Higher Education is caught, flash hard in the eye of the perfect storm. Brexit, Trump, the death of the expert, the rise of the VC funded learning machine, decreasing numbers wanting to go to University and the increasing resistances of an emboldened institutional population. So, you might think that change is the byword for the modern institution, pro-acting and reacting in equal measures to the forces that imperil and empower it. But that is not what’s happening. Each year of enrolments sees a repeat of last year plus or minus 10% with whiteboards washed down, VLEs reset, inductions planned and the occasional blast from the laying of foundations of new buildings filled with the old order. Institutional systems rust on practices and processes, from freezing timetables to filling buildings from Week A to Week Z in an ordered fashion, hour by hour, with front facing spaces ready for the next batch of fresh faced empty vessels. The drive to start the next semester is already too far gone to think about arresting its momentum and making change happen. Too many people, too many resources and way too much risk.
On the other hand, institutional strategy outlines a sometimes-utopian vision of alignments, engagements, innovations and a so much better experience. One where everyone pulls in the same direction to make the institution a player and a partner in the digital world. The daring audacity of the ambition set out by our institutions is inspiring, unachievable and necessary, often in one breath. When you want to be part of a change, then having audacious targets moves you from the hamster wheel of eternal trying into a more longitudinal trajectory. But audacity is the bedfellow of risk and change. Standing still and providing the students with the same educational experience we offered them in 1979, with a few YouTube videos thrown might afford you the opportunity to slowly fall behind. So, what do you do?
Future Happens is an initiative started last year on the back of a successful changehack event held in London. The aim of the first changehack was to bring people together to debate, discuss and share how we collectively address the tensions outlined above. How do we make the square peg of the way we do things fit the triangular hole of institutional ambition? For many of us who run Future Happens, this is one of the most critical challenges facing educational technologists, developers, course and programme leaders, student unions and senior management. We posed this challenge to the people who came to the first Future Happens hack ‘Digital is not the Future’ and a similar challenge will be at the heart of three changehacks we will be running in the Autumn:
It is easy to make pronouncements about pedagogical, technological or institutional change from the ‘islands’, when the consequences of advocating for and implementing that change are limited to your world, your classroom, your twitter feed. They are safe spaces, full of friendly faces and welcoming and supportive practices. But decisions, assertions and opinions all have consequences; for your students, for the worlds they inhabit and for your institutions. The challenge comes when you need to scale what you speak. You need to make the future happen for your entire institution. What happens when the VC, the Dean or the Director says ‘we need to this transform the whole institution’? What do you say and do? How do you make sure you say the right things, in the right rooms, with the right people?
Pedagogical change is not just necessary. It is unavoidable. Readers of this blog will have seen me make the case that learning has changed in the digital age. Learners have changed and what they need to know is changing constantly as society and skills fragment and coalesce in different guises. But resistance to change is powerful. Keeping the status quo as it has been can be comforting and calming. It means all those unsettling feelings like fear, anger, distrust, polarisation and political malfeasance can be focused on one group: those who want you to feel like that by changing things. And maybe, they are right. Pedagogical change can be bad, it can throw the baby out with the bathwater. It can damage people’s livelihoods, professional identities and practices. But. BUT. Change is unavoidable. Especially in learning and teaching.
Reason 1 – Why would we avoid doing learning, teaching and assessment in ways that make the education for our students better? Why would we, as professional academics ignore research and data that suggest that many of the more traditional ways of teaching and learning are not as effective as diversifying them, using technology in agile and informed ways and most importantly, finding ways people can work together?
Reason 2 – Things are not the same as they ever were. There are new roles needed in teaching and learning and that change requires ambition, collegiality and expertise, but it also induces fear. It requires people to be willing to own the change. It needs people with skin in the game. Lead from the front, work with others, take risks, be responsible, fall over, get back up again, make a mess, tidy it all up, wear stupid glasses and share the selfie on Instagram and most of all, again, find ways in which people can work together. This is not a fight. This is not them versus us.
Pedagogical change in higher education, in whatever form you optimistically or pessimistically think it might be, needs people to be part of it. Despite all the best efforts of years of bureaucratic structures and behaviours, it won’t come from the top. Tenures are short, structures are layered on top and short-term fixism, reactions to league tables and medals and the immediacy of falling financials mean that some of the fears that change instill are realised in 3D. Equally, it won’t come from the bottom up. HE institutions are not grassroots political parties, with burgeoning emancipatory calls to arms to defend practices at the barricades. As I have argued before, in terms of strategic change, it has to come from the middle. And in this instance, I mean it has to come from the centre. Not the much-maligned university centre of supposedly failed services, brickbats and rotting bouquets. But the very cultural heart of the institution. What is stands for. What it believes. The critical centre that provides the interlinking of something that holds us all the institution. This centre is shaped by our common experiences of being part of this highly fraught, polarised and often lonely and not fun place we call work. Hell yes HE is liminal. Its borders and boundaries are frayed, contested and its belief structures and systems are under constant threat from government, from industry, from the private sector and from a society itself that is not sure what it really wants. But there is a sense of strategic unity that comes from collectively experienced liminality. And that sense of unity can be enhanced and leveraged to create and sustain pedagogical change.
What can you do to make change happen from the centre?
In the end, that is the most important question, isn’t it? What can you do? We all believe that education is important, valuable and makes society better. We all want what is best for students. I won’t profess to have the answers. What I can tell you is how I try and do things. Pedagogical change is critical to doing what I do. Pedagogical change is also the hardest thing to land in any HE environment. Have I got it right and delivered transformative institution wide pedagogical change? You know where I work and the answer is we are a long way from where we want to be. It is so much easier to feed the elephant in the room, pat her trunk and notice that she is squatting uncomfortably on the chaise lounge than to ignore that its there.
- Have an evidenced opinion
Know your stuff, build the case, collect the evidence and be sure of the facts.
- Find out where to say that opinion and be a part of the process
Opining on twitter or the echo chamber of conferences filled with people of the same mind as you is great. It is reinforcing and makes us feel that we are not alone. It won’t change your institution or the experience for your students. Get into the room, whatever that might look like. Be a part of the capacity for change and persuade people of your vision.
- Bring others along with you
This can’t be done alone. Change is an inherently social activity. Persuading yourself is like taking a selfie only for your to see. The risk comes from sharing it, engaging with the selfies of others, helping people to make better selfies and then deciding actually we need something better than a selfie.
- Have skin in the game, make a commitment
Self-evident. Put something behind your views, commit time, resources or every ounce of your persuasion reserves. If this matters to you, if keeping education, vibrant and valued part of society is important then put skin in the game.
- Don’t throw stones, don’t build walls
Kind of the same really. Just because you have decided that nothing is going to change in your course, your kit, your teaching until you retire doesn’t mean you can make others do the same.
- Don’t be afraid and don’t seed fear
Change makes people scared. Bat shit scared. Especially when it gets linked by people trying to stop the change to emotive things like job security, demotion, workloads, risk of exposure. Don’t let people make you scared. Don’t seed the fear of other people. It is cheap politics.
- Don’t just listen; talk, debate, discuss, argue
The point of change is to bring people along with it. It never works doing change to people. Engage staff, students, society, your next-door neighbor, your boss and your team in the conversation. Make it passionate, make it engaged, make it open, make it two-way and make it productive. Make sure the conversation leads somewhere, that people can connect the dots and see how their part fits into the bigger picture.
- Want to make things better, seeing how you can
The Hummingbirds say this so much better than I could, from their song ‘Get on Down’ released in 1989
You can depend upon it, I’ve got my focus in you
She said ‘Don’t you be so negative,
I’m trying to think positive’
From the Hummingbirds song ‘Get on Down’
Vale Simon Holmes