Why you should join a Union – for your sake and the sake of your students

Slight change from the normal Technology Enhanced Learning stuff as I am currently on strike (as is most of Higher Education in the UK).

I thought I would talk about why education staff should join a union and use the current pension dispute as an example to support my case.


Striking is the last option available to employees, for most disputes an agreement is determined between the Employers and the Union way before strikes are called.  Most disputes are either about pay rises (each year a pay rise is negotiated – Unions normally want more than inflation, Employers normally want less than inflation), changes to terms and conditions or in response to mass redundancies.

Current situation

In the UK we currently have a large pension dispute where changes to the terms of the pensions will see most staff losing around £10k per year from their pensions (others have covered this in lots of detail).  As you might expect this was a big concern for staff and after the employers refused to change their position the UCU (our Union) asked staff if they would strike to try to retain the pension – staff voted overwhelmingly to strike and so 15 days strike were called.

Once the strike started the Employers (through their representatives UUK) rapidly decided to negotiate and made an improved offer (staff would only lose about £5K per year from their pensions).  When the Union shared this offer with the employees we rejected this offer and continued the strike.

There is now a pause in the strike – with another 15days strike that will be scheduled soon.  This will allow UUK and UCU to continue negotiations and hopefully come up with a better offer that employees will accept.  Ideally this will be done before any more striking is required and then those can just be cancelled.

Where you come in

If you work in HE and are not already part of the union you should join the union now.

Why – because each person that joins the Union makes the Unions voice stronger and so make it more likely they will win and makes it more likely they will improve their offer.  (Employers know how many of their staff are in the Union and some of their changing attitude can be linked directly with the surge in Union membership in the lead up to the strike)

This provides the following benefits

  1. You will be much more likely to keep all or most of your pension
  2. It will be much more likely that the second wave of strikes will not be needed which means
    1. Your colleagues who have already given up over £1000 striking to protect their (and your) pensions will not lose another £1000+ in lost wages.
    2. Students will not lose another 15 days of teaching
  3. If it does come to the second wave of strikes then you can join us on the pickets (which is quite good fun) and larger pickets tend to mean shorter strikes.  You can just do a day or 2 if you cant manage more.
  4. With the vast increase in Union numbers the employers might offer us a half decent pay rise this year.

Union membership is not particularly expensive (https://www.ucu.org.uk/subscriptions)and will cost less over a 40 year career than you stand to lose from a single years pension.



Assessment at Blackboard Europe

I recently gave a presentation with my colleague Roger Gardner at the annual Blackboard conference – session blurb and slides are below

This session explores work implemented over several years at the University of Bristol to develop a scalable workflow for coursework assessment and feedback online.

The workflow combines technical and pedagogic planning to support lasting cultural change.  This uses Blackboard packages, which can also support consistent provision of other activities across multiple courses.

This work was done to address key challenges in this area, including:

-meeting complex requirements in a consistent way

-needing a standard approach which is scalable across multiple courses

-ownership of the process by Schools to ensure sustainability

-easily updating content across many courses with minimum editing


Session covers policy, pedagogic approaches, engaging academic & administrative leads, and the process

The best (virtual) learning environment

Educators find that providing a varied educational experience is better for student attention, the idea of students having differing “learning styles” has been with us for a while (although it is contested theory and its worth looking at the research before making decisions).

Most would say that varying the learning method and the learning environment (class, labwork, fieldtrips) improve the learning experience.  However when it comes to the online world we are often persuaded by the convenience of having all our students automatically added to limit our environment to the VLE and when we need more functions to add tools to the VLE.  Indeed some institutions reinforce this either by policy (you can only use approved tools) or by funding (only approved tools have training and support).

Now all 3 of those are good reasons for using the VLE, – you and your students are automatically added and can find it easily, you are not going to accidentally break any rules (mainly data protection laws – something Universities should and do take very seriously) and if something does go wrong then there are people who know the system who can help you.

There are also good reasons for looking beyond the VLE, the online world is moving faster and if a new cloud tool does appear will probably be 2-3 years before you see it in your VLE on your campus (assuming development cycles and upgrades – there are faster ways for example you can use LTI (Learning Tools Interoperability) to plug tools into your VLE and this can be done with a couple of weeks testing) also VLEs tend to suffer from having to be all things to all people so the tool list grows making it harder to find the things you want. Continue reading


At the start of the year I read this Guardian article calling for politicians to trust teachers, and it set me thinking about trust in education.  Then yesterday I saw this which shows just how bad it can get when you don’t trust your teachers/staff.

So what would an Education system based on trust look like and how would it be different to what we currently have?

creative commons licensed ( BY-ND ) flickr photo shared by Andrew E. Larsen

Continue reading

Reading lists, videos and statistics

Sometimes its not the big educational ideas but more just getting things done.

So this week I have been mostly…

Reading lists

A nice little project to encourage academic staff to submit their reading list to a central point so that library staff can ensure that the libraries have appropriate book stocks in place.  Currently there are a number of different ways that different areas communicate to the libraries (and I am assuming of differing effectiveness).  In the long term the central reading lists will be held on a dedicated reading list system, but during the transition I am using Blackboard & Google to design as simple a process as possible for staff to upload their reading lists (and librarians to check them).  The selling point for staff is that if they upload their list not only does it get checked by the librarians but it also magically appears in their next years Blackboard course.

Functional prototype up and running pretty will come later.


Our lecture capture project moves onward, this week we were looking at the data to connect the differing systems (VLE, Media Server, Timetabling).  This will allow a event in timetabling to trigger a recording in the media server which will be placed in the appropriate VLE course.  Sounds easy but every system has its quirks and workarounds.  Still it was a useful discussion and a lot of the problems seem solvable.


Number and use of eReserve scans by department, how heavily used have our new “Student Course Rep” spaces been and what has been happening with a “Support Forum” project.  Writing the SQL, messing about with pivot charts and getting some pretty graphs.  A pleasant morning and the results should help inform the direction of a few projects.

And I also had a days staff development looking at blended learning which was really good.

Good research – poor conclusions

Recently there have been a number of research papers and articles looking at the affects of using laptops in a lecture setting




And there has been a lot of online discussion about them (this G+ post encouraged me to complete my blog entry  )

Now the research itself is good and can be summarised as
If you are sitting taking notes while someone talks at you with slides

  • on average students using laptops to take notes will retain less than students who take notes on paper
  • Students who use their laptop for something else during the lecture will retain less and on average the students around them will also retain less (distracted by what they see on your screen)

The problem is not the research but what people decide to do because of it, they take a deep breath and (often reluctantly) decide they have to ban laptops in their classroom.  Often these people are not luddites (the most famous example was Clay Shirkey who I deeply respect but in this case I feel made the wrong decision)

Some suggestions are more helpful and start to look at considering how you might make the device more useful and less of a distraction


I made a suggestion on social media that a simple solution is to record the lectures so that they are not a one time event and so students that do become distracted can revisit and notes can be written at a time and place that suits them.  Its not a bad solution but it is treating the symptoms not the cause.

So lets look in more detail at the lecture, this is a tried and trusted method for getting information from the mind of someone who knows it (the lecturer) into the minds of someone(s) who dont (the students), they tend to be multiples of an hour (or 1/2 hour) long because that makes it easier to timetable, the students sit in rows with a teacher at the front because that is the physical layout of the room.

An alternative to the lecture was the book but it is unlikely to contain exactly what you wish to teach the students and it was not cost effective for each individual member of staff to write and publish a book for each of their classes.

But now we are in the internet age and things change.  There are now multiple easily accessible sources for information, lecturers can curate it (or get their students to curate it) or create it (text, video, infographics etc).  The valuable face to face time can be used for something that doesn’t require students to pay attention for an hour (interestingly I thought our attention span was 15 minutes – I was wrong and found some nice ideas about what you can do to help)

Lets flip the class, do the problems, discussions, thinking when all the smart people are in the same room.  The content transmission can be before the class when everyone gets as long (or as short) as they need to absorb it.  Sure you might still talk at the students in the lecture theatre but it will be in shorter bursts as part of a varied experience. That hour long long lecture performance? it wont vanish but should become a rare occurrence and when it does happen it should be so good that all of your students hang on every word.

Do I think the lecture is dead?  No, a lot of institutions have Lecturers that teach in lecture theatres, and on the timetable it says “lecture” – there is a lot of inertia to overcome.  Also there will always be a place for the occasional lecture (have a look at these http://www.rigb.org/christmas-lectures )  but I do think there will be a move away from them although it may take 5-10 years for them to become rare.

And to round up – its not just laptops see this post for an idea on the effects of smartphones and some sensible advice on what to do about it http://tomwhitby.wordpress.com/2012/03/30/cellphones-are-a-distraction/

And of course its only a matter of time before we start to get the first “Wearables are a distraction from lectures” articles – unless we do something about…… the Lectures.

creative commons licensed ( BY-NC-SA ) flickr photo shared by Tadeeej

Why Digital Assessment will kill the percentage grade

A number of academics are not particularly happy with grading – I don’t mean that they don’t like marking essays (although there are some who don’t) but that they are unhappy about the effects of assigning grades to students.

creative commons licensed ( BY-NC ) flickr photo shared by mikefisher821

This is not a new thing, for a detailed look at the problem try Alfie Khon or for a shorter discussion this from the Huffington post

Now for grades to have become so central to our education they must have some value to people both to schools and to students.  Internally it allows Teachers to know roughly what someone was capable of (oh they are an A grade student I will set them some harder problems etc).  Externally I would assume this has to do with employment, the employer wants some evidence that the person has the skills for the job and the students want evidence to enable them to get the job.

This is because in the past it wasn’t possible to see what students were good or bad at, you couldnt look over their essays and projects, in the digital age we can do better!

Portfolio of evidence

Now when I was at school they made us keep a “Record of Achievement” in a black folder, a paragraph a term on how we had done in various subjects, signed and commented by our teachers.  I took mine to my first job interview, but they didn’t look at it because they didn’t have time and I was sat right in front of them.  I needed some way to get the portfolio to them at the application stage – but I only had a single paper copy.

Recently I had a job interview and when I was writing the application and evidencing how I met all their criteria, I found that for a number of them I had already written blog posts that related to it – so I started including links to those posts in the document.  I certainly hadn’t intended my blog to be used in job applications, it was just a place for me to think in public, but after a couple of years of writing it contains some useful (to me at least) stuff.

So if I can start to create a portfolio of evidence almost by accident when posting in my spare time to my blog, how much easier would it be for students to assemble this if it was part of their studies?  A good example of this would be if you were doing a writing class with Laura Gibbs, at the end of the class you will have a collection of your writing publicly available on the web, which is used as evidence of your learning.

This is also good for involving others with your work for example Joe Blower “told parents that if they wanted to know..how they are doing, then they should visit their child’s blog.

And to give you an idea of what this can look like try this from one of Laura Gibbs students on her writing class https://sites.google.com/site/planetofthecatssh/home  what percentage did she get? I dont know or really care – what I do know is I thought the writing was good.

There is international work in this area this brief review of a conference/workshop will provide you with some idea of what is happening http://halfanhour.blogspot.co.uk/2014/12/eportfolios-and-badges-workshop-oeb14.html

When someone wants to know what you can do they look at your work, when you want to prove you can do something you would provide examples of that work – tagging will probably become quite important.


Badges work really well with portfolios, they are a simple way of proving that you can do something. Doug Belshaw provides some useful analogies and an overview of how they work.  In essence they are a quick way of indicating what you can do, linked to examples of work that you did in this areas and showing who awarded you the badge.

Just like with the portfolios these will be used to match what you can do with what people want you to be able to do and you can also use it to fill in gaps in your skills. Example – the job says time management is important, what courses are available online that give a time management badge.

Social/Reputational metrics (Whuffie)

When applying for a job you give a couple of people who can provide a reference, recently people have started posting references on each others linked in profiles and endorse their skills.  On social networks we +1 follow and share things people have posted.

What if all the work we did had comment boxes, and people who commented it linked back to who they were (example – most of my commenting comes from my google+ account so people can if they wish see how much weight they would like to give to my opinion)

Evidence from your teacher (and this is a brilliant example of how teachers can gather that evidence using tech) – without grades, just saying what you did well and what they like about your work.

Evidence from other students, your co-workers your boss, your neighbourhood gardening scheme.

Each time you do something it ends up in your portfolio and the people that you (worked with/did it for/trained with) can comment and endorse it raising your reputation.

Closing thoughts

Now a lot of people get hung up on what you should use to host this portfolio and what happens to it in the future.  Now the thing you are using to evidence your experience may stop being hosted, and you may lose some work/evidence but if you don’t evidence your learning somewhere then you are effectively losing everything as soon as you have done it.  So I would suggest just choose something and start! (I like wordpress).

The only thing that is important is that students should own their portfolios/badges/reputation!  Dont lock their work inside an institutional system that they cant access once they have finished studying at your organisation.

In conclusion which would you say is best

“Here is a link to all the work I have done that is relevant for this post, grouped by qualification and badges around the areas you specified as important complete with comments from my teachers, colleagues and other experts I have worked with in these areas”

“I got 87% in a subject with a title that sounds like it fits your job”

Oh and finally this video – because it fits