‘If you spend your life looking behind you, you don’t see what’s up front’: Constructing learning through experience (and how the digital might help)

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‘We stood side by side
Strong and true
I just wish you’d remember
Bad times don’t get you through

When I hear you saying
That we stood no chance
I’ll dive for your memory
We stood that chance’

Dive for your memory – Go-Betweens 1988

 

Memory is a powerful tool.  It provides us with a way of reusing an experience and applying it to new and different circumstances.  The process of moving something from experience to memory is a complex neurocognitive process, still at its formative stages of being understood.  There is a strand of post-digital skill around the constructing of memory and remembering.  Social media is arguably one of the most active at supporting the development of this skill, with   Facebook (for example) helping us to do this by pulling out and sharing photos from your archive and reminding you what you were doing 4 years ago.  Maybe the photo is boring and ignites nothing, but maybe it reminds you of powerful, visceral, funny, tragic, romantic, sexy or entirely above board professional experiences.  This isn’t just nostalgia.  This is the bi-directional pathway of experience and memory, with experiences forming memories that once recalled shape lifelong learning, perhaps equally as powerful as the aggregation of new experiences.  Memory is more than simply recall.  Each memory is placed through a filter of successive and subsequent experiences.  We learn through experiences to better understand the past.  Yet in higher education, we seem to focus on memory simply in terms of recall.  Exams rarely ask for a student’s experiences to be constructed in terms of the questions we ask.  More often than not we ask our students to simply recall facts, quotes or someone else’s analysis, when in real life we remember experiences more as a sprawling portfolio, explicitly and tacitly linked by other people, strengths of connection and emotions.  In a post-digital world, social media does that so well. Flagging ways to remain and become connected through varying degrees of shared experience, committed to cloud memory.

 

Experiences create frames that shape learning far past the duration of the experience.  But experiences are most than just activities or moments.  We get students to experience ‘work’ through case studies, assessment, placements, simulations etc. This is experiential learning, textbook stylz. We can extend that even further to seeing students in work and learning through that work (apprenticeships), structuring assessments to replicate practice, accredit their existing experience as credit (work based learning), supporting skills that support the transition to practice (entrepreneurship, small business skills) and we can run our educational experience at work, customizing it for the specific requirements of firm X.  None of this is entirely controversial or indeed mind blowing, we just do it. But, in the main, the experience the student is having whilst all of this stuff is going on is framed by the same core set of processes.   The teacher-student dynamic (expert-apprentice, listen-learn, consume-repeat, study-succeed, broadcast-receive, stand-sit, performer-audience) is simply repeated and reconfigured for each new context.

 

Equally, we understand that learning can and is socially constructed.  But how does social learning contribute to learning?

 

‘Social learning is enhanced by a dynamic interplay of both community and network processes. Such interplay combines focus and fluidity as it braids individual and collective learning. The work of fostering learning needs to take advantage of this complementarity.’

Wenger, Etienne, Beverly Trayner, and Maarten de Laat. “Promoting and assessing value creation in communities and networks: A conceptual framework.” The Netherlands: Ruud de Moor Centrum (2011).

 

It is not simply putting people in a room, throw in a group exercise, light the touch paper and see what happens.  Wegner et al point to the need to construct the environment that allows for community and networking to happen, both structured and spontaneous. Learning experiences are not easy to create.  And this is made even more complex by the structures that define educational delivery; budgets, rooms, systems, poorly used technology and quality assurance applied as control rather than enhancement.

 

A step into my memory

I was a Head of Department for 11 years, at a large hybrid FE/HE institute in Sydney, Australia.  We taught events management, marketing, advertising and arts and media.  We had nearly 1000 students and a teaching staff of around 25.  Let me talk you through the key decisions I had to make in order to structure and deliver the learning experience for those students.

 

  1. I had a nationally set curriculum (competency based) that I could not change, even if the learning outcomes were blindingly insane (which they were). I had to deliver the learning outcomes, assess them, maintain a reliable and accurate set of documents that proved I had done this, ensure the students were fully informed about the what and how and by when of their learning.  The curriculum was full to brim of content, not always relevant, but lots of it.  Transferable skills and trans-disciplinarity were hived off in favour of more focused disciplinary content.
  2. I had an indicative set of hours with which to deliver this content per course. I never had enough money to actually deliver those hours.  In fact, often the money allocated was 50% less than I needed, so we compromised.  We joined courses together where there were natural alignments (or not), we did bigger classes, lectures instead of seminars.  We had term lengths, where key points for grade submission were set in stone.
  3. I could timetable rooms, but only in fixed slots every week, for a fixed number of hours, and preferably with no gaps in their utilization. These were not my rooms; they were general purpose and as such had the same series of desks, teaching podiums and lack of decoration (other than boastful graffiti).  Capacity was always an issue and weeks 1-3 always had more students than we could fit into a room, in Sydney summer without air-conditioning.
  4. Teachers were trained to varying degrees and were responsible for the mechanics of the class as well as the learning. Start/finish times, attendance, quality assurance, assessment, marking, feedback, pastoral care, health and safety, child protection and sometimes defending students from abuse were part of the day to day operations of a teacher in my department. They also had to structure the learning design to deliver every one of the learning outcomes. All for £30 an hour, and often entirely casualised and without any guarantee of work next term.

 

Much of this will sound familiar.  These are the constraints we deliver teaching and learning in.  We can now add the structure of learning that our VLEs privilege (week-to-week, content as king, aligned and structured) and the systems that collect, check, verify and return assessment, all leading to the precious 2:1 and above, verified by external examiners, assessment boards, double blind marking and moderation.  Every one of these systems, processes, policies or practices seem to lock in the established set of practices of HE. Teach through talk; learn through listen. Every week becomes an episode on a TV show (wait until next Tuesday for next exciting installment of Introduction to Statistics, woo!), when modern TV is not watched weekly, but binged in one hit or deconstructed into youtube’able bits.  How does an academic change that?

 

Great idea Peter! Do something different, but what about the {timetable} {rooms} {semester} {student information system} {quality} etc? Have you thought about children???? HAVE YOU THOUGHT ABOUT THE CHILDREN??

 

Back into the now…

But what if we could construct learning through an experience, not simply by having one? Curricula is set and often jam packed, teaching methods are a product of the constraints we work under (budgets, time, hours, the desperate drive to make all learning practice equal as a surrogate for making it better, thanks QA), assessment that is aligned and structured to bell curve it like it’s hot.  What’s left in your toolkit? The thing that joins these together, learning experiences.  It is the one lever that you as the teacher have control over.  It is how you construct learning through the experience.  It is what Knowles describes as the art, the design, the creativity and the ‘line, space, colour, texture and unity’ of teaching.  It is the intangible.  What makes one person standing at the front of the room boring and the next a person who inspires, challenges and uplifts?  Why does an experience that makes you worried, a little nervous and even scared prepare you for the next time far more effectively that knowing exactly what is coming next? Why is being asked your opinion and having that opinion debated, argued, defended and shared so critical?  It is because we as teachers have the opportunity and the capacity to create the experiences that shape and make learning.  Here is the irony of this.  Knowles talks about adult learners as the neglected species, disparaging the pedagogical theories that underpin modern education as being inadequate for the complexity of adults.  And he is right (IMHO).  But these learning experiences are exactly the way kids learn when they are learning independently.  They try something because they don’t know what will happen, and when it hurts they don’t do it again.

 

Another memory recalled…

‘A recent study of traditional introductory course students bears out some of the deepest fears of those who teach debits-credits at the introductory level. You know what I mean-that gnawing pain in the pit of your stomach when no matter how many times you explain adjusting entries, all a student wants to know is what to debit, an expense or a prepaid…students’ accounting knowledge begins to fade even before the course is over, so that end of-course performance begins to revert back to the level of beginning-of-course performance. The reason: student learning appears to be based on memorization, without real understanding.’

Pincus, Karen V. “Is teaching debits and credits essential in elementary accounting?.” Issues in Accounting Education 12.2 (1997): 575.

 

For me one of the most powerful and effective learning experiences happened in 1989, my first year of UG study.  We were doing financial accounting and everyone of us in my study group found it impenetrable.  Why do we do this double entry bookkeeping? It made NO SENSE.  Every successive week of lecture then tutorial made it worse, not better.  The lecturer for the course who we called ‘Big Ronnie’ (not because it was his name, but because he told us day one that his name was always ‘Ronald’ and never ‘Ron’ and definitely not ‘Ronnie’) was awful, teaching from old notes that simply repeated the same impenetrable scripts from the text book he wrote (the names have been changed to protect the innocent). His tutors were even worse, first year out graduates with no frameworks or knowledge of education, given 10 questions each week that they were made have us answer.  Sometimes they ran out to stuff to talk about after 20 minutes because they were given no agency, just a directive.  Just onto the next ten worked examples, which each week we couldn’t do.  None of us got it.  Attendance declined, the bar filled up at tutorial time because we were timetabled for a 7-9pm tutorial after a 9am lecture the same day with nothing in between.  And then we did the first exam, mid semester and almost everyone failed, or just passed.  And none of us had ever experienced that before.  It was a shock and it hurt.  We sat down to the tutorial after the exam and were angry. Every one of us.  And I remember it vividly, the tutor started on the next weeks questions and we all stopped.  We refused to speak and we said to her ‘what happened? We failed and we don’t why?’ As she had no theoretical framework t reflect on what happened she just reverted to the only thing she knew, her own experiences of learning, and for the first time she opened up. ‘This must have sucked guys, I am so sorry, I had the same experience with Ronald 4 years ago and if it was me who get it wrong….’ She trailed off. We said to her, teach us. Teach us like little kids and start at the beginning.  We stopped learning in week 1 and the lecturer couldn’t care.  In those days you had failing quotas, pass marks at 70% and the belief that failing when you actually passed was character building.  Teach us like children.  We pushed all the desks away, we sat on the floor, she sat on the floor with us and started talking about what she did as an accountant and how she used double entry bookkeeping.  She went back to first principles and for two hours, no one left, no one blanked out. Every one asked questions and after a while it was our own peers who were answering as different bits of the puzzle connected.  She constructed a learning experience, a campfire where she told her story and we found things that we could hook our own fragile, emerging understanding.  And we got better, each week, we engaged and talked and built a relationship.  And even better, she learnt as well through the process of constructing an experience.

 

Yes, there was a curriculum.  There was knowledge.  There was assessment.  There was teaching.  But there was not learning.  Simply using levers to create a mix of education based on the traditional four processes of curriculum, teaching, content and assessment is not enough, especially in a post-digital world where those things are (to varying degrees) more easily accessible and more plentiful than any other time in human history.  The value that we offer as teachers and as institutions comes how we use experience and how we construct experiences for our students.  As Knowles says, the opportunity is for experience to be the connective tissue and sinew for successful adult teaching.  Herein lies the opportunity to take post-digital learning experiences, made possible by the digital to help students make connections between knowledge, find contexts within their own memory to understand them and commit them to the portfolio of learning they have opened up and to share those experiences with others.  This is also an opportunity to change the way we use those levers.

 

How the digital might help?

  1. Change assessment and shape the environment that rewards the construction of and critical reflection on experiences.  Stop standing at the front and droning on.  Afford and indulge some risk.  Social media provides for safe spaces to do dangerous things. Classrooms the same.
  2. Let students speak their opinion and have it challenged and defended.  Let them bring their experiences of learning through play, imagination and creativity that have dominated their lives since they were born to a supposedly adult field. Can their shares those experiences with a network wider than the one in the classroom? How does the fluidity of an online existence (which to be fair is the same fluidity we apply to any other form of existence) become integrated into teaching?
  3. Accredit and recognize experiences in all learners as both formative and summative.  Students aren’t empty vessels when they walk through or sometimes august gates, they have opinions that are formed and informed to a wide variety of degrees. Find ways to draw those experiences of identify formation, sharing, expression and remixing into your teaching. Interrogate their understandings through the ways they consume media, or develop trust and networks, or the way they play.
  4. Give them the opportunity of knowing what it’s like when their next step is into the unknown.  Use scenarios, games or simulations to make this feel real, but be safe.  Introduce a small amount of fear through discontinuity, throw a curve ball in your teaching experience, so that week 1 doesn’t feel exactly the same as week 9.  Use technology to disrupt the norm then challenge why they were or weren’t ‘disrupted’.
  5. Tell them how something ends so that they have to work out how it begins.  Use media to show how something is completed then navigate through the field, using smart searches, fluid approaches to knowledge and an open mind to link discourses and narratives.
  6. Let them use their experiences and those of others to help form an identity within their professional or personal communities.  Use technology to develop identity, shape identify, know what identity means in the context of being a professional, understanding how their identity shapes their learning.  Social media, portfolios, critiques, being a digital citizen, crowdsourcing can all contribute towards shaping and sharing identity.

 

Let them sit around in a circle on the floor and figure out why does double entry bookkeeping exist and how do you match all the debits and credits in order to complete balance day adjustments? And have those very same students still remember how to do it nearly 30 years on.

 

I recall a bigger brighter world
a world of books
and silent times in thought
and then the railroad
the railroad takes him home
through fields of cattle
through fields of cane
from time to time
the waste memory-wastes
the waste memory-wastes
further, longer, higher, older

Cattle and Cane, The Go-Betweens, 1983

 

This post is dedicated to the memory of Grant McLennan of the Go-Betweens, from whom I respectfully borrow the title of this post (from the track Was There Anything I Could Do? released on 16 Lovers Lane in 1988)

From the Middle Out – making pedagogical change happen in a complex, messy world

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At the heart of defining and understanding resistance is the idea that two opposing forces are at work; the force being resisted and the force doing the resisting. In terms of universities and the way they engage with change, the forces of resistance can create dichotomous arguments; Traditional vs techno-centric.  Student-led vs research informed. New vs old. Affordances vs Resistances. Technologies vs Pedagogies. Service vs Strategy.

 

These arguments then become entrenched positions for which even the slightest weakness (showing admiration for the benefits of other side) indicates that you have swapped teams.  Handy little clichéd arguments emerge that privilege ‘established technologies’ like the VLE over new fangled innovations, or that talk about technological innovation as something to come, a concept that exists only in potential, like the flying car or world peace. In an earlier blog post, I described these types of narratives as a form of passive resistance to change, where there was a sense of accepting the need for change whilst resisting in other ways. Westberry, McNaughton, Billot & Gaeta (2015) argue that in fact the bigger issue arises where technology challenges the pedagogical primacy of the academics ‘goals, beliefs and practice’.  It is in this context that people have to construct plans, strategies and arguments to implement pedagogical change, especially change informed and inspired by technology.

 

In some senses, in HE we are chasing our tails. At the end of the day, much of that change we talk about in terms of potential has been and gone.  It is not inevitable when it has already happened.  Potential is not a measure of the past (you are reading a blog people, not a position paper or my own private diary!).  The problem we have as a sector is that whilst the world around us has engaged in the digital, education in the main remains staunchly divided on whether we need to.  The fact that learning technologists and educational developers have to make the case that innovation is not just a nice thing to do, but is essential for our survival seems to be as ludicrous as having to argue that the worlds climate has changed and we risk global annihilation by doing nothing…oh, oops.

 

The fact remains that technology and innovation often get side-lined in institutional discourses and funding pitches because they are thought of as an add-on, a luxury, value-added or simply the domain of the techno-mages. However, in institutional strategies and plans, innovation, technology and cutting edges approaches dominate the public discourse. Technology offers brand value, a differentiator from the rest of the pack.  This leads advocates to constantly cite strategy as the ace in the pack for our activity.  We can deliver this innovation in spades.  Just fund us, give us the resources we need to unbind us from the eternal circle of system updates and getting the basics right.  Let us turn to the two established strategies for implementing organisational change.

 

Bottom up

We can leverage the bottom up enthusiasm of our champions, who have been piloting and practicing for decades.  Their momentum and enthusiasm will eventually infect the rest of the faculty.  We can take their interventions and scale them to larger cohorts and bigger projects.

But the problem with bottom up is that institutions are a bit like a cow, impossible to tip over (yes, that myth has been dispelled). The pace of change and the fear that a lack of tenure creates means that an intransigent block begins somewhere above the grassroots and steadfastly refuses to engage. Time. Resources. Policy. Custom and Practice.  We all know the reasons, and they are legitimate (in part). They simply do not create a fertile environment for change.

 

Top down

We can expect strong leadership from the top down.  They wrote the strategy.  They want the university to go in singular direction, to position itself against the competition and deliver on the KPIs. People will listen to them because all we ask for is direction from our leaders.

But the problem with top down is that management and leadership across higher education has become diffused, disaggregated and siloed. An inspired direction from the VC becomes a call to do more with less from the DVC and a set of rolled eyes from the Dean.  We have all heard it before. Another strategic plan, another restructure, what are we this time; faculties or Schools? Departments or Divisions? Keeping your head below the parapet, doing your job to the best of your ability without changing too much is the only way to survive. Once again, this is not a fertile environment for change.  And in both cases, technology becomes the cause célèbre for resistors and the politically savvy.  And from that arises so many myths and misconceptions about technology that have blighted our sector for decades.  You have heard them;

 

  • Technology is just about the kit, so until you get my data projector working, you can’t do anything more innovative
  • Technology is there to replace me with robo-lecturers to save money
  • Technology is a luxury; good teaching will always be more important
  • Technology and pedagogy are mutually exclusive domains
  • Technology will capture my soul (OK, I made that last one up)

 

So, what is the solution? The solution is to find a different of making change happen. Top down and bottom up have failed to deliver change in terms of technology at most institutions. I am proposing something new, called ‘Middle Out’.  What is the Middle Out?  If you are a fan of the HBO series ‘Silicon Valley’ you will be giggling now. And quite rightly so. And if you are not, just google it and get it out the way. And if you do google it, you will see that Barack Obama also used a Middle Out model as part of his argument against the dominant conservative paradigm of trickle down economics, and making the case that real  economic growth comes when you empower the middle class.

 

In education, middle out represents an opportunity to truly deliver an effective change process by leading change from the middle. If change from the bottom up and top down have failed to create and sustain change (even in the face of the maelstroms of MOOCs, increased global competition and significant and lasting societal change around technology and knowledge) then we need another approach. Each week brings another start up or new player that challenges the dominant paradigms of successful higher education.  From institutional reputation, to certification through to constructed programmes of comprehensive disciplinarity, these ventures argue that modern higher education is not fit for purpose. And with each intervention a little bit of the building blocks of success get chipped away.  Anyone who has been watching what has happened to the edifice that is TAFE NSW in Australia knows what this looks like.  Poor technological decisions, a fundamental and entrenched resistance to change, a political environment more toxic than arsenic and old lace and the unflinching and unrestrained impact of commercial provision have led to questions about whether one of the worlds largest education providers simply shuts down after training millions of adults. The traditional modes of adult education, whether right or wrong, are under significant threat and it is not enough to put our head in the sand and hope it goes away.

 

So, what is middle out? Middle out is a way of advocating and most importantly delivering strategic change in higher education. It is especially relevant (and it is where I have tested it across three institutions in the UK) to pedagogical change in the digital age. The way in which institutions allow or even encourage entrenched perspectives through spreading resources and support too thinly across multiple programmes creates an environment that can doom initiatives that rely on top down and bottom up to long term failure.  Middle out provides a third way, a different path to achieving the change required to shift the majority of the organisation.  Middle out takes initiative and courage on behalf of the organisation.  It needs advocates who passionately believe the only way to succeed is to build networks of collaboration and common purpose.  It needs senior management committed to rewarding that collaboration (as opposed to simply expecting it through diktat). It requires people to be willing to celebrated and rewarded for doing, achieving, piloting, experimenting and accepting.  At the heart of defining and understanding acceptance is the idea that two complementary forces are at work; the person making the change to be accepted and the person applying criticality as a way of accepting the change.

 

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Scaled projects that have institutional impact
(SCALE)
Connected approaches that cross function, discipline and faculty (CONNECTION)
Stimulating change through high profile, highly visible interventions (STIMULUS)
Projects that make an impact with learners, teachers and the institution (IMPACT)

SCALE

In middle out, the idea of scale is counter-intuitive to existing lore around change (slowly, slowly or rip the Band-Aid off).  Scale represents an opportunity to test initiatives, effect fundamental shifts of practice and undertake this within an environment where it matters.  Large cohorts, full programmes, first year courses, major policy areas such as assessment or curriculum redesign.  Scale means having enough resources, staff and support to engage in change at a substantial size and scope.  This is not new to learning technology or educational development.  We have all started and then moved VLEs, brought in lecture capture or started any number of institutionally supported systems.  We have reacted to major changes in QA policy or practice.  But these ‘solutions in a box’ have been and gone and they have left little resonant and lasting pedagogical change.

In the digital age, learning and doing have changed and these changes are not easily located in a box. Because the changes are messy, contested and to be fair it’s a little chaotic and under-intellectualised. Scale gives you enough variation and dilution to see if the change or strategy actually works, evaluate it effectively and make the case that if it works at scale, then it will work in smaller instances and at a local level.  Maybe it’s the opposite of trickle down education.  An instance where change is large enough to test something in real time and then have it explode outwards through the institution, from the top to the bottom.

 

CONNECTION

Middle out argues that trans-disciplinarity and inter-disciplinarity can align functional areas to identify commonalities and informed practice.  Effecting change from connection draws on the strengths of disciplines and knowledges and shares them between and across.  One of the criticisms of technological change in education is that much of the insight and transformations reside at a local level within course groups, TEL teams or sometimes individual teachers.  There is often no way to share that expertise. When institutions have a Damascene moment and decide that everyone is going to do something online or that all assessment will be electronic by next week, it is not the people who have whittled away at the coal face for years that are consulted, but new teams flushed with cash and caché that start from scratch, imbuing the early adopters with resentment and cartoonish grumbling.  Middle out aims to at least try and allay that fear by building networks of practice, virtual and physical, by sharing expertise through cross functional projects, whole-of-team interventions and impactful dissemination of practice.  Connection draws together teams from cognate and tangential disciplines to approach change from a multidisciplinary perspective. Connection encourages these teams to take their success and knowledge back to their disciplines and cascade change from within.  In other instances, it is a simply a community of practice sharing common experiences from engaging in change across disciplines. A community of gamers, a community of social media users, or a community of visual researchers.

 

STIMULUS

Middle out is not a model driven by numbers.  Bigger is not always better.  The aspiration of using middle out is to focus is on what can make change happen and then cascade it through the organisation.  So much change dies on the branch.  Restructure after restructure. Initiative after initiative can look like churn rather than burn. Stimulus is a good example of middle out as a strategic approach.  Stimulus argues that change can accelerate through the effervescent effect of a successful and impactful catalyst.  Maybe that is a learning space, a platform, a show and tell, a training course, a set of grants or an award.  For example, a learning space is just a room until it changes the way people use it, and people change the way its used. The room becomes the stimulus for change.  And these changes don’t have to be big. They can be something such as recognition.  At the LSE, we have developed a project called LSE Innovators.  The aim of the Innovators project is to celebrate individual passions and innovations within teaching and learning through case studies and multimedia presentations. They celebrate the staff member as championing innovations that enhance the student learning experience.  They offer real examples of practice that can inspire, inform or shape the practices of others, inside and outside the institution. These have been viewed hundreds of times across the School and the sector and they act as a stimulus to innovation, reducing barriers of fear and resistance. It is the stimulus that changes practice, and if that stimulus is available widely then all the better.

 

IMPACT

Another good example of middle out a strategic approach to allocating resources is impact.  If only it were a simple equation of money+time+any programme+technology=success.  Not every project is created equal and through a combination of politics, structure, context and luck different projects have different impact.  The trick is working out which projects have the greatest potential impact.  Sometimes it is the smallest project, a simple intervention that you have nurtured and support, invested time and money into and evaluated effectively that explodes into significant change.  It is this project that convinces the important opinion leaders to spread the initiative and scale it.  Maybe it is the persuasive voice of the right salesperson, maybe it is fact they will not be the first person to climb Everest.  Maybe it is simply that the fear of failure is 10% less than before and that takes it below your risk threshold.  Impact cannot be underestimated in a middle out strategy.  And as with the other components of a middle out approach, impact is enhanced by award and reward, evaluation and dissemination, sharing and mentoring.  Impact projects often benefit from the leadership of a guru or figurehead (as do stimulus projects). I met one colleague at a university in the US who argued their most important advocate for change was a long standing science professor, awarded to the hilt, who simply decided one day to record his lectures. Smallest change, but with a massive impact because people said, well, if Bob can do it, why can’t I? He became an advocate telling everyone how this had changed his teaching and had enhanced his students learning.  He critically reflected after watching his videos and changed the way he taught for the better.  Many of his colleagues have followed him.

 

So there you have it. Four examples of what a middle out change strategy can look like. Does it work? To be honest I could sit here and say ‘yup, worked for me’ and it has.  But the real answer is that each institution has to develop its own unique approach to developing a culture of acceptance and engagement rather than resistance.  Resistance is fine if it shapes the change to be better, more successful or lasting.  Equally, passive acceptance can be just as damaging as unreconstructed resistance.  Middle out is a way to craft a successful change process around pedagogy and technology.  But in the end, we have start with the need to change, a successful plan of what we need to change to and why and finally we need the resources that mean that necessary change happens for the right reasons.  And then we can look at middle out.  We can look at making the changes that we should be making about how we teach, how are students learning and how we can expand the debate from simply making PowerPoint better or Moodle less clunky and into what skills and experiences should we delivering for the next generation of adult learners.

 

 

 

 

Re-imagining learning for a post-digital world (part 3) – A design for learning?

A design for learning?

Part 3 of this extended blog post will focus on how to ‘do’ post-digital learning experiences and make them work as part of an integrated approach to learning and curriculum design.  And the glue that holds these approaches together is design thinking.  Design thinking represents an interesting conceptual framework in which to think about teaching and learning.  Meinel and Leifer (2010) describe four tenets or rules of a design thinking approach;

 

  • The human rule – all design activity is ultimately social in nature
  • The ambiguity rule – design thinkers must preserve ambiguity
  • The re-design rule – all design is re-design
  • The tangibility rule – making ideas tangible always facilitates communication

 

These frames help explore solutions for what design thinkers called ‘wicked problems’; difficult, intractable, nebulous or impossibly contrary questions that challenge the structures and fabrics of practice.  In higher education, wicked problems are pervasive and disruptive for evolving and emerging practices. They arise from the relationship between learners and teachers, between the faculty and institution, between the centre and the Schools, between technology and things remaining the same as they have always been.  But within the design thinking approach there are some perceptive and practical insights that can inform the idea of learning experiences as a critical factor in learning and teaching design.

 

Human  – Teaching and learning is a human activity. It is social and is guided and shaped by the mores, tropes and vagaries of human communication.  Identity, status, privilege, roles, language and intent are pushed into a sense of hyper-reality in the context of education.

Ambiguity is a parlour trick we often use to ensure the fourth wall remains unbreakable.  And next week, you will find out the secret of passing the exam, this week I will tempt, next week I will taunt, maybe a bit of tease the following week.  But ambiguity also can be a positive, taking the next step without knowing what is underfoot; leaping off a cliff hoping there will be someone there to catch you.  Ambiguity is more than a cliff-hanger.  It is a function of learning as an adult, because life is ambiguous.

Re-design – Almost all teaching is a process of redesign, whether its curation, remixing, re-purposing, summarising, aggregating, commenting.

Tangibility – making it and keeping it real.  Case studies, application, life experience, problem solving, practicality, it’s all there in what most people call good teaching and learning.

 

Post-digital learning experiences are a design thinking process.  How do we break the intractable nooses of institutional entropy, technological tensions and the incongruity of expectation?  How do we design tangibility, ambiguity and humanity into teaching and learning so that outcomes are enhanced, durability of learning continues to extend, transferability of experience is enhanced and the effectiveness of education is exponentially increased?  How do we do design thinking for learning?  This post will explore how to design learning experiences relevant for the post-digital age.  The PDLE idea comes from applying a design thinking approach to the wicked problem of teaching and learning in a modern institution, with modern learners and modern disciplines. It comes from the debate constructed so often in my blog about what happens if we do nothing.  What happens if we ignore the changes in learners, learning and society and carry on advocating the holy virtue of pen, paper and note taking?  What happens if we ask people to turn their devices off in order to learn or demonise them for wasting time on frivolous uses of technology?  Because often, that is where we are and that is the entrenched position defended to the death by the pure of heart from the marauding techno-hordes. It comes from the way people design stuff other than learning. Art, media, careers, discoveries, business, innovation and their lives.

 

learning with MOOCs IIlearning with MOOCs

 

Found

Found is the first of the post-digital learning experiences because it is the one closest to my own practice. The notion of making sense from discovery is at the heart of learning.  It has not all been written or discovered.  There are huge swathes of undiscovered countries.  At the core of found are two very powerful learning experiences; bricolage and discovery.  Found represents a way of explaining the sheer capacity of knowledges. Found is a way of understanding something, explaining something, adding a sense of the undiscovered and the unknown;

  • Asking the question without knowing the answer
  • Story without an ending
  • Problems without solutions

 

As a learning experience found can have many guises.  From the discovery of new and exciting ways of thinking and seeing, to the co-opting of knowledge from diverse disciplines in order to have insights into your own.  From seeing an image and telling a story, through to the remix and re-purposing culture of digital media making, through to the finding of meaning, found can change the way learning happens. However, much of modern learning uses found in its paste tense form.  Knowledge has already been found, and the job of the academy is to present you that knowledge.  The job of the research academic is to find out more.  The student is not the finder.   The student is the repeater of found knowledge.  The student is the next in the chain of Chinese whispers. In a modern bricolage culture, found is no longer a past tense.  It is a sense of future discovery; it is a label for artefacts and raw material.  Learning experiences that build on found enhance curiosity, complex linkages, independent thinking, collective intelligence, the progression of knowledge and an educational ambition that sets to to make that sure that there is more than that to be found.  Knowledge as an experience is not static in a found learning design.  It is a body of active pieces waiting to be reconstructed, reinterpreted, rediscovered and reused.

 

Making

There has been an incredibly large amount written about making (in a post-digital world).  For a much better exposition of this idea, I point you to the work of David Gauntlett and his brilliant piece on making called ‘Making is Connecting’.   Making is a core learning experience.  It is rooted in conceptual frameworks like creativity, problem solving, tactility, abstract thinking and practicality. Maker spaces have traditionally been the realm of engineering and sciences but I have been advocating the creation of maker spaces for a wide variety of disciplines.  I am working on what a maker space would like look for the social sciences.  At the core of making for me is the concept of owning.  The learner owns the experience, the space, the outcome and the solutions.  Making challenges the theoretical safety net of HE to be realised in a practical environment.  Equally, creativity is a fundamental.  Technology has democratised creativity.  Technology has made your ability to make with others, share with contemporaries and make your making available exponentially wider and easier.  Everyone is creative in some way.  Creating learning experiences that provide people with the opportunity to make something opens up avenues of learning that consumption and reception can never replicate.  It might be as simple as a case or simulation right through to technology-led practices like media making, app development, product design or innovation.  There is a growing movement to make making more explicit and tactile, maker spaces and labs, simple to use but complex apps that allow everything from music making, to knowledge presentation through to design work to be done on a tablet.  Making is a design activity that is multi-sensual, trans-disciplinary and a tookkit for life-long learning.

 

Identity

I have written a lot about identity in a post-digital age.  It is a complex thing, caught flash hard in the debates about safety, responsibility, expression and citizenship.  Identity as a learning experience is inherently trans-disciplinary, providing a skill relevant across learning trajectories.  Without re-hashing the debates about digital identity (that you can see splashed through my blog history), there are some key aspects relevant to learning design.  Identity formation is a critical learning experience; what is your identity within a discipline? Where do you fit into traditions and discourses?   Identity sharing is a learning experience at the heart of effective portfolio learning, professional development and connected experiences. Identity development is a 21st century skill, knowing how to use and develop, manage and nuance multiple identities for different aspects of your life.  I have written a lot about the digital stranger (the person who reveals only small slices of themselves in an on-line environment, made easier by avatars, light touch registrations and the blurring of identity in social media) and how fleeting connections with people can shape thinking and development of beliefs and practice.  One of my favourite writers, Stephen Brookfield (1984) really nailed this idea in an article called ‘Tales from the dark side: a phenomenography of adult critical reflection’   In this seminal piece, he talks about how identity impacts directly on how we reflect critically as practitioners, identifying senses like impostership (the idea that reflection is not for the ‘likes of me’, cultural suicide (that to be true and honest in reflection could be shaming of friends) and lost innocence (that reflection troubles to address ambiguities best left unaddressed) as darker sides of identity interacting with communication, reflection and the practices of teaching.

 

From the way media can be shared and critiqued, to peer assessment, through to exploring and interrogating the necessity of anonymous double blind marking, identity is a learning experience that crosses through much of the learning activity we engage in.  And like the rest of these learning experiences, it is not the sole domain of our students.  Identity is at the heart of teaching practice too. The cult of the expert, the theatricality of the fourth wall in a lecture, the capacity to always be right and the artifice that protects poor assessment and feedback from anything other than student satisfaction criticism are all informed by crisis’ and concepts of identity.

 

Play

‘Play is at the heart of human behaviour, encouraging healthy relationships, enhanced literacy and creativity (Saracho & Spodek, 1998) and a better developed approach to work and career (Hartung, 2002). Play is not risk free, with some arguing that the best learning should hurt (Mann, 1996). Margitay-Becht and Herrera (2010) note that ‘fun is learning’ and observed little resistance by staff to engaging in fun activities such as virtual worlds and gaming but much higher resistance from the students, who wanted their experiences rooted in reality and play for the times after learning.’

Bryant, Coombs and Pazio (2014)

 

We all play.  Life is full of play.  And play is equal parts fun and risk.  Some of the most fun we have ever have is when we play with risk.  Jumping from planes, falling off slippery dips or singing our signature song at Karaoke, this time in front of a live audience (I will tell you mine, if you share yours.  All song titles in the comments!).  Play is great.  Trouble is that learning can be so damned serious.  Brows get furrowed.  Stress balls are made from competing deadlines.  It seems that we are happy when are students aren’t having fun but worrying and stressing.  Part of life.  And then there is us.  Where has the fun gone in our jobs? Counting down the months, weeks, days, hours and minutes to holidays.  The stress of tenure and the worry that if even the smallest thing goes wrong, we are back searching on jobs.ac.uk.  Failure isn’t an option when it comes to pedagogy.  NSS scores, student evaluations, the push to higher and higher student achievement have driven all the fun and experimentation out of teaching.  So, how do we bring play back into learning? We have to encourage students to experiment, to fail, to fall flat on their faces or find themselves succeeding despite their best efforts, all in safe way.  It is no longer acceptable to simply get a degree in the UK.  You need a good degree (although hopefully this stupidity is now changing).  We have to support a culture where play and experimentation are natural components of good teaching.  Where we learn as much from failure as we do from success and we bring students along with us on the ride.  That way they don’t feel like guinea pigs when they are paying £9000 fees.

Play means a chance to use games, digital storytelling, media making, Lego, role plays and other mechanisms that break reality and put people into slightly uncomfortable roles.  I used to run a class where I used a thing called interactive case studies.  These were all set around a restaurant where certain characters created a scenario for HR or management students. I asked for a few volunteers from the class to play these characters.  I gave each ‘actor’ some basic character traits and asked them to improvise the characters based around them (simple traits like ‘always brought things back to them’ or ‘always lies’ or ‘will always support character Doris, even when she is wrong).  Sometimes it worked, and other times I had to step in, moderate and lead.  But every time I ran it, it was fun.  People laughed and played.  I gave people who weren’t feeling comfortable to chance to ‘tag’ another student into their role.  This was a safe space.  There were no grades, no pressure, some risk of public performance, but it was all about learning.  It tapped into identity, roles, perceptions and attitudes, all crucial  skills for people management.  We learn through play.  It doesn’t have to infantalise or regress people.  Adults play. But experimentation and play, whether it be through humour, or simulation or gamification are effective post-digital learning experiences.

 

Discontinuity

Life is chaotic, messy, non-linear, traumatic, joyful, unexpected and unpredictable.  Memory is much the same.  Learning however, is in the main structured, scaffolded, episodic and linear.  This tension could afford education with a unique opportunity to develop skills in navigating, leveraging and riding the chaos.  Instead, it tries to control it and at worst ignore it, assuming normalcy and norms dominate. This norm driven perspective assumes for example, that the jobs that existed when a student started their degree look exactly like the world they will enter three years later.

 

Discontinuity as a learning experience takes the fear and uncertainty that arises from not knowing if there is something waiting for your next foot fall and learns from the calculations, assumptions and sometimes faith (in the truly atheist sense) that goes through your brain in the split second before you step.  It lets the learner enter the story at the middle, or the end and work through the problem in reverse, identifying and challenging assumptions.  It shows them the natural end of a discourse and asks them to reverse engineer how we got there.  To identify what assumptions were inherent in the debate and what shaped arguments, discoveries or transformative moments.  It drops them in the centre of a problem, like the middle of a maze and encourages then to find and deduct their way out.   Chaos is equally as powerful a learning experience.  The wash of not knowing what is happening, that slight out of control feeling that eventually coalesces (usually around assessment time) has been part of higher education for years.  It can be dizzying, challenging and uncomfortable, like many of the things we experience in life and work.  Replicating even a dash of that through discursive activities, breaking of routines, cracking the fourth wall or challenging power structures brings an element of safe free fall into learning.  And it makes for authentic experiences that replicate the way we in part live our lives.  All of which brings us to…

 

Authenticity

This is an interesting concept, not less for the debates around what is authentic. Authenticity as a learning experience is rooted in ensuring that what the learner does feels and in effect is real.  Realness is a very fuzzy concept in an on-line world.  From the variability of identity to the mask of reality that on-line interaction can afford participants, defining something as authentic is difficult.  We may have defined authenticity in learning pre-digital age as things like field trips, simulations, model offices, work based learning or professional practice.  But in a more complex learning world what can constitute as authentic? At a simple level, it is about making sure that the learning experience means something, that it is not simply a test of character, or the rite of passage afforded to those who get to experience higher education, as an ivory tower hall of rotating knives.  At a more concrete level, it is about the skills required to develop ethical frameworks, approaches to working with and supporting people, developing and changing the world, and an academic/student relationship that is built on a dialogue or a conversation where each are shaped by the interaction, not a monologue delivered by someone who will never know your name.  Authentic experiences are not easy to facilitate, in fact, I would argue that it is the hardest of the PDLE. It is inherently personal.  Authentic experiences rely on trust, the developing of a relationship, the exchange of experiences and the realization that learning is a complex amalgam of the interpersonal and personal.

 

Community

‘…it’s through participation in communities that deep learning occurs. People don’t learn to become physicists by memorizing formulas; rather it’s the implicit practices that matter most. Indeed, knowing only the explicit, mouthing the formulas, is exactly what gives an outsider away. Insiders know more. By coming to inhabit the relevant community, they get to know not just the “standard” answers, but the real questions, sensibilities, and aesthetics, and why they matter.’ (Brown 2001)

 

Community is something that people crave for from a university experience.  Being part of a learning community (as opposed to a community of learners) is empowering.  But equally when that community can crowd-source knowledge and solve problems, when that community can leverage the power of the massive and through technology can span location, engage in social behaviours and create and share knowledge then it becomes truly transformative.   Community learning experiences build on the social aspects of learning; collaboration, collective assessment and engagement, group work etc and social media changes that game entirely.

 

‘Social media has facilitated a complex, co-created and immediate form of learning response, where content and openness challenge the closed, structured nature of modern higher education . Social media has had significant impacts on the way learners connect with people and with the knowledge they require in order to learn across a variety of contexts. Social media support more than user interactivity, they support the development and application of user-generated content, collaborative learning, network formation, critical inquiry, relationship building, information literacy, dynamic searching and reflection.’

(Bryant 2015 ) 

 

A social media community is far more than Facebook and Twitter.  Social media explore innovative pedagogical practices like making, ideation, creation, critique, sociality, connected practice, crowd-sourcing, entrepreneurship, digital citizenship, media making, identity, politics and policy.  And that is just the start.  The communities that form on social media are equally fleeting as they are lasting, large as they are intimate, collaborative as they individual.   They support lurkers, talkers, loud mouths, itinerants and learners.  Social media are being used by your students now.  They may be consuming yours, making their own, using their existing networks to find out stuff or leaving others because they have developed and moved on.  Yes, they can have arseholes in them, but so can a bus.  Yes, they have trolls, but so does a classroom.  Community formation and development through social media is not a ‘trend’, it isn’t ‘new’ nor will it go away like fax-based learning (was that ever a thing?).  Social media is for the foreseeable future how the internet is wired.  It is how society is increasingly wired and it is how many people form and nurture their communities, inside and outside work.  Sure, not everyone is an expert or a natural at social media. Not everyone likes talking on phones neither.  Doesn’t mean we never used them for work.

 

There you have them. Seven post-digital learning experiences.  None of them are ‘new’.  They are all built on good teaching practices that we have done ourselves or experienced.  They are rooted in deep traditions of experience, both socially and professionally.  They are not exclusively digital, but they are amplified and enhanced in a digital environment.  Technology makes them more possible and multiplies their potential.  They will work in off-line, blended and on-line environments because in a post-digital institution, there is no discernible difference.  They will will in open, free learning and closed residential experiences.  I know, we have made them work.  This is the shape of learning in the 21st century.  It is complex for sure.  It is not as simple as a voice in the room and the furious scribbling of pens.  It is not something that can be summarised in a high stakes exam.  But to be honest; effective, active, real learning has never been that anyway.

 

PDLE