The power of reflective writing. And parma violets.

I feel twitchy because I haven’t written anything (sensible) in a long time. Work has been so stressful I don’t think I’ve had the brain capacity. Suddenly now this year my other work – open education – my outside of office hours work – the work I get no time or recognition for in my institution – is bursting with activity. I was bored on Twitter just now, and as always the wonderful Sally was poised with a challenge: So what shall I write about?

I don’t know yet but I’ll let you know by the end of this blog post. It might be:

  • Parma violets are disgusting but I’ve eaten the whole packet anyway.
  • I’ve bought daffodils and Haribo for my team meeting tomorrow.
  • I’ve seven invited talks and conference presentations between now and the end of June!
  • We buy our first house and move. Soon!
  • Yoiks.

Actually I know what I’m going to write about and it is going to be ugly. Because blogging is a great way of getting things off yer chest and solving problems with a wider community. The trouble is I’ve national awards for my work – I’m a National Teaching Fellow and a Principal Fellow of the Higher Education Academy. That is fine, but as part of that work I have to mentor others, promote the scheme. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a big fan of the Higher Education Academy and wish them well in their transition. But I sadly think learning and teaching in institutions is moving away from that community of teachers, the learning and teaching culture that is the heart of your university, to being top-down strategically decided. I see this everywhere and I’m not picking on any university in particular. So I’m struggling to attend workshops to mentor folk through their applications, to sit on reviewer panels, to read applications, because if I’m totally honest, I’m thinking it is an absolute waste of time (apart from getting to hang out with fantastic people).

The work of the wonderful Annette Cashmore and colleagues from their 2013 report always comes to mind: Rebalancing promotion in the HE sector: is teaching excellence being rewarded? They talk of a two tier system. Career cul-de-sacs. Others have referred to career suicide. As commented at the time – the students are at the heart of the system. For sure! But we must “value and properly reward those who teach them”. In a 2016 communication – you can see how grumpy I was getting then – I reflected upon the fact that as a sector there is still a fair bit of inertia in recognising great teaching. As stated on the poster below, Jo Johnson in all of the papers said that teaching should not be the poor cousin of research. Unfortunately the teaching excellence framework (#TEF) will be about as useful as a chocolate teapot, and I suspect a fair amount of fabrication and spin has already gone into TEF submissions. Care for amazing National Teaching Fellows and care for fantastic research and evaluation to improve learning and teaching practice will have not.

But surely we recognise excellence?

 I presented this poster last year because I’d been declined from a job. An essential criterion was ‘postgraduate teaching qualification’ and based upon the HEA, HEFCE and HESA definitions, verified by our lovely HEA chums, I did indeed have some of them. I was rejected from the selection process. In the end it wasn’t because I din’t have ‘postgraduate teaching qualifications’ but ‘I didn’t have the right ones’. OK I’m from Romford, I can take shit on the chin.

Poster_VRolfe_TeachingExcellence

What can we learn from elsewhere?

A really interesting conversation on the Association of Learning Technology (ALT) mailing list echoes some of these points. Our wonderful community of learning technologists in the UK I do feel is on a similar trajectory. In the US and Canada, techs and library staff are the power houses of university and college innovation. In the UK they are sequestered into dark basement rooms and never see the light of day. (I love them all). Then, considering about 90% of learning /teaching and assessment is digital these days, we need to listen to ALT conversations and the likes of the awesome Tony Bates who talked about the digital in this entirely free and openly licensed textbook: A MUST READ FOR ANY PGERTHE STUDENT: That is free to read. And openly licensed. To share. Teaching in a digital age. The email thread (of about 20+ responses) asked about the use of evidence-informed decision making. I think the same applies for learning and teaching these days:

  • Evidence is slow – the research model does not work
  • A focus on particular technologies / assessment and feedback strategies (not the learning)
  • Long lists of journals presenting positive impacts of TEL (and less so of pedagogy) on learning (which is perhaps part of the problem – publication bias)
  • I’m pretty sure James Clay won’t mind me quoting (cos I can’t get onto his blog article) “when an academic asks “for the evidence to show technology can make a difference” the problem is not lack of evidence, but one of resistance to change, culture, rhetoric and motivation”. Sure. I also think academia has expanded like layers of filo pastry in Mary Berry’s oven. Do we think about students, ourselves, our league tables, metrics…WHAAAT? (Come on, I joined this gaff because I just wanted to teach).

There was then on the ALT list a general melching of agreement that in terms of learning and teaching versus technology (still separated at birth – why) implementation, implementation of processes and technology, implementation of new assessment policy happens from the top-down all the time, but is rarely backed up by evidence or research. And certainly never published. As for being in a university with a community of librarians – technologists – and passionate teachers, this is long gone. How bloody sad. I’m trying to think of a metaphor here but failing. What is tragic is that this system – the omnipotent – is failing some students every day.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

So welcome to the end of the blog post.

Where next? Well let’s try and influence our friends in influential positions. Wait! That is many National Teaching Fellows and Principal Fellows! You are heads of learning and teaching, pro-vice chancellors.

 

So let’s hopefully have some honest discussion about what we are doing. And for god sake. Parma violets are bloody disgusting.

 

 

Farewell old friends…

 

Dear darling cherished friends of mine,
Your smell bequeathed to passing time.
Mud-filled paths we have travailed,
In fitness fads to no avail.
Worn out treads and threadbare insoles,
Puddle-seeped, beyond console.
Stench-infused in every granule,
Desirable only to a spaniel.
From Vale of Belvoir down to Bristol.
I cry my friends, I sure will miss you.
As always inspired by @lemnsissay

#DS106 fuel for the soul

When I woke up this morning (big blues guitar chords), I was full of dread. I have struggled myself through 2016 to say the least, and with David driving to his folks today, I was worried about the immense gulf presented by the next two days on my own.
 –
I think everyone would agree 2016 was a stinker one way or another. For me, my ‘in-work’ world becomes increasingly separated from my ‘out of work’ world. My daytime is full of an incredibly stressful and unsatisfying often seven-day-a-week role, and my spare time is full of the open education work I so love and believe in. This year saw seven more conference presentations and papers on open education. I completed an eight month secondment in our Department of Education leading our Post Graduate Certificate in Learning and Teaching in Higher Education – supporting about 70 university colleagues through their modules and gaining some of the best feedback I’ve ever received. I left that role without so much as a thank you from that department.
 –

Sparing you lots of other stuff, I woke up today filled with dread and wondering how I’d fill the time I had. Something then must have said to me to revisit Jim Groom’s keynote from the Edinburgh OER16 conference. Boy. Here is vision, inspiration, clarity of thinking – everything I lack in my day-job. I just don’t find fighting over education league tables inspiring – or worthwhile at all in fact. People are important. Having a vision is important.  (Don’t start me on the NSS – I’ve written about that twice before). Jim – pointing to the work of many others – talked about developing an open infrastructure via the web – something that is very much lost in UK higher education. I mean that not just in terms of pushing the boundaries of what is digitally possible and acceptable, but what the US and Canada seem to do very well, is put their technical wizards at the heart of pedagogy and innovation in their institutions. I love that Jim and all the people he mentioned are building, and doing, and experimenting, all with the fundamental purpose of making teaching and learning better. And more fun. So Jim inspired me. Thank you Jim. You have no idea what that meant to me this morning.

Then, second dose of inspiration. The wonderful Alan Levine recorded a song and how awesome was that? “I’m a reclaimer”.…complete with guitar, vocals and harmonica, although a distinct absence of dog. I don’t know how he quite achieves that one. Ours does like to join in. Alan was also thinking about reclaiming the web, and in the comments on his blog, the gauntlet was thrown down by Talky Tina for more #ds106 music. OK then.

So like Alan, I’m immensely indebted to the Reclaim Hosting company. I’m not technical at all but somehow have ended up running five blogs. All well with that until you get hacked, and my poor Biology Courses has had more than its fair share this year. The previous hosting company was fine but not able to support me in the end. You know what really is stressful, those ‘ticket’ systems – “you have not responded in 24 hours so were have marked your ticked resolved”. Not resolved!! Stressed!! But then along comes Reclaim, and more than a fair share of pestering from me. But they transferred everything, cleaned it up, and pointed things to new things. Tim was amazing, and for him, I wrote this song.

More than that, it entirely occupied the day I was dreading, and up until 9.34pm at night, am still surviving. Thank you. So wanting for a while to do the “Chattanooga Choo Choo” – the Andrew Sisters’ version, here you are. I have no idea how they do their harmonies – but here is how I tackled it.

My lyrics:
 –
Hello internet.
Is this the internet?
I want a one way ticket to my privacy
I want to keep my data immediately.
 –
Timmy-boy
Are you the man at Reclaim Hosting?
“Transfer your domain”?
“Migrate your site to Reclaim”?
I can afford
To move my site to Reclaim Hosting
Since the pound’s had a fall
And is now worth bugger all.
 –
You send an email off to Reclaim ‘bout a quarter to three
You get a message back – instantaneously
“We’re so glad you came now”
“You’re hosted on Reclaim now”
“You control your data and you own your domain now”
Now I have my own vir-tu-al space to create
I can start a blog and share some stuff for debate
Photographs on Flickr
Twitter’s even quicker
Woo, woo, Reclaim Hosting you are so great.


It would be nice
If education was more open.
Let’s build and connect.
And share ideas with respect.
Reclaim your domain.
And build an open infrastructure now,
The folk at Reclaim Hosting
They can choo-choo you home.

Big fan of Reclaim Hosting…..

 

My recordy stuff:

The other miracle of the day was actually being able to ‘midi out’ from my Technics keyboard, into a USB box thing, and into Garageband on the Mac. It worked like a treat. Usually I record the Technics straight from a mic – but get the annoying sounds of fingernails clunking the keyboards and dog howling. That kind of thing. It worked fine. Of course, the trusty Blue Snowball microphone direct into Garageband for all other live recording. Not much ‘mastering’ or editing down – but reasonably OK.

Music set up

 

Harmonies?:

I don’t really know how the Andrew Sisters got their sound. I bang out the main melody in one take and can usually find a second harmony in another. I then usually have two more ‘tracks’ in Garageband and patch in harmonies that sound right for to make up a third line.

My final sounds:

Come and be creative in 2017:

In short, it is so important to find your creative space. You have to step off of the treadmill and out of the firing line. Join the #ds106 community on Twitter and have a look at the Daily Create. Today, I combined “His Master’s Voice” – Nipper the dog – with the create. I painted Nipper at school in the 6th form after I’d been dumped from art classes several years before. Nobody knew I could paint. A bit like work now, life is very good at focusing on the unimportant and trying to focus on what you ‘can’t’ do. Somehow that is easier and less of a risk of one day somebody being just bloody awesome.

 

 

 

Open educational resource Tweet Chat.

Thursday 8th December 2016 10am UTC (UK time)
Use the hashtag #altc
Look out for the hashtag for the ALT Open Education Special Interest Group #OpenedSig

Why this chat?
This Tweet chat session is part of the ALT Winter Conference and aims to provide an introduction to Open Educational Resources (OER).

Many people don’t know about OER and I think are missing out on the benefits of using, creating and sharing openly licensed materials in their teaching. Creating and sharing OER can provide learners with a wider variety of resources to chose from, and as a teacher I find other people’s materials often an inspiration and a guide for my own practice. Teachers who share resources or co-create them with their students will see their practice and the dynamics in their classrooms change. OER come in all shapes and sizes from individual assets – pictures, text files, video to entire textbooks. Someone might contribute to the open education community through Wikipedia or any of the elements of the Wikimedia Foundation. The use of a Creative Commons open license enables you to share the resource on the web (under the terms that you select).

Visit here for the results of the chat!
I’ll ‘Storify’ the chat and summarise main points. I’ll point you in the direction of web resources to help you get started using OER in your teaching or learning, and particularly focus on getting you thinking about your teaching and assessment practice in the context of being more open.

Storify –> http://vivrolfe.com/blog/open-education-tweet-chat/

Innovation – it has to be more than the shuffling of feet.

I’ve had an interesting few days out and about at meetings, the first with our South West healthcare science group, yesterday at the Jisc Student Experience event, and today have had an interesting conversation with a psychology colleague about  innovation.

So I’m thinking innovating in educational practices today, and linking back to my OpenEd15 presentation in Vancouver. (Slides can be found on SlideShare). I reviewed interviews and data from a number of science open educational resource (OER) projects that I lead, and viewed them through the blurry lens of innovation. What were the innovative features of these projects? What structures were in place? What was vulnerable. Here is what I suggested:

  • Innovation in education / digital practice relies on champions / early adopters
  • Impetus from local partnerships can help gain momentum (colleges and hospitals)
  • Global partnerships also drive processes (OER translations)
  • Innovation can create conflicts – the digital tussle – staff wanting to be creative but constrained by institutions and infrastructure
  • Open education innovation relies on the ‘spirit of OER’ and shared ethos. (Not a solid basis you might think, but that must be the one common thread in all of my work going back 10 years or more).

Innovation versus sustainability?

An innovation by definition has to have an inventive step or application. You can’t patent a thing, but you can patent a thing with a function. Innovation in education is a step-wise creative improvement in practice. When more people adopt this, it leads to change. In my research I then went on to think about how things can become sustainable within teams/departments/universities, and also how fragile and vulnerable they are.

OER sustainability

So what about innovation this week?

Here are some further examples and ideas relating to education innovation that have emerged this week.

Enforced innovation and at any cost.

  • Investment. Wholesale organisational innovation and change can be achieved quickly through investment and strong leadership.
  • Innovation can obviously fail without adequate investment, such as the catastrophic ‘modernising scientific careers’ initiative that has left most of our healthcare science professions at high risk. Also due to lack of buy-in verging on actual conflict by key groups.
  • Some people will achieve innovation and change at any cost. One project talked about staff working solidly for months on end, and those not complying were performance managed through appraisal processes.
  • Lots of talk about enforcing innovation and change through monitoring virtual learning environments – monitoring staff compliance with the systems; making processes or life difficult for academic staff to achieve outcomes. Enforced innovation.

How to innovate beyond a mere foot shuffling pace?

  • One of the most common problems raised always is how to bring people with you? How do you get at the ‘tail end’ of colleagues who do not wish to change their practice?
  • How do you reach over stretched people who really do not have the time?
  • The problems with champions is they set a precedent. How do you manage student expectations where they may have a small number of creative and innovative modules, and others that won’t comply?
  • Do you go for horizontal innovation (cohort by cohort embedding of practice) or vertical (innovate through disciplines/subject themes across all years)?

These are just thoughts. Do share yours through comments or via Twitter.

 

 

 

Getting to the bottom of neuroscience in education

I am very sad not to make it to the Association of Learning Technology conference on right now in Warwick (#ALTc), and the first two recorded keynotes that I’ve just viewed have already had me gripped. I’d like to focus on the one today by Lia Commissar who is part of the education team at Wellcome. You can view all the conference keynotes including Lia’s on the ALT YouTube Channel ( Education and Neuroscience: Issues and Opportunities). (Of course, Josie Fraser’s excellent one on trolling is also there).

Several education and neuroscience projects are underway to better inform educators about learning processes, and to dispel some of the mythology and misconceptions we have about how people learn, and that we have favoured learning styles, or use or left or right brain hemispheres. What interested me more are a series of projects looking actively at the brain and how it can impact on learning, using MRI scanning technology, looking at student sleep patterns to name a few of the ideas.

Let’s debunk some more myths.

As a physiologist of course I’m interested in the brain and central nervous system. But I’m also aware and very interested how our body systems act in concert, and it is not ever relevant to think of one system in isolation. And of course, when we start talking about the wonder of the nervous system, we usually forget another nervous system in our body that is as extensive as the brain, contains the same array of neurotransmitters and is located in the only part of our body that is able to work entirely independently of brain control. What am I going on about now? Our enteric nervous system in our guts.

“A north wind brings constipation”.

OK, so Hippocrates through his ancient and detailed observations didn’t always get it right, but he was probably the first to observe that stagnant water caused diarrhoea. The trouble with the intestines is they are very inaccessible, and therefore carrying out research to understand the mechanisms therein, is awfully difficult. To make matters worse it contains a ridiculously wide ranging number of cell types – epithelium, striated muscle, smooth muscle, immune cells (oh yes, most of your immune system is also in your gut), blood cells, nerve cells and sensory cells. The reality is also that humans are just mere hosts for bacterial and fungal ecosystems, large numbers of which also reside in our guts. We apparently are more bacterial than human.

Structure.

Layers of the GI tract

By Goran tek-en [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons, Available: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Layers_of_the_GI_Tract_english.svg

You can see how buried away the enteric nervous system is. It forms a series of mesh layers that extend along the entire lengths of our guts – from mouth to anus. The mucosal plexus, submucosal plexus and myenteric plexus are the main components, and they are connected to the central nervous system and brain via additional connections. Sensory information is gathered all the time and fed-back to the brain, and the brain elicits commands to control our gut functions. The gut contains:

  • Primary afferent neurones that senses food and chemicals within our gut.
  • Tension receptors monitor the contents and control peristalsis.
  • Glial cells, as with other parts of the nervous system, provide support.
  • “Pacemaker” cells (like in the heart) control motility patterns.
  • You find all the neurotransmitters that you find elsewhere – acetyl choline, serotonin, dopamine etc.

Gut-brain axis.

We know increasingly how vital the connections between the gut and brain are, and how the two systems work synergistically not just for our physiological processes but as part of our psychological ones. Some interesting medical studies looked at the use of psychotherapy for treating patients with gut disorders such as irritable bowel syndrome (Reed, 1999). We know ourselves about these connections – we often refer to having “gut feelings”, and that is simply our sensory environment in our guts responding before our brains provide more of an interpretation of what might be going on.

The gut and neurodegeneration.

This is such an interesting area of science, and this is no attempt at a literature review. However there are many interesting epidemiological studies (that have looked at patient populations), controlled medical studies and animal work that points to the gut and other peripheral systems being associated with the processes of neuro-degeneration. Science gets excited at treatments and discoveries that target biochemical markers in the brain, and rightly so, but research shouldn’t only focus there. Here are a few papers.

Gut Brain Papers

Some of this is fascinating – the first paper shows how important the vagus nerve is – that is the main route of connection between the gut and central nervous system. In patients where the connection was severed (as part of a previous operation), the incidence of Parkinson’s in that group was lower. The last paper shows some intriguing interactions between our bacterial flora and nervous system.

So what is the role of neuroscience in education?

The work funded by Wellcome is starting to explore just that. It is worth thinking that gut neuroscience seems to be involved in degeneration and the loss of cognitive processes, so I would think the gut most likely will also play a role in our development and ability to learn. I guess, that could be the next project for Wellcome to fund!

References

  • Chung, S.J., Kim, J., Lee, H.J., Ryu, H.S., Kim, K., Lee, J.H., Jung, K.W., Kim, M.J., Kim, M.J., Kim, Y.J. and Yun, S.C. (2015). Alpha‐synuclein in gastric and colonic mucosa in Parkinson’s disease: Limited role as a biomarker. Movement Disorders.
  • Haehner, A., Tosch, C., Wolz, M., Klingelhoefer, L., Fauser, M., Storch, A., Reichmann, H. and Hummel, T. (2013). Olfactory training in patients with Parkinson’s disease. PloS one, 8(4), p.e61680.
  • Kelly, L.P., Carvey, P.M., Keshavarzian, A., Shannon, K.M., Shaikh, M., Bakay, R.A. and Kordower, J.H. (2014). Progression of intestinal permeability changes and alpha‐synuclein expression in a mouse model of Parkinson’s disease. Movement Disorders, 29(8), pp.999-1009.
  • Mulak, A. and Bonaz, B. (2015). Brain-gut-microbiota axis in Parkinson’s disease. World journal of gastroenterology: WJG, 21(37), p.10609.
  • Rahne, K.E., Tagesson, C. and Nyholm, D. (2013). Motor fluctuations and Helicobacter pylori in Parkinson’s disease. Journal of neurology, 260(12), pp.2974-2980.
  • Svensson, E., Horváth‐Puhó, E., Thomsen, R.W., Djurhuus, J.C., Pedersen, L., Borghammer, P. and Sørensen, H.T. (2015). Vagotomy and subsequent risk of Parkinson’s disease. Annals of neurology, 78(4), pp.522-529.

Textbooks cost whaaaat?

£184.07.

£289,710.

£26 million.

#CutTheCosts

So I’ve done some fag packet calculations this evening because I’m so increasingly concerned about the financial welfare of my students. When I was at the 2014 Open Ed Conference in Washington and first started hearing about open textbooks, I conducted a very quick and dirty survey with some of my students. I realised I had no idea about their textbook purchasing habits, or indeed, how this fitted into the wider context of their university experience. I really should write that up. There were 69 responses from science students. Nearly 80% had part time jobs. They on average spent (based on their estimations) between £300 and almost £1000 on text books.

What about our textbook recommendations?

Clearly our degree programmes are structured around credit-bearing modules, and it is a requirement of validation and professional body accreditation to make recommended reading lists. This can comprise books that are strongly recommended to accompany each module, plus those that provide supplementary reading. Of course, every book recommended is available in the library. But what if someone really did come along and buy – even some of them? And as academic teams, do we ever sit back and think of the prices of those books we are recommending?

What I’ve done is compiled the reading lists of all the compulsory modules for our Biomedical Science degree. This degree is offered at 91 universities across the UK, and I am pretty confident that their lists will look the same. This excludes similar courses – clinical sciences, medical sciences. Let’s just stick with Biomedical Science for now.

Students have 4 compulsory year 1 modules, 3 in year 2 and select 3 in year 3. These estimates assume a student will by a text relating to each important area, so there may be more than one strongly recommended text for some modules. I’ve also not accounted for one or two modules where the books from the first year will do for modules later on.

So to purchase a good range of books that = 33 texts.
For year 1 that = 10 texts.
7 books are priced way over £100.
Kindle versions are really no cheaper.

So this already sounds ludicrous, but it is what we recommend. So why do we recommend and advise on books in this way?

£184.07?

This was the Amazon price of the most expensive book recommended. My prices were based on Hardback cover, Paperback or Kindle versions, and I took the most expensive price on offer which may be through Amazon or a private provider. Of course there are second hand versions available, but unfortunately for science, go back more than one edition, and it will be generally out of date.

Text Ethical Issues

 

£289,710?

If all the students enrolled onto these modules purchased all of the books, the grand total is £289,710. The largest first year module has over 200 students and the most expensive book there is £184.99 for a hardback version of a core physiology text. In fact this was the text I purchased in my degree, so possibly a good investment over the years although mine is certainly 20+ years out of date. I certainly would look round for a previous edition, paperback version instead, but for a chunky core book, you’d still be talking around £50.

£26 million.

The thing that worries me most about education is the vast amount of duplication of lecture and content creation, that teaching resources are discarded when people leave or retire, and I’ve written about this before. Of course, any excuse to share Kevin Mear’s excellent cartoon capture of mine and David’s session “the cost of not going open“.

The cost of not going open is also unfathomable for students across the nation. Multiply up the cost of Biomedical Science textbooks from one university to the other 91 that offer the same course, and yes, that is the figure in the millions.

But what about some real numbers?

In my 2014 textbook survey, students claimed an average spend between £300-1000.

Huffington post article showed how costs had risen by over 800% over the last three decades in College Textbook Prices Increasing Faster Than Tuition And Inflation. Figures in the article are similar to my fag-packet ones, with students on average spending about $655 on textbooks, with the most expensive being around $300.

In the 2010 National Union of Students (NUS) report What are the Costs of Study and Living, over £1000 was attributed to books and additional equipment. Further NUS reports like Debt in the First Degree detail the financial burden that students experience, and how it leads to many holding down jobs whilst studying. And we often wonder why they don’t attend classes? What is the progression and success rate for those students who have to work? What is the impact financially of those who for whatever reason have to drop out, or delay a year because work has impacted on their study?

Anyway, this isn’t intended as an in-depth academic study of the area. But we absolutely need to do just that! We also need to be providing flexible study choices for students and think about the sustainability and cost-effectiveness of the education systems we offer.

Added resources:

Unite Students Insight Report: http://www.unite-students.com/about-us/insightreport

Florida Orange Grove student report: https://florida.theorangegrove.org/og/file/3a65c507-2510-42d7-814c-ffdefd394b6c/1/2016%20Student%20Textbook%20Survey%20Draft%205.pdf

Bryan Alexander blog post: https://bryanalexander.org/2016/09/03/one-week-of-bad-stories-about-higher-education-financing-and-i-feel-fine/