Foreword from PebblePad's Chief Mischief Maker
A whopping 16 years have passed since Colin and I schemed together at the 2002 ALT-C in Sunderland – devising a plan to escape the rigours of working at a university, become our own bosses, and achieve a much better work-life balance. Well, in the intervening 15 years, we’ve never worked so hard and there’s really not all that much balance – but lots of fun, and lots to be very happy about. However, with Colin being so much older than me 😉, it’s only fair that he should be first to throw the knotted sheets out of PebblePad HQ’s window, leaving me, and the brilliant team he’s helped to build, to continue PebblePad’s journey.
We do miss him of course but it’s a testament to our wonderful team how easily we have adapted to the post-Colin era, and with Colin already enjoying retirement, I've since realised there’s far more cake to go around – which means I’m not going anywhere anytime soon! Below, in his own words, Colin reflects on the PebblePad years and his plans for retirement. Spoiler alert - it involves golf.
Charting a new course
If you're a PebblePaddler, life is always busy - you only have to look to our 2017 review post to see what a year in the life of a PebblePaddler looks like. The PebblePad culture has always been, and I expect always will be, about pushing the boundaries of what's possible. My PebblePad to-do list was always packed with tasks and projects, most of which either involved improving people, improving processes, or improving our award-winning product. I always felt incredibly lucky to be involved in so many good things on a weekly basis, but it was the kind of weekly to-do list that often required at least 1.6 Colins to get through it, and inevitably left little time for the other important things in life like golf, family and travel (specifically travel which involved more golf and less eportfolio). I have always thought that youth is wasted on the young and retirement wasted on the old, and it was always my ambition to retire at an age when I could make the most of retirement. It was, therefore, with a mix of just about every emotion that I decided towards the end of last year that the time had come for me to go and enjoy an early-ish retirement.
When I first sat down to write a post summing up 15 years of fun, achievement and more portfolio-based stories than I could count, I was at a bit of a loss about how to do the journey justice. I can't recount the number of times people have said to me how proud I must be of all that we have achieved at PebblePad. And it goes without saying that I am, but when you're caught up in myriad projects, which are just part and parcel of running a global business, it can be difficult to find the space to step back and reflect on all the great stuff. Having now been away from the day-to-day running of the business for a little while, I have been able to reflect on the tremendous journey I have been on and what lies ahead.
While there is an awful lot of pride-inducing stuff to reminisce about, there is also a lot to look forward to - I'll enjoy spending more time with my wife (it's currently open for debate as to whether she feels the same), I hope I'll get to enjoy watching more of my golf balls sail straight down the fairway and not into the trees, and I am looking forward to giving my 150-year-old house the TLC it needs. But I'll miss the daily contact with a terrific team, and, perhaps most of all, I'll miss sitting in customer meetings and listening to user presentations at conferences across the globe and thinking: "Wow, PebblePad made that possible".
It would be all too easy for me to fall into reminiscing about the 'good ol' days' but I don't want to spend too much of this post talking about the early days of PebblePad as a fledgling platform. There is a great timeline here if you want to learn more about the early days of us working above a garage, paying staff in pizza, and borrowing just about every book we could from the library on entrepreneurship and starting a business (yes, I even read a few of them). Instead, I would like to focus on why we built PebblePad in the way we did and how we went about it. And since I will remain a major shareholder in the business, and also purely from having done so almost every day for the past 15 years, I will still affectionately refer to PebblePad and its terrific work as we and us.
Be flexible in just about every way
Over the years, if I had received a dollar each time I heard a new 'we'd like to do this with eportfolio' request then I'd be enjoying my retirement in Barbados, not Shropshire. eportfolio requirements and the different contexts and disciplines in which they are used vary considerably. You only need to look at the case studies from our last global conference to see this is the case. There are always different drivers for eportfolio, ranging from the need to solve a particular problem through to the need to offer a broad range of capabilities which can be rolled out across an organisation.
We realised early on in our PebblePad journey that we needed to build a platform flexible enough to support organisation-wide learning and assessment, no matter what the context or discipline. We also realised that we needed to be flexible as a business, and that is why we never stood still and have asked ourselves every day - how can we make the product better?
We have always invested heavily in our team, from the whizzes who write the code to the wider team who do such a great job in so many areas - it's reassuring to know that I have left the ship in safe hands, many of which belong to people who joined us right at the start of the journey when we'd barely left the harbour. However, in fairness, we can't take all of the credit for our achievements - we have always been aided by a fantastic customer-base and community who have always willingly consulted, tested and fed-back on our ideas and prototypes. If I look back to the feedback we have received from our user groups, conferences and workshops, comments like the one below are commonplace. I am immensely proud of the PebblePad team, our pedagogically-driven ethos, and the friendly, community culture we helped to cultivate and foster - these, without doubt, are the things I will miss most.
If you would like to learn more about what 15 years of 'eportfolio endeavour' and input from a fantastic community looks like, then there really is no better resource than our new eportfolio checklist.
I am really excited for PebblePad’s future when I consider just how well the system is positioned to support the requirements of portfolio-based learning and assessment at scale. That flexibility I mentioned earlier has allowed us to maintain pace with the needs of the market. The proof? In our 2017 thought leadership paper examining the global trends in teaching and learning in Higher Education, all of the strategic ambitions highlighted in the paper are well-aligned to the PebblePad ethos. Our vision, first articulated in 2003 and still underpinning the very heart of the system, has not only served us (and the learners engaged with PebblePad) well, but continues to respond to the 21st century challenges facing learners and the teachers and institutions that support them.
Learning- and learner-centredness
Now that retirement has arrived, it's inevitably a time to think about the PebblePad legacy and it’s perhaps opportune to expand on that vision a little more. I've always believed that it's the informal learning activities we engage in that make us unique - yet these moments often go uncaptured, and opportunities for reflection and future development pass learners by. We built PebblePad to be first and foremost a learning- and learner-centred technology capable of supporting life-long and life-wide learning: the two guiding principles which remain as true to us today as they did over a decade ago. It’s about recognising that we learn all the time in lots of different contexts and that having the opportunity to record, reflect on, and showcase anything we do is a vital part of personal growth. That’s what life-wide learning is all about, and what the PebblePad we have today - a platform which is the result of 15 years of endeavour - is capable of supporting so well.
I am delighted with so much of what we have achieved but I think the contribution we have made, and continue to make, to helping organisations overcome the challenges of developing learner- and learning-centred cultures is something that I am particularly proud of. We continue to be part of, and help shape, the conversations that reflect an international shift in higher education towards developing what students can do, rather than just what they know. For us, it is, and always has been, just good pedagogy.
When we founded PebblePad in 2003, we didn't really know what we were doing or where the journey would take us. That's why I often thought of myself, certainly throughout the early days of my PebblePad career, as 'the accidental entrepreneur'. However, when you grow a business from a two-man enterprise above a garage into an international business you inevitably acquire a lot of 'assets' along the journey - colleagues, friends, air miles, and, above all - new skills. Degree Apprenticeships is a hot topic at the moment, and while I'm not exactly sure how many of the new skills I actually mastered, there is no getting away from the fact that I had the most wonderful time during my 15-year 'Chief Operating Officer Apprenticeship'. And, while you may view the following as the musings of a retiring sentimental PebblePaddler, I'm going to say it anyway - I maintain that PebblePad is the greatest portfolio platform out there for integrating clever features for assessment and feedback with frameworks for structured and independent learning (and I do put that down to the skill and talent of a terrific team who really have mastered their craft).
So how do you wrap up a post like this? I could happily keep writing for another two days about awards, cake, innovation, and more awards. However, I guess all that will have to wait for the autobiography. So until that gets published, I'll just go with a huge thank you to everyone who has played a part in my PebblePad story. I'm going to sign-off now in the same way assessors can digitally sign-off student work in PebblePad templates and workbooks. Sorry, I couldn't resist just one last PebblePad reference - you'll have to put it down to a huge amount of pride!
With every best wish,