Meanwhile … let the music play on?

Way back in March 2020, I recall hearing on the radio the thoughts of Thomas L. Friedman of the New York Times as follows: “Before the coronavirus crisis hit, I was toying with writing a book about 21st-century political parties, but in light of this global epidemic it’s obvious that whatever nonfiction book you’re working on now, put it down. There is the world B.C. — Before Corona — and the world A.C. — After Corona. We have not even begun to fully grasp what the A.C. world will look like…” (

I’m all too aware from the statistics on the pandemic that globally we’re just starting, even though for the present in the UK the first peak has largely subsided. Events change daily, with the most recent being the rules that people returning from Spain are to self-isolate for two weeks. What next? Now in July 2020, I continue to wonder what the world will look like – particularly two elements I’m connected with – learning, and music. Will ‘live performances’ ever be quite the same again – particularly large-scale concerts or packed lectures? Fortunately we have technology to enable communication of thoughts, images, sounds and emotions to and from each other, and to record what is communicated so it can take place again, but will the unique occasion ever prevail in the way it could pre-covid19?

Naturally, 250 years after the birth of Beethoven, I’ve been revisiting many of his masterpieces. Last year, with friends I really enjoyed all nine symphonies being played live, in two days, by five different orchestras in turn at the Sage, Gateshead – what a feast. The recent 3-part portrayal of his life and works on BBC4 was revelatory. Some of my exercise is on an exercise bike in our conservatory at home, pedalling away, watching the weather, birds, and the changing mood of the garden outside. My activity is accompanied by music played through an old iPod on shuffle at the other end of the conservatory. From time to time, I have to temporarily dismount to ascertain who the performers are by looking at the tiny iPod screen. Such an occasion gave rise to the attached musings on one of Beethoven’s best-known works. Emperors-New-Clothes.docx (100 downloads)

Musing backwards and forward

 Like most over-70s, I’m currently in lockdown at home in Newcastle, but still thinking – and worrying of course – about the future of higher education as we’ve known it for a long time. Looking backwards, among my first books were two editions of ‘The Open Learning Handbook’, dated 1989 and 1994, both now extinct of course (photos attached to remind older readers of what they looked like!). By 1994, the addition of the words ‘flexible learning’ and ‘quality’ showed the changes in my thinking. These works were based on a series of short booklets I wrote for CICED in Scotland in the 1980s, and my then experience of being an open learning tutor and writer alongside my normal job, all following the excellent development work of the market leaders in open learning – the Open University in the UK.

Little could I have then imagined that the ‘normal’ world of lectures and tutorials could quite suddenly disappear with Covid19. Over the last 30 years, remote learning has of course developed remarkably, not least with the development of online resources and processes – indeed I think that most learning back in 2019 relied significantly on computers, screens, email, texting, and a plethora of different ways of communication now in use between learners and tutors alike.

Now, I am watching with great interest the creative use being made of all the modern ways of communicating information, replacing formal lectures and tutorials and face-to-face meetings, so that learning continues to be possible. I am wondering whether things can ever return to the pre-Covid19 state, and increasingly thinking that things will now remain rather different. Of course, the changes go far beyond learning and teaching, with normal life including restaurants, pubs, theatres, hotels, festivals, concert halls, cinemas and so on currently withdrawn across much of the world, let alone in the higher education bubble.

Over the years, I have become increasingly interested in ‘measuring’ learning, and the role of feedback dialogues in learning. The traditional methodologies of assessment centred on exams, essays, and written evidence of learning seem very remote from the world we are now addressing. Earlier this year, Kay Sambell and my wife Sally Brown put forward some thinking of how assessment may need to change, and two widely-downloaded accounts of their thinking can be found on Sally’s website at and

It seems the ‘open learning’ of the 20th century is now metamorphosing into online learning for the 21st century, and assessment – as always – is perhaps the most difficult and important area that needs to be focused upon. I would like to think that the next year or two will see some of the most important advances in learning (and indeed in teaching) that will mark out the future of higher education, alongside many other changes in the balance of how the world around us will function.

The basic principles remain the same: (1) keep learners at the centre of the picture of higher education, (2) help them to be aware of how well they are doing, and how to go about addressing any shortcomings. and (3) make sure that humanity is still there supporting all the information and data they learn with.

Assessment and University problems with Coronavirus!

Sally Brown and Kay Sambell have designed a document describing possible ways of dealing with the current situation. I think it’s really useful, and may pave the way towards permanent changes in the balance of assessment formats we use in higher education.
You can get to Sally’s web post containing a link to download the document directly from this link:

Visit to Cadiz

This week Sally and I are celebrating our roles as Visiting Professors at Edge Hill University by supporting the amazing NTF, John Bostock, at the Evaltrends 2020conference  in Spain.  The photos show Sally and John in action, and participants working.







It’s lovely to see friends and colleagues from Spain and Australia here, including Victor Lopez Pastor, Jan McArthur and David Boud, and to make lots of new connections too!
Sally and I are now in Seville for a short holiday, and the sun is still shining!

A draft table: assessment, feedback and contract cheating in perspective

I’ve been working on a draft table for Denise Chalmers and Lynne Hunt’s forthcoming new edition of  University Teaching in Focus coming out later in the year, in a chapter which Sally and I are writing. I’m attaching a draft version of the chapter to this post, and will really welcome feedback on it – particularly what’s missing in the list of assessment types, and anything else you can add. Please email me at  Next, I’ll need to decide which CD to listen to (they’re all on iPods of course as well). Table-w.docx (585 downloads)

Catalysing learning?

Will this be the title of my next book, now that the Toolkit (see posts a few below) is completed? Or will it be a discussion on the web?

Catalysts tend to be expensive, and precious. That’s why catalytic converters often get nicked from cars. One definition of a catalyst is along the lines of ‘something that accelerates a process, remaining more or less unchanged by the process’. Straightaway, however, this doesn’t quite apply to learning, as everyone who is intimately involved in making learning happen does not remain unchanged (hopefully). But whatever we do to help learning to take place, we could regard ourselves as catalysts to the process – making it faster (that’s kinetics), more complete (that’s about the position of equilibrium), less arduous (possibly by reducing the activation energy needed to get the learning under way), more fun, the extensions to the metaphor are endless.

The main thing in my mind at the moment is that not just teachers, but everyone who helps learning to happen can think of themselves as catalysts to the process. And like catalysts, our role is intimately involved in the process, not just as bystanders or observers. We can even hope to help initiate a chain reaction, where after we’re not needed in the process, and learners carry on under their own steam. Also, like catalysts, we can play our part over and over again with different learners. Also like catalysts, we can succumb to being ‘poisoned’ and having our effectiveness and efficiency impaired.

It’s not just kinetics of course – nothing is. Thermodynamics are necessarily involved. We can think of learners’ motivation states involving wanting to learn and needing to learn, for example. We can play our part in increasing both of these motivation states, as well as causing pathways whereby the motivation can be harnessed by learners and result in successful learning (and confidence and self-esteem).

Now this is just a start in my thinking linking catalysis, kinetics and thermodynamics to helping learning to be successful. I’m hoping lots of readers might wish to chip in with all sorts of related ideas, and that’s why I’ve posted this today and tweeted a link. Please do email me at with thought and reactions, or tweet to @RacePhil.

In at the deep end: video and booklet

Heriot Watt University in Edinburgh have produced a short video of me giving some reassuring and practical advice for those new (or old!) to teaching in higher education, accompanying their new production of ‘In at the deep end’ which you can download as a booklet from their website. 
Also downloadable from their site are some leaflets in a series called ‘Watt Works’, about various aspects of learning, assessment, feedback and related things, mostly written by Sally Brown, Kay Sambell and me. Thanks to Martha Caddell of Heriot Watt, for organising the creation, production  and circulation of these open-access resources.

Just in: link to the ‘Box Set’ of videos of Sally and I at Heriot Watt:

More to come! Do give us feedback on these please.
Enjoy – and Happy Christmas all.

Guest appearance at Southampton Solent University

This week, Sally is working at Southampton Solent for 3 days, and I was allowed a guest input to her workshop on Assessment and Feedback. After that, Paul Maple led and recorded some short video interviews with each of us, and took this photo of us with Karen Arm of Southampton Solent.
Entering into the festive spirit, afterwards Sally  took a photo of me posing at Santa in the joyous Christmas market at Southampton.

14th-15th November: at SEDA Conference in Leeds

Great conference, see Tweets at #sedaconf. Particularly enjoyed Mark Glynn’s keynote, David Killick’s workshop, and Michelle Morgan’s keynote. The slides for my workshop on 14th November are here: SEDA-ws-2019-w.pptx (521 downloads) . Great emergent outcomes post-its, downloadable from this link: Emergent-learning-outcomes-from-workshop-w.docx (424 downloads)
Here are my keynote slides from 15th November, SEDA-keynote-2019-w.pptx (461 downloads) with a couple of pictures added. Your postcard replies to ‘one thing I’m going to do, as a direct result of being at this conference…’ are transcribed below as a download: SEDA-keynote-postcard-data-w.docx (412 downloads)
What an exciting list.