Tag Archives: UHI

Lessons from Lockdown


Albert Einstein is quoted as saying, “A day without learning is a day wasted” so today I have tried to draw some lessons from the strange circumstances that we now find ourselves in. As I look to pass my 100th day in lockdown and working from home, there are five strong messages that have become apparent to me.

Continuity of work

Although my work has a different dynamic these days, it has continued relatively smoothly in my new office environment at home. Much of my work was already in the online environment, with email communications, videoconference meetings, and discussing web-based resources with distance-learners. In this new situation, I am aware that I have been luckier than many others, but I am also aware that lots of my regular work colleagues are in a similar position to me. We have swapped the financial and time costs of commuting to work with the extra costs and time spent at home. We may miss interaction in the same physical space, but there have been some amazing and innovative ‘workarounds’ that have brought some groups closer together, extended networks, and enabled a ‘new normal’ form of work to continue with scarcely a blip.

The global shift to online

After a faltering start, it has been impressive how many individuals, businesses, organisations, and services have quite comfortably shifted their activities into the online environment. In addition to my work with the university, I have been impressed by my recent personal experiences in interacting with the HNS, with Third Sector voluntary organisations, and with retail shops and outlets that previously did very little, if anything, using the online environment. Even the government is having its fling with business-as-usual-at-a-distance. Some would no doubt never have made such a move unless they had been forced into it, but many have discovered that there are real benefits to working online, including greater geographical inclusion, cost-saving in travel requirements, asynchronous viewing of missed meetings, and so on. How many of these newly realised benefits will continue to be pursued after lockdown ends and some sort of pre-COVID19 reality returns remains to be seen?

A fortunate space

In the offline world, there are also revelations. A rural environment, in particular, the Isle of Lewis, (and even my specific village) has long been my preferred bastion of retreat. The necessary restrictions of social distancing and locked-down premises, has brought into sharp focus the many benefits of living in a beautiful, safe, and spacious personal location. If I have to withdraw temporarily from the world and ‘self-isolate’, I cannot think of anywhere that I would prefer than precisely where I am now. I realise, of course, that a great many people do not have that option, and I wonder to what extent this realisation, in combination with the previous point on shifting possibilities for distance-working, will mean that we might see a renaissance in thinking about rural areas as ‘the place to be’ once things eventually begin to settle down. Certainly, the flight of some urbanites to the safety of their rural homes might be a sign of things to come. The rural idyll is dead, long live the rural idyll.

The intensity of connectivity

Nevertheless, despite all of the benefits of being able to buy online, work online, communicate online, and more or less continue life with some veneer of normality (whatever that was) there are gains and losses in the current iteration of normality. Although I am accustomed, indeed habituated, to email communications and videoconference discussions, the present emphasis on these options and these options only, can take its toll. I am fortunate to have a distinct study-place, but its proximity to the bedroom, kitchen, garden, and the croft outside, means that I need to be more disciplined and more regulated in my distinction between work and play. This is difficult for a person whose job is interesting and whose idea of fun is what they are already paid to do for a living. As the lockdown continues, I see growing frustration and (say it gently, but say it) mental health issues in some of my colleagues. Across a table, there is some physical distancing, but when the computer screen is barely 30cm from you, the person on the video-link ranting on their personal soapbox is literally in your face. The interconnectivity of the internet, despite it now becoming recognised as a great leveler and all-encompassing source of information (not all good), means that whenever I end a meeting, somebody, somewhere else, knows that I am ‘free’ and seeks to make contact. A strict self-policing of my ‘availability’ needs to be implemented!

The darker side of social media

Despite being an enthusiastic, (no, that’s not correct) an atavistic user of succinct social messaging (i.e. Twitter) I have recently experienced, much to my surprise, (after 40 years of online activity) some of the unsavory aspects of ubiquitous online accessibility. My simple response to an incorrect post led (with frightening alacrity) to a spate of online messages pointing out the error of my ways. It didn’t matter that the (perhaps, positively intentioned) people posting those messages know nothing about me, or that they obviously had only read part of the (very short) post. Undoubtedly there were some naïve comments and some genuine misunderstandings that would normally have been speedily resolved, but there were also some pretty nasty Trolls. The frustration of not being able to set the record straight, the disinclination to throw oil on the fire by responding, and an almost physical revulsion to some of the posts, was a strange combination. I can truly empathise with people who have been the subject of online abuse, false accusations, and spiteful comments. Subsequently, a subject expert (unknown to me) wrote a post to substantiate my original point, but the damage had been done. Now reaching for my mobile phone has a hesitancy that was not present previously when I went to check-up on comments from my friends and colleagues. Do I block these Trolls? No, for the present I simply ignore them, for I am very comfortable in my own skin and among those who actually know me. It has, however, presented a distasteful glimpse of the future online that is every bit as unacceptable as racism, misogyny, civic violence, sectarian bigotry, and the fascist intolerance of political diversity.

Welcome to the new normality.

The digital polymath


So, here is an idea.

I have written in other places about the benefits of using online communications for education, so I will not rehash that here. Initially, I began my online journey by seeking ways to offer high-quality education and supervision to learners in rural areas, because I firmly believe that many learners (especially mature students who have jobs and family) do not want (or are unable) to remove themselves to the city simply because that’s where the education is provided. In addition, it can also cause a dislocation between people and places that perpetuates the myth of ‘city = buzz: rural = sleepy’.

There has been a steady growth in the delivery of online education, whether through dedicated chat spaces and/or videoconference facilities, and there has been a massive leap in adoption by a whole range of organisations and individuals since the COVID-19 lockdown. As colleagues across the UHI have responded to the difficulties of the lockdown in various ways – social interaction with online quiz nights, intellectual satisfaction through open online seminars extending across modules and disciples – there is a real sensation that (in that overused phrase) we are seeing a paradigm shift. This is literally a fundamental change in approach from previous assumptions and practices. No-one is in any doubt that at least some of the current shift of education online will revert back to face-to-face contact once it is safe to do so, but returning to face-to-face need not necessarily mean the abandonment of the benefits of digital education.

So, let’s take this a stage further.

For similar reasons to those that initiated the great clubs and learned societies of the Enlightenment, when people of all sorts came together to share a joint passion for science, or literature, or simply for exploration, there is an opportunity now to extend the frontiers of knowledge networking.

My idea is simply this, that an opportunity can be managed through the university networking systems to bring together online a small group to share perspectives that are intellectually and academically challenging. I do not mean simply listening to the delivery of seminars or lectures, stimulating though these can be. The intention would be to invite a short (ten minute?) presentation by one participant, to which is then added to, challenged, refuted by other participants in a round-table discussion. The events would need to be carefully moderated in order to avoid online rants and allowing everyone the opportunity to contribute, but within these flexible guidelines, there need be no barriers to disciplinary engagement or geographical affiliation. This would be available as a resource for open education. In the online environment, it is as easy to bring in external guests, research students, and colleagues from other institutions and organisations as it is to network within the university. In fact, given the costs, difficulties, commitments that are required to bring people to a face-to-face round-table (not to mention the carbon footprint) the online gatherings have a great deal to commend themselves.

Those gatherings might coalesce around a blog post (there is an excellent example set by The Edge blog at https://idruhi.wordpress.com/ ) and they might record the core presentations to create an open-access archive of clips for subsequence reference and reuse. Unlike a standard archive, these recordings could be made available as a continuously broadcasted stream, as well as being available by click-on-demand. There are possible difficulties, of course, and it is it more difficult to apply the Chatham House rule of confidentiality when digital records can be disseminated globally at just the click of a mouse, but with trust and professionalism these need not be insurmountable barriers.

The idea of participating in an online academic coffee house, with the flexibility of not needing to leave the home office, is an intriguing idea, and possibly a good deal more interesting than most of what is on television these evenings.

To travel or not…

To travel or not...

Last week I spent a few days in Northern Ireland. Or, to be accurate, I spent a whole day getting there, a whole day getting back, and a day at a conference in Fermanagh. Considering that my own presentation was 15 minutes long, it is highly questionable the value of my effort. There were no questions after any of the presentations, and though I got several comments and connections in the coffee-break, and over dinner, there was nothing that I couldn’t have answered equally easily by email. So why did I not do the presentation by videoconference? Or even via a pre-recorded DVD? To be honest, it would have been a lot easier, and just as useful – except that many/most organisations are not really geared up to handle vc. In the UHI we are spoiled by the ease and frequency of use, but this is the exception. There is still an unfamiliarity, both in terms of technical competence and etiquette, among organisations that network. They should know better. It is a traditional activity of academics to attend conference, to share ideas and to network, but unfortunately there is usually a better quality of networking in the bar, the cafe, and the meal-times than in most conference sessions. I like travel, in general, but I am getting MUCH more cynical about the value and efficiency of most academic conferences.

Faculty Conference

At the end of the week, we had a couple of days for a faculty conference. Since the UHI activities are scattered around 13 academic partners (colleges and research centres) across a huge area of northern Scotland, we don’t get together face-to-face very often. This was a great event. In this image, our Acting Principal is giving us his vision of the immediate future of the university – unlike a lot of “corporate speak” he made a lot of sense. I particularly liked his encouragement to ‘think the unthinkable’ and embrace the new challenges of digital, networked education. In many ways the UHI is at the forefront of good practice – not just good theory, but actually walking the talk – but the world is not standing still. We need to seriously think how we can improve the consistency and the innovation in what we do – and to realise that standing still is not an option. When we embrace the future, we need to make sure that we influence the direction of travel, not get dragged along by the current. Fortunately there are a few good people who don’t mind sticking their head above the parapet and just get on with things. There were some really good conversations at this conference – now we just need to put some of the better ideas into practice.

The open wave

The open wave

I have been working on pulling together a module that I am calling “Digital literacy and open education”. It is based on the principle that an educator needs to be able to identify, navigate, and make sense of the wide diversity of digital resources in order to communicate their ideas – and where better to start than through these digital resources themselves? I am trying to select appropriate resources from the web, and only to create new learning resources when I can’t find anything exactly suitable. So far it is going really well. I am basing the main texts on a couple of online books on e-learning and digital scholarship – one my myself, and the other by Martin Weller (see the Ed Techie blog in the bottom left-hand corner). When I have completed the module design and set it all out in Blackboard, I will have it peer-reviewed by my colleagues, and then I want to open a “mirror” version on the open web. I’ll let you know of my progress! 🙂

Christmas Lecture

Christmas Lecture

Although I didn’t manage to get to the Christmas lecture by the outgoing UHI Principal, James Fraser, I read through the text of his talk. As a whole, I liked the general thrust of his talk (the future of universities in the 21st century) and I agreed with his call to embrace institutional change. I found lots to challenge in the detail, however, such as his upbeat comments on MOOCS while lumping as “blended learning” all of the other different pedagogic styles that the UHI employs. It would have been good to have followed this up with a debate, or at least a question and answer session – hopefully those of us who are not retiring this year will be able to roll up our sleeves and address the contested details during the remainder of the academic year. We don’t have enough ‘discussion papers’ like this, and those that we do see seem to fizzle out before they see the light of implementation. I’m not a great believer in ‘New Year Resolutions’ but perhaps this year is the time to seek come clarity, some consistency, and action some of those good ideas which float up occasionally – before they are lost again.

Stereotypes and cliches

Stereotypes and cliches

Over the last couple of days I read “The Lewis Man” by Peter May. If you haven’t read it yet, don’t bother. It is marginally better than his first book in the trilogy, but so full of minor errors, one-dimensional characters, and annoying cliches that it is distracting! It got me thinking (again) about how the Highlands and Islands are portrayed in popular (?) fiction. It appears to be acceptable, fashionable even, to denigrate rural places and rural cultures as brooding, wind-swept, backwards (add your own favourite prejudice) while cities are, by default, sparkling, exciting, etc etc. It seems to me that the UHI is well-placed to lead a counter-position that lays an emphasis on the positive sides of our communities – the beauties, the freshness, the contemplative, the innovative, and the delight in the community of good people. I finished work for the year today, and 2014 promises to be roller-coaster ride of wonderful new challenges, including how we make this distributed, high-tech university step up to make its mark.

UC Dublin

UC Dublin

Just back from a couple of days at University College Dublin where I was an external on an interview panel for a new member of senior academic staff. Two things struck me as I compared UCD with the UHI. Firstly, that UHI is currently so far ahead of UCD in e-learning terms, both conceptually and in practice, although they are doing some interesting things and are keen to embrace new practices. Secondly, how well co-ordinated they seem to be across the university, in comparison with the UHI. We have sites of duplication that don’t even speak to each other; several academic partners that claim to be the ‘lead centre for X’ although there is no attempt to link up similar work across the UHI and attain a critical mass. Surely the time has come when we can set aside inter-college rivalries and establish something bigger and better than the sum of the parts? There are some great examples of collaboration and innovation at the UHI and some real blind spots…. Let’s hope that 2014 sees us getting to grips with some of the latter!



Most of today was spent reading through various chapters of several PhD students – checking the arguments and suggesting changes to writing styles. I *really* like working with the UHI PhD students, they are so enthusiastic and the standard of their work is as good or better than any other university that I have visited. I like to get to grips with the details of their projects, and to encourage them to go that little bit further with their ideas! I think the distributed nature of the UHI offer makes supervision that bit more interesting, and I would like to see a bit more inter-college supervision panels in the next year or two as we gear up to Research Degree Awarding Powers (rDAP).