Month: September 2014

women are like teabags

Picture taken by me in the room. No rights reserved.
Picture taken by me in the room. No rights reserved.

Did I mention that one of the best things about working in a research university is that you get to hang out near elegantly curated collections of beautiful old things?

Last night I was introduced by Jacky to St Cecilia’s Hall: the only place in the world where it is possible to hear 18th century music in an 18th century concert hall played on 18th century instruments.

St Cecilia’s is one of those buildings in the Cowgate that you walk straight past, never realising that inside is a trove of treasure. And a stunning collection of shiny bagpipes. The University has a plan to renovate the building and make it a lovely venue again. It’s the second oldest music venue in the UK (the oldest being the Holywell rooms in Oxford).

In case you are wondering, St Cecilia is the patron saint of musicians ( feast day: 22nd November). She is also the subject of Chaucer’s Second Nun’s Tale. She was sentenced to be boiled alive, but miraculously, the cauldron of boiling water did her no harm, and she sat quite comfortably in it, singing for an entire day, after which they had to try to chop her head off to shut her up.   This makes St Cecilia the perfect illustration of  Eleanor Roosevelt’s  assertion that “A woman is like a teabag. You never know how strong she is until she gets into hot water.”

ctrl alt c

Picture taken by me in the street. No rights reserved.
Picture taken by me in the street. No rights reserved.

I have spent a couple of days this week at the ALT ( Association of Learning Technologists) Conference at Warwick. There were three keynote presentations. Each really interesting in its own way and each building upon the other. The assembled delegates were very well served (as were those tuning in online)

The first keynote was by Jeff Haywood, VP and leader of IS (University of Edinburgh). I would not ever want to give the impression that one has to go away to conferences to hear what is going on in your home institution, but it was fun to see it all up on the big screen and to tune in to the twitter comments from our peer community.

Jeff was followed by a keynote from Catherine Cronin (National University of Ireland). Her presentation covered the importance of values in open practice,  how her values have been shaped by experience, the importance of voting and a very clear representation for women in this workplace/space.  Her presentation was clearly inspirational for many, as reflected in the tweets from audience members and the high turn out at the Open Education SIG a couple of hours later. She signalled that education is a political space and that openness must be informed by what we know about gender, race and class.

Audrey Watters’ ( no institution) keynote also drew upon history and literature. I begin to suspect that a good grounding in the liberal arts is a useful background for educational technologists. She talked about man-made monsters and drew inspiration from previous writers and actors (including the luddites)*.

I spoke with Catherine about Mary Somerville and Audrey namechecked Ada Lovelace.

As I listened to the presentations and audience questions there was much to reflect upon, a couple things are high in my mind though. I have been thinking about the  politics of code, the values upon which it is based and in-built assumptions it can embody. I mentioned Bodington in a previous post. That was a VLE designed on the assumption that all the same tools which were available to teachers would also be available to students. It was in there in the architecture, it did not privilege the teacher’s voice, it was a tool to democratise the classroom.  I like technology which is based on those kind of values.

I was surprised at the conference to hear several people refer to Facebook as ‘open’ and as a space where great things can be done, a place that students have as a ‘good place’ and that educators should use. While I use facebook personally as much as the next woman, I have no illusions as to its origins and the values of its creators. Facebook was born out of misogyny  in elite univerisities and continues to be a place where peer pressure and shaming are rife. I like those values less.

I agree with Jeff, Catherine and Audrey: it is important that we understand our history and learn from our experiences.

There were many mentions of MOOCing cash cows and very few of cultural imperialism or sustainability. In general, the ALT conference made little mention of  FOSS  or CC although WordPress, Moodle and open badges did get multiple mentions and showcases.  A strong representation from the Scottish institutions and Open Scotland, but no discussion of what we’ll do when they cut us off from JANET.**

I could happily go a long time without hearing the phrase ‘herding cats’ again.

You are wondering if I actually attended any sessions about technology. I can assure you that many salespersons showed me theirs.


*I had a heated dinner table discussion with someone at the conference who believed that luddites lived in caves. I suspect he meant troglodytes.

** and despite several mentions of Luddites and laggards, no reference, even in the OER sessions, to Levellers.

swan upping

Picture taken by me in the street . No rights reserved.

Edinburgh is one of 100 universities and research institutes which are members of the SWAN Charter. The Charter is open to any university or research institute which is committed to the advancement and promotion of the careers of women in science, engineering, technology  and mathematics (STEM) in higher education and research.

Athena -SWAN accrediation is only available to academic departments, and now that the University is doing so well the focus has begun to turn to the support units.  This week some of the University of Edinburgh IT Directors began early thinking about the swan-like positions we might assume in the future.

The challenge of course is that ( possibly) unlike other central support departments, the feeder disciplines for working in IT are STEM; so we recruit from the same pool, and there are many more attractive opportunities in industry on offer to the few female technology graduates coming out of our universities.

Another challenge is the focus on advancement and promotion. The structures for this are very different in the academic departments to those in the support units. I read in the THE this week that most dons ‘haven’t the slightest idea’ to whom they report, whereas we spend hours, days and weeks ensuring that line management lines are clear. There are no chances of promotion if your organigram is out of date.