Circuitous Routes – A personal reflection for #ALTC

I was really inspired by the blog posts Catherine Cronin and Frances Bell wrote reflecting on their personal feminist histories of working in education and technology in advance of their ALTC session A personal, feminist and critical retrospective of Learning (and) Technology, 1994-2018.  Catherine and Frances invited others to contribute their own personal reflection, so here’s mine. I confess this is rather hastily written, and I’m posting it at the eleventh hour, the night before the conference, but I hope it will add something to the debate.

Personal Reflection

My academic career started out not in technology but in archaeology, a subject I stumbled into accidentally and quickly fell in love with.  I completed my undergraduate degree at the University of Glasgow in 1990 and was accepted to do a PhD on anthropomorphic landforms and newly emerging remote sensing technologies, but sadly I was unable to get funding so I had to turn down the place.  I was pretty devastated at the time, but decided to continue working in the field in the hope of securing funding at a later date.  I worked first as a field archaeologist and then as material sciences technician at the university.  Although I met and worked with a lot of amazing women in the field, the senior lecturers and professors who ran the research projects and excavations I worked on were invariably male.  There was only one female lecturer in the university at the time, the inimitable Dr Elizabeth Slater who went on to the University of Liverpool where she become one of the few female professors of archaeology in the UK.  I’m proud to say that last year I published a Wikipedia page for Professor Slater as part of Ada Lovelace Day.

It was through archaeology that I was introduced to critical theory, and in 1991 I was involved in setting up an interdisciplinary discussion group with like-minded postgrads and colleagues from architecture, archaeology, politics, literature, and philosophy.  It was through this group, that I came across French critical theory, and ideas I could directly relate to in the writings of Deleuze and Guaratti, Bataille, Blanchot and others.  It was these writings that took me out of the domain of archaeology and into the realms of gender and sexuality, a field that deeply fascinated me. In 1992 I presented a paper called Anteros and Intensity at the University of Warwick which was later published in Deleuze and the Transcendental Unconsciousness, a special issue of the Warwick Journal of Philosophy.  It was through Warwick that I also came across Sadie Plant’s book Zeros and Ones, which raised all sorts of questions in my mind regarding women and their relation the technology and the emergent web.

My relation to feminism at this time was more problematic. In 1994 I attended a women only feminist discussion forum at the National Bisexual Conference, where the particular brand of feminism being espoused appeared to me to be rigid and exclusionary (and indeed there had been bitter arguments about excluding trans women from the conference’s women only spaces.) During the discussion I commented that I didn’t necessarily identify with the type of Capital F feminist that some of the speakers advocated. In response, one participant said she could no longer be in the same room as someone like me and walked out.

The early 90s were also the era of the AIDS crisis, Section 28, the Criminal Justice Bill and Operation Spanner all of which had a profound impact on my personal identity and my understanding of homophobia and discrimination.

In 1994 I applied to do a part time staff PhD in sociology on perceptions of pornography and eroticism in the bisexual community but was turned down by the committee that governed technicians’ roles in the university on the grounds that the research wasn’t relevant to my job which, to be fair, it wasn’t.

At that stage I decided to cut my losses and leave archaeology while I still had some love for the subject. In 1996 I worked briefly for the first multimedia company in Scotland, set up by the Herald news group, building corporate websites and putting the newspaper online every morning. I can’t say I enjoyed the experience of working in the commercial media sector, but it did teach me valuable web skills.

In 1997 I came took those skills back into higher education when I got a job working on an early learning technology project, at the University of Strathclyde, funded by the Scottish Funding Council’s Use of the MANs Initiative.  I worked on a succession of innovative learning technology projects until 2002 when took up a post as Assistant Director of the Jisc Centre for Education Technology and Interoperability Standards (CETIS).  Still based in Strathclyde, I worked for CETIS for 13 years, representing UK F/HE on various international standard bodies and supporting a wide range of national learning technology development programmes. Most of my work was around technology and standards for the management and dissemination of educational resources. In 2009 I began working with Jisc to scope a new HEFCE pilot programme which went on to become UKOER, a programme I helped to support for four years.  It was UKOER that first introduced me to the concepts of open education and OER, which I now have a deep personal commitment to.

For most of my career as a learning technologist I was employed on precarious short-term contracts and securing funding to keep both myself, and the colleagues I line managed, in employment was a continuous struggle.  In 2006, still employed on rolling fixed term contracts I took time out to have my daughter and had to fight the university tooth and nail to secure maternity leave.

Between 2013 and 2015 as a result of widespread funding cuts across the UK education sector I was made compulsorily redundant.  This was a bruising experience made all the more difficult by the fact that my childcare responsibilities limited the jobs I was able to apply for and my ability to travel and network. I’ve experienced first-hand how precarity, redundancy and lack of adequate child care takes a disproportionate toll on women working in higher education and I am more than willing to take industrial action to fight for better conditions for all those working in the sector.

It was during this difficult transitional period that I also became more committed to open education and founded the Open Scotland initiative.  I was able to engage with a broad international community of open education practitioners online and build a new independent professional identity.   By various circuitous routes it was my work in open education that brought me to the University of Edinburgh.  After working briefly with EDINA, I moved to Learning Teaching and Web Services where I worked as OER Liaison and co-chaired the OER16 conference with LTW’s inspirational director Melissa Highton. I now help to manage the university’s OER Service, providing advice and guidance to staff and students on the creation and use of OER.

It’s almost impossible to work in open education without becoming politically engaged and over the years I’ve found my professional commitments and my personal politics and ethics have increasingly converged.  I’ve written and spoken a number of times about why my commitment to open education is so important to me and why I believe that open education has to be founded on equality and inclusivity and why we have to fight to remove systemic barriers and structural inequalities to enable everyone to participate in education equitably, and on their own terms.

My engagement with ALT has fluctuated throughout the years that I’ve worked as a learning technologist.  I first presented at the ALT Conference in Manchester in 2000, and have attended numerous conferences since then. For a number of reasons, my engagement with ALT waned and I stopped attending the conference between 2006 and 2011. Although I wasn’t able to attend the conference in 2014, it was meeting ALT’s new CEO Maren Deepwell, and listening to Catherine Cronin and Audrey Waters keynotes online, that reengaged me with the conference and I was honoured when ALT invited me to joint their social media team to live tweet the conference keynotes from 2015 onwards.   ALT have played an increasingly important role in shaping and supporting my career over the last few years; in 2016 I was honoured to become a Trustee of ALT and in 2017 I was delighted to be awarded CMALT.

As political, ideological and financial pressures on the education sector, have increased, I believe the role of organisations like ALT, which are truly independent and able to represent the interests of their members, are going to be critically important.  ALT have made a significant contribution to shaping the learning technology sector in the UK over the last 25 years and I feel sure that they will have an increasingly important role to play in years to come.

2 thoughts on “Circuitous Routes – A personal reflection for #ALTC

  1. Thanks for this rich and valuable contribution Lorna. Your experience of precarity adds an important dimension.
    Catherine and I have been talking about our ALTC timelines and it’s interesting to see yours.

  2. An insightful and valuable reflection on your career . As having lived through a “large chunk” of this I can recall with no pleasure the challenges you have faced at various institutions and recognise that despite the precarious nature of your employment status you have navigated this successfully as an academic, woman and parent (no mean task) to your current position as an expert in Learning technology and highly respected member of the ALT community with some sense of security.

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