Learning designs for design thinking


This winter I participated in the ALT Winter Conference. It’s a really great (and elegantly free) event – perfect for anyone who wants to edge into the conference circuit, and make a start presenting through the screen rather than in a conference hall. Or to test a new idea (me!).

My talk was on something a bit out of my comfort zone, creativity as a pedagogical device. I believe creativity isn’t just for the arts and I wanted to show how it can be applied to other disciplines. Creativity, at its core it is a problem-solving tool that can be applied to explore and resolve messy scenarios and move forwards when you are stuck. It is at the roots of innovation and the generation of new ideas. To build creativity or design thinking intentionally into the curriculum can support student success, no matter what the subject. My talk presented two learning designs developed for two specialist profession-focused universities, one fully online (mine) and one providing blended delivery (another), and demonstrated the role that digital spaces can play in the development of design thinking skills. We also messed around with paper clips.

You can watch the recording of my webinar on the ALT programme page.

Image of a learning design sequence - reflect and connect - define - create and test

Beyond the course team: an #LTHEChat blog

Or, We are all educators now: the unbundled faculty


Back in June I hosted a workshop at the Academic Practice and Technology Conference to explore the shifting roles of academic faculty and professional staff in technology-infused education. I’ve been meaning to write up the workshop for a while, but it’s been one of those things I just haven’t managed to get around to yet. However, I was spurred into action by catching the end of one of the weekly Twitter #LTHEChat’s. If you are not familiar with @LTHEChat (Learning Technology in Higher Education Chat), go check it out on Twitter 8-9pm GMT on a Wednesday evening. Each week focuses on a different topic run by someone in the sector with questions posed to the Twitter learning tech community with discussion ensuing. I always enjoy and learn from them.

The topic in question was titled ‘Beyond the course team‘ and put forwards some questions that have given me structure for this blog post. So many thanks to the University of Liverpool Centre for Innovation in Education who hosted the chat, for reminding me to get this blog written.

Q1) If you were to build the ideal team to support a course team who (what roles) would it include and why?

The premise of the ‘unbundled’ faculty is not that academic faculty are supported, rather than education is disaggregated into component parts which all support each other as a holistic whole.

Components of a college or university courseFor example, in the development of a fully online course the subject expert supports the learning designer to build the course by providing content and discipline knowledge, and the learning designer supports the subject expert to deliver the course through designing activities that implement the most appropriate technologies and pedagogies and set the framework for teaching. This is certainly not to say that the academic is not experienced in how students learn, or that the learning designer not experienced in the subject matter, but it is likely that over the course of their careers they built more expertise in a specific field rather than all.

This was one of the activities that we undertook in the APT workshop. Divided into groups, each had a different course scenario to create a team for. The scenarios were:

  1. A fully-online BA course with 400 part-time students
  2. A blended degree apprenticeship with 120 students looking to enhance their knowledge, skills and improve their prospects within their workplace.
  3. A blended MSc course at a research-intensive university.
  4. An fully-online foundation programme with 60 international students without British A levels and without English as a first language.​

The word cloud below shows the roles that appeared, some stretched acoss scenarios – Course Leader, Student Rep. All had an aspect of educational development expertise (Learning Designer, Learning Technologist, Academic Developer). Some were more specific to the particular course such as Online Tutors, Research Lead and Estates.

wordle 3

It’s clear that different flavours of coure may require a different make-up of individuals, but on the whole we are looking at bringing together academic, professional and learner representatives.

Q2) Can you give us an example of where you have seen real value being added to curriculum design from people outside of the immediate course team? 

In the workshop I did a very brief presentation on the ‘Design Jams’ that we run at at my institution. These curriculum storyboarding sessions bring together those charged with designing, making, running and supporting a course – ideas are bounced off each other, best practice shared, and sequenced learning activities take shape. A series of tasks are then set in motion to move from the storyboard to the VLE. If the immediate course team is considered to be the academic faculty then this level of curriculum design would be difficult as it requires the practice of a number of different professions. In our case the practice of the academic and subject expert, the practice of the learning designer or learning technologist, assessment expert, librarian, student experience etc. As the end point of many of our programmes is accreditation, industry professionals are also vital to engage in the development of the learning experience.

I’m unsure if this degree of unbundling at all stages of educational design and implementation is common or rare in the sector, and if it is present is it always the case that equal value is attributed to each role? I do however believe it to to be 100% necessary for the design of fully-online education with every role aligned equally. Every learning design decision, every piece of scaffolding, every resource is visible and up for scrutiny on the course website. Committing to offer flexible access for students as we do (to learn at their own pace), means that changing resources or student instructions is risky – we can’t presume all students are at the same place in their learning. Pre-delivery design needs the best decisions to be made by those best placed to make them.

Q3) What approaches have you used and found effective in building relationships and trust quickly in interprofessional programme teams? 

Trust comes from an awareness and understanding of our colleagues practice, roles, and value in achieving shared goals – our students development and success. We need to learn from, then put aside, any past experience we have of collaborations that have not been positive, and start from a point of equality as we all hold responsibility for the education that we design and deliver.

I’ve written before about my experiences of being regarded as, and even called, a ‘servant’ to the academic institution. Setting up components of a University as service departments can reinforce this perspective. The discipline of education and everything it entails is as much of an academic practice as that of classics, or physics or economics.  This is why it is so valuable to have subject experts, academic developers and learning designers working side by side – our different practices enable us to focus on what we do best and blend as educational provision. It is alchemy.

When I run workshops or host course design meetings for the first time, I ensure that everyone in the room understands why they are there, why their expertise means it is valuable that they are there. No one’s role is to know better than another, nor should anyone have to defend their practice. I have steered away from implementing rules, as I have done for other workshops such as change hacks, it’s more delicate in this context where vulnerabilities may be present for past experiences. We are there to ask questions, constructively challenge and collaboratively build a student experience.

A few devices we have used to successfully aid this relationship have been:

  • A design conversation activity to understand the course, its learning outcomes, rationale, and the tutors passion for the subject. Included in this is discussion are threshold conceps, student feedback from previous runs and
  • Developing a roles a responsibilities document to make visiable ares of expertise and expectations in terms of the course team.
  • Collaborative workshops, such as the Design Jams mentioned above that bring together a range of practices in hands-on design

In a prevous role I also found that providing spaces to develop a community of practice such as user groups, teaching forums, show and tell events, and teaching awards (inclusive of all those involved in designing and delivering teaching) also helped enormoulsy to break down barriers and reformat relationships. I hope to explore possibilities of doing this now, but these things take time, and can require a cultural shift, and often some resource.


Reaching through the screen: KARE as a new scaffolding for online education

I had a paper accepted for ALT-C this year to talk about scaffolding fully online education, how it has been implemented in the past, and how we need to think about it differently going forwards. I am posting here a written summary of my talk, but if you would rather watch than read, it is is available on the recording below (start at 25:53).

Start at 25:50 minutes (talk is 20 minutes long)

The slides can be downloaded.

Before my summary it is definitely worth noting that the day was pretty exciting for me for two reasons. Firstly Jesse Stommel gave the keynote, which was an absolute pleasure to be at as Jesse and Critical Digital Pedagogy has been a huge critical frame of reference for me in my own teaching philosophy. Secondly, I gave my talk in McEwan Hall, perhaps the most stunning venue I have ever presented in. I thought it would be intimidating but actually it turned out to be quite a calming influence. Being surrounded by architectural beauty, and considering the institution I am a part of, it gave me a quiet sense of assurity that what I had planned to say meant something in the world.

Painted dome and inscription of McEwan Hall, Edinburgh
The dome of McEwan Hall. Painted from the hand of William Mainwaring Palin, the central piece of art depicts a great number of philosophers and students. It is inscribed ‘Wisdom is the principal thing, therefore get wisdom, and with all thy getting, get understanding. Exalt her and she shall bring thee to honour’. (Proverbs 4:7).

Talk Summary

I am here today to talk about scaffolding education, specifically scaffolding in fully online education. I am going to talk quite a bit about the institution that work in, our values, and our students, as these are central to the support we are embedding in the curriculum to help our learners to be successful in their studies. I’ll then talk about what that support looks like, and give an example of how it’s being applied. This is very much a work in progress and we welcome any feedback.

The University College of Estate Management, was established in 1919 .This year we are celebrating our centenary year. Originally sited in Lincolns Fields in London the institution initially provided free technical education in real estate and related areas for the sons of those who had been killed, injured or impoverished in World War One. This was amid calls for improved building standards and living conditions, including for city slums to be replaced with better quality housing. By the 1940s UCEM was providing largely correspondence courses including to the military,  prisoners of war and the Women’s Land Army. In late 1960s we became associated with the University of Reading, building premises on campus and Reading validating degrees, with students studying on site and via correspondence. In 2013 we received our own degree-awarding powers and in 2016 left Reading campus and moved into a renovated building in the centre of town. With the exception of our apprenticeship programmes we are now a fully online University, offering 13 programmes of study from level 3 to level 7. Our provision is flexible, with multiple entry points, and flexibility in the number of modules studied at any one time. UCEM works closely with the leading professional bodies in the built environment to ensure that our programmes provide the knowledge and understanding required to achieve chartered status and approach the challenges we are facing in the industry.

Those challenges are not insignificant, to outline just three:

  1. The housing crisis – too few homes are available, the population is rising, and those homes that are on the market are far too costly.
  2. Sustainability – urban growth and rising population is putting a lot of pressure on our built environment and it’s resources. We need to explore ways to protect biodiversity, increase green space, reduce waste production and CO2 emissions.  Construction materials that are packed full of  chemicals are not sustainable, and we need to explore new types of housing, for instance if 200 000 homes were built a year out of timber we could take 3.8 billions tonnes of CO2 out of the air.
  3. Health and wellbeing – places need to be designed for wellbeing, air quality, active travel, food provision, cohesive community. Operationally, in the built environment sector mental health has be named ‘the silent epidemic’ – mental health has been named the silent epidemic of the BE.

Who are our students?

Who are our students? Here are some stats:

At UCEM we:

  • Teach 4000 students at any one time
  • from 100 countries
  • 3% are enrolled full-time, most students study part-time and are in work
  • 20% of our students are on apprenticeship programmes
  • 90% of students are over 21 years (average age 31)
  • and 30%  female
  • We have 25% from BAME (10% Chinese)
  • 10% have a declared disability

Not only do our students face tricky problems in their work in the sector, they more than often have complex lives due to their other commitments and have difficulty dedicating the time or motivation they would like to their studies. In her essay ‘Professions for women‘ Virginia Woolf uses the figure of an angel to represent the ‘many phantoms and obstacles’ looming in the way of those who wish to pursue their own interests in opposition to roles they already hold – parent, employee, carer. Woolf talks of killing the angel to become true to themselves. Our students have angels to kill, or at least have to give them a good dose of concussion to study. But this is hard, and attrition rates continue to be much higher for online learners than those in face-to-face or blended contexts (Bawa, 2016). And whilst online provision gives more access to education, once enrolled those learners can find that they are in-fact more disadvantaged and that achievement gaps are widened (Moore & Greenland, 2016; Kizalic & Halwala, 2015).

Scaffolding online education

Scaffolding has been proposed as a way to support students in their learning, providing additional instruction and support in the early stages of new types of learning activity until they are able to undertake that task independently. The definition of scaffolding in construction is not dissimilar:

In online education four main types of scaffolding have been identified.

  1. Conceptual scaffolding: helps students decide what to consider in learning and guide them to key concepts
  2. Procedural scaffolding: helps students use appropriate tools and resources effectively
  3. Strategic scaffolding: helps students find alternative strategies and methods to solve complex problems
  4. Metacognitive scaffolding: assists students reflecting on what they have learnt

These mechanisms if designed well do just that, scaffold the learning. But we teach students not content. The reasons why students struggle online can also be down to personal, social and motivational issues amongst other things. These are not necessarily things that can be supported through the types of scaffolding identified and not things that can be supported easily at the scale of fully online education where staff to student ratios can be low.

UCEM Educational Framework

For the past year I have been engaged in a process of transforming how we design and provide education to our students, taking into consideration who they are, the challenges they face engaging in their studies and challenges they face within industry.

We have adopted a learning design model that works backwards from the learning outcomes to ensure all learning is aligned. Assessments are more scenario-based and reflect real-world applications of knowledge. We provide plenty of opportunities to practice online activities to increase confidence, and design content that learners can connect to their everyday lives. We have increased opportunities to connect synchrously and asynchrously with tutors and peers, as well as opportunities to receive, give and act on feedback. The pedagogies we are employing are active and participatory to reflect the connected world of the built environment industry, they are situated and problem-based to ensure relevance.

But there is another layer required, a scaffold to support students to be a successful online learner and become part of a wider support network that operates beyond the capacity of a tutor. To borrow another analogy from the built environment, we need support them to ‘place-make’ in the digital space.



The KARE scaffold implements Kindness, Awareness, Reflection and Engagement. Its aim is to support the online learner to find their place, sense of belonging and confidence in their online programme. It starts by modelling kindness to students and starts from a place of trust – we trust that they will engage and be open, we put ourselves in a position where they will trust us. To create cohesion and community we develop awareness – self-awareness of basic needs,  awareness of people in our immediate contexts, awareness of the world around us and the bigger issues. Then to support students to take this into learning scenarios we design engagement opportunities and activities with peers, tutors and the wider professional community.

A simple example of the implementation of KARE on a ‘Digital technologies’ module.

When we teach online, we have to build both the programme of study and the classroom within which it takes place. The classroom sapce is problematic if it’s fixed permanently in advance as it does not account for who students are, what their own personal learning journeys may be, or emerging group dynamics and power structures. KARE is a scaffolding that enables the learning space to be constructed with, and navigated by, students.

Whilst scaffolding is a temporary structure, it needs to remain in place until our work is done.


Bawa, P. (2016) ‘Retention in Online Courses: Exploring Issues and Solutions—A Literature Review’, SAGE Open. doi: 10.1177/2158244015621777.

Kizilcec, F., & Halawa,S. (2015). Attrition and Achievement Gaps in Online Learning. In Proceedings of the Second (2015) ACM Conference on Learning @ Scale (L@S ’15). ACM, New York: ACM, [57-66].

Moore, C., & Greenland, S. (2017). Employment-driven online student attrition and the assessment policy divide: An Australian open-access higher education perspective. Journal of Open, Flexible and Distance Learning, 21(1), [52–62.].

Woolf, V. (1942). The death of the moth : and other essays. New York :Harcourt, Brace and company.

Design Alchemy


Over the past few months I have been working on the development of a framework to guide the transformative design of online education at my institution. To date the institution has been using a Learning Design model that focus’ on backwards design which is a neat and elegant approach for the design of online courses. Yet, Learning Design models are pedagogically neutral, and omit the art of teaching and learning (pedagogical principles and approaches), and the roles of the players (students, educators, community). Our transformation is from a largely transmissive approach to a  participatory approach that puts the learner at the heart of what we do. Moving from content-based to outcomes-based ensures our assessments reflect the skills and knowledge students need for the workplace, and they will learn through solving problems, generating knowledge, inquiry, critical thinking and application of concepts. They will be given opportunities to work collaboratively and contextually, bringing their experience of the world into the modules they studying and undertaking tasks and reflections in the world as part of their learning activities. It is essential to build a clear pedagogy within our framework, and give attention to how educators and students are present and active online. In doing so we will be able  to design in a way that is current for our time.

This is where the alchemy metaphor comes in. We need to blend a variety of elements to create a design framework for developing an institutional education experience. It’s not a term that’s new to the field of learning design, and I’m happy to reuse it here as an appropriate way to describe how we can turn our base metals into metals of more value.

The framework we have arrived at can be found on the UCEM Online Education Blog, it will no doubt evolve as we go through interactions of implementation. I thought it would be interesting to post some of my workings on how we got there below:

Annotation of the Learning Design Conception Map (from the Larnaca Declaration on Learning Design) was a starting point:

Thinking about the elements we needed to blend with our Learning Design model:

The point at which we felt we could implement the framework through design sessions:


Hacking who we are


I recently ran my second ‘Changehack’. A changehack is a method developed by Peter Bryant, Donna Lanclos and David White for ‘Future Happens‘ to bring together people to develop innovative and workable ideas to make change happen. Like a technology hack-a-thon participants dive into problems, define them, and ‘nut them out’. A changehack uses similar principles of time limited activities, specific rules of participation, and is led and engaged in with positive energy.  The model works because it seeks to challenge head on and examine only what we have the autonomy to change, avoiding some of the standard blockers that prevent real and productive debate and solutions to a problem: systematic moaning, resistance to others ideas, the excuse ‘Oh, its a great idea, but it won’t work here’ or ‘that’s someone else’s problem’ .

The first hack was a 40 minute activity which I ran with learning technologists from Oxford University and Oxford Brookes University. It looked specifically at how express our value as experts in a variety of scenarios. The second hack was a day-long workshop with online education colleagues to evaluate and propose solutions to challenges faced in a programme of work we are undertaking. Despite the different foci, both hacks followed the same structure apart from one activity, and they worked incredibly well. I won’t relay the structure here as it’s not mine to tell, it can be found on the Future Happens site (via Web Archive as it has disappeared).

Images of Burnt activity post-it notes
Outputs of the ‘Burn’ activity in which participants wrote post-it notes on their experiences in a learning technology role to ‘clear the air’: Pink: The worst things that have happened: Blue: Hopes and dreams: Yellow: Success stories.

A theme that came up in both hacks is the challenge we experience in defining what we do, thus getting buy-in for the work and projects we undertake. Be that from our colleagues in the more technical and business side of the institution, academic colleagues, or those involved in organising teaching and learning.  ‘Learning Technologist’, ‘Learning Designer’, ‘Online Education Developer’, ‘TEL Advisor’, ‘Instructional Technologist’…. no matter the title of our role, what we do always seems to be shrouded in mystery and this causes problems when it when it comes to expressing our expertise, giving authority to our practice, and keeping control of the scope of what we are responsible for: ‘Oh that’s a job for the LT?’ or ‘Can you fix the lecture capture?’ are common nags.

In the sector the role of the person who works at the intersection of teaching, learning and technology is not clearly defined. It is a role that can be moved across a continuum of technological and pedagogical. Some colleagues are more one than the other – some have PhDs in education, some are qualified teachers, some have come from an information science/systems, editorial, or digital media background. Everyone tends to have a degree of coaching and change management experience, most have managed a project or few. However, when expert roles exist for many of the areas we absorb into our own practice (Project Manager, Business Analyst, Business Change Manager, Educational Consultant, Digital Media Officer, Web Developer etc), it becomes very difficult to express our own expertise in what is a moving and bitty context: ‘Well I do a bit of everything, and when one thing is needed more than the other I become that person’ said one of me team to me once. If we were animals we would be chameleons.

At Oxford I presented the learning technologists in the team as ‘experts in teaching and learning who focus on how digital tools and spaces can be used to enhance the student experience.’ This quite often had the dual effect of confusing my colleagues in the IT department we were based due to our lack of compatibility with ITIL frameworks, and giving us a degree of credibility ‘out there’ in the wider University. AT UCEM we are a different flavour, we are much more involved in the design of learning before it gets to the digital tools and spaces stage, with less focus on tech support. I imagine that in a move from any institution to another I could experience the same job title but quite a different role.

The collective solution proposed in both hacks was to create a clearer understanding of what we do, our responsibilities, our value and our part in realising the institutional vision for teaching and learning. Practical solutions include: publishing blog posts to raise awareness of what we do; producing a roles and responsibilities document when working as academic teams on learning design; more regular show-and-tell events with other teams;  and, undertaking a roles audit to understand where responsibilities lie across a process and communicating that effectively.

I strongly believe that one of the issues we need to overcome is a lack of confidence that we deserve authority and autonomy as experts in the field, experts who have a professional practice that is of no lesser standing than another field. Expressing what we do in clear plain English, and being able to advocate the benefits of what we do for the institution will support that.


On the pedagogy of kindness

Image by me. Available under CC-BY-NC-SA.

I remember my Grandmother telling me ‘Kate, you must always be kind’.

For some reason that really stuck with me, it is a huge part of my personal values.

In today’s society kindness is one of the traits we admire most in people, along with openness and honesty, empathy and  understanding. Yet, in the professional space, the world of work, it is often viewed as a trait of failure. To be successful requires self-interest, forcefulness, sharpness etc.  In Feminism, Pedagogy, and the Politics of Kindness Magnet et al. discuss how during the industrial revolution kindness came to be associated with the domestic, in stark contrast to the masculine pursuit of industrial toil. As a result, kindness as an emotion was simultaneously feminized and devalued. I understand what that looks like.

In a 360 review just  before I left Oxford I was advised to work on my approach to kindness, I should, I was informed, be less kind. Because being kind, could get in the way of the goals we were working towards or may cloud my decision-making. My feedback also included that I had a lot of respect and many supportive colleagues who trusted my strategic ability to lead change.   I am pretty sure that the latter trait was down to the former – listening – understanding – engaging. Recognising that part of my leadership role was to be fair, ethical and supportive. #bemusedface

After the amount of reflection it warranted, I chose to ignore this piece of advice and instead to question the appropriateness of goals and decisions that do not call for kindness in the journey to achieve them.

Recently, a tweet by Jesse Stommel reminded me of that review.

Screen Shot 2018-12-20 at 21.19.00

Jesse started me thinking about kindness as an approach rather than a value. I  realise that I purposefully use kindness in my practice, not only because I believe it to be the right and human thing to do, but also because it is the heart of student-focused design, and at the heart of inclusive practice, both of which require listening, understanding and support. If we really care about education as a fundamental right, that we should be securing it and designing it for everyone, then kindness has to operate beyond individual practice and employ institutional approaches .

It is possible for an institution to be kind at scale, but it is tricky. Much of higher education is geared towards students who are already good at being students, both in terms of subject knowledge and academic skills. If being kind is to engage more widely and more diversely then we need to question the criteria for gaining access to university education in the first place.

On the other end of the scale in an increasing focus on employability and accreditation by higher education institutions we are in danger of ‘self-serve assessment’, assessment that is easy to pass without having to undertake any form of active or constructivist learning. This presentation of kindness supports the institution rather than the individual, the focus is on a business model rather than the benefit of society or enlightenment – outcomes at the heart of education. The journey to educational attainment should not be devalued, students should be required to undertake study, reflection and develop relevant skills to enact the outputs of their education in society. It is the education not the qualification that needs to be accessible.

Digital environments enable kindness to be implemented at  greater scale. Flexible learning is one form of kindness, that enables more access to education, and is suited to online education. On the web students have greater opportunity to access their learning materials and activities anytime-anywhere.

Providing more supported learning is also a structure of kindness that digital environments can facilitate well. The web has made connecting  easier than ever before. Students can engage with their courses through clearly designed narrative, and to each other, their tutors and the institution within a wide range of digital spaces. There are huge opportunities to engage in collaborative learning across the globe and networks of support that bypass the walls of the VLE.

Institutions need to take an active approach in promoting kindness online. Whilst the web provides spaces for exchange and collaboration we often use it to talk about ourselves and down to others. In digital environments, social media spaces in particular, it can be the case that everyone is so busy talking that no one is listening. We don’t see each other behind the computer screen. We blog, tweet, status update. We talk about ourselves and may use fiery rhetoric to get across our views, loud and often in return for likes and applause. A different approach to digital communication needs to be advocated and scaffolded by the educational institution, especially one where students and faculty are resident in the digital space.

Approaching our engagement in digital spaces with purposeful kindness means that we engage without judgement or agenda, ask others why they think the way they do, and listen.  Kindness listens.  Then we are in a position to reflect on our core beliefs, understandings, and concepts – how we fit in, stand out, and speak up. This not only supports good communication practice, but strategically supports learning which in part is derived from our ability to reflect on ourselves through others, to think critically and form persuasive arguments, and build knowledge collaboratively.

To me a pedagogy of kindness is not  radical. It is something that we often employ but do not refer to as an act of kindness, because to be kind is seen as too soft, or a weakness. But ‘too always be kind’ is a powerful approach in the design of learning and needs to be recognised as such. It envelopes the consistency of providing inclusive opportunities, support structures, and meaningful recognition and engagement.  Putting the student first in their education, so that they can progress, attain greater knowledge and skills and develop as a result of their experience.

I’ve made a start on some practical notes on what a pedagogy of kindness could look like:

  • Design learning so that it is inclusive. Not everyone starts on a level playing field. If someone who hasn’t developed relevant academic or technical skills / has care-giving responsibilities / has a specific learning difficulty can not make it through the course, it is not a kind set-up. Bridging courses and transition / foundation years are a good example of how this can be achieved, along with flexible timescales, supported skills development, and disability services.
  • See students. Greet them. Talk to them. Students remember the teachers who said ‘hello’ to them when they walked into the room. It is easy to be invisible online but in an educational context students need to be seen.
  • Hear students. Ask for feedback on a regular basis and respond to the areas they find difficult or stressful, be it in the design of the interface, structure of course or the subject content. Access to learning should be easy.
  • Scaffold and signpost learning, so that students know exactly what they need to do, how this relates to their learning objectives, and how the activities and assessments will benefit them. This will help them to manage their studies and understand the journey they are on.
  • Develop digital communication skills and strategies for acknowledging others in meaningful ways, as well as how to listen. Engaging online with purposeful kindness builds greater understanding of others, opportunities for knowledge building, and develops academic skills. It helps students and tutors to manage and control their online presence.


Digital sites of memory – have we remembered them?

Tyne Cot Cemetery, Belgium. Photo by me, 2007. (CC-BY-NC)

10 years ago this week, at London’s Imperial War Museum, I stood before an audience of historians, literary estates, relatives of war poets, and colleagues to launch a new digital archive to support the study of First World War poetry. The archive contained over 7000 carefully selected and digitised poetical manuscripts and primary source material  (letters, diaries, photographs etc.) related to some of the best known poets  of the War. For the first time these manuscripts, which are dispersed across the globe in archives, libraries and private collections, were brought together into one place. They were accessible to anyone with an internet connection and made available under an open licence for use in education and research.

In terms of manuscript studies the release of these items into the public sphere was significant. It not only reveals the poets lesser known works, but enables us to look at the much anthologised poems with new perspectives. Some of the poets never saw their work published in their lifetime as they lost that life to the War. Editors posthumously pieced together drafts of poems to create their interpretation of the final work. Now the student or academic can study these draftsand question why decisions on words and form were made. In addition, to be able to see the workings of the poet on their drafts raises insights into their experiences and writing. For instance in a poetical draft of ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’ we see Owen struggle to find the appropriate word to describe what it looks like to watch a man die from a gas attack, as he crosses out each word we feel his struggle to watch a man die so horrifically. In many cases the manuscripts held additional symbolism to the poem itself. In the case of Rosenberg, dried trench mud fell from a draft of Daughters at War as I unfolded the flimsy Salvation Army paper. The draft was frayed and stained with water and dirt. The materiality of War was literally etched upon the poetry.


For the poets whose lives stretched beyond the War, their manuscripts provide insights into a continuing battle between what can and can not be remembered, for whilst they survived the War it never let them return. Edmund Blunden, one the greatest poets of memory, when interviewed poinently expressed  ‘my experiences in the First World War have haunted me all my life and for many days I have, it seemed, lived in that world rather than this’.  There are three items I still think about often in relation to these poets. Two maps sketched by Edmund Blunden and David Jones years after the War as a result of dreams they had had – their memories of events were vividly intense but their recollection of things like place names were not  – the missing pieces in the need to remember which they searched for in their subconscious. The third is Robert Graves’ first edition of his war memoir Goodbye to All That. Held in the Berg Collection in New York Public Library, the text is littered with corrective annotations by Sassoon and Blunden who disagreed with Graves’ interpretations and memory of events. Sassoon’s own personal copy of the text has been revealed to show rather more brutal asides: “rot”, “fiction”, faked”, “skite”.

Picture 053
David Jones colourful manuscript map showing the various phases of the battle for Mametz Wood, the subject of In Parenthesis (Part VII). Image © The National Library of Wales / The David Jones Literary Estate

The availability of these primary sources, and the various tools we employed to allow users to explore them has not only made them available to enhance curriculum and research, but has provided an opportunity to understand the writers and their work more deeply and release them from the commemorative role to which they have so often been appropriated. At a deeper level their poetry does not sit comfortably with the military-style remembrance ceremonies hosted by the church and state, as there is no place for ‘pity’ or ‘never agains’ in today’s political and economical campaigns. I’m not convinced that Owen would have enjoyed last week’s ‘Wilfred Owen Commemorative Edition’ of Songs of Praise, or even been a fan of poppies to be honest. It was good to see  Owen’s ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth‘ and Siegfried Sassoon’s ‘Aftermath‘ featured in last night’s televised Festival of Remembrance. It is rare that the poetry of the soldier poets feature in Remembrance events, it was one of a few striking moments that brought humanity to the ‘celebration’, although they were flanked by uplifting military parades and hymns.

As well as the  literary related manuscripts, the archive also contained some 6500 digitised historical items to provide further context to the War covering themes such as the homefront, women in war, propaganda, the war in the Middle East, etc.  What is significant about these items is that they were not digitised from collections in the Imperial War Museum or The British Library, they were contributed by members of the public during a three month crowdsourcing initiative. From our teacher and academic workshops we knew there was a need for more contextual resources, but digitisation costs were high. We also knew that we were sitting on an untapped archive of hidden materials that resided in the general publics’ attics and bottom drawers, objects relating to their families and their communities. Each object with a story to tell. We designed a campaign to ask the public to share the histories passed down to them, asking them to photograph any objects they had and upload the images with descriptive information to a specially-built website. We also held a series of ‘Community Collection Days’ in memory institutions across the UK. In the style of the Antiques Roadshow, people could bring in their items, speak to experts about their significance, and then have them digitised and uploaded by our team. We put together a portable digitisation studio that we could transport by train, plane and automobile and that was cheap and easy to reproduce by any group that wanted to run their own event (How To’s were made available on the website). The model was a success, and in 2011 it was picked up by the European Digital Library (Europeana) and rolled out across the continent. The team continued to work with partners in over 20 countries including extensive work in Germany, to continue to collect the hidden memories of World War One, both online and over 200 collection day events. Hundreds of thousands of items and their stories have been recorded and are now openly available for reuse online.

The community collections include everything from letters to medals, trench art  to uniforms, and even a postcard from the young Adolf Hitler about his dental treatment in 1916. Fascinating as this is, it’s reasonable to ask what use or meaning such an eclectic collection actually has. For me the value lies in their potential to provide rich sites of exchange between academia, cultural heritage, and the public. Knowledge is not just the property of the University it resides in the wider community and the two can complement each other – providing leads for new research, and new understandings. The collections hold the raw material of school projects, essays, enlightened browsing, and informative relaxation. The images are often bold and interesting. Teachers can take and use them at all educational levels and carefully selected they have something to say to both adults and children. You can find examples that relate not just to your country, sometimes even your home town. You can tap into experience across nations, move the War beyond the Western front, beyond the experience of the British Tommy, examine it’s impact across nations and cultures. It is a European (web)site of memory for a shared experience.

Other initiatives fell out of these collections – Wikipedia edit-a-thons to update and add new articles; transcribe-a-thons to provide searchable text of the digitized letters, diaries, and other documents; data visualisations to present the War in new and engaging ways; social media role play; the development of resource packsvirtual world simulationsagent-based models to explore how history may have changed if events had twisted and turned in other directions. There have been inter-generational workshops, reminiscence work, multimedia and  theatre productions. A podcast series, and also teacher development days. The collections and their interpretations were supporting the ‘Battle of Academia’ to challenge the collective memory of the First World War : a shared set of ideas and values about what it was like and what it meant for those involved. It was all fought in the muddy trenches of France and Belgium, it was futile, most soldiers died and those who survived went mad or wrote poetry. Oh and we mustn’t forget the women, for they won the vote as the result of their war service. None of these things are whole truths. In particular the British experience of death and grief looks quite different in a global context. This is not to downplay the tragedy of loss of life or the pain of those left behind, but to turn a lens upon a ‘world’ war where fighting took place in Africa, the Middle East, Central Asia and Far East, in the air and at sea. A war where troops were enlisted from across the globe and fought far from home, where in villages across Asia and Africa the lives of hundreds of thousands of women and children were changed forever when they lost their sons, husbands, or fathers.

One of the most powerful resources we created were a set of interactive maps using location data provided by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. The user can spin the earth and see the sheer number of cemeteries there are in the UK with a war grave. Why are they here? Why are there 9 war graves in a tiny cemetery at Trekkopje in northern Namibia? What happened there?

Consider the following:

  • New Zealand lost 5% of its male population aged 15-49, which makes it the nation with the largest percentage of deaths during the conflict.
  • 140,000 Chinese contract labourers were hired by the British and French governments, forming a substantial part of the immigrant labour force working on the Western Front during the war.
  • Upon joining the War, 200,000 African-American troops were inducted into the US forces and served in Europe.
  • The largest explosion of World War One occurred on December 6, 1917 when a munitions ship blew up in the harbour of Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada. Nearly 2,000 people died and some 9,000 were injured in the disaster.
  • France recruited between 1914 and 1918 nearly 500,000 colonial troops, including 166,000 West Africans, 46,000 Madagascans, 50,000 Indochinese, 140,000 Algerians, 47,000 Tunisians and 24,300 Moroccans.
  • 2 million African troops were recruited during the War to serve as soldiers and labourers. Out of those men it is estimated that 157,100 labourers lost their lives, and 97,900 soldiers. When African civilian losses are added to those of the military, African fatalities during the war probably exceeded 1 million lives, or more than 1 per cent of the population. On a par if not more than Britain’s loss.
  • In the Battle of Gallipoli, where out of a total of 3000 Indian combatants, some 1624 were killed, a loss rate of more than 50 per cent.
  • 1/3 of military deaths in the War were a result of the Spanish Flu, its rapid spread enabled by the conditions of war, movement of troops and supplies, and the gathering of crowds during the armistice. The Spanish Flu killed more poeple than the death toll across nations of the two workd wars.

These are not facts that will be revisited on our national day of remembrance, for they do not fit our notion of ‘we-ness’ and what it means in terms of our national identity to have been the country who fought, who suffered and who won the War.

Many of these ideas and materials are recorded in an open educational resource we set up called World War I Centenary: Continuations and Beginnings, a sort of The Conversation for the subject of the First World War, but not restricted to academic writers.  The new perspectives presented can be controversial. There are over 200 articles and resources from over 70 contributors available.

From a 21st century perspective, digital has been key to a more extensive engagement with the World War One. It has unlocked content and provided channels for more effective forms of knowledge exchange. Licencing content openly is deeply important to enable this engagement, to allow history and memory to collide and challenge each other, to make high quality resources available to not only answer questions but to raise them. The web has the potential to democratise the study of the past. Online it belongs to everyone.

So have we played a part in the Centenary? Have we remembered them? In answer to the first, it’s a yes, the user stats on the websites speak for themselves. But in answer to the second it’s a no, for to remember surely means we should reflect on the past to influence our present day actions and attitudes. The problem with opening up new material and perspectives is that it does not always fit the model of Commemoration which largely rests on notions of Tribute and Honour. Open strategies depend on being able to talk critically and honestly about the War, those who took part in it, and those who wrote about it. I think we are still a generation too close to the conflict to be able to achieve this.

I experienced this. I spent  years surrounded by primary source material filled with accounts of horror and grief, and whilst there were also many accounts of friendship, love and humour, overall I found it desperately sad and helpless. On my work trips to France and Belgium I could reach into the soil of the battlefields and pull out bits of shrapnel, bullets and barbed wire like they were left there yesterday, not 100 years ago. I spent full days talking to the sons and daughters of those who experienced the War. Working with these projects, like the search for family history, one can’t help but be shaped by modern preconceptions of the War, and this creates a barrier to deeper engagement.  For some time  the most important thing to me was to pay tribute to those who fought and those who were left behind, not to engage with the deeper questions about the War, unsimplify it, and question how we remember. It was only when I started working more with historians such as Dan Todman, Catriona Pennell, Santanu Das, Pierre Purseigle, the literary editors of the War poets, the contributors to Continuations and Beginnings, started creating powerful data visualisation, that I truly started to understand what it means to remember. To live in peace, with good international relations, where there is no threat of nationalism.

100 years is not long enough.


I was PI / PM on the following projects 2006-2014, working with Ylva Berglund Prytz, Alun Edwards, Stuart Lee, Pat Lockley, Everett Sharp, Michael Loizou. All projects were funded by JISC Digitisation Programme, with the exception of Europeana 1914-1918 funded by the European Commission.

First World War Poetry Digital Archive
The Great War Archive
Europeana 1914-1918
Running a Community Collection Online
World War I Centenary: Continuations and Beginnings