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Finding your tribe

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...

Wednesday, 28 December 2016

Communication channels

With new technological developments comes a time of adjustment and it was ever thus!
Over the holiday period I took a few days away from my laptop but still checked my phone. Getting online is how I interact with colleagues, friends and family. It is how I find out what I need to know (movie times, latest news). Even as I write this sitting in a very cold and noisy home surrounded by 2 heating engineers (boiler broke down just before Christmas and a new one is currently being fitted) I am communicating with my sons (stranded in their bedrooms as the floorboards and carpet are all lifted outside their doors) to check on them. I thought I would try to keep my fingers warm by typing a blog entry which has been in draft for a while. 

New communication technologies are a huge social challenge when they come along. Inevitably they are "sold" to us as the answer to every problem posed by distance, an efficiency we require to cope in the modern world, the industry takes care of that. Up to us then to try them out and express how much more complex human communication is than the software developers would have us believe. 

Humans like to choose their methods of communication differently, what works for some will offend others. Texting (SMS) grew rapidly in popularity and was welcomed by some as a means to encourage written communication between a generation who resisted reading books. However, it was not long before people were being unceremoniously dumped or fired by text message.

Email has become the default for formal correspondence in many workplaces, invoices, quotations and receipts can be emailed whilst "snail mail" has been reduced, business postage bills must have dropped dramatically but this shift has also brought new challenges - we have all had to learn how to manage these in order to stay safe and keep up with work demands. However, those who love email rarely seem to appreciate why others may find it intrusive and unhelpful. 

And now we are in the era of synchronous online interactions for work or play. Video conferencing for work has brought some interesting new takes on the meeting, beautifully illustrated in this video . The social norms we have long established over time, the reliance on body language and eye contact to help mediate our interactions, these forms of human feedback are replaced by a new need to understand the workings of our connection, hardware operation and indeed digital audio feedback!  Those who master these challenges, those with "communicative advantage" - especially between global connections - will undoubtedly have an advantage over others if they put their combination of technical and interpersonal skills to good use. All too often we see communicative advantage bring the wrong sorts of changes as we did in London thanks to the realisation of a particular messaging system but we must not fear or blame the tool, the fault lies with those who refuse to acknowledge and engage with the new channels, we only have ourselves to blame. If we do not inhabit physical spaces and leave them to be overrun by those who would do wrong we are complicit in creating ghettos and no-go areas, leaving mistrust and lawless behaviour to flourish. 

In the world of synchronous connection, there is great work already underway to restore the online spaces afforded by virtual connection tools to enable more open interaction and normalisation of such channels. I must mention at this point the work of Maha Bali and others, selflessly supporting intercultural discussions, helping to counter the inequity which blights us. Never has this research and exploration been more important for our world. It needs to inform and educate our young people to use such tools and communication channels appropriately for the good of us all. 

Sunday, 11 December 2016


 I found this graph illustrating the development over time of a Community of Practice (Wenger) very helpful as I prepared to deliver a workshop for tutors this Christmas. In many ways we are a diverse group, international colleagues coming from a wide range of teaching traditions and with varying levels foo interest and expertise in technology enhanced teaching and learning. What unites us is a love for supporting language learning and after recent developments a degree of clarity about how we assess language progression. 

I analysed our progress towards becoming a Community of Practice (Wenger) in a paper delivered at Eurocall in Evora, Portugal some time ago. Time now to revisit this. In the paper I talked about the importance of "tending" the community through shared activities. Several of our "technology enhanced learning" champions achieved recognition for their professional development through fellowship of the HEA (Zhiyan Guo, SFHEA) or are working towards this. Others have taken advantage of the open courses shared through our 101 news forum (e.g. Chiyomi Duble completed the Blended Learning Essentials mooc) Since the paper was written there have been institutional changes which intervened making the TEL meet-ups a more challenging activity. As our operating unit (the Language Centre) was merged into a new wider School of Modern Languages and Cultures, new pressures arose :

  • a loss of budget allocation for our activity reduced the security of the future of the Languages@Warwick project.
  • Institutional implementation of a central platform provided a new location for student courses, dividing our community activity over different platforms.
  • a push to move teaching resources into the central moodle made TEL advocacy a rather political activity, internal discussions became divisive and sometimes unpleasant. 
However, the shared commitment to a good blended learning experience for our students remains. Our "champions" have continued to engage and develop their practice, putting our TEL activity amongst some of the best on offer for language learning in HEIs. An emergent group of practitioners are working at the leading edge of TEL through Online Intercultural Exchange and the use of video creation and creative online assessment techniques such as the e-portfolio project flourish. And so I can see that we have moved along Wenger's graph towards coalescence and that is gratifying given all the contrary influences which threatened to unpick the progress made. Tomorrow we all meet up for our annual Christmas show and tell session and continue our journey learning together disseminating through a co-authored blog aimed at increasing student understanding of TEL in language learning.  

Saturday, 15 October 2016

Weaving for peace

Image: Lucky charm 1 paper weaving
by Shannon Sinclair CC BY ND 2.0

I am not talented in an artistic sense. My secondary school art teacher took a dim view of my attempts to create a homework that scored anything above 7/10 and I quickly abandoned any attempt to improve after a brief struggle to convince her that my "gift" needed to be nurtured. However, I have a love of art and I derive great pleasure from the appreciation of the talent of others and the natural beauty I see around me in the world. I do maintain a passion for creativity which, in younger days took the form of poetry writing and singing (I thank a great English teacher for his encouragement). 

Once I was working as a teacher myself, I started to derive pleasure from creating activities and designing learning materials for my students. This interest has grown and mutated since the advent of digital media. I started in the late 1980's to devise web tours and treasure hunts, use databases as a resource for realistic oral role plays and I enjoyed how the use of new media disrupted the usual classroom dynamic and helped different students shine. Of course, much has changed since then - CD-ROMs, MP3 players, YouTube, WYSIWYGs and HTML5 have revolutionised how we create. Most recently of course digital communication tools such as smart phones have helped us to connect and interact online more easily, for better or worse. 

This has been the background for me finding a new creative space. Over the past 10 years I have gradually increased my online presence as part of my professional life. Having taught myself a little HTML many years ago, I realised that websites are rather like tapestries. The beautiful appearance of a page is the result of lots of knots and threads behind the scenes, a good deal of imagination and craft goes in to the finished product - if indeed it is ever finished. When you make online you enjoy a medium that offers lots of possibilities as long as you understand your purpose. Rather like the beautiful piece of weaving above, the various aspects of my digital presence: personal websites; twitter/instagram accounts; open resources shared through various repositories such as slideshare, XTlearn; video accounts and more have to be woven together in order to reveal all the facets of my work. I seem to have arrived at a place where my "next steps" are increasingly about weaving together the various threads of my digital creation. I worry about the web needing to remain this open canvas, a democratic space where all can participate, not one "owned" by states or multinationals who seek only to exploit or control the voice of users. My digital threads are multi-coloured but when they come together they form a coherent self portrait of an educator who will always value the spirit of the artist, who nurtures talent, openness and creativity whatever the circumstances. We can use our creativity for good or evil, I choose to support a positive vision of global human endeavour. I weave for peace. 

My thanks go to Martin Weller who commented on my weaving skills after this blog post which in turn inspired me to practice more!

Thursday, 25 August 2016

Virtually attending #eurocall2016

This year I was not able to attend Eurocall. To be honest I didn't ask for funding as I have been fortunate enough to attend and present at many conferences over the past few years and I felt I should ensure that others also get the opportunity should they wish to do so. I chair the Eurocall computer-mediated communication special interest group so it was important to ensure that the discussions continued nonetheless. These face to face meetings are very important to community building. I am very grateful therefore to my friends for ensuring that all went ahead successfully. The tweet above along with exchanged DMs confirmed that all was well, a great reassurance. For this I am extremely grateful to my friends Shannon, Antje, Muge, Mirjam and no doubt many others who were "sur place".

We have had an eventful year and we look forward to the launch of unicollaboration 

Monday, 25 July 2016

Thriving in challenging environments

This wildflower roundabout delights me every time I drive into work. In the midst of the traffic it brightens the journey with its chaotic flurry of colours, enhancing the rather sterile brand new road layout. Don't get me wrong, great improvements have been made to the access to campus since work was completed on Gibbet Hill Road, giving better bus access and making the area safer for pedestrians. All is neatly landscaped but this wildflower area is a beautiful contrast and reminds me of nature's resilience even in highly manicured spaces. Every form of life here brings value, attracting wildlife and increasing eco-diversity on campus. 

So to my thoughts on the final stages of our WIHEA project. This project has been a form of wildflower island. participants have had freedom to grow their thoughts and share them safely and they have rewarded the project with a wide range of ideas and reflections. I have been gathering these and reflecting on them in the light of existing and previous work in order to communicate our trajectory, our "next steps". It has been a great privilege to work with our students and appreciate the natural beauty that comes from empowering individuals to explore as part of a shared goal to enrich our environment for all. 

Friday, 8 July 2016

Speak up!

When I first started researching tools for bringing my voice into online environments it seemed clear to me that this would be beneficial for those wishing to improve their language skills. I quickly discovered that recording your own voice was very challenging for some, even if they were more than happy to listen to others who were less anxious.

My dissertation suggested that there was a "double hit" in using voice recording software with learners of language - the anxiety could be greater as the learners can be particularly concerned about matters such as pronunciation and error. For this reason such tasks need to be carefully designed and supported. Sometimes is it better if they are private or restricted whilst the learners gain confidence. I am sharing with you here an open gallery of Voicethreads. Palons! is for the Clavier project, Playtime for the huge rhizomatic community to share. 

Therre's nothing quite like your voice for connecting you to others. 

Friday, 27 May 2016

Projecting the future

Having just emerged from the usual end of year exam marking frenzy I am now pushing ahead with a learning and teaching project supported by Warwick's International Higher Education Academy. The project team is an international mix, combining staff and students with a range of roles and experience and they are keen to investigate the new learning context we see all around us. We will be looking at how we can improve engagement in lectures, how the availability of information through digital devices changes the roles of student and teacher, how we manage our online presence and what sharing means today. 

For me, this is an exciting development as so far my thinking in these areas has largely been with others outside my immediate context, through participating in online interactions in and beyond my own teaching and ed tech communities. I am interested to see if our collaborative discussions help shed some light on where the newly founded School of Modern Languages and Cultures can progress good practice informed by these pioneer researchers. 

The project approach is heutagogic - participants will make their own decisions about the investigations they wish to contribute to, they will determine their own path, reflect on their learning and co-construct pages in Mahara (our e-portfolio tool) in order to make their findings explicit. Much of the activity will be mediated through our course areas and this in itself is a new challenge. My kick off meeting and drop in session so far have focused on making sure everyone gets to know each other and feels welcome in our digital spaces. We have a short project window (finishing at the end of July) and, given the nature of the project design each has to find their own way through our set of investigations, contributing to our shared goal as they go. Order will eventually emerge out of chaos, but we all have to be comfortable with the disruption involved in order to get to grips with some challenging ideas. Not surprisingly there are lots of questions for me as project manager: can I...? should I...? and the answer is typically Do you want to? Go ahead...try it...It is scary to have permission to follow your curiosity when you have been trained to meet targets and accomplish set goals. I am very grateful they are willing to give this a go. I can't wait to see what they think and to bring it back to the ALT conference in the autumn. 

Saturday, 23 January 2016

Setting sail together.

Yesterday I presented a keynote to the LLAS #elearnllas symposium which charted the course of my professional development as a learning technologist over recent years. I did not set out to become a learning technologist, this was rather a necessary set of skills I needed to acquire in order to develop our blended learning provision. My objective had been to implement a platform to enable our tutors and students to share resources and connect beyond the classroom, given that we have just 2 or 3 hours a week contact time. 

The journey has not been without its challenges but I didn't want to dwell on these. What I wanted to share with my peers was the nature of the digital landscape and how we can be best prepared for embarking on such journeys from our own institutional contexts. I chose to map the territory using the thinglink above. This is offered as a tool which can be shared with others to encourage them to explore the digital environment and find affordances which are useful to their practice. The multimodal path through my presentation is available here and those who share the messages can collect a digital badge by submitting an evidence URL (blog post link, tweet etc) to this open badge claim.