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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...

Saturday, 22 August 2020

#eurocallgathering A meaningful mission on my road to retirement


Summer 2020 was to mark my the end of my teaching at Warwick. I plan to retire at year end and didn't want to leave the next cohort part way through their learning. These were just plans in my head, but they were of course affected by the arrival of a global pandemic - forecast for some years by experts and yet unexpected by the UK Government, which of course had their eyes only on the earning potential presented by their #brexit agenda. 

As it became apparent that we would not be able to travel easily, thoughts turned to how we could maintain some continuity in the Eurocall community which is almost entirely supported through an annual conference, already some way into planning to take place in Copenhagen. A difficult decision was made, we would not be able to go ahead. I had been co-opted to the board of Eurocall in 2018 and this organisation has a special place in my heart. 

As an early adopter of technology for language teaching and learning I had become aware early in my career that there was a group of academics who researched in this area. As a teacher, even as a head of subject I didn't have resources to enable me to join a physical conference. I read some of their work and attended local training events in Warwickshire but back then there was no easy access to information through the internet. In the 90's, when Eurocall was founded I used CD-ROMs such as Granville in my teaching. Later in my career, having moved to work in Higher Education I was able to track down Graham Davies, thanks to his ICT4LT website and twitter. I contacted him in 2010 as I had taken on a role to support staff development at Warwick Language Centre and he kindly agreed to speak to our teachers in his Second Life persona. Even with my very rudimentary skills in Second Life I was able to get my avatar to wear a Eurocall t-shirt! Warwick language tutors listened to Graham together and discussed how we could further embed technology in our teaching practice. I felt I was offering them the chance to connect with the leading edge of research and those with most experience. 

Graham and I shared a love of Europe and the need to support language learning:

Sadly Graham died 2 year later. I attended a celebration of his life in Second Life, a really moving event. He cared deeply for the fellowship he found in EuroCALL and I felt honoured to be able to pick up his legacy through working on the virtual strand blog. I felt that the challenges I had faced as a young teacher would not be going away. The opportunity to make the work of Eurocall more open and accessible to all who supported language learning was one I could not resist. For me this was personal

The idea of the #eurocallgathering event was born of the challenges presented by covid19 in 2020. 10 years after Graham had spoken to our teachers, I put a plan together to use the under-utilised capacity of our G Suite to ensure that we could still get the community together. I set up a site a hashtag and a You Tube channel and spent the summer months pulling it all together. Thanks to the support of the executive, the conference committee was able to transfer much of the planned event online. We didn't have the joy of visiting Copenhagen but we were able to share our work and and fellowship for two packed online days which will also leave a legacy behind them for others to find. 

The wide range of research which is generated by this community continues and #eurocallagathering only shows a small cross section and much of my work continues with UNICollaboration which was born out of the work supported by Eurocall. The stream is widening, as John Gillespie pointed out in his keynote 

Thursday, 2 July 2020

SEDA panel: Educational development and learning technology - challenges and opportunities.

Screenshot from my Google music app.

Since lockdown my usual gym trip in the mornings has been replaced by time spent on my exercise bike in the back garden listening to my music and making the most of the warm  weather. My playlists have often thrown up some very apposite songs which have framed my reflections on work. This coming week I have been invited to contribute to a panel discussion hosted by SEDA (Staff and Educational Development Association) and as I will have just 5 minutes I have decided to put further detail here for anyone wishing to follow up on my thoughts, which will be particularly drawing on my experience as a language educator. 

Firstly to frame my contribution please read the executive summary of this report. It is prefaced by this statement from Nick Hillman, Director of HEPI (Higher Education Policy Institute) regarding why we need to direct greater attention to language learning in the UK because:

"the decline in Languages is so great and because there is so much uncertainty about the UK’s future place in the world."

Many of us working in languages have seen the challenges coming over many years and have been pushing for greater recognition of the demands that come with the contextual shift happening in our domain of intercultural communications. Covid19 has brought this into sharper focus, revealing the capacity gap for leadership in effective online language learning and teaching in HEIs. It is not all bad news though - there are many opportunities ahead. 

CALL (Computer-assisted language learning) and CMC (computer-mediated communication) have a good deal of literature to support professional development. The rise in virtual exchange, backed by research and financial support from the European Commission, offers skills development which empowers educators  and a range of activities for students unable to travel due to the current crisis. This learning is being shared across disciplines through a new academic organisation, UNICollaboration

When learning design is applied to the "new normal" of online or blended learning it is necessary to return to first principles and re-examine what you do with your students, why and how you do it. If you are spending your summer figuring this out, I suggest starting as a student - join a mooc . Establish your own professional online identity to reduce the psychological distance that is now part of how we must live and work. An important part of this preparation includes understanding copyright and ownership of your intellectual property. The Association for Learning Technology have brought together a great set of resources to help you

Creating interesting and inspiring digital learning materials which will enthuse your learners may well include some advanced produsage. It will certainly require critical digital literacies in order to ask difficult questions of your academic technologists and question the institutional status quo. You may wish to consider working as an open educational practitioner. 

This video illustrates the size of the challenge. Time now brings a new context to this recording which includes a section about Brazil's leadership in this area before Bolsonaro. 

Take a look at your own learning, explore heutagogy and reflect on the opportunities that the digital domain and open educational practice offer to you and your students. This could be a summer of transformation. 

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.