On 11th September 2017 I went to the Leicester University’s event “Implementing Lecture Capture: what are we learning?“. Lots of useful discussion, and I presented one of three case studies in addition to Leicester’s own story which is told well through their videos, (see event page).  Thanks to my colleague Jon Owen, Service Owner for Lecture Capture Service for his info into the presentation below.

Here’s my talk on Warwick’s lecture capture journey,

lectcappres1

lectcappres2

So what have we learnt?

Lecture capture is an educational technology driven by student demand

The Warwick echo360 pilot started as replacement for Camtasia Relay. That was a tutor-managed approach where they had to finish session early to process recording in time, and there was no standard way to provide recordings to students. The A/V Service Owner knew better options were becoming available and started the pilot in 2012 with the equally forward-thinking Chemistry Department (what is it about Chemists that make them technology early adopters?!)

Lecture capture quickly became a hot topic on campus and was in every Student Union education officer candidate’s manifesto since 2012.

The service got students attention, and we’re making it happen: a definite good news story for responding to student demands.

I forgot to mention this but Sarah Williamson from Loughborough reminded us that the withdrawal of the Disabled Students Allowance meant that HEFCE/BIS put the onus on universities to replace the paid-for notetakers with institutional lecture capture systems.

 

Lecture capture shines a spotlight on different approaches to teaching

I’m not just talking about the frequent debates about chalkboards!

Talking with academics about their use of, and concerns around, lecture capture highlights:

  • the balance of their teaching between large lectures, smaller lectures, seminars, group work etc
  • the extent to which they teach as part of teams or quite autonomously
  • the implicit content delivery models, relationship to textbooks, coupling between teaching delivery and curriculum, how often content changes, whether content contains commercially sensitive materials or possibly high value research material
  • attitudes to attendance – how much does it matter, is it monitored, do students have choices?
  • approach to discussions – do they happen in lectures? how do staff and students feel about being recorded? does it deter them from asking questions, is that because of learner culture or potential future use of recordings?
  • position on use of screens in sessions: do we want students to be looking at screens as well as the lecturer? Some academics happy with focussed screen use for small group teaching but not ok with use in lecture theatres

Lecture capture is a battleground for intellectual property and academic freedom

Lecture capture highlights staff concerns about:

  • terms and conditions of copyright ownership
  • surveillance and monitoring
  • team staffing models and job security

By its nature it is a central service with centrally-imposed policies,which in some institutions automatically attracts suspicion and dissent!

The technical landscape is complex

There are multiple teams involved in Lecture Capture, with different concepts of “rollout” and different support models. A/V specialists are used to providing time-critical responsiveness, VLE teams often need a few days or a week or longer to fully resolve a user’s issues. We have different but complimentary service cultures.

Integrating with the VLE adds value but also different dependencies and constraints: information structure and end-to-end workflows

Software infrastructure: video capture, editing, management and sharing is a confusing converging marketplace. Alongside echo360 we have planet estream integrated to the VLE for video management and streaming, and as we already have Turning Technologies Responseware we have an overlap with echo360’s Active Learning Platform. I know from other institutions too that this is a tricky space to manage and predict: overlap seems inevitable but it can look like duplicated spend.

Timetable-driven lecture capture is harder than it should be. My colleague Russell Boyatt has created some scheduling middleware between our cached timetable data and our lecture capture system, but the data itself is complex and the additional workflows required to handle a fluid timetable are challenging.

How much do the added value features and analytics get used? We pay for them as part of the platform, and its great to hear when people are using them. But in my experience they’re not used very much, and we’re not pulling them through to any kind of learning analytics data aggregation yet. And a seperate issue: editing. Do you encourage staff to top and tail recordings, or do you encourage release of raw footage and let students move the slider bars? If topping and tailing feels like a steep learning curve for staff, is it justified by benefits to students? I think raw footage is fine.

What do we do about transcripts and captioning? How do we optimise for accessibility and inclusion in an affordable and scaleable way? This is an area of fast moving technology development, so we need to keep a watching brief. But that alone could take someone half a day a week, can we afford to do that? or will we need to wait for lecture capture suppliers to have approved integrated suppliers at a reasonable cost on an on-demand basis with some authorisation involved from someone appropriate at the university!

It is an opportunity to think ahead

What will the best technical infrastructure be in 5 years time? As I said, its a complex technical landscape with many players, its hard to plan far ahead.

Retention. How long should we keep recordings, for the purposes of revision and audit, and how do cloud cost models change that? There was a useful discussion of this later in the day.  Basically many institutions retain materials for the programme duration plus one year. Which is usually four or five years. Many institutions started their lecture capture service in the last five years. So only a few people in the room had gone through the process of deleting recordings. Some institutions don’t delete. Because many institutions make recordings available through the VLE, lecture recording access is determined by VLE access. So the important time is when students lose access to the VLE and therefore to recordings: that is the de facto end of access. 

Lecture capture brings elearning teams into the world of capital spend and corporate comms, how do we benefit from the visibility? Leicester University speakers stressed how their lecture capture system is part of their Digital Campus and integrated into their overall investment plan.

Are we capturing normal lectures or trying to changing lectures? Are we promoting a service, developing a practice or enforcing a policy? This was one of the recurrent themes of the days discussions.

Closing Thoughts

My final slide was:

  • Build on the momentum to enhance the wider technology-enhanced teaching landscape
  • Amplify the student voice but explain the limitations and concerns
  • Recognise staff concerns but challenge them:
    • Attendance
    • Copyright
    • Bootlegging
  • Have an explicit policy to counter rumours and myths
  • Value the many roles that go into providing and supporting lecture capture
  • …. and don’t forget to switch on the mic!

 

 

A good event, thank you to Leicester for the invite.

There’s a huge amount of data and information on lecture capture practices but I wanted to highlight a few:

Barbara Newland’s data from Heads of eLearning Survey

Emma Kennedy’s post “Opposing lecture capture is disablist”

Matt Cornock et al’s work on student use of lecture recordings

WIHEA funded projects at Warwick:

 

 

 

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This is my 5 minute talk on Business Cases from our ALT-C Session on Evidence Bases and Business Cases (1702). This was composed jointly with Dr Melissa Highton.

It is fashionable to roll your eyes about “management concerns”  as if it’s somebody else’s problem. But when you get to a certain level as a learning technologist you have to develop some understanding of management issues and administrative domain Kyriaki Anagnostopoulou illustrated in her opening talk.

If you don’t trust “them” to make good decisions, you need to get better at understanding what decisions “they” are making, and how.

I thought about making a Jargon Bingo card for this talk. But this isn’t a spoof talk. I’ve worked in this field for nearly 20 years, at an institutional and national level. and I am very bored of learning technologists who like to snigger at institutional management. Here’s what I’ve learned along the way …

Business Cases

Business Cases are a structured way of laying out the evidence that a proposed investment in people, time and cash, is a worthwhile risk that will create benefits in the right places at the right time, to a big enough extent that it is worth it. Laying out the Cost Benefit Analysis. And that “is it worth it?” is known as Return on Investment. There are models for all of that, but don’t be blinded by it being management speak: learn it.

It’s not always scientifically applied. But if a senior manager wants to champion your proposal, you need to know how to provide that sort of argument. It goes both ways: if someone important wants to block your proposal, they might ask for the business case. You can’t even have the argument if you don’t speak the language.

Strategic Alignment

I think there’s a paradox to learning and teaching strategies. If they are good, they are obvious, and they make you think they are unnecessary. But we need them. We set strategic direction because anything is possible with unlimited resource but there is never unlimited resource. So how do we avoid exhausting ourselves exploring every new piece of software, academic’s idea, technology practice? We describe our priorities and try to combine our efforts to get us there rather than all do everything at once. So always explain how your proposal will help the institution make progress.

Have I cracked that, personally? Of course not. But I have learned that strategy does matter and if you always ask yourself about what your institutional priorities are then you have a better chance of securing support for what you think is important.

Who makes decisions at your institution, and when? Understand your planning cycle and the priorities of major stakeholders.

So …

Where do learning technologists go wrong? This is from my experience at Becta and Jisc as well as at the institutions I’ve worked at …

Costs

Academic time is the biggest cost on campus. You might call it three hours of CPD, but they may see it as three hours mandatory training. Try to be honest about their time: estimate the cost of the learning curve so that it can be weighed up against the benefits. Academic stakeholders will prefer honesty to evangelism.

IT and Library is often treated as an invisible cost, just stretchy infrastructure that doesn’t need quantifying: its just there. Don’t make that mistake. Yes they are there to support the rest of the university but they are also people that are paid for 36.5 hours a week, they’re not magic.

Be realistic about costings: suppliers calculate costs in different ways, make sure you do your research, whether its an upfront cost by FTE banding, or whether it monitors concurrent users, and whether it includes VAT. Do the numbers.

By the way, cash costs are usually the least problematic. And capital spend, one-off spend, is the accountants favourite, they’d much prefer spend £100k this year than £20k a year over four years.

Benefits

Learn the language of Use Cases: use cases are our friends. And be alert to those early adopters and innovators who push for meeting edge cases.

(Improving 50 people’s fulfilment of use cases by 80% might not be as good an investment as improving 500 people’s fulfilment of use cases by 20%)

Helping the majority of neutral users and solving their pain might be more important than added value for the already active users. That might sound counterintuitive, but think about it.

Also, on benefits: not all benefits need to be pedagogical improvements. They might be efficiency gains to free up departmental administrators from maintenence tasks to planning tasks. They might be PR gains, or data quality gains. Don’t confine yourself to pedagogical impacts: broaden your vocabulary.

Option Appraisals

Management want transparent decision making about a particular approach or product is best. Share your workings. You can say which is your preference, but understand that if people help make a decision a) it’s more likely to be a good decision and b) they’re more likely to help it to success.

It might not be the outcome you expected but by respecting the process you become trusted as part of it.

Sustainability and Scaleability

When I evaluated bids at Jisc I was often surprised how many bidders didn’t understand what we meant when we asked for a sustainability plan. Many said “another Jisc grant”. Others assumed IT Services will take it on, without evidence that has been discussed with them. Imagine future you five years from now inheriting management of today’s proposal. Take the future seriously.

So here’s my provocation …

Institutional learning technology is not about perfection

As Diana Laurillard might say, anyone with unlimited time and resource could design a perfect bridge. But in institutional capability building terms, which approaches can be repeated and supported, another 20 times, 100 times, 1,000 times? It’s a bit like the National Institute for Clinical Excellence: what is efficacious and affordable at scale?

If you want to influence your institution, learn the language of management. ITIL, Prince2, Business Models. Understand them as much as you want them to understand you. Bring senior managers fully costed business cases with options clearly indicated. Bring them proposals they can say yes to.

I convened a panel to create a workshop drawing on various sessions and discussions I’ve been part over over the last year or so.

The session is Evidence Bases and Business Cases, session 1702, and it runs on Wednesday 6th September at 1pm.

Panel is Dr Kyriaki Anagnostopoulou, Bath Spa University, Professor Neil Morris, University of Leeds, Professor Don Passey, University of Lancaster and Sarah Davies, Jisc. Melissa Highton, University of Edinburgh is unable to attend but jointly composed the Business Cases talk.

I will link here to relevant posts and slides when available

My post on Business Cases : Business Cases and Learning Technologists.

I was very flattered to be asked to speak at a debate-style session at Jisc Digifest. The Motion was “Digital technology is fundamentally changing learning and teaching in Higher Education”. Prof Neil Morris of Leeds University was speaking for the motion, I was to speak against. The opposite of preaching to the converted: my job was to put the cat amongst the pigeons.

I went about preparing for it in my usual fashion: grand plans, exploratory conversations with colleagues and a lot of procrastination. My ideas for visual gags involving devils horns on avocados or Advocaat bottles were rejected by people with more sense than me. I hadn’t really pulled all my ideas together so in the end my contribution came in three parts that don’t quite join up. The article was written with the help of journalist Michelle Pauli who worked from a transcripted conversation we had to create something printable. Then there was my script for my opening statement. Then it went a bit more freeform with my responses to Neil Morris.

I’ve had a good response to this slight mish-mash of positions, and in conversations with people and I’ve realised I have more to say, hopefully more articulate than what I’ve managed so far. So I now have an ambition to come at this again and write a coherent blog post.

But for now, this post will serve as an archive of my contribution to the talk. And a record of my personal impact, which I like to call “pimpact”.

Article in Jisc Digifest (thanks to Michelle Pauli)

Script – See Below

Recording – Session starts at about 4:50:00 minutes, towards the end. Not sure how long this video will be available.

Storify – curated by me in a brief spell of “vanalytics” (my phrase for vanity analytics)

Huge thanks to Sarah Davies at Jisc for inviting me to do this, and to Neil Morris for his side of the debate.
Thanks also to people for their help with my prep: Mary Stott, Kerry Pinny, Jim Judges, Melissa Highton, Helen Beetham, Tim Dumbleton-Thomas, Sue Thomas, Emma Melia, Russell Boyatt, Ross Mackenzie, Lawrie Phipps, Mark Stiles, Paul Hollins … and without her knowledge, Audrey Watters ;-). Plus anyone else I forgot to thank.

Script – Opening Statement

What kind of idiot would come to a jisc event and argue against that?

Hello!

I’ve worked in educational technology since 1999. For national agencies Becta and Jisc, and for five universities. I’ve worked on big change initiatives: National Grid for Learning, Ferl, National Learning Network, and in HE open access research, Jorum and open educational resources.

Now I lead the central eLearning team at Warwick University.

I’ve spent my career working with digital technologies in education

And yet I’m here to argue against the motion that digital technologies are fundamentally changing teaching and learning in HE.

Why? Have I been wasting my time?

Some people argue that HE isn’t changing.

Some people argue that the main modes of teaching and learning remain unchanged over the past century or more. People sat in rows in classrooms and lecture theatres, factory style education. Chalk. Mortarboards. Reading textbooks. Submitting handwritten essays to the departmental secretary. Looking up marks on the noticeboard in the corridor.

Some of those things still happen.

But some things have changed, YES …

The students might not be sat in rows.

They might have screens, in their pocket or in front of them.

The academic at the front might have moved through banda photocopies to OHP acetates to overhead projectors, to digital screens. The presentation technology might actually have changed a lot. And maybe the academic’s delivery style might be a bit different as they become comfortable with it.

And beyond the classroom, there are new forms of digital content: there are ebooks now, ejournals, content on the VLE, video/audio resources, all easily accessible on the student’s own device. That wasn’t possible 20 years ago.

The essay is word-processed and submitted online. It might be marked online. It is probably plagiarism checked online. The marks and feedback are available online.

YES. Digital technologies have changed the way that digital content is produced, presented and consumed. You can have that one.

Digital technologies have also changed the way people communicate across space and time. Email is ubiquitous. What people do with it is an interesting question.

But yes. Content is different these days. And email use is widespread.

Has that created a fundamental change to teaching and learning? Is that enough?

Often what people can do at university is less than what they can do in the wider world.

* When I bought my last car, I provided a digital signature to a graphics pad.

* When I need to upgrade my phone, I chat with an advisor online.

* When I go to the airport I used to print my own ticket, now I just scan the QR code.

We’re living in the future, people. It’s pretty cool.

Lets use these technologies to streamline the administrative transactions required to move into, and through, university. Lets go paperless and self-service and more efficient. Lets do it.

But we’re looking for fundamental change, and I think that means in how we teach, maybe even what we teach?

We talk about interactivity, flexibility and personalisation.

Teams like mine spend a lot of our time encouraging academics to try basic things. Sometimes they don’t see why they should.

We all know some excellent practitioners. But many many others are not convinced, and they are not making use of the tools beyond the obvious. They don’t see the need to change.

Technology is a tool, it has to be used.

If academics don’t want to change the design of their programme and modules, then they won’t use technology to do it. The practices won’t change just because “there’s an app for that”.

If we don’t remind ourselves of that, as institutional educational technologists, we fall into a dangerous trap.

We encourage a belief in digital pixie dust.

I think we have to tell the hard truth: that this is about staff decisions, about curriculum design, about changes to what and how we teach.

There is no pixie dust.

But there are plenty of expensive products available for universities to waste their money on and blame us when the products don’t work.

In summary

I think digital technologies have changed content and communication. But if we’re looking for substantial change in what and how we teach then I don’t think digital technologies have fundamentally changed teaching and learning in HE.

And we should be very wary of claiming that it could.

Notes – Discussion

I said something about the barriers to flexibility, something about scale (how much adoption of new practices count as change?) and something about speed. Something about information literacies and post-truth, and whether universities were fast enough in responding to that. We touched on unbundling, and the dangers of Uberification and Neil had some very good answers about what might drive the adoption of new models of provision.

Image result for space creative commons

IMAGE CREDIT: My Space Sim Seat by Gabriel L. Marginean. Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License

 

The last few years I have crowdsourced my fiction reading and have found people in my network to be an excellent aggregated recommendation service. Somehow Marieke Guy managed to read a book a week during 2016. How?! I am in awe. And some of my friends online get through a huge number of non-fiction books. I’m very jealous of that, I just can’t concentrate enough. But I do always have a book on the go and I recently blogged about rediscovering feminism, much of which was books and films.

My creeping obsession of 2016 has been space-based sci-fi.

Escapism is much needed given the state of the world. Brexit and Trump were not things I imagined or welcomed. But there’s more to it than that. I have been drawn to grand plans, to huge ambitions, to sketches of life in the far-future. I’m not one for space battles and intergalactic war. If I’m honest, Star Wars leaves me a bit cold. The books and films I’ve enjoyed nearly all include some daily life: the living arrangements, the food, the hobbies, the space ships and planet-ports and the science that becomes everyday tools and technology. So many things I haven’t seen and read yet, this is only a partial snapshot of the genre, but everything I’m about to mention has nourished me this year.

So to usher in 2017, I present to you some highlighted Films (F) and Books (B) imagining the future, in space …

Interstellar (F). Liked this, especially the end, the vision of how people might live. (Not to be confused with Gravity, which I confused this with in an earlier post!)

The Martian (F). Loved the science, and the potatoes-with-ketchup, the extent of the ambition.

Mars (TV), National Geographic. Am a bit behind on this, so no spoilers, but enjoying it very much. Again, the ambition and the science.

A recommendation led me to The Book of Strange New Things (B) by Michel Faber. I didn’t expect it to be science fiction so it felt like a genre-surprise. (Recommendation from Morag Eyrie or Jackie Carter??)

My biggest discovery was Anne Leckie, the Imperial Radch Trilogy (B). I think I found that myself. Wow, wow, wow! Far future, exploring life in space, huge vistas of history, artificial intelligence, culture and politics.

That led me back to Anne McCaffrey, the Ship Who Sang (B): older but really good, and clearly a big influence on Leckie. Speculative fiction about AI, small stories in a huge world. I have read some Ursula Le Guin but owe her a revisit I think.

Then I accidentally found The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet (B) by Becky Chambers. Powerful, closely painted world, feels a bit McCaffrey, a bit Leckie. Just about to start her second book “A Closed and Common Orbit”. She self-published the first one and if you like the idea of a spaceworld a bit Dark Star, a bit Red Dwarf, space ships with the wires showing and people just jobbing it, try it.

My final mention goes to Seveneves (B) by Neal Stephenson (Recommended by Paul Walk or Mark Power or Ian Dolphin?). The hugeness of it, and the engineering, the science, and the effect of space on human culture. I hear there is a film being made, and I will be crossing my fingers they do a good job of it.

Many of these books gave me great dreams, but Seveneves and the Imperial Radch Triology painted the most enduring pictures in my mind.

Let’s Boldly Go into 2017. Cheers!

 

 

 

 

 

 

Over the last year I have been exploring the new wave of feminism, through light entertainment, novels and manifestos. It’s happened by accident really, just jumping one book or website to the next.

The obvious recent books that I haven’t read (yet?): Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg, BossyPants by Tina Fey. There are some themes I haven’t really explored yet. This is a very anglocentric, white, middle class, hetero, able-bodied, born-female list. I know it’s only a tiny corner of women’s experience. See the end of this post for what this slice of feminism means to me.

Enough disclaimers. Let me tell you what I have been reading/ skimming/ admiring. Consider this a scrapbook of my recent aventures in feminism.

Amy Poehler. I read “Yes Please“. Somehow her feminism shines through. She’s body-positive, she likes men, she’s worked incredibly hard at being good at what she does, collaborated a lot, and she’s funny. I then found her Smart Girls initiative. Fantastic stuff here.

Other impressive campaign-based approaches are Pink Stinks, and of course Everyday Sexism.

On a more serious note, the Counting Dead Women project is important testimony to the unspoken facts about the overwhelming pattern of violence in our society.

The Natural Way of Things” is a novel by Charlotte Wood, also exploring female vulnerability and sexual violence. In a funny kind of way it reminded me of a very different novel, “The Vegetarian” by Han Kang. Difficult to explain why, but they shared a dreamy yet visceral quality. Also see the less recent Charlotte Roche’s “Wetlands“, with its uncomfortably frank physicality.

Dietland” by Sarai Walker is a great fiction read, an imaginative tour of contemporary western feminism. Flavours of Fight Club. I recommend it.

I’d still like to find more fiction about being in a woman’s body: boobs, pubic hair, periods, sex, childbirth, breastfeeding. But with humour and self-acceptance. Recommendations very welcome.

Amy Schumer is my other American comedian crush, alongside Poehler. She’s so … sassy. And if you haven’t seen her sketch The Last F*ckable Day, watch it. It’s about Hollywood double standards but she’s really rocking that theme. I love that these glamorous women are standing together to resist the stupid questions that wouldn’t be asked of men. Along the same lines, a quick mention for Lena Dunham who I wish I could get into but perhaps she’s a generation a bit younger than me. Glad she does her thing though!

I enjoyed My Mad Fat Diary on Channel 4. Based in my era, gosh I wish I’d been able to watch that when I was that age. But my real spokesperson, my experience growing up as a mouthy feminist socialist in the Midlands, is Caitlin Moran. Her “How to be a Woman” is a wonderful wonderful book.

Now: Rebecca Solnit’s “Men Explain Things To Me” is clearly important. I haven’t read the whole of it but the concept of mansplaining has been a significant one for me.

That led me to my latest discovery, “Feminist Fight Club” by Jessica Bennett. Just finished this, it’s a tactics playbook for dealing with the more subtle dynamics of the workplace. Mansplaining, and bropriation. See this great infographic for an idea of what the book explores.

A final mention for the very wonderful Man who has it all.

manwho

More where that comes from: @manwhohasitall .

My refreshed feminism

As I acknowledged above, I absolutely do not claim that this is the way to frame feminism for other women. But I’ve found my recent explorations to be strangely fortifying. I’m married to a wonderful man who breaks most stereotypes: he cooks, cleans and nurtures our two boys. I chose well ;-). I work full time in a well-paid job, and I work with many powerful women and some fantastic feminist men. I live a life of privilege. I’m not claiming victim status. But I want to inhabit my female body, my woman’s life, as fully as I can, and in a very personal way, that’s my feminism right now.

 

 

 

 

 

I live in Warwick and I have my sister and nephews coming to stay for a few days, and recently someone else asked for suggestions of what to do with kids for 48 hours in Warwick.

So here’s my suggestions …

Warwick Castle, obviously. It’s expensive but it’s well presented and there’s lots to do. Don’t miss the peacocks.

But also consider …

A walk into town. The museum is under renovation at the moment (July 2016) but there are still reasons to have a wander around. We have a good ice cream parlour, Scoopz. And of course there are independent tearooms and various antique shops.

Another easily walkable route out from the town centre takes you to Hill Close Gardens which is still on my to do list.

St Nicholas Park, known to locals as St Nicks, is a great place to go with kids 2 to 12. There’s a cafe, a park and a mini funfair. When it’s hot the splash pool is open. There’s a boat club with pedalos and rowboats to hire. Bring a picnic: there’s a sainsburys local in easy walking distance.

Just close to St Nicks is St Johns House Museum which focuses on childhood: toys and schooldays. Its free and well worth a look, especially good for cross-generational reminiscing.

Another cut through from St Nicks and you can find a Portuguese cafe that serves very lovely pastries.

Another route out from the town centre takes you to Hill Close Gardens which is still on my to do list.

If you’ve got a car …

Hatton World . Increasingly expensive but younger kids love the animals, plenty of outdoors activities. There is a soft play with age zones, even teenagers will enjoy the drop slides.

Charlecote Park is surprisingly close, it has stags and the usual National Trust ingredients.

Further afield …

Stratford Upon Avon one way, Leamington Spa the other: buses or trains to both. Coventry a bit further but the Transport Museum and Herbert Gallery are both great.

So!

Enough to keep anyone busy for days. We’ve lived here for 8 years and still haven’t done everything.

Warwick friends, what have I missed? Share your top tips in the comments!

 

 

I’ve written a few new year blog posts over the years, in different styles.

As the year ticked over from 2014 to 2015 I remember thinking that my 2015 should be about authenticity. I should try to do things my way. I’ve come a long way as me so I must be doing something right. I didn’t blog much but I’ve tried to keep it in mind.

This post is different, I’ve written this over the last month, with my birthday in my sights. This year is the year I turn 40.

IMG_20160101_233953295

In just a few days I tip definitively into what I used to think of as “middle-aged”.

This post is both an indulgence and an invitation. I will share my conclusions so far, and perhaps you will tell me your most challenging lessons learnt. I’m writing this for people I know well and for people I’d like to know better. I’ve enjoyed reading other women’s confessional pieces and I hope you enjoy reading this. Comments are welcome, but don’t feel obligated.

There are some very personal confessions in here, so I don’t mind if, having read this far, you’d rather not read any further.

Expectations

By way of introduction I should tell you that I spent many years thinking that anything popular was beneath me. I revelled in liking obscure music and books. People with 2.4 children and a white picket fence were living inauthentic, lazy lives. I expected a lonely but unique lifepath.

This was my favourite poem:
“Moonsoaked, she emitted a cold radiance, which made all who loved her turn away. As well they might. For hers was the single silver track, upmountain to the moon”.
Poetic. Serious. Pretentious.

I was a pretty serious teenager. I was very into politics, and fundamentally I am still very political, with a small p and a big P. I was alert to false consciousness and mindless consumerism. I was suspicious of being pacified by the trappings of life, of being sedated into normality. I still did drinking and dancing and boys, and I did have fun, both cerebral and less so. I went off to university to do philosophy and literature, and life started to fill up with people and responsibilities, and I graduated from teenager to adult.

The Downs and Ups

I never expected marriage, kids, a detached house on a newish estate paid for by a fairly secure professional job. And yet here I am. And I like it. And believe me, I know how lucky I am, on every measure.

My rock is my husband Tim. An amazing man that I met through work when I was 25. He ticks all the boxes on my shopping list, and more. He does more than half the house chores, he’s good at DIY, cooking and enabling me to buy stuff. We talk about everything and anything. He makes me happy and supported and solid. I’m lucky, but also I take some credit, because I chose well.

The biggest surprise of my life has been motherhood. I am that lucky woman who has had two straightforward pregnancies, and I loved the feeling of that life growing inside me. The first labour was 3 hours 45 minutes, gas & air, pethidine, healthy mum and baby. The second was 2 hours, gas & air, again fine. I took to breastfeeding after the steep learning curve. I loved both my baby boys. My body surged with oxytocin. I was exhausted and had my share of days when I climbed into bed feeling incompetent. I hallucinated out of tiredness, I feared falling down stairs with babe in arms. But I had a feeling of contentment and purpose. My mum and sister commented they’d never seen me so chilled out.

Something you might not know about me is that from the age of 13 I have had several bouts of depression/anxiety. Everyone has reasons to feel bad, whether a legacy from childhood or cirumstance of adult life or the cocktail of chemicals and hormones that nature injects us with to keep life varied. I have, in many respects, a charmed life. So I can only explain my low episodes as a legacy of a slightly troubled childhood, perhaps compounded by a genetic predisposition towards depression inherited from my bipolar father, now estranged. At several points I have sought help through counselling, self-help and an anxiety support group.

In my mid thirties, I hit a low. This time, with a husband and two kids, the stakes were higher. Looking back, it was when the oxytocin dropped, a few months after finishing breastfeeding my 10 month old, that I hit a wall. I was back at work, teeming with anxiety and guilt, concentrating on trying to be competent at work and home, and frequently failing. Things were challenging at work and my identity felt vulnerable. I lashed out at family a few times. I was full of anger and difficult to live with.

In desperation to find some kind of stability I started taking citalopram and that helped a lot. I started a new job and after 8 months of the meds I stopped them. I honestly think that the trigger for my episode was the drop in oxytocin, but citalopram helped me past it. I wish I’d taken them months earlier.

Which is all an unnecessary overshare. I think I’m saying this to illustrate that I am not a shiny happy person, or a stepford wife, or a smug married yummy mummy. My flaws include: lazy, disorganised, forgetful, easily distracted, overcritical and judgemental. And against any rationality, I often read my horoscopes. I’m as flawed as the next person.

Perhaps I’m saying all this in a big double bluff of self-deprecation to make you like me. I hear that hitting 40 means that I will stop caring so much what you all think. I look forward to that.

Good Things (I Made A List)

Here comes a list of some things I love, dated New Year 2015/6. Some of these things I’ve discovered I like even though lots of other people like them too. I feel that embracing the common things in life feels positively correlated to being happier. The me of my late teens to early twenties was, to be frank, quite hard work to like. I like myself more now, and I think I’m easier to like. Though still not everyone’s cup of tea. And that’s fine.

Things I love, and how long I’ve enjoyed them:

Being a mum (8 years)
Playing the piano (30+ years)
Disco music (3 years)
Running (2 years)
Losing myself in a good book (30+ years)
Making lists (30+ years)
Good food (20 years)
Feeling like i’m making solid progress at work (15 years)
Being part of a network of professional peers (15 years)
Singing in a community choir (2 years)

There are many things I’d like to do more of: enjoying my kids as they discover what they love, being outdoors, being physically active, making things, seeing friends, laughing. I will try to find time for them too.

Lessons learnt?

I admit it, I have googled around for advice on turning 40. Some of it seems unobtainable, at least to me. I can’t imagine myself fasting or giving up caffeine. I don’t think anyone would thank me for it. Some of the advice seems obvious. Be kinder to yourself. Prioritise what matters. Don’t sweat the small stuff. But knowing something to be true and really living with that thing in mind are qualitatively different. The best advice I’ve read so far is “how to be a moderately successful person like me” which basically advises not pretending, and failing, to be a superhero.

With that “like, duh!” in mind, here are my lessons learnt so far.

1 ) Own your own thoughts. I know as much about life as I could know, for someone who’s had my life. I’m as entitled to my opinions as anyone else. I am as flawed and irrational as anyone else. Some things that I think are things that other people disagree with, especially about politics and religion. I have been pretty consistent in my worldview since I began having opinions. I have a lot of them. They are valid as opinions. I don’t claim them to be facts. No-one’s opinions are facts, and I will not be “mansplained” by people claiming greater authority. Nor am I a relativist, or a wishy washy liberal who thinks anything goes. I like to discuss things, because I think things matter and are worth discussing. In other words, I am as entitled to my worldview as any other adult. Sit at the table, “lean in”, and join the discussion.

2) Don’t worry about what people are thinking about you because they’re probably not thinking about you anyway. I know this is true but I suspect I could live this more deeply. Because I know that everyone is secretly thinking about my stubby thumbs. Admit it.

3) Be thankful for the moments of rootedness, to family, to nature. Feeling like you belong isn’t inevitable so cherish it when it happens. I’ve known that sort of loneliness where you’re hanging in space wondering if anyone other my mum would notice if I disappeared. And the loneliness of knowing that only I will ever look out of these eyes and see what I see. Becoming a mum myself gave me a grasp of what it is to be needed, and more than anything that gives me roots. I like to imagine I’d feel that sense of rootedness if I’d been me in some other era, some other country.

4) Contentment is the aim. Joy is a bonus. Happiness is more like a warm, soft comfortable thing than like a sharp bright thing. The swell in your chest is the reward for living with your eyes and ears open to the good stuff. Big highs tend to be followed by lows. Mild highs are more sustainable.

5) I don’t have much to say about how I look and that’s probably as it should be. I’ve always been short and round, blonde with big boobs and wide bum and round tummy. If I exercise, it’s to feel better. Weight loss is a bonus. I just want to be happy in my skin, to be grateful for my moving arms and legs, my functioning lungs and heart, my operational senses. I wish I didn’t fret about my hairy chin and wobbly bits. I want to adorn my imperfect body in shimmery gold dress as a thank you for carrying me through life and nurturing two babies, and I want to take my body dancing.

6 ) Make time for the things that you can lose yourself in. For me, that’s books, piano playing, running. Single-tasking. Absorption. Flow. There are some pieces I’ve played on the piano since my early teens, and each time I play them connects me to every other time. There is something in rhythm and repetition in running and piano playing. Novels are about becoming other people.

7) If you’re feeling restless and fidgety, it might not be your mind that needs fixing. You might need to move your body. Believe me, this has been a revelation to me over the past five years or so. I always thought that restlessness required more thinking, analysis and planning. It never really occurred to me that thinking-it-through was the opposite of what I needed to do. Overthinking gives too much attention to thoughts and feelings that should be allowed to float past.

8) Finally, a lesson about who’s in charge. My life is better and bigger and happier than I’d dared to expect. My inner voice used to tell me that some things weren’t for people like me. It was sharp and bitter. “Contentment is the white picket fence that keeps you trapped in mediocrity”. “You’ll always be lonely: sociability is for people less intelligent than you”. “Your integrity will carve a difficult path for you”. Remember my favourite poem as a teenager? A lonely single silver track. I haven’t compromised anything, my integrity remains intact, I haven’t denied myself anything in the process of constructing my wonderful life. My inner voice was just wrong. I see it now as it is: a black-clothed teenager trying to define herself in opposition to the world. How easily I might have been in thrall to it and missed out on all of this. I apologise now to anyone that teenager sneered at or hit out at. I thank anyone who saw past her and decided to give me a chance anyway. You tolerated a lot of nonsense from her (me) in my teens and twenties. I think she was scared of you really. She’s still in here but she’s not in charge.

What’s next?

Perhaps my next lesson, waiting in the wings of my 40s, is how to appreciate my life, to be mindful and thankful, without denying the reality of so many others. So many others are in bad health, in poverty, in grief and loneliness. How to reconcile the inner and outer worlds mentally so that I can be thankful for everything good without ignoring the bad. To live well with my eyes open. I invite you, with your happiness, integrity and wisdom, to tell me how!

Happy New Year

This is my third post in a series of “TWEETS I Never Sent”: I did my first from Jersey, two years ago I did one from near Glasgow and this year we went near Edinburgh. To be honest it’s nothing to do with twitter any more, except that I stayed mostly offline. We had a hilariously bad camping trip last year but I feel guilty I never alerted environmental health to that site so I remained silent.

So, here’s what happened on our family holiday this week.

How to go from warwick to york to just-east-of-edinburgh with two young kids and still have fun (tweetsins #3)

Tried not to faff about what things I forgot to pack. Top tip: definitely don’t keep asking your husband if “we” remembered to pack the books/inhaler/gin. Either “we” did or we didn’t, and if we didn’t, apparently there are shops and even chemists up north. Next tip: keep checking the paper map and correlating with google maps on your mobile, unless you’re coming to an important junction in your journey, in which case ensure you are deep in thought about work stuff that you promised yourself you wouldn’t think about. Pretend you lost your signal at the crucial moment and make a mental note to zone into the holiday. This is quality time with your family.

Note to self: Two hours into your journey you will remember that quality time with your family entails listening to your sons arguing about the powers, parentage and real names of superheroes. It’s fine until they get really angry with each other and you make the mistake of suggesting that it’s not really that important whether antman’s dad was an archaeologist. At which point they turn their anger on you, and harmony is restored between them.

York was mainly hairdressers and tapas, which was nice. We didn’t go to the Jorvik Viking centre because the boys are currently scared of “models”, i.e lifesize people statues, and they’d have lasted 3 minutes.

The next day we went to Alnwick Castle. In the knights quest area, upon interrogation by the wandmaker on where they were from, elder son announced “We have come from Travelodge”. There was a hagrid and a harry potter talking. Youngest managed the requisite three minutes before screaming towards me and sobbing “I don’t like it, mum, its freaking me out”. Also at the castle were ridiculously ornate ceilings in the state rooms which put me and Tim into a mild mannered class war, but we sedated ourselves with icecream and the smugness of having chosen a good place to stop off on route to scotland.

During this journey we learnt that our youngest is quite an expert on vampires, ghosts and superheroes. He absorbs stories like a sponge. On mastermind his specialist subject would be “things that don’t actually exist”. We are very proud.

By Saturday evening we’re settled into our wooden lodge in a holiday park by the sea. We’re right next to a burn* and a little wooden footbridge. There is a resident duck. *Apparently “burn” is the correct scots word for a river/stream thing. Happy Days 🙂

Despite having a lovely time, over a week I manage to indulge in my habitual addiction: fretting. So far the list includes:

  • work stuff I promised myself I wouldn’t think about
  • my hairy chin (this anxiety sometimes rises to the extent of ruining a happy half hour)
  • my black tooth
  • whether I had set up a direct debit payment to my credit card (it turns out “we” had)
  • my hairy knees that I should have shaved (this was at the forefront of my mind for an hour on the way to the zoo)
  • the possibility that my choir performance will clash with tim’s aikido meal. in december.
  • something terrible happening to the children (there are many versions of this anxiety, illness, accident and abduction have all featured this week)
  • a particular specialism this week:anxiety about people falling into water (please see below for details)

We stay local on sunday and do a lovely nature walk, without any nettle stings, falling into streams or getting attacked by wasps. We do a lot of imagining about the ferns and the dinosaurs, and a little reassurance is required that it was all very long ago.

Monday is a family park, and it’s actually fun. There are a wide variety of ways for a child to injure themselves. My children avoid all of them, others are not so lucky. One poor kid gets his face scraped by a hay bale but his mum doesn’t seem too bothered. So that’s alright then.

On Tuesday near a dangerously tall harbour wall in North Berwick we eat lobster, crab and fish and chips. And there is a very cool steampunk cafe where we sit on unusual furniture and have good coffee and unusual cake.

On Wednesday, Edinburgh is busy with festival season and full of people with too much confidence. Good for them. We ate fudge on the way home.

Edinburgh Zoo on Thursday is busy with irresponsible parents letting their children climb in dangerous places. Luckily there are some good animals to watch so I do my best to zone out of catastrophic thinking and watch penguins. Here’s a question: that anxious bladder-tensing feel that we get when we’re high up or watching someone high up: do other apes get that? Tim suggests they probably do have that in situations that are dangerous to them. Do they get that watching another ape in a dangerous situation?

Friday: Berwick upon Tweed which has a strange faded elegance to it: it felt like a place of ghosts, and then a brief stop in St Abbs which was full of divers and a gang of teenagers running too close to the harbours edge.

Spent today driving back down through the north east sampling the bland delights of multiple service stations along the way. And home. Indian takeaway. And press publish!

My son’s school was inspected in December. The report was released on 26th February. The reason for the delay was that Ofsted changed their approach to reports and all reports have been rewritten to the new framework.
My son’s school was judged inadequate, which doesn’t tally with my understanding of the school. What happens now is that as a result of being placed in special measures, the school automatically starts moving towards academy status. I don’t want that to happen. We have been told we have 10 working days to appeal, which by my calculation takes us to 12th March.

I am curious about this rewriting of Ofsted reports. Why? Could it be linked to the desire to push more schools towards academy status? As John Harris suggested in a Guardian article back in September 2013, “There may be reasons why primary schools are now finding themselves downgraded and pushed into the clutches of outside sponsors: 49% of secondary schools are academies, but only 7% of primaries are”.
I went to look at Ofsted’s data view site to see what the ratio of outcomes of Ofsted reports have been. How many primary shools are judged as “inadequate”?
This table is based on primary schools only, and the categories are (from left to right) outstanding, good, satisfactory and inadequate.
dataview
So, in the annual data up to august last year, the number of “inadequates” is very small, a steady 2%.
According to the schedule for releasing data, the data on these most recent reports will be released on 12th March. There is a change in categories now, to outstanding, good, requires improvement, inadequate. But they are pretty similar categories so perhaps the latest bunch of reports might show a change in the proportions of “inadequate” ratings.
I went to look at the most recent reports. I filtered for primary schools, and came up with 150 reports. I started the laborious process of logging the outcomes into a spreadsheet. Luckily, the wonderful Tony Hirst came to my rescue, when he realised I was attempting this “by hand”. He applied his data wrangling skills and built a process to scrape the data. He has documented his method. That man deserves a medal for usefulness.

So: 150 reports published in the last week that have been subject to the rewriting under the new regime.

outstanding good requires improvement inadequate total
13 55 59 23 150
9% 37% 39% 15% 100%

and when I formatted it for comparability, it looks like this:
dataviewchart

So in August 2013 the % of primary schools judged as “inadequate” was 2%. In the 150 reports released this week, that percentage is 15%.

That looks like a statistically significant change to me.

With thanks to Tony Hirst for data scraping help and Linda Scannell for the Guardian article link.