…like a fool – Sorting the revolutionary change from the merely cosmetic

*apologies to Alvin Toffler for the appropriation of his quote for the title and to Superchunk for the first part*



“Once I began thinking in terms of waves of change, colliding and overlapping, causing conflict and tension around us, it changed my perception of change itself. In every field, from education and health to technology, from personal life to politics, it became possible to distinguish those innovations that are merely cosmetic, or just extensions of the industrial past, from those that are truly revolutionary.”
Toffler Alvin. The Third Wave. 1980.

I have spent the last few months presenting findings from the first year of a project (from my previous institution) that was designed to transform learning and teaching with technology. Most of the papers have centred on the notions of institutional resistance to technology and how through a process of encouraging play and experimentation with technology, we believed that the vision could overcome this resistance to change and open up the debates around the changing nature of pedagogy. We kept coming back to the same conclusion, shoulder shrugged. Resistance seemed to be an inevitable outcome of even the smallest and least controversial of innovations. This resistance came in many and varied forms, from the outright to the passive. It permeated all aspects of the implementation. Everything from the hearts and minds exercises to the practical expressions of benefit to the students was seen through the lens of resistance. Both inside and outside the institution there were colleagues who were interested and engaged participators in the debate, whilst there were others who questioned the practicality or even the point of such philosophical musings, preferring a more practical take on technological innovation (DIY or not do it all seemed to the polarised positions).

The more I presented these findings, the more I found myself almost apologising for my views. I became critical of the project and our apparent failings in achieving the aspirational intentions we set out to achieve. I started second guessing many of the insights or broader ideas that emerged from this intense period of research and reflection. I was using phrases like ‘I don’t I want to throw the baby out with the bathwater’ and ‘I am not advocating a revolution’. When in many ways I actually wanted to advocate that so we could have a real, engaged and impactful debate, rather than a question or two at conference, usually prefaced with the words ‘This is not so much a question, more a statement…’. I wanted to be the radical voice, challenging orthodoxy and unsettling the status quo. Not because it felt good to be a rebel but because I honestly believe that innovation comes from challenging your ideas with others and collaborating to do something better. But instead I retreated into saying what I believed and putting my hands up and almost saying ‘sorry’ after I had said it.

Recently I read a book chapter by James G. March from Stanford (published in 1976) called ‘The Technology of Foolishness’ where he argues that organisations and the decisions they make can become wrapped up in a web of ‘received doctrine’ of intelligence and choice. He aligns this doctrine with three assumptions of rational decision making (the pre-existence of purpose, the necessity of consistency and the primacy of rationality). Any e-Learning approach is judged by the objectives and purposes it sets (and not always achieves), the importance of ensuring that consistency is achieved across disciplines and through qualifications usually resulting in the provision of a lowest common denominator service (where the least controversial aspects become the organisational norm) and that the rational expectations of faculty and student experience are indeed more primary to the aspirational expectations of people choosing to innovate, experiment and push boundaries.

March argues that we as adults have constructed a world in which we know what is good for ourselves. We ‘know’ the consequences of any decision we or others make, whilst children are freed from this rationality and predictive intelligence. The result in the case of institutional resistance to technology is a series of common mantras….

#‘It’s a nice idea, but it won’t work’,
#‘It would be good to do if we had more time’
#’I am sure it’s a great thing with the kind of students YOU teach, but with my kind of students…’
#’The lecture has worked for 125 years, why do we need to change it?’
#’Students don’t know what they want, but our employer’s sure do’

So, why do we find it hard to even have these debates without resorting to a series of well-worn defences based on our understandings of what are the almost guaranteed consequences of what is being proposed? March argues that for effective decision making we need to ‘suspend (our) rational imperatives towards consistency’. What does this mean in terms of e-Learning? For me, this is about introducing conceptual and attitudinal behaviours into higher education design, pedagogy and management that will not always embraced, either by staff overworked at the coalface or by management beset by constraints and objectives too often in conflict or contrary to the philosophical intent of the academy.

March describes these behaviours in the context of what he calls the ‘technology of foolishness’. Linked closely to the notions of play, where the usual rules are suspended allowing us to seek out new rules through experimentation and reject the usual objections to rational behaviours or accepted intelligence. Resistance to technology in higher education occurs despite the overwhelming evidence of societal change arising from the internet and social media (technology-change sceptics? Technology change is not man-made perhaps?). People who play with technology in higher education are often seen as zealots, tinkerers, or techies or at best, early adopters. Their work is often marginalised to their own context, shared with the converted and siloed within e-Learning-centric activity and practice. Many institutions still actively separate learning and e-Learning as if the ‘e’ part of this cutting edge experimental state is not really the same as teaching. Comparing online learning and face to face teaching is seen as not comparing apples with apples. The debates around using technology and changing pedagogy are positioned as dichotomous, mutually exclusive and competing paradigms, ignoring the decades of successful and innovative blended learning.

Take the dreaded MOOC debate. This has become rent with almost an ideological extremism bordering on George W Bush’s euphemistic ‘you are with us or against us’ argument. I recently presented at a MOOC conference where I took what I thought was a fairly critical approach to the debates around the impacts of MOOCs on HE. Granted it was to a room of MOOC advocates and providers, so ‘fox in a henhouse’ was probably an appropriate metaphor. But I felt, not through any comments or questions or responses, that I needed to temper my opinions a little, ensure it was clear that I was not a MOOC sceptic or technology neophyte making uninformed observations around a well understood field. What became clear to me after presenting these opinions in a number of places is that there is an accepted and arguably melodramatic narrative that MOOCs will change the world, the education has already passed a tipping point, weak brands will die and strong brands will survive, just like the music industry. Anyone who argues against this is misinformed, ignorant or an idealist pining for the days gone by. And it is easy to portray those who disagree with you as naysayers, luddites or people who just don’t get it. Now, this is not a universal set of behaviours. I have had some engaging and pragmatic debates with MOOC players, and both our understandings are better for it.

As a sector it is critical that we apply the same rigour and criticality to our own behaviours as we do to our students and our research. We need to be able to engage in debates, discussions and experiments at an institutional level. It is equally important that these debates are not just navel gazing or pointless circles of rhetoric and opinion. They need to be centred on questioning the key assumptions made in our delivery of learning and teaching.

Graeme Gibbs wrote his seminal piece ‘Twenty terrible reasons for lecturing’ in 1981, yet 34 years on we are still arguing about it and every word he said is prescient today as it was then. What was the number one song in 1981? Bette Davis Eyes by Kim Carnes.

Are we still playing that song every year saying well, it worked well for the radio in 1981, let’s keep playing it? And by the way, ask an average 18 year old who Bette Davis was? Radio silence for sure there.

Now, we can assume that, for example, the debate around the lecture has been won and the evidence is overwhelmingly in favour of the sage (by sheer evidence of activity). We can equally assume that it is harder to change the status quo than it is to accept it. But for me the debate that occurs around the lecture is not interesting. It is like a football game, where one team keeps back passing and plodding around until the other guys get a chance to do the same. March equally agrees that a dichotomous ‘one or the other’ approach will get us nowhere in enhancing and promoting innovative decision making. He argues for a combination of foolishness and rationality that will allow for the development of ‘unusual combinations of attitudes and behaviours supported by an embracing of playfulness and inconsistency. The ability of an institution to embrace and celebrate real innovation is crucial. The ability to reconsider what we consider success and failure and how we let these expectations shape the way we implement and evaluate new ideas and strategies.

“…an education that is understood in complexity terms cannot be conceived in terms of preparation for the future. Rather, it must be construed in terms of participation in the creation of possible futures” Davis and Sumara (2009)

What does this mean for those of us who are arguing for new approaches for teaching and learning? Are we ground down by these resistances, the side-tracking and the endless debates about the same thing? We need to re-examine the way we approach the debates around the efficacy or importance of making change. These are three fairly general observations I would make, that might represent a starting point to the debate. I will note that these could be seen as entirely aspirational or perhaps idealistic. In the light of my previous reflections, I just say, SO WHAT! Debate me!!

1. We must create and nurture an organisational culture that supports innovation. People who experiment and challenge rules and recognised ways of doing things are not rebels, or radicals or crazies. Innovation comes from places that can’t be actively pigeonholed or defined. An organisational imperative to support innovative practice is crucial. The ability to fail in those innovations equally critical. What does it look like? No idea! It will be different from one place to the next. Not everyone can do the 3M model. But what is important is that innovation is not a buzzword, or a work package. Innovation is a culture; it is an attitude to challenging the status quo and actually having the will and support to change if it proves necessary. People doing innovative stuff need to get rewarded and celebrated.

2. We must accept that there is a role of ambiguity, chaos and uncertainty in an organisation. Now, any one of us who has been in HE for any length of time is pretty well screaming at the top of their lungs – WELCOME TO MY LIFE! And yes, that much is true. These factors have often been linked with fear and paralysis to provide a gorgeous and lush motivational cocktail for faculty and staff in HE. But, the ability of staff to dive in without knowing the answer, develop counter-intuitive approaches to learning design, use technology in a way that seems to be against the institutional systems put in place to govern it and share those experiences in an environment of support not defence, will at least encourage them to try again. At best it will be the game changing, epoch making thing that MOOCs will never be. How did we come up with the model of teaching and learning we use now…someone tried something different and it worked. Wonder if they were regarded as pariahs?

3. We must understand how learning has already changed and in what ways do we need to respond to the change. The learners arriving at university are already e-learners, with lives lived in a post-digital world, where there is no real and online world, there is just the world. They have developed skills for living in a 21st century world which are different or at least adapted from those required to live in a pre-digital world. Technology is not class or category of learning. It is a means, a society changing and generation shaping means. It is transformative, emancipatory, democratic (for now), challenging and contrary. Institutions have to develop the skills of adaptation, agility, flexibility and criticality around technology and its impact on learning. The line between learning and eLearning is already well and truly blurred. Perhaps it needs to vanish altogether.

My final quote from March goes a little like this, ‘There is little magic in the world, and foolishness in people and organisations is one of the many things that fail to produce miracles’. I don’t have a magic bullet, or equally bulletproof case studies that prove beyond this will work. This is however, the debate we have to have. The debate that we need to start in order to challenge, reinforce or change the way we do higher education. Do I have solutions, answers, suggestions or models that might help? Yes, of course! You can dig through the archives of this blog for the views of a range of eminent scholars, practitioners and rock and roll victims (I will leave it to you to decide which I am!). But perhaps in a small way, each of us engaging in this debate will go some of the way to ignoring the hyperbole and get to the heart of what learning and teaching will look like in the post-digital age. And yes, it will more than likely have to be revolutionary or at least different from what went before.

Davis, B., & Sumara, D. (2009). Complexity as a theory of education. TCI (Transnational Curriculum Inquiry), 5(2), 33-44.
March, J. G. (1976). The technology of foolishness. Ambiguity and choice in organizations, 69, 81.

Watching the detectives: Rethinking the way we teach digital identity

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Social media is a disruptive and potentially transformative practice for adult education. According to Edudemic, 91% of college faculty in the US are incorporating social media into their teaching, 80% of academics have at least one social media account and 2/3 of students access social media during class . There are wide variations in the understanding people (academics, administrators and learners) have about social media, both in its scope and scale. In the context of my recent posts about the notion of ‘e-learning potential’ I have riffed on the idea that resistance to pedagogical change arising from technology comes in many forms (action/activity, vicarious willing of failure, and lack of empirical research). The reactions to social media and the practices and policies that emerge can be seen as another form of resistance, which I call ‘It wasn’t me, it was them’. We look at learning innovations like social media in the context of ‘well we would use social media more, but employers are demanding a certain professional image of our graduates so we have to be careful’ or ‘learners use their social media in my lectures too much, and if they’d put their Facebook away for five minutes they would have passed’. I worked for an institution a few years back that actually banned all social media from staff and student machines on the premise that social media represented nothing more than a time wasting opportunity.


Of all the things I have seen that get academics angry (especially at conferences), social media is right up there. From the dangers of stalking, to the power we are ceding to corporations who own social media, to how it will change the world (already has, naysayers) through to the discounting of its impact as hype, social media and its use by our learners is debated ad nauseum. At lot of this argument is based on limited experiences, spurious assertions and sometimes Daily Mail level sensationalism (we won’t go into the case of the poor girl who lost her Police Youth Czar job and was interviewed by police for offensive behaviour because of tweets made as a 14 year old…as we say in Australia, we often live in a wowser society)


In Australia, it is a derogatory word denoting a person who saps all the fun out of any given situation. Derived from the temperance movement in Australia and New Zealand at the turn of the C20th, when it was hurled as an accusation towards conservative teetotallers who were too prim and proper to relax and socialise, it has become a more generic term that can be assigned to any straight bore lacking a sense of humour, especially petty bureaucrats and Aussies politicians.


But equally, there is a generational gap in terms of social media usage. Phone calls, memos and faxes were replaced by email for my generation (I am proudly GenX). The average 14-21 year old rarely looks at their email inbox but will send between 1200-2000 texts, tweets and IMs a month. Yet the decisions about what constitutes acceptable social media usage as part of professional practice is made by people whose practices are not generally in line with those of their learners (such is the broader problem with e-learning generally, discussed in an earlier post) or were not exposed to the environment in the content we made is displayed and shared in different and technologically facilitated ways (who needs a slide night when you have a photo-stream, who sends out paper invites when you can create a FB event?).


So, to put this in context, I want to highlight some of the issues for HE around social media resistance by being deliberately provocative about what is a contested but extremely common practice and how we as institutions react to its impact…let’s talk about the detective employers who use online vetting…


‘They call it instant justice when it’s past the legal limit.’ – A case of employer-led practice development


There has been significant and some would argue hysteric media hoo-hah around the rights of an employer to ‘google-stalk’ or more politely ‘online vet’ potential employees, looking at their social media profiles and their shared content to see if they fit their company’s values. These companies check peoples Facebook profiles, read through their tweets and peer into their photo and YouTube viewing histories. There are HR services that have cropped up to help facilitate this investigative process. As HE institutions discuss the emergence and impact of social media, the constant chattering of resistance and cautious action points to how employers can find anything they want out about you, and that even if you take those photos down, they are still there, for the boss of your potential dream job to see and deny you the corner office. And with that, our narrative changes from the transformative power of social media to looking at how we can lock it down, teach students about the dangers and nasties of social media usage, that we have all the answers about the professional way to present yourself online.

Google stalk (from the urban dictionary)

search for facts/information about someone by looking up their name, address and any other known facts on google

Example: I spent all day google stalking our new neighbours – the one downstairs runs a record company from home


What right do employers have to look at social media profiles?

Every right on the planet (bar one). They are publicly accessible. The internet makes it easy. The law has no issue with anyone legally looking at public information. Note the bar one. I challenge their moral right to do so. ‘Oh very dangerous’ I hear you cry! And yes, it is a sweeping assertion designed to polarise the debate. Hear me out. Some people compare online vetting to the employer’s right to ask you to submit to a health check, a drug test or a credit or background check. There is one difference. I consent to those. They cannot happen without my consent. The social media stalking by employers occurs WITHOUT consent, under the tenuous notion that because it’s public, you have given consent. That sounds like reverse engineering to me. They also argue that they are not looking for just the drunk selfies you put up but for the good things you do like charity work or helping your nanna mow the lawn.
Going for a job as a bank clerk is not public office. You are not required to be held to the arguably contradictory standards people who hold political office are. Why does an employer have to vet you? How does a picture of you holding a pineapple cocktail enjoying yourself indicate that you have an alcohol problem, and is that any of their business?


George goes for his first job after university. He wants to work in the city for a major bank after finishing his finance degree. He sends LargeBank PLC his CV, they ask him for an interview. Laurie, the recruitment officer asks some questions to ascertain whether George is ‘LargeBank material’ and holds their values. The interview ends with George feeling good. He goes to the pub with his mates to debrief and relax as he usually does every Thursday. Laurie follows him to the pub, noting that he is at a pub (does he have an alcohol problem?) and he is there at 4.45pm (is he a lazy worker?). He sees a mate who he hasn’t seen in years at the pub and gives him a hug (he seems pretty rowdy and loud, is that an issue in our office?). He takes off his tie and suit (hhhm, causal dresser?) and sips his beer (must be a lager lout). George goes to the toilet (skiver!) and Laurie goes to all his mates while he is away and ask questions about George. Do they have embarrassing photos they can share with her? Any stories of holidays or former girlfriends? She might even ask if he has done any charity work. Is Laurie breaking the law? Probably not. Is it any different than looking through George’s Facebook? Yes, looking through the Facebook is anonymous and easy. And you have little or no risk of being detected, challenged or having the information filtered or interpreted. You get to form your opinion without any pesky potential employee getting in your way. Isn’t the internet wonderful? Lucky they didn’t have it my day, eh?


What does this mean for HE?

Employability is at the core of the policy agenda for HE and is a critical consideration for many of our learners. There is a tension then between the importance and proliferation of social media and the practices of employers. A variety of surveys have estimated that online vetting practice is occurring in between 1/5 and 2/3 of employers (a huge range I know, but how many of them truly admit something that has both legal and ethical implications). With professional practice, graduate attributes and personal development become increasingly prevalent in curriculum and learning, teaching and assessment, the practices of employers in this area are not necessarily challenged by the academy, but normalised by our acceptance of them. If employers are actively vetting their potential employees, then do we as a university alter our social media usage and practices to ensure that learners know the ‘stranger danger’ of having public profiles, sharing content and collaborating? In this scenario, is our most important lesson the one about how you construct an identity, as opposed to evolving one? Should we talking about managing internet privacy, taking professional headshots, using social media as tool to promote a personal brand?


There is no black and white here, but whilst I normally find myself answering such questions with outraged self-righteousness, I also know that there is a middle ground in this case. This middle ground does not lie in the scare tactics, the fear mongering or in normalising the arguably unethical practices of some employers (indulge me for one sentence: if any potential employer of mine online vetted me without my personal life without my permission, I would respond to them by saying that it is their values I hold in my contempt and I would not want to work for them!). The middle ground (to return to the point) lies in developing and supporting practices about how to use, shape, influence and lead on social media. What is the power of the community, of crowd sourcing and of collaborative media creation? It is the assumption that education prepares the manager of the future and that they will be the people making the decisions in probably less time than their parents or mine for that matter.


Teaching someone what not to do is often negative and frankly, of the moment. It is giving someone a list of fish they shouldn’t eat before you give them one they can. Using social media as part of HE should involve finding out what media they already use, how do they use it, how do I use it, why do they have an avatar or an alias? What skills have they acquired in using social media? How do we then transfer, repurpose, remix and reuse those skills for professional social networks, how do we analyse and understand the behaviours of others on social media, giving us insights into customers, community and societal and civic responsibilities? It is teaching them how to fish, how to share that knowledge with others and how design, develop and deliver the best fish recipe ever. Social media is not an instrument of hype any more than email is new-fangled way to say stuff. It is a fundamental aspect of society. Employers and institutions have to face up to that, and so do their practices, their expectations and the policies.