“Yes. I am an educational administrator. It’s what I do: I plan. And I write reports. And in the rare moments when I am doing neither of these–which is to say somewhere in the very middle of it all, between planning and reporting, if circumstances happen to permit–I will spend a tiny sliver of my time (no more than a Mercury dime, really) doing actual work, which is to say, implementing the plans that I have devised and that I will one day sit in a quiet room writing urgent reports on.” — Cow Country
So yeah, I’m a mess…
It’s been so long since I’ve blogged that the weight of absence makes re-starting weirdly difficult. It’s been a deepening pattern. One reason I find it harder is that my professional life has changed. I am wholly immersed in the life of the educational administrator, and doing very different work than when blogging came a little easier.
But I don’t want to give up.
So, a few bits of what I should have been blogging over the past couple years, acknowledging I won’t do any of it justice. Maybe I will follow up on some of these items in the future. I certainly should.
One thing I increasingly struggle with when blogging is name-checks and shout-outs… I can’t name everybody here. This post will be unreadably bloated yet deficient no matter how hard I try to thank everyone. If you think I should have mentioned you, or that I have given you short shrift, you are almost certainly right. I surely should have said more. I owe so much gratitude to so many people! But worrying about that is the kind of hang-up that keeps me from blogging at all and if you feel unrecognized I would ask you take it up with me directly and hopefully we can hash it out.
I would also note that the once-mighty power of The Abject to make or break careers is diminished as 2019 draws to a merciless close. Though I do claim full credit for Mike Love’s absence from the hit parade in recent years.
The current gig
So to pick up the story from when it began to get real, I am now Director of the “Learning Technology & Innovation” (LT&I) unit at TRU. Depending on vacancies and temporary positions, there are usually between 20-25 people on the team. I have two broad and at times divergent sets of core responsibilities…
I oversee the the “Production” and “Media” teams for TRU Open Learning (OL), an open online distance division with a history going back more than 40 years across multiple incarnations. These teams work with instructional designers and subject matter experts to build and maintain about six hundred OL courses, most of which are “continuous enrolment” and self-paced. OL has open access registration, robust Prior Learning Assessment and Recognition (PLAR), and a genuine commitment to serving a lot of learners who would otherwise not be served. In terms of staffing and budget, this side of the team makes up a significant majority of my portfolio. Thankfully, as of a few months ago Carolyn Teare is now serving as Manager of LT&I, she has been applying her considerable knowledge and experience with these teams, and I expect that these already formidable and high-performing groups will crank it up. As Director, I also serve as part of the Open Learning Leadership Team, trying to do my part with things like strategic planning, budgeting, special projects and generally striving to keep this crazy dream going. Open Learning is a unique and special place, and I could not be prouder and more grateful to be part of it.
Our team also has a learning technology mandate for TRU’s on-campus community of about 13,000 full-time learners (roughly the same as our OL head count). On a day-to-day level, the biggest piece of that is supporting instructors in their use of Moodle and other learning technologies. Jamie Drozda has worked patiently with countless instructors and students to make this side of things work. She has also been critical to the other big part of LMS support, which is working with our fantastic colleagues in TRU ITS toward optimizing the system… a never-ending and critical commitment when you run an open source LMS. Our team also handles campus Media Production Services for recording and streaming classes and events.
Our team offers workshops and other services in hopes of extending and deepening peoples’ ideas of what digital learning can be… Those topics range far too wide to summarize here, but to get a sense of our interests I would point to our set of upcoming workshops: H5P, chatbots, animated GIFs, open platforms, accessibility, etc… I am especially excited by Brenna Clarke Gray’s Digital Detox (inspired by Middlebury, et al):
We want to help you think about technology and how it intersects with your learning and teaching in new and more complex ways. Many of us feel overwhelmed by technology, and ideas like data privacy and are often not contextualized. And what are you supposed to do in a world that is increasingly controlled by big technology companies, anyway? Just go live in a cave? Our jobs, social lives, and family relationships often hinge on the very technologies we know pose such problems. Unplugging is an option for very few of us. So instead, we want to provide you with another way of thinking about the challenges of technology in 2020, and hopefully empower you to make better choices.
You can get a sense of how much fun my colleagues are from the trailer:
An open technology toolkit
I am happy to say we support a fairly robust set of open source applications, mostly hosted here in British Columbia on BCNet EduCloud servers. The LMS is Moodle, we are set to launch Kaltura as both a stand-alone and Moodle-integrated video platform. We have a really slick WordPress install (https://trubox.ca) that was founded by Alan Levine when he was here on a fellowship, the same fellowship where he built the earliest SPLOTs (which are a huge part of what we do). We run Pressbooks (https://pressbooks.tru.ca/) so we can mess with things when we need to, and I hope our small but promising instance of Commons in a Box for the EDDL program will be extended elsewhere in the future. We are seeing lots of cool adoptions of our Mattermost install at https://matter.tru.ca/. We support Big Blue Button as a videoconferencing system, sporting integrations with Moodle and Mattermost. Our instance of MediaWiki at https://kumu.tru.ca/ hasn’t gotten a lot of use of late, but I’m still living the dream we had, for me it’s not over, so the Kumu Wiki is tuned up with the VisualEditor and other goodies and is just waiting for the perfect open online collaborative project. If you wanna wiki, hit me up?
With our focus on open source tools, building local capacity, keeping our data collection minimal and close, in many ways I feel like we are out of step with trends in the field. Maybe we are just stubborn, but in this I am cool with not being trendy. So many people do their part to keep all this rolling, I am especially grateful to Troy Welch for his constant care and attention to our tangled garden of open source software and servers, and to TRU ITS (shout out Moodle sys admin wizard Mike Kelly) for being amazing partners. I intend to follow up with some posts showcasing some of the excellent work that’s being built on this foundation.
This open approach aligns well with TRU’s commitment as a founding anchor partner of the OERu.
And of course our ability to support and develop on top of open source tools has been amped up by our participation in…
… the OpenETC.
So, lots to say about this and it will be better to do so over at https://opened.ca/. TRU LT&I is part of an emerging community dedicated to the cooperative management and development of open source tools for the BC public post-secondary education community. Working with the founders group of Tannis Morgan, Grant Potter, Clint Lalonde, and Anne-Marie Scott (not from BC, but after she sat in on a meeting with us we forced her to stay on) has been an immensely rewarding experience. The OpenETC had a banner 2019, developing shared WordPress, Mattermost, and Sandstorm (https://apps.opened.ca/) platforms for more than a thousand BC educators and learners engaging in open educational practices.
And as cool as some of this tech has been to work with, and seeing what people are doing with it, what’s most exciting are the conversations we’re having about a cooperative framework that resists the dominant logic of how ed tech is “supposed” to be provisioned and supported. I can’t wait to share more of these stories, tools, and lessons learned… and we really seem primed to take this thing to the next level in 2020. Watch that space.
But yeah, I’m a mess…
But as I noted when my role began to evolve, there really was not much in my background or my personality that would naturally suggest a career in educational administration or leadership. And I gotta tell you, this stuff is humbling.
As an introvert in a job made up of constant and often difficult interactions, I have found moderating my mood and energy levels to be immensely difficult. Knowing that my team often counts on me for all manner of advocacy and guidance is a responsibility that does not sit lightly on my shoulders. There have been a lot of near-sleepless nights. A lot of uncomfortable conversations, sometimes conversations where I cannot share my whole thought process because of ethical or legal reasons. As someone who already has a tendency to carry around doubts and brood about my shortcomings, the expectations of this gig can be a tough fit at times. I’m usually exhausted in my off hours now, and go long stretches where I’ve lost my sense of humour. I need to find a way to shake that up.
That said, overall I don’t believe things are going too badly. I work with a very talented and dedicated group of people, and we are getting good things done. And I truly enjoy and admire the people on the team. Then again, I don’t want to let them down. I struggle at times knowing when to “lead”, when to offer guidance or a critical question, and when I need to focus on my own pieces and let the team find their own way, because collectively they know so much. I don’t always see that balance so easily.
Taking these concerns seriously has meant leaving my comfort zone on a number of levels. Nobody was more surprised than me when I enrolled in the EDUCAUSE Institute Learning Technology Leadership Program last summer. I still cringe when I say the word “leadership” about myself. And a lot of the discourse carries the whiff of an airport bookstore about it. As a preparatory exercise, I interviewed Tannis Morgan about her approach to leadership, and she really helped me to frame this stuff in a way that felt real. Thankfully, once we were underway it was clear that the facilitators were excellent, and because most of the other participants were also learning technologists transitioning into management I found it easy to learn from them. We even had fun. I still have a lot of work to do, and I have been participating in an ongoing Leadership program here at TRU this year as well to keep that focus… I’m trying.
It’s hard to blog about administrative stuff… Even when explicit guidelines around confidentiality or process are not in play, generally speaking everything I do is engaged closely with other people, and a lot of it is sensitive on multiple levels. My natural inclinations toward candour and being casual have backfired at times, I find myself becoming more guarded and less real, and I hate that. But it feels unavoidable. One area I think I have improved is in building relationships with other organizational units at the university, but a lot of that is learning how even seemingly innocuous comments can be taken as destructive criticism by someone in another part of the university (especially when expressed online). I’m learning that it’s usually best to say less.
All in all, I fear it makes Brian a dull boy. And maybe worse.
It hasn’t all been dull
The only thing I find more difficult to blog about than tough experiences are the truly great ones. I didn’t publish posts about either of the #OER18 or #OER19 conferences. I have a lot of verbiage in my draft folders, but both years I ran aground while writing. Both conferences were immensely stimulating and inspiring affairs, and more than that very special on a personal level. So if I have to focus on one element that cannot be overlooked, I have to thank Martin Hawksey and Maren Deepwell for not only their efforts with the events (amongst a huge collection of hosts, organizers and participants of course), but giving my son Harry a volunteer gig both years in a video streaming role working closely with Mr. Hawksey himself. As a Dad, I could not have been more pleased or more proud.
This is a conference with a deep and lovely soul and I have so much appreciation for everyone who brings their wonderful selves to make it so special.
The two trips also gave the Lamb boys an excuse to make silly videos together, mostly made by Harry. 2018, in London, A Royal Letdown:
And the next year’s sequel… A Dublin Letdown (you might want to skip this one if you are a big U2 fan):
A huge part of what had made those conferences so special was the welcome and hospitality extended by Maren, Anne-Marie, David Kernohan and Vivien Rolfe, their overall brilliance, and the good times we enjoyed together. So knowing that all those people, and many other favourites from across BC and beyond would be coming to Kamloops this past summer was a prospect that filled me with as much fear as delight.
The occasion was TRU hosting ETUG’s 25th Anniversary Spring Workshop. ETUG is another event with soul, one I have been regularly attending for many years and one that holds a dear place in my heart. And if there is one place in this blog post where I am certainly unable to adequately shout-out everyone who made this, it will be here. I hope it will suffice to say that countless people from BCcampus, ETUG, TRU and beyond went beyond any reasonable expectation of duty, and did it in a spirit of fun that cuts through the blur of my overstressed and overstimulated memory. The event itself felt successful by any measure, and I even managed to host a couple gatherings and a proper party at my house amidst all the madness.
Speaking of which, I would be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge that Anne-Marie and Tom Woodward are as unbelievably gifted in a kitchen doing prep for large dinners as they are as learning technologists (I do not say that lightly), and that David, Viv, Grant and Irwin Devries’ efforts (and my landlord’s tolerance!) making fully-amplified face-melting jams happen in my living room are memories that I hope will stay in my addled brain as long as I live.
What is happening here exactly?
I envisioned this post as something of a reset button, something that would clear out some of the emotional backlog and let me come back here with fresh eyes. But these aren’t subjects I can just wipe away. And there were more things I intended to cover here when I started… but COME ON.
I really hope I am not digging a hole for myself. I really hope it will be a little easier to post here for a while.
I feel like I should offer a prize if you made it this far.