Open Thinkering


Month: February 2016

Weeknote 08/2016 (warning: may contain gifs and emojis)

I’m going to eschew the usual bullet-point list this week for more of a reflective narrative. Well, it’s my blog and I get to make up the rules. So there.

How dramatic

I’ve just been explaining to my children the difference between mechanical and electronic typewriters, and then typewriters vs. computers. Hence the gif. I’m pretty sure they think I type things and travel on trains for a living.

This week, Dai and I couldn’t find a mutually-convenient time to record an episode of our Today In Digital Education (TIDE) podcast. That’s probably a good thing as, at almost two hours each, it gives our audience to catch up with previous episodes! ⌛

My newsletter last week featured, amongst other things, IPFS, Mars (the planet) and octopus sex. I also write a monthly Dynamic Skillset newsletter and thinking of switching from MailChimp to Revue for that. I’ll be sending out the latest issue of both my newsletters this weekend, so if you don’t yet subscribe, well you should get that sorted out before reading any further.


It’s been a great week. Every year I’m basically in hibernation mode between Autumn and Spring half-terms; my body clock seems to be a curious mix of the rhythms of the academic year, coupled with some kind of primordial tendency towards hibernation as the nights get darker. So yes, from now for the next eight months I’m SUPER DOUG. ✊

I’ve been to London as usual this week but only spent a day and a half working for City & Guilds while I was down there (I did the other half a day for them working from home). The reason for that deviation from the norm was to do some thinking with Bryan Mathers and Eylan Ezekiel about the future of Dynamic Skillset. I’ve written up the mini Thinkathon we did here.

It was the Digital Careers Show North London this week, and City & Guilds were a Platinum sponsor, so I found myself hanging out there and talking to various people before the Ufi/MOBILIZE:LDN/Wayra networking event in the evening. It was good to catch up with Sarah Simons, Erica Neve, Arfah Farooq, and others.


Wearing multiple hats as I do, it’s sometimes difficult to know which one you’re wearing at any given time. I’m fairly sure I had every hat on when meeting the wonderful Sarah Drummond and Anne Dhir from Snook. I’m a big fan. They’re looking for a Moodle developer for a badge-related project so, you know, if you know someone talented and fast-working point them here. ????

In other news, I was asked to speak in South Africa in May, a big-name client wants some follow-up work, and there’s another one in the offing. All in a week when I got a lot more clarity about the direction I want to take things. Oh, and I wrote something about why the way we hire people is completely broken, and suggested some ways to fix it.

I had quite a lot to get through this week, so I only got half a ‘Doug day’. I spent Friday morning walking to Beacon Hill, which is about five miles away from my house. It’s quite an interesting history. On the way, I found a World War II shelter, had to sneak over the new bypass being built (the footpath was officially closed), and got pretty muddy making my way through fields.

Aaaaand I'm out...

Right, that’s about enough. I’ll probably revert to bullet points next week. It’s quicker for me and it means you don’t have to deal with my insufferable prose. Enjoy the rest of your weekend! ⛱

Need some help untangling knotty problems? In identifying, developing, and/or credentialing digital skills? Just want some quick advice on edtech stuff? Get in touch!

Why do we hire based on ‘experience’? HR, Automattic, and Open Badges

It’s 2016. Nobody can reasonably expect to have a ‘job for life’, or even work within the same organisation for more than a few years. As a result, you’re likely to dip into the jobs marketplace more often than your parents and grandparents did. That means it’s increasingly important to be able to prove:

  • who you are
  • what you know
  • who you know
  • what you can do

Unfortunately, hiring is still largely based on submitting a statement of skills and experience we call a ‘Curriculum Vitae’ (or résumé) along with a covering letter. This may lead to an interview and, if you like each other, the job is yours. We have safeguards in place at every step to ensure people don’t discriminate on age, gender, or postcode. Despite this, almost every part of the current process is woefully out-of-date. I’ve plenty to say about all of this, but will save most of it for another time.

In this post I’m particularly interested in why we include ‘job history’ or ‘experience’ when applying for new positions. Given that we have so little time and space to highlight everything we stand for, why do we bother including it? Academic credentials are bona fides, but job history is a bit more nebulous. Why is it still such a prominent feature of our LinkedIn profiles? Why do we email people CVs listing our ‘experience’?

Whether you think that looking at someone’s job history allows for a good ‘cultural fit’, or allows you to make assumptions about the network they bring with them, the reality is that we use job histories as a filter. They’re a useful shorthand. After all, if someone has been hired by Google or another big-name organisation, that’s a bit like saying they went to an elite university. We tend to believe in the judgments made by these kinds of organisations and institutions. We trust the filters. If the person was good enough for those organisations, we think, then they must be good enough for ours.

We like to tell ourselves that we live in a meritocratic world. If someone is good enough, so the story goes, then they can achieve the qualifications and experience necessary to get the job they want. Unfortunately, because of a combination of unconscious bias, innovation immune systems, and the new nepotism, some groups of people are effectively excluded from consideration. Don’t know the right people? Not good at interviews? Have skills too advanced or too new for qualifications to have been developed yet? Bad luck, buddy.

Another problem is that we tend to use what I call ‘chunky black box qualifications’ as proxies of the thing we’re trying to hire for. As an example, take jobs that require a degree ‘in any discipline’. What does that actually mean in practice? They want somebody who can think at a certain level, someone who is likely to come across as ‘professional’, someone who can submit work on time. However, we’re not directly looking at the assessment of the particular quality in this situation, we’re merely using an imperfect proxy.

There are many ways round the current status quo. For example, Automattic (the company behind WordPress which powers a lot of websites) does hiring very differently to the standard model. As outlined in this post, when hiring developers they test candidates in real-world situations through paid trials. In fact, as Automattic is a globally-distributed company, communication happens mainly through text. Most candidates don’t have voice conversation with anyone at the organisation until they’re hired! Obviously this wouldn’t necessarily work in every sector, but it is a good example of thinking differently: focus on what the candidate can do, not what they claim to be able to do.

Another way to approach things differently in hiring is to seek wherever possible to break down those ‘chunky black box qualifications’ into more transparent, granular, and fluid credentials.

For example, when I say I worked for Mozilla it usually piques people’s interest. I then have to go on and explain what I did during my time there. This isn’t easy given the amount of different things you do and learn in an organisation that you were with for three years. Yes, I had two different job titles, but I learned a whole load of things that would take time to tease out: working across timezones on a daily basis? Check. Learning how to use GitHub for development? Check. Consensus-based decision-making? Check.

Not every organisation is in a position to offer a trial period like Auttomatic. Nor would every individual be able to take up their offer. However, much as some people start off as consultants for organisations and then end up employed by them, there is value in getting to know people in a better way than the traditional CV and interview process allows. If we need better filters then we need smaller sieves.

For the past five years I’ve been working on Open Badges, a web-native way to issue trusted, portable, digital credentials. In the situation under consideration, I think there there are a few ways in which badges can be used to unlock those chunky black box qualifications.

  1. Granularity – instead of looking at qualifications that act as proxies, we can evidence knowledge, skills, and behaviours directly.
  2. Evidence – whereas LinkedIn profiles and CVs are a bunch of claims, Open Badges can include a bunch of evidence. Proof that someone has done something is just a click away.
  3. Portability – instead of credentials being on separate pieces of paper or in various digital silos, Open Badges can be displayed together, in context, on the web. They are controlled and displayed at the earner’s discretion.

I’m excited by the resurgence in apprenticeships and vocational education. I’m delighted to see more and more alternative ways organisations are finding to hire people. What I’m optimistic about most of all, though, is the ability for organisations to find exactly the right fit based on new forms of credentialing. It’s going to take a cultural shift in hiring, but the benefits for those who take the leap will be profound.

Image via Nomad Pictures

Weeknote 07/2016

This week I’ve been:

  • Sending out Issue #202 of Doug Belshaw’s Thought Shrapnel, my weekly newsletter loosely focused on education, technology, and productivity. This week it included links about wiki playlists, algorithmic power, and plain text.
  • Recording and releasing Episode 39 (‘Algorithmic Adblockers’) of the Today In Digital Education podcast, my weekly podcast with co-host Dai Barnes. In this week’s episode, we talked about malware, identity, algorithms, adblockers, digital skills, productivity, and more! You can discuss TIDE in our new Slack channel.
  • Working two days as it’s half-term for my wife and kids. I was in London on Tuesday and Cambridge on Wednesday. I’ve spent Thursday and Friday trying to shake off the slow-burn tonsillitis that my children have had. I’m tired.
  • Presenting to Cambridge English, a division of Cambridge Assessment, which is in turn a department of Cambridge University. Consequently, my two sessions on Open Badges were in fairly grand surroundings. You can check out my slides here. It was great to see Geoff Stead and Andy Field again.
  • Updating the image/avatar I use to represent myself online. The one I started using at the start of the year was OK, but this (a selfie taken in my hotel room) is better, I think.
  • Spending time with my kids. I enjoyed building a holly-covered den with my son in the local woods and teaching him the ins and outs of iOS 9.
  • Studying some philosophical books around ambiguity. I’m reading Nonsense: the power of not knowing at the moment, but that’s a popular book about uncertainty. This is more academic texts with titles like Beyond The Letter: A Philosophical Inquiry into Ambiguity, Vageness and Metaphor in Language. Inevitably, I’ve started a new blog about this sporadic work at
  • Creating a /now page for my blog and updating my Start here page to include a list of my most popular posts of 2015.
  • Writing (not a lot):

Next week I’m in London working for City & Guilds, and doing some work with Bryan Mathers about the next steps for Dynamic Skillset.