What is normal?

I saw something on Twitter that made me think back to a billboard ad I saw back when I worked in Southampton, around 2001.

What made me think of it? Well, how about I tell you about the advert first. It showed, on something like a 50ft wide / 20ft tall billboard at the side of the road I cycled past everyday, a woman’s face, close up. She was attractive, wearing make-up (but not heavy) and her hair tied back, out of her face. The advert had a solid single-colour background, which didn’t detract attention from her face. On one side of her was the question “Is this face normal?”. You were meant, I think, to look at her face and think about her facial features (nose, eyes, laughter-lines, make-up, etc). Was she ‘normal’, based on your own preconceived notion of ‘normal’ (and attractive, no doubt). Most people would probably say yes, she was.

On the other side of the advert, however, were statistics about what people thought would be considered skin ‘abnormalities’, like freckles, pimples, beauty-spots, laugher-lines, visible facial birth marks, scars, etc. Statistics like “50% of women have freckles” or “20% of women have visible facial birth-marks’ or “25% of women under the age of 30 have laughter-lines”. That kind of thing – nothing out of the ordinary, nothing scary or abnormal in the slightest. But it challenged your preconceived notion of what is accepted as ‘normal’.

This advert had such resonance with me as it made me question ‘what is normal?’ It made me question my own preconceptions of normal, of accepted ‘beauty’, but also about not taking someone else’s instruction on what normal should be. You looked at the advert and thought, probably, that this face was normal, when to be without any kind of facial ‘feature’ like freckles or pimples or beauty-marks or anything meant you were (according to the sum of the statistics) among the 0.5% of the population with ‘perfect’ skin. Therefore, nowhere normal, in any meaning of the word (“Conforming to a type, standard, or regular pattern”). Therefore, what you think is ‘normal’ is the total opposite. What is normal is actually abnormal, outside the norm.

This is why I don’t like it when I hear about a student profile, or any kind of ‘normal’, attributed to those we work with or work for. There isn’t a ‘normal’ profile for a student on your course. Even if you have a highly specialised course with a small group of students coming from a small specialised industry and background, I’m betting their individual experiences and backgrounds that brought them to you. They will still be varied and interesting, reading at different speeds, taking notes (or not), questioning you or accepting without question. Not one will have the same ability to be critical, or to research at the same speed, or to write. They are not the ‘normal’ you’ve prepared for.

Let’s not design for an accepted ‘normal’. Let’s embrace a new ‘normal’ which is as varied as the number of people out there. The new ‘normal’ is everyone. It’s a challenge and not one we can do in isolation, rather in collaboration with our audience.

unsplash-logoKyle Glenn

What does this button do?

Ever looked at something you thought you were familiar with and thought “what does that button do?”

Even worse, ever looked at a device, remote control, switch, screen, etc. and thought “hmm, I don’t remember seeing that button before?”

That’s what learning technologists need to keep in mind – we need to keep an eye on the systems we use and be sure we are aware of all the little buttons, and what they do. Some of the systems we use (VLE, CMS, LMS, social and collaborative tools, admin systems, etc.) have lots of buttons, features, settings, templates, styles, etc. but knowing enough about the system as a whole is enough to be aware of how we can use the whole system effectively.

If you’re being introduced to a new system, are you capable (willing?) to try some of these buttons and see what they do? Are you comfortable in doing this in a safe ‘it’s only me messing’ kind of way (rather than ‘this will change the whole system for all users’ kind of way?

But what kind of training do we actually want … “click this and this happens” or “this is why you would need to click this”? Personally, the context of what a feature could be used for is more important training than the button would enable this or that. I can usually figure out which settings to use and usually for what purpose, but sometimes I need to know what the system is meant for in general, or what/how I should be using it.

When considering introducing a new tool to students, or a known tool but for a different purpose, do you talk about the tool and the purpose, or just the reason? Do your training manuals talk about Echo360 or Panopto, or more generally about lecture capture and how/why it is used? Do you introduce Turnitin as an assessment tool for checking originality of submitted work (yes, I have avoided the P word), or do you talk more generally about assessment submissions?

My preference is always the latter. From there you can introduce a named tool if you must, but contextualising the theme and purpose is far more important than any named tool.

But there’s still that button I don’t know about. What happens when I press it…?

Photo by Patryk Grądys on Unsplash


So 2012 was the Year of the MOOC, and now 2020 is being touted as the Year of the SPOC?

But, stop me if you’ve heard this before … isn’t a SPOC (Small Private Online Course) what universities, colleges, training centres, etc. been doing for years? The only difference is it’s got a fancy new name. Right?

  • Small – by definition the cohort of (paying?) students will be smaller than a MOOC, but some would argue even MOOCs weren’t that big either.
  • Private – private, as in not accessible to those not on the invitation list, or not permitted to access.
  • Online – yes, it’s online, and it’s not new.
  • Course – yes, it’s a course in it’ sown right. It might even be part of some larger ‘course’ for CPD or qualification. This ‘course’ may be known in your organisation as a module or unit or other such currency of ‘learning for credit’.

According to the AdvanceHE “SPOCs are small (tens or hundreds of learners) restricted-access courses”, but I’ve seen MOOCs with those numbers, and no one suggested renaming them to a SOOC.

So, does that mean online learning has matured, just not how we name it? Can the course be online and call it an ‘online course’? By enforcing a title like MOOC or SPOC we’re limiting it’s reach or impact. My next thought in this wandering narrative is whether the same course can work in an open and private setting?

Photo by Rozan Naufal on Unsplash

Thinking inside the box

So far this year I’ve heard a couple of instances where I’ve been told to ‘think outside the box’ and I thought … “but what if there’s nothing wrong with the box?”

For me, when someone says’ think outside the box’ it’s all about taking a different approach or different view of the same issue and being creative in thinking about what needs attention and what needs ‘solving’. This puts the emphasis on the ‘thinking’ part of the statement.

Thought – Perhaps I’m always thinking outside the box if I don’t see the value of thinking outside of the outside of the box?

But for some, the emphasis is on the ‘box’. If you think of the box holding the institutionally recognised and supported tools, does the box have the tools you want? For this post I’m going to take this route, thinking about the box (the VLE, the CMS, the LMS, the approved list of tools your institution supports, etc.). Sometimes we don’t need a new box or tool, but perhaps a new way of using or viewing it?

From my time supporting and training academic colleagues on platforms like Blackboard, Moodle, FutureLearn, OpenEdX, etc. I heard the same stories about “it can’t do what I want” or variations of this. Often, the VLE or platform is not at ‘fault’, the platform can perform the required task but it may look different or work slightly differently. But it can still be done, but it requires a creative approach to do it (if in doubt, please talk to your friendly learning technologist!).

I have seen so many creative and effective uses of the basic/standard VLE tools that I sometimes wonder if the search for a new tool is just because we want to be seen to innovate or to use the latest, shiny technology? I’m sure there has been an element of this in the past, and I’ll admit I’ve been guilty of it too (see Open Badges, Google Glasses, etc.) but these days I also see more critical views on the adoption and implementation of new tools. We, as a body or industry of learning professionals, are thinking deeper and more clearly about using new systems and tool, so we’re sure the changes or new tool actually adds value, that the students benefit from it as part of their wider learning journey and not just to add variety.

Let’s not forget, most institutions have a whole scope of supported and approved tools and systems to use – a short search of your own IT webpages should find this list. There is usually a great wealth of available tools there. If what you want isn’t there, have you considered that it may be excluded or omitted for a reason? The best thing is to ask IT about it, ask around your own learning technology community – you never know what experience and knowledge is available once you ask.

For me we, learning designers and learning technologists need to carefully and critically consider the tools we already have at our disposal. Sometimes they will be enough and can do what we need of them. Sometimes they can’t. Then, once we’re sure we need to look elsewhere, we can and should. We have to again carefully consider the tool and all aspects of it (not least is how and where the student data is handled and stored. Remember, it’s all about GDPR baby!). Will it actually offer any value to the student? Is it sustainable or scalable? How much monitoring or maintenance does it need?

Back to the box then. We do, of course, have the option of ignoring all mention of and all focus on any box. How radical and creative would that be?

In a very apt moment from The Matrix … “Do not try and bend the spoon. That’s impossible. Instead… only try to realize the truth. There is no spoon.” Don’t try and think outside the box (or inside). Realise the truth, there is no box!

YouTube: The Matrix – There is no spoon

Photo by Erda Estremera on Unsplash

Contract for the Web

“A global plan of action to make our online world safe and empowering for everyone”
Contract for the Web

Last week I wrote a couple of blog posts that, well, just didn’t sit right with me (and had no real point either, other than a weak rant). So I deleted them. Through my mumbling and rambling mind I was writing about the true state of the internet as I see it, the rise and continued rise of trust, fake news, politicians and political viewpoints, climate, the dreaded #Brexit, and much, much more. I did have a point, that related to work, learning, students, etc but it was lost in the noise of the rant.

Which brings us, in a timely manner, to today and Tim Berners-Lee’s launch of the Contract for the Web.

Why have I signed it? Simple … I believe the internet can engage and improve our understanding of our environment, our physical, emotional, cultural and financial environments, and that together we can use it to improve the lives of others who are less able than ourselves. This is clearly not everyones intention. Whatever you think of the big tech companies and their use of data, your data, there is a disconnect between that is ‘right’, what is ‘right for me’, what is ‘right for them’ and what is ‘right for everyone’.

Whilst it may be legal for these big companies to move their business around the world and pay no tax, doens’t make it ‘right’ or ethical, especially if they are also accused of questionable standards their employees have to work under. Knowledge and power (and money) enables this. But it isn’t ‘right’.

“Everyone has a role to play in safeguarding the future of the Web. The Contract for the Web was created by representatives from over 80 organizations, representing governments, companies and civil society, and sets out commitments to guide digital policy agendas. To achieve the Contract’s goals, governments, companies, civil society and individuals must commit to sustained policy development, advocacy, and implementation of the Contract text.”
Tim Berners-Lee

The Contract for the Web aims to level the playing field, that everyone has a basic right to information, and that information should be consensual, truthful, respectful and free from racial or sexual bias. The contract brings experts and citizens together, with their “diverse range of experiences and perspectives — to build a global plan of action to make our online world safe and empowering for everyone.”

Ironically, large tech firms that have previously been accused of being the very organisations that have enabled the web to corrupt nad monetise our very existence (Goolge, Facebook, Twitter, etc) are also, for the moment, on the list of signatories.

I think the Matrix has me

A fairly innocuous tweet this morning had me thinking a little deeper and longer than I originally intended:

What I meant when I tweeted was that I felt I was missing out on something, but not sure what, as per ‘the Matrix has you’ line. What I ended up thinking about was the ‘glictch’ in the Matrix – the glitch in the film is an event that draws the individual to the realisation they are in a simulation. The glitch is passed off as a feeling of deja-vu, when you think you’ve seen or heard something or someone before, but you know you haven’t.

For me, the glitch today was just about repeating the same conversation I know I’ve had before, months or even years ago. When working online and starting new projects (large or small), there are some features of the kick-off meeting(s) that need to happen and be covered (timeframe, narrative, resourcing/resources, tools, etc). Saying the same thing time and time again can often feel repetitive or annoying, but it is also key to working well with colleagues (not all of them will have heard this before, some may have forgotten, some may even not think it important).

What is important is that repeating myself, in saying what needs to be said again and again, will eventually get the message across; it will eventually be more deeply understood and will ensure the project team(s) are considering the points carefully and appropriately. Being a stuck record for the sake of making a point is not helpful or welcome, but repeating yourself and offering a solution, and showing interest and care has benefits that everyone can reap. Being interested and caring, to the point of annoying others so they too care can and should be welcome.

It does of course all rest on how the glitch, the message is made. Make a fool or annoyance of yourself and the message is lost in the “oh, he’s on a rant again” background noise.

Photo by Henry & Co. on Unsplash

Leading from the back

As I was reading this HBR article about the ‘modern’ interpretation of being a leader – ‘The leader as coach‘ – when I saw that Graham Brown-Martin had also just shared it, using this quote as the focus for his share:

“Twenty-first-century managers simply don’t (and can’t!) have all the right answers. To cope with this new reality, companies are moving away from traditional command-and-control practices and toward something very different: a model in which managers give support and guidance rather than instructions, and employees learn how to adapt to constantly changing environments in ways that unleash fresh energy, innovation, and commitment.”

This resonates greatly with me at the moment – I hadn’t really thought that my management ‘style’ had any meaning or theory behind it other than I manage/treat others like I like to be managed – I line manage Learning Designers and particiapte in many organisational and team managment, leadership, strategic and organisational meetings. What I end up doing most of the day is using my breadth of knowledge of learning ‘technology’, student engagement, institutional structure, learning-about-learning, etc. and apply it to a variety of circumstances which affect not only learning design but also other aspects of course creation and delivery.

Leading from the front is often counter-productive here. Leading from the back and letting the details speak for themselves. I still have a great deal of knowedge and detailed background in the current platform we develop and deliver on (FutureLearn), so I have a lot to offer there, but it’s also more appropriate for me to take a step back and let the learning designers own and grow in that space, and for me to take the ‘lead’ in making with they have the skills, and opportunity to develop the skills, to drive our development and understanding.

“There may be times when all team members are productively getting on with their work, and the right approach to managing them is to leave them alone.”

To this end, I choose to ‘lead from the back’, as I call it. I have no intention to ‘command and control’, as the article suggests leadership has been previously, but I do want to enable and empower my co-workers and colleagues to be the best they can. As the above quote also suggests, if it works and everyone is getting on with ‘it’, then leave it alone and just be ready to support and coach when asked.

PS. I am in no way considering myself a ‘coach’ or ‘coaching’ my team, but perhaps I should explore this avenue as part of my PD far more than I have to date?

As I said in a previous post (‘Instructions’), “let me be me and you will always get the best of me.” The same is true of those I manage. I let them be them in the hope that will also get the best of them.

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

Purpose and Integration

I was asked recently about my thoughts on the development and advancement of technology in teaching and learning, and what are the most (!) significant developments to look out for.

I did not give the answer that was expected – I could have quoted one of the many Horizon reports, but didn’t. I think I was expected to name a particular device, system/website/tool, and the like – artificial intelligence, chatbots, etc. What I actually said was that technology, in all it’s various guises, needs to have and to fulfil a purpose and be integrated with the institutions’ ecosystem. That is more important than any individual device or system.

Let me explain.

I have seen many new tools adopted quickly, and sometimes rashly; sometimes to be the first-in-market to give all students an iPad, or to provide students with Amazon Echo in halls of residence, or other such technology-focused solution to a problem that wasn’t actually a problem? Have you heard of schools or universities changing their current online VLE or LMS from one provider to another, where the new solution doesn’t actually solve the problems (lack of use, lack of buy-in, poor tool set, lack of integration to institution ecosystem, etc.)? Technology itself is not always the solution, it’s how we use or plan to use it that counts. Without adoption, and without a purpose, it will fail.

What you often find is that the current set of tools and systems are only understood across the institution at a basic level, with pockets of more advanced useage where team(s) explore it more deeply and have actually found a purpose to it and integrated it into their daily workload or teaching. Yes, new devices and fun and shiny. Yes, new tools and systems are exciting as, on the face of it, they promise to solve the issues or problems you’ve been having or will at least fill the gap something else has.

But first off we should evaluate the current situation, decide on how well we are integrating this into the existing ecosystem, are we using is as well as we could/should, and does it fulfil a purpose? Sometimes we’ll find we’re actually not exploiting the tool fully and we can do better. Sometimes we’ll find the new ‘thing’ is actually going to offer us something we never had before (e.g. voice activated home/office automation).

But does the new technology, in any form or function, actually have purpose and can it be integrated into the wider institution?

Photo by Jamie Street on Unsplash

When open plan offices don’t work. And times when they do

Most, if not all of you reading this will be working in an office you share with other people. Some of you will lucky enough to share with one or two other people, some of you will be sharing with 10 or more.

Does this environment work for you? Do you have enough ‘space’ for desk-work, phone calls, meetings, quiet ‘leave-me-alone-I’m-trying-to-concentrate’ work?

For me the benefits of working in an open plan environment outweigh the limitations, but only just. This is why:

  • Good: The ability to stand up and walk across to a colleague to talk through an issue, a thought, an idea, a problem. Fewer emails and more interaction/engagement with colleagues is always a good thing!
  • Bad: You never get a quiet spell to yourself to focus and concentrate. Distractions come from all different directions, people included and not just the physical environment.
  • Good: Working closely with colleagues in different teams can be difficult, even if your open plan office is limited to individual teams in different spaces. Being ‘open’ offers the opportunity to make collaboration easier.
  • Bad: Open plan offices should not have the kitchen area as part of it. From late morning to mid-afternoon you just can’t get around the smell of everyones lunch.
  • Good: Being flexible around an open plan office really only works if there are smaller, bookable and ‘closed’ spaces for people to use for meetings, phonecalls, personal time or sensitive conversations.
  • Bad: Wearing headphones all day to get your personal/quiet space is not good.
  • Good: It’s good to see your managers and the senior team of your organisation on a regular basis.
  • Bad: Individual cubicles should never be an option.

For me the best environment for work, not necessarliy ‘remote’ work but ‘office’ work, would be the kind of space I’m already in, open plan working for the contact and collaboration, but with the availability of more smaller, bookable spaces for small meetings and/or independent working (pods).

Some links for you to click:

Image source: stavos (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Influence and Inspiration

“The person who influences you the most is not the person you believe in, it’s the person who believes in you.”
David Geurin

This is so true. I have had the pleasure for working for and with some influential and inspirational people over my career. Each of them has had an impact at different times in my life, or on different values. What is key to their impact is how much they taught me about myself, without actually doing anything other than believing in me.

Yesterday I wrote about being creative, and having the space to work and prove myself. The people who showed me the most about myself not only gave me this space but also trusted me to make the most of it. They influenced my approach and attitude through deliberate guidance and their belief that I was worth their attention.

You’re never too old to learn. You’re never too old to learn about yourself.

To them I will always be thankful.

Image source: junaidrao (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)