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One of the most enjoyable and inspiring books I have read this year has been Sir Ken Robinson's "Out of our Minds"  and my ref...

Thursday, 14 May 2020

How important is measurement?



Image by Steve Buissinne from Pixabay

Last August I started incorporating regular visits to the local gym in my routine. Aware that I am not getting any younger and that my work has included substantial periods of time sitting at a screen I really needed to include more physical activity in my life. All was going great, then came lockdown. Fortunately I have an exercise bike and thanks to the lovely weather I have been able to set up a little home gym to keep things moving but I am aware that the balance has tipped somewhat as all my teaching, interaction with colleagues and social life is now screen based. My husband has started leaving the scales out in the bathroom to draw my attention to the need to review the effects of lockdown lasagne and increased home baking..I studiously avoid the hint as I know what is going on and don't need another cause of stress in my life right now. 

Last night's #LTHEchat  gave rise to a tangential conversation (as it often does) about the National Student Survey (NSS) and measuring student engagement/enjoyment of learning. Of course metrics have been the focus of much in education over recent years with many calling on empirical evidence as a basis for change. A suggestion that the NSS results could include emotional engagement information brought strong reactions;



and a call to discuss such surveys in a future chat. This prompted me to reflect a little on measurement in general. There is a tendency to assume that opposition to measurement comes from a desire to hide away from investigation. I do not believe this to be at all justified in education. Most practitioners want to understand how people find their teaching, we have in interest in knowing what works and what doesn't. There is little satisfaction in working away blindly without feedback. However let's not be naive, we need to know the purpose of such measurements. We need to understand the basis of the judgements and how they will be interpreted. For those working in education measurements and metrics have been used not to inform but to be interpreted selectively in order to advance certain agendas. Used to reduce the costs of teaching by removing experienced practitioners in favour of cheaper labour without a thought for how new practitioners will be supported. Used to pit head teachers and colleagues against each other through league tables. These are not in the interests of learners, they do not support the necessary interpersonal dynamics that create a great learning ethos, they do not help improve your teachers, they create a culture of fear and prevent true collaboration. 

Another area of measurement - summative assessments - which have been hugely changed due to the #pivotonline agenda have increased stress and anxiety to our learners this year. We really need to stand up for what is helpful to learning and look critically at what we're measuring and for whom. If we really to wish to serve the learning needs of our students and indeed ourselves we need to question the purpose of measurement - the intended audience, the nature of the interrogation and the awareness of how subsequent judgements impact on the stakeholders. If measurement matters, how and what we measure matter more. If the stakes are too high, I don't want to play. So the scales can go away for now!


Saturday, 18 April 2020

Whatever next?


As our teaching term ended and we returned home for the Easter break in the hope of finishing some outstanding tasks and maybe some well earned rest suddenly all our hopes were overturned. COVID19 was about to change everything as the UK government suddenly decided this was a risk which needed more extreme measures. To be honest their response was too little too late but as ever the impact of crisis measures was yet again to put ordinary folk into the position of being "the elastic resource". This is an expression coined to me by one of my previous Heads of Department, a very wise Germanist. She would say whatever needs changing always relies on the workers being an "elastic resource" - stretching ever further, even when we are already over stretched. So it was again. All our carefully planned and prepared exam papers would need to be shelved and we were asked to create new assessment methods to fit a world where no-one could share a physical space, a new reality of social distancing and online "delivery". Otherwise we would not be doing our job. 

For me this reality of working remotely has been a way of life for at least 10 years so it didn't hold any of the fear I saw elsewhere. We (the language teaching community) have had at least 30 years of academic research into computer-assisted language (CALL) learning which has informed what we do and helped us to avoid some of the basic errors and misunderstandings which result from random application of shiny tech to teaching scenarios. Surely all would be fine. 

I had neglected to consider that assessment is still akin to a lesser known martial art in higher education. Often mediated solely through 3 hour writing sessions filling large halls with hoards of nervous students surveilled by a team of invigilators. It was, in retrospect, unsurprising that many were just looking to replicate such conditions online and move on. Of course that wouldn't work for language assessment, but it took a while before a plan was centrally agreed and meanwhile the elastic resource (ER) stretched further to plan, design and refine replacement activities which could be used to arrive at a magic number for those students who were hoping to graduate this year. Yes Jesse, aloting numbers remains a real issue in our competitive system which pits students against one another in order to identify those who are the most worthy of the best jobs. That's how capitalism views the world, on the basic of "merit". A fact we need to address more critically.

Social media was full of the fall out resulting from the call to #pivotonline.  Hurriedly deployed Microsoft teams reflected the urgency not of teachers but of managers to focus their ER to rise to the challenge before the Easter break despite the failure over past years to ensure that they were at least armed with the essential tool of assessment literacy! Fortunately some of us had undertaken some assessment training off our own bat, wanting to better understand what we do and why. I completed a PGCert in Assessment in 2014 which really opened my eyes but I still felt ill prepared to make this sudden shift and grew increasingly nervous when some colleagues started suggesting lengthy oral presentations to be prepared by students under conditions of which we were blissfully ignorant. It became clear over a few days that some of us would become ill, many would have to return to their home countries in different timezones, many would have to adjust to strict lockdown, caring responsibilities and even the possibilities of huge and painful loss. This would be nothing like business as usual. 

I found Dave Cormier's podcast really helpful and shared it with all those who were tasked with creating tools to measure performance under these new and bewildering conditions. 




Armed also with the learning shared at #OER20 on the theme of care in education I set about advocacy for a humane approach to assessment in every forum I could. I hope to have made a difference. Measurement may be important to some but it is not life and death. Supporting and facilitating lifelong learning matters.Yes Sean, we must first liberate ourselves to speak out and stand up for those to whom we are responsible. Otherwise we really are not doing our job. 

Friday, 30 August 2019

EuroCALL 2019: Critically open - designing for learning with your eyes open.

How do you choose your digital tools?

This coming week I will ask this question to those attending EuroCALL2019 in Louvain La Neuve, Belgium. Their input will update the word cloud above. I am interested to find out what or who influences our tool selection - do we use what we know? what we are told to use in our institution? what we have heard about from others?  When do we change tools? Does student interest or advocacy play a part? Are we aware of how some tool choices may negatively impact on student engagement? Do we think about whether a resource created using for example an authoring tool may not be accessible to some students? Perhaps we have limited choice.

I hope my presentation gives rise to discussion about how we can ask better questions when designing for learning in digital environments.

A favourite resource from Future Teacher 3.0 UK on this subject is available here.

You see sadly there is little training for web developers into the accessibility needs of those using learning resources, little awareness amongst learning designers and practitioners of the importance of accessibility and therefore the online resources which have been assumed to help support learning can sometimes just further marginalise  learners. Increasingly as the technology gets more complex, more "magical" thanks to algorithms and artificial intelligence we understand less of what is going on inside the black box. I believe that if we use digital tools we need to ask better questions, to uncover some of what is hidden from us. We need to use and promote critical digital literacy

I have been curating some of the conversations on twitter which relate to #criticaldigilit. I hope you find them useful.

Thursday, 4 July 2019

On the sustainability of teaching



Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

Recently I contributed to this final Future teacher 3.0 session by briefly sharing why I work in the open and support open educational practice (OEP) for teachers. I cannot separate that journey from the decision to learn more about ownership of digital learning objects and the use of Creative Commons licences. 
Sustainability is at the heart of that decision. Teaching as a profession is about creating the conditions for learning and growth and currently our wealthy economies are dominated by austerity and the drive to reduce regulation, resulting in open season on working terms and conditions. The gig economy continues to grow  and we will reap the negative effects of the societal impact.

The human cost of forgetting our humanity, our responsibility to one another, in favour of short term rewards is shocking. 



In my discipline the race to market language learning has decimated a real understanding of the fundamental fact that language is a human act, to improve you need to use it with real humans! 




It may seem dull to learn how to operate and share resources online legally but at the heart of that learning is freedom which is central to the sustainability of teaching. Already inequality of access to language learning is growing, access to learning resources more widely is being limited according to wealth:
These threats should be resisted by us all, but particularly by teachers. In a typical tongue in cheek tweet, Dave White commented on the difficulty of replicating human interaction through AI:
To sustain a good quality of human life we must first value each other, whatever our talents, flaws, differences and challenges and then refuse to support changes which undermine our collective potential to thrive. 



Monday, 27 May 2019

You can't stop wildflowers spreading!

Warwick's wildflower roundabout Summer 2019 CC BY 4.0 @warwicklanguage
It is now a year since the end of the Warwick International Higher Education Academy (WIHEA) #knowhow project ended. The metaphor for talking about open practice which we employed was based around wild flowers and I took a moment last week to revisit the campus roundabout which was one of the enduring images used to promote our activity, delighted to see that the wildflowers are back and blooming. The disadvantage of funded projects is that they often disappear once the funding runs out leaving little in the way of legacy. I'm pleased to say that our legacy continues as many of the project outputs are open and freely available, but they are sometimes changed by circumstances beyond my control:



The recent open education conference #OER19 shared many great ideas for the development and implementation of open educational practice which I have started to investigate now that my exam marking has finished. These conferences, supported by ALT, leave lasting footprints year after year modelling the advantages of open practice. Their CEO Maren Deepwell is committed to open practice and shares her learning as she participates in a range of educational activities and events. She is one of many open practitioners in my personal learning network (note to self I must update this as it was last done in 2017) who inspire me. She is a sower of seeds. Learning is lifelong, sharing that learning can help others in their journey. It is not a competition or a race which depends upon beating others by withholding information. We thrive through collaboration and co-creation. This may require compromise. There will be times when we become more vulnerable than we would like to, times when we have to admit we get things wrong, times when we have to as for help. Some of us have to learn this the hard way.

 Through posting openly online I offer an imperfect work in progress. As you will see in this recent update to a previous post on an EU project called Video for all. I hope others find it helpful in some way. I will be presenting at Eurocall 2019 on open practice, continuing to sow my seeds. I may have little control over where they fall and whether they grow but you can't stop wildflowers from spreading. 


Wednesday, 3 April 2019

From CMC to VE #wlvmlearn

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Just home from participating in an event held at the University of Wolverhampton Walsall campus at the invitation of Howard Scott and I would categorise it as an opportunity to provide my experience of CALL, or more specifically CMC and my subsequent journey into the Erasmus Plus Virtual Exchange initiative. I was able to provide myself as an OER. My focus was particularly upon the importance of finding suitable networks to support our professional development  and I am pleased to say that I have come home to connection requests on various social media platforms which mean the conversations can continue. Particularly important given that it will take the Palestinian teacher trainers I met today 2 days to return to their homes. We will be able to overcome our geographical distance and continue to interact and learn from each other. 

My slides from the session and the google doc with the tasks we tried to cover are linked here. Our conversations were urgent and rather restricted as we were part of a packed programme and participants were eager to find out as much as possible during their visit. We talked about how technologies of all sorts have long been part of our practice as language educators - from blackboards and chalk (chalk and talk was the expression used by one of the visiting teachers) to digital tools which they are very keen to embrace but wish to understand what works. Both myself and the final keynote speaker Michael Thomas  spoke about the importance of critical reflection when adopting digital technologies, alluding to the dangers of a solution based mindset and techno evangelism and the importance of prioritising the learning when designing with technology. Central to these arguments is the notion of ownership. The digital wilds, where your data is harvested, trolling, spam and fake news abound, are not exactly a safe space. If you are insisting that your students engage there, you need to ensure that they are digitally savvy. We as teachers need therefore to be well informed and to ask better questions. As Michael said we need to uphold our responsibilities as "difficultators" (taking learners out of their comfort zone).

Much to ruminate on, I hope the conversations will continue.


I captured the social media footprint of the event here:


Thursday, 28 March 2019

CALL to TEL(L)

Made with Padlet
This week I was invited to present at an event jointly organised at Warwick for the Extended Classroom and the Arts faculty co-ordinated by the new Digital Arts Lab. The event was really well attended and I spoke about my personal perspective on the history of CALL and how it has contributed as a field of study to better teaching and learning. 



A personal journey through CALL from University of Warwick

The audience included some familiar faces - people who regularly get together around use of technology in teaching, friends from languages at Warwick and some new (to me) so I was eager to ensure that I didn't get too bogged down in the technical or the personal. Meaning of course that there were some things I meant to say that I possibly didn't say clearly enough. Thankfully this blog is a good way to reflect on what I may have omitted! 
The tools I used for the event were the slides embedded above and a set of resources for exploration shared on the padlet embedded at the top of this post. The story (just like my personal biography) goes back to the 1960s. 

CALL has a long history of research involving practitioners in language teaching and researchers in language acquisition, it overlaps and connects with practitioners in English language teaching and applied linguists from around the world who also have their own networks. As a larger community we have sometimes been accused of being techno-evangelists (I have no idea what this accusation really means). I don't think there is a religious zeal within the community, we are mostly excited to try new things but often disappointed by their failure to deliver the promised change we seek!). Publications arising out of CALL and related fields such as Computer-mediated communication, Mobile Assisted language learning, Online Intercultural Exchange etc. often tell of the disappointments, the things that go wrong, the misuse of power through use of technology and other such critical issues. As a community we are well placed to help the scales drop from the eyes of those enchanted by the promises of technology enhanced learning. 

I feel I dwelt a little too much on avoiding the mistakes of the past and perhaps failed to mention the triumphs emerging from the work of this extensive, diverse, international community. So time to put that right. 

The best teaching arising from those who have engaged with the work of this community upholds some really important principles which contribute to the best in teaching and learning today:


  • human centred approaches to learning can be achieved using technology if we take care to prioritise learners,
  • we can use our agency to inform and empower learners, encouraging autonomy and innovation in pedagogy,
  • linguists are used to navigating the intercultural, any disciplinary project can be improved by involving a suitably competent linguist.
I did in passing make a point around critical digital literacies. We  must always ask ourselves when we think of computer-assisted language learning and technology enhanced (language) learning: who are we assisting? what are we enhancing? I should have also stressed that open practice is a great way of supporting reflection and improvement for researchers and practitioners. In my defence I have spoken about this many times so my work on this is fairly easy to find!

I really hope that something positive comes out of what was an exciting and positive event, that some more barriers have come down and that projects rooted in great teaching continue at Warwick.