What can an ed techie learn from the US civil service?

I recently read Getting things done in large organisations by Thomas Kalil (profession: “expert” according to Google). Kalil worked for the Clinton and Obama administrations on science and technology policy. This is his attempt to share what worked for him. I was interested because 12 – nearly 13 – years in at Bristol and I’m still learning how to get things done. From what I understand of their structure and rate-of-change, civil service and universities are at least in some ways similar.

The paper is aimed at “policy entrepreneurs”: people who generate or spot new ideas, then evaluate and (if appropriate) help make them happen. I grew up in the 80’s and the word entrepreneur brings to mind Rodney from Only Fools and Horses … I can’t imagine wanting to apply the term to myself. But the principle certainly applies within my role, and indeed many professional roles.

Kalil starts by giving a bit of a career history, which is probably only relevant if you would like to become a policy advisor. This is the first 6 pages. The remaining 10 pages are pretty solidly filled with good advice. Here are some of the things most directly applicable to my role in digital education….

“Influence without authority as a job description” – this resonates, working in an organisation that is still often operating on goodwill and people’s desire to cooperate

Thought experiment: What if you had 15 minutes with the president (in my case the VC), and if he liked your idea he would be willing to call anyone to make it happen. Kalil developed this as a way of making people think seriously about what they would change, and who would be in a position to do it. Follow up questions:

  • Would the people called be willing & able to do it?
  • Is there anything we could change (for them or about the proposal) to make them more willing or more able?
  • What existing forums / mechanisms are there that could carry this forward? (This also relates to the paper from a previous reading group on evidence and the question: would the initiative continue if we walked away?)

There’s something empowering about having an answer to this prepared. I don’t, but I will.

How does your remit fit into the bigger picture? Related to the thought experiment above is the importance of keeping aware of – and actively looking for – areas where digital education can further the broader aims of the university.

Partnership working (working collaboratively) works best when you have good relationships. Both sides need to:

  • Understand each other’s priorities
  • Trust each other to follow-through
  • Feel able to disagree and raise concerns

Relationships need to be a two-way street, not just one side dictating. It’s also important to understand the internal politics and personalities you are working with. Clearly the bulk of this is good advice for all relationships, professional and personal.

Have an agenda. In my experience teams do tend to do this but, for personal job satisfaction at the very least, having a personal agenda makes some sense. Kalil has some good questions to ask on this (go read them) but key for me is: why do I believe this is the right thing to do and that it will work? Also, recognise that you won’t know the answers without listening to (and asking interesting questions of) other people.

Make it easy for other people to help you. The example Kalil gives is: if you want someone to send an email, write it for them. Closely related to this is his advice for making follow-up more likely to happen: ask people if they think they can complete their assignment; document and follow up commitments; have deadlines, even if they’re artificial; if someone isn’t following up, try to find out why.

Understand what tools are available to you. What are the things you / your team / the organisation can do to affect change?

Be open to ideas from a range of sources. Engage with people from outside of your own contexts. Adapt and imitate what works elsewhere.

Plan for a change in administration (surprisingly applicable in universities, this one).

And some don’ts:

  • Don’t try to do too many things at once
  • Don’t act of the urgent and forget the important
  • Don’t spend too much time on reports
  • Don’t let things drag on indefinitely
  • Don’t surprise people, they don’t like it

Nothing earth-shattering perhaps but good solid advice, much of which it’s worth being reminded of. I’d recommend it.

Digital Literacy – An NMC Horizon Project Strategic Brief

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A new Horizon Project Report from NMC focuses on how classroom instruction/education can create digitally literate students (and by default staff).

NMC Releases Horizon Project Strategic Brief on Digital Literacy

“While institutions have become more adept at integrating emerging technologies, our survey data revealed that there is still a lot of work to be done around improving digital literacy for students and faculty,”

#EDCMooc – the view from the other side

By Hilary Griffiths

Now the dust has settled I thought it might be useful to post some thoughts on our EDCMOOC experience. Once a week educational technologists, students and academics had the opportunity to meet for a coffee, and to reflect on their experience of participating in a MOOC – these are some of the thoughts expressed during those meetings.

Only two or three of the group had participated in a MOOC before so it’s perhaps unsurprising that the most common reason for participation cited in the first meeting was curiosity – what exactly is it like to be a student on a MOOC?

The general impression after week 1 was one of feeling overwhelmed – both by the range of tools participants were directed to use, the percieved lack of explicit direction or course structure, and the amount of “noise” in the environment. Some participants struggled initially to make sense of how they were expected to use the tools (which were things like Facebook, Google +, and Twitter as well as in MOOC discussion fora.) One participant cited the fact that they didn’t want to have to sign up to Facebook or Twitter but through the ensuing discussion it became clear that given the number of participants you didn’t need to use all of the suggested tools, but could pick a couple you were most comfortable with and still get a good experience of the course.

It was interesting that the participants cited noise as adding to their feeling of being swamped by the MOOC – the sheer amount of information being uploaded, commented on, communicated, microblogged and hyperlinked to was overwhelming, especially if you arrived in a discussion or activity area some time after it had started.  Given the participants use a range of ways to filter and organise the information they receive in their life outside the MOOC, it telling that at least initially they did not seem to apply the same strategies within the MOOC.  Generally better ways to filter and surface activities was seen as key – along with some way of allowing late arrivals to jump in to activities  without having to wade through masses of information, for example a daily digest of key discussion board conversations to allow later arrivals to contribute to the current conversation more easily.

A concern from a current undergraduate student was the perceived lack of validation of her learning. Was she learning what she should be? Was her understanding correct? In the absence of feedback from the MOOC academics the student was relying on a validation by peer consensus in a course where a lack of academic rigour characterised many of the contributions.

My perception was that those who had the most enjoyable and engaged experience of the  MOOC engaged early and managed to form small, self supporting groups which helped reduce information overload and the lack of a present academic by filtering information, alerting group members  to things they may have missed and also offering feedback on their learning. Groups offered a way to move beyond the experience of the central discussion boards,  often characterised by a lot of posts but not a great deal of dialogue,  into an area where participants could start to develop a sense of the experience and expertise of the people they were communicating with. One benefit of the MOOC use of external social media like blogs and twitter are that these conversations can continue after the course has finished.  A final suggestion was that perhaps we should lobby for some kind of advisory service for students to consult before they sign up for a MOOC – MOOCAS anyone ?

Applying the Mumford method to report-writing

Philosopher Stephen Mumford has developed a process for writing academic papers, known as the Mumford method. It involves producing a summary of your argument in a very particular format, using this summary when speaking (both as notes for yourself and as a hand-out for the audience), refining it after feedback each time you present, and eventually writing up. It’s been used by professors through to a-level students and always sounded like a convincing idea.

I decided to try it out when working on a recent internal report on Open Education at Bristol, in collaboration with my colleague Jane Williams, and it worked well. We initially produced a handout, roughly in the format Mumford describes. After several iterations of this handout we used it as our plan for the final briefing paper.

Although we started with the Mumford method instructions, I made some small refinements for the slightly different circumstances. My summary was:

  • single-sided
  • landscape with 4 columns of 10pt text (as the points being made tended to be relatively brief)
  • sub-divided into section headings (these did not neatly fit with the 4 columns but that was fine)
  • produced in Google Drive to allow collaboration (this involved using a table for the columns – a little fiddly but workable)

We used this handout both for meetings with individuals and when presenting the paper at larger meetings for consultation, and it was very effective as an aid to discussion.

I was tasked with writing up and found I could relatively quickly write up the report based on the outline (which I had talked through many times by this point). Each of the four columns produced almost exactly one A4 page of relatively spare prose, more than I had anticipated. But the argument remained very clear and it was extremely easy to produce a summary of the key points, drawing almost directly from the handout. It’s definitely something I’ll use again.