The tale of Ada Lovelace, a 7 year old boy and a Tweet

I tweeted this last week and it went proverbially viral.
Vincent_tweet_May2018
At the time of writing it is heading towards 90,000 impressions on Twitter. It feels a bit odd that it’s got so much traction, but as a wise friend commented, people like a nice story. So here is a little more about it. I tweeted it because it brings together a number of things I’m think are important and I wanted to show the impact institutions, practices and tools can have on one child. I’m not an advocate for universal coding education, as I discuss here, but here’s what happened in the instance of this little boy.

When my twin sons were 6 we got them books on inventions and computers and coding. When we read through the inventions book together, I’ll admit, I editorialised a bit on why so many inventors seemed to be men. One of my sons took a lot of interest in binary code, unicode and algorithms. Underneath one of the lift-the-flaps in the computing book, was Ada Lovelace.

Later that year I attended a fantastic Ada Lovelace day at the University of Edinburgh and when I got home I showed my photos of the Lego Ada set to my children. This peaked their interest and they began to join the dots in the information they had. Meanwhile they were getting amazing support in learning to read at school and had been benefiting from the Scottish Book Trust’s Bookbug bags with free CDs and books since they were babies. Without reading skills as a foundation, none of this would have happened. To encourage my son who appeared to have interest in code, we got him a Raspberry Pi for Christmas. Our local library in Newington provided a supply of books on Scratch, drawn from libraries across Edinburgh and he worked his way through them. They have no overdue fines for children’s books, thankfully.

Then after Easter he was assigned a project at school to give a short Powerpoint presentation on someone who inspires him. He, quite logically, worked out that as he loves to code and coding exists because of Ada Lovelace, therefore she should be his person. He searched for some images and read up on her some more. He included screenshots (see image below) of Scratch, to demonstrate to his classmates how an algorithm works. scratchcode_2He practised, standing tall with a clear voice – something he would never have been able to do a few years ago. I have to credit the school with this as he has consistently been given support to develop his confidence in public, even when this was difficult for him.

Afterwards he was happy with how it went and his classmates wanted to know more about Scratch. A day later when he came out of school, he whispered to me that at school assembly he’d been made ‘star of the week’. On further probing I discovered he had been asked to get up and speak more about his presentation and to explain what Twitter is – that Tweet had been around the world a few ten-thousand times by stage. The school has asked him to participate in the school fair showing other children how to use Scratch. He is learning that what started as a solitary pursuit is something he can share and even teach. For someone who has times where he struggles with the emotional ups and downs of life, this is a massive boost. It doesn’t solve everything, but it is something that is all his.

His twin brother has different pursuits and aptitudes, equally interesting and inspiring. Just different. He might explore coding more at another time, or maybe not. Interestingly, they get on better with each other the more they carve out their own niches. They are privileged to have access to the skills, support and tools so they can pursue these interests. While are still young enough to pay attention to me, I try to point this out to them and the responsibilities that go with that privilege. Just as one demonstrated that it is perfectly normal for a boy to have a role model who happens to be female, the other insisted his piano teacher edited a piece of music thus, to “make it fair”:
oznor

They continue to surprise me.

What I learned working on an e-learning helpline for students and lecturers

Life ring

‘Help’ by Neil Turner CC BY-SA 2.0 https://flic.kr/p/b9JrVF

After I completed my PhD I took a six-month contract in a large, well-resourced university doing ‘e-learning support’. The work was very similar to parts of my previous learning technologist roles elsewhere, but the scale of everything was much bigger. Additionally, it was my first time working within a department with no academic or teaching remit and the culture and language around the use of technology reflected that.

The university provides and supports an impressive array of digital products for teaching and learning: VLEs (more than one), assessment tools (including text matching and peer assessment), classroom polling, digital exams, lecture capture, video streaming, virtual classrooms, digital reading lists and eportfolios, to name a few. For each tool there was a named individual in my team with the expertise and vendor relationship to deal with unusual problems. I was impressed with the commitment my colleagues showed for providing the best possible service to the end users. Requests for support came to me through the call management software, so all my communication with people who needed help was through typed messages. It functioned as a very efficient, transparent system where the busy-ness  of the queue could be seen at a glance and calls passed between individuals as needed.

I can’t put an accurate figure on it, but would appear that the majority of lecturers were using these tools by rote. Courses were rolled over from semester to semester, assessment dropboxes set up as they were previously and, if there were discussions about why certain tools were being used, there weren’t happening within my earshot. What’s more, courses all had named secretaries who were responsible for student enrolments and administration of assessments. So, for example, a course secretary would follow a checklist of how to set-up a Turnitin dropbox. Again, a highly efficient process which frees up the time of the academic, but for every box ticked or not ticked within the set-up screen there are pedagogical implications, yet the lecturer has no input and probably little or no awareness that there are such choices available. And this is before any discussions take place about whether Turnitin is actually an appropriate tool to be using for assessment.

The increasing ease-of-use of software makes it more accessible and efficient to use if there is little or no learning curve. However, this very ease-of-use means that we don’t have to think about it much and this can be a problem. Teaching with digital technologies should be a considered and constantly re-evaluated process. Indeed, my PhD research found that the majority of lecturers were constantly balancing the costs and benefits to them and their students when they used digital tools. But if the the tools are practically friction-free to use, or someone else is there to do the legwork of setting things up or solve the problems, then the educator is at a remove from the consequences of using them, and therefore from thinking about deeper implications.

I believe that education in all disciplines should explicitly incorporate pedagogy into the curriculum. I also believe that this should include directly addressing digital citizenship, starting with educators role-modelling appropriate digital citizenship. This can be a simple as an announcement outlining why they made choices to use (or not to use) certain digital tools for teaching and learning. In doing so, they would be encouraging their learners to think about the choices that we make about technology every day. It could even be the first step to becoming an open education practitioner.

Post-PhD Reflections: Part Three – Revisiting My PhD Digital Toolkit

Post-it notes

Image by Dean Hochman (CC BY 2.0) https://flic.kr/p/ebt15q

When I re-read my original post My PhD Digital Toolkit I am struck by my quest to use “dead time” productively. Admittedly, there was quite a bit travelling between Edinburgh and Glasgow in my first year which I felt had to be put to good use, but the anxiety around time spent on doing other things was probably centred around inefficient use of time when I should have been working (see Post-PhD Reflections: Part Two – The Hours and Minutes for proof that I could faff). As the years went by I learned to gift myself the time spent travelling as relaxation, so I would instead listen to podcasts or nap. Like most of my relationships with technology, I like to play and experiment for a bit, but then I get serious and streamline – anything not absorbed seamlessly part of my work-flow gets thrown out.

So, a quick review. What were the essential, use (nearly) every day hardware and software?

A lightweight, quick-to-boot laptop, so I never had any excuse not to take it with me nor any excuse not to open it up and do some work.

This was an expensive bit of kit, but four years later it’s still going strong. I used it almost daily and it’s lightness meant that I could chug it around everywhere, and could still carry notebooks, books, lunch, water bottle and coffee flask in one backpack. I learned early on that working at home didn’t suit me, so I would tramp to a few of the university libraries around Edinburgh to work. I used an external mouse and, when the need arose to block out background noise I used large closed-cup headphones for either music, white noise (SimplyNoise) or Coffitivity.

Top software:

Evernote: Everything went in here and as it added OCR to PDFs, it became invaluable for searching through my notes. I transcribed my interviews into Evernote (encrypted, obvs) and most importantly, typed up rough notes on everything I read. Clipping directly from a browser was great for grabbing important pieces of text on the fly.

Dropbox: Syncing files across devices and backing them up to the cloud = invaluable. I did end up going for a subscription on this. I also continued to use it to store my Mendeley files and database.

Speaking of Mendeley, this also worked well for me and the final dreaded pull-together of references for my thesis wasn’t that painful, though I had been quite thorough in making sure references were correct as I went. I had a few instances where I accidentally had Mendeley open on more than one device at once, which meant the entire database had to be re-configured which was a pain, but worth the effort. In general I opened PDFs stored in Mendeley in Adobe Acrobat as the Mendeley highlighting and note-taking tools were only visible within Mendeley and I wanted to be able to access these outside of the software sometimes – this was particularly the case when Mendeley only existed on Android as 3rd party apps, since rectified.

I worked with Scrivener for about a year, but my laptop was very high res and Scrivener wasn’t optimised for 3200×1800, so menu items were impossible to read. Scrivener’s strong point, being able to re-arrange and map out the structure of a large document, was only marginally useful for me and I soon decided to work directly in Word. Word’s heading styles allowed me to navigate between sections quickly and Mendeley’s plug-in meant that I could pop in citations as I wrote. I never quite liked that what I was seeing in Scrivener wasn’t the final look and feel.

There were two other tools which I picked up and used as needed along the way. The first is KabanFlow which helped me plan and keep me on-task with time-consuming, routine tasks (see image below). For example, I used it for tracking myself while transcribing my data collection interviews and used the Pomodoro timer functionality to stay focused and take breaks every 30 minutes to get up and stretch. The second, slightly similar tool was Workflowy. While I sometimes get depressed looking at to-do lists which I’ll never get to the end of, this is a deceptively versatile list tool was a dumping ground for everything I needed to remember. I could go for weeks without opening it, but other times it became vital for checking that I was covering everything, particularly when pulling everything together towards the end.

Screenshot of KabanFlow Pomodoro statistics

The final piece of technology which I shouldn’t omit is (of course) the post-it note. Most mornings I would write everything I wanted to do on a post-it note (including nice, fun things) and keep it in my eye-line. I didn’t always stick to it, and sometimes it ran to more than one, or even two, notes, but the reward of crossing things off with a pencil never failed to thrill.

 

 

Critical debates in open education OER18 Presentation

Highly selective reference list and further reading relating to this presentation

This presentation is really just the drawing together of a few threads of criticial voices about OER and OEP and not meant as a comprehensive view by any means. In doing so I hope to catch glimpses of the distance travelled and any opportunities to revisit things that have been said which could improve debates and practice. The following is a selection of thoughts I’ve had about the subject the weeks before the conference.


There is a danger that open could start going in circles, ever re-defining what it is, claiming an re-claiming territories because as a space it is still fighting for recognition? Imagine a world where open is now invisible, so embedded in individuals’ and institutions’ practices and policies – that it no longer became something to discuss, there wasn’t this feeling of constantly rolling a big stone up a hill, but never getting to the top? (Massive work has been done and huge achievements have been made, I don’t mean to undermine that. When you consider that this work has been done without the support of validation and recognition from the wider educational community, it is all the more awe-inspiring.) That conferences like this evolved into something else, with other concerns? This conference has evolved of course, that’s what’s so interesting about it. It’s agile and responsive to world events. Open educators take on the world.

So is most of the scepticism reserved for MOOCs – the structured, institutionalised, privileging-the-already-privileged, both in terms of institutions themselves and individuals? Is there a two-tiered criticism, with the individual teacher valorised? That’s a question I’d like to explore further.

Yet we’re still working with systems, flawed systems, built by flawed people, and used by flawed people.

Back when I engaged with debates in a previous institution about resuable learning objects and specifically about where they could be stored, findable and know-that-they-are-there-able, the issue of metadata came up. Now, I assume that metadata the issue has come up elsewhere, and hasn’t gone away. And licencing. The issue of helping people understand the differences between creative commons licences – these issues are still here. Yet in spite of best intentions, people don’t do as they should, they don’t adhere to the rules, or forget and ignore rules. Additionally our best intentions also lead us to bias and perpetuation of inequality. There is a sociomaterial aspect to open education which it seems to me we are doing our best to deny. We don’t have total control, precisely because it is open. Put technology and people together and there will be unpredictable outcomes, we are shaped by technology as technology is shaped by us. Individually and as a society.

Are the rules about open too restrictive, trying to predict too much of what happens when open education is taken up by those outside this tight-knit community, those who are not initiated? It struck me reading one of the essays by Raymond bundled under the Cathedral and the Bazaar, that the invisible rules of the hacker community were borne out of a tightly connected ecosystem with multiple transactions. That’s where norms and taboos were formed, and reputations were earned. I’d wager that within this conference it would be unusual to see slides containing unattributed images, whereas in other conferences it may be the norm. There are taboos on open education. There are norms. But society at large doesn’t really care about them as much as we do. And we can’t legislate for that (well, obviously there is copyright infringement legislation, but you get my point).

Incredibly useful work exists, like the lived experiences of educators explored by Catherine Cronin (2017), which demonstrates the complexity of people’s negotiation of the open. And perhaps work like this exposes as shaky the structures and categories that have been built to protect and promote good practice in open education. And this, in many ways, makes the dangers of bias and embedded inequalities so much more urgent – and really has to be addressed on a societal level. Because we know institutions love structure and rules and hierarchies and diagrams. As Oliver (2015) says, permeability is key. Maintaining operations within and outwith systems. Being careful not to prescribe too much.

Are these crises in ownership of ‘open’ more personal, more introspective of the open education movement itself, (possibly a bit insular), reflecting global issues through a smaller prism where we examine ourselves as both heroes and villains. As is our nature, publicly flagellating ourselves for not foreseeing the problems and inequalities our very work was engendering? The self as ‘misguided’ OER? I’ll finish with a quote from Helen Crump who places our humanity in a more forgiving position:

” Subjectivity is different to identity. It’s about how individuals are ‘subjected’ to outside forces such as economics, the law, society, the circumstances of history and the physical world in general, and consequently how they’re made subjects of these forces. From this perspective it’s not so much what kind of OER you’d like to be, but rather what kind of OER you can be.”

 

I can code

This is a response which I wrote to a blog from last November by the inimitable Sheila MacNeill entitled Why don’t I code?

Coding engenders a binary thinking which can extend beyond the code itself; it either works or there are bugs. What you are aiming for is to be bug-free. But this can lead to not considering the bigger questions.

It’s quite a relief to exist in a bubble where problems are puzzles that require a fix. What’s more, finding that fix is a pleasure; when it goes well, coding is hugely enjoyable. I think this may contribute to coders encouraging every one to learn to code.

Non-coders are hugely important – by asking the questions that coders sometimes forget to think about. By getting coders to explain why, by demanding.

Those conversations are important. Coders are fixers – every problem is an opportunity. But just because you have the skill-set to fix, it doesn’t mean that you have the skill-set to analyse the bigger problem. Sometimes it is better that the problem is framed by someone who doesn’t have a clue what the answer could be.

I learned to code because I thought I wanted some kind of mastery over machines. Now I’ve come to realise that this is actually not possible – I am sociomaterially entangled with technology and my own agency is severely compromised by auto-playing videos of cats on YouTube.

What I do have is confidence. I can take an educated guess as to what anyone is talking about in most areas of technology. (As an aside, as a woman, somehow I felt the need to acquire a masters in computer science to exercise any authority in an area in which I’d been a hobbiest since childhood.) Learning to code trained me in systematic trouble-shooting and close reading of text. This of course is applicable to lots of areas of life, not just software development. Deciphering emails from colleagues is the first example that pops into my head.

Since I wrote this response I see that commentators on Sheila’s blog have come up with similar ideas about the dangers of losing critical thinking when the focus is on getting everyone to code. But there is a balance to be stuck. Yes, people have specialisms and everyone does not need to code, but the mysterious black box of technology needs to be made more accessible in its meaning and impact for society. This doesn’t have to occur at code level, this can happen through conversations between us all.

Post-PhD Reflections: Part Two – The Hours and Minutes

Despite starting my PhD full-time with no other professional commitments, I was still concerned with how I would manage this wonderful time I had been given. So, as usual, I looked for a technical solution. I plumped for Rescue Time which monitored what I was doing on my devices: what websites I visited, what software I was using and for how long. More recently it also added website and application blocking to its functionality, but I was already wedded to Cold Turkey by then. I could categorise the websites and applications by ‘productivity’* (some more arbitrarily than others). The result is I now have quite a chunk of numbers about what I actually did during my PhD. There were occasional times where I read real books, worked on paper for brain dumps and for proofing in the final stages but for the most part everything was digital. (I did remove the app version from my phone because that was my main lifeline to a social life snatched in minutes here and there, and these were putting a nasty big red ‘distracting time’ bars in my graph.) Here’s how it breaks down.

First, the big wins – my most ‘very productive day’ ever, Monday 10th October 2016:

Rescue time - most productive day ever

It was a long day, 9am until 10pm and, from checking the details Rescue Time recorded, I was working on one of my literature review chapters. I remember I didn’t eat any dinner that day – see no break around 6pm. This was the exception, not the norm, as the following makes clear.

The ‘productivity’ headlines:

  • Year one: 798 hours total – averaging 17 hours per week of 46 weeks worked
  • Year two: 648 hours total – 14 hours per week (this year included offline data collection interviews)
  • Year three (changed to part-time): 631 hours total – 14 hours per week
  • Year four (still part-time): 809 hours total – 17 hours per week

Before this is misunderstood to mean that it is possible to do a PhD by working less than 16 hours each week, these are the ‘most productive times’, when I was reading and writing. This accounted for 58% of the time I was sitting at a computer and should have been working, not writing emails, struggling with Windows 10’s relationship with Eduroam or browsing tents, tarpaulins and advanced knot-tying techniques (a bid for escape into the wild obviously). Also, as I mentioned in Post-PhD Reflections: Part One, I learned that, to a degree, following some distractions was OK, even necessary. However, I did use technology as much as I could to remove time-sucking temptations (which I’ll follow-up in another post updating my original My PhD Digital Toolkit post).

It is interesting to trace the changes in my behaviour. For example, as can be seen in the two screengrabs below, the difference in applications I used in 2014 (year 1 to 2) and 2017 (last 6 months) are apparent – I collated information and notes in Evernote in the early years and was writing in Word in the last year:

activities_2014&2017

The other take-away numbers are the following for the total times for these central activities for the full PhD over 4 years:

  • Time reading: 1342 hours
  • Time doing analysis: 389 hours
  • Time writing: 1826 hours

Meaning of all the time I had available to work I spent:

  • 22% of my time reading
  • 6% of my time doing analysis
  • 30% of my time writing

So, not anywhere close to the ‘you should always be writing’ mantra that you can see in the PhD industry blogs. I am surprised that I spent 8% less on reading than writing. I thought I was reading too much initially and I read fairly widely, but as my writing developed, reading inevitably became more strategic. This was helped a lot by the notes I had taken in the first two years (when I felt I really didn’t know what I was doing but at least I could pretend to be meticulous).

I would regularly review the graphs of daily productivity which helped me relax and accept that my most productive times (according to Rescue Time at least), were the hour after 11am, and from 3 to 5pm. I could take a bit of time to warm-up in the morning, or perhaps I worked with more concentration closer to deadlines such as lunch and home-time. Whatever the case, I knew that I would get work done even if I wasn’t at full-steam by 9am. Or even if I had spent a full-hour faffing on Twitter by 10am, I knew the day wasn’t necessarily lost.

During the final 6 month ‘push’, I no longer needed to consult Rescue Time, nor use distraction blockers to keep me on track. I set my own deadline to submit and managed to keep to it with a couple of weeks, in spite of a family bereavement. I’m still surprised that it all came together in the end. But there were rocky patches and the first two years were the hardest for me as nailing my question, scope and theoretical framework eluded me. 14 hours productivity per full-time week in my second speaks volumes about my focus – it wasn’t enough and I knew I had to review my working patterns. (You can see why I never felt comfortable publishing these stats during my PhD – I would have been mortified for my supervisors to know!)

What the figures don’t show is that gentle, imperceptible shift from novice to expert, and from uncomfortable liminality to comfortable liminality. Nor does it show the huge effort I made at the two year point, around the same time as going part-time, to start using more of my evenings and weekends to get it done.

It is not without some naive disappointment that I am coming to the realisation that, in the coming months and years, those kind work patterns will probably be a long-term fixture in my life as I attempt to get a foot in the door of the next phase of my career.

*I categorised ‘Very productive’ as websites and applications where I was reading (Adobe acrobat/reader, Kindle, Mendeley) and writing (Evernote, Scrivener, MS Word). Evernote wasn’t purely writing as I did a lot of clipping and reading, but I’m guesstimating a trade-off between this and Acrobat as sometimes I would have been creating or editing PDFs.

Post-PhD Reflections: Part One

I’ve been rereading some of my blog posts from several years ago and reflecting on the distance travelled. I assume that the PhD process has changed me, but it can be hard to see how. A kind colleague said to me this week that she was ‘in awe’ of how I did it, especially with two small children. Completing a PhD within 3 and half years (two years full-time with 18 months part-time) may look impressive, but it never felt like I was uber-achieving or particularly self-disciplined. I can attribute this to a few things:

  • I received a studentship from Glasgow Caledonian University which covered my fees and gave me a modest stipend which meant I could leave my job and focus entirely on my PhD. This gave me the space to think, which was invaluable.
  • I had a partner who worked part-time and could take on the extra parenting over and above the normal school pick-ups, so that I could disappear to the library in evenings and weekends when I needed the time.
  • I knew part of my topic really well and that was the practical side of how lecturers work with technology for teaching. I knew already their concerns and aspirations, and also I knew how to talk to a variety of them about what they did.
  • I discovered I had a passion for writing. This was a revelation and turned sitting down to write as something to be looked forward to rather than dreaded. Drawing together the rich and challenging ideas from other peoples’ work and creating my own became an immersive process. I got lost in this when I sat down to write.
  • My topic kept giving. It was rich and drew on a number of areas with a history of thoughtful literature. During those 3 and a half years, there were new developments in theory which really challenged my thinking and position. It was this that meant my corrections took over 2 months to complete even though they were minor.
  • I had monthly supervisions. I was always working towards producing something, however imperfect and unfinished. The monthly conversations were helpful in keeping me on track and challenging my thinking, but it was the regularity of them which really helped. I learned the ‘that’ll have to do’ way to appraise my work. Sometimes things just had to be done quickly, rather than exceptionally well. This carried me through writing too as I learned that it was possible for to write something relatively quickly that I was willing to let other people read.

Reading about my procrastination before I started in 2013 is rather poignant to me now. I never did stop procrastinating, it just got incorporated into my work day. And posts like this helped me feel less guilty.

There were times when things had to give. For example in January 2016 I decided to stop watching television in the evenings, which meant that effectively I was spending almost no time alone with my partner. The good meals he was providing were supplemented by not-so-healthy boredom-reward snacks in long evenings and drowsy afternoons. I travelled from Edinburgh to Glasgow once a month for supervisions but other than that I had a short walk up the road to one of the University of Edinburgh’s libraries. Child-ferrying duties were done by bike but I couldn’t incorporate regular cycling into my commute as I did previously. So exercise took a back seat until I started using a couch-to-5k app in January 2016. (After a very stern self-talk over the new year of 2016 where I reviewed what I had done and what was left to do, I made some resolutions which, rather amazingly, paid off.) Running, that is running very slowly, has been a revelation. It has helped me sort out my thoughts, get blood to my brain and feel like I have actually achieved at least something with my day.

I’m still re-adjusting to civilian life. A contract with the University of Edinburgh hashelped me integrate back into the 9-5 and keep me up to date with the coalface where teaching and learning meets technology. I’ve tried watching TV again, but that’s not going so well, partly due to different tastes and partly to a changed habit. A kind friend sent me the book in the photo below as I complained I hadn’t read a book in a linear fashion for a number of years.

So far I’ve got to page 108 (out of 446).

The Book of Dust by Philip Pullman

The Book of Dust by Philip Pullman