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Where do I start and where do I go?

OK, so there’s been yet another big gap between posts. Sorry about that. When I last posted, things were really looking good. I had four job opportunities in the pipeline and I thought I’d finally figured out what path I wanted to take. Things were progressing and I was excited about it all!


Obviously the Universe had other ideas for me though. At the beginning of July I was completely side-swiped by a diagnosis of breast cancer. Oh, and not just breast cancer (which would have been bad enough), but metastatic breast cancer which had already seeded tumours in my liver. So yeah, that was a shock. It’s not nice being told that you probably won’t live to see your daughter go to secondary school (she’s only 2 this coming Boxing Day, to put that into some kind of perspective).

I probably should have been blogging throughout the experience, but to be honest, just getting through things a day at a time was hard enough. After 18 weeks of chemotherapy, and about to start my first batch of radiotherapy next week, I finally feel up to putting some words down. Words are powerful things y’know. Telling my family was heartbreaking and it broke me. When I was having to email people at work to let them know what was going on, it broke me. The words just made it all seem so horribly real. It’s still horribly real, but we’re learning to cope with it. We’re breathing in the amazing and trying not to dwell on the awful.

There have been some good points along the way, and you certainly learn to grab on to anything vaguely good. The tumours have responded to the chemotherapy, and although they’re still there, they’re smaller than they were, and small enough to allow them to attempt radiotherapy as well (which wasn’t the case at the start). My lymph nodes are now clear, at least for now. The spot on the original CT scan that was reported as a lung tumour, they now don’t think is a tumour at all. There’s a trial in Nottingham which is about to start looking at radiotherapy for liver metastases and apparently I’m a prime candidate to be enrolled on that.  I found out (through losing most of it) that having short hair kinda suits me (after 38 years of growing it). I’ll probably keep it short once it grows back. These are all Good Things.

So yeah. I’m still in the same job (but they’ve been great about everything). Moving at the moment just isn’t an option. I need something stable to hold on to. Suddenly work doesn’t seem so much of a priority though, so apologies to anyone I was meant to be collaborating with for suddenly dropping off the radar.

Interestingly, it has changed my opinion on genome sequencing which I touched on in my previous post. Now I want to know what’s locked away in my genome. Sadly I don’t meet the NHS criteria for genetic screening for breast cancer, and I figured I’d get into trouble if I did it in the lab myself (not that I wasn’t tempted, mind you….) If anyone wants a volunteer for genome sequencing, just give me a call.

Bring on the fight (and the science!). I’m not willing to give up on life just yet – it’s too breathtakingly beautiful to do that.

Time to jump?

Let me first start by clarifying something. I don’t like heights. At all. I certainly wouldn’t be the one jumping off the cliff (this picture isn’t me, it was taken by Andy Spearing who’s shared it under a CC By licence).


For the last four days I’ve been at the annual meeting for the European Society of Human Genetics and this morning attended a fascinating debate entitled “Should all geneticists have their genome sequenced?” I remain firmly on the side that maintains this should certainly not be compulsory. As was pointed out, we don’t make surgeons operate on themselves to get a better understanding on how their patients feel, so why should we feel it ethical or appropriate to insist that geneticists have their genomes analysed? However, this debate plus other presentations about the utility of personal genomic testing has made me think about it more than I have before. Would I do it? Should I do it? What implications would it have for my family? Would it benefit Scarlett or cause possible harm or distress for either me, her or other members of my family? Do I overthink it because of my training in genetics, or does it make me more critical and able to interpret any possible results? So many questions, with no easy answers!

Coming back to the picture and the title of this post. Is it time to jump into the arena of personalised genetics and genomics? At the moment I’m still hesitating at the top of the cliff (actually several metres back from the edge). However, attending this meeting has also made me consider other ways of jumping. I’ve spent the last 20 years training to be a geneticist, but am now seriously considering a major jump into something different, which is simultaneously both tremendously exciting and terrifying. How do I define myself? Is it time to redefine those expectations from myself and others? I think it’s time I got over my fear of heights and moved closer to that cliff edge. I’m still not convinced about getting my genome analysed though, so maybe the other jump has to come first.

TTP Conference review

I was asked to write a short reflection for the University “Talking of Teaching” blog about the Teaching Transformation Project conference that took place last month. That’s now been published, so I thought I’d take the opportunity to repost it here! The record of tweets from the day can be found on my previous post.

The TTP conference was a great opportunity to hear from like-minded colleagues and there’s certainly not enough room for me to mention everything that I found useful! However, there were many messages from Professor MacDonald’s keynote talk and workshop that resonated with me. The need for student to see the big picture and not think in terms of modules as discrete and unrelated units is definitely something we’ve struggled with for a long time and haven’t yet found a satisfactory answer to, so it was reassuring (although perhaps disappointing) to hear that this is a common problem.

One of the other things that seemed to strike a chord with many of us was his observation that “coffee-bar conversations” were often more productive than formally arranged meetings or conferences. However, how easy it is to have these informal meetings depends a lot on the structure and locations of Schools; groups in our School are split over several locations with many different coffee bars and several additional common rooms, so the chances of bumping into someone who can help on an ad-hoc basis are relatively small.

In much the same way as we need to encourage students to see the big picture, perhaps as staff we also need to break through the artificial boundaries of Schools and Faculties, to see the bigger picture of how we can help each other. The conference was a great example of how this can happen and how we can use technology to facilitate these interactions. The informal nature of the tweets flying backwards and forwards between sessions led to me making a lot more connections than I would have done normally, particularly with colleagues from different Faculties. One of these tweets suggested the possibility of setting up University-wide informal learning lunches and I really hope that this is followed up. I know of at least one School doing this already and our workshop group had proposed this as a suggestion for our own School to implement, but a University-wide series would allow staff to see that big picture and make use of the expertise across disciplines. The strong feeling I was left with at the end of the conference was one of connections and communication. The first step will be implementing this at School level, but I hope to see more of these “coffee-bar conversations” springing up across the University sometime very soon.

TTP Conference

Yesterday was the conference for the Teaching Transformation Project at the University of Nottingham. It was a great day and really nice to hear lots of engaging discussion from colleagues involved in and passionate about teaching.

A more full report will follow once I’ve written it, but until then, the Storify record of the Tweets exchanged on the day is also on this site. I was going to include it within this post, but there were obviously more Tweets than I thought there were and it’s fairly long!

Lessons learned…

One of the things I love doing is to attend sessions run by other people. It’s great to hear what others are doing, as well as seeing how they deliver things. It often results in me adding things to my list of things to think about or implement, and today was no different.

I spent my lunch break today listening to David Eddy talking about his experience in using PebblePad to deliver a MOOC in Enhancing Prostate Cancer Care, from Sheffield Hallam University.

Things that occur to me:

1. It’s not just us that have problems with Adobe Connect, but it was a useful reminder of how participants feel! There were several points at which the audio dropped out, inevitably followed by the feeling of “is it my connection or is it them?”. We need to ensure that there is regular interaction between presenters and participants within a webinar so that presenters know immediately when there are problems, and other participants can see that it’s not just them having issues. It was also a useful reminder of some of the tips for webinars that came up from the MELSIG event – maybe having an audio/music intro playing would help reassure people about their audio settings as they log in and stop people worrying about whether there are things being said that they can’t hear.

2. There were some really interesting teaching approaches that were discussed. These include “Webinar Wednesday” “Tweetchat Thursday”, “Final word Friday”, as well as “Article of the Week”.

Orientation weeks are important, but only ~30% of the participants completed the orientation activity initially in Week 0; this echoes some of the problems that we have; how do we get people to realise that these are important to complete?

“Final Word Friday” used Answer Garden to get feedback from participants about how the week had gone for them. Could I use this in my module, perhaps to get feedback by topic rather than every week? (“Feedback Friday?”) The answers can be exported to Wordle or Tagxedo so they can be used elsewhere.

I love the idea of “Article of the Week” – we should definitely consider this to get some of the modules more interactive.

PebblePad looked like a really interesting platform to use for delivery of teaching materials; it’s not something I’ve looked at before, but I’ll be adding it to that mythical list! Now all I have to do is find the hours to work through everything…


As part of my preparations for a talk I’m giving next week at London Metropolitan University, I thought it was about time I had another look around for screencasting tools. There’s always a danger of sticking with what you know, just because it’s familiar and because of a lack of time to look for new options. I’ve tried a few different packages in the past, and we’ve generally used Debut Screen Capture from NCH Software to produce all our recordings for the distance-learning courses. We also tried Camtasia, which is great but much more expensive than Debut! Debut is great for general screencasting, or for recording from a webcam, but doesn’t appear to support a “picture-in-picture” options where you can have both. Having looked at some of the ones of the lists shown below, I wonder whether this is something I should be exploring further.

It appears that many, many people have done reviews of their favourite packages, so I’m not going to repeat that here. Instead, here are some links to their reviews:

I also found some useful tips for the practicalities of creating screencasts – I really wish I’d read these before starting!

I’m also playing around with Prezi at the moment, with a view to recording an associated soundtrack and voiceover, then capturing the whole thing with a screencasting tool. Let’s see how that works – I’m planning to submit it as part of one of my MSc assignments, so I really ought to start working on it!

A great day for MELSIG

Last week the University of Nottingham hosted a meeting for MELSIG (the UK Media-enhanced learning special interest group) covering “Creative Lecture Capture, Webinars and Screencasting“. The MELSIG meetings are always productive, with a real buzz that you only get when you’re with a group of like-minded enthusiasts. It makes a real change and I wish it happened more often.

It was also nice to be the first person to present, with the initial session showcasing what we’re doing here at Nottingham. Slides are available to look at here, and presentations from the rest of the day are also available on the MELSIG event page.

I had some great conversations with a variety of people (and even got my teaching poster retweeted!), so I’m looking forward to following up on a few of the connections that were made.

Did you miss me?

Oh dear.  My plan for making more regular blog posts appears not to be working as well I’d hoped. I can’t believe how quickly time has gone since I last posted. In my defense (and it is only a weak defense), things have been somewhat busy. That’s my feeble excuse, and I’m sticking to it for now.

Since returning to work full-time in September, I’ve taught 3 modules on the campus MSc, one module for the distance-learners, completed my first module as a student on the MSc Blended and Online Education, as well as starting the Certificate in Leadership and Management from the ILM. I’ve also got 2 PhD students who’ve just submitted a thesis each, so I’ve been reading those as well. <breathe>

Yep, things have been hectic, but that seems to be normal these days! As well as fitting in all the work-related shenanigans, Scarlett is one already. How did that go so quickly? There are some days it’s really hard, but I just have to keep telling myself that it’ll be good for her to see a strong female role model. Not easy when she’s poorly and all I want to do is stay at home and cuddle her all day, but she’s got Daddy cuddles for that instead, so it’s certainly not like she misses out. Maybe I do, but she doesn’t.

Anyway, let’s not dwell on that. I really well try to update this more regularly, especially since the current module on the MSc BOE is looking at blogging! Tomorrow the University of Nottingham is hosting the next MELSIG event, so I really ought to go and run through my presentation one more time, just to be sure…

I am not a number, I am a free man!

Well, a free woman anyway. I did have the full quote from The Prisoner repeated back to me early this morning, but I’d only had half a cup of coffee by then, so it hasn’t stuck in my head. So what’s prompted this post and my mutterings about not being a number? Well, as I’ve mentioned before, I’m starting the MSc in Online and Blended Education this September and I’m really quite excited about it (and somewhat nervous about how I’m going to fit it all in). As well as being an integral part of my continuing development, it’s also been really interesting to experience things from a student’s point of view again, as it’s been a few (!) years since that last happened. It’s also been interesting to have some validation for things that I’ve been trying to instigate in my job for the last few years, and that’s what this post is really about. How do we treat our students and are there ways we can improve?

  1. A friendly point of contact really helps. Before finally deciding to do the course I spoke (via twitter and on the phone) to a few different people who were involved in the MSc, and their friendly encouragement really did make a difference (thanks @elearningcolin@smythkrs and Fiona Smart!) We need to make sure that students feel like the people involved with the course actually care whether or not they enrol. Course Directors should be passionate about their role – that enthusiasm really does come across to students!
  2.  This friendly contact needs to be continued through all University channels. The email that prompted this blog post was one I got from a central University department, which started “Dear Student”. If you have my email address in a database then you also have my name. Mail merges are not difficult, and definitely lead to a better feeling than I had when reading a very impersonal message. I know they’re automated, but it’s not hard to improve them just that little bit. Having said that, when I looked at this a couple of years ago I was amazed that Microsoft wouldn’t do email mail merges and allow you to attach files to the email – seems bonkers to me. Luckily we found a very reasonably priced plugin that worked (not from Microsoft!), so that solved the problem.
  3. What happens in Week 1? How much time am I going to need? What will I need to know? All questions that have flicked through my mind. It’s the same whether it’s a distance or campus-based course – people want to know what’s going to happen. We’ve tried to let our students know as soon as things are finalised (because things always change at the last minute!), but this is another way in which the channels of communication need to stay open.

I know all of these things are common, and likely shared by most institutions and students. I guess it was just nice to realise that the things I’ve been campaigning for at work based on my intuition (and experience from many years ago) would be the things that did and would make my own recent experience as a student that little bit more enjoyable.

Ask a busy person…

I’ve been told by several different people on different occasions that I’m addicted to learning. Now I don’t think this is a bad thing, but I do acknowledge that sometimes it does lead to me taking on perhaps a bit more than I should. So, on the verge of going back to work after 7 months of maternity leave, as well as preparing for all my teaching that starts in September, what did I decide to do? A Masters course. Yes, the MSc in Blended and Online Education. Starting in September, which is possibly my busiest time of year. Oh, and I’ve also enrolled on the APPLE course (Academics’ and Administrators’ Professional, Personal and Leadership Experience), which also starts at the same time.

So not only do I have to adjust to going back to work after being at home with Scarlett, I also have to get to grips with two new programmes whilst teaching 3 modules in Semester 1.

Ah well, you know what they say – if you want something doing, ask a busy person… :-)