From the Middle Out – making pedagogical change happen in a complex, messy world

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At the heart of defining and understanding resistance is the idea that two opposing forces are at work; the force being resisted and the force doing the resisting. In terms of universities and the way they engage with change, the forces of resistance can create dichotomous arguments; Traditional vs techno-centric.  Student-led vs research informed. New vs old. Affordances vs Resistances. Technologies vs Pedagogies. Service vs Strategy.

 

These arguments then become entrenched positions for which even the slightest weakness (showing admiration for the benefits of other side) indicates that you have swapped teams.  Handy little clichéd arguments emerge that privilege ‘established technologies’ like the VLE over new fangled innovations, or that talk about technological innovation as something to come, a concept that exists only in potential, like the flying car or world peace. In an earlier blog post, I described these types of narratives as a form of passive resistance to change, where there was a sense of accepting the need for change whilst resisting in other ways. Westberry, McNaughton, Billot & Gaeta (2015) argue that in fact the bigger issue arises where technology challenges the pedagogical primacy of the academics ‘goals, beliefs and practice’.  It is in this context that people have to construct plans, strategies and arguments to implement pedagogical change, especially change informed and inspired by technology.

 

In some senses, in HE we are chasing our tails. At the end of the day, much of that change we talk about in terms of potential has been and gone.  It is not inevitable when it has already happened.  Potential is not a measure of the past (you are reading a blog people, not a position paper or my own private diary!).  The problem we have as a sector is that whilst the world around us has engaged in the digital, education in the main remains staunchly divided on whether we need to.  The fact that learning technologists and educational developers have to make the case that innovation is not just a nice thing to do, but is essential for our survival seems to be as ludicrous as having to argue that the worlds climate has changed and we risk global annihilation by doing nothing…oh, oops.

 

The fact remains that technology and innovation often get side-lined in institutional discourses and funding pitches because they are thought of as an add-on, a luxury, value-added or simply the domain of the techno-mages. However, in institutional strategies and plans, innovation, technology and cutting edges approaches dominate the public discourse. Technology offers brand value, a differentiator from the rest of the pack.  This leads advocates to constantly cite strategy as the ace in the pack for our activity.  We can deliver this innovation in spades.  Just fund us, give us the resources we need to unbind us from the eternal circle of system updates and getting the basics right.  Let us turn to the two established strategies for implementing organisational change.

 

Bottom up

We can leverage the bottom up enthusiasm of our champions, who have been piloting and practicing for decades.  Their momentum and enthusiasm will eventually infect the rest of the faculty.  We can take their interventions and scale them to larger cohorts and bigger projects.

But the problem with bottom up is that institutions are a bit like a cow, impossible to tip over (yes, that myth has been dispelled). The pace of change and the fear that a lack of tenure creates means that an intransigent block begins somewhere above the grassroots and steadfastly refuses to engage. Time. Resources. Policy. Custom and Practice.  We all know the reasons, and they are legitimate (in part). They simply do not create a fertile environment for change.

 

Top down

We can expect strong leadership from the top down.  They wrote the strategy.  They want the university to go in singular direction, to position itself against the competition and deliver on the KPIs. People will listen to them because all we ask for is direction from our leaders.

But the problem with top down is that management and leadership across higher education has become diffused, disaggregated and siloed. An inspired direction from the VC becomes a call to do more with less from the DVC and a set of rolled eyes from the Dean.  We have all heard it before. Another strategic plan, another restructure, what are we this time; faculties or Schools? Departments or Divisions? Keeping your head below the parapet, doing your job to the best of your ability without changing too much is the only way to survive. Once again, this is not a fertile environment for change.  And in both cases, technology becomes the cause célèbre for resistors and the politically savvy.  And from that arises so many myths and misconceptions about technology that have blighted our sector for decades.  You have heard them;

 

  • Technology is just about the kit, so until you get my data projector working, you can’t do anything more innovative
  • Technology is there to replace me with robo-lecturers to save money
  • Technology is a luxury; good teaching will always be more important
  • Technology and pedagogy are mutually exclusive domains
  • Technology will capture my soul (OK, I made that last one up)

 

So, what is the solution? The solution is to find a different of making change happen. Top down and bottom up have failed to deliver change in terms of technology at most institutions. I am proposing something new, called ‘Middle Out’.  What is the Middle Out?  If you are a fan of the HBO series ‘Silicon Valley’ you will be giggling now. And quite rightly so. And if you are not, just google it and get it out the way. And if you do google it, you will see that Barack Obama also used a Middle Out model as part of his argument against the dominant conservative paradigm of trickle down economics, and making the case that real  economic growth comes when you empower the middle class.

 

In education, middle out represents an opportunity to truly deliver an effective change process by leading change from the middle. If change from the bottom up and top down have failed to create and sustain change (even in the face of the maelstroms of MOOCs, increased global competition and significant and lasting societal change around technology and knowledge) then we need another approach. Each week brings another start up or new player that challenges the dominant paradigms of successful higher education.  From institutional reputation, to certification through to constructed programmes of comprehensive disciplinarity, these ventures argue that modern higher education is not fit for purpose. And with each intervention a little bit of the building blocks of success get chipped away.  Anyone who has been watching what has happened to the edifice that is TAFE NSW in Australia knows what this looks like.  Poor technological decisions, a fundamental and entrenched resistance to change, a political environment more toxic than arsenic and old lace and the unflinching and unrestrained impact of commercial provision have led to questions about whether one of the worlds largest education providers simply shuts down after training millions of adults. The traditional modes of adult education, whether right or wrong, are under significant threat and it is not enough to put our head in the sand and hope it goes away.

 

So, what is middle out? Middle out is a way of advocating and most importantly delivering strategic change in higher education. It is especially relevant (and it is where I have tested it across three institutions in the UK) to pedagogical change in the digital age. The way in which institutions allow or even encourage entrenched perspectives through spreading resources and support too thinly across multiple programmes creates an environment that can doom initiatives that rely on top down and bottom up to long term failure.  Middle out provides a third way, a different path to achieving the change required to shift the majority of the organisation.  Middle out takes initiative and courage on behalf of the organisation.  It needs advocates who passionately believe the only way to succeed is to build networks of collaboration and common purpose.  It needs senior management committed to rewarding that collaboration (as opposed to simply expecting it through diktat). It requires people to be willing to celebrated and rewarded for doing, achieving, piloting, experimenting and accepting.  At the heart of defining and understanding acceptance is the idea that two complementary forces are at work; the person making the change to be accepted and the person applying criticality as a way of accepting the change.

 

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Scaled projects that have institutional impact
(SCALE)
Connected approaches that cross function, discipline and faculty (CONNECTION)
Stimulating change through high profile, highly visible interventions (STIMULUS)
Projects that make an impact with learners, teachers and the institution (IMPACT)

SCALE

In middle out, the idea of scale is counter-intuitive to existing lore around change (slowly, slowly or rip the Band-Aid off).  Scale represents an opportunity to test initiatives, effect fundamental shifts of practice and undertake this within an environment where it matters.  Large cohorts, full programmes, first year courses, major policy areas such as assessment or curriculum redesign.  Scale means having enough resources, staff and support to engage in change at a substantial size and scope.  This is not new to learning technology or educational development.  We have all started and then moved VLEs, brought in lecture capture or started any number of institutionally supported systems.  We have reacted to major changes in QA policy or practice.  But these ‘solutions in a box’ have been and gone and they have left little resonant and lasting pedagogical change.

In the digital age, learning and doing have changed and these changes are not easily located in a box. Because the changes are messy, contested and to be fair it’s a little chaotic and under-intellectualised. Scale gives you enough variation and dilution to see if the change or strategy actually works, evaluate it effectively and make the case that if it works at scale, then it will work in smaller instances and at a local level.  Maybe it’s the opposite of trickle down education.  An instance where change is large enough to test something in real time and then have it explode outwards through the institution, from the top to the bottom.

 

CONNECTION

Middle out argues that trans-disciplinarity and inter-disciplinarity can align functional areas to identify commonalities and informed practice.  Effecting change from connection draws on the strengths of disciplines and knowledges and shares them between and across.  One of the criticisms of technological change in education is that much of the insight and transformations reside at a local level within course groups, TEL teams or sometimes individual teachers.  There is often no way to share that expertise. When institutions have a Damascene moment and decide that everyone is going to do something online or that all assessment will be electronic by next week, it is not the people who have whittled away at the coal face for years that are consulted, but new teams flushed with cash and caché that start from scratch, imbuing the early adopters with resentment and cartoonish grumbling.  Middle out aims to at least try and allay that fear by building networks of practice, virtual and physical, by sharing expertise through cross functional projects, whole-of-team interventions and impactful dissemination of practice.  Connection draws together teams from cognate and tangential disciplines to approach change from a multidisciplinary perspective. Connection encourages these teams to take their success and knowledge back to their disciplines and cascade change from within.  In other instances, it is a simply a community of practice sharing common experiences from engaging in change across disciplines. A community of gamers, a community of social media users, or a community of visual researchers.

 

STIMULUS

Middle out is not a model driven by numbers.  Bigger is not always better.  The aspiration of using middle out is to focus is on what can make change happen and then cascade it through the organisation.  So much change dies on the branch.  Restructure after restructure. Initiative after initiative can look like churn rather than burn. Stimulus is a good example of middle out as a strategic approach.  Stimulus argues that change can accelerate through the effervescent effect of a successful and impactful catalyst.  Maybe that is a learning space, a platform, a show and tell, a training course, a set of grants or an award.  For example, a learning space is just a room until it changes the way people use it, and people change the way its used. The room becomes the stimulus for change.  And these changes don’t have to be big. They can be something such as recognition.  At the LSE, we have developed a project called LSE Innovators.  The aim of the Innovators project is to celebrate individual passions and innovations within teaching and learning through case studies and multimedia presentations. They celebrate the staff member as championing innovations that enhance the student learning experience.  They offer real examples of practice that can inspire, inform or shape the practices of others, inside and outside the institution. These have been viewed hundreds of times across the School and the sector and they act as a stimulus to innovation, reducing barriers of fear and resistance. It is the stimulus that changes practice, and if that stimulus is available widely then all the better.

 

IMPACT

Another good example of middle out a strategic approach to allocating resources is impact.  If only it were a simple equation of money+time+any programme+technology=success.  Not every project is created equal and through a combination of politics, structure, context and luck different projects have different impact.  The trick is working out which projects have the greatest potential impact.  Sometimes it is the smallest project, a simple intervention that you have nurtured and support, invested time and money into and evaluated effectively that explodes into significant change.  It is this project that convinces the important opinion leaders to spread the initiative and scale it.  Maybe it is the persuasive voice of the right salesperson, maybe it is fact they will not be the first person to climb Everest.  Maybe it is simply that the fear of failure is 10% less than before and that takes it below your risk threshold.  Impact cannot be underestimated in a middle out strategy.  And as with the other components of a middle out approach, impact is enhanced by award and reward, evaluation and dissemination, sharing and mentoring.  Impact projects often benefit from the leadership of a guru or figurehead (as do stimulus projects). I met one colleague at a university in the US who argued their most important advocate for change was a long standing science professor, awarded to the hilt, who simply decided one day to record his lectures. Smallest change, but with a massive impact because people said, well, if Bob can do it, why can’t I? He became an advocate telling everyone how this had changed his teaching and had enhanced his students learning.  He critically reflected after watching his videos and changed the way he taught for the better.  Many of his colleagues have followed him.

 

So there you have it. Four examples of what a middle out change strategy can look like. Does it work? To be honest I could sit here and say ‘yup, worked for me’ and it has.  But the real answer is that each institution has to develop its own unique approach to developing a culture of acceptance and engagement rather than resistance.  Resistance is fine if it shapes the change to be better, more successful or lasting.  Equally, passive acceptance can be just as damaging as unreconstructed resistance.  Middle out is a way to craft a successful change process around pedagogy and technology.  But in the end, we have start with the need to change, a successful plan of what we need to change to and why and finally we need the resources that mean that necessary change happens for the right reasons.  And then we can look at middle out.  We can look at making the changes that we should be making about how we teach, how are students learning and how we can expand the debate from simply making PowerPoint better or Moodle less clunky and into what skills and experiences should we delivering for the next generation of adult learners.

 

 

 

 

Re-imagining learning for a post-digital world (part 2) – Introducing Post-Digital Learning Experiences

Introducing post-digital learning experiences

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So, five months ago, I left you, dear reader, with a challenge; how do we re-imagine learning for a post-digital world?  Five months on, I have come back to this challenge with some new perspectives, some learned experiences and a significant amount of re-imagining of my own.  At the heart of that is a proposal for a new approach to designing teaching and learning.  An approach that recognises learning outside the transmission and that through the construction and encouragement of experience provides a context for learning to happen in a way that aligns with the conduct of a post-digital life.  This design process build experiences into the learning and teaching by shaping the way engagement, interaction, assessment and feedback is undertaken. They are post-digital learning experiences (PDLE);  found, making, identity, play, discontinuity, authenticity and community.   Inter-weaving these experiences through teaching and learning can shape, influence and enhance the opportunities for students to learn, to share learning and to teach others.  They are part of a post-digital world, made accessible through social  media, serious gaming, personal and collective spaces, apps, making, remixing, bricolage and sharing.  In this blog, we will discuss the context of learning experiences leading to part 3 which will talk about the PDLE model.

 

PDLE

 

So, where did we leave the debate at the end of part 1?

‘Last time on Peter Bryant rants about innovation…’

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?

 

Learning Experiences, Mark 1

Higher education is more than a series of readings, lectures, class activities, feedback followed by an endless line of tests and essays  Education is a lived experience.  The process of learning, collectively, individually, on-line or face-to-face is in part, a construct of the way it is experienced.  We know learning and teaching spaces influence the way way we teach, we know environments are critical to shaping learning.  We also know that doing, seeing, practising and succeeding/failing are all fertile sites for learning. It is these assumptions that makes the idea of lifelong learning so compelling and aspirational.  If learning at a higher level only occurs at the moments when we are exposed to transmission pedagogies, then it can then be argued that itself learning can stop.  We can stop consuming; we can stop listening to the message, read Facebook and life our lives in splendid isolation.  We can stop learning for life.  But that is not the case. Each experience we have, however hard to describe, de-construct or explain is a learning one.  It puts context on the other stuff we have learnt.  It augments, affirms or contradicts baseline knowledge, higher order skills or more complex critical thought.  It translates theory into practice and research into doing.

 

Knowles in his seminal text ‘The Modern Practice of Adult Education’ describes what he calls ‘learning experiences’.  These fit into teaching and learning process as connective tissue and sinew, they weave the gaps knowledge and skills, integrating the problems, scenarios, applications and schemas in the learner’s brain through the thematic links within and between disciplines.    He describes this type of learning design as an art form, rather than a process, because it is not a prescribed science.  This is not something that can be applied universally.   It is messy and chaotic (see part 1).  It often requires a guide, a guru or a light to illuminate a path.  It is a framework that allows people to understand and evaluate the experience through their own filters.  I have read this book many times.  I like the theory of andragogy. I like the skills set he puts forward for teaching adults.  But there is more to this book that than the words and ideas contained within.  The book is a learned experience for me.  I learnt about teaching by doing some of the things that Knowles suggests.  This copy of the book was my fathers.  It still has slips of papers marking key sections that he thought relevant to his PhD in the 1980s.  I learnt about teaching from watching him, good and bad.  One of the sections he has marked is about learning experiences co-incidentally.  It is the section that argues how learning is constructed through sensory experiences, from concrete to abstract, from direct, purposeful and contrived experiences like observation, simulations and demonstration right up to the burgeoning new fields of semiotics driven by media and computers (Film-strips! Slides! Teaching Machine Programs!).  This book is far more than a workbook on adult teaching.  Informing my practice directly through instruction and reinforcing, challenging and explaining the context in where my practice rests, it is a living, breathing map of sensory learned experiences.  And it was my dad’s.

 

Learning happens when it is experienced.  Transmission pedagogies like lectures and class teaching are still learning experiences.  However, they are often one-way, de-contextualized and essentially normative. The learner’s experience lacks relevance to the process, as the teacher often creates an experience that privileges consumption as the only mode of active learning.  Modern assessment practice does much the same.  Consume, repeat, consume, repeat, sometimes apply, some combine, but always repeat.  You see a number of research studies that say attending lectures increase student achievement (as an argument against lecture capture), that writing things down with a pen increases recall (as an argument against devices in classrooms) and that exams that reward memory are what employers want to assure and certify learning (as an argument against diverse assessment practices).  These are not experiences that dominate post-digital living.

 

Learning Experiences in a post-digital world (Mark II)

So why is any of this different to what it was in say 1970? Aside from the progression from the film-strip to the glorious VHS tape to YouTube, are learning experiences any different in the post-digital world?  I guess it is too easy to simply say yes.  Like most things, there is evidence and there is opinion. The evidence part is easy (cite 2014, cite 2011, cite 2018).  The opinion, as always, is much harder, especially as I would like to convince you of my opinion, by not citing the opinion of others (what a tangled web we weave!).  So, in the time honoured tradition of academics everywhere, here is a list of five reasons why my opinion is what it is.

 

  1. All our students are already using technology to a wide variety of degrees.
    This is a simple assertion. All of us are using technology; from cash machines, to smartphones, to laptops to tablets to our oyster card. Each of these pieces of technology serves a purpose. They change the way we do things. They change the language we use and they shift core practices around processes (such as paying, communications, processing and thinking). There are no universal rules about this. Generations after us are not naturally better than their parents at being technologically adept. These technologies are simply there. They develop, change and progress like most other means. In your classroom you have an array of devices more powerful than any of the ones that went before. There are ways to use that technology for the benefits of learners and learning. Instant communications, collaborations, interactions outside the classroom, annotations, engagement with readings, critical thought, right down to managing the calendar. These skills are not native, nor are they uniform. But they have been learnt through experience. From the first time you swiped left or right on an iPad to learning that not carrying money and getting on the last Tube was pretty damned convenient, even if crowded and hot.
  2. All the jobs students will do are shaped in part by technology
    We use technology to do all our jobs. You are reading a blog now. Almost every discipline has been impacted by technology; from research practice to visual rhetoric through to open access. How do we integrate these changes into curricula, teaching and assessment? Like any other programme/design process, we are research informed, we maintain rigour and we understand what skills and knowledge graduates will need to be develop expertise and understanding. Technology is just another part of that. Technology can make, stimulate or replicate experiences. Technology can help simulate real world employment situations, global phenomena or inter-personal scenarios. Technology can develop the communication, collaboration, identity or teamwork skills required in most modern workplaces. Technology skills such as media making, coding, social media or searching are critical trans-disciplinary concepts. Experience is at the core of these practices (and it is how we translate learning into working).
  3. Technology is not a scorched earth approach to teaching
    No institution wants to replace you with robots after recording your lectures. There is no replacement for the interaction and engagement face to face contact supports (either live or facilitated on-line). Technology does what it says on the box. It enhances, it adds, it disrupts and it transforms. Technology is not cheaper, faster, better or more. It is not an either/or choice. This is not a judgement call that marks on-line as better than face-to-face or that residential education makes on-line learning look like the poor cousin. Whether this is technology students use outside the classroom, or the innovative, flexible spaces were are looking to create within; Technology does not teach. Technology does not make people learn. You do. Students do. Experience does.
  4. Technology can make things possible that you previously thought impossible
    One of the great potentials of technology is change. Technology for education represents a wonderful catalyst for change. One colleague commented to me recently that they have been waiting for the technology to catch up with their thinking. Maybe thinking about technology will change the way we think about assessment, challenge some of our assumptions about feedback, maybe it will open a door or close another. Maybe technology will shift the lecture from being bounded by transmission pedagogies to being discursive and interactive. We advocate for technologies to be more than an economic replacement of one practice with another. They are a chance for a rethink, a chance inspiration or a series of experiments that allow you to embed some play and fun into your teaching and learning.
  5. Technology does enhance learning
    Give it a go. The gap between what our learners see and understand as their on-line learning experience and the face to face experience is narrowing. It is all just learning. The capabilities required to search quickly, determine the veracity of information and do this whilst doing three other things are developing rapidly. These skills are by no means universal or natural, but they are developing and they are shaping how people learn. From students being able to re-watch lectures 8 or 9 times to make sure they understood concepts to being able to access a support network at 4am through twitter (or just to know when the Library lift is out of order) technology is enhancing learning right now.

 

What is a learning experience in the post-digital age?

Learning experiences are still the connective tissue in the process of learning and teaching.  With all the routine and standards around quality assurance and enhancement, much of our focus is almost entirely on the skeleton of learning; the curricula, learning outcomes and modes of assessment.  Then there are the methodologies of teaching; lecture, tutorial, seminar, class, group work, exam, field trip or discussion.  These are structured and shaped by expensive embedded infrastructure that itself shapes the type of teaching done within it.  Teaching rooms with a front and a back. Projectors that can be seen by all and controlled by one. Four walls that contain what happens within them.  Timetables, administration and practices that dictate massive over intimate.  Technology that replicates and reassures the existing practice as a safe and comfortable blanket of conformed practice.  A safe experience. A timely experience. A didactic experience that feels the same as the ones that shaped who we are. But in the end, for all the predictions and the manufactured nostalgia, Back to the Future II was not a documentary, nor was it written by a futurist or a genius.  What we imagined as the future of education in 1985 is not what it should be in 2015, because it is not the 18 year old us that is experiencing it.  It is the next generation and they are not us, as we are not our parents (Heaven forbid!).  What technology, social media, and the impacts of technology on life, love and work have done is change that equation.  Experiences are virtual and real, they are offline and online and they are dangerous, risky, traumatic, joyful, connected, isolating and overwhelming.  And they are ours and they are theirs.

 

The next part of this blog post will look at seven learning experiences that I propose make up a model of post-digital learning.  These experiences are not the exclusive domain of technology and the modern.  Far from it. But, they are facilitated more effectively in a post digital institution, drawing from trans-disciplinary knowledge and rooted in a society that has been transformed (disrupted) by interactive and collaborative technology. They are the bits between curricula and teaching practice. They are the things that shape how we teach and how something is learnt.  I believe that they can work in predictable and unpredictable ways, across disciplines and levels.  Once again, that is opinion.  The reality only comes from when you experience it.

 

And now, some music to make you think (or forget). I have been in an Australian music mode recently.  Music is a great example of a learned experience.  I am always learning about music through experience. Not books, or being told that these are the 100 tracks I have to listen to.  I live it.  I experience it.  So, do the same.  They are both poems of lived experience.  Maybe you will like these two tracks, or maybe they will make you find the connections, the relationships, the lineage or the opposites.  or maybe, by experiencing it, you will decide that it is not for you.  Either way, it is up to you.


 A part of this piece was previously published in an amended form on the LSE LTI Blog*

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