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.

 

ac•tion
/?akSH?n/
Noun
1. The fact or process of doing something, typically to achieve an aim

ac•tiv•i•ty
/ak?tivit?/
Noun
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

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