Wednesday, December 27, 2023

Looking back - inspirations and highlights

Photo by Kalle Kortelainen on Unsplash

Oh dear, I realise that I have rather neglected my blog in recent months. After so many years of writing a post every week and sometimes more frequently I feel a bit ashamed at the long breaks this year. Since retirement my engagement in the world of educational technology has faded somewhat and I am finding other interests to fill my life. However, maybe it's good to look back at my journey over the past 15 years, remembering people and events that have inspired me and somehow summing up the experience. Since no one will have read the story through all those hundreds of blog posts through the years, here's a short retrospective.

I stumbled into higher education in 2004 after many years in adult education and corporate training. I got a job as coordinator of distance education and found the whole concept fascinating. I was inspired by the idea of higher education becoming available to all and not just for those who are able to move to campus and study full-time. I was sure that this vision would inspire governments to fund a shift in higher education towards lifelong learning and widened participation, driven by the development of digital technology. My focus was on trying to promote the benefits of distance education and persuading colleagues to offer more distance and online courses. I had a steep learning curve to understand the complexities of higher education. As a student I didn't really pay any attention to how the university was run or who does what so I felt completely lost at some of the meetings and discussions I attended in my first couple of years. Some aspects of academic life are still a mystery to me quite honestly. I made many mistakes but hopefully learned from most of them.

Inspirational visit to Canada

As I became more familiar with the field I began getting involved in networks with colleagues from other universities in Sweden and through this I got the opportunity to go on a study visit to Canada in October 2005. This was a life-changing visit, or at least career-changing. We visited universities in Vancouver and Edmonton to learn more about how they were offering distance and online education. We saw media production departments with over a hundred employees creating online course material at a time when we had no such unit. The most inspirational institution was Athabasca University, based in a tiny town in the wilds of Alberta but offering online education to students all over Canada and beyond. The idea of a distance university was never implemented in Sweden and I saw a model that we could implement if there was the political will. We had a great meeting with representatives from the university including one of my educational heroes, Terry Anderson, whose work got me really thinking about this new world I had stepped into. 

We also heard a lot about a new concept for us in the form of social software (later social media) and wondered how we could use this in education. I came home laden with notes, references and links and spent the following months investigating all sorts of digital communities and tools. We were busy getting acceptance for learning management systems but I was more interested in the future and started wondering what wonderful things we could do with these new social networks like Facebook, MySpace and Twitter as well as collaborative writing tools, blogs and wikis. As is often the case with visits like this I came home full of enthusiasm and was eager to tell eveyone about all the new things I'd seen and heard. But it's hard to transfer that enthusiasm to colleagues who are often already overworked and focused on current deadlines and priorities. 


Another landmark event for me was my first EDEN (European Distance and E-learning Network) conference in Dublin in 2011. This was my first real taste of a major international conference in educational technology and it gave me the chance to listen to and meet some of the big names in the field as well as further developing my network. Once again, I came home with masses of references and ideas to follow up. Read my blog post on the conference and some memorable quotes. Since then I have participated in and contributed to many EDEN activities and have benefitted greatly from the expertise and experience of fellow members. The value of organisations like this was to realise that I wasn't the only person who thought that digital technology was a key to the development of education. The sense of community is so valuable when you are still trying to make sense of things and the presence of respected researchers and professors confirms that the field is not just a passing trend. 

Inspirational institutions

Over the years I been able to visit many universities around the world and opened my eyes to other ways of working with online and distance eduation. I realised that even if we have different cultures and contexts we all has so much in common in terms of how to apply educational technology in a pedagogical manner. Some visits were thanks to European or Nordic project funding whilst others were due to invitations to speak at conferences. 

One of the most inspirational was in my homeland, Scotland, namely the University of the Highlands and Islands (UHI). Their decentralised structure with 13 partner colleges and around 70 learning centres spread around the sparsely populated highlands and islands of Scotland inspired several projects in the hope of awakening interest in a similar model for Sweden. I particularly loved the way the boundaries between campus and distance have been blurred or even erased and the focus is on providing access to higher education wherever you live and with options for how you want to study. I have written several posts about UHI in this blog, most recently after a visit in 2019 as well as older visits such as in 2014.

I have always found the concept of open universities particularly interesting as the best way to open up education to all. Distance and online are essential features of these institutions since few of their target group can afford to move to a campus for several years. I have always admired people who study later on in life and manage to transform their lives through education without leaving their home area and thereby contributing to the survival of rural commuities. I have visited several open universities around the world. For example, Allama Iqbal Open University based in Islamabad, Pakistan, offering a mixture of distance and campus education to an annual enrollment of over a million students. Although the courses have a lot of online content and interaction it is simply not feasible to have everything online since so many people have limited or no internet access. I visited their publishing and mailing centre where enormous numbers of course books and compendiums are sent by post all over the country, making them one of the Pakistani post office's biggest customers. They were very much involved in digital content production and their staff were as well informed on developments as my colleagues back in Sweden but they had to offer a combination of digital and analogue in order to reach out to as many students as possible. Read my post on this visit from 2018.

In a similar vein was my visit to another open university working in difficult circumstances, Al Quds Open University, based in Ramallah in Palestine but with campuses aorund the West Bank and in Gaza. I was impressed by their TV studios and the fact they offered courses via broadcast TV to complement their online content. The difficulties of travelling between the different campuses made digital technology an essential part of all operations. I wonder how their institution will recover after the current brutalities in the West Bank not to speak of the appalling destruction going on in Gaza. Read more in my post from 2018.

Inspirational people

It would be impossible to name all the people who have inspired me over the years and helped me to better understand the field of educational technology and how it can be applied. However a few stand out and my shortlist has a distinctive Canadian flavour. As I mentioned above an early influencer was Terry Anderson of Athabasca University and in the spirit of the new networked world I discovered the concept of connectivism and openness thanks to people like George Siemens and Stephen Downes. I loved the idea of learning as part of connected networks and that people could learn together by sharing resources, discussing and collaborating. I saw a future where learning was ubiquitous and encompassed a wide range of formats, from traditional campus programmes to non-formal online study groups where the group members could decide together what and how to study. Another early influence was Morten Flate Paulsen from Norway, former president of EDEN and a leading light in Scandinavian distance and online education. I saw that online universities were not only possible but an essential factor in the development of wider access to higher education. 

However, as the years went by I began to realise that our favourite platforms, tools and communities were not as free and open as we had assumed and that they were driven by the same factors that have always existed - profit and greed. Reading Audrey Watters' now defunct blog, Hack Education, opened my eyes to the dangers of educational technology - profiting from our personal data, facilitating surveillance and locking us into proprietary solutions. Her predictions were often disregarded at the time but have proved to be disturbingly true, leading to my own disenchantment with the whole field.

My own blogging habit was developed with inspiration from long distance academic bloggers like Tony BatesMartin Weller, Maha Bali, and Steve Wheeler. I never reached their heights of course but I am amazed at how my posts have still reached far and wide. My greatest thrills early on were when one of my role models actually retweeted a link to one of my blog posts and I saw the number of site views suddenly leap. A simple retweet or like can mean a lot when you're finding your way - never dismiss such things as trivial!

Open Networked Learning

This open online problem-based learning (PBL) course started back in 2013 and I was involved as a course organiser and facilitator till 2022. It was certainly the most complex course I have ever been involved in and is run in collaboration with 12-15 universities in 5-8 different countries. Learners are divided into PBL groups to work through five scenarios on different aspects of learning in collaborative networks, aided by a facilitator and co-facilitator. We always tried to make the course as open as possible, indeed the whole course has a Creative Commons license, even if we had to move some parts behind log-ins later on to conform with the European GDPR legislation on data privacy. The course is still offered twice a year and you can find out more on the course site (Open Networked Learning).

I learned so much from each iteration of the course, both from my fellow organisers and facilitators but also from the participants. No names here but you all know who you are. Thanks so much for that amazing experience and I hope the course continues to develop in the coming years.

Networks and unexpected activities

Over the years I have built up a very valuable personal learning network based on social media activity (my blogs, Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook and so on) as well as through the various organisations that I have belonged to and worked with. That network was a constant source of inspiration and practical help. Often I could post a question on social media and within hours I had several useful answers with links. One opening led to another and I found myself involved in several committees in Sweden, the Nordic region and internationally as well as lots of projects. Some of these took me well out of my comfort zone, working with people who were far more qualified and experienced, but as ever I learnt a lot and hopefully also contributed constructively. The most notable of those "uncomfortable" activities was being a member of the committee that wrote the standard ISO21001, Management systems for educational organizations. I had no previous experience of ISO and realised what an enormous organisation it is and the meticulous work involved in writing and developing standards. I was immensely impressed by many colleagues' attention to detail and ability to handle the constant revisions and discussions.

So, those were some highlights of my journey. I was able to follow many new paths thanks to the understanding of my university who often gave me the benefit of the doubt in terms of my external activities and projects. Often, I was able to cover a large share of my expenses through project funding and fees. It wasn't all success stories, there were quite a few flops and bumps and I was certainly a bit too hasty and enthusiastic at times, especially early on. I certainly didn't follow any traditional academic path and to a large extent let my curiosity guide me. Somehow I made it through to retirement but I hope I have managed to encourage and even inspire colleagues to try new technology and rethink their practice.