Little arguments with myself: Disrupting how we ‘do’ learning Slideshare and Video

I recently gave a talk at the Disruptive Media Learning Lab at Coventry University centred on the debates and the constructs of what might constitute ‘learning experiences’ in a post-digital higher education world. This is a difficult and sometimes divisive debate, but one that we need to have in order to ensure that the future doesn’t cascade away from us.

I offer some of the reasons for why we are where we are and then provide some examples of what learning and teaching could look and should look like (and does in a number of programmes and institutions). I called this ‘Little arguments with myself’ in reference to the sublimely brilliant song by the Minnesota band Low and a track off their amazing ‘Trust’ record. You can catch the clip at the bottom of this post, along with the aforementioned ‘Gloria’ by Patti Smith, which is also referenced in the presentation. Apologies to Alan Sparhawk for adding the ‘s’ to his song title. Enjoy!

…like a fool – Sorting the revolutionary change from the merely cosmetic

*apologies to Alvin Toffler for the appropriation of his quote for the title and to Superchunk for the first part*



“Once I began thinking in terms of waves of change, colliding and overlapping, causing conflict and tension around us, it changed my perception of change itself. In every field, from education and health to technology, from personal life to politics, it became possible to distinguish those innovations that are merely cosmetic, or just extensions of the industrial past, from those that are truly revolutionary.”
Toffler Alvin. The Third Wave. 1980.

I have spent the last few months presenting findings from the first year of a project (from my previous institution) that was designed to transform learning and teaching with technology. Most of the papers have centred on the notions of institutional resistance to technology and how through a process of encouraging play and experimentation with technology, we believed that the vision could overcome this resistance to change and open up the debates around the changing nature of pedagogy. We kept coming back to the same conclusion, shoulder shrugged. Resistance seemed to be an inevitable outcome of even the smallest and least controversial of innovations. This resistance came in many and varied forms, from the outright to the passive. It permeated all aspects of the implementation. Everything from the hearts and minds exercises to the practical expressions of benefit to the students was seen through the lens of resistance. Both inside and outside the institution there were colleagues who were interested and engaged participators in the debate, whilst there were others who questioned the practicality or even the point of such philosophical musings, preferring a more practical take on technological innovation (DIY or not do it all seemed to the polarised positions).

The more I presented these findings, the more I found myself almost apologising for my views. I became critical of the project and our apparent failings in achieving the aspirational intentions we set out to achieve. I started second guessing many of the insights or broader ideas that emerged from this intense period of research and reflection. I was using phrases like ‘I don’t I want to throw the baby out with the bathwater’ and ‘I am not advocating a revolution’. When in many ways I actually wanted to advocate that so we could have a real, engaged and impactful debate, rather than a question or two at conference, usually prefaced with the words ‘This is not so much a question, more a statement…’. I wanted to be the radical voice, challenging orthodoxy and unsettling the status quo. Not because it felt good to be a rebel but because I honestly believe that innovation comes from challenging your ideas with others and collaborating to do something better. But instead I retreated into saying what I believed and putting my hands up and almost saying ‘sorry’ after I had said it.

Recently I read a book chapter by James G. March from Stanford (published in 1976) called ‘The Technology of Foolishness’ where he argues that organisations and the decisions they make can become wrapped up in a web of ‘received doctrine’ of intelligence and choice. He aligns this doctrine with three assumptions of rational decision making (the pre-existence of purpose, the necessity of consistency and the primacy of rationality). Any e-Learning approach is judged by the objectives and purposes it sets (and not always achieves), the importance of ensuring that consistency is achieved across disciplines and through qualifications usually resulting in the provision of a lowest common denominator service (where the least controversial aspects become the organisational norm) and that the rational expectations of faculty and student experience are indeed more primary to the aspirational expectations of people choosing to innovate, experiment and push boundaries.

March argues that we as adults have constructed a world in which we know what is good for ourselves. We ‘know’ the consequences of any decision we or others make, whilst children are freed from this rationality and predictive intelligence. The result in the case of institutional resistance to technology is a series of common mantras….

#‘It’s a nice idea, but it won’t work’,
#‘It would be good to do if we had more time’
#’I am sure it’s a great thing with the kind of students YOU teach, but with my kind of students…’
#’The lecture has worked for 125 years, why do we need to change it?’
#’Students don’t know what they want, but our employer’s sure do’

So, why do we find it hard to even have these debates without resorting to a series of well-worn defences based on our understandings of what are the almost guaranteed consequences of what is being proposed? March argues that for effective decision making we need to ‘suspend (our) rational imperatives towards consistency’. What does this mean in terms of e-Learning? For me, this is about introducing conceptual and attitudinal behaviours into higher education design, pedagogy and management that will not always embraced, either by staff overworked at the coalface or by management beset by constraints and objectives too often in conflict or contrary to the philosophical intent of the academy.

March describes these behaviours in the context of what he calls the ‘technology of foolishness’. Linked closely to the notions of play, where the usual rules are suspended allowing us to seek out new rules through experimentation and reject the usual objections to rational behaviours or accepted intelligence. Resistance to technology in higher education occurs despite the overwhelming evidence of societal change arising from the internet and social media (technology-change sceptics? Technology change is not man-made perhaps?). People who play with technology in higher education are often seen as zealots, tinkerers, or techies or at best, early adopters. Their work is often marginalised to their own context, shared with the converted and siloed within e-Learning-centric activity and practice. Many institutions still actively separate learning and e-Learning as if the ‘e’ part of this cutting edge experimental state is not really the same as teaching. Comparing online learning and face to face teaching is seen as not comparing apples with apples. The debates around using technology and changing pedagogy are positioned as dichotomous, mutually exclusive and competing paradigms, ignoring the decades of successful and innovative blended learning.

Take the dreaded MOOC debate. This has become rent with almost an ideological extremism bordering on George W Bush’s euphemistic ‘you are with us or against us’ argument. I recently presented at a MOOC conference where I took what I thought was a fairly critical approach to the debates around the impacts of MOOCs on HE. Granted it was to a room of MOOC advocates and providers, so ‘fox in a henhouse’ was probably an appropriate metaphor. But I felt, not through any comments or questions or responses, that I needed to temper my opinions a little, ensure it was clear that I was not a MOOC sceptic or technology neophyte making uninformed observations around a well understood field. What became clear to me after presenting these opinions in a number of places is that there is an accepted and arguably melodramatic narrative that MOOCs will change the world, the education has already passed a tipping point, weak brands will die and strong brands will survive, just like the music industry. Anyone who argues against this is misinformed, ignorant or an idealist pining for the days gone by. And it is easy to portray those who disagree with you as naysayers, luddites or people who just don’t get it. Now, this is not a universal set of behaviours. I have had some engaging and pragmatic debates with MOOC players, and both our understandings are better for it.

As a sector it is critical that we apply the same rigour and criticality to our own behaviours as we do to our students and our research. We need to be able to engage in debates, discussions and experiments at an institutional level. It is equally important that these debates are not just navel gazing or pointless circles of rhetoric and opinion. They need to be centred on questioning the key assumptions made in our delivery of learning and teaching.

Graeme Gibbs wrote his seminal piece ‘Twenty terrible reasons for lecturing’ in 1981, yet 34 years on we are still arguing about it and every word he said is prescient today as it was then. What was the number one song in 1981? Bette Davis Eyes by Kim Carnes.

Are we still playing that song every year saying well, it worked well for the radio in 1981, let’s keep playing it? And by the way, ask an average 18 year old who Bette Davis was? Radio silence for sure there.

Now, we can assume that, for example, the debate around the lecture has been won and the evidence is overwhelmingly in favour of the sage (by sheer evidence of activity). We can equally assume that it is harder to change the status quo than it is to accept it. But for me the debate that occurs around the lecture is not interesting. It is like a football game, where one team keeps back passing and plodding around until the other guys get a chance to do the same. March equally agrees that a dichotomous ‘one or the other’ approach will get us nowhere in enhancing and promoting innovative decision making. He argues for a combination of foolishness and rationality that will allow for the development of ‘unusual combinations of attitudes and behaviours supported by an embracing of playfulness and inconsistency. The ability of an institution to embrace and celebrate real innovation is crucial. The ability to reconsider what we consider success and failure and how we let these expectations shape the way we implement and evaluate new ideas and strategies.

“…an education that is understood in complexity terms cannot be conceived in terms of preparation for the future. Rather, it must be construed in terms of participation in the creation of possible futures” Davis and Sumara (2009)

What does this mean for those of us who are arguing for new approaches for teaching and learning? Are we ground down by these resistances, the side-tracking and the endless debates about the same thing? We need to re-examine the way we approach the debates around the efficacy or importance of making change. These are three fairly general observations I would make, that might represent a starting point to the debate. I will note that these could be seen as entirely aspirational or perhaps idealistic. In the light of my previous reflections, I just say, SO WHAT! Debate me!!

1. We must create and nurture an organisational culture that supports innovation. People who experiment and challenge rules and recognised ways of doing things are not rebels, or radicals or crazies. Innovation comes from places that can’t be actively pigeonholed or defined. An organisational imperative to support innovative practice is crucial. The ability to fail in those innovations equally critical. What does it look like? No idea! It will be different from one place to the next. Not everyone can do the 3M model. But what is important is that innovation is not a buzzword, or a work package. Innovation is a culture; it is an attitude to challenging the status quo and actually having the will and support to change if it proves necessary. People doing innovative stuff need to get rewarded and celebrated.

2. We must accept that there is a role of ambiguity, chaos and uncertainty in an organisation. Now, any one of us who has been in HE for any length of time is pretty well screaming at the top of their lungs – WELCOME TO MY LIFE! And yes, that much is true. These factors have often been linked with fear and paralysis to provide a gorgeous and lush motivational cocktail for faculty and staff in HE. But, the ability of staff to dive in without knowing the answer, develop counter-intuitive approaches to learning design, use technology in a way that seems to be against the institutional systems put in place to govern it and share those experiences in an environment of support not defence, will at least encourage them to try again. At best it will be the game changing, epoch making thing that MOOCs will never be. How did we come up with the model of teaching and learning we use now…someone tried something different and it worked. Wonder if they were regarded as pariahs?

3. We must understand how learning has already changed and in what ways do we need to respond to the change. The learners arriving at university are already e-learners, with lives lived in a post-digital world, where there is no real and online world, there is just the world. They have developed skills for living in a 21st century world which are different or at least adapted from those required to live in a pre-digital world. Technology is not class or category of learning. It is a means, a society changing and generation shaping means. It is transformative, emancipatory, democratic (for now), challenging and contrary. Institutions have to develop the skills of adaptation, agility, flexibility and criticality around technology and its impact on learning. The line between learning and eLearning is already well and truly blurred. Perhaps it needs to vanish altogether.

My final quote from March goes a little like this, ‘There is little magic in the world, and foolishness in people and organisations is one of the many things that fail to produce miracles’. I don’t have a magic bullet, or equally bulletproof case studies that prove beyond this will work. This is however, the debate we have to have. The debate that we need to start in order to challenge, reinforce or change the way we do higher education. Do I have solutions, answers, suggestions or models that might help? Yes, of course! You can dig through the archives of this blog for the views of a range of eminent scholars, practitioners and rock and roll victims (I will leave it to you to decide which I am!). But perhaps in a small way, each of us engaging in this debate will go some of the way to ignoring the hyperbole and get to the heart of what learning and teaching will look like in the post-digital age. And yes, it will more than likely have to be revolutionary or at least different from what went before.

Davis, B., & Sumara, D. (2009). Complexity as a theory of education. TCI (Transnational Curriculum Inquiry), 5(2), 33-44.
March, J. G. (1976). The technology of foolishness. Ambiguity and choice in organizations, 69, 81.

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

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

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

Shake some Action – Flamin’ Groovies



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


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


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

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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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