Making change happen from the centre: (Pedagogical) change, my dear. And it seems not a moment too soon

blog header

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.

 

  1. Have an evidenced opinion

Know your stuff, build the case, collect the evidence and be sure of the facts.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It doesn’t matter what is in your hands

hands

Some strange things seem to be happening in the learning technology and T&L debates at the moment. There appears to be a growing presence of an anti-tech resistance, challenging the efficacy of technology (and those who use it). Some of these ‘think pieces’ question the motivations of those using technology in their class (both students and teachers), demean the status of social media as an active and fertile ground for intellectual debate, try and institute blanket bans for the good of the learner and actively argue that we need to ‘get back to chalk’. These have become battle lines in a fake war between protectors and challengers, defenders of the faith versus the barbarians at the gate. The innocent victims in all this posturing and puffery are the engaged teachers and learners (thanks @antonycoombsHE for the input). We can see the small bubbles of evidence for this assertion increasingly breaking through to the surface Let’s take Facebook as the canary in the coal mine;

  • There are universities who ban Facebook from fixed PCs in labs and student spaces (on the suggestion of other students, apparently)
  • The continued resistance (and active calls to ban) the use of student devices in lectures and tutorials, because of the assertion that ‘they will just be checking their Facebook’
  • On the other hand, a lot of Facebook led pilots at a delivery or curricula level have failed because students don’t like ‘their’ Facebook being hijacked for learning (although there is a lot of evidence that they are stopping using Facebook entirely, or use it to talk to each other, not the teacher!)
  • Universities wanting to hold some sway of what their staff say on social media to present a unanimity of opinion (including Facebook).

 

In the end, these are pointless battles in an entirely distracting conflict.  We are arguing about the toss and not about the game. It doesn’t matter what devices are in their hands. What matters most is good teaching. Does it matter that you have a pair of red shoes on? No. What matters is that they make you feel good. It matters that they help people identify or find you. It matters that they stop that puddle you stepped in from making your socks a squidgy mess. What matters is the experiences that people participate in. Good teaching at its heart is the creation and facilitation of experience. There is an old marketing truism that I have always found insightful. People don’t buy ¼ inch drill bits, they but ¼ inch holes. Good teaching is not the fact that someone has a MacBook open or that you have created a PowerPoint slide or even that you have knowledge that you believe someone else needs to become an expert. Good teaching creates environments and conditions for learning experiences to happen. And the creation and nourishment of any experience is a product of a complex interplay of environmental factors. Good teachers hold and move the faders on those factors in order to achieve some form of synergy. Technology is without doubt one of those factors but by itself is like breathing only the nitrogen part of the air.

 

Good teaching is device/platform/OS agnostic
The kind of devices that people use or the sometimes desperate need to find a use for a piece of technology in teaching (Pokémon GO, it is the new Snapchat) become the easier conversations to have, especially amongst learning technologists and educational developers. Yes, the type of technology being used can and does influence the experiences people learn from. And yes, if the technology doesn’t work it can impact on that experience as well. And yes again, maybe a new platform or social media will seed good ideas and promote innovation. None of these assertions are wrong. But (and there is always a but), by themselves they are the less confronting conversation to have, because they are ignoring the elephant in the room. Good teaching is a hard thing to do. Good teaching is a challenging and emotionally draining thing to do. Good teaching lifts you high and can smack you down, sometimes in the space of a single class. Good teaching sees devices and uses them when they can contribute or challenge or transform what you are trying to do in your class.

 

Denial is not an instrument of good teaching
Making someone turn a device off in order to help them learn is not a critical approach to teaching. I used to work with a teacher who brought a bucket of water into his classroom and said ‘if I hear a phone go off, it goes into the water’. Why have we become so afraid of a phone? Sure, you may want a debate or discussion that asks people to engage, visually and actively. But what kind of learning can devices help with? Learning about how people learn. So, what actually goes on behind that sea of glowing white apples you see in your lecture? Have they all got Facebook open? Probably. Are they chatting with their mates? Yeah. Are they looking up words and definitions on Wikipedia? Almost certainly. How about providing them with a backchannel for conversation using a twitter hashtag, so that you can answer questions. How about providing them with a list of sites where they can check up definitions of words that match the kind of materials you use. Denial just leads to resistance and rebellion. Nothing good will come of it.

 

Good teaching is enabled by good communications. Technology changes the way we communicate
I am not describing all technology as simply instrumental tools, without power to influence good teaching. The way technology is used to collaborate, share, critique, engage (this list is endless) shapes the way we communicate. Creativity is democratised. Identity is fluid. Spaces are safe and dangerous. Risk is minimised and multiplied. People learn differently. To ignore social media and its transformative community of practices would be a dangerous ignorance. That doesn’t mean we have to all communicate through twitter in 140 characters, nor does it mean that crowdsourcing and Yelp recommendations will replace academic knowledge as the purest form of thought.  But it is in those very defences against using technology that one of the most fundamental tensions in higher education lies; you are either with us or against us. It is a polarised debate, with no middle ground and a series of entrenched positions backed with rigid institutional structures and policies and with all the risk dumped heavily on the shoulders of students.  If they choose to deny themselves the use of technology to live their lives, will that help them pass? How strong is the gravitational pull of a 2:1? Does the view of Professor Dr Jones requiring them to only use printed book sources for their essay outweigh their need for employable skills? So, how do they respond? They tell us to use our technology better; we want better PowerPoints, we want the VLE to do stuff to help us learn. And when we can be left on our own to study and prepare and learn (like we are for 90% of our HE experience), we will do things our way. We will use social media, we will chat with each other using whatever apps we like, we will share cool stuff and be visual and we will communicate and engage with people all over the world sharing knowledge, experiences and expertise. Because that is what we do. That is how we communicate and live our lives.

It doesn’t matter what is in their hands, it will be there and it will be used. It is none of our concern whether it is in their hands or not. Knowing it is in their hands empowers both them and us to make better learning experiences.

 

IMG_4990

Title image from https://www.flickr.com/photos/karolfranks/7266270182

Fader image https://www.flickr.com/photos/surroundsound5000

 

A design for learning: My ALT-C presentation in a nutshell

altc-2016

It is not a simple thing really; making education in a post-digital world.  How do we design for learning in this environment? Do we assume that nothing has changed, and the computers, devices and Pokémon Go are a distraction from the august and Socratic process of education?  Do we seek to embed in concrete the processes and practices of higher education and see them as immutable laws that will never change?  Or do we think critically about how all of this is not the same as it was before, mixed up, shaken out, broken down and reinvented.  The purpose of my presentation at this year’s ALT-C was to look at how learning has changed and how we need to change the way we design learning in the modern university.
 
At the heart of this design process was the challenge for learning technologists, educational developers and teachers to stop arguing about the efficacy or relevance of old and new technology.  It is an argument with no winners.  It sets up the easy farce of techno-solutionism vs defending the norm.  It creates entrenched positions of defence and attack, where one ‘side’ is seen as wanting to tear the other down.  But perhaps worse, talking about the technology is stopping us talking about what is more important, which is the difference between old and new learning, because it is this that is already transforming disciplines five and six times whilst we argue about our VLE. 
 
So how do we change this? How do we move it on?  If you have read this blog before you might have seen the posts around learning experiences from earlier this year.  Learning experiences are what Knowles describes as the connective tissue and sinew of education (with knowledge, skills, teaching and learning as the rest of the body).  We learn through experience; the abstract can only take us so far.  Whether it is environmental, tactile, mental, affective, emotional or physical, learning experiences are the context in which learning and knowledge come together. Learning experiences are the art and design component of curriculum development. They are intrinsic and personal. But here is the best bit, we all know how to have them. We all know the experience of making something. We know what we have learnt from making, and we know where to find the knowledge and skills required in order to make. We have made something with our dad or mum, we have made stuff with our own kids. All we need to know first is WHAT to make. Technology has changed the process, the practices and the accessibility of making. I can make music with an app (not an accordion), I can make my own media with a device (not a studio) and I can share that making with the world, for critique, for love, for fame or simply to release myself in order to make the next. This is how we contextualize learning experiences in a post-digital world.

An aside: What do I mean by a ‘post-digital world’? This is a contrary term, perhaps used a bit too often to mean something it isn’t, or as a convenient mark to signal the end of an arbitrary era. For me, post-digital means the point where we stop talking about potential and starting dealing with the fact that it has happened. Technology has normalized, how it is used has normalized and the things that happen in our lives happen not because of the technology, they happen because of people.

So, the short version of the presentation is that as learning technologists, teachers, learners and practitioners we have won. We run the largest learning space in the university, we own systems that have transformed the learning experience and there is no going back, the genie is out the bottle. We have made a difference. But what next? We have these monolithic infrastructure beasts that in the main are not being used to their full potential (the VLE distributing slides, handouts and making announcements?). What do we offer to the institution to help shape the experiences of our learners? The workshop asked participants to take existing learning technology tools (the VLE, Lecture Capture, PRS, plagiarism detection, a classroom etc) and break them. Bend them out of shape, hack them, crack them, remix and rebuild them to be the building blocks of creating and making learning experiences. How do we use the VLE to create a learning experience of play? Or community? How do you remodel a classroom to be a site of discovery or a space of discontinuity? This is a three-part process.

What knowledge and skills are being constructed
What learning and teaching technologies and methods are you using
And finally, what experience will the learners have in order to bring these two things together

So have a go yourself. Take advantage of your greatest success; what we do now and then smash it up!