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 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.



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.



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 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  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.



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…



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.



‘…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.






Are those hearts strings connected? – the power of fleeting connections in a digital pedagogy

I am a huge fan of connectivity, both the learning theory and the practice of it embedded in and through higher education programmes. The ideas behind the seminal works of Stephen Downes and George Siemens (amongst others) resonate with me. I like the idea that social interaction and engagement doesn’t just enhance learning, but can change the way some people learn and more significantly, can bring others into the education tent who perhaps have struggled with the often incessant didacticism that pervades parts of the higher education experience. At the heart of it for me is that the connections forged are representations of trans-disciplinary skills that in themselves evolve over time as the level of knowledge and the contexts of learning shift.


Within my experiences of working with and later developing approaches to learning that embrace significant aspects of connectivism (see the work we are doing at the University of Greenwich, what continues to dominate much of our research is the importance of the strength of the connections within and between networks. Words like ‘lasting’ or ‘resilient’ come up often in debates around around course design, and when we talk to the students words like ‘friends’ and ‘mates’ are used to describe their networks (actual or desired). Social media has changed our notions of what these words mean in the context of modern networks. Our networks are often larger and more tenuous than ‘traditional’ person to person networks. Social media allows connections to be dragged back into the social or professional whirl of now, where in the past they may have simply faded into misremembered memories (it is 25 years since I graduated high school and I am still adding former school mates to my Facebook). Equally, many social media networks allow you to nurture tenuous connections from random meetings like a seedling in fertile soil.


As academics we seek and are sometimes compelled to find data that proves (or validates) our activity. When it comes to connections and networks we get caught up in statistics around employability. The ability of the Ivy League or Russell Group universities to develop lasting networks that enhance the chances of finding a good job is well explored in both research and popular culture. I have seen a number of pedagogical approaches in institutions (that either directly or indirectly reference connectivism) seeking to replicate these connections in order to have a realisable and measureable outcome from which effort can be rationalised. But they are predicted on ways of keeping the network and connections ‘live’ for ever extending periods of time. Today, I want to make the case for the complimentary benefit of the fleeting connection within a social interaction and engagement led pedagogy.

‘Bauman (2003) has decreed this the era of ‘liquid love’, in which intimacy is commodified and meaningful relationships have been replaced by fleeting connections.’  Bauman, Z. (2003) Liquid Love: On the Frailty of Human Bonds. Cambridge: Polity Press cited in Barraket, J., & Henry-Waring, M. (2006). Online dating and intimacy in a mobile world. In Sociology for a mobile world: proceedings of The Australian Sociological Association 2006 Conference (pp. 1-10). The Australian Sociological Association (TASA).

‘Siemens (2005) also suggests that weak ties, such as those exhibited by the participants in the online course community, are a valuable source of information within personal learning networks. Furthermore, he suggests that these tenuous or fleeting connections play an important role in prompting and supporting innovative practices as individuals are exposed to new ideas from beyond their familiar network of practice.’ Siemens (2005) cited in Mackey, J., & Evans, T. (2011). Interconnecting networks of practice for professional learning. The International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning, 12(3), 1-18.


What are fleeting connections?

• The person you meet at a party and have an intense 30 minute conversation with.
• The cool guy at the bar in the conference you just attended who watched your presentation and really liked it.
• The student you worked with for 20 minutes on a group exercise in class.
• The wallet full of business cards you collected.
• The person on the train who started talking to you on the way to Antwerp.
• The person who you were moved enough to praise for their video/photo/sounds on-line.
• The person sitting next to you on the plane that talks with you for six hours before you realise you have landed.
• The person who commented on your blog.
• The person who mentioned you on Follow Friday on Twitter.


They are often intense, meaningful, powerful, engaging and rich with opportunities for lasting and immediate learning (just not lasting in or of themselves). They are the long tail of connection-making, where 20% of our interactions are made up by 80% of our interactors. However, they are often the best stories, the most engaging memories or the perfect case studies. And for this, they rarely exist alone or in isolation. They are part of web of engagement constructed, maintained and reflected upon over time. Each fleeting connection adds to the web. And as is the way of the world today, each fleeting engagement seems to find formal and informal ways of connecting again to themselves (often facilitated by social media liked LinkedIn). These are perfect conditions for what Lewis, Pea and Rosen (2010) called ‘generative learning’;

 ‘Generative learning communities are expansive in three senses: they grow in range of participants, in degree of engagement by those contributing to the dynamic learning interactions of that community, and in expanding the knowledge created and harvested for use by that growing community. Such communities are generally informal with the goal of expanding upon public knowledge; are not rigidly confined by formal participation structures of interaction, but rather create their own informal communication patterns; they are interpretive, with an emphasis on dialog and multiple viewpoints; and they are expansive in terms of inclusion of people, ideas and topics.’ Lewis, S., Pea, R., & Rosen, J. (2010). Beyond participation to co-creation of meaning: mobile social media in generative learning communities. Social Science Information, 49(3), 351-369.


Way too much personal information #1

One my favourite movies of all time is ‘Before Sunset’, directed by Richard Linklater (1995). For those of you who have never heard of the story, it is a simple play told from the perspective of Jesse and Celine, two people who meet on a train, share a night of intense ‘connectivity’ in Vienna and then part promising to reunite. The whole film is a love letter to the notion of a fleeting connection (and its subsequent sequels explore the impact of that fleeting connection on these two people’s lives 20 years on). Now, this ain’t a movie review column, so let me get to the point. Aside from the ‘Sliding Doors’ notion of chance and decisions taken and not made etc, there is something intensely interesting to me about learning that occurs in unexpected or fleeting ways. I recently re-watched this movie and noticed how many specific aspects of my life were shaped by both the single moment of seeing this film for the first time (Hoyts George Street, Sydney) and the ongoing impact it had. I can point to the way I travel around Europe, the places I went to, the way I spend my day when I am on the road and the events that I remember to this day that are related to things I saw in that film (I spent a day in Vienna following in Jesse and Celine’s footsteps – we called it our ‘Stalking Richard Linklater’ day). The two characters in the film (but especially Jesse) work through issues in their own lives in the prism of this fleeting connection. Random moments of learning, insight or reflection that occur because of a connection that could never have been planned, organised or identified.


But as I noted in an earlier blog post ‘…lying at the heart of an educational experience is the ability to understand why something is authentic or real. Without that, we are left with a bunch of words sans context. Repeated, spoken but not contextualised or understood. Remembered, resourced but without meaning or resonance.’ These connections hang on to something, perhaps a mood or an emotion, authenticity, experience, attraction, chemistry, interest, motivation or engagement.


How do we harness fleeting connections in a higher education context? In that very question we have a number of critical assumptions that are key to any approach to developing a pedagogy that actions the skills of the digital age. However, I am going to approach only one of those questions in this blog post. Are we preparing learners for now or forever? Is there a more generative approach we can take to learning?


A new model of pedagogy – Remix, reuse, repurpose, participate

 ‘Many of these groups have training sessions to help young people figure out how to tell their stories more effectively, how to mobilize their personal experiences or stories that matter to them in ways that connect to real world issues, which hopefully move other people towards action. These are things that can be translated more broadly into the classroom. The more we teach the skills through the classroom, the more effectively young people are going to be in engaging in participatory politics.’ Henry Jenkins


Too much of our existing teaching and learning approaches are about locking things down, preventing people from making mistakes, avoiding ‘stranger danger’ and making the nanny state the default position and cotton wool the prêt a porter de rigueur. How about teaching people how to effectively use something, make that media/instrument better, invent the next creative iteration themselves and move society forward? There is a litany of media examples about new platforms/modes being invented and commercialised by people with no formal education and this is held up as a triumph, that by not studying they are somehow spared the brainwashing and automaton making practices of education. How did it come to this? We could speculate about the lack of impact of technology, the lack of experience of many academics with using the technology of their students or simply that there is a need perhaps for a new need pedagogy. All good debates. All contentious. All too big for this blog post (although there are a few older posts in my blog that have a good stab at them).


I have a simpler answer perhaps. We spend a lot of time teaching people how to do something now. We use technologies that help us to achieve these aims and provide the learner with an opportunity to demonstrate that they have learnt how to do something now. We give them cases that are in ‘the now’ or in some cases very much in the past in order to position knowledge in the wider historical discourse. And this is perfectly and amazingly effective. But it is not the whole of the pedagogical tool-shed. And it is becoming less and less of the case as technology makes product life cycles shorter and technological advances become more critical to on-going competitive success. Identifying the ‘things’ that underpin practice are critical to providing the skills to repurpose, remix and reuse them for a newer, brighter context. It is in the fleeting connections that you are exposed to the ‘something different’ that are these newer, brighter contexts.  They represent a sense of randomness, uniqueness and sometimes disquiet and discomfort that challenge the constructed reality of knowledge handed down through the generations that comes from sitting on the same hard seats in the lecture theatre as your forefathers. You get to see how people look at and do things in new ways. Our pedagogy should be built on the ability to adapt, change and innovate when the context shifts around us. Do we want learners who panic when something doesn’t fit the model we have laid out for them or do we want them to be agile enough to turn that model on its head, move G to F and find a way to do something no-one has thought of before?


Way too much personal information #2

My undergraduate degree is in marketing. I completed it in 1991, long before social media and internet marketing. The single most useless subject I did was called Marketing Decision Models. It was based on the work of Philip Kotler from the early 70s (and with a text out of print for 15 years when I did the course). Why was the subject useless? Because it tried to model behaviours (using economic modelling theory) that were not current when I did the subject. They were not adaptable because they were designed to be as accurate as possible in predicting measurable outcomes like sales or market share. Because they assumed that generally things like retail would be there forever, or that markets were constructed on local product distribution only or that products always had a physical form, they were not re-purposable for what has become entirely different contexts.  They are a history lesson at best (which has it’s purpose) and at worst represent a fictional account of the way marketing is done.  I have never been able to re-purpose or re-mix that information in 20 years of teaching marketing or in the decade or so I practised it.  What benefit then did I gain from the hours on that subject?  If I was to be critical, I would say very little.  To me, if teaching the principle of modelling, a new pedagogy would start with how you make a model, what are the key things you need to ensure a model does what it sets out to do.  You might then show some examples of models.  And then you make a model yourself.  Get groups to find contexts and make models.  Share then with each other, critique them and remix the whole thing up and you might just have invented a completely new solution to a problem.  However, the way it was taught was predicated on lasting connections, that sales was always a function of promotion spend times competitor spend over C (which was constant).


Co-incidentally, it was a fleeting connection I made during this subject that taught me that marketing is not a science but an understanding of people, and that making people being happy is at the core of good marketing (OK, he was a stoner and a hippy, and he photo-bombed one my graduation photos long before photo-bombing became an internet thing, but what the hey!). That short interaction across a few classes in a semester with a person whose name I have never been able to remember shaped much about how I approached my marketing career. It was not a ‘light bulb’ moment. It was a moment of pause that I needed to link all of what I had been thinking and analysing about marketing over three years, all the issues I had with abusive marketing practices and the like and come up with a model that worked for me.  And in that moment of pause, I saw models in a new way.  Sales wasn’t a number, it was a function of people doing something, thereby very difficult to model.  I didn’t get a high distinction is that subject (although I did get a credit which I suspect was a function of the fact that I was one of only 5 people who could get the textbook thanks to a marketing teacher father’s huge out of print library!)


Clearly life is not built on fleeting connections alone. We need resonance and depth and critical analysis that require sometimes forensic building and rebuilding. These deep connections are important.  A new pedagogy needs methods by which deep and lasting networks and connections can be formed.  Interaction and engagement across years with expertise and experience is critical to developing the participatory culture Jenkins sees. Fleeting and deep are not dichotomous but complementary.  Fleeting, momentary or brief connections happen all the time.  What is missing is two-fold.  Recognition of their importance, however major or marginal and secondly, a framework with which to understand and build on them.  Unless there is pedagogical imperative to embrace and understand the increasing complexities of fleeting connections, then we are robbing our learners of the very things that will extend the benefits of their learning for decades, even into jobs that didn’t exist before they started their studies.  Social media is an important tool in this process.  It is not the panacea or the magic button, but it makes the whole thing some much easier to facilitate.  A pedagogy that embeds social media at the core of its teaching and learning process is one that will engage the learners ability to make connections, lasting and fleeting.  But more importantly, will help them learn better by exposing them to ideas, contexts and opinions that are no theirs (our ours) alone.  We use that model every time we attend a conference or read a paper.  It might just work for the modern learner.


Say it out loud it’ll be okay : Action, activity and the chance to play

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I will find a way
To get to you some day.
Oh, but I, babe, I’m so afraid I’ll fall, yeah.
Now can’t you hear me call?

Shake some action’s what I need
To let me bust out at full speed.
I’m sure that’s all you need
To make it all right.

Shake some Action – Flamin’ Groovies



In my last blog post I argued that after decades of debate and proselytizing about e-learning we are still talking about it in terms of ‘potential’, like promising the arrival of Christmas and never really delivering, with higher education experiencing it’s own groundhog day – December 22nd over and over and over again, only hinting at the joys of a Christmas to come?


Of course it would be easy to promise a solution to that in the context of a short (ish) blog post. Also it would be very silly. However, in order to solve a problem there has to be an analysis of the root causes, otherwise we might be just treating the symptoms, leaving the gaping wound untouched. A strategic initiative for e-learning is nothing but a new coat of paint if it is not informed by an analytical approach to the stakeholders engaged and the environment in which it will operate and a belief in the need for agility and flexibility in the knowledge that tomorrow may be entirely different. One such root cause is what I call the action/activity conundrum.


1. The fact or process of doing something, typically to achieve an aim

1. The condition in which things are happening or being done.


If we equate teaching and learning in HE to a balancing act, walking on a tightrope between two buildings in a gale then we can start to see the difference between these two concepts. In this analogy, activity is what is keeps you there on the wire, hands flat, arms out, small wiggles from side to side to maintain balance and well, to be blunt, whatever you can do to not fall off. Actions are the movements that take you forward, step by step until you get to the other side. You can’t stay balanced up there forever. Activity is not enough.


Is e-learning caught in the glare and sway of simply being an activity? Whether that be in the guise of using technology as a replacement for instruments that reside in an aging and some would argue increasingly irrelevant pedagogy or as lip service to yet another university initiative that you value as equally as the one on employability, the one on sustainability and the one that makes sure your logo uses the right cerise colour. Activity can be seen as a form of passive resistance. Yes Sir, of course I am doing as you ask. Can’t you see I have started using YouTube videos in class? I upload my lecture notes and slides to the VLE? Look at Bob over there, he hasn’t even logged into his email for weeks! Compliance is not critical. Compliance is doing, not evaluating. I recently had a discussion with a student over the efficacy of using lecture/tutorial mode in a course design. The upshot of the argument for me was that in the end, I don’t care whether you use lecture or tutorials, whether you think YouTube, blogs or is the best thing since sliced bread. What is fundamentally important is that you have a rationale for why you are using it. You have looked at the students, the knowledge and the environment and critically analysed the suitability of what you have chosen to do and that you have tried it out and therefore basing your assertions on some experience. An action achieves an aim by doing something. It is not simply doing something. Running to stand still.


But what can a strategy do to react or adjust to this kind of resistance? Well the first thing is to recognise it as resistance. We can reward people for engaging in the process of change. We can encourage and support those who resist through fear, skills gaps or time pressures. But we also need to build a strategy that enhances the analytical and evaluative capacity of programme teams and individuals. This is often portrayed as a big stick approach, where instruments such as quality assurance are used to ‘enforce’ analysis. This is no different to compliance. Why have huge swathes of society embraced social media, smart phones and the internet? Because they realized the benefits that came from using these technologies! They experimented with them, they pushed, prodded and broke the boundaries for how these things should and could be used. They succeeded and they failed. They fell over, dusted themselves off and got back up again. Change should not be a single shot. One of the responses to e-learning I hate hearing is someone who says ‘I tried that once and it didn’t work’. And perhaps that one experiment made you gun-shy, or as the glorious Flamin’ Groovies put it ‘…Oh, but I, babe, I’m so afraid I’ll fall’.


In part, the success or failure of a strategy to overcome passive resistance or allow the institution to move from potential to actual can be attributed to space. An action is not always a rehearsed move, taken in the full confidence that each step will confidently move you forward. Sometimes those steps are tentative. Testing the safety of the next foot forward in an unknown environment that maybe higher than you think or closer to the ground than you can imagine.


In the increasingly frantic, impossible environment of HE teaching, the ability to have a safe space to play is becoming increasingly difficult. One of the key tenets of the new social media generation is that they are encouraged to play, experiment, remix and share. User generated content is predicated on this, even with the criticality that comes from peer evaluation. Yet in our halls of learning, we seem to have lost this sense of experimentation. Something has to work right, first time or we run the risk of exposing ourselves to criticism or rebuke. How do we react? We do the least risky version of what we want, and we do that well (but not too well). We do the lowest common denominator to a level of competence that avoids painful scrutiny. Yes, perhaps this description is a tad hyperbolic. But unfortunately it is, to varying degrees, incredibly common.


Play is at the heart of human behavior. It informs a variety of cognitive processes and at its most basic is fun. Play is not risk free despite the best efforts of the ‘fun police’. Going out on a limb and trying something different can be exhilarating, scary and empowering in one breath. Developing a strategic approach to e-learning that embraces and encourages play and experimentation is critical to overcoming the notions of passive (and active) resistance. Playing in a group, sharing the results of your experiments, successful or less so and engaging in a practice of not necessarily knowing where your next foot is going to go is liberating. Finding the space to toss all the pieces up in the air and remix what you have been doing can be equally liberating (why do some people really love the idea of flipped classrooms?). Finding connections and trans-disciplinary relationships through musical metaphors, subtle and obvious is part of the way I experiment and play. It also represents a chance to remix. Expose people to things they have never seen or heard before or to curate something, like the immense power of the mix tape (see this scene from ‘High Fidelity’).


We need to encourage learning, teaching and assessment to be developed in an environment where new things can be tried. Where the process that identifies which new things we can try and how they can be embedded and contextualized is critical and evaluative and allows the results to be shared amongst colleagues in a collaborative way.


What does this actually look like? That takes us back to the coat of paint analogy…my wall colour is another person’s garish nightmare (talk to my wife about our home decorating differences). There is no one size fits all model, and what works for me may or may not work for you. Last time I used music in a presentation half the crowd loved it, the other half thought it was distracting and one person questioned my dissing of Slade (for the record, I like them).


But in a broad sense, it comes back not to the method but the space. Experimentation needs to be encouraged and rewarded. Putting play at the heart of a strategy can be a risky sell where student numbers and NSS scores represent the exact opposite. We know the power of collaboration for our students, yet many of our programme teams work in isolation from each other and even in isolation within the team itself. Coming together because you want to do something is much better than coming together because you have to do something. There is far less exhaled breath and furrowed brows, and perhaps far more small whoops of delight, high fives and smiles. But most importantly, this whole shebang requires top management to buy in. To recognise the power of play and experimentation. To support those processes and provide the guidelines, objectives and resources that shape your actions and lead them towards making the institution better, enhancing what students achieve and making your job easier and more rewarding.
If there’s something inside that you wanna say


Say it out loud it’ll be okay
I will be your light
I will be your light
I will be your light
I will be your light
Dry the Rain by the Beta Band