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.
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.
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! 🙂
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.
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.
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).