Some reflections on week one of the #LTDX21 event (with a bit on the latest The Learning Hack podcast)

Learning Technologies, of course, is normally a big, physical, conference and exhibition and I had hoped to attend this year (amazingly I don’t think I have been since 2016 – where did that time go?). However, with travel and event restrictions there has been the inevitable move to a “digital experience” this year. The free sessions I have attended for this year’s LTDX21 have really reminded me about three things from Learning Tech as an event:

(1) The “free” sessions, normally on the exhibition floor of the physical event, vary enormously and it is a lot better to attend the “paid for” conference event if you can.

(2) The major benefit of the event, for me, is bumping into people you normally see once a year (or less) for a quick catch-up.

(3) There is value in just browsing the exhibition for trends, new entrants, etc. – I am yet to attend a virtual event which does this kind of thing well in getting the balance between viewing “exhibitor information” and having sales people harangue you via LinkedIn and email.

With regards to the first point above and specifically the sessions, the ones I have attended in the first three days have varied between the incredibly introductory and the very thought provoking. Kudos to Omniplex for the thought provoking session – one that really picked at the shared learning industry conscious over our role in organisations (and impact on wider society) with calls for improving practice. A good example of bringing emotion in – by highlighting real world examples (from big stories like Grenfell through to smaller scale examples).

One problem with the less interesting sessions was that product demos, which would normally be restricted to exhibition booths, and presentations (with a product focus) that normally appear in the “theatres” seem to have blurred together in this format. The answer here is probably to look beyond the titles and descriptions to try and second guess the nature of presentation – this isn’t really an issue if you commit a day or two to an event and can walk away from less interesting sessions. It is more annoying when you are blocking out calendar time for virtual events.

From the sessions I have attended, I could see some of the ongoing challenges for online learning – for example, discussions in session chat showed a drive towards wanting to display learning in Microsoft Teams (in part due to Viva?) but at the same time we had presentations around old concepts rebranded as new. I would really advocate everyone in the industry listen to the below podcast. A lot of people are still very blinkered to the companies they have experience in and I really don’t think people realise what is actually “new”. As Dr Chen points out, for example, doing more than SCORM is not new. There also seems to be a growing trend of huge content libraries and aggregators (perhaps because of LinkedIn Learning’s success) which I personally feel has a role but is just part of the puzzle. Anyway, listen to the pod if you haven’t the latest Learning Hack podcast was timely given all of this:

Regarding point 3. Attending only a few sessions you also miss the general feel. Today, I am going to try and follow the event’s hashtag more closely to try and pick up some of the more general trends. Thanks, as always, to all the tweeters out there on #LTDX21.

Not all innovation is created equal

A few things lately have got me thinking, once again, about what innovation means, particularly in the area of online learning.

The Covid crisis has brought a lot of this to the fore, for example the list below are just two things which have been day-to-day activities for me (and many others) for over a decade (or more) but are genuinely new for others:

  • Training companies and education institutions moving their operations to online (be it virtual classroom, webinar, async, LMS/VLE, etc.)
  • Primary collaboration between colleagues taking place online, rather than face-to-face, via VOIP, Teams, ESNs, etc.

These changes will be seen as transformational for some organisations, and not for others. This will have the knock-on effects that digital transformation has, for a while, promised – unfortunately including job losses. Leading to a spate of memes on that theme:

Just one example playing on the theme/meme.

The recent MoodleMoot global conference helped highlight this to me – here we had a tool (Moodle) that critics (myself included in the past) would describe as struggling to move past its c.2003 functionality and user interface. However, many presenters were focused on their personal success of switching to online (I personally really find the “pivot” phrase odd/annoying) or offering tips for ‘newbies’ in this area. This brings to mind the often used quote:

The future is already here — it’s just not very evenly distributed.

William Gibson

The challenge here is not just that digital transformation will naturally mean different things to different people also that a “webinar” will mean different things depending on the organising body, presenter, purpose, etc.

This confuses the picture, as picked up recently by Jane Hart in a tweet poll over what “e-learning” may (or may not) mean today:

Personally, I would say eLearning has become synonymous with “click next” slide-style content. The result being that “online” learning became the norm and then “digital” to capture changes for learning via mobile, VR, etc. However, whilst the differences remain, and old conversations (e.g. what is e-learning? is the VLE dead? etc.) continue, it is increasingly difficult to see where real innovation in the learning sector is given many orgs are now having “transformational pivots”.

Panic in the disco(urse)

The Higher Education (HE) world and the associated academic discourse would appear to be in a state of panic right now – at least in the British and American HE sectors.

We have open rebellion at Durham against online learning and COVID-19 gutting finances whilst (going by job boards, LinkedIn, etc) an apparent rush to hire instructional designers and learning technologists is underway.

I’ve commented previously that the race to online learning due to COVID feels like a hollow ‘victory’ for those of us who have been advocating for this for a long time as the news remains grim.  Rationalisation and innovation seems to be finally happening in HE but at the risk of institutions that, for all their faults, are often major employers and bring inward investment to our towns and cities.  For someone who went to (physical) university in Hull and Sheffield I have plenty of personal experience of seeing how university campuses have a part to play in urban regeneration and our post-industrial landscapes!

It is at least 15 years ago now that online learning has been in place and ready to transform the HE sector – I don’t think I have my slides any more but I was (in part jovially) booed on stage at the University of Leeds in 2012 during an Articulate event.  Whilst it is scary to say it that is 8 years ago we have not really seen any major change to the UK HE sector from the privatisation, and push to online, that I was booed about.  Now, finally, COVID seems to be asking some of the big questions expected back then – for example, should there be shared resources versus reinventing the wheel at different universities:

This alludes to the problem of unis adding little value from one another in core curriculum across many subjects.  This is familiar to L&D teams when we think about pumping out ever more content on, say, leadership – rather than curating or adding value through, for example, original research.  It also alludes to the failure (in my eyes) of the HE library profession in they have been pushed down a collection management route – with reading lists often the limit of their eLearning ambitions.

That universities are struggling, even a decade+ after many introduced blended learning, is partly surprising.  Durham, for example, have had some excellent learning technologists in that time and I am glad to say I have bounced ideas of a number of them at their Blackboard eLearning conferences (albeit that I haven’t been for a number of years!).  This is in part anti-online snobbery but also in-part based on truth – for example, actually doing physical activity may be needed for some degrees and be difficult to replicate online – science experiments, underwater archaeology or electrical engineering to name a few examples.

That so many schools have moved online easily also shows the weakness of HE – for many staff “teaching” is a chore beyond the core driver (namely research) thus to be forced to put effort into teaching becomes a further challenge.  This is in part why learning technologists have emerged in the UK – to manage the time consuming setup and admin of online learning for the lecturers.  Schools for younger, <18, age groupss, in the last few weeks, have succeed thanks to the primary driver of teachers (or at least good ones) being the students interests and they have made use of their control over their class/subject to do things quickly ‘their way’.  This again alludes to waste, compared to shared resources (or full OER) but also should allow teachers to continue to support their students – which might be more difficult if using centralised resources.  Schools and universities share a focus on knowledge development for assessment (lets be honest) so have no real difference in ‘goal’ but seem to be experiencing things differently through the crisis due to their cultures.  Is this in part due to schools tending toward 100% contracts, with cultures where many teachers work outside of their scheduled hours?  Meanwhile HE has become too messy with labour costs and thus are looking to pass on to ‘cheaper’ learning techs and other teams, see, for example the very debatable argument in the Tweet below and through partnering with private online providers:

Fascinating times and lets hope that not too many jobs are lost in the end but money is better spent and blended learning used in more programmes and in better ways.

The obligatory Coronavirus disease (COVID-19) post: With virtual working and online learning on most of our minds

This post has been in different stages of draft for a week or more and I am just doing a quick edit of the below before pushing it out – well aware that anything written on this topic soon becomes out-of-date. For example, the Facebook group mentioned below has gone from about 8000 members to 44000 in the last week.

Seeking the positivies

I would imagine I am in the majority on Coronavirus – namely a group thinking the response seemed excessive but unwilling to speak out too loudly in case this really does spread and start killing a far greater percentage of populations.  As we now hit pandemic stage it feels more real – not least in furthering all appreciation of the incredible medical service staff we have around the world who battle on whatever the conditions. However, whilst turning the corner feels a way off yet we can see some real advantages starting to emerge.

From trade shows, MBAs, sports events and more we are seeing rearrangements and cancellations.  For those, like me, who have been banging the drum for a long time about the advantages of online learning and remote working this might be ‘our time’. 

Remote conferences, trade shows, etc.

For trade shows and conferences the downsides to restrictions are that we lose some of the advantages of events – for example, they can help us find things through serendipity and “on the fringes”, including through chatting and socializing.  This is more difficult when self-selecting webinars and other online events that act as the equivalent of conference sessions. One thing I am trying to do is to network in a wider sense, including reaching out to people on LinkedIn and attending webinars from organisations I have not previously engaged with. Ongoing communicating can replace some of this, not least through peer networking online.

It has always been a bit ironic that some of the biggest online players in their different fields also have huge people gatherings – such as Microsoft, Workday and Blackboard events. In some ways you have to hope the move of events such as the Blackboard Teaching and Learning Conference (BBTLC), for 2020, being moved online will further encourage improvements in the offers of those companies. On a side note, I think it is nine years since I last attended, and presented, at BBTLC! Time flies!

Remote learning

A Facebook group – Educator Temporary School Closure – is already showing the power of informal collaboration and networking in helping those impacted by school closures. This is a massive network already with sharing and supporting in a collaborative way. The disadvatnages are there though – not least Facebook’s poor file management and search. For those of who have been community managers, intranet editors, etc these problems can be frustrating and group owners are clearly playing a loosing battle with people just posting the same questions over and over again. Basically a knowledge management nightmare – but better than no social learning at all!

Of course a problem of the speed here is that people are “getting by” dealing with immediate needs – will organisations find time to breath and realize there are specialists available to help (such as online community managers)? I am torn here a little as I advocate simple solutions but also aware that there will be lots of bad practice – for example generating huge files, duplication of effort due to lack of sharing between organisations, eLearning that ignores accessibility standards, etc. For teachers this is rapid professional development and hopefully, as Donald Clark writes, they will be better teachers for the experience. This all said, it does feel like there are clear opportunities for learning technologists and other groups to help the overwhelming load of free offers and advice that is currently being pumped out (yes, including this article I know). For example, plenty in this image (that was shared with me this week) is debatable:

It is depressing that it has taken something like this to lead to a change for so many. For example a TES article describing this as a chance to start to experiment with flipped learning really got my eyes rolling – I was helping deploy such models at scale about a decade ago (and there are obviously plenty of practitioners with more experience than me).

Parents stuck at home with their children will hopefully also be more useful advocates for digital learning in the future – both for their children but also when back into their own workplaces. In addition, they will have seen many of the difficulties teachers face and we may have a better balance of teacher/parent expectations overall in global society.

Perhaps the real advantage for schools, universities and other education institutions is that this is offering something of a holy grail in education – control groups.  We often hear that you cannot deprive learners of opportunities.  Thus education research is difficult.  Here we have a perfect opportunity to compare, at scale, data against previous years and those not impacted by closures as control groups. We should have some real data about what kind of models work, provided people have some time to number crunch!

Remote working

Remote leadership, willingness to delegate and trust are challenges that have long existed for those who are used to working in virtual teams.  These are now ‘normal’ issues for many more people and we can reimagine work around outcomes, not time spent, and develop our online networking skills. Clair Lew and others have lots of great tips on what meetings can look like remotely and more.

Hopefully commuting will be increasingly seen for what it is (a waste of time and energy for many) and better ways of working will be established. Obviously this does not relate some of the wonderful people out there who will continue to be tied to their place of work in hospitals, shops and other fields. That said, interesting to see Microsoft’s new Teams offer to healthcare being launched at this point in history.

I have written before about my love of Teams and it seems, from browsing Twitter and other sources, that it does seem to have become the de facto platform for many. As Rachel Burnham says, Teams is now everywhere. This is where I would like to add a celebratory gif. Rachel hits a good point though that L&D teams seem to be reverting to thinking about Teams as an LMS. Similarly schools closed for Covid will think about “lessons”, “timetables” and more. These may be useful starting points but the platform can (and should?) be more transformational (of course many are firmly in the S stage of SAMR currently).

Saving the environment

Science fiction is full of examples where mankind has to face a major event to limit the damage it is doing to the planet, World War 3 in Star Trek for example.  The virus so far has cut pollution in China and offers to cull airlines following the collapse of Flybe and US-Schengen travel.  Many of us will have spent time in pointless or, at best, overly long meetings in the past and this might make us far more appreciate of the implications of travel.

Hopefully the numbers will remain not too bad

This site has some really good graphs and number crunching on the implications of the virus spread, even at this stage the numbers are relatively small and that is something of a positive to hold onto. Best of luck out there to those with health conditions, elderly relatives, etc who are at risk.

10 years of Twitter

I recently received my “10th #twitterversary” email from Twitter and it made me reflect on my use of the platform.

I’ve never been a big tweeter, tending to use it share at events and also retweet/like things that I would later blog about from those same events.  Otherwise my use has been fairly limited.

Going back through my old tweets, tweet number one was:

That tweet is pretty indicative of my focus at the time – working with the Blackboard LMS/VLE and supporting users with/via free tech (like Screenr was).  In my early tweets, as with Screenr, there are a notable volume of dead-links – basically showing how Twitter is indicative of the web’s tendency for large amounts of redundant data.  The Blackboard focus includes plenty of early tweets from ongoing events such as #LondonBUG as well as historic date stamped hashtags like #BbTLC11.

More recently I have tried to shift from the work-only focus with an update to my profile (to include other interests like dog, football and gaming) to show more of my ‘personal’ side.  I’ve also written about being sucked into politics and tweeting about that – which obviously was not the intention ten years ago when tweeting new Blackboard resources!  Yet politics ‘sells’, considering my last tweet got 75 likes more than any other I think.