Building the Digital Institution – conference report
CETIS (The Centre for Educational Technology, Interoperability and Standards) gathers together learning technologists with an interest in the innovations and underpinning work (standards, metadata) needed to ensure our technology serves us, and not the other way around. Colleagues on CETIS staff have long been recognised as leading the field in this area, and providing strategic and practical advice to the UK community in particular.
So, when the programme for the annual CETIS conference came out, I was delighted to see a number of relevant topics, and especially interested in a workshop session on Learning Analytics Strategy.
Keynotes, other blog entries and some presentations from the event are already available from the conference pages and running comments on Twitter at #cetis14, so this is very much a personal view – my “take away and do something useful with it” notes!
The kids are coming
The conference got off to a great start with a welcome from Paul Hollins, Co-Director of CETIS, who amongst other things provided compelling evidence of why technology and what we do with it, will become even more central to activity in Higher Education. Apart from the highlights of the annual (and very useful) NMC Horizon Scanning report he noted an example much closer to home. While he was struggling to put together his presentation for us, his son offered to help by creating a video on “The Digital Institution” – and two hours later he provided it. This was not only of interest for its content, but also for the ease with which this 12-year-old pulled together a short and entertaining video encapsulating his ideas.
Turns out he’s been earning pocket money from his YouTube channel advising others on using Minecraft, etc. So I started the day thinking (not for the first time) about how we, as staff, prepare to meet the expectations of students who have a very different relationship with technology, and who have embraced the culture of the mash-up. I don’t have any answers, just lots more questions!
Phil Richards from JISC spent some time going over what JISC has been doing in the wake of the Wilson Review and explaining what he sees as his role as the first Chief Innovation Officer. There seemed to be a general concern in the group that the “new” JISC may not be able to support more innovative and by definition, risky projects. Phil’s response is that individual institutions will have much more say in JISC’s direction and focus, and it may be up to the community to ensure that the case for undertaking more speculative work is a sound one. So in spite of the focus on innovation the message seemed to me to be “steady as she goes”. But then as Scotland’s institutions have had limited access to JISC funding for some time (as the majority of funding has come from HeFCE) it may not make a significant difference here for a while.
Learning Analytics – hot topic of the day
There were four parallel sessions in the afternoon so I chose the one of most immediate relevance to my current work. The workshop on developing a Learning Analytics strategy was organised by Adam Cooper from the LACE Project, and drew on ideas emerging from their work. It began with several participants outlining what their institutions have done in this area – to generalise, more on what activity has been initiated than on actually having a strategy. I started with the view, developed in conversation with my colleague Anne-Marie Scott and others around the University of Edinburgh, that LA should not be a stand-alone strategy or be seen as an end in itself – it should serve the wider University strategic aims, especially those relating to teaching and learning, and to improving the student experience.
Adam provided the Business Model Canvas as a way of putting some order onto the process, so after an intense morning working in groups to develop a strategy for our hypothetical institution, it was clear that the whole area is complex and potentially problematical, and not just in terms of managing data in new ways.
Numerous diverse stakeholders and a considerable range of variables including the proverbial “unknown unknowns” make the attempt to take a strategic overview for a whole institution somewhat daunting. In attempting to map LA activities on axes of Easy/Difficult and Social/Technical, different groups came to very similar conclusions (although depicted in different ways). I liked the one which had a prominent box in Social / Easy which said “EVIL: unethical stuff” and which also included items such as Unmeasurables, Dark data and Cans of worms.
The discussions and reporting-back sessions were especially useful, as it became clear that in spite of the range of institutions we came from, we are all dealing with the same issues, and a great deal of the work so far just confirms what we already know, or think we know. The jury seems to be still out on how much of that is a artefact of the research: only finding what we expect to find because we are only looking where we want to look. So I came away with ideas and suggestions I’m only now finding time to investigate further – but that’s what conferences are for! These include reading more around the ethical issues of student data research, and on the drivers within UK HE which have brought Analytics so high on the agenda.
The second day offered another choice of parallel sessions and found me at the Open Education: From Open Practice to Open Policy session, where Lorna Campbell, David Kernohan, Paul Richardson, Suzanne Hardy and Tore Hoel each outlined their ideal government approach to open education. I was struck by the extent to which we ended up talking about content and how to overcome barriers to sharing content, at all sorts of levels.
Open content has been on the agenda for years (and there were several other sessions that addressed this) as have enabling standards and policies. But there seems to be relatively little (other than a suspicion that MOOCs are not the answer) to indicate a true shift in political and cultural thinking about lifelong access to education for all. Some participants provided timely reminders that Western educational imperialism is coming up for discussion more and more, and we may have to consider doing more than translating the language if we truly wish to make education available globally.
The plenary session offered intriguing glimpses, through the summaries, of the workshops I was not able to attend, and I look forward to following up on some of these also.
In drawing attention to what Silicon Valley “thought leaders” have left out of their story of how we got here from there, Audrey drew some interesting parallels between the current interest in MOOCs and “open platforms” and earlier open, large-scale online initiatives in the dot-com era. Key players, marketing, content, course design and rhetoric all remain very similar – Audrey argues that the financial models are as unsustainable now as they were then. The technology has a malign influence – the dead hand of the VLE/ Learning Management System continues to influence course structures and constrain imaginative innovation. The history of the educational technologies past being re-written to disguise the errors, means that we are not learning from the past. Most amusing point was where a search for the late lamented UkeU now finds the Ukulele University. “We didn’t even spend the money to protect the domain name.”
Perhaps some of the cynicism around MOOCs I detected was because many of the conference participants were involved in UkeU and other similar initiatives in the past, and can see the parallels. The numbers, and especially the cost-per-course analysis, are staggering. It’s no surprise that Stamford, MIT, and our own JISC don’t dwell on their turn-of-the-century activities.
Over-all, the conference provided a helpful and refreshing update on current work and thinking around all sorts of standards and data-related developments in educational technology. I’m already looking forward to the 2015 bash.