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.

 

 

 

When I am in charge….if I make it….

OMG. This Minion really does look like me. I shudder to think when I am in charge what I will actually look like? But you know what, I don’t care. I’ll be in charge and sorting out this unholly and ungodly mess.

VivMinion

 

 

 

 

 

 

I hate just to turn out a blog post unsubstantiated and ill referenced, but sometimes I do think plain and simple opinion is important.

I wonder at what point education innovation in the UK is going to entirely come to a halt. It can’t be far off if it hasn’t already done so.

I have spent an amazing day with education researchers from around the UK being trained. But we were peering over our vol-au-vents and thinking well this is all great, but there is no funding for me to do this.

What on earth is seriously happening to the UK Higher Education Sector. Come on.

I can’t entirely blame the organisations involved who previously dished out vast sums of money to support pedagogy and technology projects, training, networks and research. But I do look back feeling quite enraged at things like CETL (Centres for Excellence in Teaching and Learning) a few years back that dished out some £350 million pounds to the sector. WHAAAT? Around half of that investment is no longer visible or of any permanent use to the sector. But gosh, what we could do with a few pounds right now.

 

OK so these organisations are busy licking their wounds but the fact that they haven’t stood up with the HE sector to lobby for support is unfathomable. What however seems to have happened is almost instantly they underwent significant institutional change and reorganisation to reposition themselves as commercial ventures. OK that may be impressive, but personally I feel utterly let down by them, and like many others, having worked on and supported work in the sector for decades, I feel utterly betrayed. In some quarters, entire repositories of educational materials have gone. Do prospective students and families realise what an absolute mess the whole thing is in?

So what is it with UK Higher Education? We are supposed to be players in a global market, to be widening our entry gates, to be ensuring students have grande employability opportunites, to be keeping up with increasing and insane demands of the NHS and professional bodies (yes I deal with three on one single course of 15 sutdents per year). So really, how can we evaluate and address simple questions without money? I’m not even talking about full economically costing to buy me out for one hour a month, that is ridiculous. But to put it simply for me 1) I DO need to feel some sense of value on what I am doing by my institution, 2) I need some fair reimbursement for the extensive time I put in (outside of work) working in YOUR HIGHER EDUCATION SECTOR and  3)  I wouldn’t mind the odd financial reimbursement for the training or odd conference here and there that increasingly I pay for myself. I am 47 and am still renting a house. We talk about the NEW generation of people experiencing difficulties, but there is a whole generation who are still struggling?

But size of money isn’t everything
I’m not saying research investment is the be all and end all. I’ve worked in industry and know that throwing millions of pounds at projects does not necessarily produce inventive steps or life-changing results. UK universities that receive funding to produce results targeted toward certain outputs and impacts – that by definition cannot be robust research. Money increasingly goes to more polarised body of institutions and I hate to hear of money simply being wasted because they received so much and it is the end of the financial year. This is WASTEFUL to the UK overall. This knocks blue-sky research. Bashes creativity. We have a generation of researchers now (well, the ones with the jobs), who entirely think about the outcomes of their work rather than even thinking what would be interesting, what if we combined these theories…..innovation has come to a crashing halt.

University problems
OK so I moved from scientific research to education a few years ago. If we think that about half of UK universities aren’t bothered with learning and teaching at all, so the investment isn’t going to come from these institutions, then there is practically NO money for very fundamental EDUCATION research from anywhere else.

1 There is little money for education research and investment.
2 There is not much money to invest in developing education.
3 Nobody is interested in your child, or investing in what their needs are to gain a fruitful education.

I really can’t see how enough of the UK is going to compete globally for very much longer
I absolutely do think a university education is tremendous. But it isn’t fair, it isn’t equal, and great parts of it does not work. I bite my tongue talking to prospective students and parents in talking about education when I know the majority of my time and that of colleagues is administration, sorting out timetables, I count bus tickets, I input data, we verify administration decisions, I spend an vast amount of time requesting rooms or car parking. I might say these things flippantly, but when students need accommodation then I am on the case. But I do think, why am I doing this when I do absolutely know people who would be far bester than me in doing these things. Please sir – we want to teach!!!! Don’t start me on workload administration – my 9 year old niece would do this for me. Charmingly, one of the senior faculty members who introduced the scheme (that I do not condemn overall) did not even realise we inputted the same data year on year.

So what happens next?
OK so it is well established that academic hours are huge, but nobody does anything about it really. Academics have always worked long hours but usually writing papers and because they are engrossed in their research. I work weekend to stick boring numbers into a workload system. Because I have to compile over 200 documents for an NHS programme review. A complete and utter waste of time in terms of real value given to students. And this brings the notion of ‘hyper stress’ – immense stress by the shear volume of tasks, and things like data input if you are tired, dyslexic or whatever, do take a huge amount of attention-to-detail and skill to undertake correctly.

This worries me totally. I’ve had an amazing day today at a research workshop in London and I am tired of the conversations that show that we will do the research anyway. We all sat there thinking about the important work needing to be done, and with few exceptions, and verified by coffee and lunchtime chats, well, we’ll do this anyway. We will work evenings and weekends to make sure the concerns we have with international students, widening participation, making sure young people get the best out of their university experience……..we will make sure these get addressed. Not because of any UK sector leadership that used to come from the HEA or Jisc, or from our institutions…

…but because of us.

Is this a form of torture?
The situation has become so bizarre that you start to think that you are living some crazy dream. Is this a form of torture? I’m in my mid-40’s and driven to at times work around the clock for a job I’m allocated 2 days a week for? Because I’m under allocated on a system (despite having a fantastic boss) I still have to take on more. I’ve never been so physically ill in my life. But is this some joke? Is someone going to leap out from behind a lamp post and say you silly thing?

Part of some big master plan!
Perhaps I should just admit defat and stop caring. Is this what is intended? Am I supposed to just put all PowerPoint slides on Blackboard and assess every student by multiple choice questions? Because frankly, with no money for innovation, with no realistic look at what academic staff do, that is where we are.

 

 

 

#Noir106 The Music!

‘Strike Anywhere’

by David Kernohan and Viv Rolfe

It was a privilege being part of the DS106 ‘3 Fingers of Gin‘ radio show recently. Whoever so effortlessly turned out such a professional sounding production was a genius, and I never anticipated our attempt at ‘noir jazz’ sounding so good. As always with DS106, from the chaos and different ideas and talents of the group emerged something slick and entertaining. What amazing people.

When I think of ‘noir jazz’ the atmospheric black and white photographs of Herman Leonard immediately spring to mind. The smoke-filled pictures and crisp lighting conjure up sounds of dark saxophone or bright trumpet just drifting through space. John Coltrane and Charlie Parker never really did it for me in terms of their harsher saxophone tones, but the likes of Dexter Gordon and Ben Webster would certainly be more appropriate for that velvety, growly, ‘noir’ sound. I’m very lucky to have a superb Julius Keilworth saxophone that weighs a tonne, but that is the trade off for a good sound. I’ve also been lucky to hit on a spectacular reed at the moment – so this recording will never be entirely reproducible in time as the quality of reed vary so much and influence the sound tone greatly.

Process

When we set to record our music I think David and myself instinctively knew what it would be, and as always, we had very little conversation about it. We recorded all in one take. The first take is always the best. Most of it was bashed out on a Technics KN6000 which has done more gigs than I can shake a stick at but still can produce any music style that you could possibly wish for. We used the Technics for bass and drums.

We record the Technics directly through a Blue Snowball microphone into GarageBand which isn’t ideal and we could do with finding some direct input connectors, but hey, it seems to work. You do tend to pick up the clatter of the keys. Headphones on, and guitar, sax and other instruments were then layered over the top. GarageBand is brilliant and has never let me down through all the recordings and punishment that I throw at it.

Mood music!

MotionPicturePlays

We tried to create a series of moods that would enhance the radio show – whatever it would end up being. Motifs from parts 1 and 2 can be heard throughout with growling saxophone. My favourite was part 3 – all David’s own work featuring a flute which was somewhere between ‘car chase’ and ‘lift music’.

 

 

 

I like the idea of creating musical moods – I have a book of silent movie piano music – that can provide anything from ‘Fervent Passion’ to ‘Unleashing Storms’. Perhaps we should record some more for the next instalment of ‘3 Fingers of Gin’!

Oh shit.

Oh Shit

 

Have you ever had that stomach-sinking feeling and you think “oh shit”? I had it the other night when I realise Spike had found one of David’s slippers, and I failed utterly to convince David that sling-backs might be quite the thing for summer.

Well here is the feeling again; I have a paper accepted by a journal and read the first few sentences so horrified I can’t even reach the end of the abstract. A very familiar conversation with self starts all over. “Here we go again! Why did I end up being an academic. Why did my parents encourage me into science where I have to write things, and not music which I’m far better at and can just create things? There aren’t enough spoon impresarios in the world”.

Of course I was straight onto Google and found this super article “10 famous writers who hated writing” and hallelujah James Joyce:

“Writing in English is the most ingenious torture ever devised for sins committed in previous lives.” James Joyce (quoted in a letter to Fanny Guillermet, 5 September 1918)

 

Of course the difference with all the people in this article is that they were rather spectacular at writing, despite how they felt. They probably hated the concept of the process of writing on a large scale and then having their work under the public gaze, whereas I think I’m just really crap at it. No, I don’t think, I know it.

PAIN!
The point of putting pen to paper, or finger to keyboard, just fills me with pain. Words swim around on the page and I resort to reading things aloud, which given my estuarine-Essex-English is not a great solution. I went through schooling struggling with Latin, French and German grammar, and was never taught English which I always think quite staggering. The two people I admire (and envy) most in my life, one is a friend from Germany, and the other my sister-in-law who is Goan and educated in Kenya. They have the most perfect and beautiful spoken English. So perhaps our British schooling has failed more of us than I realise, apart from the notable exceptions I hang out with every day on Twitter who seem to reel off Booker Prize-quality articles in the time it takes to hide the remnants of a savaged slipper. (You all know all you hare and you are totally amazing).

BUT WE ALL HATE OUR OWN ART RIGHT?
Mariana and some of the DS106 people were having the conversation on Twitter last year about us sometimes hating our own work, and I think agreed that was a natural part of the artistic process that we challenge and critique ourselves to become better. I think for some this can be combined with some human emotions of insecurity and low confidence I would assume?

WHAT NEXT?
I’m not sure really. I’m facing a day of work writing audit documents for professional bodies. It is a Saturday and I already want to cry, and the thought of completing 12 of these hilariously named “light touch” forms, I know will end badly, although by the end will have cleaned the house, done the washing and walked the dog. Twice.

How on earth did I end up in a job were papers are the currency for success. “Are you REFable”? “What high impact journals have you published in”? CVs. Fellowships. Professional Accreditations. PUBLICATIONS. AAAARRRGGGGHHHH. I just feel so thick.

Why can’t animated GIFs count?

Jet-lagged Gifs

What better way to overcome jet lag than with making some art. (Big fan). Visited New York on a rainy day last week and the ‘High Line‘ was spectacular. A planted-up disused railway line provides an amazing splash of colour right through the city, and what a back drop. Here was a glance off one of the sides.

(It might be a bit gif-lagged and take a while to load).

New York Gif

 

But now I feel a bit of a voyeur taking a closer peak of the well-trained dog about to sit before crossing the road.

Pooch

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Anyway, more pics of the High Line, Washington and Fredricksburg can be found on Flickr.