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



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