Thinking inside the box

I’ve been doing this PD-genre gig for close on 10 years now. And largely, my efforts have to date have focused on either satisfying the demand for F2F standalone workshops, or venturing outside the box with almost exclusively online nonstandard stuff. Which has seemed logical to me, online stuff is flexible, accessible and low cost. But what it also is, is ignorable. When you live and die by the provisions of the clock or lack thereof, it’s easy – too easy – to delete an email, forget to visit a website, say you’ll access a webinar recording after the fact and never do, swipe away a notification.

So one asks – how do we make things harder to ignore?

For this I’m starting to stuff my thinking back *into* boxes – literal boxes, and figurative boxes.

Section 1: Literal boxes

I’ve been watching, lately, the subscription box trend. People pay a certain fee to have a box with unspecified contents of a certain genre sent to them each month. Adult kinder surprise, if you will, except instead of horrible chocolate and nasty little toy*, you get a selection of food or wine or makeup or whatever. The novelty here of course being both the anticipation of discovering unknown contents, and the promise of trying something new that perhaps you wouldn’t have chosen on your own. Plus the ability to post twee unboxing videos on instagram or facebook or wherever.

So I started thinking – what if you did subscription boxes for PD? People would sign up for a physical box to appear in their pigeonhole each month, contents entirely unknown. Maybe one month it’s coffee, biscuits and alternative assessment strategies, maybe one month it’s a pack of cards to start thinking about games-based learning, maybe one month it’s Google Cardboard and an edict to explore low cost VR. Who knows. But it would be a physical box occupying physical space with an element of curiosity and potential promise of novelty, and that’s somewhat harder to ignore than the 9 millionth email or portal site in Moodle.

The tricky part is thinking about how work that is largely conceptual and theoretical interfaces with physical space and objects. How do you put thinking in a literal box? I don’t actually know but it seems like a fun thing to try.

Section 2: Figurative boxes

Somewhere on the list of is maker spaces and gatherings. Probably. Not maker spaces in the hackerspace sense so much, but more in a bunch of people knitting in a pub sense. We have one here that meets in the campus bar, you probably do too. It’s a dedicated time blocked out in whatever convenient space is available, where people turn up, hang out and make stuff. A figurative box in the calendar. Specifically, a regularly occurring figurative box. Anyone who’s worked in a university for any length of time knows that things don’t tend to happen unless you block that shit out in the calendar, and that’s the main issue anyone who might be vaguely inclined to make change to their teaching practice runs into.

So what would happen if you took a ‘if you make them come, they will build it’ approach? Schedule a small block of time every week or fortnight for people to come to a room, bribe with treats, enforce a Pomodoro-style no distractions or multitasking policy but allow them to work on whatever interested them just for that period of time. C.f. the standard higher ed type of workshop which is mostly a euphemism for a lecture and is never spoken of again the second everyone leaves the room. Really, just being an agent for boxing out the time people can’t make for themselves, then being on hand to facilitate thinking and creating. Could even change my job title to Change Agent or Innovation Catalyst**.

Both are mostly just vague, un-fleshed-out ideas at this stage. At any rate though this is where my thinking is going this year. Boxes. Call it analogue PD, call it Strategic Alignment™, call it futility in the face of the eternally unsolvable, call it yet another painful pun opportunity, but boxes – there may just be something in it.

*Hat tip Bill Bailey

**Kidding, srsly

Second verse, same as the first

So the PhD is a thing again. I’d put it on suspension for a year while I had a kind of mental sabbatical, but now I’m back at it again with the white vans (oh god please stop with the outdated meme references).

The essence of my PhD is unchanged, which for those of you who haven’t been playing along since back in the day when I started a masters is ‘ok how do we do some cool stuff while everyone around us is simultaneously banging on about innovation and not giving anyone any funding or support?’. But out of necessity the structure and focus has changed so I thought I’d tell you some stories about that.

The key problem I have is that because a) the work that I do and the sphere that I work in means the stuff that I do is very much of a time and prone to becoming outdated very quickly and b) I am angling for what feels like the world’s longest candidature – if I get it in under 10 years I’ll be happy; current trajectory is 8ish years. And I went back to what I’d written and the projects I was doing when I first started out and it was kind of like when you look back on photos of what you were wearing in high school or find an old journal full of teen emo poetry. There was no way I could submit that as some kind of endorsement of my current thinking.

Since starting again from scratch was approximately as appealing as dental surgery, my solution is to approach my PhD as a kind of longitudinal autoethnography in the form of project case studies. Longitudinal because I’m taking a freaking long time to do this thing, auto because the projects I’m writing about are the ones I’m involved in and ethnography because that’s how the case studies will tell a story. A story of how grassroots innovation happened in the changing climate of higher education and what we might be able to learn, or not, in terms of how to actually do innovative stuff, from each of the case studies.

You’ll all be surprised to learn the structure I have pitched is unconventional. While the thesis will be topped and tailed with normal bits like a lit review, the body of the thesis will be a modular situation, made up of ten tripartite case study sections. Tripartite because each will have an article describing the case study (may be published, may be not, you may have already read or seen me present on some of them), an accompanying exegesis that positions the case study in the overarching narrative – why this type of project with this type of thinking happened that this particular point in time, and what impact may have been had, and then the project artefact itself. Since all of these projects involve the creation of a site – Moodle Dailies, Coffeecourses etc etc – I feel like it’s essential to include the site within the work, much like a creative practice doctorate includes the creative product as part of the work. We – educators, ed devs/learning designers/academic developers/instructional designers/whatever you want to call our sort of people, researchers – frequently produce creative pedagogical output that is as valid as creative arts and design work and should be acknowledged as such. So I suppose it’s a portfolio of sorts, as well as an unconventional thesis.

At any rate, watch this space. Could be fun, could be terrifying. But importantly, could be a thing.

Outside time

We didn’t let Hannah go outside before she was 2. Now we only let her go outside into a small area for 30 minutes a day. You really have to be careful with outside time. I know several people whose kids have fallen over and hurt themselves outside, sometimes even breaking bones. I even heard about a child who was abducted while they were outside. And bullying is a real concern, so much bullying happens when kids are outside. So really it’s for her own safety that we restrict and monitor her outside time. Not to mention the impact on literacy – kids just turn into zombies outside, playing on the same equipment in the same way over and over again. Parents really just use playgrounds as babysitters anyway. Plus kids get tired and irritable after being outside. When she’s older we’ll probably let her go outside a bit more but not without careful monitoring of everything she does.

If it sounds absurd, it’s because it is. And yet substitute the word ‘outside’ with the word ‘screen’ and everyone thinks it’s not only reasonable, but laudable. I suppose the policies of schools I taught in should have been a tip-off, but I didn’t realise before I had a child how pervasive the screen time demonisation narrative was, and how left-field, how utterly divergent, it was to not only allow screen time but afford absolute autonomy with it. I’ve written about it before, a couple of years ago, and not much has changed. Hannah is nearly four now and still has her own unrestricted iPad to which she has unrestricted access (although she does have a few “kid” apps on there now, as it turns out there are some excellent ones like Toca Lab). And in that time I have come across almost nobody, in parenting circles at least, who approaches technology the way that I do. I am a cowboy amongst parents.

Obviously my thinking in this regard is framed largely from an educational perspective (and partially from a ‘idk maybe treat kids as autonomous capable humans’ perspective), but this morning I came across an argument I hadn’t considered – a feminist perspective.

It’s an imperfect article, in that it still operates on the underlying assumption that technology/screen time is probably a little bit bad, but it at least presents arguments outside of the narrative perpetuated everywhere else. Importantly, it also makes the point that there are key arguments missing from the current discussion, including that kids who have their online access severely restricted run into more trouble online. I mean, learning by doing is a basic educational principle but it’s still useful to see it articulated to a specific audience in this way.

I really think there’s room for some big and challenging conversations to start happening around technology in parenting spaces. Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem at this point like many people are willing to have them.

The boy who lived and other stories

I’ve been ruminating lately on the progression of a career, particularly in the management of identity and purpose over time. Social media has the habit of affording certain identities to people that aren’t as fluid as one might like. Sometimes when you do a thing, you become known as the person who did a thing, and then you become the person who did a thing. The Boy Who Lived etc etc. The problem is, I did a thing or two, but I’m not really that person any more.

I’ve only tweeted twice in two months. Blogged even less. I hesitate now before I hit post and more often than not, I don’t, in the end. If anyone asked you what I’d done lately, or even what my job title was now, you probably wouldn’t be able to answer. I seem to have hung up the cowboy hat; I don’t think I can trade any more on the strength of being an innovator or provocateur.

You could say it was because I’d had a child. You could say it was because I’d been dragged through a misconduct case for my use of social media. You could say it was because I’d been forced to change jobs. You could say it was because I’ve got older and (more?) cynical and jaded. But at the end of the day I don’t think it’s particularly any one of those things, or perhaps it’s all of them.

I was going to say something sage here about how one can sustain a fluid identity over time via ‘identity curation’ but The Shovel, in all its scathing glory, has ruined the term for me forever. But since ‘identity choosing’ is fairly awkward I’ll just go with the fact that sometimes it’s time to put the old in a box somewhere and start something new. I don’t want to be that guy who rides on the coattails of old news. I haven’t yet found my niche to carve out in my new gig, but it’s about time I started.

Innovation *quack*

Sarah and Duck

I came across this today, in an oddly fortuitous set of circumstances – Sarah & Duck is one of Hannah’s (ok fine, and mine) favourite shows and I was looking up pictures for her. One happened to come from this article:

Say what you like about children’s TV allegories, the guy makes some excellent points. And given higher education is often rather like an empty packet of sweets and a ball that won’t bounce, fairly relevant.

If you don’t have kids and/or a penchant for cartoons and have never seen it, hit up iView for some Friday afternoon viewing.

It’s just a jump to the left

So. Workplace change. Super fun happy time. I shouldn’t complain too much, because I’m in the fortunate position of having a continuing appointment so I will more than likely come out the other end still having a job. And yet. The new org chart removes all but one academic positions, so it’s essentially guaranteed that I will lose my academic position and be reassigned as professional staff.

I’m not sure how I feel about this. I’ve been an academic for five and a half years now. I never planned to be an academic, just kind of fell into it. Despite this, I seemed to be rather suited to it. I made a fairly decent name for myself as an unconventional scholar. And without really meaning to it’s become fairly tied to me as an identity. When people ask what I do I say I’m an academic. It’s no secret that I’ve been ragingly cynical about many aspects of academia and have criticised the sector heavily along the way, but despite that it was still my niche. A far better fit for me than the classroom ever was. And I’m not sure how I feel about leaving that behind not by choice.

Ostensibly, it’s not a huge shift to step into learning design on a professional classification. I’ll get paid more, for one (I still think someone should do a ‘Things that pay more than Academic A” tumblr). The work will probably be similar, given how far my role has morphed away from academic development in the last year or so. I’ll have the same colleagues. I’ll lose the dead end career path associated with academics in central non-teaching roles. And yet. And yet.

I got an email from Academia Obscura the other day, noting that I was on some list or another as a ‘favourite academic tweeter’. This site still gets hits daily from being listed on The Thesis Whisperer as “more like us”. I have half a PhD done (albeit once again on suspension through not winning at work/life balance). The academia category on my blog is fairly extensive. It’s a lot of stuff to turn around and mark as no longer relevant. I think more than anything the thought of no longer having an institution to poke from the inside bothers me. Cowboy learning designer seems like a different genre. Not that I’ve done all that much poking of late but the principle is still there.

So, I don’t know. While no new positions have been allocated yet it’s certain I won’t have an academic one so I suppose this counts as my obligatory ‘leaving academia’ post, without the catharsis that would have come with doing it of my own accord and saying ‘sayonara suckers’. Don’t get me wrong, there’s a lot of things I won’t miss. But, being the rogue academic isn’t one of them. I’ll miss that title. Onwards, though, I suppose, and I will see you all in another dimension, with voyeuristic intention (do I get bonus points for both beginning and ending with a painful musical reference?).


Re: elephants

In my post yesterday I referred to a myriad of elephants in the room regarding the teaching of academic integrity, which I thought I’d unpack here a bit. Many of them are symptoms of sector-wide problems and tie in with other significant issues like casualisation. I’m certainly not saying anything new but I still think it’s worth discussing.

1. Expectation vs reality

When teaching academic integrity people expect you to refer to the policy and the consequences of transgressions. If you do plagiarism, disciplinary action will happen. It sounds good in theory, but realities are very different. Let’s talk about the casual lecturer who isn’t paid for administrivia and red tape. Let’s talk about the lecturer who’s so time poor it’s more trouble than it’s worth to follow up investigations. Let’s talk about the lecturer who is pressured to pass full-fee paying students and turn a blind eye to plagiarism. Let’s talk about all the systematic issues that mean the likelihood of consequences eventuating for plagiarism and cheating is not nearly so high as everyone would like to believe.

2. Assessment

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. Essays are the #1 easiest type of assessment to plagiarise and cheat on. Ghostwriters are everywhere and ridiculously easy to engage. Quizzes and exams are similarly easy to cheat (if you’re not convinced, search youtube for ‘how to cheat on an exam or quiz’). Until we have a system that supports the use of more authentic assessment types, this is still going to be an issue. And using more sophisticated and restrictive technologies to try and catch them or lock them down is not the solution, students who have access to a massive online hive mind will always be one step ahead.

3. Do as I say, not as I do

All academics adhere to the principles of academic integrity without question, right? Sure, we might know how to cite. But how many of us are attributing images we use in our online courses, or seeking permission for those bound by copyright? If it’s on Google it’s free to use, right? There are some significant holes in our understanding of things, particularly regarding the use of digital media.

4. Biting the hand that feeds you

It’s a hard reality that many universities are extremely reliant on full-fee-paying international students. And any significant disciplinary action runs the risk of jeopardising that. In some instances the customer really is always right.

5. Representation vs stereotyping

A particularly fraught issue when using actors is – do you cast characters that international students can identify with, or do you shy away from that lest you be seen as typecasting?

6. Siloing

Finally, the complex issue of life management. It’s easy to think academic integrity exists in a silo, just learn this and don’t do the naughty things and it will all be fine. But the reality is that many students are managing complex issues, some of which take priority over studies and over behaving with integrity. For some the shame of failing pulls far stronger than any potential risk of being caught.


So there you have it. None of these elephants can be addressed, all of them will impact the ability for any kind of strategy around academic integrity to have the level of impact we’d like. But until we see significant changes in the system, all we can do is fix the things we can. Godspeed, Brenda and Damo, godspeed.