I am lucky this year in that I get to work with the Munster Technological University’s TEL team. Last term we had a series of Shut Up and Write sessions, so that we could collectively protect time for writing and also support each other in the kinds of things we were trying to write (blogposts, articles, conference presentations, etc). This term, realizing that some of our struggle with writing is that we don’t always have enough time to read things that inspire us to write, we are doing Shut Up and Read sessions. I wanted to take some time here to describe how we’re doing it in terms of tech, and also highlight some of the themes that emerged from our conversation.
Because we are a team working from a variety of physical places (various places in Ireland, as well as with me usually in North Carolina) we needed asynchronous ways of sharing and commenting on the thing we are reading, to give us starting points for our synchronous discussion on Zoom. Team member Roisin Garvey set up a private Zotero group for us, and when using the desktop application (and setting up the synch option), we can collectively annotate and highlight what we are reading. I’ve been really pleased with how the annotation worked out, we were well underway in our conversation before we got to meet in our video call. There are several color choices for highlighting and notes, so each person can choose a distinct color, and the comments and highlights also indicate who left the comment/highlight. The only drawback that we’ve seen so far is that we can’t directly respond within a comment (like you can in Google Docs), but we dealt with that by locating our comments that were responses close to the original comment. If there’s a thing we want to read that isn’t in pdf form, we will likely have to find another option, but at this early point in our reading group experiment, Zotero seems to be a good solution. It also helps that it’s open source, with free user accounts. We are also going to use the private Zotero group to collect suggestions on what to read next, and some team members have suggested that they can use it to share things they come across that might be relevant to other team members’ work, whether we discuss them collectively or not.
This past week we read together the Educause Horizon Report (Teaching and Learning) for 2022.
We were struck first of all by how optimistically framed the narrative about technology in education was. The report authors started with this statement: “As this year’s teaching and Learning Horizon panelists gathered to reflect on current trends and the future of higher education, many of their discussions and nominations suggest that change may be here to stay and that there will be no return to “normal” for many institutions.”
In contrast “Back to normal” is definitely the message that we, the discussants, are constantly encountering. University leaders in Ireland, the UK, and the US are pushing this narrative, along with the “back to campus” impetus, and many are actively discouraging online options. This “snap-back” state of affairs wasn’t inevitable, but was something that many people were concerned would come to pass. It does not feel as though the sector as a whole shares the Educause report’s techno-optimism.
The attention the Educause report paid to microcredentials was also striking to us. One team member had been on the job market recently, and she put her concerns like this “No one reading my resume wanted to see microcredentials, they wanted to know if I had a Master’s degree.” We wondered who was pushing the microcredentials narrative, who is this perceived to benefit? The discussion was framed as being concerned for students, but that framing was belied by referring to the desires of companies like Microsoft, Amazon, and Google (the latter two in particular not known for their excellent treatment of their workers) for particular kinds of skills training for their workers.
Is the discussion of microcredentials just a reskinning of the employability narrative? To what extent is the attention being paid to microcredentials another way of trying to get universities to do the kind of skills training that people used to get to do once they were already in jobs? Is concern for microcredentials another way of pixilating undergraduate degrees into vocational training? Much of our skepticism was not in the absolute utility of skills training, or even some kind of official recognition for that, but rather for the idea that such credentials could or should usefully and entirely replace the idea of 2, 3, or 4 year degrees. Billionaires with microcredentials are going to be fine. The rest of us? Not so much.
It’s also odd to see the discussion of microcredentials in a so-called Horizon report. Discussions of microcredentials are at least as old as the conversation about badges, starting in the 2010s. This is an old conversation, not a new trend.
In discussion we also agreed that it was nice to see how much money the Educause report writers assumed would be spent on more staffing and resources for the everyone-agrees-necessary hybridity in teaching and learning, going forward. The section on hybrid models of education (again, not a new trend, but one that gained new attention in the pandemic) seems terribly optimistic about institutions being willing to hire and retain people, and give them what they need for successful blended delivery of teaching and learning. This, too, is counter to our experiences in the sector, where there are increased expectations from many tech teams, but little in the way of more money or resource for people to meet those expectations.
The (ubiquitous in sector reports, alas) AI/machine learning section was suffused with the “we are gathering so much data on students in the systems we make them use so we should figure out how to use that data” narrative, which again is not new. We did discuss as a group ways that students being given ownership of their data might be truly transformative, but collectively remained skeptical that the data was or could be used for student benefit. More likely the data would be used, as much of it is now, to benefit the institution, in allowing it to try to make arguments to accrediting bodies and funding agencies about what they are doing (or claiming to do) for students. I would point here to the important work of the Data Doubles team in breaking down the justification for such wholesale data capture from students, and their cogent arguments against collecting data because “we might figure out a way to use it.” Even if AI could give the same kind of advising support to students as a well trained human advisor (it can’t), there’s very little coherent justification for gathering and hanging onto as many data points as the LMS, library, and advising systems can collect.
I want to highlight is how desperately timid the politics of this report are. There are references to political contexts throughout, especially in the sense that political contexts are not friendly to education right now, and have decreased and continue to threaten funding. There are no explicit references to which political forces are primarily responsible for those threats, ie the Republican party in the US, and the Tories in the UK. Educause is a US-based organization, and it being deliberately vague about where the threats to public education are coming from is disingenuous at best.
One bright, and useful area in the report are the vignettes about the different types of institutions. This section is written from a variety of perspectives and situates the findings from the report into a range of specific, though not exhaustive, contexts. This section, written by individual authors who also contributed to the “modified” delphi process that informed the content of the first sections, reveals how much better writing about teaching and learning and technology is when there are specific contexts, rather than generalizations.
As a reader and a practitioner I don’t want publications to generalize for me, but to give me information I can evaluate and decide whether it’s useful because I know where it’s coming from, who wrote it, and why. These three questions are hard to answer for the Educause teaching and learning report as a whole. Who is it for? Education technologists? CIOs? Faculty? Why is it being written? To sell tech? “Thought-leadership?” It’s called a Horizon report but isn’t doing much in the way of horizon scanning, it’s very occupied in what is happening now and what has been happening for a while.
This post wasn’t intended to be a comprehensive deep dive into the report, but a way for me to mark the kind of conversations we had around it, and also to document our process for facilitating the conversation across time zones and locations. I am sure it’s clear we didn’t always agree with the content of the report, but reading something like this was a great way for us to start conversations about local conditions at MTU, and ways we want to try to get to contribute to and shape the narratives around technology, teaching, and learning going forward.