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while I had a kind of mental sabbatical, but now I’m back at it again with the white vans (oh god please stop with the outdated meme references).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the work that I do and the sphere that I work in means the stuff that I do is very much of a time and prone to becoming outdated very quickly and b) I am angling for what feels like the world’s longest candidature – if I get it in under 10 years I’ll be happy; current trajectory is 8ish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.

Re: academic integrity

One of the projects I’ve been working on of late is redesigning our whole approach to academic integrity. Now, because we can’t just direct students to (although I dearly would love to substitute that for most policies), it’s been a fairly substantial project. How do you teach 20,000-odd students academic integrity with any sort of impact? It’s fairly safe to say that current practices are not particularly effective. In general it seems to be something that’s approached from a compliance training perspective – read this policy, take this quiz.

It’s interesting to notice how educational research dovetails into parenting. I’d read Alfie Kohn years ago as an educator, but he has also done some significant work on parenting, particularly gentle parenting and the ineffectiveness of punitive discipline and punishment. And while the concept of discipline is usually applied to younger children, it makes sense to extrapolate to adults and assume that trying to teach by saying ‘here are all the ways you will be punished if you don’t learn this and do something wrong, now prove that you remember them’ is probably not all that effective a strategy.

What’s the alternative? The key problem is – how do we convince people that this matters? If someone looks at a list of punishments and balances that against the likelihood of being caught, the perceived difficulty of actually learning the skills involved and the potential ramifications of failing, one can understand why one might be tempted by the ease of procuring ghostwritten work (which is astonishingly easy, if you’ve ever looked) etc. What’s missing is making that choice matter to the student. What’s in it for them? How does acting with integrity benefit them? Reputation is a currency people understand.

People also like stories. Stories and games. Stories invest people emotionally. Games give safe spaces for skill development with immediate feedback. Compliance training doesn’t do any of this. For academic integrity training to have impact, students need to care about the benefits to them and to others, to understand how cause and effect works (not just cause and punishment) and be able to develop skills without fear of ramifications.

Which leads us to the Academic Integrity Kit. I’m not sure where Kit came from but it’s stuck. What it is, is a digital storytelling narrative crossed with a FPS (first person shooter, for non-gaming types) and a choose your own adventure book. Rather than the standard approach to scenarios and storytelling where it’s observed at a third-person remove, we shot all the footage either over the shoulder of a playable character or as a screencast so the narrative is brought into the first person. Each character is a messy, real-life trope with complex competing priorities, rather than a black/white good/bad positioning removed from any context. Students make decisions on behalf of their character and see immediate consequences of these decisions, both in terms of policy and of the effect on their reputation and future career prospects. One key point that we’re trying to make is that it’s not just academic integrity, it’s integrity in general and the principles apply in all areas of life – like the mother in law who posts photos of your kids to Facebook without asking. And it’s all held under the umbrella of the excellent dad-joke tag line our graphic designer Ivan came up with – ‘it’s your CV, not ctrl-C ctrl-V’.

It’s not a panacea. The dialogue is contrived as we weren’t allowed swearing or slang. Artistic liberties were liberally taken in order to fit 9 designated areas to cover into a designated ‘half hour or less’ module with at least a semi-believable storyline. We had no budget to speak of so acting quality is not great in places (largely due to me having to play one of the characters – those who know me will know how ridiculous that concept is). There are an astronomical number of elephants in the room (which I’ll cover in a different post). It’s built in Captivate and auth-walled in Moodle which frustrates the open-or-die side of me. But – it’s a better way of thinking about academic integrity, and hopefully a better way of doing. It may or may not have more impact, since it’s yet to be tested, but it’s a strong entry into the ‘we really need to be doing this better’ conversation around the teaching of academic integrity.

While you won’t be able to access the full kit, you can take a look at the mockup splash page that introduces the module and a couple of screenshots, so here you go. I’ve also submitted a poster to Ascilite on this so if you’re lucky you can come chat to me about it IRL too.

Splash page

Project team is myself, Steve Carruthers who I think only exists online in his photographer form, Iain Mackay and Ivan Thornton who I am not sure exists online at all.

Badge literacy: a field guide

Following on in my thinking about badges, Colin’s comment re: badge literacy on my last post deserves some exploration. Little graphics that you stick on some website somewhere are a hard sell to a university, because:

1. Boy Scouts. The actual concept is identical and the niche for this type of credential is identical but the association of nine year olds in funny hats sewing patches on their shirts is not doing us any favours.

2. Gamification. The idea that you can bribe students to do things with cutesy digital carrots is also not doing us any favours.

3. Related: academics are generally allergic to anything that is not dripping with rigour.

4. The buzzword bingo keynoter set who like to simultaneously hype and fearmonger badges under the guise of ‘future’.

5. Anything that involves new technology generally sounds bad, because generally universities have a history of implementing new technology badly.

In short, badges suffer more than their fair share of bad press. And as such, the idea that “badges have the potential to support by surfacing the less-obvious learning that is often hidden due to the focus on grades and transcripts” sounds fairly implausible.

So how do we sell it? In my completely anecdotal experience, people generally fall into three camps regarding badges – the Boy Scout set, the fence sitter set and the gamification set; dismissal, ambivalence or poor fit for use. Which tends to be a recursive loop of doom; the more the Boy Scout set see flippant, gamified use of badges, the more they are dismissed as trivial and gimmicky and the more ambivalent the fence sitters become.

All of these groups have somewhat disparate needs in regards to raising badge literacy; here is my quick and dirty field guide.

Badge literacy for Boy Scouters

Clearly identified use cases

Clear identification of the niche that badges fill and the current problems exist that badge implementation may help solve

Badge graphics that look ‘serious’

A badge that looks cutesy or gimmicky or uses poor graphic design will only damage perception of badges further

Scholarly evidence

Evidence to support the notion that badges and microcredentialling are not passing fads and executive whimsy. Actual policy a bonus.

Concrete examples (either theoretical or best practice from other institutions)

Demonstration of the process in practice, ideally from someone who has already done it because people like the word ‘leading’ in theory but in practice nobody wants to be the first institution to do crazy things.

Badge literacy for Gamifiers

Clearly identified use cases

Clear identification of the niche that badges fill and the current problems exist that badge implementation may help solve, as separate from superficial learner engagement and motivation

Emphasis on ‘big picture’ (professional portfolio usage, context, durability etc)

Awareness of where badges sit as part of an individual’s overall portfolio and knowledge of the intended audiences to put individual badges in context

Reputational awareness

Awareness of the implications of public-facing badges and how media and research coverage of badge use will reflect on them and their institution

Alternate strategies for motivating learners

Since an already-identified need for learner motivation exists, this group needs alternate strategies to address this need that do not require the use of badges

Badge literacy for Fence Sitters

Clearly identified use cases

Clear identification of the niche that badges fill and the current problems exist that badge implementation may help solve

Assurance of technical stability and ease of use

People get very tired very quickly of yet another system that’s going to be hard to use, break a lot, and probably be superseded in a couple of years.

Compelling arguments

Mostly a combination of items from the previous two groups. Shiny powerpoints optional.

Obviously this is by no means exhaustive, but it’s something to chew on while sitting in red tape purgatory.

Implementing badges 1: adventures in drop shadows

I haven’t been particularly forthcoming about what I’ve been working on in the last year or so, because reasons. But since 2015 is the self-declared year of damn the man, here we are. What I’ve been working on recently is a proposal for the implementation of OpenBadges. Since Moodle now comes with a nice but rather full of implications little button to turn badges on, and since with great power comes great responsibility etc etc, it seems like somebody should be doing something about it. Turns out for here that that person is me.

Since in the recent past we have been burned by merrily jumping on buzzword bandwagons without a whole lot of consideration, badge implementation needed a bit of thought behind it. And while I’m generally a fan of the cowboy forgiveness not permission approach on an individual level, I tend to agree with the need to not go off half-cocked institutionally. And so, documentation. The proposal itself is fairly dry and written for a lay audience, but the key part of it of interest here is the development of a badge taxonomy.

Why a taxonomy, you say? Because if left to their own devices, people tend to jump straight to gamification and start using badges to entice students to participate in discussion forums. Which I have many feels about. Badges really have their niche in making the stuff that’s not visible, visible, not in adding bribery layers under the guise of gamifying. I’ve nutted this out a few times before, but TL;DR gamification bad, microcredentialling good. A taxonomy gives those who are none the wiser and those who read the gamification marketing guff and the ‘watch out universities badges will kill you’ hype something to work with to develop their own understanding of what badges can be and how they might work in their own context.

Since every good taxonomy must have an Office-style crime against visual design (and everyone needs a nice printable *thing* for their wall and it’s nicer to look at than the written taxonomy table), the following is what I’ve come up with.

OpenBadge taxonomy

A veritable cornucopia of drop shadows and gradients, and a very rough translation of Halavais’ genealogy of badges into usable higher education terms. The colour codes are a nod to @catspyjamasnz’s Moodle tool guide (getting rather vintage these days)  ‘good thing to do, not great thing to do unless you design it well, seriously don’t do that’ system. The guiding principle was essentially ‘what’s going to be relevant in a portfolio (backpack) for future employers etc?’. Nobody is going to care that you wrote 6 discussion forum posts in a literature unit 5 years ago – but people will care that you have demonstrated effective communication skills.

Staff use is only one side of the story. A significant issue with badges is one of their largest target demographics is students, who often to subscribe to the marketing hype and think of them as gimmicky, non-serious things more akin to the stickers kids get for good work (do they still get stickers? Is that still a thing?). How does one go about changing this perception? Student-facing taxonomy? Bludgeon? Cross our fingers and hope? I’ve learned from past projects that students don’t respond well to a service created for a need they don’t realise exists. Perhaps even harder to convince are the professional learning set, academics who decry anything perceived to lack rigour. Currently filed in the ‘deal with it later’ basket, given people want to start using badges now and not after the wicked problems have been solved.

Stay tuned for further adventures once we actually press the button and start using badges…

Games, gamification and why we can do better

I was asked to do an impromptu lunchtime session today on a topic of my choice, which I thought would be a timely opportunity to unpack a particular bugbear of mine. And because I do so love an overworked allegory, I’ll tell you a story.

People like cars. They buy them a lot and spend hours a day driving them everywhere. One day, Bill and Bob, who were refrigerator salesmen who had never driven a car, noticed that people seemed to like cars an awful lot and got a bit jealous of the success of the car industry. They thought if they made their refrigerators more like cars, people would like them more and buy more of them. Bill said to Bob ‘Gosh Bob, how can we make our refrigerators more like cars?’. Bob said to Bill ‘Well, Bill, it seems that cars have wheels. Maybe if we put wheels on our refrigerators they would be more like cars and people would love them’. So this is exactly what they did, and they spent a lot of time going to refrigerator conferences telling everyone about it and all the other refrigerator salesmen got excited and put wheels on their fridges too. Then everyone got all surprised when people did not actually want a refrigerator with wheels on it, and only bought a few of them for novelty value.

You get my point. Gamification – that novelty “engagement layer” of points and badges smacked on top of completely unchanged content and materials – fundamentally misses the point of what games do, why people play them and the benefits we get from them. Especially when implemented by people who have never played games. Going further and shoehorning content into level structures or game models is no better (in fact arguably worse). You cannot take traditional content, -ification it and voilá, engagement. Shameless bribery is not innovation. If we’re really serious about pulling the benefits of gaming into education we need to knock the playing field flat and rethink everything.

Take Angry Birds (I know I keep going on about Angry Birds, but it’s a good, solid, easily accessible example). When you first open it, you get this:

Angry Birds screenshot

What you do not get is a list of learning outcomes, a bunch of lecture notes and an assignment. They’re in there (learning outcome: able to utilise trajectory to inflict damage; lecture notes: help screen; assignment: destroy all pigs), but none of it is explicit and none of it is the primary goal of the design. When we use educational concepts as designing principles, we’re doing it wrong. Games design for one thing and one thing only – engagement. Rovio give not two hoots if you learn anything, they care if you keep buying and playing their games. Frankly, legislation and a culture of credentialing are the only reasons the education industry is even remotely competitive with the gaming industry in terms of dollars and seat time. Our obsession with counting and tracking learning shoots us in the foot when it comes to the type of engagement that games enjoy. I’m not saying that we should ignore the realities of the systems we’re working in, but we could be doing a lot better than just -ification with points and levels.

S0 – how can we do better? Put the edu stuff down for a minute. Start with – if you were taking your unit (course/class/MOOC/whatever), what’s the most interesting thing you can possibly imagine that you would want to do? What would make you want to engage and keep coming back? Go from there, and then once you get to the end, then you can ask – did I achieve all my learning outcomes? Explore a narrative. Give people a place to explore and find things rather than prescribing. Use badges if you want, but use them for humour or to encourage exploration, not to bribe people to log in, read articles or post in forums. Lots of other ramblings, ruminations and cases in point here.

And finally – Dinosaur Comics on the cars and gaming metaphor :D.


I just wanted to ask some people some questions

Yesterday I tweeted the following:

Screen Shot 2014-01-22 at 1.55.39 pm

I’m currently in the process of upgrading my masters to a PhD, the thesis of which is likely to be via publication of a series of case studies on projects. And the fact that ‘projects’ is plural means multiple ethics applications in order to collect data. The problem is that, because what I do is coming up with new education-related stuff, generally the only type of data collection I want to do is surveying people, interviews and/or social media data, all of which falls under the umbrella of ‘asking people what they think of things’. And because I only ever want to report the data anonymously, it’s about the lowest-level thing you can do while still requiring ethical clearance. But every single time I am still forced to wade through a form (which is arguably one of the world’s most poorly-designed) asking if I will be exposing people to ionising radiation, drugging people or researching on foetuses. Or perhaps even more amusingly, ‘keeping data in a locked filing cabinet’ – evidently they haven’t heard of the internet.

Generally I would rather have dental surgery than fill out an ethics application. I’m pretty sure I’m not alone in this. And it’s a problem. I do a lot of stuff, at least some of which is pretty cool, but I don’t publish traditional papers very often. The fact that I would have to wade through an ethics application yet again just to be able to ask people what they think of what I’m doing in order to write a paper about it is a significant barrier. Red-taping research into the ground is not conducive to innovation or proliferation.

So I’m proposing a certification system for those who work in low-risk humanities-type disciplines and predominantly want to conduct anonymous surveys – do an application once and get a green card for the remainder of your academic career. Then you’re free to go forth and innovate and get participant experience data whenever you need it, without having to explain for the 900th time that you are not going to be irradiating people.