There, There – Risk aversion, ambient conservatism and the institutional equilibrium of pedagogical change

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‘An organisation itself is an innovation, but most organisations of the past have been designed to be innovation resisting… To insure reliable repetition of prescribed operations, the organization requires strong defenses against innovation. Efforts to innovate must be relegated to the categories of error, irresponsibility, and insubordination, and appropriate corrective action taken to bring the would-be innovators “back in line.”’

Shepard, H. A. (1967). Innovation-resisting and innovation-producing organizations. Journal of Business, 470-477

This world view, proposed by H.A Shepard in 1967 is a widely cited critique of institutional resistance, perhaps somewhat pessimistic in its outlook, but realistic in the context of a Don Draper-esque era of errant conservatism (especially around gender and racial equality) matched with an unrestrained liberalism, the likes of which we have not seen since. Whilst many universities were founded on liberal principles, as organisations (as opposed to institutions) they are often inherently conservative in terms of change, innovation and activity. The ‘prescribed operations’ that Shepard describes are much as they were 30 years ago; the lecture, assessment, teaching. These are reliable, identifiable and understood practices and behaviours, entrenched in the organisation through inherited tradition, rusted on institutional systems and the ongoing construction and maintenance of facilities and space designed to support their ongoing predominance. People who work outside of those boundaries and practices, or argue for change in the context of a changing world, whilst not charged with insubordination, are often marginalised, locked away in outlying spaces and pejoratively labelled as the techies, the radical few, the people who are doing stuff that might work from them, but is entirely unsuitable for (insert discipline name here). It is a way to ensure that the prescribed operations continue uncritically and without the pesky interference from innovation, change and progress.

I argue that through a perfect storm of factors (demographics of students and staff, government policy, funding and competition) the liberal ambitions of higher education are often (though not always) subsumed into innovation resistance and a barnacled pedagogical practice. The practices of conservatism and risk aversion have been absorbed into the fabric of institutional culture, with structures, rewards and budgets supporting and often defending the status quo. The ongoing challenge to normalise the role of technology, the continued dominance of the lecture as a mode of teaching and the call/response/call cycle of student experience surveys are good examples of where these two practices reside at the core of culture and strategy and make change difficult and traumatic and innovation often impossible.

This conservatism is not political nor even ideological. It is an ambient conservatism that permeates many institutional functions and strategic thinking. There are conditions, both extant and atmospheric (being unnoticed but accepted all the same) that are preventing the natural progressions of pedagogical innovation, the scaling of experimentation and the embedding of innovative, technology informed practice at the heart of teaching and learning. Within institutions there is little mainstream challenging of this slow progress. Arguably there is significantly more mainstreaming championing of it. That by resisting we are in fact defending the empire from the marauding hordes. What was good for us is (plus or minus one OHP) good for the next or even the next, next generation of learners. But what is distilled is made stronger, and what is distilled through certain types of filters changes its composition entirely. So perhaps in reality, what was great for us 30 years ago is in fact not the same as we are delivering to our students today, nor are the students the same, nor are the disciplines and their knowledge the same. And for me, learning is without doubt fundamentally not the same. The filters have changed and the practices have distilled. It is in this context that we make the case for debate, discussion and action around changing and innovating pedagogy, challenging the primacy of lectures, diversifying assessment and feedback and radically redefining our understanding of the power of the massive, collaboration, making connections and play.

Ambient conservatism
I don’t think that this conservatism is solely the sin of educational institutions. There has been a surfeit of examples of what I would call ‘hysteric conservatism’ over the last few years, from the reaction to Bill Henson’s photographs to the ‘scandal’ over the tweets made by Kent teenager Paris Brown. The reactions and responses are value judgements on art, culture, media and youth, applying a conservative framework to fields and debates that are not uniformly conservative and have a history and tradition of changing societal values through practice. This can be represented in academic practices in a variety of way, from the way we ‘teach’ about social media, portraying digital literacy and identity as lessons in stranger danger and your party pictures as a permanent a stain on your record as that prison tattoo to the way we romanticise or transactionalise the didactic broadcast lecture. It permeates change, it poisons innovation by being the mantra for the resistor (take it slowly, people don’t like change) and it challenges those who want to be more radical, ambitious or revolutionary. It makes institutions far more risk averse as the collective organisational experience almost always suggests that we have tried this before and it has failed, returning the organisation to its established equilibrium. This equilibrium is difficult to change as the momentum to swing back to it is often so strong. Change becomes piecemeal, cautious, organic, bottom-up, baby-stepped and opt-in, resulting in the equilibrium shifting marginally, or swinging slightly in the breeze, but never shifting. History is littered with the abandoned carcasses of technological innovations that perished on hard, barren ground. Risk aversion is now an enshrined value proposition within our sector and it is the natural enemy of innovation.

The three behaviours of risk aversion

Replacement/Replication
Technology is simply a tool by which we replace other technologies or replicate existing practice. We can engage with 500 people in a lecture in a far more effective way by replacing the OHP with PowerPoint, paper hand outs with an LMS/VLE and by replacing the shaky dodgy copy of the John Cleese film you always show with a nice YouTube copy. This is a form of pedagogical conservatism because it does not challenge or interrogate what you are doing, just the vehicle in which you are doing it. It is one step removed from repainting the walls of your classroom. Stephen Sheely labels lectures as a ‘persistent technology’ that have survived for centuries despite waves of evidence arguing against their efficacy and arguing for the one mode that they are frequently not (interactive). These replacement and replication behaviours have hardened the role of technology as one that Sheely argues promotes the translation and preservation of this mode of teaching into other mediums (on-line for example – what do some lecture capture systems do? They don’t leverage the benefits of the media and medium, they record the lecture verbatim, making it an artefact of irrelevancy (at least they provide one benefit, repeatability and repetition for the learner, and that is no small change in a globalised market).

Resistance
The behaviours of resistance are many and varied (I co-wrote an article with my esteemed colleagues Tony Coombs and Monika Pazio which de-constructed individual and institutional resistance behaviours which you can read here. Resistance is both a subtle form of risk aversion demonstrated through experimenting with an inconsequential aspect of pedagogy to keep the wolves at bay, right through to the active resistances we have all seen (funding, shutting activity down, corralling of technology to institutional system level). Resistance is manifestly a form of risk aversion (although not exclusively so). Resistors also attempt to present incontrovertible arguments for resistance (time poverty, student expectations, budgetary compliance, quality assurance, ‘industry’). These arguments position those attempting change as the ones who need to justify the rationales for their practices, as if there is no need to defend what already occupies the territory. The norm is unchallengeable.

Recidivism
Misappropriation of Einsteinian truisms aside (sometimes, doing the same something for the second time in education does produce different results), this form of risk aversion is one of the most difficult to respond to. The reformation that occurs from being empowered enough to not want to re-offend is lost when the technology, the pilot, the pedagogy, the assessment doesn’t work (for whatever reason). I will never try that technology again, the VLE never works, I tried twitter but the students hated it. So, you re-offend, you forgot the redemption that you sought from change and you go back to the way you have always done it. The issue with this type of aversion is that the pool for innovation is finite, and the cascading rings of institutional inspiration (or ‘dis-inspiration’) that occur within peer or collegiate groups spread far wider than the positive messages educational developers or learning technologists can disseminate.

So, what does this all mean?
Our greatest challenge to progress forward institutional level pedagogical change is to understand the impact of ambient conservatism and its influence on the risk appetite of the institution. Start by thinking about how risk prone or averse you are in terms of your practice. What makes great, truly great? It is within the power of the crowd to make change. It requires unique, impassioned and skilled individuals, working alone and collectively. It requires a sense of risk that is not always there. A fear of the unknown that doesn’t result in resorting to the known. As Radiohead croon in the eponymous title track to this post; ‘Just because you feel it doesn’t mean it’s there.’ We ask our students to trust us. Perhaps it is time to ask the institution to trust us, to support our experimentation and practice, to link us with others who have played and learnt, collectively forming a rock super group of practice. I will leave the last word to Mr Shepard;

‘It (innovation) requires an unusual combination of qualities: a creative but pragmatic imagination; psychological security and an autonomous nature; an ability to trust others and to earn the trust of others; great energy and determination; a sense of timing; skill in organizing; and a willingness and ability to be Machiavellian where that is what the situation requires.’

The logical impossibility of Status Quo: Six disconnects that demand a digital pedagogy (or at least a good debate about it)

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It is a reality. Learners arriving at university this month are already e-learners (and this isn’t a new phenomenon by any means, see Allerton (2001). If we are to assume that before they land in our august lecture theatres and classrooms they have indulged in some learning then a significant proportion of that learning has involved technology. Further, that the skills and knowledge they bring to their higher education have evolved and been shaped by the way they engage with a technology driven society. The status quo as we remember it doesn’t exist anymore, as it didn’t when we were at the same emerging point in our lives. Perhaps we have a short memory. That doesn’t say that we as academics, teachers, colleagues are obsolete, old or behind the times. What it does say is that we as a generation/s often prided ourselves on the fact that we were different to our parents. Well, guess what…

Sure, the sometimes holier than thou notion of digital natives was a bit bunk. But, the idea that people who grew up with technology, learnt using technology and live with it as an everyday aspect of their lives have developed different skills (or perhaps different ways to apply the same skills) has resonance. There are a significant body of studies that argue this very point about Gen Y learners through to Gen Wi-Fi (or whatever we want to call them). Henry Jenkins took a stab at categorising them, suggesting that modern learners possess a variety of skills that have emerged from their interaction with web 2.0 technologies, including (but not limited to) the skills of play (problem solving through experimentation), performance (discovery through the adoption of alternative identities), simulation (interpretation of models of real-world processes), appropriation (remix and reuse of media content in the form of ‘mash-up’), multi-tasking (focus shifting required by the situation), distributed cognition (the use of tools to expand skills and thinking capacity), collective intelligence (the use and validation of pooled knowledge to solve problems), judgement (evaluation of the reliability and validity of information), trans media navigation, negotiation and networking (Jenkins, 2009) – quite the digital backpack.

Yes, there is significant evidence that learners today are not experts in all technology. Yes, sometimes they come in and have NO idea what Facebook is, or how their camera on their smartphone works. Technology is not a class or category. It is a means, a society changing and generation shaping means. So, you scientists…you know everything about science-y things, eh? Then why do we expect all learners to be social media mavens or device professors? But what we can expect is that as Conole and Alevizou (2010) assert, the skills of digital learners are not universal nor consistent, as they have been acquired ‘for purpose’ as opposed to developing a toolkit of potentially useable skills, which requires the institution to both identify the skills gaps and rectify as required.

What I want to argue for in this article is the imperative to look at, analyse and evaluate the way we as higher education practitioners see the role of technology within our pedagogy. On one hand the many of the ways we teach and assess are predicated on a model of work, practice and learning that is at best dated, at worst obsolete. On the other hand, the way we as academics use technology in higher education can be seen by learners as akin to watching your mum trying to twerk at your 18th birthday party. Not totes amaze by any stretch of the imagination. #mumreally? What we experience from our students and staff in reaction to both of these scenarios is often resistance, embarrassment and sometimes disengagement, all of which compromise student achievement and learning. There are disconnects of expectation, of practice and of outcome that need to be addressed in our pedagogy. And we have reached a ‘beyond critical’ state to start that process with the rapid emergence of MOOCs a salutary reminder of how quickly things can move (even under less than reliable premises).

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Australian Mining Magnate and now Member of Parliament Clive Palmer twerking on Sydney Radio.  Wow.

Disconnect #1 – What is knowledge and where do we find it?
Knowledge starts as something we are told. Plato argues that a statement must meet three criteria in order to be considered knowledge: it must be justified, true, and believed. What did that mean for me when I was at university? It came from a book. An editor checked it, and then by virtue of publication it was assumed to take on those three criteria. Further, an academic aggregated, summarised and interpreted that knowledge and presented to me, as a told lecture. There was no crowd-sourcing. There were very few places for the collective outside of the establishment to form and create knowledge, to challenge what was believed, justified and true. The way in which knowledge is constructed, justified and communicated has changed. Without getting all philosophical, the way learners find, evaluate and share knowledge is different. Ideas emerge and bubble up through social media, through experience expressed as games, creative media or interaction. The emancipatory power of alternative media like zines has been rent large for the internet generation. Learners find knowledge through searching the internet, asking wikipedia or putting a post on a board to get a collective response (amongst many other ways including books mind you). What happens when they arrive at the university experience? They are told that Wikipedia is not a valid academic source. They are told that collaboration can sometimes be seen as collusion and that their community and communications should be filtered through the firewalled VLE. So what do learners do? Exactly as they are told! They go on the VLE and post using the same language they are expected to use. And they leave the crowd-sourced, creative energy for the projects and activities they do outside university. As one blogger on Kineo notes ‘They (Gen Y) are engine that has fuelled Web 2.0 and, unfortunately, they seldom get a learning experience in the workplace that looks anything like the world they inhabit so significantly in their spare time.
Learner: Knowledge drawn from a potentially limitless library of sources, both credible and credulous
Academy: Knowledge filtered and curated, from established sources.

Disconnect #2 – What is the purpose of university?

‘The fact is – you read for your degree. You don’t need to sit or listen – you just need to read, and occasionally join in tutorials to purloin ideas from other students.’

Daniel Stacey – ‘How much longer will universities exist?’ SMH 16th September 2013

Professor David Helfand of Columbia University noted that many of his students that have different views of why they are at university, with student stating in a seminar ‘I am here for a degree, not an education’. There are disconnects between both the purpose of attending university and the understanding by which learners engage in university activity. Some of it is predicated on the dated notion that students are empty vessels into which we pour the knowledge and skills that reside in our heads. But some of it is of our own making. We have changed the way we describe and structure our university programmes to make them fit an employability agenda or what we believe ‘employers’ want. It is once again didactic. Listen to what we say, do what we tell you to do and you will get a ‘good’ job. There is a place here for a two-way conversation so that the notion of a degree as a product doesn’t become the norm. The role of teacher will change from instructivist to facilitative, leading and supporting user generated and peer sourced knowledge (see Steve Wheeler’s excellent and positive blog about this and most of all the transactive nature of learning in the modern university is supplanted by a collaborative one.

Disconnect #3 – Jobs today/Jobs tomorrow
The idea that we are preparing learners for jobs that don’t exist at the start of their degree has been well explored. But how are we doing that? Has our curriculum shifted to one that is trans-disciplinary and trans-context? Do we assume learners are developing skills that can carried through the career changes they will undertake through their long lives? Alvin Toffler noted that ‘The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn’. The disconnect lies in the ability of the university to step away from the ‘this is how you do it’ mode of teaching and learning. Learners come to higher education with experiences and ideas. These are often not valued as they sit in their first lecture of a new degree. And in many ways they are not assessed or recognised either. It goes back to the empty vessel model. Learning how to learn, knowing how they learn already and being an active partner in those processes should be at the core of a digital pedagogy. Some of the work on the ‘new university of the 21st century’ addresses the need to make our practice of teaching and learning transferable, complex, socially engaged and constructivist (or connectivist). But that aspirational goal is difficult to achieve by small incremental curriculum shifts and natural attrition.

Disconnect #4 – Question/Answer

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Much of what the OU describe in their annual ‘Innovating Pedagogy’ report, especially in the medium and long term, describes learning that is connected, crowd sourced and peer-led. Good words. All of them. There is one problem. Apparently we know the answers. Assessment is often designed to ensure that the students have remembered the answers as well. How does connected learning, seamless learning, crowd sourcing or student-led learning sit with that assumption? Well, a lot of modern teaching is still question based. We ask the questions, students go away and answer them. There are right answers and wrong answers (and sometimes very wrong answers). But the internet is not about the answers. Information is stored and housed, more than at any time in human history and certainly more than could be housed in any library. The key to effective internet use is the question. The disconnect cuts to the heart of our learning design and teaching practices. We are still caught in the notion that there is one right answer.

Disconnect #5 – The ubiquity of technology
For me this is the big one. Technology is not new. Smart phones are not the latest thing, Facebook isn’t trendy and you won’t be hip talking about Pinterest. Technology is ubiquitous, yet we as academics often get excited when we finally get to test something new in a class, whilst the learners grown about their lecturers being behind the times. Equally technology activity is not all about work and education. Most technology is about fun, social interaction, play and peers. Academics telling students that we are going to appropriate their Facebook for a course? Or even worse, telling them how to use the technology they already know how to use? No Dad, I already know who Tinie Tempah is, and please, you really have to stop rapping now at the kitchen table! #shutthehellup. There is a lot of evidence that suggests that students resist using the technologies they think of as their own (including devices) for purposes that they have not chosen. They are comfortable using the VLE or desktops in the library, but asking them to use and share their own devices can be problematic. A more realistic approach from the academy would be, here is a problem, how would you solve it and let them come to the technology they find most appropriate. It is a co-constructed approach.

Disconnect #6 – Speaking in tongues
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Language varies between generations. Pretty obvious really. Words lose and gain power. But the way language is communicated also changes. The patterns of change even in terms of digital communications are astounding. Even now, smart phone usage amongst under 18 year olds is on the decline in favour of tablets. 43% of students prefer to find content through social media as opposed to search engines (privileging peer and crowd based learning). Instant messaging is replacing email. There are standards, ethics, behaviours and cultural habits that emerge from these different modes of communication. Yet, we have academics who honestly believe that unless the student is looking at them they are ‘skiving’ off and probably just checking their Facebook. Some lecturers even have a laptops closed rule. I was a conference a few weeks ago, head buried in my iPad, thinking through ideas whilst presentations were on. I must have look disinterested, yet it was noticed that I often made the most pertinent tweets. People (and not just yoof) can multi-task, listen whilst not looking and can learn from more than your words. The devices they have are powerful gateways to knowledge. Sure, there are times when interacting face to face is what is required, and having the geek sit at the back at the room constantly tapping away is inappropriate. But that is not and should not be the default.

These disconnects represent pressure points (and not the only ones) for the argument to at least debate the need for a digitally relevant pedagogy. This debate needs to be one that engages learners, involves staff and strips away the inflexible practices and replaces them with ones that can adapt to a world not the same as it was twenty years and fundamentally different to what it will be in five. The status quo will turn the whisper into a throat rasping shout about the future of universities. And at the end of the day, inaction will simply see the relevance of what we do simply pass us by. It won’t be a fingernail scraping desperate attempt to stave off the inevitable it will just be the passing anachronistic irrelevance of the Yellow Pages. Tapscott and Williams (2010) argue that the learner of today is boycotting the pedagogy; ‘…for many of the smartest students, it’s fashionable to try to get an A without going to any lectures—meaning that the cream of the crop is beginning to boycott the basic model of pedagogy.’

Kregor, Breslin and Fountain from the University of Tasmania in Australia note that ‘…universities no longer have a choice about whether to implement e-learning: they must in order to remain competitive in the market place. Rather, their choices are about what vision or strategy to adopt and therefore what technology infrastructure and human resources to invest in’ (Kregor, Breslin, & Fountain, 2012). The other side of that coin comes from John Seeley Brown in 2001 when he noted quite presciently that ‘…today’s digital kids think of information and communications technology (ICT) as something akin to oxygen: they expect it, it’s what they breathe, and it’s how they live. They use ICT to meet, play, date, and learn. It’s an integral part of their social life; it’s how they acknowledge each other and form their personal identities.’ (Brown, 2001). With both the institutional pressure and the ‘customer’ pressure why do we privilege technology that replicates what we do now (VLEs for example) and why is it so hard to have a debate about the relevance of digital pedagogies?

* thanks to @TELgreenwich for the title.  Follow the debate by following my twitter @PeterBryantHE

Here is the slideshow for the enhanced presentation of this at the Goldsmiths Teaching and Learning Conference, held on the 30th May 2014

References

Allerton, H. E. (2001). Generation Why. Training and Development, 55(11), 56-60.

Brown, J. S. (2001). Learning in the digital age. Paper presented at the The Internet and the university: 2001 Forum, Boulder, CO.

Conole, G., & Alevizou, P. (2010). A literature review of the use of Web 2.0 tools in Higher Education. A report commissioned by the Higher Education Academy.

Jenkins, H. (2009). Confronting the challenges of participatory culture: Media education for the 21st century: The MIT Press.

Kregor, G., Breslin, M., & Fountain, W. (2012). Experience and beliefs of technology users at an Australian university: Keys to maximising e-learning potential. Australasian Journal of Educational Technology, 28(8), 1382-1404.

Tapscott, D., & Williams, A. D. (2010). Innovating the 21st-Century University: It’s time! Educause review, 11.

It is my own messy chaos: on a new understanding of learning spaces and connecting

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Space is a strange, quixotic thing. It is a construct of things both solid and ephemeral. Take today, I am in the beer garden of my local pub, mainly because it is a glorious spring afternoon and after months of winter the outside and sunshine represent such a welcome change. The physical space is made up of tables, benches, plants and the still slightly wet moss-covered cement tiles. I am listening to music (The new Arcade Fire album ‘Reflektor’ for those keeping tabs, and yes, it is awesome) and enjoying a beer. The ambient noise of the 30 or so people out here occasionally clatters above Win Butler’s voice. This is the physicality of the space. But it not what the space means or represents.

 

When we talk about learning spaces we concern ourselves with what is contained within the four walls of a physical room. We can argue, by virtue of experience or the shrill ring of a sales pitch, that furniture can encourage collaboration. The technology in the form of screens, projectors, hubs and plugs will encourage people to use technology in new ways to enhance learning. Wi-Fi networks, flexible and high capacity will be the new wired network, bringing the outside in and what happens inside out. These are expensive decisions, costing institutions hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions of pounds and not insignificant staff time. However, there is nothing to say that these rooms will change the way people teach. The learning space does not of its own accord change pedagogy. The most innovative use of furniture and technology will still result in a teacher moving it all to rows if that is the way they want to teach.

 

Coming back to the beer garden, all these things that I described earlier don’t determine the intrinsic impact of the space, or how the space is used. Yes, they influence it, they sometimes shape it and can create and support the ways it is used (would anyone be out here in 2 degrees in January…). But in the end, it is what it is, a physical space. The President Emeritus of Harvard, Derek Bok, noted in 2013 that in the context of defending the ongoing viability of a residential university (which the eminent management scholar Peter Drucker had argued strongly against)…

‘We are a long way from being able to train graduate students to be scientists and scholars by online instruction. The same is true of teaching in fields of knowledge where there are no definite answers but rather a need to ask appropriate questions, use imagination, or see intriguing patterns in a jumble of seemingly disconnected facts. It is also unlikely that online instruction will be able to offer role models to inspire emulation and encourage moral development and far from clear that technology will be able to match living in a residence hall for giving students an appreciation of people from other cultures and religions or an ability to work effectively with persons very different from themselves. Much else that is memorable and important in a college education is not readily reproducible by machine. Rather, it occurs through impromptu conversations with students and instructors, or emerges in seminar discussions from unexpected turns and twists in the conversations that are hard to program in advance.’ Source: http://bit.ly/NOnbLV

 

He argues that the only way to reproduce the discontinuous, chaotic and spontaneous learning that underpins higher education is through a face-to-face engagement, in a traditional class and residential environment. Interestingly, he doesn’t suggest the need for funky chairs and rolling iPad connection panels. He does argues that virtual spaces and technology enhanced learning is limited for the teaching of scholars, scientists or graduates. To be fair to him, his whole speech is an important statement of advocacy for technology, especially the benefit of information consumption through lecture capture and on-line platforms. But this debate around the (in)ability of technology to capture the unique ‘magic’ of learning is quite pervasive. There are a number of studies that argue that students themselves want a more traditional education, where notes are handed out and lecturers engage in monologues followed by seminar type dialogues conducted in large lecture halls and rowed classrooms.  Whether it is parsed as resistance to change, a sense of retro values personified by the hipster youth or that it is a behaviour that the learner thinks once replicated will provide the teacher with what they want, it seems contradictory to the way people conduct significant aspects of their daily life.

 

The argument made by Professor Bok that learning is enhanced by the ‘…need to ask appropriate questions, use imagination, or see intriguing patterns in a jumble of seemingly disconnected facts’ resonates strongly with me. As I have discussed in earlier blogs, I strongly believe there is an urgent need to engage a wide ranging and probably quite painful and divisive debate about the efficacy and relevance of our pedagogical approaches in the digital world. The epoch-inching micro-impacts of MOOCs were not about doing something new, just something a little less shit for a bigger, less engaged audience. However, I don’t believe that these chaotic and discontinuous learning moments cannot occur in an online learning space.  The physicality makes marginal difference, because the learning is occurring in spaces in and between interactions with other people and knowledge.  This means that institutions need to think about new definitions and understandings for learning spaces.  As much as universities like doing this, I am not arguing for sending a Miley Cyrus mounted wrecking ball through the average classroom.  In fact, these are still vitals parts of the university experience for some learners.  But the new spaces work and act in different ways.  They are owned by the learners, who control the access (or choose not to) and control the content (or at least aggregate it, remix it and share it).  The new learning spaces are platforms, devices, the cloud and other virtual places where people congregate and share.

 

What is needed in the modern university is a redefinition of what constitutes a learning space. A learning space is more than a function and construction of its physicality. And I am not talking necessarily about a VLE here either, they are just as much bound by their construction as a classroom or lecture theatre. Online learning offers the definition of learning spaces a number of new dimensions. However it takes a recognition that learning and learners have changed, and that perhaps the way we were taught may have changed over time. The new learning spaces exist inside and outside the academy. They provide an environment where learners can engage with faculty and then link with connected others and sources of information, contrary and advocating those coming from the curriculum. These learning spaces are being formed now, because of the needs of the learners to interact, share, vent, collaborate, understand and vindicate. They happen in cafeterias, Facebook pages, IM groups, happy pics in Snapchat and in text conversations. They don’t need flip top desks, they need Wi-Fi and devices, and most importantly they need platforms to connect. And in most cases they are outside of the academic or the academy. In fact, if they are owned or setup by the university, they are often turned into ghost towns. The learners own these new learning spaces, quite happy in the knowledge that they are the product for these sites and platforms. But they are in control of who accesses it, who sees it and whom they share it with. They choose what gets put on the walls and whether everyone can see it or just their closest friends. They choose if it is a site of rebellion, of collegiality, of relationships or of creativity. For me, it is a simply an extension of the way I felt about my primary school classrooms.

 

I was in year 2 at St Mary’s Primary School in Rydalmere, Australia. I was seven years old. Our teacher, Mrs Charker, built our room up with our art, our learning and our stuff. Each table was a network of our space. Sure, Mrs Charker taught, but it was in our space. I remember feeling comfortable there. Two years later, my year 4 teacher put us all in rows, denied us any space, moved us around into good and bad people rows (cockatoos, rosellas, parrots and VULTURES – guess which row I ended up in more often). The result was a disaffected class, who took their learning out of the room and in this case, to my desk at home.

 

The result in higher education is not much different. Learners form their own networks. And the discontinuous and spontaneous learning that Derek Bok advocates happens there, interacting with colleagues, professionals and the wider internet community. And in some ways, these new learning spaces create a much greater opportunity for chance meetings, discursive dialogues, interrogating and testing of ideas and thoughts, questions being answered and new questions being formed. I don’t see this as an abstract concept, the rantings of an e-learning zealot wanting to bring down the walls of the academy. This is the way learning spaces have changed. Ways of learning and knowledge acquisition have changed. Learning spaces are an evolving and fluid concept, not well represented by the fixed capital investment made by institutions.

 

The technologies our potential learners are using today are often in advance of those being ‘trialed’ at institutions. Facebook usage has been in decline for the last 18 months or so as young people move to more private and controllable networks like Snapchat and Whatsapp. There is no chance of their parents finding out stuff, or it getting into the ether for all to see, especially with something like Snapchat that self-destructs content in seconds. Yet many institutions are talking about Facebook as an innovative potential place for learning (or at least knowledge transfer) to occur. Learning spaces have to be more agile than institutions currently have the infrastructure or capacity to be. Successful entrepreneurs innovate through understanding what is happening, what might happen, engage with it and then respond. The way we conceptualise learning spaces need to occur in a similar pattern. It is already inherent in most of our learning designs that students are expected to undertake independent study, which represents nearly 90% of the hours they spend on courses. What do we think they do? Be like us in our learning heyday? Head buried in books, at a desk in the library or in our residence? Hard work, cold sweat and graft makes Peter learn. Guess what? They are studying together in groups, they are talking to each other, they are asking other people what they think, they are complaining and griping about how hard this and how much reading they have to do and then they are swapping pictures of their desk, their opinion on the latest Arcade Fire record or sending sad faces on Whatsapp because they are exhausted. And its what we all did. It just happens online as well as face-to-face now and learning is happening in those spaces.

 

So, what does all of this debate and froth mean to higher education, both institutions and teachers alike? Well, I wish there was a magic theory that I could invent here, represent with some moving bubbles and quick, catchy titles. There isn’t. However, there are four things we as educators need to consider…

1. In what ways do we understand the changes in learners and learning in the digital age?
2. How do we understand, engage and support the spaces in which new learners learn, physical or virtual?
3. How does our learning, teaching and assessment practice need to change to get the best out of these new spaces?
4. What is making us frightened, resistant and ‘control freaky’ about this change? Technology in higher education is still generally occurring at the fringes of experimentation, rarely crossing into the mainstream unless its flashy (MOOCs) or keeping with the Jonses’ (VLEs, Lecture Capture). Why has it not had the same transformative (disruptive, destructive or constructive) effect in our activity as it has arguably had on society as a whole?