I Can See For Miles

I’ve mentioned Cardiff Parkrun before. This is a weekly, free 5k run organised entirely by volunteers. Running is something that I do on a fairly regular basis, and like studying it can be a very frustrating business.
When studying it is obvious that over a period of 3-6 years, that there will be highs and lows. Deadlines missed, disappointing grades, work that is not up to your own standards, other students that annoy you, lecturers that annoy you, and, of course, life events that get in the way of our study. But, counterbalancing these lows will be unexpectedly good grades or complementary feedback, fabulous lectures/seminars/tutorials, sudden realisation that something is easier than you thought, new friends made, old friends rediscovered and, of course, exams passed.
In running too there are highs – personal bests, new distances conquered, new friends, new courses. And, of course lows – poor times, injuries, lack of motivation. In both studying and running landmarks are passed and highs are achieved. That’s the point, isn’t it?
So I was really pleased last Saturday to reach my fiftieth Parkrun. It wasn’t a PB, and I certainly came nowhere close to winning, but nevertheless it was a milestone that, during a year of minor injuries, I never thought I’d make.
Reflecting on the run later I started to think what bigger lessons were there. If I’m honest, I never really struggled as a student, so I can’t think of an essay or seminar that was analogous. Perhaps the day I submitted my PhD thesis to the University of London is the closest. Unlike, the PhD, however, I don’t feel that the Parkrun is the end of a journey, but rather simply a point on a continuing journey.
Which made me think that perhaps, after all, so was the PhD. I have always been an advocate of life long learning. This is where running and learning connect for me. Life long learning implies a lifetime commitment to learning, not necessarily a life long commitment to passing exams. Since my PhD I have tended to avoid exams in which I am the participant. As a lecturer I set and mark exams for others, of course.
In my running ‘career’, I have completed a marathon, a couple of half marathons, a couple of 10k’s and, of course 50 5k’s. It has not been a straight line, gradually doing longer and longer distances, but rather characterised by sudden bursts, unexpected faster times, followed by a diminishing of motivation or punctuated by injuries of one sort or another.
Life long learning is a process by which, over time, we come to realise that the knowledge ‘out there’ is far greater than the knowledge in our own heads. Sometimes, being a life long learner means taking formal courses and exams. More often it is about retaining a sense of wonder about the World we live in. It is often a case of being prepared to learn, rather than being prepared to be taught. Students often set up a hierarchical expectation where for them to learn, ‘we’ must teach. In reality, that makes learning a function of teaching and whilst some knowledge may pass from one person to another, it is unlikely that much real learning will take place. Lecturers often like the relationship simply because it flatters their ego.
Life long running is also a process. It does not have to be about winning, going faster, or going further. Every time I lace up my shoes and step out for a run, I have, in effect, won. Likewise, every time I ask a question, check something on the internet, read a book or simply wonder ‘what would happen if….’ I am improving my mind, and learning.
I would like to thank all the people who organise and turn up on every Saturday morning. It is an incredibly friendly and supportive environment. But, I’d also like to thank all my lecturers, tutors and especially students, past, present and future, for being co-passengers on my journey.
I know that I have more runs and more learning inside me. At the moment, I feel that I am on a hilltop from where I can see for miles. I also know that in that landscape are highs and lows. In the lows it is sometimes difficult to imagine the highs that lay ahead, but, trust me on this, both running and education are really no more than an endurance test..

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Back To The Future (for teaching and learning)

I don’t normally go out of my way to praise Senior Management. This is partly because they seem aloof and often irrelevant to the day to day activities that consume me. And, also because they really don’t need me to blow their trumpet – they manage to do that quite well on their own!
But, two events at the Open University this week inspired me. On the basis, that I am sometimes too quick to criticise, I also think I should be quick to praise.
The first event was the announcement by our Vice Chancellor, Martin Bean about the appointment of Martha Lane-Fox as our new Chancellor. This was handled particularly well with a message sent round encouraging staff to log on to this You Tube video. I just thought this was very well handled, and it reminded me that the Open University can be a very slick organisation.
The bigger event for me however was organised by Belinda Tynan, our Pro-Vice Chancellor (Learning and Teaching). This was a 2-day residential which brought together around 50 people from across the OU to discuss future learning and teaching.
I was impressed by Belinda’s open and inclusive approach but also her passion for teaching and learning. We ought to be able to take these things for granted, but as she pointed out senior management often operate at a level of strategy that is divorced from what actually happens on the ground. It was great to see Belinda simply being one of the participants, listening to what people had to say, making useful and practical suggestions and never pulling rank to get her own agenda accepted. I’m not sure I’d be that self-disciplined!
With this culture of openness established the event allowed the rest of us to articulate our passion for learning (and it was learning rather than teaching that people seemed passionate about). Through a series of increasingly focussed group activities we thought about where we are now, where we fit in the wider socio-economic system and where we might be in the future.
Of course, crystal ball gazing is always fraught with danger, but I have to say I was impressed with how practical most of the future thinking actually was. A commitment to capture what the OU is in terms of its shared values and to use those values to orient us in our journey into the future. Naturally, 50 people in a room many of whom have never met previously and from a variety of backgrounds could never hope to agree on every finer point. What was noticeable was that even where disagreement emerged there seemed to be a desire to find common ground.
The event was interesting as well because it brought together academics, technicians and administrators on an equal footing. It gave me pause to think as I had a debate with another delegate over breakfast about how hopeless our IT systems were, when he introduced himself as a member of the IT department! More importantly, after our discussion I realised that it was not the people in IT who are the problem, nor the systems but the fact that whilst we all believe, at the strategic level, that we are committed to enriching the student experience; at the practical level we are often overly focussed on what we personally require in the here and now. Presenting other departments as the culprits of everything that doesn’t work is a way of ensuring that we never work together to overcome the challenges we sometimes have to solve (note: I was going to write problems, but changed my mind).
It is always easier to be critical of others than to work with them to find solutions to what is, after all, a shared commitment to our students. In future, I certainly will be less quick to criticise and much quicker to open a dialogue.
Another observation was that as we discussed our vision of teaching and learning, there was a strong sense amongst many of the educational technologists present that any improvement would involve building something. For many of the academics improvement was about improving processes (for which the ed techs wanted to build a new app!) In all this, however, something else became apparent and that was something almost everybody agreed on: at some level education is about relationships. There are relationships that students have with their institution, with their tutors and with each other. Of course, technology can assist and processes can help mediate those relationships but education is all about people connecting, and supporting each other. Whilst individual motivation can help, it is important to have a supportive network of friends, tutors, administrators etc. In some way creating an environment where students can feel confident, where they can overcome personal and educational challenges and where they can obtain their personal goals remains integral to the Open University. That is an exciting challenge and it is taking us back to the future.

Put your trust in me (better still, trust your students)

It’s a strange thing the relationship between lecturers and their students. We all know that students are adults. However, apart from the occasional maths prodigy they are usually over 18 by the time they get to University. We also talk about developing them as ‘independent learners’. Yet, at the same time, and usually with the best intentions, we tend to treat them like small children who need to be constantly protected and who are incredibly naive about the ‘real’ world.
I’m constantly reminded of how little trust we have in our students when I listen to colleagues telling me what they can’t do. It’s not that these staff don’t care about the students, but that they are, in my opinion over protective of their charges. This zeal to protect students borders on what we might call mollycoddling.
This attitude often expresses itself in relation to the use of technology. In The Open Universty we use a version of Blackboard Collaborate called OU Live. It is a fairly easy to use system used in universities and businesses around the globe. I hear often from colleagues that “students will be scared” by it. Therefore, we should offer them training on this new system (new, in as much as it has only existed for 10 years). My main concern has always been that students would not be able to find their way into the system, hence my You Tube video, which has had over 1,000 views.
Once, in the system, however, students find it relatively easy to use and if truth be told are actually more comfortable with this type of communication than the staff who teach them.
But it is not just OU Live, I recently had a discussion with a well respected member of my own institution who thought that students would not be able to cope with social media, particularly Twitter. When I argued that Twitter was now ubiquitous at conferences, the question was posed, almost accusingly “are you a Twitter user?” So, in the interests of fairness I should describe myself as a self-confessed Twitter user (@OUSocSciCymru if you want to follow me).
The problem with Twitter, apparently, is that it is dominated by a handful of very persistent Tweeters who can be quite aggressive.
Now I’m not one to argue that some of what passes for comment on social media is sometimes written by people who probably shouldn’t be permitted to have fingers, let alone keyboards to tap with them, but to suggest that the behaviour of that minority is typical is rather like arguing that one loose cannon at a conference typifies the conference. It doesn’t.
But even if it did, my point is about our reaction to these things. Lets face it the general population is full of individuals, some of whom are not very nice. But should we shield students from these things? Whilst we may have a moral duty to our students, I started off by saying that they are adults. Many of my students are mature students with a considerable personal history and are juggling complex life situations with their study. It strikes me as mildly patronising to believe that they are incapable of dealing with fairly simple technologies or able to understand that social media can be a bit of a jungle.
So, this raises the issue of why lecturing staff think their students need to be protected from technologies? I rather suspect that the lack of trust is based partly on a hierarchical view of the student-lecturer relationship, but more importantly is lecturing staff projecting on to students their own insecurities. When colleagues say ” my students don’t like technology-led learning”, what they mean is that they don’t like it. Similarly when they say that students don’t like social media, or should be protected from it, what they mean is, “I don’t like social media”.
One thing I have discovered, and this has been reinforced at a number of student events over the past couple of weeks is that students are amazing. They have a zest for knowledge and innovation that is often not reciprocated by lecturing staff. They are not afraid of new challenges but often lack the confidence to do anything about them. My view is that we have to trust our students, build their confidence, support their potential, and be prepared to pick them up when they fail. In effect, we have to treat our students as partners in a joint learning enterprise, not just as a convenient audience on which to project our own ideas and insecurities.