The Desolation of Smug

Pausing to reflect at the onset of a new year may seem a bit cheesy, but I do think it necessary to take stock on occasion and the start of January seems a logical time to do it. So crack open the digestives and I’ll bring on the Dairylea.

A year ago today I was winding up my old job at Cornwall College and preparing to start a new one at Cardiff University.  Everything but the job title would be different and would involve a cultural and institutional move from further to higher education, a geographic move from a chocolate box coastal village in Cornwall to the middle of the capital city of Wales and an emotional move away from family and friends to a place where I knew nobody. Living arrangements changed more than geographically: having lived on my own for three years, after 6 months of living in Cardiff I had to adjust to living with my partner when he moved in over the summer. As living with someone means compromise on both sides, I’m still finding it hard to get through weekends without my (pretty selfish) 14 hour ‘Skyrim Saturdays’…

I realise now that the decision to move to Cardiff was, quite possibly, mad. The contract I was offered was for one year only, with only a small possibility of being kept on for longer than a year just that: a small possibility. I had signed a two year, full time contract at Cornwall College just weeks before.  And I lived here for God’s sake:


The day after accepting the job and handing in my notice I got a call from the university saying that because of issues with HR, my new role had changed from being full to part time, so it would be perfectly understandable if I decided not to take the role after all. Were I not such a foolhardy muppet I would have politely backed out, put down the phone and asked my boss if I could take back my notice. But….look, I’m not a spiritual person, I don’t believe in the ability to see the future or in any sort of sixth sense, but I knew that I wanted to work in a university, I wanted to live in Wales and that everything would be fine.

So, having left Cornwall, for the first two months of my time in Cardiff I worked for 3 days a week, enjoyed long weekends and lived very frugally. The department I worked for got the go-ahead to form a new School with a second department, and as a precursor to this happening, this second department employed me for 2 days a week, so I was now full time. Once the new School was formed, it was decided that everything should be built from the bottom up, so new roles were devised and job descriptions were written. All staff were invited, using anecdotal evidence, to match their skills to those laid out as part of these new job descriptions. I chanced my arm and matched my skills to those of the newly-written role of Learning Technology Manager and in November was told that my match had been successful.  So…promotion and a permanent role were both mine, meaning that there was no need to worry about being homeless in Splott after my initial one year contract ran out.

Here’s where I start getting a bit smug perhaps.  But this is a post for me, something to go back to when I feel like the village idiot of London (which is quite often, but probably something best discussed with a therapist) and will not be read by anyone else, so is as good a space as any to list my achievements so far in 2013.

  • ePortfolios
  • Electronic handbooks
  • Assignment Essentials package for all School students
  • Health and Safety training package for all School students
  • Online research module for all School students
  • Online palliative care module
  • Online genetics module
  • Electronic Multiple Choice Questionnaires (replacing paper-based summative exams)
  • Online and interactive Expert Patient materials
  • IPE digital hub

So here’s 2014 and as I adopt a Krytonesque level of smuggery, I can honestly say that working at a university is everything I had hoped for. I feel fulfilled personally and doors are starting to open professionally. I have been asked to present a keynote address at an upcoming conference and my School is paying for the dissertation stage of my Masters degree, which I made a start on in October. I miss my old home, but find city life exciting, colourful and incredibly freeing. I can indulge my love of live comedy, film and theatre and this year, on my birthday, I will be popping down the road to fulfill a dream of over 20 years: to see nine inch nails play live.

I still miss Skyrim Saturdays though…

Bex’s Brave New World

Greetings from Wales!  I’ve had a rather busy few months, having accepted and started a new role as a Learning Technologist at Cardiff University.  I lived in my native Cornwall for 38 of my 42 years, so moving to Wales has been quite an emotional wrench, but more importantly, has been very exciting too.  So, one week into my new role, I thought it was about time to give myself an ILT ‘audit’, once more dust off thisblog, look at the tools and equipment I own / use and see where I want to go next.  First things first – I think it may be time to upgrade my equipment.

My trusty MacBook is now 7 years old, and though it still works as well as it did on the day I bought it, has never had a virus or any cause for repairs and has lovingly held my entire music collection on iTunes for at least 6 of those 7 years, my thoughts are turning to buying a replacement.  So far, I have managed to narrow this down to one of three devices:

  • 1.       An iMac.  And a full-on model of course, with 27-inch screen, 3.2GHz quad-core Intel Core i5Turbo Boost up to 3.6GHz8GB (two 4GB) memory1TB hard drive NVIDIA GeForce GTX 675MX with 1GB and the apprearance of a well-groomed supermodel from the future, though possibly more beautiful.  However, there are several issues.  An iMac costs a fortune, it uses proprietary software only, some of which can be a real pain in the proverbial to use, the machine cannot be ‘tinkered wi th’ as far as adding extra memory, a better sound / graphics card, etc.  However, on the plus side again, it (probably) wouldn’t go wrong or pick up a virus.  However; vitally, I have a feeling that desktop PCs are going the way of the Dodo, so this could be a very expensive but very beautiful white elephant.
  • 2.       A Windows laptop.  There are some really good, cheaply-priced models out there.  Lenovo (a subsidiary of IBM) are making basic but robust devices at the moment – I saw a £300 model with 1TB memory advertised just last week- and with Windows 8 and Office 365 now up and running and in domstic use – these both being systems that I do need to be familiar with in my role – this is a serious consideration
  • 3.       A ChromeBook.  Now, ChromeBooks fascinate me.  They are completely internet based so have no operating system.  They (apparently) cannot pick up viruses.  They start up in seconds, and everything from storage to software is cloud based.  They’re very cheap too – the cheapest model being £200.  My instinct tells me that this is the way computing is going to go, with everything housed in the cloud and the need for installing software via discs becoming a thing of the past – look at the way console gaming has been moving over several years as an example of this.  And look at Microsoft 365 – a completely cloud-based Office package.  In a seemingly endless time of austerity, these ‘quick and dirty’ machines could end up stealing the proverbial show.

Let’s scrub the iMac.  A beautiful device, but ultimately this could just be a very expensive waste of money.  That narrows it down to the laptop or a ChromeBook.  Or possibly both.  I’ll report back when I have decided…

AMENDUM (May 2013):

I got a Samsung Series 5 Ultrabook.

Teaching on Cornwall College Island (in Second Life)

It took eleven months of building, tweaking, re-building and planning, months of weekly meetings, discussions, trips to other sims, even other virtual worlds and then more building, more tweaking, more re-building until, on the 1st of February, Cornwall College’s island on the Second Life grid finally sprung into action.In the afternoon a dozen arts and media students started work on individual building and sculpting projects. Their tutor, as well as providing tuition and guidance, is also midway through his own build – a beautiful art deco-esque art gallery (in which I guess he will display the students’ work) which currently sits at the bottom of a lake (whether it will stay there or not remains to be seen!)

The City & Guilds Level 3 Award in Preparing to Teach in the Lifelong Learning Sector is an accredited Initial Teacher Training qualification available to anyone who wishes to teach in Post Compulsory Education. Cornwall College has been running the course successfully for a number of years, and 3 years ago developed a “fast track” version, predominantly for anyone already teaching without a formal qualification, with the bulk of the course delivered online and only four of the 12 sessions it consists of delivered in a traditional classroom setting. Having written developed, delivered and assessed this online version, one thing I am certainly proud of in my career is the success to date of this “blended learning” model, so it seemed a logical step to offer the course internationally, with classroom-based sessions delivered in Second Life and a range of web 2.0 applications such as flickr, Twitter, moodle, PBwiki, Skype and Posterous forming a rich and diverse setting for asynchronous tasks and reflective content.So, on the evening of the 1st February, a group of avatars from around Europe gathered on Cornwall College Island to start what I think (and hope!) is the world’s first Initial Teacher Training course to be delivered using Second Life as the only form of class and group-based delivery.

I have only taught in Second Life on two previous occasions – both sessions as part of my studies on the “muvenation” course of 2009 – a course that trained educators to teach specifically in Multi User Virtual Environments such as Second Life. Both sessions looked at how to build a simple object and took little under an hour each to deliver (though they took days to plan), and both sessions were carried out almost a year ago. As a result, I grew increasingly nervous in the days before the lesson was due to start, and I arrived at the island an hour early – just in case there were any last minute bits that needed to be worked on, or any technical issues with audio, graphics, lag or logging in. I was really grateful that one of my bestest buddies, the island’s co-builder and an elearning developer of some repute (henceforth known as “Julala”) had also arrived early to offer her assistance and talk me through any nerves I had.As it transpired, I needn’t have been nervous. The group (who also arrived early!) were a really great bunch of enthusiastic people, all genuinely happy and excited to be a part of this new venture, and all gave 100% to the activities that made up the session. I really enjoyed the lesson and was buzzing but incredibly tired by the end.

Managing the session involved juggling live speech with several text-based chat windows, furiously scribbling notes on bits of paper as we went along, making sure everyone was happy and able to take part in the sessions and that everyone was getting a chance to participate actively, dropping landmarks and notecards on avatars’ heads, writing and sending group notices and trying to stick to my lesson plan and timings of each activity. I was told by one of my unofficial observers afterwards that teaching in Second Life is more tiring than real world practice, and that it was common to feel so completely wiped out afterwards. This is something I will have to bear in mind for next time!Yesterday I got some feedback from one of my students via Skype. She told me that she had really enjoyed the session and was excited by the course and what is to follow. She also said that she would like to meet with the group more often than the schedule currently allows. Julala had mentioned this only a few hours earlier – that she had felt that the group had bonded really well, and that it would be an idea to maybe add more group activities in the schedule that could be carried out on a voluntary basis inworld. To this end I am planning on holding regular, low key discussions looking at some of the key concepts the course covers.

So, one session in and already I am learning that there are certain elements that need to be put in place to ensure sessions run smoothly:* Encourage students to turn up half an hour before the lesson starts so that any technical issues can be addressed before kick-off
* Have a colleague on standby as technical support. There were a couple of minor issues with microphones that were addressed quickly and smoothly because avatars with issues simply IMd Julala if they had issues, rather than interrupting the flow of the session by contacting me. As well as providing this support, she also kept an eye on any other visitors to the island – because though anyone is welcome to visit and even observe our sessions, I really would not want any X Rated behaviour or “griefing” to happen whilst teaching!
* If possible, film the session and watch retrospectively to see what worked well and what didn’t.
* I was also lucky enough to have another friend who has far more experience teaching in Second Life who sat in on the session so she could give me feedback afterwards. If this can be arranged, do – it’s really useful!