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Casual attitude to workers

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Edited by Anita Pilgrim, Thursday, 22 Mar 2018, 12:40

One of the concerns of strikers at traditional universities is that if we lose the battle for secure pensions, the employers will seize the opportunity to break the union and its national pay bargaining power. They will look to employ people on casual contracts instead of offering permanent work with proper benefits like ... pensions. 

As the UCU have been arguing for a long time, universities are already riddled with poor casual work practice. Research in particular is sustained by low paid insecurely contracted staff (see this blogpost). One tweet during the strike mentioned a passer-by's incredulity when it was explained to him that a group of science researchers looking into cures for a range of devastating illnesses were all employed on low paid insecure contracts. 

Teaching is not far behind, with postgraduate students scrabbling for hourly paid work, even though this only pays for the actual hour they are with students, not for any of the substantial preparation time needed. We are supposed to be gearing students up for better jobs - while on immiserating contracts ourselves. 

As so often, the Open University is well ahead of the curve here. Our teaching has historically been delivered on short term contracts, which have only gradually had some working rights attached to them. Our contracts are 'casualised' rather than casual. It looks like things may get better for us, but for the sake of those in traditional universities who wonder what casualised work might mean, I will explain. (NB teaching at the Open University is unlike that in traditional universities. A permanent academic team put together teaching materials with a highly qualified but casualised set of Associate Lecturers supporting student engagement through blended learning.) 

It is very difficult to deliver high quality teaching on a casual contract, and next to impossible to do this if you have to write the lectures as well. I have done that too - staying up til 3 am to write a lecture which I would deliver the next day, unable to give the students reading material until the day of the lecture because I was writing it the night before. Then the following year throwing all those lectures in the bin and writing a fresh set on a completely different subject. I wasn't needed to deliver the first set of lectures any more, but had found yet another short term contract to do something else which I always hoped would turn into a secure job. Every contract ended in praise and congratulations, never in secure work. It took me a long time to realise that for that, I ought to have spent as little time as possible on my teaching (or the public policy research I was also doing) and focussed on polishing abstruse research publications. 

Recently things at the Open University have improved. Previously, I used to get a redundancy notice a few months before teaching was due to start, followed by a surreptitious email from line managers telling me in vague legally restricted phrases not to worry too much. A couple of weeks before the allocation of student groups, I would suddenly get definite confirmation that I had the work.

One year I was hurriedly phoned up and verbally appointed two weeks before the start of a postgraduate module. I had to learn all the materials myself as quickly as I could, keeping just ahead of the students and constantly asking supportive colleagues (who were not paid for the kind help they gave me) 'stupid' questions about the assignments so as to be prepared to explain them to the students. I did not know if I would still be wanted the next year, so it was hard to motivate myself and carry on working on that module once the teaching had finished. 

I have colleagues who take on temporary management contracts in hopes of getting into a more permanent position via that route. They can't let their teaching go in case the management post doesn't become permanent. They are working themselves into the ground, but can hardly be expected to deliver as effectively on the quadruple hours they are having to put in. 

Because our contracts are strictly limited to the teaching period, we can't be asked to contribute to feedback and development of the module to improve it for the next year's teaching until a few days before it goes live. A clause has had to be inserted to say that for the month before the module starts, we should do some work towards it without receiving pay. I have sometimes struggled to find the money to travel to teach, because I haven't yet been paid for the teaching. 

Even as I write this post, I'm thinking I want to do two big loads of marking work I have got in hand, check over my slides for a tutorial I'm giving on Monday - but that maybe I should prioritise applying for a new teaching contract which has just been advertised. It's not in an area I particularly want to teach, but I can't afford not to try for it. 

I am a single working mum. The many disadvantages of casualised work have a big impact on my family life. The hugely variable monthly income (some months my pay is double what I get in other months) makes it difficult to budget and plan. From year to year, I am never quite sure what work I will have in hand. At one point, I feared I would have no work for six months of the year, yet be unable to claim any benefits or tax credits because I would have a potential upcoming contract for six months' time so be deemed to be making myself unavailable for work. When I was looking to buy a home, no bank would give me even the tiny mortgage of £5-10K I was looking for - they all said my contracts were too insecure. 

The National Director of Relate Cymru recently appealed to Welsh Government to review support for children's mental health. He linked rising demand for mental health support from children and young people to difficult family lives. The effect on my own family of my stressful contractual situation has been very severe. We lived for a long time with a sense of impending doom, fearing that at very short notice our means of living could be almost entirely snatched away. Ironically (yes, my teaching is so full of irony that I ought to set up a laundry!), my module materials include a film about people accessing a food bank near my home - which I have sometimes thought I might have to go and get food from myself. 

I did say the Open University is often ahead of the curve. They have been in negotiations for ten years to move Associate Lecturers like myself onto permanent contracts. These negotiations had foundered, and when he arrived at the university our Vice Chancellor Peter Horrocks made them a priority. As well as negotiating over pensions, the Open University union branch and the university have continued to work on this as well as other major issues of employment and working conditions. The last announcement was that they still hope we will get our permanent contracts this summer. 

This may be a Pyrrhic victory. Proposals are being put forward to slash our contact hours with students and restrict us to giving them written marking feedback. More on why the union and ourselves feel this would spell the end of the Open University soon. First I want to talk about support staff and the way we in the Open University work as a team to deliver student learning. And before that, I thought I would talk about why this could be the best job in the world. 

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The neo-liberal approach

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Edited by Anita Pilgrim, Monday, 19 Mar 2018, 10:11

Ironically, the strike action I'm taking against neo-liberal management of education impacts on a module I teach that critiques the neo-liberal approach to education (EE814: Addressing inequality and difference in educational practice.)

A concept which we encourage students to define and use on this module is 'discourse'. I find this helpful in understanding how management can continue to blithely pursue patently absurd neo-liberal policies in spite of the cries of anguish from those of us who have to try to deliver learning across instead of along these lines.

'Discourse' (drawing on Michel Foucault's work) is the idea that society is set up in certain ways (along lines of power), so only some thinking has legitimate expression. We have to speak up within discourse, but at the same time we are always creating it so it does shift. A dramatic example of shift in discourse is #MeToo and #TimesUp. Women have been protesting the way in which men treat us for centuries - famously in Mary Wollstonecraft's A Vindication of the Rights of Woman - first published in 1792. We have frequently and infamously been ignored in spite of widespread anger and scorn, vociferously expressed by Second Wave feminist activists highlighting unreasonable excuses blaming women for our own harassment. It's not until a final shift of power in 'discourse' that these protests can get heard and taken seriously. (The earlier work against abusive power in 'discourse' is of course fundamental in building up to that shift.) 

As academics, we devoutly hope that our protest against the pensions proposals put to us can prove such a shift against the neo-liberal approach to education (marketisation). 

Screenshot of letter to The Times from VC of Cambridge University

Screenshot of letter

We all hope that this shift can take place before the final neo-liberal absurdity of the current Minister for Higher Education's proposal to rank degrees according to how much graduates from them earn. (This is all the more stupid because there is an inbuilt ranking measure in degrees already. How many students graduate from the degree with a good pass mark indicates how much they have learnt and therefore how good a degree it is. Res ipsa loquitur, as Captain Jack Sparrow puts it. NB, Minister - socio-economic deprivation should be considered as a factor in this measure.) 

Article by Guardian writer Suzanne Moore. 

Screenshot of article by Suzanne Moore 'Only the truly ignorant would rank universities according to graduate earnings' 

On EE814, we draw on the writing of Michael Apple (2006a, 2006b - this one is very short, 1990) and a key article by Olssen and Peters (2007) which looks at neo-liberalism in Higher Education. (My DD102 and DD103 students will be interested to hear that Olssen and Peters use the thinking of Hayek and Stiglitz, among others, in their article - two economics thinkers we explore on those modules as well.) 

Basically, the neo-liberal approach to education treats education like a marketplace. It argues that the customer is always right and that we should tailor our education provision to demand. If the students want modules on postfeminist needlework, then we should supply those. (Warning - that last link goes to a highly satirical site with material some may find offensive.) Academic teaching staff have been vociferous in condemning the considerable recent emphasis put on student satisfaction surveys. These are likely to reward charismatic individuals rather than rigorous teaching design making students work hard to achieve more highly. I have heard of staff chastised for poor results in a student satisfaction survey, while the same student cohort were walking away with many more First degree grades than their peers on comparable courses. 

Secondly, the neo-liberal approach to education assumes that students come to learn in order to move straight into gainful employment. Gainful to the economy that is, not gainful in the sense of being satisfying to them in any spiritual way or contributing to society in other ways than economic. Hence, the assumption by the Minister for Higher Education that measuring degrees by eventual income is a good way to go. I get routinely asked what employability skills students gain on EE814. As this is a postgraduate education module, many of my students are already employed as teachers - the idea that they might want to improve their teaching skills while in post doesn't seem to enter into the neo-liberal equation. (Some of us refuse to answer stupid questions like these about our courses, except by sending back long and dull diatribes about neo-liberalism.) 

Thirdly, the neo-liberal management of education seems to need a lot of form-filling and oversight. In all areas of public sector work (police, schools education, NHS) we hear about spending time accounting for the time we would rather be spending doing our work. There is a complete lack of trust of workers in delivering on basic tasks. Nor is there any interest in supporting us as workers. This vast array of performance indicators is not designed to identify training needs or help build our skillbase. Nor have I ever heard of an academic staff member identified as not delivering appropriately and sacked because of performance indicators. Promotions, too, happen in a structure that appears to be outwith these mundane performance measurements. It's not very clear what use they are being put to. 

One aspect of marketisation of Higher Education seems to be the trend for expensive and beautiful new buildings. Some are saying that the reason Universities UK want the pension scheme set up on different grounds, is that the way it's currently set up is regarded as a liability by banks who would lend them more money if the pension scheme could be accounted for in a different way. (It seems that bankers have a pretty weird 'discourse' going on too.) But why do universities want all these new buildings? many not suitable for teaching or research purposes? Is it just because buildings as 'stock' add to monetary value and this is seen as the best, most business-like way to manage our colleges and universities? 

Although many of Cardiff University's new buildings are for research purposes, they are promoted here in business terms. They include an Innovation Centre: "Providing companies with the resources and support to encourage growth with confidence." Any educational aspect of this project is lost in the account of it. 

Architects' drawing of several new buildings

I could go on, but I will just reproduce this page (p.327) from Olssen and Peters which seems particularly pertinent, and let you read the rest of their article yourselves. 

Screenshot of p.327 of Olssen and Peters article


Apple, M. (1990) Ideology and Curriculum, Hove, Psychology Press

Apple, M.W. (2006a) Educating the ‘Right’ Way: Markets, Standards, God and Inequality, New York, Routledge.

Apple, M. (2006b) ‘Understanding and Interpreting Neoliberalism and Neoconservatism in Education’, Pedagogies: an International Journal, vol. 1, no. 1, pp. 21–5.

Mark Olssen & Michael A. Peters (2007) Neoliberalism, higher education and the knowledge economy: from the free market to knowledge capitalism, Journal of Education Policy, 20:3, 313-345, DOI: 10.1080/02680930500108718

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Terms and conditions

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Edited by Anita Pilgrim, Sunday, 18 Mar 2018, 17:03

In my previous blogpost I began listing some of the problems which face academics - as well as being asked to swap a 24 carat secure pension for a chocolate teapot because a) USS can't do sums properly and only a few years after assuring us it was very secure, have found a huge hole in it, or b) USS can't do sums properly and failed to predict there would be this huge hole only a few years ago.

Here I look at some life-work (im)balance issues in academic work. Next I'll give a quick overview of 'neo-liberalism' in education, before looking at casualisation and how this undermines academic performance. 

Universities risk their reputations by failing to value teaching staff. This FT article pointed to the business case for treating staff properly. It identified poor pay as well as poor working conditions as problems, and expressed no surprise that when our pensions came under attack, we finally walked out on strike. 

Poster with long list of issues: Research Underfunded, Teaching Overstretched ...

(On UCU Facebook page.) 

One estimate shows 40 million hours of public work contributed by UK university staff in 2015/16. 

Ring chart showing different areas of work university staff freely contribute

(From twitter post)

This willingness to contribute freely to society is worth noting, given that academic pay has persistently slipped in real terms over the years. Academics are not in the business for the money. 

The figures here don't include the overtime teaching and research which staff routinely put in. (Support staff too, I bet.) People sometimes ask me, "Why do you do a part-time job, Anita? A part-time job is full time hours on part time pay." I say: "Yes, but a full-time job is time and a half. I can juggle full time hours and being a mum, but not time and a half." Full time teaching and research staff routinely work 60, 70 or 80 hour weeks - stumbling home late and exhausted. 

In this blogpost, an early career researcher talks about the debilitating culture of over-work and the impact she sees it have on herself and her colleagues. This can be particularly damaging in early career contracts of the kind Grace Krause is working on. Typically short-term and aimed at conducting a project as cheaply as possible instead of supporting junior academic staff into a career, these are desperately sought after by PhD students anxious to get onto the jobs ladder in universities. Grace describes how she was brow-beaten into accepting lower pay for work she had already done when the budget on the project she was working on proved not to have been properly costed. 

My first job after my PhD was on a one year research project funded on a small grants scheme by the Economic and Social Research Council - which was aimed at kick-starting research in new fields. I travelled the length and breadth of the United Kingdom to conduct interviews with a highly vulnerable community with whom I also had to secure trust and access (in just one year). In order to squeeze my salary out of the tiny budget, I was first put on a six month 'probation' so that I could be paid below the required legal amount. Desperate to get this highly regarded work onto my CV, I ended the project in considerable debt. There was no time to write follow-up applications and continue the work after the project, while also making sure I delivered it effectively and so it has sat on my CV in splendid isolation ever since. 

It seems we are no longer human beings, deserving of quality of life either at work or at home. We are not expected to want time to spend with family, friends - or on the public work we contribute willingly.

I am a School Governor. An expert on education and social inclusion, I want to put myself forward to be a Governor at more schools, in deprived areas which struggle to get people onto the Board. But even though I have a part-time job, I have no time to do this. 

I am really envious of the teachers at my school when the Head reports back on the training and support they get: INSET days to come together and discuss how to teach well, secondments to work with government on developing partnership programmes with other schools to disseminate best practice. If they are ill, a supply teacher is found to take their classes. Does anyone wonder why there are no 'supply' lecturers? If there is a system for colleagues to take over lectures when we are absolutely unable to get in to give them, it's an informal one between colleagues. We are made to feel guilty if we can't stagger in to sneeze and cough germs over our students. I have heard women uneasily boasting that they gave lectures with a sick child in a pushchair alongside them. That is not bad parenting - it's inhumane employer pressure and lack of management. How are they hoist on their own petard, if managers were in the habit of employing hourly paid lecturers to come in when permanent staff were ill - they might have been able to use them in this strike! 

One of the most fiercely protested parts of the proposal which came out of the ACAS talks between UCU and UUK was that, in return for lower paid junior staff not having strike pay deducted, staff might consider re-scheduling lectures which had been missed in the strike - without being paid ourselves. Some respondents were clearly close to breaking point as they wrote demanding how they could be expected to squeeze these into lecture schedules densely packed with contact hour teaching. The inclusion of this suggestion demonstrates how far removed the employers are from the intense overload of work at the teaching coalface. 

Academic staff are like parts in a machine, uneasily made to feel we are replaceable. If we won't work the insane hours which have become normal, our colleague in the next office will overtake us on the fast track. Someone-else can be found - new, eager to show willing - and slotted in to deliver. A neo-liberal system pits us against each other, working us into the ground for short-term outcomes in teaching or research. As academics, we continue to struggle to provide education and research dissemination in many ways outside the classroom. Very few of us ever bought into the neo-liberal approach to education. We know that education - whether developed through lecturing or research - is a 'good' that is more valuable when it's not being sold. 

Striking worker in snowstorm with sign saying 'Academia is for life not just for business'.

(From twitter post: https://twitter.com/DrAdrianBlau/status/968830454563557377)

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The ongoing strike for a pension

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Edited by Anita Pilgrim, Friday, 16 Mar 2018, 09:36

This fourth week of industrial action, we are striking for five days. I outlined in my previous blogpost some of the issues in the pensions dispute. I outline some more here, and list other issues academics are concerned about, which I hope to write further blogposts about. I have wanted to write about some of these issues for a long time, but have only just managed to clear space on my teaching desktop. (As I am supposedly on part-time hours that in itself says something about my workload.) 

During this strike, membership of our union (Universities and Colleges Union, or UCU) has doubled and visible presence on the picket line has grown every day of the strike. 

A recent proposed offer by our employer (Universities UK, or UUK) was rejected in the most emphatic terms by every single branch of the UCU at universities taking part in the strike action. The terms of the offer led to emotional outbursts on Twitter and Facebook, with anger particularly strongly expressed at a suggestion that staff could reschedule missed lectures - without receiving back strike pay. 

The attempt to redefine our pension fund was a blatant and inhumane attack on our rights as workers. It is the last of many straws. During the strike, much was written about the neoliberal approach to education in which degree-level studies have been comprehensively commodified. Academics on strike and mainstream media commented on: 

  • The poor pay, insecure contracts and long hours which degrade the lives of academic staff; 
  • A consequent degrading of teaching provision, and therefore of student learning. 

Here at the Open University, our student learning has always been provided differently to the way learning is supported in traditional universities, and our students tend to be mature students from economically poorer backgrounds. Many of my students are mums of young families, and working as well as studying.

I wasn't very good at striking, I'm afraid! I tried hard to make sure my students weren't too badly affected by my being out on strike. I know how hard they have struggled to get to study. Often lacking in confidence, happening to start studying just when we go on strike is the sort of thing that my students can feel is directed at them personally by a force outside of society. "You have the cheek to think you can study and improve your life? Take that then!" My students are often themselves in insecure work with poor pay and no pension provision. They are studying to get out of this situation, so they are generally sympathetic to our cause. (I had many messages of support from my students, who were very patient when I couldn't fully support them as I would ideally want to.) 

Like other academics, I am worried about more than my pension. I took strike action partly to highlight how riven with problems the whole Higher Education sector has become. 

Many of the issues which staff at other universities fear may affect their ability to teach well are already confronting us at the Open University. At the same time as co-ordinating strike action in support of secure pension provision, our union branch is: 

  • Engaged in negotiations for permanent contracts for thousands of Associate Lecturers (that's me!), which have been ongoing for 10 years and which we still hope to conclude this summer; 
  • Tracking and preparing to protest at large scale cuts which the university says will require the loss of thousands of jobs among support staff; 
  • Tracking rapid and wholescale change in the way learning is supported through digital media - which has left many teaching staff exhausted, in need of a period of reflection and absorption, but instead we are facing more rapid wholescale change; 
  • Tracking and protesting at the introduction of MOOCs instead of blended learning, with a possible radical change in the tutor-student relationship - a relationship that is literally vital to many of our students. 

Pensions and the Phantom Deficit

A pension is not a perk. It's 'deferred salary'. I have paid some of my own salary into a pension fund, and my employer agreed to pay some more so that I could collect this part of my salary when I retire.

A number of economists and statisticians have comprehensively demonstrated that there is no credible evidence of a deficit in the Universities Superannuation Scheme. Back in November 2017, Dennis Leach, Emeritus Professor of Economics at Warwick showed that the USS pension scheme is not in crisis and it is not in deficit. There is no justification for massive pension cuts or gambling on defined contributions: https://henrytapper.com/2017/11/25/is-the-uss-really-in-crisis/

So secure was the fund that in the 1990s, it was judged over-funded and employers took a 'contributions holiday' - paying less into the fund. Some argue that this sum alone is more than enough to cover the Phantom Deficit. 

Protestors at a rally, one dressed as Darth Vader, another holiding a sign about 'The Phantom Deficit'.

(Photo from Tweet: https://twitter.com/EdGarethPoole/status/971702270286057472

The valuation of the fund as being in deficit seems to have been partly influenced by the UK government's Pensions Regulator. For this and many other reasons, it looks like the government ought to be taking part in the negotiations - lending support to those of us who may be very badly affected by the changes being proposed. We have had excellent support throughout from the Leader of the Opposition. 

(Link to tweet: https://twitter.com/jeremycorbyn/status/974213079008514048

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Striking for Pension Rights

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Edited by Anita Pilgrim, Monday, 12 Feb 2018, 17:35

In the upcoming weeks, I and my colleagues in the Universities and Colleges Union will be striking for the right to a fair pension. Proposals are being put forward which ask us to put far more personal contributions into our pensions, and to invest that money in much riskier funds.

The Universities Superannuation Scheme, the universities as employers and the Union have been unable to come to an agreement and although the Union has offered to go to ACAS to resolve the matter, the other parties are not willing to do this. I believe that the government should intervene. Working in Higher Education, we are public sector workers. We provide the education support for the skilled workforce in the UK today. Many people we depend on in society: lawyers, doctors, physiotherapists, even MPs, have been trained by those of us working in universities. 

I call on my students who are affected, to write to their MPs - and here in Wales, their Assembly Members too - and ask for support in this matter. 

I see that the situation is not easy for any of these parties, but it is grossly unfair for Higher Education staff to have to bear the brunt of decisions about our pensions being made without our consent and against our interests. We have already seen our salaries sink dramatically in real terms as against other professionals, and a secure pension in our old age is not much to ask in return for the dedicated support we provide to our students. 

We are all reluctant to see an impact on our students, and I feel particularly unhappy about any effect my action might have in the Open University, where students are often from more deprived socio-economic backgrounds, lacking self-confidence and anxious about doing degree level studies. However I feel very strongly about pension rights. We have already seen large private pension funds like the ones for Tata Steel Workers run into difficulties, and I am highly concerned that our pension - which until a couple of years ago was regarded as a very desirable pension package to be part of - appears to be in sudden danger of going aground. 

The USS is in such difficulties that it has been hitting the front page of the Financial Times, where writers have pointed to the way that the value of its investments have sunk after these were taken over by an in-house team, instead of out-house fund managers. That we should be asked to continue to trust a team which has already made less successful investment decisions, who are proposing an even riskier investment strategy, is deeply worrying.

I have also heard it said that some of these investment changes were made because of recommendations by the Pensions Regulator. If this is the case, government has a duty to explain to us why this was done. 

The universities as employers say they won't be able to make up contributions for us into the fund. Some of us suspect this strike is also being viewed as an opportunity by hawkish employers to break the union, and get rid of national pay scales. This means of reducing costs of university fees by introducing cheaper, local and perhaps casual contracts for lecturing staff will only end in poor quality degrees in UK universities. There is already a motion in parliament calling attention to the significant problems for academic staff caused by zero hour and casualised contracts in universities. This situation should be looked at to improve our working conditions, and therefore the quality of teaching we can offer, not to worsen them. 

Universities are in a tough place. Brexit has meant not only that we lost access to European research funding, but also to many European students who used to come to study in the UK. The call for lower tuition fees does not take into account that those fees don't even now cover the full costs of delivering a good quality degree. (NB It's having to borrow for maintenance costs that puts student debt up so high, not tuition fees.) Universities have tried to square the circle by supplementing domestic student fees with higher overseas student fees, but crackdowns on immigration have always made this difficult. 

I have a very small pension myself. For the whole of my working life, I have been on fixed term and casualised contracts, and much of my life I have been a mum on part-time work. I am still working on a set of small contracts, with a variable income and a child to support. Losing strike pay will hit me hard, so you can see how seriously I take this issue.

My small pension is vitally important in securing decent provision for me as I get older. However if I am asked to contribute much more into it, I will have to cease paying into a workplace pension. I am already struggling to keep my daughter in decent school shoes, while maintaining and replacing my own computing equipment - absolutely necessary in order to do my job - and keeping up many other necessities of life. Like many women, my pension is going to go down the list of priorities if the price of it rises much further, even though I value the additional contributions made into my pension fund by my employer. 

Employer contributions to a pension will be of no use if the pension fund is invested in something so risky that I never get it in the end. 

If others like myself lose confidence and pull out of the USS, it will fail as a pension fund. 

This will be catastrophic not only for those in Higher Education who depend on that fund, but for confidence in the pensions industry. We all need a pension to support us in our old age and successive governments are increasingly anxious about those of us (many women) who have not been able to take out a private or workplace pension to support ourselves as we get older. 

For that reason too, I would call on the government to look very closely at this situation, and make sure that we in Higher Education get our fair rights to a decent pension, which we work so hard towards. 

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Laptop, a laptop - my kingdom for a laptop

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Several of the modules I teach are Level 1, with students who are new to the Open University. There is a lot to get sorted in signing up to an e-learning course, which I do my best to support my students through. I remind them that once these are done and dusted, they will be set up for the remainder of their studies so not to worry too much.

Easy for me to say! One of the issues which students often face is not having good computer facilities. There is a student grant available to provide students with appropriate resources (ask your relevant Student Support Team for more details). However the grant will only be awarded once you are signed off as having genuinely started your studies - about eight weeks in.

You can understand this from the point of view of the grant funding body, otherwise they might have to claw back money from people whose studies didn't quite get going. For the student, though, it can be tough getting through those first few weeks - not only trying to access the module website but also having to write and submit the first assignment on inadequate or borrowed equipment.

I'm glad I have always been sympathetic to students in this situation, as I was inadvertently plunged into it myself this week sad Some of the high levels of rainfall we've all been experiencing (snowfall in Scotland) got into my laptop and irretrievably shorted out the battery and some other parts dead I have spent the last few days wrestling with a very ancient and slow netbook to keep up with my students' forums (only time I have ever been glad that students are so shy shy about posting big grin), figuring out what is the optimum laptop I can buy for the price that I can afford, and what is the price I can afford - or rather what is the price my bank/credit card will let me afford. 

In my own studies (on e-learning), we are asked to take into account accessibility. People assume this means disabilities, and most of all issues like dyslexia or sight and hearing impairment, which might need us to provide the materials in a different way. However one obvious issue is if you haven't got the equipment or the speedy bandwidth necessary to access online learning. 

Sometimes public libraries will let students have extra time on their machines - maybe the university could approach them to ask if they could provide this at the early stages of our modules, while students are waiting for their computer grants to be signed off. It's not ideal working in a library, and having to run away from a bank of glaring people below the signs saying 'quiet PLEASE' if your kid phones your mobile to ask what's for tea mixed but IMHO it's better than a cronky old netbook dead

It's amazing what we used to do instead of going online. I actually like writing letters, and still send parcels to people and stuff. However I sometimes have to hold onto my letter til payday - seriously, it can cost £3.50 to send a couple of sheets of chat to a friend in the States, then it takes two weeks for the letter to get to him, then it would take two weeks for his reply to get to me if he were as good at going out to cafes and writing letters as me.

Half-written letter decorated with decoupage pictures, a fountain pen and a cup of coffee.

When I started teaching for the OU - back when dinosaurs were just dying out, we did all the coursework by post. I used to get the assignments written and printed on paper (sometimes hand-written sleepy), I would mark them by hand and put them into three or four big bundles in special brown university envelopes, then rush out to take them to the post office and send them to be verified by hand, and then they would be sent back to the students. It has enormously speeded up the process to be able to submit, collect, mark and return assignments electronically.

At least I had actually submitted my own TMA02 slightly early the day before, as I was fed up of it and wanted to get rid of it tongueout I always advise students to put in a draft version of their final assignment (EMA, as it's affectionately known). This can't be picked up early by eager tutors and marked before they have really polished it, so you can get a draft in the bank in case of an eventuality such as I have experienced sad

Now I just have to get used to the new laptop. I am starting to realise that my old laptop had a much higher spec, as well as touchscreen and - an unusual feature - a soundbar instead of tinny speakers.

I hate my new laptop angry It feels like a plodding workhorse, whereas my old one - which I realise now I took dreadfully for granted - was like Pegasus soaring through all my work and studies and fun forums I used to go on in my private life evil But I'm lucky to have this new ... thing. I'm trying to be more careful and not let it get quite so close to the flour-y cooking when I use it to find recipes for teacakes, or take it out in the rain *sigh*.

My old laptop with cat and teacakes *sigh*

Laptop with tabby cat and a rack of teacakes

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The power of power

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Edited by Anita Pilgrim, Wednesday, 10 Jan 2018, 21:34

In last week's Unit of studies, my postgraduate students (EE814: Addressing inequality and difference in educational practice) were offered a reading by Bree Picower (2009) which for me is axiomatic in our studies.

Picower's article describes a study undertaken with white student teachers doing an anti-racism course. These students were uncomfortable on the course, constantly defending themselves against its anti-racist thinking. They were unwilling to view themselves as being in a position of power over others, to admit they might sometimes act in a way which asserted their normality as against others' difference. They could not get to grips with what thinkers on identity often refer to as an 'invisible' or 'unmarked' privilege.

T shirt saying Black Lives Matter, with woman's afro hair and a rainbow comb with a peace sign

In line with thinkers on critical race theory like bell hooks and Gloria Ladson-Billings in the States, and David Gillborn in Britain, Picower suggests the teachers relied on 'tools of Whiteness'. She argues that they didn't just passively resist the idea that they may be part of a White supremacy. They actively protected hegemonic social narratives about race identity.

Picower is a tough read for anyone who wants to tackle issues of inequality in education. It's dispiriting to think that it might be that hard for liberal teachers to understand how racism is inbuilt, not only into our systems ('discourse') but into many ways in which we interact with each other - and therefore between teacher and pupil. But Picower rings important bells for me; not on issues of racism, in terms of the struggle I had with the main equality issue on which I am in a position of strength and power: social class.

Drawing on the Hegelian concept of the Master/Slave, standpoint feminists highlight an unfortunate paradox in gender politics. Hegel suggested that the 'Master' has power, so he (everyone in Hegel is 'he') doesn't need to know anything about the 'Slave'. However the Slave needs knowledge not only of his own condition, he must also understand the Master so as to service him.

Standpoint feminists argue that men have power, so they lack knowledge of how gender politics is enacted. Only women have the knowledge with which to set up an egalitarian, non-sexist way of working. (But we have no power to do this.)

Dorothy Smith, seminal standpoint feminist thinker:

Older white woman wearing glasses and smiling

On most issues of identity, I have plenty of 'knowledge' mixedblack eye However I come from an intellectual upper class background. I have an accent that can cut crystal (I try to soften it in tutorials!), I can talk about fine wines, high art and where to get a brace of grouse (pronounced 'grice' wink).

It took me a long time to understand that it is not right nor fair to casually talk about these things in a way which makes people around me feel about two inches tall. (Except young bar tenders who attempt to put ice in my whisky angry) It was hard to face up to the fact that I do it without even thinking about it, and that instead of pretending I can't help it, I must think about it and not do it.

That was my Picower moment. It didn't come in a moment, but slowly and painfully. I didn't want to admit that I had sometimes made shop assistants wince and cry just with a look - but in order to stop doing it, I had to learn to see the invisible 'tools of class prejudice', and realise that I am an unmarked expert at using them to take other people down sad

(NB Thanks to Gill Duncan, for finding a newer and highly relevant article by Picower - 2013.)


Bree Picower (2009) 'The unexamined Whiteness of teaching: how White teachers maintain and enact dominant racial ideologies', in Race Ethnicity and Education, 12:2, 197-215, DOI: 10.1080/13613320902995475

Bree Picower (2013) 'You can't change what you don't see: Developing New Teachers’ Political Understanding of Education.' in Journal of Transformative Education. 11(3) 170-189, DOI: 10.1177/1541344613502395

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Money Money Money

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Edited by Anita Pilgrim, Sunday, 31 Dec 2017, 08:53

One thing I love about the modules I teach is that stuff we learn on them is always popping up in the news. On DD103: Investigating the Social World, we start off exploring the topic of money and over the holidays I saw some money-related news items so juicy that instead of just sharing them on my Tutor Group Forum, I decided to write a blogpost about them.

In an early module video about the history of money (in 10 minutes), we find out that money is largely based on trust. Early attempts to link money to a gold standard were abandoned in the 1970s when we finally admitted that as long as we believe in it, money works (The Open University, 2017a).

Bitcoin is a recent development which demonstrates this. As long as we believe in it, bitcoin is just as good as any national currency - but there are huge fluctuations in public trust (perhaps manipulated by those who hope to rake in bitcoin while it's at a low point and then cash in when our trust in it rises again?).

Two newspaper articles about bitcoin - one showing a rise in its value, then another two weeks later shows a crash downwards.

In DD103 we also learn about rights, and particularly rights to territory. (In money we may trust, but I think we all feel more secure if we 'own' property.)

DD103 looks at the efforts of indigenous peoples like the Awa (The Open University, 2017b), the Surui (The Open University, 2017c) and the Dongria Kondh (Bhagwat et al, 2015, pp.149-160), to protect their relationship with the land when logging or mining companies seek to exploit local timber and minerals. Our module material shows how Google maps, the armed forces and state laws are all used in support of local groups against multinational commercial agencies over land rights. This article by the anthropologist and economist Gillian Tett describes thinkers about bitcoin looking to tackle inequality and poverty by supporting peoples around the world in online registration of land rights through blockchain databases.

Article in FT Weekend magazine called 'Blockchain, bitcoin and the fight against poverty'

Among the disciplines covered in DD103 is criminology. An article I saw just this morning hints at a murkier side to bitcoin, which has attracted criminal activity in a number of ways. Not only was this bitcoin executive ransomed in bitcoin - presumably harder to trace than used $ bills, but the article here mentions that the e-currency has attracted considerable cyber-crime activity.

Article about kidnapping of a bitcoin executive - whose ransom was paid in bitcoin.

And finally, I saw this video on Facebook. In one minute, Nas Daily explains how, with a 'broken' economy, citizens of Zimbabwe have managed to develop e-money which is faster and more efficient than the systems we use in developed nations.

There are lots of exciting new stories about 'money' in today's world. The combination of philosophy, geography, criminology, economics, sociology, social policy, environmental and international studies which makes up DD103 helps me understand how 'money' is developing in a potentially cashless society.


Bhagwat, S., Jones, N. and Mohan, G. (2015). 'Indigenous lands and territories: mapping the commons' in Drake, D.H., Morris, A., Shipman, A. and Wheeler, K. (eds) Investigating the Social World 2, Milton Keynes, The Open University.

The Open University (2017a). 'The History of money in 10 minutes'  [Video], DD103 Investigating the social world, Available at: https://learn2.open.ac.uk/mod/oucontent/view.php?id=1050377&section=6.1 (accessed 30/12/2017)

The Open University (2017b). 'Our World: Saving the Awa tribe'  [Video], DD103 Investigating the social world, Available at: https://learn2.open.ac.uk/mod/oucontent/view.php?id=1050399&section=4.1 (accessed 30/12/2017)

The Open University (2017c). 'Trading Bows and Arrows for Laptops: Carbon and Culture'  [Video], DD103 Investigating the social world, Available at: https://learn2.open.ac.uk/mod/oucontent/view.php?id=1050399&section=5 (accessed 30/12/2017)

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Christmas Catchup

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Edited by Anita Pilgrim, Wednesday, 20 Dec 2017, 17:47

Christmas garland

As the holiday season approaches, students come to one of two realisations - usually one after the other:

  1. Hey, it's the holidays! I can catch up on my studies while relaxing over a plate of mince pies;
  2. OMG! I've only done half my shopping, how will I get my work sorted in time for the holiday - never mind all this reading I'm meant to do for my studies!!!

I know this, because those are the thoughts which went through my mind.

('Tis the season for coughs, colds and flu too - so many students are also having to take time out to recuperate.)

Dreadfully behind on my own studies - as revealed in my previous blogpost - I panicked and began to think I should defer til next year sad However I did the following things and now I am happy to announce that I'm back on track (and have done all my shopping approve)

1 - Get back on the website.

It doesn't matter what you do to get back on. You can post in the Forum to say 'I'm so behind! Anyone-else feeling worried?' You can just watch one of the videos or read one webpage. Don't look at the dates and start worrying about how far behind you are. Get yourself back on your Study Calendar so that you feel like you are back in the saddle again.

2 - Look at the dates

Strong cup of tea in hand, have a cautious look at where you actually are. You may not be as far behind as you fear. (Being one or two weeks behind is very common, BTW.)

Tea in cup with blue chicken and snowy border

3 - Talk

Don't keep your worries to yourself. Have a chat with Student Support Team or your Tutor. Talk to your study buddies on the module Forums, Whatsapp or (if you must!) Facebook groups. Get support and advice. In particular, ask the Tutor if they have an overview of that part of the module - can they give you a steer about the upcoming work. Is there a week where not so much is expected of you? Are there parts you could skim over? Which exercises are essential?

4 - Ask for a one to one support session

If you need help, the university can sometimes pay your tutor (or another tutor, if your tutor can't provide this) to give you an extra support session. If you are feeling worried, ask about this. If you don't ask, you won't get! And it would be far better for you to have a little extra support, than drop out of the module - and perhaps your whole degree dead

5 - Read to write

There is far too much knowledge in the world for anyone to cover all of. Therefore, grownup academics do what we call "read to write". We only read what we need to, in order to write our article or book chapter.

Look at the upcoming assignment question. See if the Student Notes have guidance on essential material you should cover. Focus on reading that, and skim the rest.

You're probably enjoying your studies, and reluctant to skip over parts of it. However remember that you can access your module website for a couple of years after you finish, so you can go back to bits you missed when you have caught up and passed the module.

(If you have to do this, make sure you keep up on any study skills exercises supporting your developing academic skills.)

6 - Remember: If a job's worth doing ...

it's worth doing badly.

Sometimes we just have to take five on part of a task in order to get the whole thing done.

Get something written, submit what you can, ask for an extension or find out if any of the assignments on your module are 'substitutable' (means you can still get a few marks for them). You may not get the Distinction grade of your dreams, but you will have practised writing the assignment as you were meant to, and you will get good feedback to build on for the next piece of work. You may surprise yourself. Don't throw away 'good enough' just because you wanted 'practically perfect in every way'.

7 - have rest, and eat nice things.

When we are tired and stressed we work more slowly and get more anxious, so keep well rested. You don't have to eat chocolate - but I often find it helps tongueout

Picture of text books and different kinds of chocolate. Handwritten text saying 'Things are getting worse. Send chocolate.'

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No A 4 U - lecturing off-line

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Edited by Anita Pilgrim, Sunday, 17 Dec 2017, 13:29

My own teaching is 'blended learning'. Students have a mix of online material, text books, face to face and online tutorials and opportunities to chat in forum posting. About 80% of the material is online and I work hard to get my students to go online.

Recently a friend came to me with the opposite problem.

I used to teach in traditional universities too, so I felt considerable sympathy with my pal. He teaches Physics in the States, and his students sit in the back row, checking out Facebook and even chatting on their mobile phones. A colleague of his had passed some handy research papers his way which showed that 'multi-tasking' leads to poor grades, as the researchers politely call it - or rudely 'phubbing' your lecturer in spite of their efforts to raise your grade and improve your academic knowledge, as my friend might call it. (I used other language on the one occasion this happened to me.)

Useful though it was to definitively know this, and it was great fun to cite a paper called No A 4 U, my friend was in need of a practical means of getting his students to stop checking their phones and pay attention to him.

Should he make an impassioned 10 minute plea to the students - referencing this and other studies which evidence the grave consequences of their careless phone habits?

Should he institute a confiscation policy and take phones away at the door?

In one lecture series I taught, I used to put a slide up at the start of the lecture with some relevant information on it. Keen early bird students could read this/watch the video clip/listen while the others shuffled in and found a seat.

I started the lecture series with Lily Allen's F**k You. I explained that Ms Allen is in a tradition of song-writing including 2 Tone, in which efforts were made by song-writers to transcend skinhead racism of the time. I hoped that would gain the students' attention, and help them understand that 'Race and Ethnicity' is not just some dry dusty academic subject.

I suggested my friend imitate this tactic. He could just put up a slide with the relevant advice on it for his students. He could leave it up for 5 minutes while they settled in their seats, then put up his lecture slides and teach as normal.

My friend loved the idea and gave me permission to share the slide I threw together for him:

Powerpoint slide with smiley using mobile, and 'no use' sticker over it.

PS In response to a helpful suggestion from Simon Reed in the comments, I've attached a new version of the powerpoint slide. It has a video from YouTube embedded in it showing what may happen to you if you use your mobile phone in some lecturers' classes ... big grinevil

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The best laid plans of mice and mums ...

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Edited by Anita Pilgrim, Sunday, 10 Dec 2017, 22:03

In my previous blogpost, I proudly set out what I called my 'project life balance plan'. Naturally, this attracted the attentions of the Gods and Goddesses, who promptly threw the divine equivalent of poo at it mixed

Poo emoji

  • I had planned for two loads of marking, I managed to acquire a third load.
  • I noted the workshop I had to attend, but forgot about the five loads of laundry I would have to rush through in order to ensure that my child had enough shirts and PE kit for school the following week, as I would not be there over the weekend to do this.
  • One of our cats went AWOL sad, and turned up at 5.30 am the day before I left for Glasgow approve (After I had spent hours sticking up posters round the neighbourhood - of course.)
  • The workshop didn't quite go as I had thought it would mixed, in fact it took me about a week to recover from it and figure out how to write up the notes dead
  • And there was a family emergency which led to me having to spend the afternoon driving to a nearby city, then back in the middle of rush hour - narrowly missing a three car pile-up off the motorway and screeching into my personal parking space with just 10 minutes to go before the first of the two tutorials I had to teach that night was due to start dead dead

In fact, this part of my plan originally looked like this:

Gannt plan showing tasks

And now it looks more like this:

Gannt plan as above but with extra tasks and large brown splotches on it

mixed Yes - time for working through the second block of materials and preparing TMA02 (which we are supposed to share in draft form with our fellow students) has been severely truncated.

At this time of year, I keep a sharp eye out and circulate my students gently enquiring if they might be a little more behind in their studies than they would ideally like to be? They usually say: "Yes, but there is the Christmas break coming ..."

I know that in spite of their good intentions, they are very unlikely to switch off Mariah Carey or It's a Wonderful Life, and log in to their study calendar. I suggest we do a session identifying what they could skim and what they really need to concentrate on, then they can have a break - and start the New Year all set up and ready to go.

I'm not sure I can skim any of my own study materials mixed I get the impression most of it involves going online and sharing my ideas with my fellow students. Plus, in my own TMA01, I didn't properly define one of the key terms tongueout (stop laughing DD103 students! big grin), and now I'm going to have to scrap my intended project and write a whole new one.

Poo emoji 

So-o-o, I am at that crunch point which many of my own students are at: Withdraw, Defer, Stagger on? thoughtful

I'm not going to give up on this thing. I enjoy it too much! I might have to defer, if any more divine poo hits my plans. I will give it a good go first, though wink

Poo emoji at the end of a rainbow

First thing to do, is sign onto the Study Calendar and check out how far behind I actually am mixed I put this off for a while, but eventually I get my courage up with one of the mince pies a student brought to yesterday's tutorial. (Yes, that is how messy it is round here - sometimes it's a choice between studying and tidying.)

Computer open at StudentHome with cup of coffee and mince pie

Phew! that's not so bad. I do have to tidy round now, so the kiddo and I can put up our Christmas decorations some time before Easter. But if I can get a couple of hours in tomorrow morning and some time on my 'day off', I might get back on board in time smile

(If I struggle, I'll have a good chat with Student Support before making any final decisions.)

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Plan to Succeed

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Edited by Anita Pilgrim, Thursday, 26 Oct 2017, 06:09

As an experienced researcher with decades of project management under my belt, I plan my work without even thinking about it. I often get by without even writing my plan down, but for a course of study, you are far better off making a proper written plan.

Open University modules are already carefully planned, with assignments designed to gear you up in gradually accumulating skills areas so that by the end, you have been gently taken on a journey to higher academic abilities. To some extent, you can rely on the plan laid out in the module. However - 'real' life has a bad habit of poking its nose in and making a fine mess out of the module's carefully laid out plan.

The module I'm currently studying has a brilliant way to help me: writing a plan is part of the first assignment. There is a link to this short, free course from OU Business Studies about project planning, in which we are shown Gannt plans. If you have got time to spare, this course is well worth working through. If you are short of time already, you could just sketch out a plan for yourself on a piece of paper or in a spreadsheet as I've done here.

This is my Gannt plan for my studies.

Excel spreadsheet laid out as a Gannt plan

(The free course provides a Gannt plan in a pdf, but my pdf reader will require an expensive upgrade before it will allow me to edit pdfs, so I decided to draw up my Gannt plan as an Excel spreadsheet.)

Well, that all looks great! Ah, but, what about 'real' life? I have gone back over my plan to put in points showing where I might have peaks of work or want to take extra time off to cover a school holiday.

Another Excel spreadsheet laid out as a Gannt plan

I can see that just before TMA01, I have got two loads of marking due in. I am down to give a workshop right afterwards too, for which I will have to do some preparatory work. Looking at this Gannt plan, I can consider doing my workshop preparations now so they are out of the way, and putting in some early work on my own TMA01 (such as writing the plan bit of it!), then I will have time to do my marking and check my TMA before putting it in. If I am coming up to the dates for marking and still have a lot of work to do on my TMA, I can ask for an extension in good time.

I am actually going to work on a more sophisticated plan in the OU's software application Compendium. I was hoping to just run that off and show it here in this blogpost. When I started, however, I discovered that it will take me a little while to re-learn how Compendium works. (I used it previously on the e(LATE)D course I studied, but have mis-remembered it as being very easy!) I have therefore had to adjust my Gannt plan to show that project planning will take longer than I had first supposed. (I want to use Compendium because it's designed for planning teaching projects. I think it will be useful to me later on, so it'll be worth putting in the time to learn how to use it properly.)

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A 'real' student!

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Edited by Anita Pilgrim, Monday, 9 Oct 2017, 14:08

Golly, I feel like a real student today! smile

Not because I sneaked up early to read an article for my studies, and have managed to cram in an hour or so's studying with one eye on the bedroom door of my torpidly slumbering teenager, the other on the clock so I get onto cooking Sunday lunch in good time and a third eye on the Student Forums in case any new students are posting and I can chat with them approve (All new parents develop this useful body part shortly after maternity/paternity leave expires sleepy)

Today's exercise in the Study Calendar involved posting on OpenStudio. My own students can have a go at this if they want, but I have eschewed it til now because

  1. There is no time/payment allocated for it in my contract, and I am working overtime as it is;
  2. It looks like a clunky Instagram, I couldn't see why the students couldn't use Instagram instead.

However it is a compulsory part of my own module so I must get on with it. (I can see really that it's helpful to have a dedicated and protected web space in which we can explore doing this stuff, rather than being let loose in the wonderful world of Instagram. Anyway, my daughter has forbiden me to join Instagram and said she won't Friend me on it if I do mixed - makes me wonder ...)

Another reason I don't like OpenStudio, is that as soon as you open it you see a sad face and it says you have 0% participation. Well, like - I just got here! Give me a chance! I can't participate, anyway, because in a bid to get ahead before my own students start handing in assignments I need to mark for them, I have raced ahead on my own module and nobody else has posted anything on OpenStudio I can participate in. So! Yah boo angry

Screenshot of OpenStudio participation bar

Honestly, I just felt like shutting it down and going away again as I wasn't sure where to post my material or what to call it, whether I was allowed to create a new 'set' or what.

However, I suddenly remembered - I am a student approve I am not the all-knowing Tutor who is supposed to know everything about life, the university and everything (42, in case you were wondering - Adams, 1979). I can get it all wrong, post material by mistake in the completely wrong box, and my all-knowing Tutor will go in and put it right. She will probably even send me a soothing message saying "Great work, good to see you getting on with things in good time, by the way - you shouldn't put your work in that box, you should put it in this one."

And I will have learnt how to do it properly. After all, that's what being a student is - learning stuff. As I often say to my own students, the post-postgraduate module ZZ999 I am Already Perfect has not been written yet.


PS, I let my daughter go on Instagram without my supervision because adult friends of mine are Friends or Followers or whatever of hers on there, and I will hear about it almost before it happens if she is getting into any trouble on there.


Adams, D. (1979). The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. Pan Books.

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Top Tips for Studying

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Edited by Anita Pilgrim, Monday, 9 Oct 2017, 14:09

I am a social anthropologist by training, and so whatever I'm doing, I am always observing it too, and making little mental field notes.

As I gear up for my own studies (see my Student Blog - which is an example of a blog being used as a Learning Journal), I'm seeing how I go about that and what tips I could pass on to my own students about studying.

My top tip for years has been If a thing's worth doing, it's worth doing badly. As a busy mum myself, I have often had to just put something in that I knew wasn't anything like my best piece of work. But if you put in nothing, you get nothing. I have managed to get countless students through their first set of studies by telling them to just put in an unfinished draft, or scrappy bit of writing which they think is not good enough. It's not usually good enough for a Distinction (although that has happened once or twice!) but we get through the module, get a Pass mark and are able to go on with the next set of studies - and a better understanding of how to manage study time. That's a far better outcome for everyone than failing altogether because you didn't want to show your tutor something that wasn't 100% perfect.

Course certificate

Certificate of Completion for course where I only got through by sometimes submitting draft assignments, late - but I did it!

Time management is one skill that students often say they want to improve. To manage your time, you do have to have time to manage - which is not always the case if you are studying and working while bringing up three children, a small dog and some guinea pigs, plus popping in to make sure your elderly parents are OK.

Remember that 'time management' doesn't mean getting everything in on time - the university will sometimes allow extensions to your assignments. Make sure you talk to your tutor about these (negotiating proper support is part of proper time management). Think too about a good time of day when you will be able to put your head down to your studies for a couple of hours. (More in this blogpost, although if you read my whole blog you'll see there were plenty of occasions when I had no time at all and had to put aside my own studies. I am therefore very sympathetic to my own students about time management wide eyes)

Read to write - the world is full of knowledge. There is so much already written about everything that nobody can read it all. Grownup Academics therefore do something called 'read to write'. We focus on the things which are directly relevant to what we are going to write about. When you start reading a block of material, read the assignment question first. That way, you can make focussed notes as you go along, rather than reading everything, then reading the question, then going back over all the materials to see what was most relevant.

Photo of online assignment page - with mug resting on laptop keyboard

I didn't wait til Weeks 5-6 to read this, I read it right at the start. I will go back through it again, carefully, in Weeks 5-6.

Skim read, read and read ahead - I quickly skim over the whole of a week's work, then I go back and work through it slowly - doing the exercises. When I have finished working on an exercise, I quickly re-read the next bit of material without doing the exercise for that part. I'm thinking about the exercise as I get on with my day, and when I go back to do it, I am well geared up for it.

Screenshot of study activity with advice note

Have you got any top tips for managing your studies? Share them in a comment here, or in a thread in your Student Forum. 


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Nodyn o'r droed Cymraeg

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Edited by Anita Pilgrim, Tuesday, 26 Sept 2017, 18:02

As I progress my Masters' studies (see my student blog), I have not forgotten my Welsh smile I mean ... I have forgotten quite a lot of what I learned, but I have not forgotten to keep learning. Little by little, it starts to stick in my mind - as long as I practise.

I started on the OU's free course Discovering Wales and Welsh. I keep my Welsh up by listening to Learn Welsh with Will videos while I make the packed lunch and breakfast in the morning. The side benefit of this is, my daughter can see me learning.

The main reason most children in Wales resist learning Welsh (which they are obliged to do by law), is that their parents, and also peers, are openly scornful of them having to do so.

I want my daughter to be positive about learning Welsh because:

  1. She will have to do a GCSE in it anyway, so she might as well do her best at it.
  2. It's good practice for her other GCSEs, to do the one in Welsh.
  3. Welsh is a fascinating and beautiful language.
  4. It's spoken all round us, and so it's easy to practise it - one of the most important things in learning well, and especially in learning a language.
  5. It's good to learn any language, as this encourages your brain in maths and logic processes. One that is markedly different from English, like Welsh or Latin or Mandarin, is particularly good for stretching your brain rather than something only a bit different like French.

Welsh flag

(By UnknownVector graphics by Tobias Jakobs - Open Clipart Library, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=355609)

When I was a kid, my mum stood up in school and asked why we were not able to learn Latin, and as a consequence I got to study Latin at O level. I have really enjoyed knowing a smattering of Latin. I have a better chance of eventually speaking Welsh properly, as it's hard to find someone to converse with in Latin.

I practise with the waitresses in my local cafe, and also with a friend on Facebook. (I know that if you chat about your studies outside class, you are likely to do better.) I am proud to announce I have been able to sustain a conversation in Welsh on Facebook (partly with the use of Google translate).

  • My friend posted: "How are you today?" in Welsh
  • Me: Gwych! Mae'n braf heddiw in Cymru. (Great! It's fine today in Wales. Luckily I had just done the video on 'weather'.) 
  • My friend's friend posted: "Where are you?!!!"
  • Me: Caerdydd big grin (This is the Welsh spelling of Cardiff.)
  • My friend posted a GIF:

Singing in the Rain gif (three people in yellow coats in pouring rain)

  • I wrote: Ffasiwn Cymreig! (Welsh fashion - Welsh is phonetic so if you just say the first word without thinking about it, you won't need my wonky translation big grin)

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Beginning my studies

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Yesterday the module website opened to view, (although studies don't begin until 7th October). I couldn't log on yesterday, as my own students were submitting their final piece of work so I was anxiously looking out in case anyone needed support and advice wide eyes

Today I logged in to my StudentHome page. I found out who my tutor is and made sure I did three things straightaway.

  1. Go on the Student Forum and make contact with other students. I know from my own efforts to support students that one of the things which helps them do better is chatting with other students (see attached summary of a research study on students working in groups).
  2. Look through the tutorial dates, note them in my diary and book in.
  3. Read through the Assignment Guide and the assignment questions. I am always surprised when my own students say they were too scared to read ahead and see what the upcoming assignment questions are. Open University assignments are usually designed to build on each other, so if you have looked ahead and know what will be coming up, you are better able to use the early assignments to develop towards the final assignment. Plus, if you are unsure about anything, you can make sure to ask your tutor about it good and early cool

If I get time later on, I will make an early start on reading through the module materials. There is bound to be a point later on when I am bogged down in child-illness, cat-crises, marking or some other act of nature and haven't got as much time for my studies as I'd like. I will try to get ahead of the game in preparation cool

Apart from that, I plan to live as much like a 'real' student as possible, having plenty of drinks tongueout

Cup of coffee and stick of 'gin & tonic' rock.

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The Associate Lecturer as Student

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Edited by Anita Pilgrim, Monday, 11 Sept 2017, 11:02

This autumn I am starting a module on the Masters in Online and Distance Education. I do, of course, have substantial practical experience in online and distance education - as I have been teaching for the Open University for over ten years. While doing professional development (on the e-LATE(D) and Tutor Moderator courses), I enjoyed reading up on the pedagogic theory behind my teaching and even writing up some of my work.

If I am not careful, the ironing, washing the floor, playing with the cats, watching cat videos on Facebook and ferrying my daughter to her after school clubs can take over my life. Like all of us, I need a community within which to find support and challenges so that I can continue with this scholarly activity. I hope that the Masters degree will provide a learning community within which I can further develop my thinking and practice in online and distance education.

To begin with, I have been getting into the swing of learning by doing a less important subject over the summer. I started doing some Welsh courses, with the OU's free short Open Learn module: Discovering Wales and Welsh. I used some YouTube videos on Welsh too, and have learned to say: "Great!" and "Interesting", and some other handy phrases. I wasn't very good at signing in to do my Welsh studies every day but I started to get myself into the habit.

Now I'm setting aside time each morning to study. Once I have made sandwiches for my daughter, and breakfast, fed the cats, done any necessary floor washing, I have decided to put in an hour or two on my studies every working day. There isn't very much to do yet, so I just sign into my StudentHome page and explore for ten or twenty minutes, check out the Forums and then do some other learning activities before getting on with my day.

Many of my own students are New to the Open University. I sometimes think that the main lesson they learn on the Level 1 modules I teach is how to learn. They come to a better understanding of the amount of time they need to put aside for their work, and when is the best time in the day for them to do this. Many of them start by putting aside a whole day for studies, but find that this lovely large block of time can quickly get colonised by other activities. I recommend them to do their studies in a 'little and often' way: short bursts of time every day, rather than one whole day in the week.

At a recent Day School, one of the students was someone who herself advises people on time management. She gave us a good tip: the best amount of time for most people to do work is 90 minutes: that is the optimum time for humans to concentrate. I mean to do good bursts of focussed study, but not to let these drag on. It can lead to shoulder and back problems as you crouch over your computer for long periods of time, and if I do 120 minutes today, and get tired, I might be put off from doing any studying tomorrow. If I do 90 minutes today, and 90 minutes tomorrow, I will do 180 in total.

Screenshot of powerpoint slide on Time Management

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Once More Unto the Breach ...

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After a trying Christmas, I have finally been able to spare a bit of time again for my Fellowship application/writeup about using the Student Forums to support better referencing.

Re-reading my previous e-tivity writeup, I realise it's completely unsuitable for the purpose as it stands. I am not going to procrastinate any longer undertake a proper scholarly review of literature in the field, as if I do that, I will never get the damn thing in. I have got a couple of good articles and I can say I am going to do the proper scholarly thing as part of my application for Senior Fellowship - or whatever the next stage of the HEA is called.

I have found a little set of articles which talk about Voice and Dialogue (and Silence) in referencing practice. They are from tutors who work with students for whom English is a Second Language (ESL), so they are also often dealing with other cultural approaches to writing. They understand our own attitude as culturally situated - not as if we are Jedi battling the Dark Side of plagiarism. The Western (these articles are North American) way is middle class as well as white, and so their reflections are useful to me in thinking about how my more working class students might view referencing.

As well as these, I have got some articles from the module I'm teaching on Education and Equalities, which also talk about Voice and Dialogue.

I'm starting to be reminded of Bakthin's writing on dialogism, which I drew on in my PhD to explore how a poem by a black lesbian writer created Voice. This seems like a promising path to hint at exploring for the future although I must be careful not to get lured off to the Dark Side of procrastination by these thoughts!

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Starting the reading for my Applaud application

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Edited by Anita Pilgrim, Monday, 28 Nov 2016, 13:05

For several months I have had to put aside my application for Fellowship of the Higher Education Academy (being conducted through the university's Applaud programme), owing to a sudden upsurge in work.

I have felt just like my own students! pleading a mixture of work-related, family-related and medical reasons (I had a chest infection as well), as I explained to my students that I would not be quite as quick as I usually like to be over marking their assignments. My HEA Fellowship application was actually delayed because my two referees were put under pressure at work too, and didn't have time to do the references.

In the meantime, I felt I should bump up my mostly drafted application with some fresh reading so I did a desultory Google Scholar search for relevant articles. One of my colleagues also mentioned a highly relevant article she had written in a powerpoint presentation. I put these into a list 'for later'.

Much later! I realised that my plan to do my application and other personal development work on Thursday was just not happening. I am always telling my students that setting aside a special day for studying is not a good way to manage time, and I have found this out the hard way myself. I am switching to trying to read an article per day instead.

That habit also takes time to get into! Today I had to rush off to the supermarket at first light as my daughter revealed late yesterday that she had forgotten she would need a pepper, a courgette, some sweetcorn and frozen peas for her Home Economics class. However, mindful of setting a good example to my students, I did try to do some reading a bit later in the day.

I spent about fifteen minutes trying to track down my colleague's article. The internet link she provided in the powerpoint took too long to download. The OU online Library disclaimed any knowledge of the journal in which she had published. I guess I will have to ask her to email me a copy! sad

I moved on to one of the Google scholar articles (one of the few relevant ones I managed to pick out of a big list of irrelevant ones!). When I looked it up in the OU online Library, I inadvertently found out that their search engine will throw up all articles with relevant terms in their titles and key words, so I found a few more articles that way approve

By now I was a bit tired and time was pressing on, so I just carefully put the details of a couple of the articles in my newly formatted Annotated Bibliography (more on this soon). I think I will have a cup of tea after all that!

Cup of tea and slice of cake

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Breaking out of the Breakout Room

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Edited by Anita Pilgrim, Thursday, 10 Nov 2016, 14:01

Although I have already got the more advanced eLate(D) certificate, I decided to do the three week Tutor Moderator course as well.


Picture of certificate for Tutor Moderators Module

To be honest, I didn't learn very much new, as I am already very experienced in online tutorials and forum moderation. However I got to 'chat' with colleagues about online teaching skills on forum groups, and to polish my skills so it was worth sparing time for the course.

I was particularly pleased that at last I got a firm grasp on how to set up a 'breakout room' in online tutorials. (This is where you split students up into small groups during an online tutorial. We like to do this as it means the students get the chance to talk to each other instead of just listening to our Wise Words.)

Picture of owl in mortar board standing on a pile of books.

I had an upcoming tutorial which an unusually large number of students had signed up to - ideal opportunity to practise my breakout skills cool

My colleague suggested we start by putting a couple of discussion questions to the students:

  • What have you found interesting, useful, challenging?
  • Have you been able to relate this to your own professional situation?

I did feel a slight qualm and wondered if the students might take up a lot of the time answering this in turn. However we both agreed that what we really want is for students to use this rare opportunity to hear each others' views, and I think both of us are more used to students pretending that the dog ate their microphone (really, a student did once claim that) than being willing to speak up in online tutorials so we thought not many would join in.

It was a huge success, as most of the students took the opportunity to make a considered answer. They spoke about different aspects of the reading they had been doing, showing each other that there are many ways to approach this. Having spoken up at the start, they then had the confidence to ask many other questions about their upcoming assignment, saying things like:

  • "I find the terminology difficult."
  • "Me too!"
  • "So glad you said that."

(We tutors admitted that we sometimes find the terminology difficult ourselves! after all, this is a postgraduate module.)

The students had spoken for about 35 minutes at the start of our (one hour) tutorial. It was quite hard to have the confidence to just let them go on talking, instead of leaping in and wresting back control of the tutorial so we could deliver our scripted slideshow. However I still think it did much more for the students to hear each others' thoughts than if we had lectured at them. We ran through the remaining slides at a brisk trot, and promised to answer any questions on our Tutor Group Forums.

But ... I never did get to practise my fantastic dazzling breakout room skills sad

Oh well, I am a great believer that technology should enhance, not drive, your teaching.


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The Constant Student

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Edited by Anita Pilgrim, Saturday, 8 Oct 2016, 07:29

At our regional staff development event, I had the opportunity to talk to an advisor about getting Fellowship of the Higher Education Academy (HEA) with the university's support. I have been trying to figure this out for two or three years, with various life events preventing me from getting on with it, so I was delighted to hear that a new fast-track system has been set up to support Associate Lecturers (ALs) in doing this. Applaud provides us with a mentor, forums and other means to discuss how best to go about this.

Chatting with an advisor first was very helpful. She was able to tell me that since I have a ready-made dissertation which I can edit and put in for my application, I should go straight for Fellowship of the HEA, not hang about doing an Associate Fellowship first approve

I found getting onto the Applaud programme very easy. Unfortunately, you need two referees for the Fellowship application and the university were just starting what proved to be a monumental task of changing over the way we organise our tutorials. Both my referees were snowed under with work. I was actually also quite busy, so I pretended that only because of the references, I wouldn't be able to put my application in quite yet and deferred to the November presentation.

I did do a Google Scholar search for articles about 'teaching referencing' and 'online forum teaching', to bump up the literature review section of my dissertation and came up with a few (about which more soon).

Screenshot of google scholar search terms

I was very busy making sure my B presentation students (start in February) finished off their final module assignment, and then setting up for my J presentation (starts in October). Also coping with some 'interesting' problems thrown up by the new ways of organising our tutorials thoughtful. I had an opportunity to apply for a peer support programme to work with other ALs. I was disappointed to be knocked back - especially on the grounds that I hadn't yet done the 3 week Tutor Moderator programme. I explained that the 10 week eLate(D) programme, which I have done, is generally regarded as more rigorous, but it was too late by then, I was just on the reserve list.

When I saw that there were some spaces in the Tutor Moderator programme, I decided to go for it, so that I couldn't be knocked back for not having that qualification as well. It's true that I am so busy I didn't even have time to clean up the cat sick on my kitchen floor last night dead but I'm sure I'll fit in the studies somehow. How hard can it be? big grin My students do it all the time.

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Survivor photo

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Edited by Anita Pilgrim, Thursday, 15 Oct 2015, 22:10


Certificate of course completion with ribbon saying 'social media ninja'

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New blog post

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Awww, we are nearly at the end of the e(LATE)D module. sad I'm really going to miss going on the study calendar, checking in with people and reading about e-tivities and online pedagogy.

When I started the module, there was a questionnaire to fill in designed to help you see if you had time to undertake it. I didn't have time to fill that in so I just signed up anyway big grin. In retrospect I see I probably shouldn't have done the module at this particular time, when I am in the middle of teaching a brand new module, my daughter was just finishing primary school and going up to secondary and I had my nephew (with profound special needs) staying on his annual holiday with me. I am so glad I didn't put it off, though, because I would have been sorry to go another few months without the understanding I've gained from the course.

I was done for speeding once, and sent on a speed awareness course. I grumbled that the course wasn't for good people like me, who only occasionally tipped over the speed limit. When I got there I found it was exactly for people like me as it was designed to help good drivers stop the occasional over-enthusiastic use of the accelerator.

e(LATE)D was like that. I know a fair bit about the internet (not as much as my eleven-year old of course), and am a regular user of forums. I thought e(LATE)D would just be a way of rubber-stamping my knowledge. What I found from the start was that it was a great opportunity to reflect on my teaching online and provided many many opportunities to think about my academic praxis as an Associate Lecturer. 

Computer and cub scout top with badges (The E-Learning Mum)

Although I've been a mature student and know from the inside many of the anxieties my students experience, I haven't been a student on a distance learning module myself. Going on the course helped me see e-learning through the student's eyes. I became quite sad when I fell behind a couple of weeks and felt I was missing out - how often have I complacently reassured some student that it's OK to skip a couple of things. When I was in the situation of having to do so, I really didn't want to!

Book cover "What the Best College Teachers Do"

The module is well designed with the inclusion of pedagogic literature. As usual with OU modules, building blocks for writing assignments are set out for you, interspersed with activities which develop skills. e(LATE)D was a great opportunity to consider how to teach, and the principles around which to design teaching. I have a better understanding now of how the modules I'm teaching have probably been designed. I am keen to go and read Ken Bain's work in more depth, and explore further the distinction between social constructivist and critical learning pedagogies.

RSS icon

Of course, there was nudging towards using online applications which I had always meant to get my head around but not quite done yet. I will master the RSS feed one day! I am nearly there with it now, LOL. (I'm wondering if I can use it to make a list of e-learning academic journals, and what has come out in their latest issues. Or would de.licio.us - now 'delicious' be better for that?)

Diagramme of e-project

Writing out my e-tivity (see blogposts below) was an excellent opportunity to reflect carefully on a teaching activity I had always wanted to incorporate into my modules. I got great feedback and support from the others on the module.

I also got to read their write-ups of e-tivities, and this was very helpful to me in considering how I write and how I can improve my own academic writing. I got some excellent ideas from their e-tivities, which I hope to translate onto my own module next year (duly referenced, of course!).

I did think I would get my head around the key technologies (apps?) which are 'trending' in the academic e-world right now. But what is 'hip' today in e-learning is no longer 'bae' tomorrow. (At the time I post, the adjective 'bae' meaning 'cute, adorable, my bae-by' is so cool you can't even google it but by the time you read this it will probably have been overtaken by something else.) I learned more about a lot of apps I'd wondered about, and I found out about new ones. Most of all, I learned to keep looking and exploring in the internet world.

I was inspired by the opportunities e(LATE)D offered to develop my understanding of e-learning and of pedagogies in general. It was an entry point to the literature in my professional field. I mean now to look for opportunities to join communities where I can continue the conversations I have begun on best praxis in e-learning.

Perhaps that is the best end result of a course, that the student emerges not with a body of dry knowledge, soon to be outdated, but as a 'deep learner' (HETL interview with Bain in 2012). Someone who has been able to access 'learning [that] has a sustained and substantial influence on the way they will subsequently think, act, and feel'. 

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Give and Take in Peer Feedback - e(LATE)D TMA Stage 3

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Having written my assignment, I was to submit it to a fellow Associate Lecturer/student on the e(LATE)D module for feedback. Contrary to the gentle supportive reminders on the Study Calendar that, like our students, we may feel anxious about getting feedback, I was very keen to have some dialogue about what I was writing. It can be easy to start feeling like a tutor on a desert island when you teach mostly online. It was pleasant to hear back about my work instead of just putting wise words out on other people's work, like messages in bottles.

Dessert Island (Iles Flotantes)

(Pictured above, a dessert island: Îles Flottantes)

I got good advice from my peer commentator, although she took a more formal approach and I suspect may have been a bit guarded in what she said.

The person whose assignment I was to feed back on had not contacted me, so I was gleefully thinking I'd get to skip that part of the workload. However luckily in the Online Tutorial another student said she had not managed yet to get feedback and I leapt in to offer to do it for her.

Having to do this was very helpful. In order to give a professional level of feedback, I had to closely read the Learning Outcomes for the assignment. When I read them in order to write my assignment, I'm afraid I skipped quickly through them just skimming them sufficiently to get the general idea! I was under a lot of pressure and running about a week late (you are only supposed to have five days' extension).

That was a lesson to me in how students approach their work! since I had always naively assumed they at least read the assignment instructions carefully several times. I did used to get a bit puzzled by some of the elementary errors I would spot and wonder which set of instructions they were following mixed

So now I am poised to re-write my assignment, with my peer commentator's feedback and a clear idea of the Learning Outcomes, LOL. It has been most helpful to read someone-else's assignment and see how they approached it. I have looked at others posted on the Forum too. 

I've found it helpful writing this blog, as there were some things I covered in my write-up which I can now feel I have written about more appropriately elsewhere (such as the mind mapping planning stage of the work). I felt I ought to include them, to show I had done the legwork for the assignment - like mathematicians writing out the whole equation not just the answer. However I would rather write a clean account of the e-tivity I am attempting to develop.


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Mind mapping - e(LATE)D TMA Stage 3

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Edited by Anita Pilgrim, Friday, 31 July 2015, 06:43

Personally I have never got on with mind-mapping. Spider diagrammes make me want to get out my feather duster and clean that mess off the paper so I can write. I know that the livelier minds of my students can be visual or aural rather than textual so I always pretend to draw one in order that they understand how visually mapping out their ideas could support their thinking, but secretly I just write a list. Grocery shopping, To Do (cat to vet, rake lawn, don't forget to pick up child from school), Report on Social Deprivation and Education, it can all be done by The List. And then you can use the list as your Contents. Although not for the To Do tasks.

However, using mind mapping online tools was part of the game on e(LATE)D so I heaved a sigh and got on with it.

First we were to try out FreeMind. I felt very much welcomed as there is a large note at the bottom of the FreeMind instructions already saying "Did FreeMind make you angry? Write a complaint." I put my ideas into FreeMind, while telling the cat to stop complaining, I would take it to the vet in a moment, and it looked like this: 

FreeMind diagramme

Well, that is not even pretty! What about some colours and stuff, chaps? Sorry, but that really didn't do much for me.

On to the OU's own mind mapping software: CompendiumLD. My mind map there looked like this:

Compendium diagramme

OK, at least it has some colour, I suppose.

I did find CompendiumLD had value. It is designed not just for free-thinking mind mapping but for planning teaching. I found it helpful that it suggested I make particular nodes for Tasks and Outputs. It enquired tactfully who was supposed to complete these Tasks: Tutor or Student?

I don't really think using these tools used up as much time as I felt, I think they were actually quite speedy. I'm just very impatient with mind mapping, LOL, whereas if I have a chunk of text in front of me I will sit there all day, ignoring the plaintive cries of my hungry cats and child. ("Just have some crisps and sweets. And feed those damn cats.")

CompendiumLD is not valuable for presentation purposes, IMHO. I expect you can see that some of those Nodes have notes attached, but these don't readily open up for others to see. If I was going to seriously mindmap and present, I would use Prezi. Although I hate mind mapping, I adore Prezi. That shows you how super duper good it is. It is intuitive and for very little effort, you can make a set of presentation slides which look stratospherically amazing. You can muck about with all kinds of designs for your Prezi slides, and I do like that. It feels like being back in the sandpit at kindergarten - but with Einstein and Newton making models of time and motion. (I said it feels like that! What you actually produce in there is between you and your conceptual framework.)

OK, now I better take the cat to the vet. Back at you shortly with more reflections on my e(LATE)D TMA e-tivity development process! wide eyes

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