The Micro and the Macro of the EdTech World

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This year’s Association for Learning Technology Conference in Manchester, UK, focussed on Shaping the Future of Learning Together. By all accounts the conference was a great success trending on Twitter as never before.

I attended two keynotes virtually: Jonathan Worth’s keynote (I’m not sure if there was a title for this – if there was I didn’t see it) and Laura Czerniewicz who talked about Inequality in Higher Education.

I found both keynotes thought-provoking. It seemed to me that they presented micro and macro issues being faced by the Edtech world at the moment.

Jonathan’s keynote addressed issues of vulnerability, privacy and trust in open learning, at the local level of the learner. Laura took a global perspective, providing evidence for Inequality in the Higher Education landscape, particularly between the global north and the global south.

Jonathan is of course well known for his photography and Phonar MOOC so it is not surprising that he is used to looking closely at the world around him and took a local, intimate perspective of learning in a digital age. He talked about the difference between the image and the photograph and told us that there have been two major paradigm shifts in photography, the first when photography broke away from painting and became an art in its own right, and the second is happening now as the image breaks away from the photograph. Unlike a photograph, an image is not about evidence; an image is about experience. The image is an algorithm, it is what is behind the photo. Thinking about this I have wondered whether this is just a play on words and what the significance is for learning. My understanding is that all photos are images, but not all images are photos. For me the significance of thinking about this is that online we mostly see photos – not images – i.e. it’s hard to get behind what you see, which is why people still value face-to-face meetings and recognise what a difference that makes to online relationships. But to get behind the photo, to see images, we have to recognise that this can make people vulnerable. Audrey Watters has said that vulnerability is essential to the learning dynamic, but this brings with it issues of trust and the right to privacy. If we want to see more images, rather than photos, then we need to recognise the vulnerability of the subject or in the case of education, the learner. This shouldn’t be a surprise. It has been written about for decades and longer, but perhaps in recent frenetic digital times has been forgotten.

Similarly Laura’s talk about inequality on a global scale should not have come as a surprise. The surprise should be that people still need reminding. As she pointed out, inequality is literally a life and death issue, but the challenge these days is to address inequality in an austerity environment and particularly in new online landscapes. Inequality is about power, agency, ownership and choice, about the nature of relationships and who decides. Laura’s message was powerful and affective. She suggested that we need critical research, inequality-framed experimentation, policy and advocacy. We also need to shift from a broadcast culture to one of equal partnership and foster global partnerships. She said she is a researcher – she can raise the questions, but doesn’t have the answers. I suspect that the answers will rely on attention to both macro and micro views of the problem. Jonathan’s focus on vulnerability and trying to see the image clearly will inform issues of inequality and Laura’s focus on inequality will inform Jonathan’s concerns about privacy, trust and vulnerability.

Academic blogging

George Veletsianos is running a four week open course about networked scholarship and the implications of academics’ presence and visibility online for their work and careers.

The first week is already over and there has been plenty of interesting discussion and two interesting events.

On Wednesday Michael Barbour  joined the course for a day to answer any questions that participants threw at him and he generously shared his strategies for working in the open.

On Thursday there was a webinar with Laura Czerniewicz  who shared her work on open scholarly practice in relation to presence, visibility and branding, including her guide to curating open scholarly content:

An 8-step guide to curating open scholarly content 

and with Sarah Goodier a Four Step Guide to online presence

Also shared in the course was this slideshare by Sydneyeve Matrix about academic branding –

There has been some discussion about whether academics should blog. Some have said that open scholarship means sharing all aspects of your life (I have blogged about this in the past ), but as Laura Czerniewicz said ‘Some people are not comfortable blogging – some people have a blogging voice, others don’t’.

For me it’s not either/or. Sometimes I feel that I can’t get the blog posts I want to make out fast enough. At other times I feel that I have nothing to say, nothing to add to the conversation that has not already been said, nothing that I think anyone would find interesting to read – but sometimes you just have to force yourself and start writing, because as others before me have pointed out, writing is a practice – use it or lose it.

Catherine Cronin has recently said  (I can’t remember where – sorry Catherine) that you can never tell whether something you write might be of use to someone, and you might never know.

Stephen Downes  (a most prolific blogger) has written somewhere (or maybe it was said – again I don’t remember – sorry Stephen) that if you can’t find anything to write about, you must be a boring person, ‘or words to that effect’. I think what he meant was that everyone has something to say – we just need the confidence, the belief that there is someone out there that might want to listen.

This echoes what the poet Bernadette Mayer said in a Modern and Contemporary American Poetry MOOC webinar this week –  ‘You can’t have writer’s block – as that would mean total lack of thought’. It’s not lack of thought, it’s lack of confidence. Various bloggers have written about this (see references at the end of this post).

Bernadette Mayer has provided loads of possible starting points for writers in a long document Bernadette Mayer’s List of Journal Ideas. In the webinar her advice was to find something completely impossible to write about and write about it, such that the problem becomes the material and we use the constraints. Write against the reality that is presented to you – she says.

Bernadette’s advice is for poets, but works equally well for academic bloggers. The advantage of blogging is that it can release you from the conventions of academic writing of the type done for journal articles. You can simply start and ‘let it all hang out’ and include images and multimedia. You can write a line or two or you can write at length. There are a whole host of genres you can experiment with.

I think it would be a shame to think about blogging only in terms of scholarship and academic branding. Blogging is much more than that, even for academics. It is about ‘finding your voice’ and building an identity. As Laura said: ‘So much scholarship is embodied in a person.’

Some references that might be of interest, that I have come across or been reminded of this week are: