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

Engagement layers vs microcredentialling

Further to my previous post, I’ve finally had some time to look more closely into openbadges integration. What I’m discovering is that from a WordPress point of view, badges are still largely thought of as an engagement layer – a somewhat superficial achievement set to motivate users to engage with your content. What gives this away is the fact that  the only automated award options across any of the plugins I’ve looked at (will try and do a comparison in another post given there’s not really anything around on that) is based on basic engagement actions like logging in or posting a comment (unless you’re running Buddypress Courseware – but I don’t, that’s naughty even for me :D). You aren’t able to automate awards triggered by any interaction deeper than that – for instance, posting a comment on a specific post. You still have the option for manual awarding of badges for whatever you like but if we want to tick the buzzword boxes like ‘scalable’ it’s not really a viable option. Now perhaps for the gamification set this is sufficient, for the purposes of trying to increase student engagement in a simple quantifiable sense (ie avoiding tumbleweeds), but if my goal is to use badges for microcredentialling professional development the available plugins (at least, the free ones) aren’t quite there yet.

Which leads me to the fact that I may have to eat my words, a little bit, because the implementation of openbadges in Moodle 2.5 is much more sophisticated in this regard, and I suspect this will be what draws me back to doing cool stuff in Moodle again. Because Moodle 2.x has a fairly good conditional release and activity completion set, the options for automated issuing of badges are much richer and more targeted. Badges in Moodle appear to be implemented specifically for microcredentialling, with engagement layers and gamification likely to be an afterthought that gets exploited, coming to a teaching and learning conference near you.

So why do I care about the difference? After all, aren’t I the person who gamified Moodle (sigh)? I have no interest in an arbitrary feature set that exists solely for the purposes of bribing people to participate with pretty coloured gifs. But – I have a real use for something that lets me track completion of a course or event and give some sort of recognition to people for that completion, given that we’re unable to offer “proper” credit points and we have a PD requirement for new staff. As @ghenrick points out, “if a resumé or CV is a bunch of claims, Open Badges are a bunch of evidence”. This is the real strength of openbadges, and it’s why you need a slightly richer feature set than just ‘log in and engage with my site in some way’. And this is where my appropriation rant falls down, because the non-edu world, being largely unconcerned with credentialling in general, just hasn’t quite got past the engagement layer with badges yet. I’m not quite sure where this leaves me given Coffeecourses is in WordPress and not really portable into Moodle, but I’ll stick a category on this train of thought and you can follow my progress.

Adventures in credentialling: OpenBadges, Open Badges and un-gamification

I have to admit that I have avoided OpenBadges until now, mostly through rightly or wrongly correlating them with gamification. I am not big on -ification of any kind but take particular issue with the addition of superficial motivation layers over unchanged, non-game-like content and the awarding of badges just for the hell of it (or under the guise of ‘engagement’). Which means I have mostly discounted the existence of OpenBadges.

Until now. Most of you are aware that for the last while I’ve been dabbling in wholly online delivery of professional development via Coffeecourses (which I realised to my dismay the other day is probably an accidental MOOC of sorts). However one sticking point with it has been the ability to track completion and offer credentialling. The use of e-commerce software means registration can be easily tracked, but so far completion has been an honesty system of sorts, given that commenting on each activity is optional. However a couple of weeks ago I read this post by @marksmithers, who is perhaps one of the few people around who is more skeptical than I am about things, which made me rethink my stance on OpenBadges and badges in general. Effectively they are a simple method of scalable and sustainable (in that they can be automated) micro-credentialling, and don’t necessarily have to have anything to do with gamification at all.

So – I’ve started to play. I’m investigating WPBadger, which integrates with OpenBadges, and BadgeOS, which lets you create open badges (which are not Mozilla badges) that are shared via Credly. With any luck this will allow me to award automated credentials for completing coffeecourses. Ultimately it would be excellent if one could collect such badges, and badges from other professional development, and aggregate them towards a ‘proper’ credential like a GCHE – but I suspect that’s crazy talk. At any rate, watch this space. Or more accurately, this space.

I’m on a boat! Oh wait. No I’m not. [or, why PD is a wasted opportunity]

It has recently come to my attention that those of us who work in professional development, particularly in schools and universities cf industry, are missing a rather large boat. A huge, glaring boat.

Generally if you are an educator in a university or school, you have a fairly extensive list of restrictions you are working with whenever you attempt to do something new and/or innovative with your teaching practice. You have both institutional and governmental red tape to comply with, administrative processes to follow, institutional structures, set content and/or assessment etc etc. Change is difficult to effect. There are many rogues and cowboys out there doing cool stuff regardless, but generally, as an industry education is far from agile and conducive to innovative practice.

But – professional development (as an entity in education) is almost entirely unregulated. Almost none of these restrictions apply to us when we are designing training and PD programs. And yet this is an almost universally wasted opportunity. We fill our PD programs with face to face workshops that are generally only a computer click or two away from a lecture. Powerpoint presentations. Paper handouts. We’re presented with a situation which perhaps more than any other scenario in education facilitates truly innovative design, and we’re dropping the ball rather badly.

Now I am aware this is partially a market demand thing. Most people who are the consumers of professional development have the workshop model as their primary concept and this tends to be the expected and requested model. But – somebody has to start changing the status quo somewhere. We should be taking advantage of this opportunity to start a trickle of creative thinking, innovative practice and cool stuff, not biding our time with the same old. Coffeecourses was kind of a nod in this direction on my part, but we still have a long way to go.

Now excuse me while I go write a conference presentation on this. I’ll make sure you all get a printout of my slides.

Six months of Coffeecourses

As most of you will be aware my PD project for this year was Coffeecourses – a completely different design to the standard workshop model of professional development. It’s been running for about six months now and I thought it was about time to take stock on it.

So. Stuff I like about it:

  • It’s completely open and anyone can come do stuff
  • Anyone can do whatever bits they like whenever they like
  • It’s not in an LMS

Stuff I don’t like about it:

  • I generate all the content. Really struggling with this aspect.
  • Content gets pushed at people (so it’s RSS instead of ‘unit materials’. I’m not convinced I’m doing anything different here)
  • It’s too hands-off – while I didn’t want to restrict or dictate how people participated, I think too much freedom in this regard has resulted in a few tumbleweeds
  • I’ve fallen into the trap of ‘topics to fix what I think is wrong around the place’ and ‘topics I think people want’ rather than ‘topics that might actually challenge people’ – content has really been a bit safe

I know that everyone got quite excited about it initially and I still like that I’ve done something that gets away from the standard workshop model, but these last few points for me I think are deal-breakers. A conversation with @s_palm and @daveowhite the other night about old wine in new bottles (which was about moocs but the principles still stand) rings a little too loudly here – have I really done something all that different? The format has changed, but is it really just talking at people in a chunked-up, asynchronous, RSS-delivered open way instead of in a room with a slide deck?

The choice I have now is whether I keep it going and tweak it, or scrap it and start designing something completely different (which, tbh, I am already doing in the back of my head). Thoughts?

Hey, got any grapes?

Although I’ve talked about the follies of demand-driven education before (here and here), I’ve yet to approach it from the point of view of professional learning or professional development. Which seems rather an oversight, really, given my current line of work.

We (meaning a central learning & teaching division) are currently undergoing a review process, and one of the things that arose out of the report was the need to realign ourselves as a ‘service’ division to service staff professional development needs more fully. Now, I have no problem with the idea that our job is to serve and assist teaching staff – where we run into problems is when we start considering which stakeholder (ie us or them) is going to be driving this process.

It’s not particularly often you find an apt metaphor in an irritating viral video, but today is one of those days and I’m only going to apologise a little bit for what I’m about to do*.


Let’s take ‘us’ (and while anyone in central learning & teaching centres will recognise this quite explicitly anyone in any line of edu will be able to extrapolate) as the lemonade vendor. We spend a lot of time designing and making lemonade. We think the lemonade is pretty awesome, and feel reasonably justified in this since we try and stay on top of bleeding-edge practice and know what current really innovative practice is starting to look like. We go out to sell the lemonade to people because we’re thinking it could do some cool things to reinvent student learning.

So we set up our stand, but the first customer comes along and asks if we’ve got any grapes. Grapes? Huh? Oh well. Even if they think they want some grapes we’re selling lemonade so we try and convince them that lemonade is a really good option and they should have that instead. No dice.

The next day the customer is back, still looking for grapes. It’s a bit annoying really, because we clearly sell lemonade. Lemonade that is awesome. We know this because we’ve even taken our lemonade to conferences and a bunch of people have gotten really excited  about it and have been asking for our recipe. But this guy still wants grapes.

A few more repeats of this and we start to get really annoyed (I won’t lie, I have wanted to glue the odd person to a tree). Eventually we get so irritated we give in and go and buy some grapes especially for the customer since they want grapes so badly.

Which is fine – until the customer goes to, say, a keynote or reads something in Campus Review about how awesome lemonade is and how lemonade is the future of education. And we’re standing there with our box of grapes while the customer is asking us for lemonade.

Now that I’ve done the metaphor to death, it’s fairly clear that there are some significant issues with both models. From one end, if ‘we’ are designing professional development programs (based on things like research), we run the risk of selling something that nobody wants to buy (and thus the perception that we aren’t actually selling anything at all). But if we are designing PD based on market demand – on what ‘they’ want (based on things like practicality and perceived need) – we run the risk of never innovating or changing at all (until somebody catches a buzzword in the media).

How do we resolve it? Obviously some kind of synergy is desirable so we’re working together in an organic process. Yet this always sticks in the back of my mind:

If you’re not familiar with the episode, Homer’s long-lost half-brother runs a car company and enlists Homer to design a car that the people will want, based on features the ‘average American’ wishes they had in a car. Which of course is a giant flop and ruins the company because it does none of the things an effective car should do.

How do we embrace expertise and innovative practice while still balancing the ability to fill perceived need? As in all aspects of edu I don’t think there is value in resorting to a completely demand-driven model – and yet, we lose all our value if all we do is doggedly stand here and sell lemonade.


*If you really can’t cope with the duck video, this paper is essentially making the same argument.

Coffeecourses are go!

A couple of weeks ago I wrote a post on my thought processes around building a completely different PD model. This week, it’s a reality. The site is built and ready to be used. And the part that pleases me most is that you lot can all play too.

To describe what exactly Coffeecourses are, I’ll just quote myself:

‘a kludgy hybrid of Codecademy-style feed-based courses, games-based/task-based learning a la The Moodle Dailies (which is offered as part of the project) and online shopping sites’

It’s basically an anytime, anywhere, anyone model. No lecture-tantamount workshops, no ‘click here and do this’, no ‘groupwork’, no requirements. I finally feel like I’m doing something that jibes with my approach to edu rather than being all punk online and then turning around and selling out and giving trad-delivery workshops because it’s what people keep asking for. It was essentially zero-cost to create (only cost is paying $20/mo hosting just to make it nil demand for central IT support) and, with the exception of the Moodle Dailies, is completely open and anyone from anywhere can sign up.

If you’ve got a few minutes, take a look – would love feedback:

You’re all welcome to sign up if one of the courses tickles your fancy (none particularly revolutionary but some were requests from colleagues and seem important ‘small steps’ for those just starting to get their feet wet). The subscription courses all kick off on Monday so if you like your content served a la Codecademy you’ll need to do the Feedburner thing before then, otherwise just wait and watch and play with it afterwards.

Building out-of-the-box PD models – some behind-the-scenes thinking

Most of you are probably aware that part of my job involves running training and professional development for lecturers. For the last few years, just like everywhere else on earth, this has meant running workshops.  And for the last few years I have been banging my head against the metaphoric wall because workshops are very, very broken. I’ve said before that geography and time are very poor criteria for just about anything, and workshops are a case in point. Those of you who’ve ever been involved in giving or taking PD know that there are a whole host of other reasons workshops are broken, which I won’t go into because it’s not really the point of this post and I’m probably preaching to the choir anyway. However, the nature of demand-driven systems and status-quo concepts mean that workshops are the expected form of PD delivery and doing anything different is a long, hard sell. Hence why we and everyone else have adhered to this model for so long. But. One can only deal with not doing anything about it for so long, so, long story short, this year, I’ve said ‘enough’. I’m not running workshops. Which opened up a nice array of possibilities of what one might do instead (and which happens to be the answer to the question ‘what would I do as part of the University of Awesome?’).

What I’m exploring is the idea of a kludgy hybrid of Codecademy-style feed-based courses, games-based/task-based learning a la The Moodle Dailies (which is offered as part of the project) and online shopping sites. The working title is ‘Coffeecourses’ – the idea being that, instead of having to get to a workshop in a given place at a given time and then remember everything that was covered, the courses are run as a series of short (c. 10 min) tasks that you can complete anywhere, any time, over a cup of coffee. Tasks are fed out via RSS so whenever there’s a new task it lands in your inbox or feed reader (although anyone is free to grab any or all of the course content in retrospect via the site itself). All of this is being built in self-hosted WordPress – slightly naughty of me, but Moodle just can’t cope with this model of delivery. [EDIT: I’m reminded here of @jimgroom‘s post here and must credit @macalba for being an excellent sysadmin & tolerator of my edupunkness]

The online shopping component fits in to the picture via the registration system. For a long time I’ve been fascinated by the idea of a course catalogue run as an online store using a shopping cart. It allows for nice possibilities like crowd-sourced course choosing (‘students who bought this course also bought…’) and bundling (‘purchase these three commonly purchased courses as a bundle…’), easy registration (email, credit card, done), tracking (both from institution and student end) and so on. It has the added bonus of, since online shopping is so ubiquitous, bucketloads of purpose-developed sites, plugins and addons that are all well-maintained and properly coded. Now, while this idea has Buckley’s of being adopted by universities any time soon, internal staff PD is an ideal test case for exploring this kind of model. I’ve been using the e-Commerce WP plugin, which, with a bit of hacky fiddling, has worked out nicely. Courses are listed as ‘products’, which staff can add to a cart, complete a simple checkout process to register, then get subscription instructions as a ‘digital download’.

I won’t lie, it’s going to be a hard sell to convince people this model of PD has merit. Certainly it addresses the concerns most people have about getting to and recalling content from workshops, but it has a high level of self-directedness, and we are in the somewhat ironic position of being a major distance ed provider where many (most?) staff still do not accept online learning as a model for their own learning. It’s a battle we desperately need to have, though, so I’m willing to jump in and annoy a few people for the sake of really starting to change people’s perceptions on this. In my favour is the fact that my partner in crime, @stuffy65, is offering a webinar-based model of online PD, which still has some of the benefits above without completely blowing everyone’s minds so it’s a good complementary strand that functions as a conceptual intermediary.

So – feedback. Nuts or sheer genius? What’s this kind of model missing? What’s it doing well? Would you take this kind of course in preference to a F2F workshop if you had the option?