A manifesto for being a part of strategic pedagogical change

Where we hope our students will engage and thrive in the theoretical and practical communities created through our learning design, teaching and assessment, the same cannot be said of how we initiate and implement teaching and learning change from an institutional through to curricular level. Driven by the sometimes-disruptive predictions for the future of our Universities, pedagogical change is often seen as the panacea for all manner of strategic threats or the rocket fuel to take advantage of the opportunities the new environment affords. Almost every institution undertakes programs of pedagogical change in regular cycles, shifting philosophies and modes of assessment, identifying and implementing technological solutions and translating the complex frames of future prediction, industry expectation and market potential into readily deliverable forms of learning. We are often behest to whatever trend, assumed strategic necessity or technological payload everyone else believes they need to have. What is interesting though is how little the core fundamentals of our pedagogy have changed, whilst the periphery and the compliance have turned over dozens of times.

Real pedagogical change (the kind the addresses the core experiences, practices and realities of teaching and learning) needs people to lead it, challenge it and make it happen, as technology. goodwill and assumptions will only carry you so far. There is no magic fix or single system that will bundle up all the experiences, capabilities and outcomes for student learning and deliver them in a cloud shaped box. This kind of change needs to come from the very cultural heart of the institution, the critical centre shaped by our common experiences of being part of this highly fraught, polarised and often lonely place we call our University, with its frayed boundaries and contested and liminal spaces. Successful pedagogical change happens because the institution (from the top and the bottom) listens and engages with the people in the middle. It makes sure the right people are in the right rooms, participating in the conversation. It challenges the assumptions around why are we making this change and who are we making it for. It understands and recognises that change elicits fear, challenges confidence and fuels assumptions of obsolescence and redundancy. It happens because you are a part of it, you have a voice in it and you understand what it means to own and participate in collective strategic responsibility. And yes, I know it isn’t easy. Maybe you are not let into the room. Maybe, if you are there, you don’t know what to say. Perhaps you are the person who pipes up when no one can connect to EDUROAM and you help out. Perhaps, the louder voices and dominant perspectives simply cancel you out, filling your eyes and ears with white noise and anger.

No one has all the answers. No one can say they don’t have frameworks, memories, experiences or fears that don’t get in the way of making education better. Equally, no one can say that they have nothing to add to the story. But whether it is colleagues or friends, your professional associations (like SEDA or ALT or ASCILITE), your senior management teams or mentors, being a part of something, being in the community and drawing inspiration, ideation and support from them makes it easier, We encourage our students to learn collectively, to construct knowledge socially and challenge critical assumptions to help address wicked and pernicious challenges; maybe we need to start heeding our own message. So, we come to this manifesto for being a part of strategic pedagogical. It is drawn from my own personal experiences, my own successes and my own heroic failures. I have sat in the room with the VC and had to sell the kind of change I wanted to lead in 30 words or less. I have had to make the case for funding when my idea was only one of hundreds competing for the same diminished pot. I have had to argue for change when almost nobody at the institution wanted it, the majority resisted or ignored it but almost everyone knew that we desperately needed it. It is nerve wracking, frightening and exhilarating often within the same gulp of air. But it was being a part of a network, running Future Happens with colleagues and friends Donna Lanclos and Dave White, taking risks with pilots and stepping into the dark barefoot that made it work. I don’t have the answers, all I got is how I work everyday to make education better. I hope it helps you.

1. Have a plan
Come up with ideas. Think through how they might work or fail. Ideate outside and inside the box. Know how you will make it happen. What are the risks and pain points. How much money/resources/people/policy do you need. Don’t go in empty handed. Have a plan.

2. Reward and recognise excellence and achievement

We punish failure or set standards to ensure we are not bad (as opposed to getting better). Reward people intrinsically and tacitly. Listen to people and hear them talk about teaching. Share those lessons with others. People respond to being seen and recognised. Reward and recognise excellence and achievement.

3. Be in the conversation

It easy to throw stones from the outside, it’s harder to put those ideas and opinions into the conversation. Be in the room, influence those who are if you can’t. Don’t let pedagogical changer be done to you. You know stuff, you have done stuff, you have something to say. Make sure you say it. Be in the conversation.

4. Connection is the glue

None of this can be done alone. Finding, nurturing and leveraging connections is critical to being a part of change. This not about alliances and political expediency, although these play their part in any change. Connections join the dots of knowing, doing and making. Connection is the glue.

5. We don’t know what the students want – but we need to

There is so much telling and not enough listening in terms of student engagement. We assume so much through distorted and blurry filter of our own experiences as students. We need to find ways to hear the stories of students, understand them and incorporate them into any change we initiate. This is more than representation, surveys and feedback loops. We need to know what the students ‘want’.

6. Expose yourself to risk

This is not always safe. You are spending money, you are changing things that cut to the core of things like job insecurity, professional identity, graduate outcomes or rankings and metrics. Bit change means you have to take some risks. Trust your experience, trust the people around you. Safe is great, but safe can also be a form of resistance. Expose yourself to risk.

7. Look outside and inwards

You can learn from people around you. Workable solutions, innovations and transformations come from everywhere. Look inwards for experiences and look outwards for inspiration.

8. Be rigorous, evidence based and critically reflective

We work in an academic environment. We are curious, we are critical, and we think through why things. Whatever you suggest, argue or advocate for, make sure before, during and after you have built in evaluation, evidence and rigor. It is more than analytics, it is knowing why something happened and knowing how to make it happen again, scale it or share it with others.

9. Enhance, don’t replace

So much of what we do is predicated on replacing something. Technology is often simply reinforcing practice, just using the latest version or platform. The real challenge of pedagogical change is where we seek to enhance practices, technology or learning. How do we make it better? How do we argue that we have all the raw materials and tools we need and yhat it is time to learn how to use them better. Can we break break/bend/shake/remix what we do now and come up with something completely different?

10. The Future Happens

It does. It really does. We can’t go back to the way it was. That doesn’t mean all change is inevitable and it doesn’t mean we throw out every baby and their bathwater. Embracing the notion that things will change and that you want to be a part of it is the most important thing on this list.

Postscript: The dream of the nineties is alive

Avid readers will know that one of the most important parts of this blog for me is how fundamental music is to my thinking about higher education. It is an amazingly personal but shareable prism to view the world through. Running through the writing of this manifesto was some subliminal reflection on music from my past, specifically the indie/alternative scene of the 90s. From the start of the decade when I was in second year at University through to the end when I was entering my 7th year of teaching marketing and management, discovering new music was so important to my routine. Whether it was doing my radio show on 2RRR in Sydney, filtering tracks as either filler between the hours of talk in one show or telling the story of a specific scene in another, or making mix tapes for special sandgropers, being emotionally carried away or sweating until there wasn’t anything left to give was an everyday experience. I learnt to yell my insides out with every inch of breath (The Geraldine Fibbers – Dragon Lady) and I experienced broken hearts, minds and lost innocence (Scud Mountain Boys – Grudge Fuck). I danced around the room like a madman (Lush – Hypocrite) and I saw how dark it could really be (Tori Amos – Silent All These Years).

I have been listening to heaps of these songs over the last few weeks, rediscovering amazing and lost tracks, having bits of my brain activated that had stored lyrics, guitar riffs and memories of gigs gone by. But the one thing I kept coming back to was that these songs were soundtracks to a time when I felt a part of something. A community of fans who could fill a stadium or barely trouble the back of a Mini. The nineties for me were an era of learning how to learn through making, through sharing, through participating and through curating. I used music in my teaching, I shaped my identity through owning and collecting music (much to the chagrin of some around me 😉 and I took great joy in sharing music with people and having music shared with me. So, I just thought I would share some this music with you. Below is a link to two podcasts I made a few years back. I had the plan of doing one for each year of the 90s. I finished two before life got in the way. I have also made a Spotify playlist for you to browse through. Maybe you will feel like you have become a part of something different or be reminded of the things you were once a part of. Or maybe you will scream along to the Geraldine Fibbers like I am doing right now as I am 34000 feet in the air. I’ll rip myself to piece ‘til the end of time, then I’ll glue them back together in a stupid rhyme



Future! The future of higher education technology led education in the digital world of online digital learning technologies 2020

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One of the most common keynotes you see these days at educational conferences is the one about how technology will transform the future of higher education. Filled with assertions of the next big thing to emerge from the wilderness and riffing off songbooks of transformation such as the Horizon report, this model keynote usually makes the damning conclusion that education won’t look the same in 2030 as it does today. This is the keynote that a lot of people love to hear. It is vapourware. It makes promises that no-one needs to keep. We all know AI will transform education. Imagine, VR goggles in every classroom, the teacher feeding students with terabytes of virtual data that they think they need, the students wowing in awe and thanking the teacher for the experience. Imagine that! And that is all you need to do, imagine it. Because it will never happen. These assertions about technology (and Horizon is one of the worst culprits) are vapourware. They are like reading a new year’s prediction article in the Daily Mail on the 31st December. Sure, it can be entertaining. It can trigger fantasy, both positive and scary. Some of the predictions might even have a ring of truth. But, they are written to maintain the dominant order as in seen by the Mail (would the Mail ever predict the election of a leader like Macron or that Jeremy Corbyn will displace the Maybot or that Brexit won’t happen). They are also written to be safe, because this kind of prediction is nothing more than a game. It is a safe because there is nothing to be held accountable to. But it also provides you with a safe excuse to convince yourself and others that you are not wedded to the past and that you are looking to the future. Asserting that the future of higher education is digital and by 2025 MOOCs will be ruling the earth doesn’t mean you NEED do anything about it. It either doesn’t happen and you keep teaching the way you always have (winner, winner) or you can say that in 2017 you knew all along where education was heading (winner! ahead of the crowd). By engaging with the menu of digital futures that sound great (adaptive learning! AI!! learning analytics!!!) you can avoid addressing the real questions. You never need to engage in real curriculum level change. You don’t have think about learning styles, different forms of delivery, the experience of your learners. You can quite happily overlay your rusted-on practices, the dominant teacher/student paradigm and the inherent power that comes with it on any imagined technological intervention or vendor created problem. You can also be the one in the privileged position of deciding what you will ‘allow’ the student to use or what technology they can be trusted with.

This post is not about any specific keynote, but represents a series of panels, conferences, workshops and interventions over the last few months. Many of these located the student as the receptor of the innovations ‘we’ enunciated and implemented. Many used vendor PR to spin the future. They blurred the lines between who higher education is for, ascribing technology as the instrument of bloody transformation and avoided the notion of education as a public or societal good. Below are some of the tweets I shared during these presentatiions, with some additional commentary that twitter doesn’t afford me in its expanded 240 characters world.

mcdonalds

One of the consistent messages about the future of HE in these keynotes is that vendors provide the solution. This is demonstrated through showing vendor videos that assert the future of education lies in the framework of technology they offer. This one below from Dell is the perfect example.

They don’t sell any of their products, they are selling (in highly amorphous terms) a solution to a problem that they assert you MUST know exists. And they are your partner in solving this problem. A vendor is not there to participate in education. A vendor is selling a product, often one that is not designed for education, but is being cross-sold. All good marketing is based on a simple fact. A drill retailer does not sell quarter inch drill bits, they sell quarter inch holes. Vendors are creating problems for which their product appears to be the perfect fit. But who tells them about these problems? Who is making the case the VLE needs to be more agile and democratic. Certainly, not our students. When we asked them, they told us they love Moodle. They want academics to use it more. One even asserted they were happy for their fees to pay for Moodle. Yet, they wouldn’t be a day go by that someone pitches the next agile future of learning technology driven 21st century innovative VLE/LMS.

One of the (un)intended consequences of the marketization of education is the equivalence of voice given to corporate partnerships which have enabled vendors to move from service provider to participant in the education process. Education practices become branded instruments, conversations result in brand endorsements. The risk we fear is that vendors get to the CIO, the COO or the VC and dazzle them with the name of leading adopters resulting in their technology getting ‘done’ to the rest of the institution, top down. But educational technologists are not innocent in this scenario. We can get blinded by the latest technology, wanting to keep ahead of the crowd, sometimes we can be bought by swag and promises, or the fear that if we don’t know about it we might look foolish when the leadership asks our opinion. We need to be in the room when the problem is defined. We need to draw in voices and insights from the entire community and be a hub for them. And then we talk to vendors, or we make it ourselves. And we hold them to account. They are not partners, we are buying a service from them. If they can’t solve our problem, we don’t change what we do to suit them. We find someone else who can.

not the platform

learning is social

Another common assertion in these types of keynotes is that ‘we’ know what is best for students. We understand them and why they behave the way they do. So, this assumption is a good example. Students don’t read emails (ignoring that staff don’t read them either according to most published data). We need better ways to communicate with students. We need WhatsApp, we need Snapchat, we should be in Instagram because that’s where they are sharing their selfies. You know what we really need? We need to have better messages. I get about 100 emails a day. Over 50% of those are vendors and unsolicited emails from service providers. Manage security! Move to cloud storage!! How is your stack? They see the word technology in my title and bombard me with messages irrelevant to what I do. Make the message relevant, useful and purposeful, then it doesn’t matter whether it is on email, pigeon or social media, people will find it and read, and perhaps even respond to it. Learning is social. Sending a broadcast email that is no interest to anyone other than you is bound to be ignored, in the same way the 250 introductory messages in the first week of a discussion forum (hi, I’m Peter and I am really looking forward to learning about underwater basket weaving) result in 250 people sitting there waiting for a reply and no one actually answering.

future of HE

Finally, these keynotes make grand, tweetable assertions of the world of education in 2020, 2030, 2050. The critical question for me is who owns this future? One of the critical insights from the Future Happens workshops run by Dave White, Donna Lanclos and myself is that many educational technologists, designers and developers as well as academics believe they don’t have a say in the future of higher education. There is an acceptance that much of the future is decided for us, by policy, by the institution, by competition or by the momentum and culture of the sector more generally. This can range from a passive acceptance to change, a sense of resignation of powerlessness to influence the change or righteous anger vented at all and everything around them.

experience

At the heart of this issue is assertion that technology will continue the progress of education as a transaction. Pathways to employment, boxes of skills for employers, patents and intellectual property coming from making and doing. Experiencing education in this environment becomes value added, meaning a tension arises between what can be afforded and what is necessary. Experience is a value proposition traded off against the expediency of completion. Technology has become the instrument to affect this trade off. One keynote recently asserted that students don’t want to watch three hour lectures, they prefer to watch the lecture recording at double speed. In this example (which we have also heard from teachers at other institutions) there is a simple trade off, time vs consumption. It assumes all lectures are consumption. Good teaching is not a consumptive or broadcasted act. Many of the technology platforms being offered to universities however do just that. They package education ‘content’ and offer ways to multiple and massify it, promising economies of scale through media sharing, social media like VLEs, online examinations and generic content.

Where does this leave us? I can find dozens of keynotes, conferences and webpages promising an insight into the future. But to conclude this, I want to look to the past (and hopefully the present) to get an eye on the future. At its heart, a successful university is a community. A critical community of students, teachers, staff, alumni and partners. Communities need leaders, they need innovators, they need advocates, they need citizens and they need members. Communities share values but they disagree and argue for what those values are and how they evolve and are applied. These debates make communities better. Communities come together to apply tools to problems, sharing and swapping expertise and experience to enhance how we use those tools, or invent new ones. No-one should be able to buy a community. The successful future for higher education is one where the community leads the organisation. Participatory citizenship. In terms of education and technology we need to lead that debate, be the people that bring the community together, critically challenge the assertions of people who want to own the community and convince it spend their hard-earned cash on a newer, brighter proprietary widget for the future. These communities don’t have to be non-profit or altruistic and that is also fine. Well run communities can make money (look at the retailer John Lewis in the UK which is owned by its staff). One of the key ambitions of #futurehappens is that we bring people together to empower and increase the literacy and capability of people to be the catalyst for these communities in their own organisation. Maybe it helps to say, well over 100 institutions came together and they all said the same things, or maybe it promotes and encourages self-belief. In the end, when we hear these talks about the future of education, the future of employment, the myths of robo-replacement and massification of education through technology, we need to have a counter-argument. Evidence based, persuasive and critical ambitions for our institution, built on the engagement with community. We need to describe and understand the wicked and messy problems in front of us, and we need to be able to apply the skills and experiences we have learnt and that we teach to come up with innovative, amazing and completely original ways to solve them. We don’t need the answers, we need to ask the questions.

Note: This blog post is the early part of bringing the innovations and idea together from our Future Happens workshops ran in Liverpool, Toowoomba and Berlin. Stay tuned.

Making change happen from the centre: (Pedagogical) change, my dear. And it seems not a moment too soon

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Higher Education is caught, flash hard in the eye of the perfect storm.  Brexit, Trump, the death of the expert, the rise of the VC funded learning machine, decreasing numbers wanting to go to University and the increasing resistances of an emboldened institutional population.  So, you might think that change is the byword for the modern institution, pro-acting and reacting in equal measures to the forces that imperil and empower it.  But that is not what’s happening.  Each year of enrolments sees a repeat of last year plus or minus 10% with whiteboards washed down, VLEs reset, inductions planned and the occasional blast from the laying of foundations of new buildings filled with the old order.  Institutional systems rust on practices and processes, from freezing timetables to filling buildings from Week A to Week Z in an ordered fashion, hour by hour, with front facing spaces ready for the next batch of fresh faced empty vessels.  The drive to start the next semester is already too far gone to think about arresting its momentum and making change happen.  Too many people, too many resources and way too much risk.

 

On the other hand, institutional strategy outlines a sometimes-utopian vision of alignments, engagements, innovations and a so much better experience.  One where everyone pulls in the same direction to make the institution a player and a partner in the digital world.  The daring audacity of the ambition set out by our institutions is inspiring, unachievable and necessary, often in one breath.  When you want to be part of a change, then having audacious targets moves you from the hamster wheel of eternal trying into a more longitudinal trajectory.  But audacity is the bedfellow of risk and change.  Standing still and providing the students with the same educational experience we offered them in 1979, with a few YouTube videos thrown might afford you the opportunity to slowly fall behind.  So, what do you do?

 

Future Happens is an initiative started last year on the back of a successful changehack event held in London.  The aim of the first changehack was to bring people together to debate, discuss and share how we collectively address the tensions outlined above.  How do we make the square peg of the way we do things fit the triangular hole of institutional ambition?  For many of us who run Future Happens, this is one of the most critical challenges facing educational technologists, developers, course and programme leaders, student unions and senior management.  We posed this challenge to the people who came to the first Future Happens hack ‘Digital is not the Future’ and a similar challenge will be at the heart of three changehacks we will be running in the Autumn:

 

It is easy to make pronouncements about pedagogical, technological or institutional change from the ‘islands’, when the consequences of advocating for and implementing that change are limited to your world, your classroom, your twitter feed.  They are safe spaces, full of friendly faces and welcoming and supportive practices.  But decisions, assertions and opinions all have consequences; for your students, for the worlds they inhabit and for your institutions.  The challenge comes when you need to scale what you speak.  You need to make the future happen for your entire institution. What happens when the VC, the Dean or the Director says ‘we need to this transform the whole institution’? What do you say and do? How do you make sure you say the right things, in the right rooms, with the right people?

 

Pedagogical change is not just necessary.  It is unavoidable.  Readers of this blog will have seen me make the case that learning has changed in the digital age.  Learners have changed and what they need to know is changing constantly as society and skills fragment and coalesce in different guises. But resistance to change is powerful.  Keeping the status quo as it has been can be comforting and calming.  It means all those unsettling feelings like fear, anger, distrust, polarisation and political malfeasance can be focused on one group: those who want you to feel like that by changing things.  And maybe, they are right.  Pedagogical change can be bad, it can throw the baby out with the bathwater.  It can damage people’s livelihoods, professional identities and practices.  But. BUT. Change is unavoidable.  Especially in learning and teaching.

 

Reason 1  – Why would we avoid doing learning, teaching and assessment in ways that make the education for our students better? Why would we, as professional academics ignore research and data that suggest that many of the more traditional ways of teaching and learning are not as effective as diversifying them, using technology in agile and informed ways and most importantly, finding ways people can work together?

 

Reason 2 – Things are not the same as they ever were.  There are new roles needed in teaching and learning and that change requires ambition, collegiality and expertise, but it also induces fear.  It requires people to be willing to own the change.  It needs people with skin in the game.  Lead from the front, work with others, take risks, be responsible, fall over, get back up again, make a mess, tidy it all up, wear stupid glasses and share the selfie on Instagram and most of all, again, find ways in which people can work together.  This is not a fight.  This is not them versus us.

 

Pedagogical change in higher education, in whatever form you optimistically or pessimistically think it might be, needs people to be part of it.  Despite all the best efforts of years of bureaucratic structures and behaviours, it won’t come from the top.  Tenures are short, structures are layered on top and short-term fixism, reactions to league tables and medals and the immediacy of falling financials mean that some of the fears that change instill are realised in 3D.  Equally, it won’t come from the bottom up.  HE institutions are not grassroots political parties, with burgeoning emancipatory calls to arms to defend practices at the barricades.  As I have argued before, in terms of strategic change, it has to come from the middle.  And in this instance, I mean it has to come from the centre. Not the much-maligned university centre of supposedly failed services, brickbats and rotting bouquets.  But the very cultural heart of the institution.  What is stands for.  What it believes.  The critical centre that provides the interlinking of something that holds us all the institution.  This centre is shaped by our common experiences of being part of this highly fraught, polarised and often lonely and not fun place we call work. Hell yes HE is liminal.  Its borders and boundaries are frayed, contested and its belief structures and systems are under constant threat from government, from industry, from the private sector and from a society itself that is not sure what it really wants.   But there is a sense of strategic unity that comes from collectively experienced liminality. And that sense of unity can be enhanced and leveraged to create and sustain pedagogical change.

 

What can you do to make change happen from the centre?

In the end, that is the most important question, isn’t it? What can you do?  We all believe that education is important, valuable and makes society better.  We all want what is best for students.   I won’t profess to have the answers.  What I can tell you is how I try and do things.  Pedagogical change is critical to doing what I do.  Pedagogical change is also the hardest thing to land in any HE environment.  Have I got it right and delivered transformative institution wide pedagogical change? You know where I work and the answer is we are a long way from where we want to be.   It is so much easier to feed the elephant in the room, pat her trunk and notice that she is squatting uncomfortably on the chaise lounge than to ignore that its there.

 

  1. Have an evidenced opinion

Know your stuff, build the case, collect the evidence and be sure of the facts.

  1. Find out where to say that opinion and be a part of the process

Opining on twitter or the echo chamber of conferences filled with people of the same mind as you is great.  It is reinforcing and makes us feel that we are not alone.  It won’t change your institution or the experience for your students. Get into the room, whatever that might look like.  Be a part of the capacity for change and persuade people of your vision.

  1. Bring others along with you

This can’t be done alone.  Change is an inherently social activity.  Persuading yourself is like taking a selfie only for your to see.  The risk comes from sharing it, engaging with the selfies of others, helping people to make better selfies and then deciding actually we need something better than a selfie.

  1. Have skin in the game, make a commitment

Self-evident. Put something behind your views, commit time, resources or every ounce of your persuasion reserves.  If this matters to you, if keeping education, vibrant and valued part of society is important then put skin in the game.

  1. Don’t throw stones, don’t build walls

Kind of the same really.  Just because you have decided that nothing is going to change in your course, your kit, your teaching until you retire doesn’t mean you can make others do the same.

  1. Don’t be afraid and don’t seed fear

Change makes people scared. Bat shit scared.  Especially when it gets linked by people trying to stop the change to emotive things like job security, demotion, workloads, risk of exposure.  Don’t let people make you scared.  Don’t seed the fear of other people.  It is cheap politics.

  1. Don’t just listen; talk, debate, discuss, argue

The point of change is to bring people along with it. It never works doing change to people.  Engage staff, students, society, your next-door neighbor, your boss and your team in the conversation.  Make it passionate, make it engaged, make it open, make it two-way and make it productive.  Make sure the conversation leads somewhere, that people can connect the dots and see how their part fits into the bigger picture.

  1. Want to make things better, seeing how you can

The Hummingbirds say this so much better than I could, from their song ‘Get on Down’ released in 1989

You can depend upon it, I’ve got my focus in you

She said ‘Don’t you be so negative,

I’m trying to think positive’

From the Hummingbirds song ‘Get on Down’

Vale Simon Holmes