditional exams ain’t all that

I don’t understand the worries about teacher-assessed grades, or the weird nostalgia for rows of desks of scribbling students. Big bang assessment is not often the best way to assess a students knowledge and skills. Continuous assessment, mini feedback loops, assessment for learning not just of learning: these patterns are surely better. And writing on paper without the option to copy and paste text or add reference links: how is that authentic to any modern workplace? How far are our assessment designs based mainly on making it hard to cheat, at the expense of genuine evaluation of progress? In the Conversation in August 2020, Winstone and Baud persuasively describe the need to rethink assessment anyway: we should “cut down on exams for good“. 

We should have less big bang summative exams sat in big rooms with invigilators, there are plenty of alternatives. Online assessment systems can at least allow for typing, which is more authentic, and why not also speaking, and drawing? And in the scenarios where an unseen timed assessment is the only option and it has to be online: sometimes proctoring might be useful. It shouldn’t be the default. But it might have a place, sometimes.

The important thing is to design good, aligned, authentic assessments that genuinely assess the students knowledge and skills.

We need pragmatism about privacy

Now that everyone has woken up to the maxim that data is the new oil, and “if you’re not paying, you’re the product”, what does that mean for user data flowing through our learning tools?

Institutions definitely need to be clear with students about what is collected and what it is used for. The more upfront we can be about that, the better. Where the data is used for tracking engagement in learning I think that can be make explicit in the information about the module, and the design of the learning activities. Learning analytics doesn’t need to be sinister, it just needs to be above board.

Educational Technology is big business now

The scale of online learning activity means that platform providers need to be a decent size to have scalable reliable supported hosting. They need to be big players with 24/7 support and big technical teams to keep up with changes to web browsers and rolling app upgrades for smartphones.

To some suppliers, education is only one small sector and we don’t carry much weight with them but in return we get enterprise scale solutions. The more digital approaches are used in corporate training, customer service, communication and collaboration etc, the wider the market is.

The conversation should be having with them is about their business models: might institutions need different sorts of contractual relationships and pricing structures to avoid paying in data?

We need more precise shared language about digital learning design

We need some shared vocabulary around synchronous and asynchronous, solo and social, consumption, creation, collaboration.

Learners need to understand better what is expected of them and when. Educators need to describe that to them, and to coordinate with their colleagues to design and deliver these learning experiences.

I like to imagine that we could agree on terms to describe a sequence or combination of activities, together and alone, online and offline. It feels like that language is developing rapidly around online collaboration in the workplace: in online workshops using breakout rooms and tools like padlet, we’re all getting better at purposeful use. I expect to see those micro design patterns get given short names. As my colleague Robert O’Toole would say: more explicit pattern-naming benefits everyone.

In an optimistic mood I might even suggest that when we are better able to describe the purpose of each activity and each content input, we might be better able to share resources too. More interactive use of large on-campus teaching sessions for active and social learning comes out of a decoupling of content, delivery, interaction and feedback. The same approach increases the options for inclusive teaching, and also the possibility of using open educational resources. So many options arise from the same attention to design. By disaggregating and then reimagining teaching, a whole plethora of practices become possible.

The next wave is beginning

I said in a previous post that I am trying hard to see this acceleration of digital learning as a genuinely new wave. I really do think that, though perhaps our ways of talking about teaching now needs to distinguish more between what was, what is, and what should be. It’s only when we separate that out that we can talk sensibly about what tools and support are needed to allow space for growth. There are lessons to learn from the phase of emergency remote teaching but it is only when we have real choices again that we will see how far we have expanded the possibilities.

As I write this, Scotland has just announced a month-long lockdown and we’re awaiting a press conference about stronger restrictions in England. So mentioning that it’s my birthday tomorrow is the height of narcissism.

Hello. It’s my birthday tomorrow.

5 years ago I wrote about turning 40. Reading it back, it still rings true. 2020 has put big questions into sharp focus for many of us. My reflections right now are nothing mind-blowing but they are mine, and I wanted to share them here.

As an atheist it’s hard to apply the concept of gratitude: who or what am I supposed to be grateful to? But I do “count my blessings”. I know how lucky and privileged I am. I am warm and safe and well-fed. I love and am loved. I even have some satisfaction at the top of “Maslow’s hierarchy of needs”.

Amber’s version of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

My attitude towards power and authority has changed this year. I am often critical of those in charge, of the country, of my employers, of councils and schools. If I’m honest I have tended to think I could do better. This year knocked that arrogance out of me. I am glad I am not in charge. I do not have the answers. I value honest leaders, who acknowledge complexity and don’t pretend everything will be ok. I have felt a burden of responsibility at work, but have held it collectively. In simpler times I might have wanted to stand at the front, but this year, I have understood how hard that can be. I learned this year that my appetite for power has limits.

It has been very weird to be an educational technologist this year. I have spent over two decades working on improvements to using technology in education. Between me and my husband we have worked at, or with, all the EdTech UK agencies. Devices, connectivity, software, platforms, content, practice, training … that’s my world. And this year my world was front page news: online learning is a Mainstream Thing now. Video conferencing has been in the foreground but hopefully other models will surface into the mainstream now. There is so much good practice knowledge ready to implement, to make really great blended learning that is more flexible, and more authentic assessment, and more social learning. So much knowledge in our generous communities of practice: just not enough time.

It’s hard not to feel a weird deja vu. I need to swallow down the “told you so”, re-engage with the battles that I thought I’d already fought a decade ago, and maybe … maybe … expect that I will be listened to! I need to say the things that I think are obvious because maybe they’re not obvious to everyone who hasn’t spent twenty years in the field. And the context has changed, massively! I should take the opportunity to think differently and enjoy having new collaborators and stakeholders interested in developing really great digital learning. I must resist the “been there, done that, got the t-shirt” cynicism that bubbles up, and instead see edtech in 2021 for what it is: a genuinely new wave.

Luckily, we are about to get an opportunity to reframe how we support digital learning. Me and my team are moving out of the IT group and into the Education Group. So I become Director of Academic Technology, reporting to the Academic Registrar. And we get to be the people in the teaching services who know about IT, rather than the people in the IT services who know about teaching. So I’m excited for that changed context.

So as I wait to start my refreshed role, and to mark my birthday, I feel strangely positive. Against everything that 2020 has thrown at us, I have emerged fairly unscathed and I have reasons to be positive. Crossing my fingers for this year and sending my love to those who are facing difficult times.

What a year. I have often done some kind of new year or birthday review blogpost. This year is really hard to cover, obviously dominated by the Covid-19 pandemic. This year at work has been like a decade, and that deserves a seperate story.

This “Leisure” post is mainly self-indulgent, an aide memoir for future me about what I’ve spent my time on outside work.

These are a few of my favourite things

Here goes …

TV: My highlight was probably Brave New World, followed closely by the Queen’s Gambit. Discovered Harlots. Recently watching Raised by Wolves. Rewatching the Good Place with my 11 year old: a great intro to philosophy! He has also been boxsetting Brooklyn 99. I am just starting the Gilmore Girls. Documentary “the Vow”. The Social Dilemma. Loved Tales from the Loop and also Devs, which shared some themes and were both haunting.

Films: Drive-In Jurassic Park, Elf. Watched Contagion in April: oof. Train to Busan was great. “Brittney runs a marathon” was sweet. Knives Out was fun. I’m sure I watched loads more films on tv but they don’t seem to have left much impression.

Music: This would have been the year of live music for me. The Killers supported by the Manic Street Preachers: postponed. Elton John: postponed. So I have been focussed on my karaoke app, a terrible weakness for hits by Chicago (the band, not the Musical, though the Musical would probably be a cooler thing to like), and discovering Alicia Keys “if I ain’t got you” which I’m working on the piano for, along with Adele’s “make you feel my love”. And a special mention for “Think about things”, the Icelandic entry to Eurovision!

Health and Fitness: 2019 was the year of my endometriosis diagnosis and I nearly had my ovaries removed but decided against in a consultation. I do get occasional acute abdominal pain but trying to manage it better. I have kept fairly active this year, enjoying my solo walks and jogs and the occasional walk with friends. Enjoyed a dance exercise class subscription in September but not very good at sticking to a routine. Just started a virtual challenge to climb Mount Fuji!

Food: In September I started a diet for the first time in my life, I’m enjoying it and on track to lose 2.5 stones over 6 months without too much hardship so I’m happy with that. Its low cal, low carbs, high protein, high nutrition meal replacement shakes, bars, soups etc. Loving pancakes for breakfast! I am missing restaurants, especially brunch. We’ve had some good takeout from Casa Rica in Leamington (tortilla salad bowl!), Piccolinos Warwick (goats cheese salad), Baabzi in Warwick, and a recent highlight has been the Church Farm Brewery Rootz drive-through on Fridays.

Fitness Tech: Bought myself a xaomi mi fit band for step count. It has a blood pressure monitor too. Also some bone conduction headphones so I can walk/run more safely outdoors.

Other pastimes: long walks in the evening during lockdown one enjoying exploring the architecture of my home town, Warwick, and in September I went on a history walk to learn more about the Great Fire of Warwick 1696. I also started building a miniature library from a kit but I am getting bored of that now.

Books: I always read a lot, this year I’ve gorged myself. Mostly bleak but with some uplifting reads from Haig, Ifso and Osman

  • Midnight Library by Matt Haig (I have recommended this to several people this year, it really is a great read)
  • What didnt quite by Chris Ifso
  • Skin by Liam Brown
  • Stories of Hope and Wonder (anthology): the first story Last Contact by Steven Baxtet took my breath away
  • The Warehouse by Rob Hart
  • Vox by Christina Dalcher
  • Wanderers by Chuck Wendig
  • The Wall by John Lanchester
  • 84K by Claire North
  • Leave the World Behind by Rumaan Alam
  • Thursday Murder Club by Richard Osman
  • Red Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson (published 1992, I’m late to the party)
  • Sun Fall by Jim Al-Khalili
  • Girl Woman Other by Bernadine Evaristo

Apps and games: What is it about merge games? Got terribly addicted to Merge Dragons. Now rediscovering Design Home again. Enjoyed Hue until it got too hard. Introduced to Among Us by my sons. I have a longstanding solitaire habit. Relatives bought us chameleon and family cards for humanity this xmas, we’re really enjoying them.

And I’ll leave it there. I hope you have also found ways to be absorbed in things escape reality.

I’ve been thinking a lot about rules. We are currently operating under Covid restrictions, we’ve had the “rule of 6”, constraints on business operations, reporting and testing regulations. Everyone is talking about “the rules”. I’m also dieting at the moment, for the first time in my life!, and on a forum where everyone asks about the rules: what are we allowed? how many carbs can I have, is alcohol against the rules? And in my day job, I work on guidance and processes around how things should work in the use of technology in teaching: constraints and expectation-setting. Also I just finished watching the Queen’s Gambit which is all about chess which I can’t play but I admire. The Rules. There are rules everywhere.

But what are rules?

Guidance and Rules

There is a blurry line between rules and guidance and I guess it depends on the implicit contract between the rule-makers and the subjects.

  • In chess: you can’t really break the rules. Simple!
  • In a diet, following the guidance is described by many dieters as submitting to the rules. When people “break” the rules in a diet they often use moral terminology: sinning, being naughty, falling off the wagon.
  • In a workplace, people may or may not accept the authority of the rule-maker. In the university where I work I can think of many examples where people aren’t really accepting the authority of “the centre” to make the rules. We have a lot of guidance that could be rules if the culture allowed it.
  • In a pandemic, well … what we’re seeing right now is a mix of attitudes towards the guidance and the rules and it has a lot to do with attitudes towards government and “science”.

Enforceability

Some rules are enforceable, some are very hard to enforce.

The police can’t possibly have enforced sanctions on every breach of the rule of six: there aren’t enough police and it would be massively intrusive within people’s homes. But they needed the rule so that when they did need to intervene in the situation they had a rule to hook it on to.

In my workplace, there are many workarounds and exceptions to most things that we ask people to do or not do. A lot of what we to do to tighten control is try to introduce sanctions. Rarely do make it impossible to break rules.

We often talk about incentivising and disincentivising, and about nudge as a subtle incentive, and best practice. I picture it like this:

Impact: Individual vs Collective

One factor in how people respond to rules is their attitude towards the rule-makers. But I wonder if another factor in how people respond is their mindset. Rules are designed to control or influence the behaviours of individuals. But they are designed at the level of collective impact. They are designed around models of what happens if all- or most- people do something. Many rules are made in the knowledge that there will be exceptions. For some people, hunting out those exceptions seems to be a first instinct. In my workplace I’ve seen policy discussions where the proposed rule will work in 80% of cases (“the Pareto principle”) but everyone wants to discuss the 20% even when we’ve already established there will be exceptions. I am guilty of that myself. It is our culture to seek out “edge cases” and foreground those as reasons to delay on the rule-making.

Sadly, I have also seen way too many examples of people not being able to see the collective impact of following or breaking rules. If everyone parked in a Disabled Parking spot because they were “only popping in to a shop”, the system breaks down. If everyone jumped the queue there would be no queue. If no-one wore a mask because they were “uncomfortable”, there would be no barriers to transmission. The whole point of rules is to seek sustainable behaviours at the collective level. Rules are a collective endeavour.

Final Thought

I am not naturally trusting of authority. I don’t trust our current government, I reserve the right to challenge everything a government does. I don’t trust capitalism to make the rules, I don’t trust any religion to make the rules. I’ve never 100% trusted any employer, any organisation, or any person, come to think of it. But I think we need to pick our battles wisely: some rules can be followed without much negative personal impact (i.e wear a mask, for godsake), and some rules might seem overkill but maybe they are there for the collective good. Maybe they are there to manage demand patterns for example “flattening the curve” for the NHS capacity. There might be factors that come into play that we don’t understand. It’s probably complicated.

I’d quite like a simpler world some days, with rules that everyone understands and everyone sticks to. If anyone has any tips on learning chess, it’s suddenly seeming very enticing!

Update Oct 2020: I recommend reading this article about merging modalities by Valerie Irvine.

At my University, our Academic Technologies team, Academic Development Centre and temporarily formed Learning Design Consultancy Unit have been creating guidance and training to support a wide range of practices suddenly made essential because of the Covid-19 pandemic. I talked about some of them at the Jisc conference back in June.

The last few months I have been circling around the challenges of “hybrid” teaching and that’s the focus of this post. I am currently awaiting feedback from my colleagues on some guidance I’ve drafted but I thought I would also share my thoughts in the open. Comments very welcome.

The challenge is how to plan for, and deliver, taught sessions to a mixed cohort where some students are present in-person on campus and some are not. There are difficult choices my academic colleagues are having to make.

This isn’t course design from scratch, this is adjustments to existing approved modules, part of existing approved courses that students have already signed upto. The guidance pre Covid doesnt cater for the current scenario. Whatever the academic’s intentions and whatever the student’s preference, there is a chance that a proportion of any class will not be present in-person, due to delayed arrival on campus or quarantine. This is inevitable and somehow needs to be catered for.

We want to support these difficult design decisions with clear guidance but it’s hard to do that with confidence. Its made harder by a lack of agreed terminology in the education community and by some nuance between different technical set ups.

This QAA taxonomy is helpful but I disagree that hybrid and blended are interchangeable terms. To me, hybrid is a word specifically to describe a teaching session with an in-room audience and a remote audience. I don’t know why I think of that definition so strongly: clearly not everyone does. But we need a word for dual audience / dual mode / mixed mode teaching events. This would aid conversations between academics and their collaborators, and make for clearer design decisions.

There is a whole set of challenges to delivering a hybrid session in that sense. How meaningful is the participation for the remote audience? How does trying to accommodate remote audience particularly impact on the participation in the room? How much better is the student experience of a scheduled online synchronous option with limited participation, as compared to a recording watched after the event?

A related question around remote participation is the variety of options. What is the difference between using a livestream model with controlled participation options, or a passive broadcast without expectation of remote audience interaction? There is a spectrum within hybrid sessions between broadcast at one end and meaningful synchronous interaction at the other, particularly peer learning. If the student experience is at the broadcast end, it is worth considering whether  recording the session and releasing it afterwards would actually make for a better experience for both in-person participants and remote participants.

The next contentious word needing definition is hyflex. To me, hyflex is a characteristic of a course/module design where an individual student can switch between modes for different activities. They might switch day by day, or week by week. The key is they can choose whether to engage with online asynchronous, online synchronous, or in-person if that’s an option. A skilled teacher can design that. But not everyone has that level of skill (yet) AND it challenges of practices around student timetables and attendance monitoring. So I see hyflex as desirable but difficult to design. Once it’s designed though, I’d suggest that it’s easier to deliver an online asynch, online sync and in-person session than a hybrid taught session. It might take more time though and that’s a problem of logistics and workload.

So … in my mind:

Hyflex is a characteristic of a module/course, not a particular session.

Hybrid is a characteristic of a session.

A hybrid session might be a component of a hyflex module/course, but does not in itself make a course hyflex, because it’s only on component of the course.

A hybrid session is difficult to deliver without another staff member.

The best tool in the world can be used poorly if the session design isn’t clear.

The level of meaningful remote participation in a hybrid session will be determined by the skill of staff and availability of additional staff, mixed with the appropriate use of audience feedback methods and functionality. There is a threshold of meaningful participation, below which it might not add much value.

The ability to provide a hyflex course requires institutional capability around timetabling, attendance management, and quality assurance methods as well as real design skill by academics and their collaborators.

Thoughts???

I love a metaphor, especially a food one. Trying this out …

Flour, eggs, rolling pin, tea towel
Amber Thomas 2020 CC-NC-SA

The race to “put teaching online” as a result of Covid-19 has surfaced that many people have a skewed understanding of what online learning is. Martin Weller highlights how out of date that perception is, and Christina Costa describes some of the misunderstandings.

Part of the problem is promotional rhetoric from Educational Technology companies. They sell a shiny version of the future. Where personalised means impersonal. Where learning is tracked to an inch of its existence.

Unfortunately if staff unfamiliar with blended learning hear those messages then they can forgiven for discounting “ed tech”. They will be angered by the “disruptors” saying education needs a revolution, and find themselves siding with the “resisters” who may be just as polemic and biased.

For academics who have avoided the VLE for their modules and only know it as a file store or as clickable staff training courses, that’s what they think is being asked of them right now. They think they need to create clicky content and fancy animations. It is alienating to academics who feel they would be feeding a machine, ceding control to an impersonal content development studio.

And it creates a huge suspicion of educational technologists within institutions that they are just there to “push product”, or to transform materials into something they will lose control of. Professional workflows are needed for quality and scale but this current pivot isn’t about scaling up courses for mass enrolment, it’s about translating the student learning experience on existing courses at their current scale.

As an aside, equating ed tech companies with institutional ed tech support is like equating the big pharma industry with your local pharmacist.

So how about describing the situation with this metaphor:

We are not looking to create fast food. Anytime-anyplace shiny looking homogenised standardized food. Low nutritional value but convenient.

Nor are we expecting academics to become Michelin starred chefs overnight, mastering sous vide and serving up intricate instagrammable meals.

What we need is good nutritious home cooking. Made in domestic kitchens, with good quality ingredients and prepared with care. We need dinners around the table, healthy and filling, with good conversation.

At Warwick part of the Extended Classroom approach is “recipes” which reflects our thinking that its about taking available ingredients, learning some techniques, and having agency over what you cook. We’re realising that academics who haven’t worked with us yet misunderstand what we do and what’s expected of them in this time of pivot. The more people we can reach through our messages about home cooking, the sooner we can demystify what blended learning can be.

UK Public Health Notice March 2020: Coronavirus: stay home, protect the NHS, save lives

As I keep telling my kids, I’ve never experienced anything like this in my life.

I am struggling to comprehend the enormity of the global nature of Covid-19 impact, combined with the effects our everyday life, the way it touches my own family, and how it shapes my work priorities. I swing between intellectualising it and a more visceral emotional response.

I have family who work in NHS hospitals. I have family who have been stranded in isolation on the Zaandam cruise ship and are currently being repatriated. I know people who have likely had Covid-19, or who’s families have. Like many of us, I’ve thought back on periods of illness in the last few months, could that have been a mild case? I spent a week or so with an impaired sense of smell. But it feels ridiculous to even ponder that when there are much more serious situations going on.

I am rendered mute by the disconnect between global serious life-threatening situations and the trivial impact on my little life. And yet that’s what this is: a pandemic that reaches right into our personal everyday lives, even when the illness doesn’t manifest itself in our homes.

I have a fairly big house with a garden, a view of a big open space, a husband and two boys. We get on pretty well despite the confinement. We have jobs, can afford to eat, we feel part of a community and we are well. We are the lucky ones. And yet on Thursday I hit a wall: my coping mechanisms were overloaded with challenges at work, anxiety about my loved ones and the general pressure of circumstances.

So I’ve decided today I would try to write a reflective blog post and see where it leads me. This post marks this point in time and I may change my perspective completely and read this blogpost back as privileged and niaive. I’ll have to forgive myself if that happens, I’m sure my embarrassment about a blogpost would be the least of my worries.

So: reflections …

Over the past few years there have been several topics I have found myself drawn to. Many are strangely relevant to this crisis. I am not superstitious so I attribute this to a cognitive bias toward thinking I have any kind of agency or capacity to deal with it. But for what it’s worth, these are things I have been concerned with:

  • collectivism and individualism, Brexit and the lurch to popularists like Johnson and Trump.
  • the climate crisis, how to address the paralysis on action (my own failure to act strongly).
  • the economy, work and jobs, the impact of automation and universal basic income.
  • how and why to use technology in teaching and how digital empowers better ways of working (these topics are my professional responsibility).
  • the broad impact of digital technology on our lives, on our concepts of connectedness, privacy, presence and time.
  • a fascination with science fiction about people that are confined to spaceships and planet settlements without access to earth’s fresh air: what does it do to a culture to be confined, and how that changes how we see Earth.

Books will be written about how Covid-19 changes the world. The world needs to change so perhaps some good could come of this. Emergency socialism. Reduction of non essential travel. Reappraising the value of low paid work.

It doesn’t feel ok to say that though. How can we pontificate on silver linings, because so many will die in the transition to “afterwards”. Not just vulnerable people who we love, but people who were otherwise healthy, and also the people who care for them. Many of us will lose people we love. That’s hard to acknowledge.

So it helps to read pieces that stitch together the global and the personal and try to make sense of these strange times. Here are some articles about the social and psychological impacts that have resonated with me:

I’d welcome recommendations for other pieces that help make sense of the emerging impact of this crisis. Please comment below.

I have more to say about the importance of social media and video conferencing. In my leadership role at a large UK university I have spent the last month developing contingency arrangements for supporting academic continuity through digital approaches. I will reflect on that separately, but my professional challenges are certainly part of the story of the “online learning pivot”.

As many have commented, it turns out the most important jobs to protecting our health are those deemed low skilled, and those that are low paid, in public sectors that are underfunded and private sectors with precarious contracts. Health workers, doctors and nurses. Bin men, lorry drivers, supermarket workers.

Reappraising how we value and reward work is long overdue. Clapping for the NHS is definitely not enough: we need sustainable investment that protects our key workers and public health.

I think that’s as much as I can say today. And so I will take a deep breath and carry on with another day under lockdown. Take care.

Hands forming a T shape

Hands forming a T shape

I’m a big fan of Matt Jukes’ Digital by Default blog. Matt and I crossed paths at Jisc, in fact he covered my maternity leave once! I find it fascinating that I also worked at Becta with Andy Dudfield and Matt and Andy have done some of the same roles. They are in the world of Government Digital Services and open data whereas I am peddling my skills in higher education.

Which is all a needlessly long introduction to what I want to say about Matt’s post on “multi-hyphenates“. Matt talks about product manager – delivery manager – UX people and references the concept of T-shaped people , or “generalising specialists”. We use that concept in my team a lot, especially when I’m working with Steve Ranford on our version of research software engineer roles.

It’s tempting to draw elegant diagrams about who does what in each role, but I often see “slash” roles and roles that evolve over time. It’s not just about what each role does, but also about how much work there is to do in an organisation and therefore how much space there is for dedicated specialists. As organisations grow, roles grow out from each other, like branches on a tree.

In web, what was a web manager and content officer become CMS product manager, devops lead, analyst, content designer, UX researcher, user engagement managers. In learning technology, what was a solo elearning advisor evolves to VLE manager, service manager, user support lead, multimedia advisor, learning designer, instructional designer. In change programmes project managers become surrounded by business analysts, process owners, stakeholder managers, benefits realisation leads. The work becomes bigger, it splits out to deeper specialisms. In many ways that’s what makes “digital” such an interesting field to work in, it is always evolving.

When I’m involved with recruitment I often try to ensure that candidates understand the context of the organisation. They might be used to be the solo elearning person in a small college and they will need to adjust to being one of six, in a network of 30. Or they might be used to being a test specialist in a team of 10 in a software company and they need to adjust to being the only tester in a non-IT company. Context changes the way that knowledge and skills are used.

I’ve been pondering is what this means for job satisfaction. Daniel Pink’s book “Drive: motivation in the knowledge economy” talks about autonomy, mastery and purpose. In our line of work where the boundaries keep changing and the specialisms keep deepening, we each negotiate our way through each evolutionary step. Amongst Heads of eLearning in UK universities there has been huge churn as people move up, across, diagonally (and sometimes out), to fit with the organisational restructures.

Back to T-shaped people. Some people are comfortable knowing a little about a lot, and are able to work horizontally, perhaps preferring the breadth and constant new challenge. Some people are most comfortable knowing a lot about some specific areas and get their satisfaction from gaining mastery of those areas. We need both of those types of people, as well as T-shaped people. And I guess what I’m suggesting is that these things change over time: some specialists become seen as generalists and some generalists become seen as specialists.

I love train journeys that take a route through cities, where I can stare into back gardens and kitchen windows. In each of those towns, streets and houses there is an infinite depth of lived experience. That momentary glance of a back bedroom is a view into someone’s life.

When I think about roles I try to remember to have that humility. There is breadth and depth to digital work and the roles we work within are determined as much by the size of our employing organisation as it is by any illusory truth about how to do digital things. Long may we continue to evolve into deeper and wider spaces.

 

 

 

amber_ALD2019 v2

Today is the 10th year of Ada Lovelace Day: an international celebration of women in Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths.

I invited the women of Warwick University IT Services to a lunch. We made some new connections and discussed ideas for our workplace. We chatted, we ate, we cupcaked. A lovely way to spend a lunchtime 😀

A huge thanks to ITS and the Equality Diversity and Inclusion team for funding our event.

 

 

WFF_logo

I had the honour of speaking on a panel at the World Futures Forum on Tuesday 24th September. The opening keynote by Futurist Matthew Griffin introduced a mind-boggling number of emerging technologies between now and 2080, see the fascinating “codex“.

As the opening question on the panel session chaired by Griffin he asked me “are we prepared for the future? Is education preparing our learners for the future?” and I said something like …

No! When have we ever been prepared for the future? I’m not sure it’s the main purpose of education to produce the future workforce. I think there’s a set of issues around what we learn and how we learn. We don’t know exactly what we need to learn but I don’t think we should throw away the way we teach existing disciplines. We still need deep specialists in STEM. But we need them to collaborate in the workplace with other deep specialists: that’s where a lot of innovation comes from. We need “soft” skills of the human touch, of empathy, of ethical thinking: human skills. It’s not just about STEM and human skills though. Many of these emerging technologies feel like sci-fi. I read a lot of sci-fi. Often sci-fi is dystopian. We need historians and sociologists and philosophers too, to avoid these technologies leading us to bad futures.

It was probably more garbled than that, but that’s the gist.

Human skills was a recurrent theme of the day: adaptability, collaboration, empathy, problem solving, communication etc. There were some really good inputs about how to describe, develop and promote those skills. There was a strong sense of needing to actively develop and evidence these skills, described well by Tom Ravenscroft . There were calls from Laura Overton to redesign the way we support learning in the workplace.

Lord Jim Knight focussed on his considerable expertise around schools and made an interesting observation that “in employability conversations employers often say urgent and radical change is needed. Until it’s their own children they’re thinking about”. He called for education to do as much for wellbeing as for skills, and he railed against the over-testing in primary schools. Amen.

I feel strangely unpanicked about the idea that my children will have to retrain several times for the workforce of the future. Perhaps that’s because I never trained for a “career”. I did philosophy and literature and then followed my nose, finding myself into technology in education. The only job title a careers teacher would recognise was “bookseller” and that was early on my path. I’ve had about eight employers in my 20 years of full time work. Following my nose has served me well so it doesn’t scare me that my kids might have to do the same.

The words “work”, “jobs” and “careers” were used somewhat interchangeably today and I am realising that masks something. I have friends who are experts in “careers” and they would be the first to say that work ≠ job ≠ career. What does that unmask? Not all work is paid. Not all jobs are careers or jobs for life. Not all work pays fairly. Also, importantly, not all work is good.

Taking each point in turn …

Not all work is paid

Economists would tell you that unpaid work is a significant factor in any economy. Invisible Women by Caroline Criado-Perez describes the way that work gets done in societies. Work like cooking, cleaning, childcare and caring for the sick and elderly is often unpaid, and it is overwhelmingly done by women.

Actually there is a historic pattern that when unpaid work becomes paid work, more men start doing it. So the idea that work I used to do is being done by someone else is not a new idea. It’s just that usually it doesn’t happen to men. And this time its automation “stealing” the “jobs”.

On a different angle, Matthew Taylor from the RSA made a very salient point that the automation narrative is politically dangerous. Some sociologists have surveyed that 40% of people feel like the system of our current society should be smashed, that there are people who want chaos. He suggested we should not feed that fire by threatening loss of work to automation.

Not all jobs are careers or jobs for life

Criado-Perez documents that the majority of the part time workforce is female. Juggling multiple work roles, both paid and unpaid, is common in many cultures.

When people bemoan that our children cannot expect a job for life, I reflect that I never expected a job for life. The sectors of our economy where people had jobs for life may be a mixture of “professions” such as accountants, lawyers and engineers, and unionised skilled labour such as manufacturing, steel, construction etc. I have a strong suspicion that the data would show that for the decades these were secure jobs for life they were largely male.

Not all work pays fairly

It doesn’t take long to recognise that some of the jobs that are most materially important to society are the lowest paid. Where would we be without people to empty bins, pick crops, care for the elderly, look after our kids. The importance of this work is not correlated to the importance. So even when work is paid, it is paid according to what the worker will accept from what the employer will pay. Is it a coincidence that these lowest paid jobs are more likely to be done by immigrants, when they are the lowest paid? And yet some of these lowest paid jobs are the most human, and the least likely to be automated.

Not all work is good

Companies that make stuff and sell stuff can make profit and therefore can afford to create jobs and pay people. As long as there are people to buy the stuff, there can be work to make the stuff. And yet we know that some of this stuff is bad for people, health and the planet. Junk food, cigarettes, plastic goods, petrol cars, weapons. But these industries employ huge numbers of people and therefore there are vested interests in retaining those jobs even if the overall impact of the work they do is detrimental to our future.

To tackle the climate crisis we need to pivot to a low growth economy. Reducing steel manufacture, fossil fuel-based industries, petrol/diesel cars, car ownership, air travel, food packaging, food wastage … this will all mean a loss of jobs. But that shouldn’t stop it happening. Incidentally this is also why the idea of a red-green new deal needs exploring seriously. The UK Labour Party and its Trade Union partners need to navigate the opportunity to rethink job security in the light of a low growth green economy.

Putting all this together … universal basic income is beginning to sound like a smart way of mitigating the effects of adjusting to a low growth economy, of mitigating the loss of work to automation enabling part-time work. This would also have the benefit of valuing unpaid work and enabling lifelong learning. I’ve been reading about the history of UBI and it’s a case study of an idea that has been in and out of fashion, on both the left and the right. It’s time has come.

To come back to the emerging technologies question, Matthew Taylor pointed out that along with technologies being hard to predict, even more so are the human behaviours and cultural factors in the use of technologies. On top of that we have the ways in which the developers and suppliers of technologies have to find business cases to underpin their endeavours. Much of the consumer tech breakthroughs of the last twenty years have been catalysed through the disruption and invention of business cases.

We shouldn’t pursue every new technology just because we can. It has to be useful and ethical. The climate emergency should make us prioritise those developments that will help us tackle our biggest crisis. Technology should not be driven by what consumers want but by what humans need. That’s why we need social scientists and humanists deeply engaged with emerging technologies: and we need diverse and critical voices to shape our global priorities.

I found the event really thought-provoking and I’m very grateful to Matthew Griffin and the organising team for the invite. There is a world of thinking out there about the future of work, tech and learning. I think I’ll start with the RSA Future of Work, put on my science fiction far-future goggles for the emerging technologies codex and I’ll keep a special eye out for gender analysis in these spaces.