Gonna be a new race! Scaling the walls of institutional change

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There’s gonna be a new race
Kids are gonna start it up
We’re all gonna mutate
Kids are saying yeah hup! 
Radio Birdman – New Race

 

I was having a discussion recently with a group of students about the linking of industry practice and teaching in Higher Education.  It made me reflect back on my own industry experiences as an arts and retail marketer in the early 1990s.  I was in marketing for one of Australia’s largest book chains and later was marketing director for a community radio station.  There would be few aspects of that practice that have not undergone significant change.  Aside from the obvious changing nature of the products themselves, distribution has been re-imagined and a lot of theoretical rationale for why retailers exist has been made redundant.  Price has become a global concept and promotion is rooted in modes and mediums barely imagined in 1991.  But mostly importantly, the customer themselves have changed, with the way they seek, consume, share and obtain media driven by skills and behaviours shaped by engagement and interaction with technology.

 

The same progressive shift in user behaviors is clearly evident in higher education, manifesting itself in similar shifts to our 4P’s (Price has been thrown into turmoil by the free aspect of MOOCs and £9000 fees in England, Product is shifting through OERs, e-learning and again, MOOCs…you can work out the rest).  However, the predominant model of teaching, learning and assessment across many universities is still mired uncritically in 19th century models and practices, as if the radio didn’t even exist and bookstore was a cloth hatted man serving your needs individually by drawing dusty leather bound tomes from his darkened shelves.

 

Making change without doubt one of the most difficult organisational processes of them all.  Management guru Tom Peters used to talk about change by noting that one of the most empowering changes he saw in a workplace was where the team agreed to move a filing cupboard three feet to the left, because that filing cupboard had been getting in the way of work flow for years and no-one ever felt empowered to move it.  When ‘big ticket’ changes like e-learning or a new teaching, learning and assessment strategy come along, the common mantra is to label them as huge changes that will require decades of time and billions of pounds to effect.   When I worked in FE in Australia just repeating that mantra sometimes ensured whole eras of changes actually swept over and past my department (much to my chagrin and regret now!).  How can I change programmes I have planned for, notes and lessons I have carefully designed, room booking systems made years in advance, professional standards inflexible since the time of Harold and the arrow?

 

There are two obvious paths to take this blog post, and I am going to ignore both of them.  It is too easy to compare education to the anachronistic and arguably fading world of physical book retail.  Equally, it is too easy to rant about the slow changing nature of higher education institutions.  Now is the time to take the path of least resistance.  Through a lot of the literature and debate around this topic there have been three ideas, nay comments really, that have resonated with me in terms of how we as developers and strategists for e-learning can make organisational change happen and stick.  As with all my blogs recently, I am not arrogant enough (yet!) to suggest that these suggestions will shake the world and solve all the problems.  They just might however, give you an insight into a way forward.

  1. 1. From little things big things grow

Davidson and Goldberg (2009) argue that ‘…institutions of learning have changed far more slowly than the modes of inventive, collaborative, participatory learning offered by the Internet and an array of contemporary mobile technologies’.  Slowey (2012) noted that in Ireland there has been a high-take up of e-learning platforms such as the VLE, but this is often in a more instrumental manner (efficiency, cost etc).  Trying to change the entire practice of any institution is a difficult task. That said, it is unsustainable that learners arrive at HE with skills that are out of sync with those required to engage in study and then are different again to those required to gain and participate in practice.  There is some evidence to suggest that e-learning in institutions is often the purview of the e-learning evangelist, someone who is motivated to try different things constantly and that these evangelists represent a minority of provision, bringing into play accusations of scalability and context.  Garofoli and Woodall (2003) used an old marketing concept (the adoption cycle) and applied it to HE, suggesting that many changes don’t get out of the early adopter phase (where e-learning is championed by people who favour ‘revolutionary change’ through self-sufficient, risk taking, experimental behaviours.  Donovan noted (as early as 1999!) that;

‘Early adopters often are lauded as ready-made advocates for technology, but this rampant enthusiasm is a double-edged sword: sometimes it is contagious, but more often, it is perceived as techno-zealotry. This is off-putting to the majority of faculty, who may resist the adoption of technology by saying, ‘I can’t do that because I’m not like him/her’ [an early adopter].’

 

Adopting one small new practice because you are aware that learners and learning has changed is far less frightening that throwing all of it out because some e-learning cheerleader tells you that it works.  I was labelled by a very eminent colleague recently as an e-learning evangelist.  I politely retorted that I am not an e-learning evangelist; I am an evangelist about the benefit that can be had from encouraging people to talk to each other; a much simpler premise for change.  And that is often all it takes to seed change.  How about trying out clickers in your classroom because you want students to engage in opinion sharing? What is the harm in asking learners to share their group interactions with other learners through a Google doc or making a short video on their phone and uploading it to youtube? Instead of printing a huge readings book, how about making a scoop.it site and getting the learners to comment on each reading in a dialogue on the site, or even better, encouraging them to add readings to the list?  These are small incremental changes, but all linked to social interaction and engagement.  They are not sea-changes nor are they barbarians banging at the gate.  There is something to be said for the idea of from little things, big things grow.

2. ‘When I graduate I will probably have a job that doesn’t exist today’

I was watching the rather ubiquitous video made by the Kansas State University five years ago called “A vision of students today’ and the even having watched it many times, that quote above had never really resonated with me until this year.

In so many fields and disciplines the pace of change is facilitating both a change in what we do, but equally where, when and why we do what we do at work.  I have heard many people protest that the modern youth (post and including Gen Y for want of a better descriptor) are not prepared to do the hard yards at work like we did.  In some ways, the way we teach in HE is informed by a similar ‘rite of passage’ approach, where the learner is expected to undergo the same university experience that we did.  Certainly when I finished university the jobs I went for were the same ones that existed before I started (recruited by the same people, the same companies and more than likely the same interview questions!).

 

In my field of marketing, expertise in social media, micro-segmentation, border-less distribution and DIY were not even glimpses on the page of my monolithic textbook.  Even when I was teaching marketing, the skills present in both the curriculum and practice are different to what is required today.  Of course, there are principles, universal truths perhaps, that transcend the ages, but even they get questioned at some point.

 

If we accept that employability and finding a good job are now central motivations for undertaking HE then clearly there needs to be a closer, even symbiotic dialogue between HE and work (or practice).  We also have to accept that without doubt technology has changed the way work happens and the way work is constructed and defined as a function of a consumer or capitalist society.  From learning design through to how we interact with a group of learners in front of us or in front of our screens, the recognition that the way we did it before, or the way we had it done to us maybe insufficient for the requirements of the 21st century learner.  Perhaps we react to this by trying out the benefits of user generated content, encouraging the development of Personal Learning environments, we might set assessments that encourage learners to explore and define professional identity through social media or we might simply model the modern working environment through collaborative or socially engaged activity.

 

3. Learners are not native to technology, they were introduced to it.

In the youtube clip called ‘Rethinking Learning – the 21st century learner’ (linked above) noted e-thinker Henry Jenkins observed that often when we talk about e-learning we get caught up discussing the skills required for the workplace and not the skills required by the 21st century learner to engage as a member of society (which he noted included creativity, civic engagement and socialising).  One teacher (Nichole Pinkard) argued that no child was born digitally native (mirroring much of the debate around Prensky’s work) and that you can trace back to where they were exposed to a piece of technology that resonated for them and they went from simply consuming and using to producing and sharing.  I have seen this happen with my 5 year old niece, who has taken the digital camera we gave her and aggregated traditional photography skills such as depth of field and perspective along with digital skills of texture and colour and shape aligned with the type of photography supported by the camera (as well as taking a mean self-picture!).  Perhaps she will become a photographer, or something else visual, or perhaps not, but the skills of technology use are emerging earlier on our children because of the ubiquity of the technology and its fundamental ability to change the way something is done.

 

The generation of learners entering HE now have used devices, computers, the internet and mobile technology almost all of their life.  They didn’t have to re-learn how to do something (remember going from rotary phones to push button to mobile).  They know how to find information on the internet.  They have developed skills in determining authenticity and realness (see my earlier posts).  They consume and make content (in 2011, over 50% of YouTube’s licensing payments come from user generated content and depending on definitions between 66 and 80% of videos uploaded are user generated).  They bring with them skills to HE we can chose to ignore through our teaching, learning and assessment or that we can chose to build on and embrace them.  We as a profession cannot continue to promote and support the ‘empty vessel’ mode of HE teaching and learning, where we assume that students start university ready to be filled with all the knowledge we choose to disseminate.  Once again, small initiatives and ideas can be the way to bring about this change without tearing down the walls of the lecture theatre.  Student-led learning such as class presentations can be enhanced to encourage creativity and innovation not repetition, learners can be supported to build and develop networks between groups and cohorts through collaborative and inter-disciplinary projects like the one run at the University of Technology, Sydney called ‘Shopfront’ (see http://www.shopfront.uts.edu.au/).  Mobile phones can be embraced as a way of linking notes to practice in a classroom, or a method of crowd-sourcing or resource discovery.  None of this is rocket science.  What is important to note is that I strongly believe that underpinning of this should be a vision for what kind of institution you want to be a part of, what kind of pedagogy informs your learning, teaching and assessment, how do you want find out about your learners and adapt to their skills?  And that this vision should be supported by action, people, evaluation and sharing.  It should align pedagogy and technology in an agile and collaborative way.  And finally that there is not one size this will fit all and they as markets have fractured, retail has personalised and the largest selling book of 2012 was originally a piece of internet distributed Twilight fan fiction, we also need to find unique and personalised paths through our reconstruction.


‘I can’t count the reasons I should stay, one by one they all just fade away’ – The power of community in higher education and work

The idea of a community, the spirit and goodwill it can create, the passions and arguments it invariably engenders and the potential for learning within one has been a passion of mine since I was a youthful, brown-eyed teenager running discos and band events for my peers at school.  At all stages of my career, I can point to where my practice has intersected with communities, either as part of one or linking to others.  It is the common thread that links my personal to professional life and has driven my daily activity for over two decades.

 

When I worked for one of Australia’s largest book chains in the 80s and 90s, I led a project to create communities of science-fiction and fantasy readers, many isolated by distance and context, where the store and a very primitive on-line and mail network became a hub got people to share opinions and passions.   I was involved in community media for over ten years as a producer and board member, which highlighted some of the difficulties that can arise from community building, however on the other hand, demonstrated the absolute power of being part of something that can change the wider community or its members and make things better.  This sense of community, of belonging, of interaction, collaboration and shared differences (and perhaps indifferences) has influenced my opinions and attitudes towards open access, creative commons, social media, learning and teaching and politics.  It is from these experiences that I have come to passionately believe that communities (or networks or group, or whatever you choose to call this collective of people) are one of the most powerful forces for learning, social interaction and emancipation.  Belonging, shared beliefs and practices, and a sense of ownership are emotional and personal tie lines, connecting us to others, both similar and different.

 

Prior to moving to the UK three years ago, I worked for a large public further education institute called TAFE NSW, located in the south-west of Sydney, Australia.  Within my department, the notion of a community underpinned both the way we worked and the way we engaged with our learners.  Within the department, I was lucky enough to work with one of the most amazing group of teachers I have had ever had the privilege to know. They were passionate about learning and teaching.  They never assumed the learners were incapable of learning, whatever level they were at.  They were open to experimentation and innovation.  They worked with each other, not against each other, sharing resources and ideas, coming to team meetings.  Everyone was part of the family and everyone worked towards making the community stronger.  It is a great example of how work practice was enhanced by community.  Work was collaborative.   Load and responsibility were shared.  People passionately argued for what they believed.  There was conflict, but it was generally constructive and creative, borne out of shared belief in the brand and the work we were doing.  This was often despite an organisation that more than often did not support them, reward them or value them.  The department met and exceeded targets, kept to budget and improved student outcomes.

 

A community of practitioners learns from each other, respects each other and draws on the expertise and experience of other networks and communities, developing links beyond the fuzzy boundaries of their own community.  All the members of this team have now spread themselves to the four winds (three different countries at least).  But the community still exists. It’s bigger, it’s influence different and it’s resonance more wide-ranging.  It has evolved.  This is what happens with communities, new members and new contexts ensure the community survives and changes.   It is another transdisciplinary skill critical to maintaining and keeping connections within and between communities.

 

The notion of community is not a new concept, social movement theory has linked community to the emancipation and democratic participation of individuals in society (Diani 1992; McAdam, McCarthy & Zald 1988; Pateman 1970).  Lave and Wenger (1991) have talked about the idea of communities of practice, where learning occurs through action and practice within a community.  John Seely Brown (2001) in a very interesting evaluation of ‘Learning in the Digital Age’ argues that ‘Learning is a remarkably social process. In truth, it occurs not as a response to teaching, but rather as a result of a social framework that fosters learning…it’s through participation in communities that deep learning occurs…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).  Writers such Kamenetz (2010) and Siemens and Weller (2011) argue that one of the fundamental processes of learning is social interaction and socialisation, which can occur within communities supported or enabled by social media. McMillan and Chavis (1986) in their landmark work on community, position the notions of understanding and acceptance as central to a community often formed by the creation of boundaries defining rather than celebrating difference.

The development of communities should be a fundamental part of modern higher education.  It should sit within the process of curriculum design, learning and teaching, assessment and lifelong learning.  Teaching that is dominated by monologues such as a lecture, the use of technology that replicates the existing individual approaches to learning (such as the way a VLE is often used (Hanley 2011)) and the continued reliance on an assessment system that requires and privileges an assertion of individual understanding is not modern learning. It is memory, it is absorption and it is repetition; it is not application, use, social contextualisation and collaboration.  We often demonise collaboration and call it collusion, punished punitively or call it failed group work, where politics and personalities overrun learning.  At TAFE, our work with students occurred broadly within a restrictive administration and curricular system, with formal exams and nationally set and monitored curriculum and quality enhancement.  Despite this, much of our work with students was collaborative, using methods such as project based inquiry, simulations, case studies, work-based learning and student-led learning (for more, you can read this paper).  We tried to find ways to link the learners across disciplines, with marketers working with events management students and radio people collaborating with musicians and marketers.  It is in these spaces between disciplines that innovations and creativity will emerge.  We clearly saw in a number of projects we ran examples of where students learnt from each other, developed understanding through practice and did so with minimal intervention from the teachers.  These are powerful and resonant ways to learn (and a topic for another blog!) (Brown 2001; Nicolescu 1997).

 

When people enter the world of work, they will need to engage in socialisation, collaboration, team work and sharing, no matter what the context.  When they change jobs, new job opportunities will arise from within their community or because of their interactions with other communities. These communities won’t exist through old students clubs or reunions; they will be virtual, connected across and through platforms.  They will be lasting and agile, drawing on new members and connecting with others, without boundaries and managed intuitively.  Engagement may be more widespread and infrequent, as consumption in modern communities sometimes wins over interaction (how many people read your Facebook status vs. commenting on it…or read vs. comment on this blog!).  The technology supports the on-going viability of these communities, keeping them alive when in the past time would have seem them fracture.  However, it is a new range of skills that people bring to communities that make them functional and productive.  Brown notes that these are an ‘…ever-evolving language of interpretation and expression, an interactive approach to learning, creating, and responding to information through a complex montage of images, sound, and communication’ (Brown 2001).  Some of the current modes of teaching and learning are not fit for a new purpose; they are part of the toolkit, not the whole box and dice.  By themselves, at best, they only passively support the learner to acquire and the transdisciplinary skills required to make and develop their community.

 

My alum from my undergraduate days is still connected through Facebook, some of us a little greyer or balder.  Some of them are my closest friends, sharing outings, debate, monopoly and art.  These connections are strong and important, both emotionally and personally.  In some ways this community formed despite our education, which was didactic, non-interactive and individualistic.  We learnt these skills ourselves, as millions of other learners have over centuries past.  Perhaps we were lucky. But imagine the possibility if all of higher education supported as part of the broad church of education, this kind of skill development, collaborative knowledge creation and social interaction.  Imagine if every learner ‘left’ their degree with a community that they were an active and engaged member of and had the skills to form and lead other communities, linking each together where appropriate. If those communities then informed and created the curriculum that the next generation engaged with and were a part of the learning process not just for each other but for successive communities.

This blog post is dedicated to the memory of the wonderful Cathy Lee.  A valued and loved member of our community. You are missed.  

 

Brown, J.S. 2001, ‘Learning in the digital age’, The  Internet and the university: 2001 Forum, eds M. Devlin, R. Larson & J. Meyerson, EDUCAUSE, Boulder, CO, pp. 71-86.

Diani, M. 1992, ‘The concept of social movement’, The Sociological Review, vol. 40, no. 1, pp. 1-25.

Hanley, L. 2011, ‘Mashing Up the Institution: Teacher as Bricoleur’, The Radical Teacher, no. 90, pp. 9-14.

Kamenetz, A. 2010, DIY U: Edupunks, edupreneurs, and the coming transformation of higher education, Chelsea Green Publishing.

Lave, J. & Wenger, E. 1991, Situated learning: Legitimate peripheral participation, Cambridge Univ Pr.

McAdam, D., McCarthy, J. & Zald, M. 1988, ‘Social movements’, in D. McAdam, McCarthy, J., Zald, M. & Smelser, N (ed.), Handbook of sociology, Sage Publications, pp. 695-737.

McMillan, D.W. & Chavis, D.M. 1986, ‘Sense of community: A definition and theory’, Journal of community psychology, vol. 14, no. 1, pp. 6-23.

Nicolescu, B. 1997, ‘The transdisciplinary evolution of the university condition for sustainable development’, International Congress – Universities’ Responsibilities to Society, International Association of Universities, Chulalongkorn University, Bankok, Thailand., viewed 2nd May 2012 <http://basarab.nicolescu.perso.sfr.fr/ciret/bulletin/b12/b12c8.htm>.

Pateman, C. 1970, Participation and democratic theory, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Siemens, G. & Weller, M. 2011, ‘Higher education and the promises and perils of social network’, Revista de Universidad y Sociedad del Conocimiento (RUSC), vol. 8, no. 1, pp. 164-170.