Where am I going? What am I doing?

I have just a couple of weeks of long service leave to go. It’s been so good to have a break from work, without the threat of worrying where the next pay check is coming from. I’ve been working since I was 16 and during that time there have been a few stints of unemployment, but they never felt like a break, more like a slow unravelling of everything you had as you try to dodge the poverty line and deal with the onset of depression. In comparison to that this break has been great!

I haven’t had the luxury of being able to travel during this time, unfortunately the family doesn’t accrue the same leave, nor does the bank account stretch far enough to indulge the expense. Instead I’ve been doing admin. I hadn’t realised just how much admin is involved in our modern lives, but when you stop and let it catch up, you end up drowning in it. Modern life is full of tedious tasks and the mundane. Lots of checking stuff and following up with people.


I’ve been using the time to do some re-evaluation of my work and where it is I’m going with it. To be honest I’m keen to make work do more for me, provide more opportunities to learn and grow, to be more of a challenge. I think I’ve settled into doing tasks, rather that achieving things – and there’s a subtle difference between the two. Doing tasks is easier, it requires less effort and expenditure, and I’ve fallen into that over the last few years, mainly because life got hard. Family life changed considerably over the last 6 years, a child and then the fire, were pretty significant life changing events. The disruption to the norm that a child brings was challenging and the need to be in parent mode during all of her waking hours was draining, physically and mentally. The fire and the experience of losing everything, as well as the added trauma of dealing with a recalcitrant and obstinate insurance company, was incredibly stressful. So slipping into a state where work was easy was perhaps inevitable.

At the same time work can’t own me. I’ve given a lot to my job, worked a lot of extra hours, pulled projects out of the fire and tried to offer my insights and knowledge to better the institution, but the reality is they don’t seem to care. Individuals might but the institution doesn’t, and it never will. I need to change my expectations in this regard, to do more for me and to maintain my autonomy. Achieving shouldn’t be the completion of a task or project, I need work to be bigger than that, to give me something in return for my effort. Trying to eek that out of work might be challenging, but at the moment there’s some interesting opportunities on the horizon.

I’ve never held much credence in personality test, and I know Myers Briggs has been discredited on numerous fronts, but the words describing my “personality type” (INTP) have always resonated with me. Say what you like about the theory and practice, the words always resonated with me… deeply. For me it was an articulation of what goes on in my head, and often how I think and behave. It’s not all 100% correct, but there were swathes of my profile that literally describe myself and how I work. Like this:

… their minds are constantly working to generate new theories, or to prove or disprove existing theories. They approach problems and theories with enthusiasm and skepticism, ignoring existing rules and opinions and defining their own approach to the resolution. They seek patterns and logical explanations for anything that interests them. They’re usually extremely bright, and able to be objectively critical in their analysis. They love new ideas, and become very excited over abstractions and theories. They love to discuss these concepts with others. They may seem “dreamy” and distant to others, because they spend a lot of time inside their minds musing over theories. They hate to work on routine things – they would much prefer to build complex theoretical solutions, and leave the implementation of the system to others. They are intensely interested in theory, and will put forth tremendous amounts of time and energy into finding a solution to a problem with has piqued their interest.

There may not be anything to the label of INTP, but that passage describes the kind of worker I am, what I am good at and honestly where I struggle. The routine and the repetition of task based work is something that I’ve become frustrated with and I need to move on to bigger things. That much I know.

After some deep reflection I realise that at my heart I am a creative. I need to create, to be inspired, to build as well as destroy, to move matter (ideas, concepts and code too) and form it into shapes and expressions. I need to work in an environment that will let me do that. One way is to find a role that will let me do that, the other is to make it happen on my own.

And that’s where I am. On the edge of a decision. I’ve been going towards this point, and what I do has led me here. I now need to make the next move and see where it might take me. And maybe it’s not one decision. Maybe it’s not a clean cut, but a fade out/in, a movement between spaces over the year ahead.

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My Kodak Moments

I started working on this post some time ago, and it’s sat languishing in my drafts folder. I decided I needed to finish it after reading Why Kodak Died and Fujifilm Thrived: A Tale of Two Film Companies. I loved the articles analysis which broke down the disruptive innovation narrative. At the heart of it, it was Kodak’s lack of diversification that condemned the firm to its fate.

The Kodak story is one of the founding myths of Innovationism. It is foundational to supporting the notions of disruptive innovation and Silicon Valley, as I said:

The lesson from the Kodak story is not the power of disruptive innovation, nor is it the inevitability of technology to swallow up a business. The lesson lies in being able to recognise the points of inflection that could have changed the outcome. An understanding of the environment and conditions that led to key decisions being made.

Earlier this year I read a document that described this point in time as our “Kodak Moment” in Higher Education. Not the kind of moment you want to preserve forever, but one of those inflection points where the decisions we make now will determine our future. That insight is both thrilling and foreboding. How you approach this inflection point has to do with how you interpret history. So below I’ve outlined my “Kodak Moments”, those inflection points that I see Higher Education needing to address. And for no extra cost I’ll throw in some free suggestions for what we could do as an alternative to doubling down on a faster, better film processor.


Confusing what you do for how you do it.

At some point the mission at Kodak got confused and it began to conflate what it did with how it did it. As a company it helped people create memories on film. The “help people create memories” was the what, and the “on film” was the how and somewhere along the way the two became one. In doing so it narrowed the vision so that Kodak became incapable of thinking about itself beyond film. The comparison with Fujifilm suggests that part of their survival was that they unpacked what they did at a much deeper level. They didn’t just capture memories, they had industrial process and manufacturing that could be applied to other industries.

Higher Education seems to be in a similar position. It doesn’t seem capable of articulating what it does. Perhaps it’s because each institution has, and should, have its own unique service to offer. I think all should start with “Helping people …” because it helps define them as a public service, but what comes next isn’t so obvious. What’s strange though is the uniformity of how, across institutions right around the world – a structured program of courses running between 12-14 weeks each. That’s it. That’s the how for higher education and it can’t (or it won’t) think beyond that.

Tip 1: Change the How

If you want innovation in Higher Education then go after the how. The iPod didn’t change what music was, it changed how we listed to it. The iPhone didn’t change what computers did, it changed how they were accessed. The internet didn’t change what information was available, but it certainly revolutionised how we access and share it. If Higher Education wants to innovate it needs to rethink how it does things. Start with how we structure “learning” and rethink the agricultural timetable we seem stuck with as the only model for delivery. Then you can think about how we’re funded, how we engage students, how we engage our communities and how we will create sustainable models of education into the future.

A Lack of Diversity creates Fragility

Kodak relied on income from a small number of sources. Any products Kodak offered were really about bringing people back into using their core product – printing photos. Fujifilm on the other hand diversified their income through product expansion and investments into other areas, which was key to their success when the downturn in film started to bite.

Higher Education is just like Kodak and is incredibly fragile. It relies too heavily on just one product – degrees. Those bits of paper are really what it boils down to, the one product that provides the “rivers of gold”. And considering that there’s very little difference in the how you get those bits of paper you can start to see my concern with Higher Education.

There is no real product differentiation in Higher Education. Sure you can choose different logos and locations but that’s about it. It is a globally saturated market and you have universities around the world teaching the same way for the same outcome. It’s no wonder that every man and his dog in Silicon Valley is queuing up to disrupt the sector – it is ripe for disruption. What has saved education so far is that it’s more complicated than it looks, not the robustness of the existing paradigm.

Tip 2: Focus on Learning

Education has become a product rather than a public good and a civic duty. It’s been Taylorised and Skinner Boxed, quantified and analysed. Learning went from an innately human trait to something that is pathologised. A condition that can be measured, treated and made more effective through Deliverology.

Bring the focus of the institution back to learning. We need real product differentiation and that means rethinking the degree as a product. In a saturated market you can’t simply improve – better, cheaper, faster – it’s just not enough. You must evolve the market. Provide something new but also meaningful. Engage people in more meaningful ways, inject learning into the everyday rather than something you need to take a vacation from life to do. Improving the specs won’t facilitate the change that’s required.

Tip 3: Focus on Connective Spaces

The other thing I wanted to mention here is the University Campus. Some of the most beautifully kept and under utilised places on the planet. Universities are still stuck on their establishment based on exclusivity rather than their establishment for a public services. They seem stuck on excluding their communities, from engaging with them and inviting them to be part of something bigger. Universities aren’t shared spaces despite their prominence within their communities.

Utilise the campus better. Make them available to the public. Host services, build parks and paths and places to explore. Get your community in there and being part of the space. Offer fee for services – get library access, pool and gym passes, sporting fields, meeting rooms and video conferencing. Use the university to be a connective space, not an exclusive one. Demand that research serve local purposes and serves the local community first. Bind yourself to the community you’re in rather than pretending you’re not a part of it.

The Debt Generation

One of the often overlooked facts is that the success of Kodak led to an overload of artefacts. People now had albums full of memories, ones that they barely looked at. In order to attain those memories you were required to invest time, money and space. Kodak had created debt through abundance, that people now had to give something up in order to have memories. This helped create the perfect conditions for an alternative that offered to reduce those factors, to lessen the debt. Early digital photography had technical deficiencies but it was attractive to many users – real time review of photos, easy editing to fix red eye and wonky framing and the simple fact that you could delete photos you didn’t want. What digital photography provided was real world value, one that bypassed the debt incurred through film. By providing that real world benefit they looked past the shortcomings of the technology. It made their users better, made their lives easier and you once you have that you have the momentum to change the market.

I’m not sure I’m can see the real world benefit in Higher Education anymore. Yes education is important, as are our memories, but the level of personal and financial debt required to attain an education today has reached a tipping point. We are at the point where most students have to work in order to study, and I’m talking working at a level close to full time hours rather than a shift or two on the weekend. But have the universities rethought how they teach, how they asses, when they offer classes? Have they given much through to these constraints that students now operate under? Has the bureaucracy changed in anyway? No they plough on with the same how, the same 12-14 week program. The same forms and administrivia in order to get extensions or access services still apply. Sure you can learn online these days, but the courses tend to be designed to force you through content, is that a really attractive off? Is that worth paying money for? Is it worth more than a textbook? Is it worth paying for on top of the text book? Is the piece of paper worth it?

Tip 4: Think Financially

Universities really have to come to the table around the financial viability of what they are offering. Most universities charge the same for online courses as they do for on campus. Many degrees cross subsidise other degrees from the more expensive disciplines, but is that fair on the students? Most courses are structured to get access to government funding, but could they be funded in other ways? Could fees and debt be accumulated in other ways? Could students work with and for the university in order to pay for their tuition?

Universities need to have a dialogue around the broader financials of study, not just the bottom line of their operations. If you fail to do this students will walk, taking their money with them. This isn’t something they’ll tell you about or signal in any way, they just won’t come any more – that’s what we do when we make a financial decision. Engage your students, think differently about how this works, for lack of a better phrase – think outside the box.

A Brand Buys Recognition, not Loyalty

A lot is made about the strength of Kodaks name and position in the market. They were the dominant force globally, They had a great brand. But a brand isn’t the same thing as loyalty. People, despite everything that marketing departments will tell you, are not loyal to a brand. They choose a brand – for financial reasons, for convenience, for purpose – but never based on anything as obscure as loyalty. Could loyalty have saved Kodak? No. Kodak wasn’t anything that you could be loyal to. It was an industrial processes and manufacturing outfit, it made widgets that went into gizmos where you clicked buttons.

Universities however are full of people, and they can elicit loyalty. However it’s sad to see how little universities around the world grasp that. As they have commoditised their product, they’ve also sort to commoditise their workforce. This is clearly illustrated in the rise of casualisation to the epic proportions we see now. Labour within the university has become increasingly precarious, and more and more teaching is done by people by casualised staff. Because of the nature of their employment these staff aren’t loyal to the institution, in fact they can’t – in order to make a living wage many have to teach across multiple institutions.

Do you think our students are any different? When we have commodified the degree and there is little product differentiation do you think students are going to be loyal to the brand? The only difference in terms of products at the end of the day is the logo printed on the piece of paper that signifies their degree. You will never get people to be loyal to your logo.

Tip 5: Start with your Own People

Universities need to stop fooling themselves that they are a seperate entity in the broader labour market. You cannot bemoan the change in labour conditions and the fact graduates face an uncertain employment future when you are part of that problem!

Universities are still running under the assumption that they are employing labour, and a labour based business can simply improve their efficiencies by outsourcing to a cheaper labour market. Labour in this sense is a simplified concept, yes “labour” is required for the university to function but that term doesn’t reflect what most people within the organisation actually do. What they do is deal with people and information and to do this they required understanding, and understanding requires the development of knowledge. So what our people do looks less like labour and more like knowledge. There is a key difference between knowledge and labour – labour has a static value, but knowledge can grow and change. Knowledge can develop and change organically, labour can’t. The casualisation of university staff treats knowledge as static, robbing it of its very essence in order to make it fit nicely onto someone’s spreadsheet.

Universities have to start changing their own practices. There is a revolution needed in terms of knowledge work. It shouldn’t take the equivalent of Black Lung or mesothelioma in order for you to realise the working conditions in universities are unsustainable. You shouldn’t need suicides to remind you of the strain people are under.

You could have loyalty, but you need something worth being loyal to, and that is your staff and the experience they provide your students and your institution. Rethink what your staff provide you, engage them before engaging a consultant. The thing about knowledge is that if you invest in it, it grows and increases in value. If you have more knowledgable staff, if you treat them with respect and assist their growth then your institution grows in value you too. That’s worthy of loyalty.

The Rise of Innovationism

Over the past few years I’ve witnessed the rise of a new kind of fanaticism, a new ideology that has taken hold within the tech industry and has begun to seep into other industries, sectors and government as technology increasingly important role. It defines itself through an undying and unquestioning devotion to the concept of innovation. It has reached a level in many areas where it has become more that just a function of a business, but an ideology – an ism.

Innovationism.

Innovationism looks past the history of failed innovations, incremental improvements and plain old luck, to cherry pick a creation story that exists entirely of lightbulb moments and messianic inventors and prophets. It is the new manifestation of the intelligent design story. The individuals involved come complete with omnipotent powers of insight, but there’s a wilful ignorance of their human failings and the simple fact that for every success there was a score of failures. Pointing this out to a devotee of Innovationism is tantamount to heresy and is met with howls of derision and abuse from the bro culture that regards TechCrunch as the Holy Book. It is through the lens of religion, and its side kick of fanaticism, that we can finally gain an understanding of what is going on within the Church of Silicon Valley.

The Kodak Moment

The story of Kodak’s failure to recognise and reposition it’s film business in response to emerging digital technology is legendary. Mythical even. The Kodak story is how we’ve been sold the concept of “disruptive innovation” and how innovation itself is justified. It helps transform it from a buzz word into an ideology. This Innovationism uses the Kodak story as a way of simplifying a complex business and economic environment with 20/20 hindsight into a simple message – Innovate or Die.

I See History

When I look at the Kodak story I see history. An environment and time made into an artefact that we can dissect and make sense of. History is how we can move forward, but it’s equally true that it’s why we stay rooted to the spot, doomed to repeat events again and again. What allows us to move forward isn’t history itself, but recognising the moments and conditions of inflection – learning and identifying when and what to change – and providing an alternative at the right time. These three things (recognition, alternative and timing) need to be done in concert in order to affect change. This is why history so often repeats – we can’t coordinate those required actions.

Innovationism bypasses that logic. It doesn’t seek to know or understand, it seeks only to innovate. Innovation is the means and the end. By their logic we must innovate or die, so that we can innovate and die. By dying we can live forever. Those that seek innovation are doomed to repeat history simply because they are not on a path to change it. Intersect it, maybe, but change it, no.

The lesson from the Kodak story is not the power of disruptive innovation, nor is it the inevitability of technology to swallow up a business. The lesson lies in being able to recognise the points of inflection that could have changed the outcome. An understanding of the environment and conditions that led to key decisions being made.

Ideological Distortion

We are dealing with an ideology that has distorted the function of innovation. That has bastardised it to suit the needs of it’s masters and support their world views, baked in biases and dangerous beliefs. It reinforces their privilege and distorted view of the world that needs another app or phone update rather than address the climate catastrophe their products are contributing to.

Innovation on it’s own is not the problem – it’s this particular manifestation. The move from a function that helps to facilitate change into an ideology. It has bought with it a destructive nature that is having a massive effect on peoples lives. From Uber drivers through to Facebook’s new army of content moderators – lives are being profoundly affected by those loyal to the dogma. And like those in power in other areas before them – the church, the aristocracy, the politburo – they remain unaffected. They benefit greatly from the adherence and growth of this ideology. It’s what funds the billions of dollars into the accounts of Bezos and Gates before him. It’s what widens the gap between rich and poor, divides cities and classes and people into ever smaller marginalised groups.

History doesn’t need to repeat. We have been here before. The church, the state, the aristocracy. All have risen, but all have fallen too. It’s becoming easy to recognise the problem. The time is right for change. We just need an alternative. It might be time to innovate.

No Work …. till Next Year

This blog has been neglected a bit this year. The silence has felt deafening on this end – there’s been plenty to write about, lots has been going on in life, but finding words and being able to talk things openly have challenged my expression. This site has been a place where I have shared a lot, and I often feel that it’s a disservice when it’s left idle.

Work has been challenging. My job has changed quite a bit over the last few years, and in the last year has been quite challenging. There’s been significant movement within my division, and that looks set to continue with a review completed and a restructure on the cards. That’s all led to a feeling of disillusionment and deep questioning of what I’m doing.

I’m lucky enough to have been at the university for 11 years now. It means I’ve been here long enough to understand the machinations of the place, and I’ve been here long enough to unlock long service leave.

So that’s me for the rest of the year – I’m on leave. No more work till 2019!

I’ve got enough time up my sleeve to actually go and do that thinking, to work out what I want to do next. I’m not sure about the university, or the sector as a whole. I don’t know what it is I should be doing and spending my time. But I’ve at least got an opportunity to go away and have a think about it.

Because work is not life, and in general life is good.

We’re a happy family and enjoy being together. I’ve found more interesting avenues outside of work – setting up a startup and currently looking for ways to fund it – has engaged my creativity and challenged me to do new things and push myself. I would never have got up on a stage in front of 300 people and pitched, or be interviewed on the radio. I feel I’ve got a great professional network going in EdTech – I’ve managed to find the honest, compassionate and engaging people in that space and ways to stay connected with them. I have a lot to be happy and grateful for – and work has helped create that for me. I’m glad to be back in our lovely home and in this great regional community.

It’s time to think about what comes next!

PS – Please get in touch about any projects or work that you think might be of interest. I’d love to here about what’s happening in my network, opportunities that I’d never have thought about or considered.

Some Online Learning Truths

I haven’t written here for ages, but there have been plenty of things of late that I’ve wanted to engage with. Instead of that deep engagement in posting my (Twitter friendly) equivalent of me yelling stuff out of a car window as I pass by at the speed of life:

  1. Online courses don’t need to be massive. You can have a viable class with 15-20 people. In fact the bigger the course the less of a “class” it feels.
  2. If you keep the numbers small you can dedicate more time to more students/teacher interactions. Both will feel more nourished and engaged.
  3. You don’t need to have a quiz at the end of a topic. Have a conversation instead. Don’t discount informal assessment.
  4. A course doesn’t have to be content driven. Sometimes conversation and the generation of ideas and context are more suited and more beneficial to learning. Could you run your course with zero materials?
  5. You don’t need a course to learn. Guess what!? You can just search for stuff online these days and learn by yourself! Education providers don’t have a monopoly any more. In fact formal education – you’re more difficult to engage with than ever before.
  6. Making stuff that’s meaningful is a better tool for assessment than any exam or essay.
  7. Essays are an abstraction of writing for purpose & communicating an idea. An essay is a format, a style – and for this it fails to do its job. Why? Because in essence you’re actively hiding an idea under a ton of formatting.
  8. Word count is not a signal of proficiency. Challenge the learning by forcing a more succinct statement. A tweet, a 5 minute presentation.
  9. Text is not the only way to assess. It would be faster to mark 10 x 5 minute presentation than 10 x 3000 word essays. But from a students perspective, and in the assessment of learning – just as much time/effort is required – it’s not a lesser format.
  10. Don’t forget, there are a myriad of tools and tech out there that enable conversation and dialogue. The forum can be replaced. The forum often should be replaced. Get your students to talk to each other.
  11. Different LMSs are just like Coke vs Pepsi – neither is really good for you, they have no nutritional value and you should probably just have water. We need to Think beyond the LMS.

Earn or Learn, Eat or Read

Reason students leave school: time and money. For many it’s earn or learn, eat or read… today’s system is not designed for today’s students. #asugsv2018 https://twitter.com/DesieLiz/status/986281713453056000/photo/1

This tweet hit my timeline this morning as I sipped my coffee. It stuck in my craw.

The debate around the education system doesn’t seem particularly fruitful, instead it tends to centre on apportioning blame for one shortcoming or another. Education is a complex beast, mainly because it spans civic, private, social, public and increasingly, corporate realms. It involves economic, political and financial aspects at both macro and micro levels. So many spheres with so points of interaction and intersection that it is a tangled mess. But that’s what it is. No amount of streamlining, efficiency dividends, restructures or regulation will change that. Educations place in our society is as a nexus.

However, we cannot avoid the fact that the situation described in that tweet is real, students are increasingly faced with the choice to earn or learn, eat or read. And to rub salt into the wound, they are paying to do so!

But it’s this next bit that rubs me the wrong way – “today’s system is not designed for today’s students” – because I don’t think this is a problem that’s systemic within Education. Yes education has problems that contribute to this situation, but I think it’s society itself is the problem. The society that we live in is increasingly not designed for its citizens, in fact it’s becoming It’s more and more hostile to vast swathes of people, in particular the younger generation.

I’m not sure that the Education System is capable of addressing the kinds of problems that are on table. I think we’ve got a society whose value system has gone awry, and what’s happening in education is symptomatic of that.

We are in a state where we are asking to student to pay for the privilege of choosing to earn or learn, eat or read. Apparently we can’t afford to educate people any more, while at the same time we hand over billions in corporate welfare and tax breaks. We can’t afford to feed or house people any but we can give away our natural resources and sabotage our land and water.

Education can’t and won’t fix that. Education isn’t the solution here. It might even be part of the problem as the system seeks to maintain relevance and prestige by changing the concept of education to fit the ‘work ready’ mantra. We’ve shifted the costs and the burden of being a citizen onto the next generation to the point where they have to choose whether they eat or read!

Catching Up on the Year

Wow, this year is rocketing by. I was thinking today it must have been a while since my last blog post. I just checked and it was 31/12/2017. So lets catchup on where I’m up to.

I spent the last six months elbows deep in Blackboard developing up a new theme for CSU’s deployment. A lot of that work exists as a GitHub repository and it was great to really try out GitHub and use it to it’s full potential. I’ve used the Issues and Projects features of GitHub extensively to manage and maintain the projects momentum. I also built a whole Style Guide (built with Fractal) – designing and coding the thing from scratch which has been migrated into the new theme in Blackboard.

That’s the good part of the project – the creative and challenging bit. The actual implementation into Blackboard has been a real headache for many reasons. For starters the code base for Bb is awful. Styles are all over the place and the HTML of Bb itself is atrocious. Because I’ve tried to to really take the theme that somewhat resembles modern web practices – responsive design, relative measurements and improvements to readability – it’s made this a challenge. I’ve got about 20 years of technical debt present in the application code and HTML that I’m trying to update with CSS. Add to that 10 years of technical debt when it comes to content and a lack of consistent tools and practices and I’ve reached the limit of whats possible with CSS.

There were a lot of teething problems with the roll out – communications aren’t great across the institution for these kinds of changes, there were unforeseen problems caused by the theme, and the change to a responsive design was a bit much for some very vocal staff. I bore a lot of the blowback because I was the one who’d made the changes. And that was a big part of the problem, this wasn’t a team effort – I was responsible for the whole thing. I’d done the design, code, documentation, training and communications for the whole thing.

This whole thing ate the first quarter of the year for me and also a lot of the hours that I had hoped to dedicate to other projects this year – because this was supposed to be my year of the Dog. I’m no longer a full-time employee of the university, having dropped back to 4 days a week with the aim of spending the other working day on Kelpie. I’ve managed to squeeze in some some work on it – building out a new website in Jekyll and taking my new found CSS wizardry to a new level and incorporate some CSS Grid into the site. I’ve also used my new found design system skills to work on one for Kelpie, experimenting with how and what to take from a lot of great examples out there. Visually Kelpie is looking sharp now, I’ve cleaned up the logo, colours and type concepts and really got into working with Sketch.

Over the Easter holidays I took some extra days off and managed to get a few other projects underway:

  • I finally got on top of my photos. I now have a consolidated RAW archive that’s backed up to the cloud and a jpg archive in Dropbox and in Flickr. This is a huge relief. I lost all my RAW files in the fire – having backed up across disks, but not sites and our awful internet speeds mean the cloud was out of the question. I was lucky that I had started to do a yearly archive in Dropbox so we didn’t loose everything, but it was a huge loss.
  • Yard Cleaned Up – We’ve been in the house coming up to a year now and there are still a few outstanding jobs to be done. I think we fell into a bit of a rut having finally arrived home, there was a collective sigh of satisfaction having survived that ordeal and we never really got back up. But now we’re on the move. We got a tree out the front removed and our beautiful shady tree out back was in need of a drastic trim. There was also all manner of building materials, bricks and old stuff that we needed to get rid of. So over the weekend we filled a skip bin of that detritus and sent it off on Tuesday morning.

There’s plenty more to come in 2018… and it feels a bit like the year has just started in many ways now that I can mark a few of these jobs done (or at least deferred).

Design Thinking

Or, how to feel like you’ve done something when you haven’t.

Or, how to waste time and money without making progress.

I’m glad Lee Vinsel wrote this post Design Thinking is Kind of Like Syphilis — It’s Contagious and Rots Your Brains. While it takes a rather extreme view the further in you go – eventually equating it with the Hitler Youth (does that count as Godwin’s Law?) – it does include a relatively detailed critique of many of the problems that the cult of Design Thinking has caused.

To start – I am a Graphic Designer. I trained in multimedia and graphic design and worked in a variety of roles doing design work over the last 20 years. I’m pretty familiar with the design process, but also the skill of the designer. This is a profession, an art and a craft and it requires a diverse set of skills. Not everyone has them, not everyone has them all, and so you can quickly start to recognise what your capabilities are, what your strengths and weakness are and how to manage them. So for me Natasha Jen’s video really struck a chord with me. Lee returns to her ideas again and again throughout his piece too because they are a really strong critique of the methodology and ideology that sits behind Design Thinking.

Anti-Designer

The main problem that I have with Design Thinking is the fact that it’s hostile to an actual Designer. If you practice design then the linear nature of the process, the toolkit, the ideas, the lack of evidence, iteration or improvement is worrying. What is fundamentally flawed is the lack of “crit” – not just the critical engagement within the process, but the lack of change that occurs because of criticism.

As a Designer one of the key lessons from my years of study is critique – how to do it, what to take from it, how to handle it and what to do with it. And it’s that last one that makes a designer (and hence the whole design process). Being able to comprehend, understand and make (or not) the right changes based on criticism is the most important skill of a designer and the process as a whole. Design is iteration. It is fluid. It is changeable and the form is malleable and adaptable and you do that as part of the process. You don’t just prototype as a singular, you constantly change and adapt to feedback and intuition. Yes, intuition – the tacit knowledge and skill of the designer that is built up through years of practice, success and failure. Design Thinking does none of this. Skill isn’t just missing – its completely absent. The process actively discounts it and instead relies on the supposed meritocracy of the Post It note. Anyone with knowledge or skill can’t really exercise it in the process – they’re just along for the ride.

Absent Friends

Critique isn’t just missing from Design Thinking – its completely absent – and so when it becomes the method for change, for generating innovation, for defining the future you don’t get Design or Creativity. You get…. well nothing but a bunch of half-cocked ideas. You get the same old solutions to the same old problems. You get a vision that is so unimaginative and uncreative it looks like yet another rerun of yesteryear, because it is.

At it’s heart Design Thinking isn’t really about developing a creative or novel solutions to a problem, it’s about involvement. It’s about bringing people together to think about the problem, which is good, but not to actually solve it. Not to actually participate in change. Not to be the change themselves. Because Design Thinking isn’t about doing the work – you know, designing, that happens after the fact when someone actually has to process Post It notes and turn it into something tangible. To take a wireframe and make it real. To take a half-cocked idea and translate it into something actionable. And that isn’t design at all! Design isn’t something that’s tacked onto the end, it is the process. Design Thinking is a poor substitute and I think Lee’s article does a good job of what’s wrong when it is.

Design Thinking is how to feel like you’ve done something when you haven’t. It’s like a long meeting, with more activity, discussion and Post It’s but the outcome is the same. Nothing actually gets done. No change gets made. You just think about it instead.

The other absentee is history and evidence. Design Thinking assumes a clean slate and it’s dismissal of prior skill and knowledge leads to a process of simplification that wipes away history, complications, systemic issues, even legal, moral and ethical considerations. When you set the scene as a “what if” you remove context from the problem you’re trying to solve, which is the absolute opposite of Design. This really stuck out for me in Jen’s talk:

You bring forth evidence and then everybody crits the heck out of it. And that’s when you can make improvements, right? That’s when you can begin to really evaluate if something is valuable, is good, at all.

When was the last time this happened in Ed Tech?

When was the last time this happened in Higher Education?

This ignorance of history and evidence is perhaps Design Thinking’s most critical flaw. And it’s led to an unprecedented waste of time, money and labour without making much progress. How much change has really happened? How widespread are the changes of MOOCs? How has the lives of students improved because of Ed Tech? If you don’t critique, you don’t improve. If you don’t change what you’re doing then you keep making the same mistakes.

I’ve written before about critique, and more importantly the lack of it in Ed Tech, and more broadly in Higher Education.

the purpose of the critique is to make the work stronger, better, and more fitting.

I wrote that in 2015. I haven’t seen much change since then. In fact after 10 years working in Ed Tech I’m seeing the conversations come full circle. The same stuff we were discussing a decade ago are coming around again. We haven’t learnt. We haven’t listened. We haven’t critiqued.

2017 – Rebuilding: Homes and Hospitality

This year was another big one.

My daughter started school back in January which was a pretty momentous occasion – for her and us doting parents.

First Day Hugs with Dad

The build work for our house started in earnest after a long drawn out battle with the insurance company. We were paid out a fair sum of money to have our own builders come in and finish the job. We finally got to move in at the end of May after almost 20 months after the fire occurred. It was good to be home.

Oklahoma Skyline

I was lucky to have the opportunity to head over to the US again and catch up with some of my favourite and inspiring people. Thanks to Laura for showing me some of the best beers in Texas. The Reclaim Crew put on an outstanding conference where I got to meet and catch up with Tom, Alan, Brian, Jim and a whole swathe of intelligent people. The folks from Oklahoma University – Adam, John and Keegan – who showed me around and openly shared their work.

Campus

Work this year was an interesting mix of talk around innovation and the more boring and practical. I spent a it of time immersed in the EduGrowth community but was bought back to the reality of EdTech while spending a big chunk of time skinning Blackboard. I have now upped my game when it comes to CSS abilities but have earned a few grey hairs in the process. What came out of it though was a new design system – one that I hope can grow and be maintained going forth.

As a side project I dove headfirst into the world of AgriTech startups this year with my fearless colleague Ben. While we never managed to win anything we did quite handsomely with our runner up spots that proved we were onto something. We’re planning on taking Kelpie a bit further in the new year and see what’s possible.

eChallenge Awards 2017-187

Being back in our home was an amazing feeling and I think as a family unit we revelled in it. We had our space and stuff back. The house was comfortable but more importantly was that it was ours. It wasn’t temporary or a placeholder it was something we controlled and inhabited. I can’t express how important that feeling is – it’s an intangible thing, but it anchors you. Home lets you be, become and do other things.

I had the great honour to have a number of international visitors come out to Australia. Keegan, Jim and Alan all made the long trek out to Australia and it was great to catch up with them all and spend time on “home turf”. It was great to explore Melbourne with Keegan and Jim, to meet Rohan and introduce them all to Joyce and Mark. What was really exciting was when Jim and Alan actually made it all the way to Wagga Wagga. It’s the first time I’ve had the opportunity to host friends from overseas for a long time and it was great.

A willingness to be hospitable has been missing in my life for a little while. Having spent so long living in what felt like (and technically was) someone else’s house, I never really wanted to invite people in or over. Most of our socialising was done somewhere else – out at a venue or at their place, but never at ours. Being home has changed that. We now have somewhere where we feel comfortable inviting people into – something that represents, reflects and embodies us. Now that we have our place there’s both a willingness and opportunity to invite people in and be more hospitable. Being home is the opposite of the hostile architecture that the rental felt like.

Cooking Genius of Tim Klapdor

I’m glad Alan captured my “Up-The-Duff Chicken” – my go to meal for guests because it’s both relatively easy to prepare over a conversation at the kitchen bench, simple to cook, looks impressive and is delicious. I realised afterwards that I’d served this to both Jim and Alan when they visited (not on purpose) and I think it represents something quintessentially home-made. It’s certainly not something I’ve seen on the menu at any restaurant and the use of a can of beer to steam the chicken from the inside seems quite Australian. It was really great to have Alan and Jim come into my home and show them around Wagga and the local area and it was an honour to have them both here. It was also great to travel with Alan over to Wollongong and stop at a few of my favourite places along the way – Hyam’s Beach and Huskisson for fish and chips.

2017/365/329 Reaching for the Beach

Meeting Kate Bowles and her amazing family was a huge payoff at the end of the drive. Experiencing her hospitality, and that of the whole family and the cat, was really life affirming. Her daughters blew me away with their intelligence, compassion and engagement with the world. Spending the afternoon and evening in their presences and in such hospitable company and setting recharged my sense of humanity and honestly game me hope in these often bleak times.

This year has been a shit show in so many ways. Throughout the year I’ve felt horrified at the depravity, spite and abhorrent behaviour that’s been on display. I’ve also felt completely out of my depth. I haven’t known how to respond or react in a meaningful and welcome way. I can bitch and moan from the sidelines, but most of this year I’ve been silent, unsure of what, if anything I can or should do.

IMG_0217

2017 has been a year of rebuilding. Physically the house is done, and I’ve been able to make some in roads to being more hospitable and welcoming. I’ve got to experience it’s importance, but more significantly its effect. I’ve felt recharged and empowered by spending time with people this year, and as an introvert that’s hardly ever been the case. I realise that I was lacking in hospitality in my life, having all your stuff taken from you tends to have that effect. There was plenty of sympathy after the fact, but it wasn’t what I needed from other people that was important, it’s what I could give to them. And that’s what I’d lost in the fire – both the mechanism to do so by being able to offer my house to others, but also a real desire to invite anyone in. I think I’ve turned a corner on that one.

Students & The Cost of Higher Education

The news of the government announcing an end to the demand driven higher education system shouldn’t come as a surprise. For one, this government’s oligarchy driven ideology likes to veil their policies in the concept of the “free-market”, but in reality they are anything but. This is a party based around favours for the rich, of keeping the status quo and a naive sense of regressionism to the “good old days” (when white men were in charge and everyone else knew their place was under their rule). So something like a demand driven system, you know something that resembles democratic choice, was bound to be pulled back because it didn’t fit their ideology. This time it was done as a budget measure to pay for tax cuts for the rich (who don’t seem to pay much tax… so not sure why they need another one).

The other reason that this was inevitable was that it was getting increasingly expensive for the government. Universities were under no obligation to reduce the cost of their courses as student numbers increased and economies of scale arguments could have easily been invoked. Instead most of universities spent big to attract more students with little thought of the long term consequences of scaling up their enterprises. The government could have been proactive in this and sought to undertake some real reform in the area, but instead of attempting to tackle some of the underlying issues in the current funding model but instead they simply sort to cut funding and magically all the problems will resolve themselves.

The silence around some of the key problems in higher education is deafening:

  • No one seems willing to discuss the fact that students are being forced to prop up the higher education system as the government slowly defunds it.
  • No one seems to willing to discuss the impact of students having to bear a vast amount of debt right from the outset of their careers.
  • No one seems willing to discuss how much of the fees students pay goes to cross subsidise research and if that is a justifiable expense to be shifted to students.
  • No one seems willing to discuss the massive casualisation of the teaching workforce and the lack of time and permanent staff allocated to teach students.
  • No one seems willing to discuss if higher education will retain its value for students going into the future.

No one seems willing to discuss students.

The language around higher education seems to ignore them completely, despite the fact that our future literally depends on them. Higher Education seems fine with de-humanising itself and in being discussed purely in economic or industrial terms. We love talking about money and value, and industry sectors and exports, and economic contributions and growth, and standards and rankings.

We don’t seem to want to spend any time talking about the people.

We don’t want to talk about the stress we place on staff through precarious employment. How we don’t pay them over summer. How they can’t get a loan because they’re not permanent. How our last minute hiring practices creates a heart in the mouth event every single session, or how they aren’t allocated enough time to actually engage with student in any other way than the delivery of content.

We don’t want to talk about the stress we place on students to perform. How this course is costing them $2000 a pop so the cost of failure has huge financial costs associated with it. How there is no financial support to study. How they are forced to work menial jobs to feed and cloth themselves most of the time. How we just cut penalty rates and took $100 a week from their pay check. How we fail to even acknowledge the mental anguish our student go through in order to study. How we belittle them with bureaucratic paperwork and arbitrary penalties. How we have removed sympathy from the system of education which would acknowledge it’s very human connection. How we are silent about suicide, even when it’s attempted our own campuses, in our dorm rooms.

What worries me about the coming debate about these budget cuts is that there won’t be a sliver of acknowledgement of staff or students or the predicament they find themselves in now, let alone the state we are forcing them into. We are forgetting that Education is an essentially human pursuit, and removing the humanity is not a cost we should be willing to bear.