I was asked to create a cartoon-style banner for the 2017 Brookes Learning and Teaching Conference, the theme of which is open learning and transnational partnership. Here, with apologies to Gillray, Daumier, Chappatte et al, is the result.


HMS Titanalytics © Richard Francis 2016-17

There shall be no clocks

-8ºC, a numb sun, every movement amplified by the silent stillness of the air. The pages of my book are warm like blankets.

Arriving at work I notice that the wall outside my office is blank. Where is the clock? I’m sure it was there yesterday. Come come, that cannot be. You just need to get warm.

I must be staring because a colleague notices my disorientation and takes pity.

“It’s 8:20.”dezeen_a-million-times-by-humans-since-1982-5
“Oh, thanks. I couldn’t see the clock.”

As if also trying to help, the clock reveals itself on a column two metres away.

“Has it moved?”
“No. And it isn’t going to. Not after all the trouble we had getting it.”
“Why? Is it in the wrong place?”
“It shouldn’t be there at all. In the offices, yes, but not out here.”

My eyes wander back to the wall, still stubbornly, defiantly blank. “Yes, this is where the clock should be but isn’t,” it taunts with a sneer.

“When we moved in we were told “There shall be no clocks.””

As autonomous individuals, instantiated in time and space, we are gradually dissolving into ubiquity. Though I wear a watch, its temporal referents are increasingly personal, of no concern to others. Appointments take place at “times” that have little to do with solar or biological rhythms. They are co-incident in our shared Google calendars, permitting us short periods of synchronous inter-relationship but do not correspond with shared understandings of times of day, nor can be measured in fixed temporal units such as hours and minutes. Instead we flow in and out of each other’s frames of reference, never out of range, acting upon each other with varying degrees of intensity at virtually any time.

In such a reality clocks may indeed be out of place.

Pristine condition

When we buy something new, something that hasn’t been owned by someone else, we value its newness, its pristine quality, its untouched purity. If it is blemished, damaged, soiled, we are dissatisfied, may return it, seek a replacement. Had we desired marks, fingerprints, stains, dog-eared corners, we would have made our purchase from a second-hand outlet, an antiquarian, a charity shop.BIGscribbles002

This month I imagined I had purchased a new book, that is a copy that had not been handled by another person. I was eager to open it, turn its pages, take sight of its content for the first time, as if the first to do so.

I was wrong. This was an e-book.

Three pages in, I notice several annotations, several phrases and sentences that have been underlined. At first I associate them with the markings of a spell-checker, they must denote orthographic or grammatical errors. Strange because I detect none and the annotations are numerous and lengthy, as if someone had wished to highlight the passages in question, bring them to my attention. I move the cursor to the start of one such annotation and a note appears informing me that “four people have previously highlighted this passage.” Do I wish to view other annotations by the same readers? Do I wish to share my own annotations with them?

No I do not. I will almost certainly talk about what I have read with my family and friends, at some point – of my choosing. Right now, I want to enjoy the text for the first time, in a pristine state.

Why should I worry? I can de-activate shared annotations, it is my choice. No, the choice has been made for me. It should be my choice to activate them, not to have to switch them off.

I feel foolish, naïve. Of course I should have realised. I have merely licensed this book. If the publisher chooses to withdraw it from its catalogue, my licence to read it will expire. I have it on loan, it does not belong to me, I am accessing it by temporary courtesy of the publisher, as are they who have annotated it before me.

I will choose something from the library next time. It’s free and I won’t worry about the odd scribble.


Life in this age of constant connection is interspersed with episodes of incommunication, in which spontaneous, “natural” conversation seems to stutter and fail. Here are four examples, all genuine.


Episode 1

I walk into the Transport Office at work. There are three employees, no customers.

“How can I help you today?”
“Could you tell me the procedure for getting a bus pass?”
“No problem. The information is all on line.”
“How much does it cost?”
“The prices are all on the website.”
“How long will it take?”
“You should allow 10-15 days at peak times.”
“Is mid August a peak time?”
“Could be. Waiting times are on the website.”
“Do I need a photo?”
“Is there a booth anywhere?”
(In a tone of amused condescension.) “Er… use your smartphone.”

In search of the appropriate white backdrop, I retire to the toilets armed with an iPad and hope that no-one will burst in on my improvised photoshoot.

Episode 2

I am outside on the square, strolling back to my office after a coffee break with colleagues.
A stranger addresses me in an earnest tone.

“Excuse me. You’re a TV personality, aren’t you?”
(Smiling.) “Hardly.”
(With insistence.) “You’re from Oxford aren’t you? They said you were from Oxford.”
“Yes, but I haven’t appeared on TV for about 20 years.”
“I saw you last night.”
“I don’t think so.”
“On Robot Wars.”
(Smile waning.) “Sorry, I don’t know what that is.”
“It’s the programme you were on. Your robot got knocked out.”
(Smile now wry.) “Well, that’s a relief.”
(Stranger shakes his head and disappears into a shop.)

Episode 3

I am reading on the bus going home.

A large woman is seated next to me, earbuds firmly in place. She rises purposefully to get off, knocking my glasses onto the floor.

I retreat rapidly into the corridor to make way and to retrieve my glasses before they cease to be. Bending over, I back inadvertently into another passenger, also advancing towards the exit smartphone in hand. The bus jolts, I lose balance and tread on her foot. She yelps. I apologise profusely. Neither she nor the other lady makes any form of acknowledgement.

I return to my seat to resume reading but feel numb and resistant to the insensitive clamour of the words on the page. I toy with the idea of proposing myself as a new Marvel comic character – the Invisible Bulk.

Episode 4

The bus has reached the end of the line and the driver is having a cigarette break. We are still four stops away from my destination so I remain on board. Silence reigns. All nine passengers are gazing into their smartphones or into the middle distance with their earbuds on.

The silence is broken by a loud and doleful whining sound emanating from one of the passengers with earbuds. The lament continues, wavering between loud and soft, for about a minute, without apparent rhythmic or melodic form.

The relief is palpable when the driver re-starts the engine and we continue on our way. At no point is there any reaction of any sort from anyone.

Cogs and pinions

“It should just work” – a common refrain of management teams overseeing the rollout of a new learning-enhancing technology. “Just show me which button to press.”

Few of us have any great desire to know what is going on under the bonnet. We just want something that gets us from A to B.

Yet, 101 years ago, in his 1915 book Schools of To-Morrow, John Dewey warned

image“Unless the mass of workers are to be blind cogs and pinions in the apparatus they employ, they must have some understanding of the physical and social facts behind and ahead of the material and appliances with which they are dealing.” (Dewey 1915 p.274)

As Jesse Stommel observes, translating Dewey’s comments into the context of TEL in the 21st Century, “the less we understand our tools, the more we are beholden to them. The more we imagine our tools as transparent or invisible, the less able we are to take ownership of them.” (Stommel 2016)

Knowing how a technology works is key to making it work for you, to appropriating it creatively for the benefit of learning.

One can of course take the view that it’s someone else’s job to make the technology work. “Just show me which button to press.”

Some of us may indeed welcome driverless motoring.

May script writers rest easy?

Sunspring is a short sci-fi film. It is nonsense, of the best kind, neither banal nor original, by turns hilariously funny and faintly disturbing. It was written by ‘Benjamin’, an RNN (Recurrent Neural Network) AI machine. Its makers, Oscar Sharp, of Therefore Films, and a trio of actors which includes the well-known Thomas Middleditch, manage brilliantly to impart meaning to Benjamin’s outpourings, adopting the familiar rhythms of sci-fi tropes while all the while having to play dodgems with nonsensical gems such as “I just wanted to tell you that I was much better than he did”. I wonder what Edward Lear would have made of it?

Sunspring was made for the Sci-Fi London contest, in which contestants are given 48 hours in which to make a movie from a given set of prompts. One of the judges commented “I’ll give them top marks if they promise never to do this again.”

To find out about the making of Sunspring, visit ‘Ars Technica‘.

Conference call

Dusting off the unintended digital debris of two web conferences yesterday, and in a fragile mood, I was prompted to re-visit the brilliant video spoof A Conference Call in Real Life by the comedy duo Tripp and Tyler to revive my spirits. Though over two years old now, it remains achingly funny and true to life.


red_balloonI read a short paper by a colleague, George, today which rightly argues that usurpation is a proper process for the inhabitants of universities continually to attempt. It can certainly result in transformation but is it necessarily transcendent? Does it have balloon-like qualities?

George opened his piece with the question as to whether transcendence and transgression amount to the same thing. I found the notion of adiaphora, adopted by Bauman (2002), to be a helpful way of addressing this question.

Transcendence, from its Latin root, conjures climbing, rising above, going beyond but implies no breaching, violation or infringement, as does transgression, in which the stem gredi carries the meaning of stepping across or over an acceptable line (legal or moral). From this derives the idea of erring, stepping off the straight and narrow.

In order for transcendence not to entail transgression, there needs to be a degree of adiaphorism at play, i.e. if the state/action transcended is not expressly forbidden, the going beyond it is treated with indifference by authority. The problem is that, in a time like ours of moral liquidity (Bauman again! – 2000), the laissez-faire economics of neoliberalism make both transcendence and transgression more difficult, as society becomes indifferent to (or fearful of) the space beyond. If we are numb, the urge to transcend is lessened. I think we see this in our increasing acceptance of legislation that is anticipatory as much as punitive.

Perhaps the question can be re-phrased. Are creative appropriation and creative expropriation (usurpation) equally effective tactics of resistance to academic closure? George takes a similar line when he notes that usurpation tends to be cyclical, the usurper becoming the usurped, all parties falling victim to the will to exert power. Over time, the will to usurp declines as the academy loses its social value and numbness and adiaphora set in.

Balloons, on the other hand, though inclined to transcend, are unlikely to transgress. We cling to them for as long as we can to prolong the sensation of freedom they convey. It takes courage to release our grip and let them float free.

This is the pain of the liminal state in education.

Bauman, Zygmunt (2002). Society under Siege. Cambridge, Polity Press.
Bauman, Zygmunt (2000). Liquid Modernity. Cambridge, Polity Press.

TEG mega meal deal

The TEG (Technology Experimentation Group) invites Wheatley staff and students to a

3-in-1 mega meal deal for digital gourmets

Thursday 5th May, 12:00-13:30, Wheatley Training Room (H.217)

Virtual Reality is here
Is Virtual Reality the future? No, it’s already here. Come and experience it for yourself with VR enthusiast Gerard Helmich.

3D Printing – the only limit is your imagination
Watch a hands-on demo of this exciting technology by Simon Llewellyn.

360º photography
Richard Francis takes spherical snaps (like this one) with his brand new panoramic camera.

All Wheatley staff and students welcome.
To be sure of a place please email Richard Francis (rafrancis@brookes.ac.uk).