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One of my main reasons for having this blog is so that I can experiment, throw some ideas out there and learn from what sticks and what doesn’t. So when I came across Joanna Young’s Mission Im(Possible) group writing project for this month, I thought I’d give it a go. The challenge was to produce something in a different form or a different medium. I’ve had a desire for a few years now to write a science fiction novel, but never really got round to it, so this seemed like a good way to test the waters and stretch my comfort zone a bit.

So, without further ado, I give you what may one day become part of my first novel.

He took a deep breath and stepped out. The sun was just peeping over the horizon and there was a fresh smell in the air, of dew and day-old cut grass, with a hint of something spicy he couldn’t quite name. The sky above was clear and blue, fading to a pale orange where it touched the horizon. There were a couple of cotton-wool clouds, bathed from below in gold.

It was the kind of morning when it felt good to be alive, good just to be walking the earth. And, of course, it didn’t hurt that there was no other human movement for miles. He enjoyed, sometimes, taking a run out in the morning air back home, when few were awake save the milkman and the early commuter. But this was different, this time he could almost believe he could feel the peace and tranquillity that comes of being the only human for miles.

It was strange for him to feel so much at home, scores of lightyears from the planet which gave him birth. Close up, the plants looked foreign; branching filaments emerged from the stem of each, starting the thickness of his wrist on the largest specimens, and bushing out until they were only slightly thicker than a hair at their tips. But as the landscape stretched away to the horizon, the details blurred together, and if he didn’t know better, he would have said that the lake glistening in the distance was a neighbour to Windermere or Ullswater.

A gentle vibration just behind his left ear awoke him from his reverie. “I’m here, go ahead,” he announced, startling a small birdlike creature into the air with a squeak.

“Great, boss, that’s good to know,” came a slightly irritated voice with a Scottish accent into his earpiece, “we were starting to wonder if we’d be doing this one without you.”

“OK, OK, I’m with you now. Let’s get on with this.”

He looked around until he found what he was looking for and concentrated.

It took me a week to work my way up to writing this, but finally I decided I’d better get on with it, so I set a timer for 15 minutes and just started writing. This is a great technique and I really ought to use it more often; I didn’t really know what would come out when I started, but just let it flow out. I haven’t done any editing: this is exactly as it came out onto the page in the first place. It feels good to have written something so different to what I’d usually write, and I got a big confidence boost from my fianceé when she read it and told me it was good: high praise from someone who’s not really a fan of scifi! Now that I’ve got started, I hope I’ll write more; it will be interesting to see the impact that writing fiction makes on my non-fiction writing.

I hope you enjoyed reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it! Let me know what you think in the comments section below.


Well, I’ve been looking forward to this for a long time, but I’ve finally got the hosting sorted out and got on with it. The site is based on Wordpress MU and the theme is a customised version of the Hybrid framework. All of the content from my old site is here, so update your links. I’m still not entirely happy with everything yet, so it’ll probably change a bit over the next few weeks, but I’m learning to accept when things are good enough and override my perfectionist instincts. I’ll probably blog some more about the process of setting up the site.

Any feedback would be very welcome: just leave a comment below. I’ve installed the Comment Luv plugin, so if you enter a blog URL when you leave a comment it’ll show a link to your latest blog post. How’s that for generosity!

Also, for the benefit of Technorati, my verification code for this blog: pe7ajbxvfz


uSpace home page

If you’ve read a few of my previous posts, you might have noticed me talking about something called uSpace. This is the University’s new social networking platform and I’m pretty excited about it. I’ve had to keep relatively quiet about it until recently but now it’s been launched, here are my thoughts on where I think this is going.I was quite excited to discover, in the middle of last year, that the University was investigating social networking platforms with a view to setting up their own. A whole raft of options were considered, including open-source and proprietary solutions, but CICS eventually decided to go ahead and buy Jive Software’s Clearspace (now known as Jive SBS).

Having begun life as a Java-based bulletin board system, Clearspace has since evolved into a fully-fledged communication platform, incorporating a hierarchical structure, wiki-like documents, discussions, blogs and project-management features. According to CICS’s own information page:

It has been chosen to meet the needs of the diverse communities within the University.
  1. Academics - Develop an interactive learning area for your students in an environment integrated with MUSE and MOLE.
  2. Researchers - Collaborate with external and internal colleagues in a secure and fluid way.
  3. Administrative staff - Enjoy new types of communication with the University population. You can create intranet type areas for your department or Faculty, interest groups, discussions or polls. It enables much wider networking across department and role.
  4. Students - It enables you to work collaboratively and creatively on course work as well as socialise with others.

I think the main strength of uSpace is that it provides a university-controlled, safe and secure environment within which to collaborate. In research in particular it’s often considered necessary (though whether this is actually the case is another discussion altogether) to hide ones ideas from the wider research community and the general public until they are published. Using services provided by a third party, however secure and trustworthy, to collaborate is often seen as risky (though in reality insecure passwords are probably a much greater risk). In addition, there’s the very real danger that a third party could go up in smoke, taking all of your discussions, documents and data with it. Having a university-maintained system will go some way to alleviate these fears and get people using social media to the benefit of all.

I also like the democratising nature of social media, and that seems to have carried over to uSpace. Too many of the university’s services are segregated into students vs. staff: for example while both students and staff have an online calendar, neither can see the other’s which limits its usefulness somewhat, especially when you consider that many postgraduates need to work with research staff every day, but are classed as students. By contrast, everyone has access to the same facilities (to a greater or lesser extent) within uSpace. This might put off some staff, but will encourage use amongst students who won’t feel they’re being shortchanged.

On the other hand, uSpace isn’t perfect. It suffers somewhat from being a jack-of-all-trades: while all of the components are good and are well integrated, none of them can hold a candle to the best in their individual classes. Google Docs are more powerful than uSpace documents, and most wiki services provide greater flexibility. uSpace blogs provide very limited functionality, especially when compared to systems such as Wordpress. The social networking features such as friending and status updates feel clunky next to the power of Facebook or the simplicity of Twitter.

Another potential difficulty is Jive Software’s attitude towards the education market. They were obviously keen to play up their commitment to HE in order to make the sale, but I don’t think they’re really that bothered about it. It feels like they’ll be continuing to focus on the business sector, particularly with the recent renaming of Clearspace to Jive Social Business Software. At the start, they were very keen to provide support and help with education-related customisation. I’m not as involved as I was so I don’t know whether they’re maintaining this level of service, but I hope they do.

There’s definitely going to be an issue of training. Although some staff will have no problem hitting the ground running with uSpace, many others will need help getting used to such a novel way of working. And let’s not forget the students: I think we sometimes attribute them with more IT literacy than they possess. Tied into this is the fact that people will need a reason to use uSpace over whatever they already do, and it’s going to have to be a pretty good reason to overcome the natural human resistance to change. Staff and students alike will only use the service if they can understand how it will make their lives and/or work better, and at the moment a clearer message on this is needed.

I’m not convinced that uSpace in its current form is the way to go in the long-run, but it seems to be a good compromise for now, while the real work of embedding a culture of social media use within the university continues. In the longer term I’d like to see a more flexible solution using separate (ideally open-source) components such as Wordpress for blogging and MediaWiki for collaborative editing, but I can see this would be a big leap for most potential users and would require a lot more effort integrating and maintaining them. For the time being though, it will be interesting to see how uSpace develops and how people use it.

This blog post seems to have gone on a bit, so I’ll cut it off now. I will, of course, be discussing uSpace and social media in general more soon.

Have you used uSpace or something similar? How did you find it? What uses can you see? Share your thoughts in the comments below.


On the PCHE course, a major component of the assessment is the portfolio. We have to maintain this portfolio throughout the course, and include reflections on our learning and teaching experiences, along with anything else we feel is relevant, such as clippings from articles and planning materials from sessions we’ve taught. At the end of the course, we all submit our portfolios and then the external examiner selects a few (partly at random, but to cover a decent cross-section of the course demographic) to make sure that the overall standard is good.

I keep my portfolio in digital form, using Circus Ponies Notebook on my laptop. This works very well for me, as I can type prose considerably quicker than I can write with pen and paper, so I’m able to keep up with my thoughts better. It also means that I can include movies and audio clips: for example, I have done a couple of supervision sessions with other people on the course and recorded the debrief session rather than taking notes. There are still a few physical bits of paper that I have too, primarily handouts from course workshops, but almost all of it is digital.

Files by S. C. Asher, Flickr

"Files" by S. C. Asher, Flickr

Now, I fully understand the reasoning behind having everyone submit their portfolio on the same day, even if only 3 or 4 will actually be checked by the examiner. If only those requested by the examiner were submitted, how could the examiner know that the rest had even produced a portfolio?

What I struggle to understand is this: why do I have to print off 100+ pages of A4 that may never leave the folder I submit them in? I’m going to have to put the multimedia bits on a CD anyway, so why can’t I submit the whole thing on CD. I could export it both as HTML for screen reading and as a PDF for the examiner to print and read offline if she prefers. All the links between sections would be preserved for easy browsing. I could even submit it by email (albeit quite a large one) and do away with having to submit a physical artifact at all. With a digital copy of the digital original, there’s nothing to stop the examiner from perusing it in whatever way she sees fit.

I’m not sure why it is that it’s done in this way: most likely it made sense when the course was first set up. I am sure, though, that it’s time to update this policy. In my ideal world, there would probably be a central e-portfolio system for us to use, but given the very personal nature of the PCHE portfolio this would probably need to be optional, since for some people the advantages of a physical portfolio outweight the disadvantages. However, even being allowed to submit the portfolio on CD would be a start.

Do you assess your learners using a portfolio? Is it a physical or digital artifact, or somewhere in between? Leave your comments below.


Today I have a challenge for you, dear reader; but first a little context.

Each year, the PCHE course has a couple of special interest sessions: optional workshops to look at issues related to learning and teaching in HE.

For a number of years this has included a session on blended learning, run by previous PCHE graduate AC. This year I offered him my assistance, little knowing that he would soon be offered a new job leaving me with an opportunity to lead the whole session.

So, that session is next Wednesday, and as well as selling the use of technology in teaching, I’d also like to demonstrate it’s use for professional development; this ties in nicely with themes of reflective practice and social learning.

To that end, I would like to ask you, the readers, to take a few seconds to answer the following question:

What is your top reason for using technology in teaching?

To start the ball rolling, here’s one from me:

To make courses interesting, we should make use of a wide variety of different media, particularly those with which our students are fluent.

Please leave your answer in the comment section, or tweet me. I’ll summarise the responses on the blog next week, and they’ll also help me persuade a group of keen, talented new teachers to make more use of elearning.


I got an email in my inbox today announcing that the university will be transferring all taught students’ email accounts to Google Apps for Education (also previously discussed on Chris Sexton’s blog). As is fairly standard, university email has until now been handled in-house. I’ve never had any problems with it: it’s reliable, and the webmail interface (based on Horde Imp) is clunky but dependable.However, it’s never compared with either the interface or the storage available with Google Mail. As soon as Google enabled POP3 download I set that up and I’ve never looked back. I think it’s great that the university is outsourcing its email to Google, and this is going to mean a major improvement in the student experience; after all, most students use email as instinctively as breathing these days.

It seems to be a win for everyone. Google gets a whole generation of students exposed to more of its products. The university gets email services for free while allowing its support staff to concentrate on doing the stuff they specialise in: supporting the institutions educational and research needs.

My one issue so far is that this change is currently only affecting taught students. Research students and staff will still be on the old system for a while yet. I can understand that some staff, at least, will be more resistant to this change than the students, who are with us for a few years at most. I also know a number of staff who, like the students, don’t like the current system because it’s a bit dated and awkward to use at times. It looks like I’ll be sticking with my own GMail account for now, but the transfer to Google Apps for staff/research students certainly gets my vote.


I love a good story, don’t you? I mention this because I recently had the good fortune to sit in on a lecture taught by a PCHE colleague of mine who is a brilliant storyteller. The lecture was on the subject of magic in the Bible, and consisted of a short introduction to the subject followed by a series of short stories apparently involving magic, taken from the Bible and told in her own style. She’s very exuberant, competed in storytelling competitions when she was younger and held the students spellbound for 50 minutes, at the end of which time they had not only enjoyed themselves, but had also taken in enough to come out with some intelligent questions.

The whole experience really brought home the importance of the art of storytelling in teaching. When I think back to my school days one of the things that I really enjoyed in English lessons was writing stories. The key thing that my teachers always used to try to get across is that a good story should have a beginning, a middle and an end.

The beginning sets the scene, fills the audience in on any background they might need and generally gets the ball rolling. The middle is the meat of the story and should be where everything really happens. The end wraps up, ties up the loose ends and is the point of the rest of the story happening at all.

Now I come to look at it in this way, everything I write and every presentation I make tells a story. On the micro scale, each paragraph and slide tells it’s own little story. On a big scale, a lecture course or a research project is also a story.

I’ve particularly noticed the story structure of the PCHE course. In the beginning, we learned about reflective practice and supervision: the tools we needed to make sense of the rest. The middle consisted of a wide range of workshops related to teaching practice and theory. Now, at the end, we’ve moved on to subjects like curriculum design and course evaluation, which round everything off quite elegantly by placing it in back in the wider context which we considered earlier on.

Seeing teaching done in this way, with both explicit and implicit reference to stories has caused two changes in me. First, I want to start going to storytelling workshops at the folk festivals I sometimes visit. Second, I’m going to pay more attention to storytelling in my own teaching, speaking and presenting.

How do stories fit into what you do? Are you aware of the stories you tell every day? Share your thoughts in the comments section.


There’s no denying it, it’s a tricky concept. How do we make sure that you offer everyone a fair chance? How do we define fair? Who is ‘everyone’ and what chance are we going to give them? One of the more recent PCHE workshops had us discussing these very questions, so here are my thoughts on what I’ve learned.

I used to think that to treat people fairly meant to disregard their race, class, gender, sexuality, age, disability and all those other things which make them unique. After all, equality is touted as being a central value of modern society, and my copy of Chambers Dictionary gives the following definition:

equality n the condition of being equal; sameness; evenness.

Looking back, though, that interpretation seems a trifle naive. No two people are identical, so treating them in the same way is always going to be a compromise; doing so blindly seems particularly insensitive.

For example, under that original assumption, the ideal way to interact with a person who is disabled is to treat them as though they were completely able-bodied. But think about that a bit more. I’m fortunate enough never to have been considered disabled, but I have sprained my ankle in the past, and even being so minimally-hobbled it would have seemed wrong for someone to be expecting me to carry heavy boxes up and down stairs. Treating someone in a wheelchair like that just seems downright offensive, if not just plain dim.

And yet neither can we jump to conclusions. Staying with the disability theme, take Evelyn Glennie, who has been profoundly deaf since the age of 12. It would be easy to assume that music wouldn’t be an ideal career for her. Amazingly, she is a world-class percussionist and composer. If you’d like to see her in action, take a look at this talk in which she teaches her audience how to listen. It’s about half an hour long, so make yourself a nice cup of tea and I’ll wait for you to come back.

So fairness means more than just equality: we have to take people’s differences into account. However, we can’t jump to conclusions either. Not only do people differ in their natural capabilities, they also differ in how they relate to them. When you get right down to it, the only person who can tell you how I want to be treated is me.

But that still isn’t an end to it. If I lose my sight in an accident, I’m guessing that you probably won’t want me flying passenger aeroplanes (although check out this story about a pilot who was guided to safety after being blinded by a stroke in mid-air). Even making all reasonable effort to give everyone the same opportunities, there are still cases where we just can’t.

When it comes down to it, we have to be sensitive to the capabilities of everyone around us. If you had a team-member who was amazing at customer service but lacked a little in the time-management department, you’d make allowances. Dealing with disability, cultural differences or whatever is no difference.

One person who’s really helped me learn this is a colleague of mine. Her English is good; so good that it’s easy to forget that it’s not her native language. But every now and then I’ll use a word or idiomatic phrase that I take for granted and she’ll stop me and ask what on earth I’m talking about it. Thanks to her patience, I now try to be aware of those I’m talking to, whether I’m teaching or not, and whether they’ve understood me. If not, I try to rephrase what I’ve just said or explain myself without being patronising. I’m still learning, but I’m getting there.

Have you ever run into difficulty dealing with someone who’s different to you? How do you cope with the natural diversity of the people you meet every day? Leave a comment below to share your experience.

Related links:


I’m coming up to the end of the PCHE course, so I thought I’d give over this month’s blog posts to some reflection on what I’ve learnt over the two years I’ve been studying it. I’ll be mixing up some shorter and longer posts and aiming to prompt some discussion about the wide variety of issues affecting modern education, incorporating as much of my own experience as I can shoehorn in. I expect to get at least as many things wrong as I get right: I hope you’ll join us for a good argument!
I’ll also be experimenting with some different methods of posting — I’m posting this, for example, by email via my Posterous account ( I’ll let you know how that gets on too.
Have any topics you’d particularly like to read my opinion on? Please let me know in the comments below.


Here are a few things that have caught my eye this week and I thought might interest you as well.