Sustaining an ethic of care

On Friday 13th of March I wrote a blog post called What Comes Next, which marked the end of the last round of UCU strikes and looked forward to my return to work the following week. Five days later, in response to the rapidly worsening coronavirus pandemic, my university advised all staff and students to leave campus and work from home, and the following week the whole UK went into lockdown. I think it’s fair to say that at that stage none of us could possibly have imagined what came next.

Extraordinary times call for extraordinary measures, it may be a cliché, but rarely has it been so true. In the fifteen weeks since lock down began, it’s been nothing short of inspiring to see the superhuman efforts of colleagues right across all sectors of education to ensure that teaching and learning could continue, while respecting the unique stresses and anxieties that we’ve all been facing in these Unprecedented Times.

Learning technologists have become the new superhero/ines, putting the technology in place to enable teaching continuity, upskilling academic colleagues to help them transition to online teaching, figuring out the practicalities of hybrid teaching, and working out the logistics of making it a reality at scale, all while dealing with the uncertainty that, for all the planning and modeling, we don’t really know what’s going to happen in September, and beyond that, what will happen in the longer term.

And all this effort has taken place against a back drop of hot takes from ed tech gurus, CEOs and journalists, who persist in comparing “traditional” on-campus face to face education to online learning, despite decades of evidence based research that direct comparisons between the two modes are unhelpful at best and specious at worst. Every day my twitter feed is full of educators and learning techs responding with tired outrage to articles claiming that online programmes require less staff, less skill, less effort, less funding, while providing an inferior learning experience and questionable outcomes.  

It’s as exhausting as it’s infuriating. Particularly when colleagues who were striking over precarity, inequality and workloads at the beginning of the year, returned from strike and immediately shouldered increased workloads without question or complaint. Meanwhile the pandemic has only exacerbated the inequalities that already exist in the system. Journal submissions from women scholars have fallen off a cliff, fixed term teaching contracts have been terminated, disproportionately affecting women, BAME colleagues and early career academics, and women are still carrying the invisible emotional burden of a system and a society under profound stress.

We’ve all had to adapt to the new normal and to do what we can to get by. But my concern is that the new normal still isn’t normal, and perhaps more importantly, it’s also not sustainable.  This level of physical, mental and emotional labour can’t be sustained in the long term without it taking a considerable toll.

As lockdown begins to lift, and we all start to breathe a tentative sigh of relief, my fear is that the delayed impact of that burden of labour will make itself felt just at the point when we have to step up a gear. Lifting of lockdown isn’t an opportunity to relax and get back to normal, it’s the start of a long uphill race with no visible finishing line in sight.

Academic colleagues, and the professional services staff who support them, face an astronomical task to prepare their courses for hybrid delivery, and to open the university to new and returning students in September. The online pivot, that all out sprint to ensure teaching continuity at the beginning of lockdown, has turned into a marathon and there are serious concerns whether we have the strength, stamina and resilience for it.

At the beginning of lockdown my own institution placed the emphasis squarely on communication, care and continuity, and by and large it has responded to the unique challenges of the pandemic with compassion and sensitivity. I sincerely hope that we don’t loose sight of that ethic of care as we move out of lockdown towards a new academic year that will be unlike anything we could ever have experienced or predicted, because that’s when we’re really going to need it the most.

Closer to home

I’ve struggled for words this week, or rather I’ve struggled to know whether to speak. There are so many other voices that need to be heard and listened to right now, rather than another privileged white cis woman. I can’t help feeling that stepping aside and making space for these other voices is the most useful thing I can do. But that doesn’t diminish the fact that I am appalled, I am utterly horrified, by the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery at the hands of the white supremacist state that is the USA. I can’t even begin to imagine the rage and fury of Black people who live with this fear and injustice on a daily basis. So for most of the week, I’ve tried to use the small space I occupy online to amplify the voices of others, while trying to listen and learn from what they have to say.

At the same time I’m not so naïve to think that systemic racism and police brutality are problems that only afflict the US.  Witness the deaths Joy Gardner, Cynthia Jarrett, Sean Rigg, Mark Duggan, and Sheku Bayoh, whose death at the hands of police officers in Kirkaldy, is currently the subject of a Scottish Government Public Enquiry.

Racism is so ingrained in the social, historical and cultural fabric of Scotland and the UK that we barely even see it. I live in Glasgow, a city whose mercantile wealth was founded on the exploitation of Black bodies; the slaves who worked the plantations of the tobacco barons and sugar merchants. When we walk down Ingram Street, Glassford Street, Buchanan Street, we barely give a thought to the fact that these streets commemorate slave owners. Their mansions are now art galleries, bars, restaurants, designer clothes shops but nowhere in Glasgow is there a visible public memorial to the enslaved men, women and children whose lives and labour were exploited to build the wealth of the slave owners and their city. Scotland has a long, long way to go before it even begins to acknowledge its racist, colonial legacy.

When universities, museums, art galleries and archives tweeted their support for #BlackLivesMatter this week they were, quite rightly, called out for their hypocrisy and performativity. After all, where is the evidence that black lives really do matter to these public institutions? Where is the evidence that they are addressing systemic racism, discrimination and inequality?

At the same time, the deluge of racist abuse that the University of Glasgow received for tweeting its support for #BlackLivesMatter shows why it’s so important that our education institutions do stand up to be counted.

Ironically, Glasgow is currently the only university in Scotland that has made a concrete effort to address its historic legacy of profiting from slavery through its Slavery, Abolition and the University of Glasgow report, its commitment to raise and pay £20million pounds in reparations and its MOU with the University of the West Indies to found a research centre to “stimulate public awareness about the history of slavery and its impact around the world.”

In its own public statement in response to the murder of George Floyd, the University of Edinburgh announced its intention to:

launch a community-led process of restorative and reparative justice, through which we will interrogate the role of the University in slavery and colonialism.

And furthermore to:

launch a cross-disciplinary hub, RACE.ED for research and teaching on race and ethnicity… to bring together academics and students to explore issues of racism and be part of a University network taking forward anti-racist initiatives within our University.

Because of course addressing historical racism is only part of the picture, we need to address the systemic racism and discrimination that still pervades our academic institutions. The University of Edinburgh Student Union’s statement of solidarity notes:

Across Scotland, Universities have a BME attainment gap of 8.9%, which rises to 24.5% for Black students (AdvanceHE, 2018) – at Edinburgh, the BME attainment gap is as high as 17.7% in some Schools (EDMARC, 2019a). The University’s own internal review of support for BME students in 2019 found that a lack of racial literacy among both staff and student fundamentally undermined the experiences of BME students at Edinburgh (UoE, 2019) – this is unsurprising in an educational environment where BME academic and professional services staff are less likely than white staff to be employed at higher grades (EDMARC, 2019b) and across the UK Black academics make up less than 1% of University lecturers (HESA, 2019).

And as Dr Jasmine Abrams succinctly put it:

I don’t really know how to end this post, so I’m going to end it with the queer Black poet Essex Hemphill

“It is easier to be angry than to hurt. Anger is what I do best. It is easier to be furious than to be yearning. It is easier to crucify myself in you than to take on the threatening universe of whiteness by admitting that we are worth wanting each other.”

Please donate if you can. There is a list of bail funds here, and a list of UK organisations fighting racism and injustice at the end of the EUSA statement here.

For the Common Good – Responding to the global pandemic with OER

(This post originally appeared on Open.Ed.)

Last week, in response to the disruption of education caused by the global COVID-19 pandemic, UNESCO issued a Call for Joint Action to support learning and knowledge sharing through Open Educational Resources (OER).  Estimating that 1.57 billion learners have been affected worldwide, the call highlights the important role that OER can play in supporting the continuation of learning in both formal and informal settings, with a view to building more inclusive, sustainable and resilient Knowledge Societies.

“Today we are at a pivotal moment in history. The COVID-19 crisis has resulted in a paradigm shift on how learners of all ages, worldwide, can access learning. It is therefore more than ever essential that the global community comes together now to foster universal access to information and knowledge through OER.”

~ Moez Chakchouk, Assistant Director-General for Communication and Information and  Stefania Giannini, Assistant Director-General for Education

At the University of Edinburgh, we have a strategic commitment to OER and open knowledge in line with our institutional vision and values; to discover knowledge, make the world a better place, and ensure our teaching and research is diverse, inclusive, accessible to all and relevant to society.   This commitment to OER is reflected in the University’s OER Policy, which encourages staff and students to use and create OERs to enhance the quality of the student experience, expand provision of learning opportunities, and enrich our shared knowledge commons.

This strategic support for open knowledge and OER has enabled the University to respond rapidly to the uniquely complex challenges presented by the global COVID-19 pandemic.

COVID-19 Critical Care Learning Resources

With support from the Online Learning and OER Services, the University’s MSc Critical Care team was able to rapidly launch a COVID-19 Critical Care online learning resource for frontline clinical staff supporting critical care patients. Hosted by FutureLearn, COVID-19 Critical Care: Understanding and Application has been accessed by over 34,000 learners from 185 countries since it was launched on 6 April.

Open Media Bank

Our  longstanding commitment to OER and open knowledge has also enabled the University to build up an Open Media Bank of high quality legacy MOOC content, which includes a number of resources that directly address the challenges of the pandemic, such as videos from our former Critical Thinking in Global Challenges course from the School of Biomedical Sciences.

PPE Printing

To address the lack of personal protective equipment, labs and maker spaces around the University have been producing 3D printed visors and face shields to help protect NHS workers.  3D visor models based on existing open licensed models have been developed by colleagues at uCreateStudio and the School of Informatics and have been shared under Creative Commons licence on Sketchfab where they can be downloaded and re-used by all.

Free Teaching and Learning Resources for Home Schooling

To support home schooling the OER Service has been sharing and disseminating free open licensed teaching and learning materials through TES Resources.  Aimed at primary and secondary school level, this diverse collection of fun and creative learning resources has been co-created by undergraduates and student interns in collaboration with colleagues from the School of GeoSciences, supported by the OER Service.

Digital Skills for Remote and Hybrid Teaching

The OER Service’s digital skills programme, which focuses on copyright literacy, open licencing and OER, helps to equips staff with the knowledge and confidence the need to move their teaching materials online in preparation for the shift to hybrid teaching, while minimising the risk to the University of breaching copyright.  Videos of our popular digital skills workshop Will it bite me? Media, Licensing, and online teaching environments are available from our website, and a new version of the workshop is in the pipeline and will be launched shortly.

Caring for Mental Health and Wellbeing

Caring for mental health at a time of unprecedented stress and uncertainty is a priority for us all, and the OER Service has shared a wealth of resources to support mental health and wellbeing created by colleagues around the University.  These include Mental Health: A Global Priority podcasts and videos, a mental health and wellbeing booklet for children aged 12+, the lovely we have great stuff colouring-book, and treasures from the University’s collections.

Get in Touch

If you are creating resources that you would like to share to support teaching and learning and to help those who have been affected by the global pandemic, get in touch with the OER Service.  We can provide advice on copyright, open licensing, and understanding Creative Commons, and we can help you to share your resources through our open channels to ensure that they reach those that need them most.

Open Letter to Editors / Editorial Boards

(This post was originally shared on femedtech.net.)

The FemEdTech collective is calling on the Editors and Editorial Boards of scholarly journals to acknowledge and mitigate the disproportionate impact of the current COVID-19 pandemic on women researchers and scholars. Multiple voices have highlighted the escalating impact of COVID-19 on women’s scholarly productivity, and hence the quality and representativeness of the research and scholarly work published during this global pandemic.

In order to support authors and reviewers, we are asking Journal Editors to consider these issues while reviewing submissions and commissioning editions during and after the COVID-19 crisis.  We therefore, call upon Editors to:

  1. State on their websites the special measures they will take to support women researchers and scholars during this time. For example, editors may delay calls for special issues.
  2. Promote gender balance by inviting potential authors to submit papers written by both female and male authors and prioritise papers written by women, particularly where they are single or lead authors.
  3. Ensure that revision and review timescales are flexible and take into consideration the additional schooling, caring and community responsibilities which fall disproportionately on women.

To evidence this call for action, we note that:

In the longer term, these factors are likely to have a significant impact on women’s career progressionand may increase their precarious work situation, as they take on more of the emotional labour of caring and pastoral support, labour that is rarely acknowledged or rewarded in the same way as research outputs and publications. We encourage Editors and Editorial Boards to help ameliorate the effects of the pandemic on women’s scholarly contributions and careers.

We acknowledge that these issues can also have a significant impact on the publication record and career progression of BAME colleagues, differently abled academics, and other minorities but data on this is more scarce. Staying Power, published by UCU in 2019 , reported on Dr Nicola Rollock’s research that interviewed 20 of the only 25 black female professors in the UK (that’s 0.1% of all professors).  A recently published book Data and Feminism, available open access as well as in print, is informed by intersectional feminist thought. The book goes beyond gender: to question who has power and who has not, and to support challenges to those differentials of power.

If nothing else, we ask Editors to read our letter and the articles linked to increase their awareness of these issues. Thank you for listening.

(Link to post about sharing this letter)

OER20: Care, hope and activism

CC BY, Bryan Mather

The OER Conference is always one of the highlights of the year for me.   It’s the only open education conference I attend regularly and I’m privileged to have been present at every single one since the conference launched at the University of Cambridge back in 2010.  So needless to say, I was gutted that the f2f element of this year’s conference had to be cancelled, despite knowing that it was unquestionably the right thing to do.  I know from experience how much work and personal investment goes into planning the OER Conference and what a difficult decision it must have been for ALT and for co-chairs Mia Zamora, Daniel Villar-Onrubia and Jonathan Shaw.  That initial feeling of loss was tempered by ALTs announcement that they would be moving the event online, an ambitious plan, given that the conference was barely two weeks away.  I was always confident that ALT could pull off this #pivot as they already have a wealth of experience facilitating online conferences, through the annual winter online conference, and as an already distributed organisation they didn’t have to cope with the scramble to set up remote working that may other organisations and institutions faced.  What I didn’t expect though was for ALT and the conference co-chairs to deliver an entirely unique event.  They didn’t just move the planned face to face conference online they completely transformed it into a new, original and completely free online experience that welcomed over 1,000 registered participation from across the globe.  And please note, the OER20 conference wasn’t just free as in speech, it was also free as in beer, so if you participated in the event, either listening in to the presentations, or even just following the hashtag online, please consider making a donation to the conference fund.  Every little helps to support ALT and cover the cost.

Of course the theme of the conference, The Care in Openness, could not have been more timely or more prescient.  The whole notion of care has taken on new weight since the outbreak of the Covid pandemic.  Care has literally become a matter of survival.  The only way we will get through this is if we care for each other, and if we protect and value those that care for us.  

If I was to pick two session that for me, really embodied this ethic of care it would have to be keynote sava saheli singh and Mia Zamora in conversation, and Frances Bell talking about the femedtech quilt project.  Both sessions featured films that provoked a really strong, but very different, emotional response.  Screening Surveillance’s Frames is a deeply unsettling tale of surveillance, commodification, dehumanisation and alienation.  Powerful, challenging and disturbing, watching Frames is a profoundly uncomfortable and thought provoking experience. The subsequent discussion brought to mind Jimmy Reid’s immortal address on becoming rector of the University of Glasgow in 1972; Alienation

“Society and its prevailing sense of values leads to another form of alienation. It alienates some from humanity. It partially de-humanises people, makes them insensitive, ruthless in their handling of fellow human being, self-centred and grasping.”

This quote particularly resonates with me.  So much has changed in the 50 years since Reid’s address, but so much remains the same. It is the system of capitalism that is still so often the root cause of our dehumanisation and alienation. Industrialisation may have given way to surveillance capitalism, but digital technology is simply the latest mechanism for our alienation. 

sava ended her brilliant keynote session with a much needed call for compassion and action:

“We need to approach everyone with compassion…All of us are activists now.”

It was a huge privilege to hear sava and Mia in conversation, and my only regret is that I haven’t yet had the opportunity to meet them in person. I hope that will happen one day.

Nowhere is that compassion and activism more visible than in the making of the femedtech quilt, a craft activism project and a material manifestation of care led by the indefatigable Frances Bell.  Frances produced this beautiful film about the making of quilt and it’s safe to say that there wasn’t a dry eye in the house after watching it.   Like the quilt itself, the up-swell of collective emotion was “beautifully imperfect, imperfectly beautiful.”


 

I find it hard to put my profound appreciation for this project into words, but Su-Ming Khoo spoke for many of us when she thanked Frances for giving us all “somewhere to put our connection and our gratitude”.

My other highlights of the conference included….

The launch of the University of Edinburgh and Wikimedia UK’s Wikimedia in Education handbook.  Edited by Wikimedian in Residence, Ewan McAndrew, this free, open licensed booklet brings together 14 case studies from educators across the UK who are already integrating Wikimedia assignments in their courses and classes.   I know how much work has gone into the production of this booklet so it was great to see it being launched. I’m sure it will be an invaluable  and inspirational resource that will encourage educators to see the huge potential of integrating Wikmedia projects in education.

Staying with the Wikimedians, Wikimedia UK’s Scotland Programmes Coordinator Sara Thomas gave an impassioned talk on Wikimedia and Activism.  I love listening to Sara present, she always makes me want to storm the barricades! Sara reminded us that learning and creating open knowledge are always political acts. Creating knowledge encourages agency, but access to information alone does not result in enlightenment. Knowledge is nothing without literacy and information literacy is crucial for participatory democracy.

I also really enjoyed Bonnie Stewart and Dave White’s thoughtful and compassionate session on Designing for Systems of Care: Can Open Pedagogy Scale Caring? Dave spoke about the dangerous grey area between surveillance and care, and argued that personalised, individualised learning is actually reducing our agency, our self-direction and self-determination. We’re at a point where the tech sector appears to be telling us “we’ll care for you and personalise your experience, if you tell us everything about you.” But we can’t use technology to lock everything down, we need to create a culture of trust now more so than ever.

I made one very small contribution to the conference this year, a short alt-format talk on open practice and invisible labour, which you can read here and listen to here.  Sadly this talk became all the more relevant with news reports yesterday afternoon that hundreds of university staff on precarious contracts have been made redundant by the universities of Bristol, Newcastle and Sussex.  As my colleague Melissa Highton succinctly put it “This is why we strike.

There is always a strong social element to OER conferences and there was a risk that this would be lost with the move online.  However the conference team excelled themselves and, if anything, this was one of the most social and inclusive conferences I’ve participated in, ether on or off-line.  The social bingo was hugely popular and a great use of Alan Levine’s fabulous TRU Collector SPLOT. (If you enjoyed playing OER social bingo, you might like to support Alan’s work by contributing to his Patreon.)  The KarOERke was also priceless.  Anyone who knows me will know that karaoke is my idea of HELL. I can barely even bring myself to watch it, never mind participate!  However, I had great fun dipping in and out of the online KarOERke on ds106.tv.  My only regret is that I missed Lucy Crompton-Reid singing Kate Bush.  The final rousing chorus from Les Mis was something to behold though.  Y’all are daft as brushes.

Perhaps the most striking thing about the OER20 though was that none of the emotion and connection that is so characteristic of the OER conferences was lost. If anything, this was heightened by the #unprecedented global situation we find ourselves living through.  Suddenly these tenuous temporal connections we made with colleagues from all over the world during the two days of the conference, felt more important than ever before.  A valuable lifeline, and a network of care, hope and activism that connected us all at a time of uncertainty and isolation. Ultimately these are the things that matter and these are the things that will see us through.

Drawing the Line: Reflections on open practice and digital labour

This is a transcript of my short online talk at the OER20 Conference. 

My name’s Lorna Campbell, I’m a regular contributor to the femedtech network and I’m speaking to you today from Glasgow in Scotland. I make no apology for the fact that this talk raises more questions than it answers, and like much in the world right now, it has evolved significantly over the last few weeks and months.  The original inspiration for this presentation was a post I wrote for the femedtech Open Space during last year’s OER19 conference.  The Open Space sought to question dominant narratives of “open” and explore whose voices are included and excluded from our open spaces and practices. 

As Catherine Cronin reminds us, openness, by its nature is highly diverse and contextual. We all experience openness from different perspectives and different positions of power, prejudice, privilege and discrimination. For some of us, openness is part of our job, our research, our field of study. For some it’s a philosophy, a personal commitment. For some it’s political. For some it’s emotional. For many, me included, it’s a complex mix of all of the above.

I’m fortunate to experience openness from a position of privilege.  I work at an institution with a strong civic mission and a real commitment to open knowledge, where my primary responsibility is to support engagement with open education and OER.   I also contribute my labour to other organisations that support like-minded goals, sometimes as a volunteer, sometimes in a more formal capacity, as a Trustee, sometimes just for fun. 

We all have a deep personal commitment to our open practice, to equity and social justice. We all want to be good citizens of the open community, making a positive contribution to the global commons. But when do the hours that we willingly devote to open education start to become unacknowledged, invisible digital labour? How much does the open community rely on this invisible labour?  And perhaps most importantly, how far does it exclude those who are unable or unwilling to contribute their labour for free? 

These are questions that many in the open knowledge domain are increasingly trying to address.   One of the key concepts underpinning the new Movement Strategy being developed by the Wikimedia Foundation is Knowledge Equity, the commitment to focus on knowledge and communities that have been left out by structures of power and privilege, and to break down the social, political, and technical barriers preventing people from accessing and contributing to free knowledge. If the Wikimedia community is serious about honouring this commitment to knowledge equity then it must also acknowledge the problematic issue of invisible labour.  

CC BY-SA, NASA + VGrigas (WMF), on Wikimedia Commons

As open practitioners, the boundaries of our labour are complex and porous and this has both positive and negative consequences for ourselves as individuals, community members, workers, activists and volunteers.

These complexities have been thrown into stark focus by both the Covid-19 pandemic and the recent UCU industrial action, which focused on equality, job security, fair workloads and fair pay.  The strike highlighted the problems of exploitation, discrimination and precarity that exist right across academia, and from which open education is far from immune. When our personal and political commitments and activism are so interwoven with an exploitative system, boundaries become blurred and it’s hard to know where, if anywhere, to draw the line. How can we balance our agency as open practitioners and citizens of the global commons with cognisance that it is our digital labour that sustains a system that is by turns inspiring and dispiriting, empowering and exploitative?

USS Strike Rally, George Square, Glasgow, CC BY, Lorna M. Campbell

These issues were encapsulated in a twitter thread from @HEreflections1 during the previous round of industrial action.

“One of the most pernicious aspects of stress, anxiety and burnout in education is that it often starts with individuals who work longer hours through enjoyment and an ethic of care. But at some point the organisation captures this as core work which has to be done.

As a result the enjoyment, the agency is lost and the stress begins to grow, leading eventually to hate and/or exhaustion in some cases. And it creeps up on people so that they blame themselves. This is the failure of the system, and any discussion of well-being or expert groups focusing on happiness misses the point completely.

What starts with dignity and vocation is smashed by performativity, by human as resource, and by an inability to see education as a community.”

And yet despite the toll taken by the exploitation of our invisible digital labour and ethic of care, we all continue to do our best, to go the extra mile, to pick up the pieces for our students and our colleagues, and nowhere has this been more apparent than in our collective response to the current coronavirus crisis.  Colleagues returning from strike threw themselves into the task of supporting the online pivot, while dealing with the new reality of working from home, juggling childcare, home schooling, caring for elderly relatives and immunocompromised friends, while coping with financial insecurity, and unprecedented stress.  All of this emotional and affective labour has been contributed without question or complaint at the same time that institutions are deducting strike pay from our wages and, in some cases, making redundant the precarious staff who carry so much of the burden of this labour of care.

There are no simple answers to any of the questions I’ve raised here, but I believe it is important that we raise these critical issues and that we keep talking about them, so I’d like to invite conference participants to reflect on the nature of their own open practice and invisible labour and, if they feel so inclined, to share their experiences and reflections at the femedtech Open Space

Further Reading

Working from Home: Adjusting to the new normal

It’s been nothing short of inspiring to see the heroic efforts of learning technologists all over the country to help their colleagues move their teaching online over the last week.  Special shout out to my colleagues in LTW who have calmly and patiently trained over six hundred academic staff to use our core tools and move their teaching online under difficult and stressful circumstances.

Thanks also to Martin Weller and the fabulously talented Bryan Mathers for this hilarious and slightly disturbing image.

 

And of course learning technologists have been doing all this while trying to rapidly adjust to radically different working conditions and the prospect of working from home being the new normal for the foreseeable future.  I’ve worked remotely most of my career, often as part of a widely distributed team, and once you get used to it, it’s easy to forget how difficult and disruptive it can be for those who have little or no experience of home working.  Luckily there are lots of great tips and resources for remote workers available online, some of which I’ve linked below, and more remote workers are sharing their experience every day.  Wikimedia UK’s Scotland Programme Coordinator and experienced home worker, Sara Thomas, has written an excellent blog post that I would highly recommend to anyone who is new to home working: Remote working the Wikimedia UK way.  Here’s a few additional suggestions based on my experience of remote working.

The new normal isn’t normal

The first thing to be aware of is that this is not a normal home working scenario. Everyone is trying to adapt very quickly to a uniquely stressful and uncertain situation. We’re all trying to cope with caring for loved ones, covering childcare and home schooling, dealing with shortages, while being mindful of our own mental health and wellbeing.  Bearing that in mind, some of the advice I would normally recommend for remote working just doesn’t apply right now.  Usually I would stress that it’s important to communicate to your family, children, housemates, that when you’re working from home, you are actually working, and you shouldn’t be interrupted.  I don’t think that applies right now.  If your kid wants to show you their drawing in the middle of a conference call that’s fine, share it with your colleagues too! Or your partner just wants to sit down and talk to you for a few minutes, make time for them. Being there for each other is the most important thing we can do right now.

Routine is good

Do try to get into a routine and to keep normal working hours as much as possible, but don’t get too stressed if you need to take time out to take a breather.  When we work in an office we benefit from all kinds of little social interactions that we may not really be aware of.  Working from home, it’s easy to worry that we’re not doing enough, or that we’re wasting time if we browse social media, read the news for a few minutes, or clear up the dishes.  However, it’s almost impossible to stay focused for hours on end without social interaction so I try to see these small breaks as being equivalent to all the little interactions you would normally have when you’re working with others.

Set up your workspace

Tempting as it may be to work from the couch, I would highly recommend setting up a dedicated workspace, even if it’s just a corner of the kitchen table.  This will help you to get into the right frame of mind for working and it also means that it’s easier for you to “leave work” at the end of the day.  

Knowing when to stop

After over a decade of remote working, one thing I still struggle with is stopping at the end of the day.  It’s very easy to let your working day stretch on way beyond your contracted work hours when you’re working from home.  Sometimes it takes discipline to shut your laptop and step away from work.

Get out!

Bearing in mind the current social distancing restrictions, do try to get out of the house at least once a day.  If you’ve got a park nearby, make the most of it. On days I work from home I always go for a walk round the park before sitting down to start working.

Online meetings are tiring

Online meetings are much more exhausting that face to face meetings, even when the technology works.  I don’t know why, they just are.  So try to be realistic about how much time you can expect your colleagues to spend in remote meetings.  Don’t let a Teams meeting drag on for an hour if you can get it over and done with in half that time. 

Virtual presence

Virtual presence is a good thing.  It’s a great way to let your colleagues know you’re there, and it can help you feel connected to your team. There are lots of different ways to manage remote presence, I tend to use twitter, but it can be as simple as setting your online status at the beginning of the day.  Turning off virtual presence at the end of the day is also a good way to remind everyone, yourself included, that you are no longer working.  Remember that you don’t have to be available 24/7. 

Social media

Social media really comes into its own when you’re working remotely. It’s a great way to stay connected to colleagues at an informal social level.  I’ve used twitter as my main work social media channel for over a decade now, and it’s no exaggeration to say that I’d be lost without the fabulous community of learning technologists and open educators who hang out there.  Having said that, I would never pressure anyone to use social media tools that they are not comfortable with.  Twitter is great if you’ve got a community of friends and colleagues there, but it can also be hostile and stressful for many people.  Let folk use what ever channels they are most comfortable with and always remember to respect people’s boundaries.

Silly gifs and cat pics

It’s really important to encourage informal social interaction, otherwise people can begin to feel stressed and isolated.  Never underestimate the therapeutic value of stupid gifs and cat pics.  One day into remote working and we already had an impromptu #ISGpets tag on twitter to share pictures of our four-legged co-workers.  It’s still going strong and it’s been a joy to get acquainted with colleagues’ talented cats, dogs, guinea pigs and …um… robots.

There are lots of ways to encourage social interaction across remote teams. Post a picture of your work space, your favourite coffee mug, your pet, the view from your window.  Set up a shared playlist on Spotify or youtube.   I’ve known some teams to have dress up days where everyone wears a specific colour or item of clothing and then shares a picture.  Get creative and don’t afraid to be a bit silly.  A word of caution though, some people will be more comfortable with the silliness that others, so don’t expect everyone to engage in the same way.  If you’re already stressed, being pushed out of your comfort zone to participate in daft activities isn’t going to help. 

Ultimately the most important thing to bear in mind at this point in time is that we need to be kind, patient and caring.  That’s really all that matters right now. 

ETA….

Resources

Remote Working the Wikimedia Way.  Sound advice from Wikimedia UK’s Sara Thomas.

Ramblings of a Remote Worker Marieke Guys, ex UKOLN and Open Knowledge Foundation, maintained this blog about remote working until 2015, and it’s still one of the best around. 

Virtual Teams The Association for Learning Technology operates as an entirely distributed organisation. CEO Maren Deepwell and Chief Innovation, Community and Technology Officer Martin Hawksey have shared their experience of managing remote teams. 

Homeworking – a guide for employers and employees. Guidance from ACAS. 

What comes next

Today marks the end of the current round of UCU strike action and it’s been an unsettling few weeks in more ways than one. I didn’t join the strike until half way through the first week as I had already agreed to present a keynote at the Wikimedia in Education summit at Coventry University before the strike dates were announced. This is the second time I’ve broken a strike to participate in an event of this kind and in both instances it wasn’t a decision I took lightly. However as the event, and my keynote, had a strong focus on equity and social justice, and addressed some of the issues that the UCU strike has been highlighting, I took the decision to go ahead.

Since then I’ve withdrawn my labour from my university and have done what I can to support the strike. I haven’t been picketing because I can’t afford the travel costs on top of the eye watering loss of wages, but I’ve been trying my best to observe the digital picket, by not tweeting anything directly related to my work at the University of Edinburgh. Although I’ve continued tweeting information related to the strike, and sharing posts on #femedtech, withdrawing from the open education community on twitter has been quite an isolating experience.

Because I work part time for my university, I also contribute my labour to several other oganisations on a voluntary basis, so I’ve continued to participate in some events and activities in a personal capacity, however it’s been a constant struggle to decide where to draw the line. So, for example, although we didn’t plan any Open.Ed activities for Open Education Week, which fell in the middle of the strike, I did participate, as a member of the #femedtech network, in an asynchronous event Open Policy – Who cares? organised by the ALT Open Ed SIG.  Was that the right thing to do? I have no idea. I also participated in two VConnecting Missed Conversations that explored some of the themes we discussed at the ALT / Wikimedia DE Open for a Cause event in Berlin in December, wrote a blog post about “women’s work” and the femedtech quilt, and an article about the labour of care in Higher Education for WonkHE.

Care was one theme that emerged repeatedly during the strike. Care for ourselves, care for our students, care for our colleagues, care for our profession. And now that diligence of care is going to take on a whole new dimension as we do our best to care for each other in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic. Going back to work next week in these exceptional circumstances is going to be difficult and challenging for everyone so I hope we can hold onto that ethic of care over the coming months.

Sharing the Labour of Care

This article was originally posted on WonkHE under the title We need to recognise where the burden of care falls in higher education.


Most of us work in higher education because we care; we care about our students, our colleagues, our subject specialisms, we care about learning, and we care about sharing knowledge.  Many of us even care about our institutions, even if that care is increasingly unreciprocated.  Our profession is distinguished by emotional commitment, compassion, and a strong ethic of care, but this burden of care is unevenly distributed across the academy.  This critical and largely invisible labour routinely falls to those who are already marginalised in the system; women, people of colour, early career researchers, those employed on precarious and part time contracts, those on lower pay grades.  Caring has always been regarded as women’s work, and as a result, the labour of caring is habitually devalued and taken for granted.  There is an assumption that caring is low skilled work, that anyone can do it, but of course that is far from true.  Despite the toll taken by the exploitation of this invisible labour, we all continue to do our best, to go the extra mile, to pick up the pieces for our students and our colleagues, which inevitably leads to stress, anxiety and burnout. In a timely twitter thread about the current round of UCU strikes, Máiréad Enright pointed out that

“There is emotional labour involved in knowing and being reminded that others will have to face the everyday crisis, because you aren’t there. It’s important that we recognise that this emotional labour is part of what’s distinctive about the neoliberal university. We govern ourselves and each other through emotion. Disunity, competition and compulsory individualism in the university ensure that.”

The reason many of us are striking, to protest universities’ failure to protect our pensions, and adequately address the gender pay gap, unrealistic workloads, and increasing casualisation, is not because we don’t care about our students and those who rely on our emotional labour, it’s because we care too much. And I am fully aware of the irony that I am writing this article while allegedly on strike. Withdrawing our emotional labour is a hard thing to do.

As with many other aspects of our employment and our practice, much of this burden of emotional labour has become mediated through and exacerbated by technology.  Whether it’s spending weekends answering e-mails from distraught students, peer reviewing journal papers and conference submissions, writing blog posts, taking part in twitter conversations, contributing to hashtags, writing Wikipedia articles, or keeping up with social media.  In a provocation recorded as part of Open Education Week, Leo Havemann argues that there is a lack of appreciation for the kind of labour and expertise involved in digital practice.  All too often digital labour is unrecognised and unrewarded invisible labour.  Of course there is a gendered aspect to digital labour in higher education too, which is largely unacknowledged and under researched. A notable exception is research undertaken by the Association for Learning Technology to analyse the results of their sector wide ALT Annual Survey through the lense of gender.  ALT’s research has provided some evidence of different priorities for men and women particularly with regard to dedicated time and recognition for career development.

While much of our invisible labour may be undervalued by our institutions, grass roots initiatives have sprung up to acknowledge, celebrate and support the contribution our digital and emotional labour makes to education.  One such initiative is femedtech, a reflexive emergent network of people learning, researching and practising in educational technology. The femedtech network is informal, unfunded, and cross sector and our resources are our passion, kindness, knowledge, enthusiasm and volunteer commitment. Our name, femedtech (feminist education technology), aligns us with a critical perspective on education and technology. We are alive to the specific ways that technology and education are gendered, and to how injustices and inequalities play out in these spaces.

Despite the burden of care that we carry, there is strength and solidarity to be gained from shared labour and a sense of community and belonging that traditionally derives from women’s work.  Nowhere is this more apparent than in the femedtech Quilt for Care and Justice in Open Education project.  Created by Frances Bell in collaboration with members of the femedtech network, this craft activism project takes its inspiration from the themes of the 2020 OER Conference; The Care in Openness.  Women and men, from all over world have contributed quilt squares representing personal reflections on care, openness and social justice. You can find out more about the femedtech quilt project here https://quilt.femedtech.net/

#femedtch quilt, CC BY, Lorna M. Campbell

References

Association for Learning Technology, https://www.alt.ac.uk/

Enright, M., (2020), #UCUstrikes twitter thread, https://twitter.com/maireadenright/status/1234456632681168896?s=20

Femedtech, http://femedtech.net/

Femedtech Quilt for Care and Justice in Open Education, https://quilt.femedtech.net/

Havemann, L., (2020), The need for supportive policy environments, https://flipgrid.com/f61bc14c

Hawksey, M., (2019), #ThinkUHI #BalanceforBetter look at enablers/drivers for the use of Learning Technology (#femedtech), https://mashe.hawksey.info/2019/03/balanceforbetter-look-at-enablers-drivers-for-the-use-of-learning-technology-femedtech/

OER20 Conference: The Care in Openness, https://oer20.oerconf.org/

University and College Union HE Action, https://www.ucu.org.uk/heaction

Openness, Precarity and Equity

As part of Open Education Week, the ALT Open Education SIG and Femedtech facilitated an asynchronous event Open Policy – Who cares?  The organisers invited provocations from members of the open education community in the form of Flipgrid videos and writings on femedtech.net. This is my contribution. 


I’ve worked in the domain of open education for over ten years now and I passionately believe that publicly funded educational resources should be freely and openly available to the public.  In fact this is one of the founding principles of the Scottish Open Education Declaration.  When we talk about open policy the focus tends to be on “open” and “free”, however I think what is critical here is “funding”, because as we all know, open does not mean free. If we want to support the creation of open knowledge and publicly funded open education resources, then the education sector has to be supported by adequate funding and, perhaps more importantly, by equitable working conditions.  And this is where problems start to arise; at a time when casualisation is endemic in the UK higher education sector, too many colleagues are employed on exploitative precarious contracts.  This is why we are currently in the middle of a period of sustained industrial action that is protesting universities’ failure to make significant improvements on pay, equality, casualisation and workloads.  If you are a teaching assistant employed on a fixed hourly rate that doesn’t even begin to cover the preparation time for creating your teaching resources and lecturing materials, it’s hard to make the case, ethically and morally, that you should release your resources under open license, because you’re effectively giving your labour away for free, and very few marginalised workers have the privilege to be able to do that. So while I still believe that we do need more policy around open education, and that we have an ethical responsibility to make publicly funded educational resources available to all, we also need equitable working conditions that will enable us all to contribute to the shared knowledge commons.