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

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.

 

Making

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.

 

Identity

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

‘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 jobs.ac.uk.  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.

 

Discontinuity

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…

 

Authenticity

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.

 

Community

‘…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.

 

PDLE

 

 

 

Re-imagining learning for a post-digital world (part 1) – Solutions not problems

Solutions not problems

REIMAGINING

 

Over the last few years I have made the case for a substantive and meaningful debate about redefining pedagogy and reimagining teaching and learning firstly for a digital age and more recently for what many are calling the post-digital world.

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

‘I am going to blow the whole thing to kingdom come’: In praise of discontinuity within a digital pedagogy 

Shit or get off the pot: Why are we still talking about the seismic impacts technology will have on higher education? 

 

But why do we need to debate or design a new pedagogical approach for our modern institutions? There are now more university students and graduates than ever before. The impending death of institution as foretold by many MOOC advocates never happened. Even the studied, reflective and critical arguments made by authors such as John Seely Brown, Randy Garrison, George Siemens and Martin Weller about the impacts of technology on the skills and competencies required by institutions and academics have only been realized in part or through specific components of the wider educational experience.

“The kind of learning that will define the twenty-first century is not taking place in a classroom”
A New Culture of Learning: Cultivating the Imagination for a World of Constant Change; Douglas Thomas and John Seely Brown (2011)

 

‘Tasks that were previously the domains of faculty are now under the control of learners: searching for information, creating spaces of interaction, forming learning networks, and so on. Through blogs, wikis, online video, podcasts and open educational resources, learners are able to access content from leading lecturers and researchers around the world. Through the use of social media, learners are able to engage and interact with each other (and in some cases, directly with researchers and faculty)’ George Siemens and Martin WellerHigher education and the promises and perils of social network’, Revista de Universidad y Sociedad del Conocimiento (RUSC), vol. 8, no. 1, pp. 164-170

 

Even the much quoted Alvin Toffler line (‘The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn’) becomes demonstrable mainly in the context of incredibly poor spelling borne out of auto-correct and predictive text rather than in the form of transferable skills and knowledge that can be applied to ever changing professional and personal circumstances.  Time after time in surveys like the NSS we see students wanting more of what we might call a traditional academic experience. They want more feedback, they ask for more ‘face time’ with academics, they continue to want lectures and tutorials. The disconnects between the way learners live their lives and the experiences learners have in the academy are hard to disassemble. It is a complex interplay of expectation, outcome, explicit and tacit connections between the experiences informed by exposed and imagined discipline specificities. It is critical though that we as academics and teachers look to understand these disconnects. Perhaps it is acceptable to simply allow the two streams to exist in parallel with the occasional eruptions, disruptions and transformation dealt with as they arise. But maybe we are missing a trick. Nothing stands still. Industries rise and fall. Movements, momentums, equilibriums all change. To assume that we as institutions will not learn ourselves would be dangerous (and patently incorrect in part as there are so many brilliant examples across the sector of where we have). However, there is a dominant institutional paradigm, which in reality is the giant elephant in the centre of the room.

 

The elephant in the room
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Within many institutions, the patterns and responses of resistance to change position anything different as being the position that has to justify why? There is little criticality around the norm. There is a lot of rigorous defence. It is up to the people advocating for change to make the case for ‘why’. It has worked for centuries as a reason for doing something holds water, even in the light of accusations of historical revisionism (e.g. the modern mass lecture doesn’t date from the 14th century, it is a purely 20th century construct made possible by broadcast technologies). Doing something differently puts you a limb, out on the edge, fringing zealotism. I wrote about this story extensively in my last blog post on ambient conservatism and risk aversion and the behaviours that go with working in those environments

 

Perhaps there is a not a strong or persuasive enough reason for many teachers and their institutions to change. I fundamentally believe that any teacher, convinced of the efficacy and benefit of a pedagogical change that enhances the outcomes for students would not resist that change. However let me apply two caveats. 1. Rational actor and 2. Perfect world. When you throw in the complexity of the institution into the mix, then it all gets a bit messy. The institution rusts behaviours, practices and pedagogy on through policy, the building and updating of the estate, staff recruitment and promotion and how they respond to league tables and the NSS.  All the while, the learners, their jobs, their community and their learning trajectories are changing at pace. The 21st century skills put forward by writers like Henry Jenkins are not a myth. They intersect through social media, collaboration, interaction, relationships, consumption, work and life. If you have never seen them, Jenkins explores them in his brilliant work on Participatory Culture, linked here.

 

Play: The capacity to experiment with the surroundings as a form of problem solving. Performance: The ability to adopt alternative identities for the purpose of improvisation and discovery. Simulation: The ability to interpret and construct dynamic models of real-world processes. Appropriation: The ability to meaningfully sample and remix media content. Multitasking: The ability to scan the environment and shift focus onto salient details. Distributed cognition: The ability to interact meaningfully with tools that expand mental capacities. Collective intelligence: The ability to pool knowledge and compare notes with others toward a common goal. Judgement: The ability to evaluate the reliability and credibility of different information sources. Trans-media navigation: The ability to follow the flow of stories and information across multiple modalities. Networking: The ability to search for, synthesize, and disseminate information. Negotiation: The ability to travel across diverse communities, discerning and respecting multiple perspectives, and grasping and following alternative norms.

 

What does this mean for learning? Learners arriving at university are already e-learners and have been almost all of their lives. Information search has been transformed by the internet and then made necessary by the sheer immensity of information. Learners have had to develop different cognitive approaches to seeking and searching behaviours, to manage disorientation, non-linear browsing and authentication and validation of information. The notions of what is real and authentic are defined very differently. Identity is fluid, rent with multiplicity and diversity. There is no visible distinction between the on-line world and the real world. There is just the world. How we use networks and connections in order to share content, validate opinion and acquire information has fundamentally changed with social media. This is not about the technology. This is about the change it has facilitated.

 

‘…(learners) communicate in a language that many academics don’t yet understand. It’s an everevolving language of interpretation and expression, an interactive approach to learning, creating, and responding to information through a complex montage of images, sound, and communication. Students are pushing learning into a new dimension; it’s a mistake to continue to try to teach them in time-worn ways. Their choices of communication need to be diversified to include, for example, visual interpretations of texts and historical figures or soundtracks for poetry. Students can take advantage of the enormous resources of the Web, transforming what they find there by using digital technologies to create something new and expressive.’ John Seely Brown 2001

 

And, this is not happening to learners as they grace adulthood, this is part of their primary education, or even earlier. Like counting rods were to my generation, the phone and the tablet are tools of learning (amongst other things). These skills and devices are brought to higher education in a highly tailored, personalised and agile digital backpack. It is not a universal one-size fits all backpack for sure. Not all students are experts in all technologies. But when they arrive, the pedagogical framework that underpins much of our education doesn’t value or even recognise those skills. This is not a ‘have or have not’ polarised debate. Those are pointless when discussing learning because they extremes are just that, extreme. There are degrees here. The VLE requires digital literacies and applies some of the ‘modern’ frameworks of search and access skill, although it can and often does privilege sequential access to knowledge, enforce a linear methodology of consumption and browsing and doesn’t support excursions of clicking to other sources of information. 20th century learning wrapped in 21st century technology. A discussion forum seems to support some of the new learning behaviours (not 21st century – in fact one of the earliest components of the internet, pre-world wide web was the bulletin board dating back to the early 70s). They support students to engage with each other, discuss and learn on-line. In reality, there are many studies that argue that students don’t use them and if they do, they need to be rewarded with grades. I counted over 100 studies published over the last 10 years aimed at enhancing the effectiveness of the forum with solutions ranging from timely instructor interventions, to redefining success measures (a forum with little discussion is not a failure!) to positioning forums as solely on-line tools where the deficits can be picked up in a face to face mode. So, they remain the holy grail of blended learning…the course with an active discussion forum!

 

But back to the ‘no persuasive reason’ argument briefly – do students have a persuasive enough reason to push for pedagogical change to their education experience? Is it pragmatic to approach education as a transaction, where you accept (and sometimes propagate) the conditions in order to graduate? Or have we through history, received wisdom or a keening sense of nostalgia created the expectations of a higher education experience and rewarded the acceptance of them? Even the completion of a degree programme is often not enough. In the UK, the government reward institutions for increasing the number of ‘good’ degrees (2:1 or higher). There is a growing movement of modern learners and graduates who ascribe to the theory of 2:1 or your career plans are shot. If all of that is in the hands of the institution and system of teaching and learning, what reward is there to challenge it?

 

Solutions not problems
What I am promising from the next two posts is not a solution in a box. It is not an easily defined pedagogy like social constructivism or connectivism. It is not clean or neat. It is messy and chaotic. The common factor – the belief that the status quo is not inevitable, that the perception of equilibrium is changeable. That innovation is not a buzzword, nor is a dirty word. This is the first part of a three-part article. Parts two and three, which will be published after summer, outline what I am calling a ‘learning experience’ approach to teaching and learning in a post-digital world. How do we leverage the massive potential of modern learning in a higher education context? How do make higher education better and more relevant to the community who clearly value the contribution that a higher education can make? How do we empower teachers and learners to change and make the persuasive case to the institution to change along with them?

 

You can now read parts 2 and 3 of this blog post.  These will introduce the idea of post-digital learning experiences as a solution to the problems put forward here.

 

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.’

(image used under a Creative Commons licence (CC BY-NC 2.0) from id-iom – https://www.flickr.com/photos/id-iom/16617118976