Monthly Archives: October 2015

That’s praxis – Russian Dolls, strange fish and a mobile learning study for FE

My la-de-daa article on Mobile Learning has been published!! This is a wonderful achievement. A groundbreaking tome. A pot-boiling, kettle-watching, mixed metaphor of an essay, worthy of a Nobel prize.

Actually, since I also edited the journal for the last twelve months, it’s not that fanciful – though I still went through a rigorous examination and re-editing process (thanks to the publisher and co-editor).

Academic writing  (“academese”) is a strange fish, indeed. This was my first article, but I’ve been honed in the tone after three years work on my doctorate. In my first year I was advised, “you have to write at doctorate level”. Good advice. Hmm, How?

“Well, it’s like Masters level writing, but you add another layer on.” (Imagine dishing out such wisdom to A-Level students).

Supervision over three years has been a process of hammering certain, perfectly-everyday-understood words into definition, pruning “gnomic statements” and tautology off the page, removing any sense of identity, personal voice, charm or humour from each phoneme, exorcising Oxford commas, and generally dulling-down the language ’til it sounds, as one of my GCSE students said to me, as if I’d “swallowed a dictionary” (‘Professor Words’ was how his mates referred to him during the course, apparently).

This is challenging and a bit compromising when you try to do doctorate research that addresses a common problem (namely the re-sit English GCSE problem) with a solution, because you try to keep everything grounded in reality and operational to your professional peers. Simultaneously, you have to address the conceptual in an attempt to transform the ordinary into the extraordinary and back to ordinary again (perceptibly, at least).That tends to happen anyway when we study, investigate or meditate on something for a prolonged period: it changes its definition and properties, subtly, perhaps, but something happens. It’s what researchers sometimes call the Russian Dolls approach of unpacking something, finding what’s inside, taking that apart, finding what’s inside, etc…eventually, data saturation happens, and you may stop. Or go nuts. You then put it back together, adding bits of theory like sticking plaster. Finally, it looks less like a Russian doll and more like a Barbie Doll, clothed in weird words and strange ciphers.

An apology, then.

My article is representative of that, since I am outlining a micro-case study of a pedagogical design informed by theory. I have to write like I’m sending myself up, but I also want it to be clear, pragmatic and understood. With complex learning theory (which is actually often not complex, but communicated as complex), the more you aim for practice, the more you translate it to the everyday. That’s praxis.

What’s increasingly difficult – and I might argue ‘pointless’ – is the case for measurement of learning’ . We measure when we want to transfer, but all contexts are different. And education, I would argue, is a social science that is highly contextual. Unlike the natural sciences, human beings are not so predictable. But that’s another post.

The article I’ve written, then, is not prescriptive of use, but does reflect that we are, in FE, at a point in a wave turning back in on itself. Something new needs to emerge from the surf: a new culture, because I think that the old models of practice are becoming less and less relevant. Self-directed action by students at this halfway house in worlds between school and work needs to become a default setting as expectation. The case study is not the best example, because its population is with the GCSE re-sit demographic, whose abilities may not be attuned to this sense of self-responsibility, but it’s meant to demonstrate how we can activate and support those processes, with informed, conducive theory.

Article and editorial:

My First Mobile Learning Journal

Table of Contents


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Filed under Doctorate writing, Mobile Learning

On the FE Loyalty Card and Greggs the Baker

At the college summer conference, this year the staff were painted the grim picture of the future of FE and funding in stark detail. Realistic in tone (it certainly wasn’t your typical motivational or ‘have a stress-free, student-free summer and chill’ conference) it reinforced our awareness of the current crisis of FE. Perhaps it was to bump along those voluntary redundancies; if so, it worked. We’re a morally-devastated workforce, probably nationally as well as locally: continually challenged either economically (both as institutions and personnel) with insecurity or in terms of questions regarding our value.

We’re also dynamic problem-solvers, adaptive and resilient as a result.

One thing that I recall was the passively-aggressive threat by the consultant speaker (help ma Boab…), explaining the (near)future possibility of “other stakeholders” entering our space because the Tories do love competition. He suggested sixth forms, academies, UTCs and threw in Asda for good measure. Perhaps this competition is good for FE as it makes us sit up and wise up to the free market of education. I’m starting to see this in effect on linkedin.

Providers are starting to come in many shapes and forms and we have to consider the consequences for costs and staff. Greggs the “Baker” wants to deliver catering courses? They have the resources, they have the employability-skills knowledge, and they even have the golden egg of employment outcome. They can bid for our funding. And they will only look at profit margins, which will inevitably fall on staffing costs: ‘teachers want how much holiday? They want how much pay? They want to strike??’

How do we compete? This is the central question of our times in the public sector. In that tired discussion about teachers being replaced by technology, my doctorate supervisor said to me three years ago: ‘you have to make yourself redundant-proof’. He’s right, and one way of doing this is to think about what our courses and programmes offer that Asda and Chicken Cottage can’t.

Learning technologies play a huge part in this, because to compete we have to attract potential learners and offer them full, rounded educational experiences. Never mind the Area Based Reviews that may narrow our scope, a course in catering, for example, should offer transferable skill-sets that enable students to change careers or broaden their palettes. We should be informed by pedagogies that extend beyond the vocational; we are often dealing in FE with people from broken social contexts, at risk of slipping into awful circumstance. Colleges must offer students experience.

Equally (and a little contrarily to all this talk of loyalty), I sometimes tell younger staff coming in to the profession that it’s worthwhile considering a second career option – particularly as so many are on part-time contracts. Have something in back-up, or even as a side-line. Grim realities; grim austere times.

Other necessities for us as a sector and workforce:

  • Celebrate achievements – the best evidence of our impact
  • Make noise about the erosion of rights – keep the unions strong
  • Be innovative and enrichen our students’ lives, not just through main college courses but wherever possible
  • Management needs to recognise and secure an expert workforce, supporting and rewarding loyalty
  • Don’t let others define who we are and the value of what we do
  • Finally, don’t eat at Greggs (you know that anyway).

And what else? Well, somehow, we often seem to be accountable for the lack of employment opportunities students find for themselves. This is patently daft.  I would really like to see FE develop a network of cottage industries for small business. The hubs are there for this and instead of relying on there being jobs from big businesses, let’s encourage that mythical Tory innovation – you know, the one that comes from a place without economic privilege and sees innovation flourish through supportive communities.

So go local, reject Asda, support small businesses and work out how it can be done, because it’ll pay back loyalty points in the end.


Filed under FE, Teachers rights, vocational education