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.


Layers of the GI tract

By Goran tek-en [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons, Available:

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!


  • 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?



£26 million.


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?


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



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:

Florida Orange Grove student report:

Bryan Alexander blog post:

Open education! Open education? Open. Education.

UNESCO (2016) believes that universal access to high quality education is key to the building of peace, sustainable social and economic development, and intercultural dialogue. Open Educational Resources (OER) provide a strategic opportunity to improve the quality of education as well as facilitate policy dialogue, knowledge sharing and capacity building.

UNESCO Paris (2002). Participants then adopted a Final Declaration (Annex 6) in which they “express their satisfaction and their wish to develop together a universal educational resource available for the whole of humanity, to be referred to henceforth as Open Educational Resources.”

The Cape Town Declaration (2007) (supported by Open Society Institute (OSI) and the Shuttleworth Foundation) stated…we are on the cusp of a global revolution in teaching and learning. Educators worldwide are developing a vast pool of educational resources on the Internet, open and free for all to use. These educators are creating a world where each and every person on earth can access and contribute to the sum of all human knowledge. They are also planting the seeds of a new pedagogy where educators and learners create, shape and evolve knowledge together, deepening their skills and understanding as they go.

I do love the global open education community because it gave me a home where my ideas for education could be firmly routed. I have shared open educational resources (OER) for over ten years. The aspirations above have inspired me, my colleagues and my students. But you know what, unless we actually evaluate these objectives, we will never know what we have actually achieved!!! So come one, we all need to wake up to the idea of sharing our research strategies to carry out some good evaluations of where we are.

Avon - Blake 7


(And if you don’t know about Blake 7. You should. And goodbye for the next few hours, days or weeks –

I know research takes a huge amount of time and effort. But couldn’t we sneak just one or two little questions in, really?

These are super papers out this summer:

Nicole Delimont (2016),
Kansas State University


524 students were surveyed and 13 faculty teachers were interviewed regarding the adoption of open books on a range of biology and maths subjects. That is a considerable chunk of work. Students were kinda satisfied. There again, if you ask students anything, they are generally kinda satisfied. But what about those who might not have afforded education in the first place, or those who learn in different ways? Did using open textbooks transform their experiences, because I’d really love to know.

I loved the faculty (teaching staff) responses – generally finding the adoption and repurposing of textbooks rather difficult but absolutely rating their experience with this open text book initiative as very strong. This study is super as it gets beneath the surface, and the open questions and answers start to reveal the benefits of open texts in that they are more up to date and customisable. Student responses to the use of an open textbook were firstly financial, they supported the idea and they liked having an online book.

But as Peggy Lee once sang, “Is that all there is”? “Then let’s keep dancing”.


Olga Belikov (2016), Brigham Young University.


Another paper just out, is on 218 faculty (teacher) responses as part of the 2014 ‘Babson’ survey. Staff were asked about their perceptions of OER and were invited to leave an ‘open’ response at the end of the survey. The top three barriers were – need more information, lack of discoverability and confusing OER with other digital resources. In terms of positive responses, the top response was a generally positive idea that this is “the way of the future”, that OER contributed to better student costs and equity of study, and that resources were equal to traditional materials.

The open comments are as always very revealing, but I wonder if responses for a wider and more varied population (as part of a series of studies), would give rise to a broader framing of the barriers and incentives to using OER or open textbooks? And why not include some of the bigger ambitions of the OER community round diversity and opportunity? This study and many others is really interesting – around 10% of students have different learning needs, yet, this isn’t at the front of our minds.


Barbara Stack Illowsky (2016), Foothill-De Anza Community College District (USA) and a multi-centre research collaboration.


This is a nicely conducted study that has asked students about their perceptions of cost and quality of open texts adopted for the teaching of statistics. 231 students completed the survey. The survey results were nice and gave a good glimpse into student textbook purchasing habits – something of which we know very little. Although the texts were offered for free online, some students liked a printed copy. The numbers of hours a week used was similar to other texts, and always rather disappointingly, in terms of quality, the majority saw the open text equal or better than the commercially available alternative. Only 13% saw it as worse. Either students have different understanding of the term ‘quality’ as we do, which I suspect, or the book was released in a similar format and didn’t intend to explore any more creative elements – collaboration, multimedia, links to further resources.

It is interesting that students when offering feedback will often use words like “confusing” and not “comprehensive”. What does this really mean? When we questioned students about what they valued in terms of resources, they referred to ease of discovery, quick to use, and resources that didn’t require time and effort to understand. This might be quite different from the ambitions of faculty and teaching staff.

“The book is written simply and clearly. This made it easy to understand and less ‘taxing’ to read. The collaborative aspect of the course built in the text encourages group learning which I have found to be beneficial to my learning.” (Illowsky paper).



These studies are insightful and I am no way intending to underplay the huge amount of work that has gone into them. These are fantastic initiatives and clearly open education is reaching out to hundreds of students. However I am just being inquisitive regarding some of the more interesting goals that the community talks about yet never really evaluates:

  1. Does open education offer equal opportunities for all those who wish to learn and to reap the benefits that education can offer, or even a short course or forming a network can offer?
  2. Does open eduction address social inequality and other recognised inequalities within our education systems, such as in “Causes in differences of student outcomes“?
  3. Does open education offer a high quality education – linked to sustainability and peace?
  4. Are we really addressing access and accessibility?

Evaluation is central to us all achieving these goals – I look to the US, Africa and elsewhere for evidence to present to decision makers in MY country. So go on, sling in a few interesting questions. If you don’t, Avon will come after you.

Avon Blake 7



CSF101 Defining sustainability and sustainable development (session 4)

CSF101 (session 1) – the inspiring challenge.
CSF101 (session 2) – understanding systems.
CSF101 (session 3) – how the earth works.

OK. I’m on the home run with session 4. We are thinking about defining sustainability again, and Steven Henry in his opening video says part of the problem is we’ve put man at the centre of the problem. In reality, nature is at the centre of the problem and we are a component of that. Steve’s most important message to me is that this is where we’ve gone wrong by putting ourselves and our needs first, rather than thinking of ourselves as part of the system.

For me sustainability means?

We think about it in terms of achieving one big shiney goal. What we need to do is think about the sustainability of all the component parts, that then as a whole, can offer something of a viable future. I guess that is how the body works. Some body systems might be healthier than others – I wouldn’t want to vouch for my liver these days. But the sum of the parts, is still something that is overall healthy. I’ve a hernia and diverticulitis, but the systems are acting all around to create health. I’ve suggested this with sustaining open educational resources – bung them out on at least two platforms at a time, and when one dies, you can repopulate from the other.

Steve Henry Sustainability Models

Steve suggests the most realistically accepted model is that on the right. Financial decisions drive all of our considerations. I think this absolutely must be part of the challenge – now that sustainability has become a business, approaches will be guided by those with a vested interest, and wrong choices might be being made by those clearly in for making a profit. Perhaps this is the sacrifice if we want to be making big changes, but are we really making big enough changes?

A bit like open educational resources (OER) again. Nobody wants to pay for them, but if we all share the cost, then that is almost negligible. If we share our knowledge and outputs of our teaching as ‘part of what we do’, then that five minutes a week is negligible. The same with sustainability. As a society we all need to know what to do to ‘do our bit’. I hate sorting out the rubbish each week into elaborate piles for recycling. It couldn’t be more confusing. But if this is making a difference then it is essential.

Henry Sustainability Model








Do we just accept this model?

Dr Robert (Founder of the Natural Step) talks about the ‘triple bottom line’ – that is, social, ecological and financial basis. The economics drives the approach, and is the means for everything else. The solutions are about the design of products and services.

What do I think?

I have worked in a global blue-chip company. If we think businesses and business people will ALL share the same ethical values for the good of society and ecology, then I we will be very much disappointed. There are a number of genuinely ethical companies out there, but how can the economic goals place nature and society as a priority above profit? It won’t happen. Are pharmaceutical companies really concerned about curing disease? Are food manufacturers really concerned about our health? I’m not talking about individuals in those companies who will be highly motivated toward the common good, but the overall business objectives will be to make money.

What is missing from the models above is an ethical or moral component. I also think tackling sustainability through business will never be big enough. We need each and every person on the planet to champion the cause.

Meeting basic human needs and building communities

Manfred Max-Neef, Antonio Elizalde and Martin Hopenhayn have listed 9 basic human needs to survive and to integrate as a society: things like food/water, freedom, culture and education is in there. I do think though that some people are driven by the very need to make money, or to achieve positions of power. For the model to work, we’d have to integrate this also. More can be found on Wikipedia – fundamental human needs. The glue that sticks individuals together is the need for trust, that is how we form friendships, groups, communities and society.

Definitions and frameworks

The Brundtland Commission, dissolved in 1987 and defined sustainable development in their report of that same year:

Sustainable development is the kind of development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.

(Our Common Future, Report 1987).

Karl-Henrik Robèrt, an oncologist, took up the reigns around that time and thought about the components / stuff that were unsustainable in society:

  1. substances extracted from the Earth’s crust
  2. substances produced by society
  3. degradation by physical means
  4. in that society, people are not subject to conditions that systematically undermine their capacity to meet their needs

These can be applied to any situation to formulate a sustainability plan, so for education, well, let’s have a go.

  1. eliminate the use of precious resources – e.g. teaching materials that are not share, or work discarded from people who retire (paper / electronic = trees / chemicals); time wasted by not sharing (staff productivity = energy and natural resources).
  2. eliminate the build up of toxic substances – e.g. imagine the scale of schools / education institutions around the world and the waste therein; laboratory waste material; physical materials from arts classes; discarded old computers and technology; discarded old furniture and materials.
  3. degradation of local environments by campus building.
  4. meet the basic needs – including a right and access to education.

There is much work to be done there. That is the topic for future research, workshops and brainstorms. I can’t possibly paint such an intricate picture on my own. I do like Robèrt’s model though, that works for me.

Working toward a summary of my learning on this course.

This course has been fantastic. I can’t recall being so gripped by something – and yes, the time commitment is quite significant. I’ve only given things a superficial and quick think over, but there is so much work to be done here. One of the final questions asks us to think about trends:

  1. Analyse trends, issues and opportunities that will influence future activity and generations in a chosen sector.

I suppose for education, there might be winners and losers here:

  1. Globally, education is expanding – so this will bring the need to address all of the points above, reducing the use of precious resources and minimising waste and the environmental impact.
  2. Growth of online learning – that must be a winner, reducing the need to physically travel to campuses and institutions, but there is again an energy cost, and impact on natural resources required to build our digital capability.
  3. In the UK, certainly growth in numbers of education providers and move to bring new private providers into the market. Business and profits might not mean thinking about sustainability here.
  4. As time goes on, the repeat production of learning materials / resources / lecture slides becomes incalculable.



CSF101 How the earth works (session 3)

CSF101 (session 1) – the inspiring challenge.
CSF101 (session 2) – understanding systems.

In this session (session 3) we consider the relationship between man and the planet. This is an awesome video that provokes us to think about the impact mankind has had on Earth.


I have no doubt that we hold a major responsibility for the health of our planet, and that we have been abusing, deforesting and polluting it for centuries. I’m just not entirely convinced that within the last decade man has been responsible for the directional and causal relationship between the changes in weather etc that we now see. That seems a tad arrogant to me, that man can be so mighty as to change mother nature itself. I also think that thinking in this diverts funding and activity from the really important issues – like deforestation. Remove the lungs of the world, and it is hardly surprising that CO2 levels will rise.

When I was growing up there were two very harsh winters in the UK. That was good for my family because my dad was a coal merchant! The talk at the time was about entering the next ice age. I don’t quite understand how within 40 years the scientific community could entirely change its opinion regarding the climate.

So overall I think, some of the arguments don’t stack up for me, but that shouldn’t dissuade us from our responsibility.

The video is amazing and thought provoking:

  • Microbes were the first organisms to utilise the resources on the planets, harnessing the energy from the sun, growing, and aggregating the carbon sources.
  • There is always the same quantity of water on earth. It is staggering to think of the millennia of recycling that has gone on. We are drinking water that dinosaurs must have drunk.
  • In nature, sharing is everything.
  • 70% of the oxygen comes from the algae within the oceans. Isn’t that a solution? We can’t quickly replace rain forests, but we can grow algae?
  • The earth counts time in billions of years – it took 4 billion years to make trees. That confuses me even more when we think of the last decade and I am concerned that we are not thinking in a broad enough context or time frame.
  • The trees are the vital lifeline – water, vegetable, mineral and matter. The formation of soil. So is that not part of a solution also? And further proof of how awesome trees are.

What do we know about the bonds that link the species on earth? I agree that the earth is a miracle and a mystery. I’m worried that placing the future of it in the hands of politicians, corrupted by money and their own interests, is not going to create a healthy abundant planet for future generations.

So how is current human activity changing the organisation and location of chemicals (and life) on the planet?

As noted above, I’m a little concerned that we are looking within the wrong timeframe. We can learn from physiology again. We are now all familiar with the signs and symptoms of neurological disorders such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. So here are some questions.

  1. Where do you think in the body that these diseases originate?
  2. If someone develops the disorder, do you think the disease process started within the previous month, year, or twenty years?
  3. What would be a single biological marker you might measure to diagnose these diseases?

What we know increasingly from scientific research – populations studies, animal studies that provide clues to mechanisms, and human clinical studies, is that these are problems that build up over a long time frame. As with heart disease or blocked arteries, these processes can begin in early life but manifest much later.

Science also tells us quite clearly now that these are end-stage manifestations of processes that start in other areas of the body. The links between gut dysfunction and brain dysfunction almost appear in the scientific journals on a daily basis, and even more fascinating is the role that our body bacteria may play in these processes. We are more bacteria than human after all! But see how easy it has been for science to look in the wrong place and at the wrong time.

And what about science focused on looking for a single biological marker? We now hear how people are studying the eye, looking at our sense of smell as early indicators of neurological disorders? It is a lot more complicated than we thought.

So what about the planet?

Again, I know I am a little sceptical of the politicians and decision makers with regards to solving our planet’s problems. I know how research funding, politically decided, can direct researchers off in set directions. Medical research works in the same way. We have to work out the impact that our research will have before we have conducted any studies these days. That should in theory be impossible. We need funding that is allocated in an unbiased manner, and that shouldn’t be linked to vested interests and career progressions for those conducting it.

I do hope that to understand our natural ecosystems and its relationships with mankind, we are looking holistically, and at wider time scales. What can we learn from more controlled events such as the industrial revolution, or World War I and II? Levels of pollution you might assume to peak during these times, so what was the impact? What about volcanic eruptions? That must have a devastating effect on the atmosphere and cause clouds that disrupts access to the sun’s energy.

The earth is an open and closed system

The session today really makes you think how there is a finite amount of water, amount of chemicals and amount of energy. Everything needs to be in balance – homeostasis – otherwise things go wrong, get destroyed or die. It is like a balloon dog – if you wanted a poodle but squeeze in the wrong place you’ll end up with a dachshund. (OK wiener dog if you are in the US). With a  wrong squeeze, we could redistribute valuable earth resources to the wrong place.

Balloon Dog Magenta

Image by F Delventhal, Flickr, CC By 2.0.

So ultimately for the planet we want the eternal conversion of stuff into more useful stuff. We don’t want it stuck as un-useful stuff. Resources that end up on the scrap heap. Too much CO2 in the atmosphere that isn’t recycled back to our trees, plants and algae. So it is important that we understand our natural biological processes – photosynthesis, and also our geological processes.

Might we be moving to a new epoch?

The course asks us to read this article in the Independent news paper – Anthropocene-we-might-be-about-to-move-from-the-holocene-to-a-new-epoch?

I guess that makes me nervous, because all other epochs have come to an end, and so might this one? Also I’m not sure about the definition of anthropocene , first coined in the 1960s, which focuses on human activities but not our inactivities. The definition doesn’t mobilise us into action. Again it seems a tad arrogant to me that in the billenia of our wonderful planets existence, mankind should take its place on the timeline of geological epochs. It also troubles me slightly that of the working group of 13 mentioned in the article, there were two women and a distinct lack of diversity. But if having a new epoch focuses humans and lifts them from their level of inactivity, that must be a really good thing.

Session tasks – considering how humans have effected natural ecosystems?

  • Lack of recycling of energy
  • Lack of recycling of water and chemicals back into the system
  • Disruption of the valuable ecosystems (woodlands in particular) that maintain our planetary homeostasis
  • Building and urbanisation that disrupts the natural flow of water
  • Lots of other physical disruptions
  • The never-heard of impact of nuclear testing that must surely cause massive disruption of the earth?
  • Lack of social cohesion and shared goals for the planet
  • Political corruption and vested interests
  • Inequality in the distribution of global wealth
  • Research narrow-mindedness and bias

WOW! I’ve got to link this all back to my quest of understanding EDUCATION in a more sustainable context? I guess this session has made me think about the OUTPUTS or STUFF that is ultimately valuable and is needed to be sustained. It has also made me see the difficulties in good quality / fair / unbiased / open EVALUATION and assimilation of knowledge surrounding these issues. It has made me think about the impossible POLITICAL challenge at any level, whether governmental or within an institution or group of people, that it is necessary to influence to provoke change.

Meanwhile, let’s have another balloon dog.

Balloon Dog

Image by Andy Wright, Balloon Dog, Flickr, CC BY 2.0.

CSF101 Understanding systems (session 2)

CSF101 (session 1) – the inspiring challenge.

OK to recap on why I’m doing this. I am interested in developing ideas about the sustainability OF education. In  session 1 we were introduced to the definitions and concepts around sustainability – from an ecological and societal perspective. We were asked to think of some challenges relating to our interests:

  • My case for transformation is that: educational institutions create knowledge and resources that are largely unshared.
  • I could think of a second case for transformation: knowledge generated is not built-upon and is therefore re-invented.

One comment on my post pointed me to the work of Joss Wynn at Lincoln, and I’m familiar with their student as co-producer work there, and am a big fan of that. Joss’s work helps me see a bigger picture beyond my inward thinking about the processes and practices within education. There is a wealth of work at the LNCD at Lincoln including the project Joss writes about – Chemistry.FM where resources are openly licensed and distributed to support chemistry learning for forensic sciences. Joss’s blog is thought provoking and I need to read more:

The main message about sustainability that I tried to push across in the presentation is that for OER and Open Education in general to be sustainable, we need sustainable societies and a sustainable planet. These are, arguably, not sustainable in their current form, so how can Open Education both contribute to sustainability in general and therefore become sustainable in itself as a paradigm of education? (Joss Wynn 2010)

Quite right. But we have to start somewhere. I think the small things can also matter. So on with Session 2 of CSF101 which is about systems, and I might find connections between the small things and the wider context that Joss is exploring.

  • What are the connections between tools, practices, processes and wider education?
  • What can influence what?

Learning from body systems!

I’ve just realised that as a physiologist, I should have a pretty good idea of how systems work, and I can’t believe I haven’t made that connection before. The course says there are 8 body systems – there aren’t. There are 11 (so a bit more complicated).

MIND CURLERS. Can you guess them?

Digestive (the greatest)

Homeostatic principles and feedback allow each of these systems to interplay, and if an imbalance is created (poor nutrition, lack of exercise, ill health), that is when things go out of kilter. The most remarkable display of the interrelation of the human body was being with my dad at the end of his life. The body systems were failing like dominos in a  line. The urinary system was in close connection with the circulatory, and as the kidneys failed, the blood pressure declined, and so it continued until the blood pressure was no more. The miracle of life was unwinding before my eyes over a period of hours.

Extrapolating the body to the world

To achieve sustainability, and to design sustainable systems, I would think we need efficient component parts communicating by efficient feedback systems. We need to avoid ‘unintended’ consequences. Of course, the world is more complicated, and we are talking about very different systems interacting – economic, social, ecological, biological.

In the video Peter Senge talks about business systems and the need to avoid problems. What does it take? Learning. Being prepared to learn and admit you are wrong. The main difference between this and our body’s homeostasis, is that our sequence of receptors and control systems, are compliant, take the evidence on board and act accordingly. “A deep and persistent approach to learning”. Also you need to triangulate “different people with different points of view to collectively see”, and these processes may take time. Different from the body here, where the physiological reaction will generally be very fast and efficient. The solutions to the problems, seem pretty well mapped out and rehearsed in the body, unlike elsewhere.

I like the comments that our societies and schools are very much focused on the individual – the smart kid in the class. “The smartness we need is collective”. I do disagree that businesses are there to solve problems – we do very little to learn from what went well, and when our existing economic, ecological or whatever system works fantastically, I don’t think we do take enough opportunities to consider that.

If I think about the beauty of the open education community as it exists and grows – the collective values and collective intelligence within it, is absolutely part of the success. Yes, there are individuals and maverick and rebells within the system, but ultimately they communicate back to the world through blogs and social media, and form part of the unit.

The importance of a shared goal.

The human body works together to keep us alive. The goal is clear. To be sustainable, we all need to define what our goals are.

We are asked in the course now to consider the UN conference on sustainable development 2012 Rio +. Six targets for 2030 were considered:

  • Thriving lives and livelihood (including education)
  • Sustainable food security
  • Sustainable water security
  • Universal clean energy
  • Healthy, productive, biodiverse ecosystems
  • Governance for sustainable society

(From Nature article by David Griggs, Montash University Victoria Au).

The framework has 5 parts:

  • Systems
  • Success
  • Strategies
  • Actions
  • Tools

Such a framework has to be a useful starting point, but some of the problems that might arise come back to terminology – security seems an odd word. There will be clashes of priority – it is OK being virtuous in the West about pollution and farming methods, but this might be life and livelihood for others. Key to this is the redistribution of wealth I would think.

Also this seems a very ‘corporate’ and traditional framework, which we have proven over the years that is not a very effective approach otherwise we wouldn’t be considering the problems we have surely? I’m surprised there isn’t some more innovative and creative thinking around what business and performance management approaches we should be considering?

A am therefore not going to use this framework and do the challenge – but focus on the targets. These need fully understanding before any strategy can be put into place. I know from managing enough people and running appraisals, the moment you throw SMART objectives at some people and define their objectives for the coming year, they are turned right off. About 50% of people I’d say. So framework away if you must, but we need space for big hairy innovative thinking.




The Inspiring Challenge of Sustainable Development – getting started.

Session 1)
I’ve just enrolled on the open course CSF101 “The Inspiring Challenge of Sustainable Development” and typically my initial excitement and ambition was squashed with the advent of a ridiculously busy week. The course started on Monday and it is Thursday, and I’m very excited to say “I’m off”, obviously, starting with a blog post. What else.


I’ve often wondered why in this times where sustainability of resource, societies and the planet are so fundamentally important, I’ve never seen anyone talk about the sustainability of education. Do correct me with articles in the comments box below if I am so clearly wrong. I thought about sustainability in terms of my open education projects for a while, and presented such at the OpenEd15 conference in Vancouver, discussing the sustainability and vulnerability of my OER projects.

Sustainability is often considered  in terms of OER, in relation to small-scale individual projects to larger-scale initiatives and business models, as follows:

But there is education FOR sustainable development.

Work at the UK Higher Education Academy (HEA) is drawing together insight from a number of institutions to develop a schema for sustainable development. The aim is to embed sustainable development within education programmes, as important as it is equally to fully consider global perspectives. The HEA says students are demanding HE providers to do so, and evidence from annual surveys dating back to 2011 are presented. Of course, getting students on the case is always a recipe for creativity and innovation, but at the moment I’m not seeing the connection back to the sustainability OF education itself. However, embedding sustainability within the curriculum and developing skills relating to systems and critical thinking have been pretty well described, such as by Professor Stephen Sterling.

What am I hoping to learn on CSF101?

The objectives of the course are geared around sustainable development, and the theory and practice seems to point toward buildings and the environment of course. The course looks structured to help us think critically about our ecological and social systems, and to develop strategic approaches to manage these. I’m hoping to come away with a bit of a model in my mind that fits to open education, and education more broadly. I hope to understand more the connections between sustainability FOR education and sustainability OF education.

Notes to self.

Isn’t it amazing that I can study for free right now with Otago University in New Zealand. That is the power of open.

I must also try and remember that CSF does not stand for cerebro-spinal fluid.

Session 1 out of 4: Sustainability is entirely possible!

Steve Henry is talking about the ecological cost of development, and that sustainability is entirely possible. What about living buildings? What about the waste of one system being a resource in another? How do we minimise the impact on the natural environment yet increase the quality of life that we have?

So in the context of education, what are the social and environmental problems that I think are ill considered? My case for transformation is that: educational institutions create knowledge and resources that are largely unshared. Public money invests in education at all levels, and even the humble creation of lecture materials comes at a cost. I’ve noted previously how within institutions there is a huge amount of duplication of effort going on, and a cost can be calculated. There is a cost to not going open as David and myself presented at the OER15 conference, and excellently captured by Kevin Mears. I costed, that in a 7 year position at a university, the cost of my preparation and delivery of lectures alone – a mid-level teaching commitment I’d say – was around £35K. I left the institution, and this was metaphorically skipped.

I could think of a second case for transformation: knowledge generated is not built-upon and is therefore re-invented. If I think singularly here about undergraduate research projects alone, the outputs of which can often be useful pilot data or literature reviews, I know folk who set the same projects year on year, and students generate the same ideas. Why re-create the same knowledge over and over? This is not only a waste of resource, but ceases to be a wider benefit to society.

Solutions? The CSF101 course now proposes that a sustainable future is merely one of design. How can we maintain a social and ecological balance to thrive within nature’s limits. We are asked to consider how effective are we in communicating the idea of sustainable development?

We always fail to call things by proper names, or fully define them. (Thinking about the ‘e’ words of education – engagement, employability, experience). If it is forever – it is sustainable. If you can’t make something forever – it isn’t. The speaker in the video is prompting us to think about definitions. This reminds me of the debate around openness and how ill-defined it is. We can solve things technically but we need a fundamental mind shift – philosophical shift – to fully achieve sustainability – shifting from restoration (stopping the damage or negative process) to regeneration (starting to move in a positive direction). I’m trying to think about sustainability in relation to education but beyond the obvious consideration around buildings:

  • Sustainability of education buildings
  • Sustainability of educational resources
  • Sustainability of processes
  • Sustainability in the light of digital expansion
  • Waste management and better use of materials (paperless?)
  • Consideration of education as a system
  • True relationship between social justice and educational policy and process

Systems thinking is about connecting the pieces…the bits are ELEMENTS, CONNECTIONS/RELATIONSHIPS and PURPOSE. I hope as I progress through the course, and in the midst of a less frantic week, I will clarify my thinking around some of this, and also, what on earth was my question in the first place.

Kalundborg project in Norway is a group of industrial partners who have come together to reuse each other’s waste materials. That seems like me a parallel model to knowledge – stuff generated through teaching, assessment and research at universities might be of use to somewhere else. Education symbiosis through open approaches.

Next time – Living Building Challenge.



It’s been a funny old day…

…because it is Monday?
…it is the first day back after my holiday?
…I’ve just had to take the dog out for his evening wee in the rain?
…(in my dressing gown)?
…I’ve been in my job 3 years today?
…my wonderful boss has announced she is moving on to new things?
…I got rejected on some internal funding about student engagement because it wasn’t “learning and teaching”?
…I need a doctor’s appointment and the next one is over three weeks time?
…I’m still wondering why I went to a Zumba class on Sunday to display my lack of coordination to the world.











Maybe all of the above. I don’t know why I’m thinking of Arkwright from “Open All Hours”. Perhaps because I grew up in a shop and we had plastic curtains like that, a till like that and my Dad wore identical brown overalls. And yes we did have those long-handled snappy things which were supposed to be for removing items from the top shelves, but really served to pinch people’s bottoms from a distance. I’m probably wishing my Dad was here so I could particularly discuss my list and listen to his words which were always spot on.

I’m partly thinking it is a shame when organisations cannot retain talent such as my boss, and partly remembering the Saturday night bingo in the village hall where one of the local families used to fiddle the raffle. They would mysteriously pull each other’s tickets out of the hat and win illustrious prizes such as a tin of Heinz baked beans. They were rumbled when naughty kid Beverley asked to see the winning ticket on one occasion.

I think I feel funny because I told myself that I’d give it two years in the role, and now am entering my third. I think sometimes we get paranoid about time, and maybe as teachers we are more sensitive to the passing of each academic year. Also based on the hours you put in, you work somewhere between a calendar year and a dog year in reality, so my three years is perhaps nearer five.

Also our education system programmes us to think in two or three year blocks. My mind is thinking that I’ve done three years and I should be moving on. I need to say to myself, “it is OK, you don’t need to do that now. Be like your brother who has been with the same firm for 34 years”.

So a funny old day for sure. A bit like the time when the Colonel’s wife was lighting the candles in the Nativity crib and set light to the whole thing, and the time we put a whoopee cushion on the vicar’s seat during church.