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.


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.



You’ve got to pick-a-pocket or two?

In Higher Ed, one thing counts
Research funding, large amounts.
I’m afraid these don’t grow on trees,
You’ve got to pick-a-pocket or two.

You’ve got to pick-a-pocket or two,
If you want to fund a project or two.


The wonderful Ron Moody in Oliver Twist.








We were just mulling over in an #LTHEchat the lack of investment in the UK for educational, pedagogic, Higher Education – projects, research or innovation. Since the slash to the HE budgets and introduction of higher student fees, investment through the Higher Education Academy and Jisc predominantly – through no fault of their own – has fallen from £millions to £zero. Yes. £zero. Not £small amount. But absolutely no investment for small scale projects or pieces of research at all to develop teaching and digital innovation, or simply to follow important new lines of enquiry or answer important Higher Education questions.

Tweet Chat LTHE Chat

OK I’m all for not living lavishly, but the long-term impact of this lack of investment is going to be very far reaching. If I think of my own journey. I moved from industry to Nottingham University in 2004 and having no research track record from industry, I was up a creek without a paddle. Fortunately I discovered Flash Animation and started making learning objects for Nottingham University. This interest grew into wanting to evaluate the effectiveness of this. That is important right?

Moving onto De Montfort University and building up an interest in technology and open education, my funding profile looked OK up until 2012.

My entire research career started off with £5000. That supported five of us in the department to make some basic lab skills resources, share them on the web, write about it and go to conferences. The second piece of work looked at how to improve student writing and referencing through using Turnitin(R). It funded student and staff interviews, resulted in a publication and a few conference trips. I still talk about both these projects today.

Great oaks from little acorns right?

Great experience working with the HEA UK Bioscience folk. My first big externally funded open education project. VAL is still going strong today.

A significant leap for me into systematic research methodology. Have completed several reviews now and these have formed the basis of many undergraduate and postgraduate projects ever since. I run staff development workshops on systematic review now. Not bad from £3K.

This work led to my University Teaching Fellow Award. I became involved in staff mentoring and training in De Montfort at this point.

  • 2010. Jisc / HEA OER Phase 2, “Sickle cell open – SCOOTER”. £123,000. Principal Investigator.
  • 2011. Jisc Digitisation and Content Programme. Virtual microscope. Partner with the Open University. £5000.
  • 2011. Open University SCORE Fellowship, £16,640.
  • 2011. Jisc / HEA OER Phase 3, “Biology courses and OER”. £199,000. Principal Investigator.

Such a significant phase of my work. All projects still going strong. Built a strong network with the UK open education community (#ukoer) which is still alive, along with regular attendance at the UK Open Education Conference (#oer16), and four consecutive attendances at the US/Canada OpenEd Conference (#opened16), all from the research arising from this work.

These OER projects at De Montfort

  • Involved hundreds of staff and students
  • Built external collaborations with Leicester/Northampton hospitals
  • Enhanced staff and student understanding of intellectual property and copyright
  • Promoted and provided understanding of Creative Commons open licensing
  • Supported staff in using technology to build learning resources
  • Enhanced staff perspectives into learning design
  • Promoted discovery of teaching / research expertise on the internet
  • Provided lasting OER curations via WordPress blogs
  • Distributed OER to global communities using social media
  • I’m bored now. So much more.

Through this I became a National Teaching Fellow, mentored more fellows, sat on review panels and led more staff development. Students were involved in projects informally, through internships, through postgraduate projects and through employment as research assistants. Knowledge and research outputs were disseminated to the sector forming part of the Jisc OER Synthesis and Evaluation reports. I have had many conference presentations and papers relating to OER as a result of this work. I am now working to build open education practice in my third UK university. And with anyone else willing to listen.

  • 2012. Commonwealth Fellowship. “Health promotion games for sickle cell disease”. Collaboration with University of Ibadan, Nigeria, led by Faculty of Technology Professor Howell Istance. £25,000.
  • 2012. HEA Case Study. “How institutional culture can change to adopt open practices”. £2,000. Joint.

OK. Last two. The first was a Commonwealth Fellow from Nigeria who’d spotted our Sickle Cell project and wanted to produce a game to promote good health. The second was a very low-cost case study interviewing senior executive staff and completing our picture of student-staff and senior staff views on OER. These insights have been fundamental for implementation of these projects within our universities.

So without that £5K in 2008, and without working with amazing people within HEA and Jisc by which I learnt the craft of open education and a range of project management skills, I wouldn’t have achieved any of the rest. And I don’t mean that I’ve achieved grandiose promotional heights – I’m not a Professor or anything. I’ve been on the same salary scale for ten years. I mean, the impact I’ve had through working in open education, and more so, through working – or being invited to participate in:

  • Learning and teaching committees/leadership groups within universities
  • Contributing to learning and teaching / technology strategies for faculty/university
  • Mentoring/reviewing/panel selection for university teaching fellows/national teaching fellows
  • Mentoring/reviewing/panel selection for HEA UK Professional Standards Framework
  • Ad hoc staff development sessions, materials and workshops
  • Working with technologists
  • Working with library services around Creative Commons and open education
  • Nationally being on committees to support learning and teaching advocacy/practice
  • Committees to support digital learning

You’ve got to pick-a-pocket or two.

So what I hear increasingly now is people self-funding, supporting old HEA or Jisc projects out of their own pocket, paying for their own conference attendance and probably more. This not just equates to folk being out of pocket, but working hours outside of their institutions.

That isn’t to say that some universities are investing in a ‘project’ type approach and in their staff, but this certainly isn’t the entire picture. Meanwhile, institutions and the sector – as the prospect of Teaching Excellence draws near and the Government want to support student choice, equality and all the other things they claim, they are going to have to think seriously how to do that. Of course the bigger problem is the skills and knowledge gap that is looming with the guts having been well and truly kicked out of anyone wishing to evaluate their teaching or digital practice, or develop a career dedicated to the development of educational research and academic development.