More than Dodo

Photograph by me. Dodo display in Oxford’s Natural History Museum. CC-BY-NC-SA.

Last week I packed-up my academic gown, mortar board, approximately 40 tonnes of books, then bid farewell to Oxford.

I started working at Oxford, before I was employed by Oxford – taking a summer internship developing Old English digital resources, which are unbelievably still online 17 years later. That September I was given a job as an academic web developer…and it went from there.

17 years…

I have held a number of posts in that time – Web Developer, Project Manager, Project Investigator, Online Tutor, Manager of Engagement, Manager of Education Enhancement, Acting Director of Academic IT, Head of each post I have discovered a bit about who I am and what I want to be. I’ve had some harsh lessons and some amazing achievements. I’m now at the point where I want to explore that in a different context, for how can I be the best I can be if I only bring the experience of one, rather unique, institution?

Oxford is a huge part of who I am. Beautiful, magical Oxford, oozing with history and  tradition. To me it is the city-equivalent of opera. As William Butler Yeats put it, a place where one expects people to sing rather than talk. In fact there was a lady who cycled past my department everyday adorned with flowers signing opera at the top of her voice. Quite quickly that just became normal. Just like the ex-academic who walked around with a  parrot perched on his shoulder wanting to discuss Dante to anyone who would stop and listen, or having lunch with a nun to discuss her digital pedagogy, and October and June being the months where you see more people in sub-fusc than normal clothes. I found myself, after a number of years, naturally reeling off the language of the institution as if it were mother-tongue, like I was meant to be there, a language which to others may sound like the words of a Dickens novel or a JK Rowling creation. Michaelmas, Hilary, Trinity, Encenia…. I once sat on a committee that took place in a magnificent oak-panelled college room where I was told that the chairs had been selected by the college ‘Committee for the Antiquities’. Beautiful, magical Oxford. There is a terribly romantic, and quite absurd, part that I shall miss.

I will be reflecting on my time at Oxford for a while yet. Whilst there is an enchanting side to the University, it is indeed 800 years old and this does not come without its challenges. There are steeped traditions and silos, glass ceilings and hierarchies, silencing. The demographics of OxBridge, in terms of admissions, are often discussed by the media, sometimes fairly, sometimes not. What isn’t discussed as much is equity of opportunity for staff, both academic and professional, in terms of race, gender, age, social class, contract type, education. The University is starting to engage with this more, and I’m glad I have been a voice amongst many in pressing for change. It was at the meeting of Congregation with the infamous walkout of members, on the blocking of debate on pension reform, that really drove it home. Before we got onto the matter in hand, being Oxford we first we had to agree that the Sermons on the Grace of Humility and on the Sin of Pride need not be preached only on Quinquagesima Sunday and the last Sunday before Advent. No one really knew what that meant. Holding a role which requires me to take an institution forwards whilst being surrounded by the past and cultures and structures that reinforce it is something that I’ll need to spend some time unpicking.

More than Dodo‘ is a HT (Twitter abbrev. for ‘Hat tip’) to a wonderful, engaging, and literally my favorite Twitter account belonging to Oxford’s Museum of Natural History. Between 2011-2014 I ran Twitter for Academia workshops at the University – I had 100 people attending each term, the workshops covered teaching, research and public engagement (a big passion of mine). Tweeting museum objects are my favorite use of Twitter. So creative. I used the whale in New York’s Natural History Museum as a case study, and now Oxford have a tweeting dodo in reference to the unique remains of the dodo in it’s own museum, a bird which became extinct in the 17th Century. Oxford’s dodo specimen is the only one in existence from which DNA can be extracted for molecular analysis to work out relationships and potentially to reconstruct the genome of dodos. Recent research has also revealed that the bird was in fact the victim of a murder most fowl – shot in the head as opposed to dying of natural causes after being transported from Mauritius to the UK as a public spectacle. There are now a whole heap of questions as to what people in the 17th century knew about preserving remains and understanding why the bird became extinct.

In a sense Oxford has been my dodo. It was at the beginning – the UK’s first University, my first employment in higher education. But there is more than dodo,. Like Lewis Carol, who visited Oxford’s dodo regularly at the museum and used it for inspiration for Alice in Wonderland, I have become curiouser and curiouser. I’m eager to extract my own analysis’ of my time at Oxford and build new, informed, relationships with the sector, to build upon my professional experience and knowledge. Oxford is not my end goal, it is the door to a greater overall understanding and becoming. I very much doubt Oxford is in threat of becoming extinct, but there are a lot of other educational models one needs to understand to engage with the sector authentically and openly.

A Teaching Statement

Lawrence Field #2. Photo by me, 2010 (CC-BY-NC).

The below text is an extract from my recently submitted teaching portfolio for the University’s Enhancing Teaching Programme. As well as including this statement in my portfolio (hard copies submitted), I have placed it here on the Web, hyperlinked to relevant articles – rather than using the required academic referencing format – and open for others to comment on. Here is an example of what critical digital pedagogy can be, in practice in my teaching philosophy. It should not be hidden away just for those who assess this body of work or sit in the physical portfolio library. I want this to be available to those for whom it exists, and as an exemplar of the open practice I aim to promote.

A Preamble

I grew up in a household in Sheffield, a city that accommodated both the most educated and least educated boroughs in the UK. The universities, teaching hospitals, and government department headquarters (NHS and Education) lay to the West, whilst second and third generation unemployment from the steel industry lay to the East. The primary school I attended was enclosed in the leafy west suburbs. My secondary school on the other hand, pulled children from across the city into a melting pot of social class, ethnicity, and religion: knives came to school, pupils went to correctional centres; chess club and Duke of Edinburgh were popular pass-times, pupils got into OxBridge. The school’s headmaster, reputed to be a communist, refused to hold the Government’s daily requirement for religious worship, and stood proud when we all walked out of school in protest at the introduction of student fees.

My mother, who trained to be a primary school teacher once myself and my younger brother were at school, worked in some of the poorest most deprived areas of the city. My father, employed by the Department of Education and Skills, worked in the field of vocational and adult learning, and undertook the set-up of the first online learning centres – ‘Learn Direct’. Later, in their retirement, they would both continue their contribution to education – my mother working on family-learning programmes, my father writing bids to fund education programmes for a local mental health charity. They were members of unions, they went on strike when called to action. As long as I can remember I have experienced education as a political space, a space that has ‘tangled-up’ education to function as a mirror to society, with a system to be resisted when groups are under-represented or ill-catered for (Hargreaves 1997).

So, what does this have to do with my own teaching philosophy? The educational spaces that my parents built, worked in, defended and challenged now have new manifestations in the digital world – online courses and communities where students from all over the world can enrol and engage. I entered Higher Education at a time when the Web was starting to permeate society. Now, boundaries have become increasingly blurred in terms of the real self and the virtual self, formal and informal learning, teachers and learners, even between software and teaching practices. The Web is at once a political space, a social space, a professional space, a space of community. In this space learning is happening.

Despite the rise in the use of digital technologies, there is widespread lack of critical thinking about using them in education. This is especially true within Higher Education where teaching in itself is particularly under-theorized, and most academic staff engage in little direct pedagogical development (also to do with lack of time). There is a lack of meaningful engagement with digital as a pedagogy in teaching development programmes, to support staff to critically reflect on the possibilities and challenges of the Web as a space to teach and learn rather than simply recreate an online version of the physical practice. As Sean Michael Morris wrote, in ‘The Failure of an Online Program’  there is ‘an insistence on doing things as we’ve always done them, on trying to match piece to piece, part to part, learning object to learning object, only limits us. Non-inquiry blinds us to the environment in which we’re actually teaching.’

Influenced by my experiences of education as a child and young adult, I see teaching and learning in digital spaces requiring a critical approach to enable its full democrative potential. As such my teaching philosophy draws on critical pedagogy an area which is primarily concerned with an equitable distribution of power and social justice. Inspired by the work of Jesse Stommel and other writings in the Hybrid Pedagogy ,an online open-access journal, this has developed into an exploration of critical digital pedagogy, Stommel defines this as a pedagogy which:

[… ] would ask questions about technology, about the assumptions we make about technology—its includedness in education, its politics, its economics and labor, and its repercussions for privacy and surveillance—and not simply about the use of technology. We wanted […] to push beyond the “how” to use a tool, and into the “why” and “whether”.

Critical digital pedagogy asks us to dispense of our existing biases and ‘rethink’ our practices, even when to do so may be politically risky. I hold a senior post in Digital Education. My role is to be an advocate for the implementation of digital technologies in teaching, drive large-scale learning technology projects, teach on staff development programmes in a way that will encourage uptake, so that we, as a University, will ‘continue to be a premier institution for teaching and learning’. This flies in the face of the way that the University’s core educational principles are enacted across the institution – through intensive face-to-face small group teaching (tutorials) and resident scholarly communities in colleges. A much more critical approach is required to question the role of digital technologies in this educational model, and question the applicability of this educational model in what is a rapidly changing online world.

The four main characteristics of Critical digital pedagogy, Stommel writes, are that it:

  • centres its practice on community and collaboration;
  • must remain open to diverse, international voices, and thus requires invention to reimagine the ways that communication and collaboration happen across cultural and political boundaries;
  • will not, cannot, be defined by a single voice but must gather together a cacophony of voices;
  • must have use and application outside traditional institutions of education.

This, I feel, is particularly relevant to my current context as a teacher. The OxBridge research-intensive institution I am employed by is steeped in tradition, with the highest admission criteria, drawing the world’s best students into buildings that could be straight out of Harry Potter and into a discourse that sounds like it is from a Dickensian novel…’Michalemas term’, ‘Hilary term’, ‘Congregation’, ‘Encaenia’ etc. This is at once its charm, and also its failure to be seen as part of the world, or rather seen as intrinsically exclusive. On many occasions I have heard staff and students describing working and studying here as existing in a ‘bubble’. The University and its colleges have been publicly criticised, sometimes wrongly, for its failure to widen participation, its complex power-structures that silence minorities, its less than adequate support for learners with specific needs or disabilities, and its perceived elitist culture. Working within the institution for over 15 years I have seen the hard work of colleagues and student bodies to improve this, and it has improved [1] [2] [3], and there is greater internal recognition and engagement with the challenges. But I also struggle with the fact that, ultimately, I am a part of the system that perpetuates this culture. Until recently I have held back from questioning the status quo, the gold standard of education.

In principle the small-group teaching and collegiate communities make the University a socially constructivist and connectivist space. But in spirit, it is not this. For it serves its own and fails to adequately reach beyond the boundaries of its walled gardens and dreaming spires in the meaningful ways that its research activities with allocated funding are enabled to do. Anchoring my philosophy in critical digital pedagogy I aspire to provide a lens to rethink how teaching and learning can harness the digital space to become more networked and open, and ultimately more inclusive. Creating not just better learners through active engagement with each other, but better citizens through active engagement with the world.

My Teaching Statement

In reality it is not easy to enact a critical digital pedagogy, but as the basis of my evolving teaching philosophy there are ways in which I use, and plan to use, what I would regard to be examples of this approach in my practice.

  • Digital technology does not have encoded value. These tools are good only insofar as they are used. My work starts with people, rather than tools. We are the most important technology involved in digital learning.
  • We are better users of digital technology when we are thinking critically about the nature and effects of that technology. I will work to encourage students to think critically about new tools.
  • There is no such thing as a ‘digital native’ and I will never treat students as such. Often people are comfortable in using technology of their smart phone, the internet, social media but this does not mean they can apply it to education or scholarship.
  • I will practice what I preach, and demonstrate that practice openly for those whom it is meant to benefit. Teaching by example.
  • Within teaching practice, I will attempt to build community and collaboration in networks beyond the classroom (for instance in open spaces such as social media sites). This echoes Stommel’s call for collaboration and community and application outside of the bounds of the institution. However, I will never insist that a student enter this space if they are not comfortable with that, and that activities I design for this space are supported and executed with thought.
  • I will plan teaching so that students have time to experiment, fail, and succeed in their exploration of digital tools and spaces.
  • I will promote that students online are cared for and look for ways within the VLE or other platforms to do that.


Understanding University Lecturers as Learners

Passing the Sheldonian. By me, 2006. (CC-BY-NC)

I have found that providing pedagogical staff development for academics raises a whole heap of challenges in terms of engagement. As part of the Enhancing Teaching Programme I am undertaking with the Oxford Learning Institute I have had the opportunity to reflect on this in relation to the digital pedagogies we hope to embed more as part of staff development programmes. These are my current thoughts:

Academic Identity and University Culture

  • Academic staff are deeply engaged in their subjects, most likely with a Doctorate in the field. They are also quite likely to be researchers.
  • By holding post in a research-intensive University academics are likely to be embedded in a culture where research is valued much more highly than pedagogy,
  • Lack of recognition for teaching is exacerbated by underlying issues such as casualisation, and lack of a defined career progression. This raises the potential for the roles of expert and teacher to stand in opposition to each other.
  • This can cause scepticism on the part of the academic-learner regarding the value of professional development in teaching, and impinge significantly on the focus they give to staff development programmes a whole (Davies & Maguire, 2013).

Never enough time

  • Time-commitment is also a significant challenge for academic-learners. Research commitments take precedent, and there is a host of other academic activities such as admissions and exam marking, college commitments, committees etc.
  • Robbins & Dermo (2016) found that ‘although the learners are academics, it is not unheard of for them to engage with the PGCert in the same manner in which their own decried, supposedly, overly ‘exam focused’ students may engage.’ Learners may draw on surface learning approaches, focusing on summative deadlines and ‘jumping through hoops’ as opposed to engaging deeply in the reflection necessary to review and develop one’s own practice.


  • A programme of study on pedagogy such as a PGCert or PGDip will have a diverse range of learners, uniquely in terms of the variety of disciplines they come from.
  • This may influence how they engage with the requirement to reflect on their practice, which is fundamental for their ongoing development as teachers (Bell, 2011).  For instance social scientists and those in health studies may easily engage in this approach, whilst those in engineering, computational and physical sciences may benefit from more scaffolding and support (Robbins & Dermo: 2016).

The Technology

Whilst issues such as academic identity and culture of teaching can only really be addressed at institutional and departmental levels, in designing pedagogical staff development I must consider educational approaches, assessment designs, and strategies that can be employed which make it easier for academic-learners to engage without challenging their values.

Breaking down the barriers, breaking down the vision…Canvas@Oxford

1600 pandas Nantes 2009-3.jpg by Stéfan. cc-by-sa-2.0.
1600 pandas Nantes 2009-3.jpg by Stéfan. cc-by-sa-2.0.

Our programme to bring in a new VLE for the University is more than a technology replacement programme. Canvas@Oxford is an opportunity to open up conversations around digital education and the role of the VLE.  It also provides an opportunity to break down some of the barriers that exist around using digital tools and spaces in teaching and learning. As such it is vital that we have a vision statement which reflects our education-first approach, how our new VLE, Canvas by Instructure, will support this, and who will benefit from this change.

This is the vision statement:

Advancing education at Oxford by providing an intuitive digital platform for all.

As a team of learning technology  experts we need to be able to talk about this vision in our discussions with academic staff and course teams, so that we can paint a picture of the job that we have hired Instructure to do; the student experience we are aiming for; and importantly address the whys around why we are changing.

Lets break down the vision statement into its three core parts.

Advancing education at Oxford…

Oxford provides a world-class education, and regularly tops the global HE league tables. This educational model, known fondly as the Oxford Experience, is built on a set of core educational principles: Providing intellectually stimulating conversations (through tutorials); small scholarly communities (through the colleges); research-led teaching; and a flexible, personalised curriculum that enables students to go beyond their disciplines and decide the shape of their own course of study.

To advance these principles is not to replace them. The mechanisms through which they are enacted – the tutorial system, the colleges, are unique and for many highly effective, but they are not the only ways in which these principles can be realised. By being more digitally engaged and pedagogically reflective we can explore how Canvas can support Oxford’s ethos. At a basic level huge benefits can be realised – through time-saving streamingling resources, and providing the digital integrations that students expect in the 21st Century. This supports and enriches current practice.

At an advanced level digital spaces can provide enhanced and alternative opportunities to learn and collaborate in learning. The digital classroom is a global classroom, and provides opportunities for cross-disciplinary, cross-cultural, and cross-geographical learning . There are also opportunities for individual academics and course teams to plug-in digital tools specific to their course learning objectives, and design rich online learning activities. Canvas’ ability to network with social media platforms and external blogs, as well as its mobile applications opens opportunities to teachers and students to interact with the platform in the same ways they interact with the rest of the Web: creatively, socially, dynamically.

Rather than simply providing an ‘online version’ of a subject, we can reshape it. To do this we need staff and students with digital literacies, who can be effective tutors and learners in an online context. We are finding that we can begin using the VLE not to just build courses but to organise thinking about courses. As such Canvas@Oxford is not just about the tool itself, it is also about supporting and evolving the development of lifelong digital capabilities and blended curriculum design.

by providing an intuitive digital platform… 

Aesthetics matter. Usability is key to technology uptake. Interface design can shape the learning experience. In our review of our existing VLE one of the key findings was that staff and students found its usability, navigation and interface cumbersome and clunky, and as such we ranked these features very highly in our tender evaluations of VLE platforms. By removing usability barriers we are enabling students to engage more with content and activities, and educators to engage more with learning design. Furthermore the view of what an intuitive digital platform is moves on at a rapid pace. A VLE does not only exist on the desktop computer or laptop, they need to be rendered seamlessly across mobile devices and operating systems. Regular, frequent interface updates are easily provided through a cloud-based VLE, and dedicated mobile applications can enable access to learning and teaching anytime, anywhere.

…for all.

Our core learning platform will provide a digital space that is available to all our students, all who teach, and all who support teaching and learning.  Through simply making learning resources available online we can offer greater flexibility and accessibility to learning. This is powerful. The digital allows us to meet more people’s needs than ever before. We are currently looking at accessibility plugins to enable us to unlock the full potential of the VLE to support those with disabilities, those with specific learning difficulties, and those with access requirements. There are also a huge cohort of staff and students who benefit from online accessible provision but who may not ask for help, such as staff and students with mental health problems, those with carer responsibilities, or those with less flexibility because of other academic commitments or the need to work as well as study.

Personally, for me, the exclamation that it is ‘for all’  that is the most powerful part of this  statement. The University’s 2018-2023 draft strategic plan sets out a desire to “set ambitious targets” to “reduce by 2023 gaps in attainment by gender, ethnic origin and socio-economic background”. It also wants to “substantially increase” the number of undergraduate places offered to students from groups who are currently under-represented, and “accommodate growth in student numbers” overall. But yet it costs almost double to fund an undergraduate’s place at Oxford than what they pay in fees, largely due to the face-time intensive tutorial model and collegiate setting. It is time to explore how the Oxford Experience can exist at a consistent high calibre across physical and virtual spaces, support both retaining and refreshing the University’s rich academic environment – not only as a means to develop  personal and transferable skills to succeed in a global workplace, but to reach out wider, be more inclusive, and continue to advance excellence in teaching and learning.



Scaffolding on Oxford's Radcliffe Camera Library. Photo by me, 2009 (CC-BY-NC).
Scaffolding on Oxford’s Radcliffe Camera Library. Photo by me, 2009 (CC-BY-NC).

The subject of putting reading lists online is a rather contentious one at the University, and one which colleagues at other Universities struggle to understand. I was fist met with ‘strength of academic opinion’ when I was undertaking some institutional research for my MSc in Education in 2006, during which I interviewed academic colleagues on their perceptions and experiences of technology use in University teaching. I was rather interested by the angry pushback to my suggestion that reading lists could be shared in a VLE and link students directly to items in the library catalogue. This, it seemed, encouraged our students to be ‘little birds with their mouths wide open, waiting for knowledge to be fed to them with a silver spoon’.

It is important that our students develop the skills to discover readings, interrogate the catalogues and critically assess what is relevant to their studies and what is not. Our TEF submission states clearly we want our students to be independent and critical learners. But that is a difficult point to start from as a new first year student. Scaffolding is needed to be taken to that point. Teaching ethos is not the only barrier, there are concerns around intellectual property and teaching viability, especially in terms of our college tutors whose research is often embodied within their small group teaching and their reading lists. Publication can take so long, and it is seen as risky to make open it up online, including reading lists.

We are embarking on our third attempt to introduce a University online reading list management system in the 17 years I have been here. And this time student voice , addressing the no longer acceptable time-consuming processes of our librarian colleagues, and wider support for digital education will see a University-wide roll-out in the 18/19 academic year. However, I feel we will be working particularly hard to get academic support for this development, and endeavour to make it part of the wider conversation on how digital can create opportunities in teaching and learning, not chip away at the Oxford-experience, but enhance it.


That the college lecturer could be replaced by the Gramaphone…

It seems that University Union debating societies in 1931 were having very much the same discussions that we have had in the past few years on the subject of recording lectures, albeit the technology may have moved on somewhat.

Scan of University College of South Wales Union Debating Society Programme 1931-1932.
University College of South Wales Union Debating Society Programme 1931-1932. 20th Nov 1931 ‘The the college lecturer should be replaced by the gramophone’. Shared by colleagues at our Lecture Capture Forum.

As we move into the second year of our opt-in lecture capture service, lectures have been recorded, lectures continue to be attended, no one has been replaced by a gramophone (or any other form of technology, that we know of). Our students with recorded lectures are pleased.

Lecture recording at Oxford, like at many institutions is an educational technology driven by student demand. And we took it on to deliver.  The feedback we gather throughout the year from our students is almost exclusively positive. Our students particularly value:

  • reviewing lectures for exam revision
  • listening in lecture rooms rather than focusing on writing notes (with more comprehensive notes being enriched after with the aid of the captured event),
  • replaying lectures at a pace that suits them, to understand the more complex issues covered in the lecture
  • the ability to catch-up if they have a clash with another class or miss a lecture for another reason
  • connecting departmental teaching and college teaching in a more timely way (a term of tutorials on Feminist Literary Theories may be quite a distance away from the lecture series).

The recording of lectures supports students with accessibility and disability requirements, especially after the withdrawal of the Disabled Students Allowance meant HEFCE/BIS put the onus on universities to remove paid-for notetakers. However, we need to be careful in promoting this a major driver when advocating lecture capture. Making recorded lectures only available to students with registered disabilities, who request them, is not what this service is about. It is to support all, inclusively, whether those disabilities are visible or hidden, physical or mental, registered or not. A student with depression can struggle to keep up, recorded lectures provides them with an opportunity to revisit their classes gently in their own time.  Lecture recording supports varied learning styles and the varied strategies students employ to assimilate and critically reflect on the huge amounts information they receive in their studies. As one student put it at a recent event  I attended ‘Lecture capture is part of the toolkit students need‘.

As is the case at most other institutions, the threat to attendance at lectures continues to be debated. By and large it has not been an issue, students miss lectures for many reasons, generally not because they consider the recorded version to  be a replacement for the lecture experience. Our feedback from students is that they plan to continue attending their lectures citing structure to their studies and contact opportunities with their peers and subject experts as key reasons. The lecture has a social context and this is key, particularly at Oxford where  undergraduates are largely taught in small groups in their colleges, and lectures provide an opportunity to engage with a wider discipline cohort and connect with their departments. *

Whilst things are looking positive in relation to the student experience, some interesting questions are being raised by academic colleagues. These were echoed by the sector at the University of Leicester’s event Implementing Lecture Capture: what are we learning? which I attended earlier this term. Some lecturers, who have employed more interactive methods in their sessions, have expressed that capture is forcing them to retreat to didactic methods of teaching – knowing they are being recorded keeps them positioned at the lectern and compelled to deliver a ‘to-the-camera talk-piece’. But, on the ‘flip’ side others have reflected on the traditional practice of the lecture and are now setting their students pre-lecture ‘viewing’ of previously recorded sessions, or specially produced own mini talk pieces, then release the lecture time for other group learning activities to test, reinforce and explore foundational knowledge and understanding.

This is great example of digital enabling an extension of teaching practices and fostering  more active blended learning. The role of the learning technologist is vital here, professionals who can advise not just about what digital tool to use and how, but provide exemplars of how it can be used to meet learning outcomes. This was echoed in a fantastic talk delivered at our own Lecture Capture forum by Tony Lancaster and Karl Luke from Cardiff University who advocated the role of the learning technologist in supporting change and iterative design of learning strategies.  

Four years on from introducing lecture capture at Oxford, conversations are happening around the role of the lecture in education.  More and more academic colleagues are exploring flipped learning and student response systems , the lecture space is shifting.  It would be over-zealous of me to suggest that lecture capture is the reason these conversations are happening, but capture certainly brings an interesting element to the table, not just in regards to recording but the wider use of video in teaching and learning, and the spaces it creates for innovation. The lecture has survived 1000s of years, it has survived books, gramophones, televisions and YouTube. I don’t think we will see the back of it quite yet, although a little disruption is rarely a bad thing.

* Lecture capture should also not be used as substitute for teaching, as in the case of #USSStrikes.