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!

There, There – Risk aversion, ambient conservatism and the institutional equilibrium of pedagogical change


‘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

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).

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.

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 –

‘I don’t want to change the world’ – a call for a personal revolution (learning style now!)


Apologies and much respect to Billy Bragg and Bikini Kill for appropriating their lyrics for the title

Those of you who follow this blog will have seen me explore some common threads around pedagogy and the constraints and challenges of effecting change within the complex construct of higher educational institutions. To some extent, throught course of my posts and the think that goes along with constructing them, I found myself creating the kind of intractable, unsolvable problem that generally gives me a headache. How do I reconcile the ambitions and aspirations I can see for a higher education sector that engages with innovation and transformation and the reality of shrinking budgets, rapidly increasing competition and a pace of change too fast for even the most agile institutions to keep up with? The challenge for me is to find a focus within this chaos. To find what I stand for and how that shapes that way I approach learning and teaching with technology in the post digital age. But equally not expending all my energy on a soapbox built for one.

Recently, I saw an exhibition of contemporary Korean art called ‘Garden’. Through a collection of primarily visual artworks, the exhibition sought to tell a story about how engagement with art can serve a similar purpose to a garden, to sooth, to find focus, relax, reflect and bring together people within an urban community into a common green space. Within the ‘Garden’ exhibition, the artworks were organised into four active process centred themes. Encounter. Pause. Dialogue. Wandering at Ease. These kind of abstract processes resonated for me as I tried to articulate some my thinking around how we address the pinch points around adoption, resistance, innovation and transformation (although arguably all this thinking was not so fun for my wife who knows when to wander off in a gallery leaving me to my own pondering. ?)

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Let’s get down to it. One of the great challenges learning technology faces is the momentum of organisational change. Historically we have ridden waves of change by providing for and then supporting toolkits that supported the transition of practice from one medium to the next, without actively pursuing an agenda for pedagogical change. A VLE simply replaced photocopying and OHP slides in many instances. Lecture capture became the new way to photocopying slides held in the library. These large scale firewalled behemoths required recurrent support, frequent upgrading, are bloated by an ever increasing array of features and have extended their tendrils into a multitude of other organisational systems. Much of our practice has been built from these foundations. And we sometimes approach the new array of learning conditions facing us in similar ways. What is in our toolkit to support emerging pedagogical challenges? How do we better support the existing teaching and learning practice? I think the challenge for us entering 2015 is to look past the tools, the toys and the platforms. There simply isn’t a single out of the box solution for the challenges we face. We can’t rely on growth through systems support and development. There are significant and intractable tensions between the dynamic epistemological shifts that are fundamentally changing the way media is consumed, knowledge is constructed and learning engaged with. The simplest analogy I have come up with is watching TV.

1. Encounter
(a nostalgic remembering of times past warning)
When I was young, we watched TV in very different ways. We waited patiently each week for the next exciting instalment of our much loved shows. IN Australia, this was sometimes month or years after they had debuted in the US or UK. People talked about what had happened, theorised, and then sat up waiting for 8.30pm to tick over. I remember clearly when someone from the US sent me VHS copies of the latest Star Trek episodes in the early 90s months before Channel 9 showed them. Media consumption was episodic. In the modern era, technology has transformed this practice. We add to our consumption practices the ideas of binge and bites. We either binge whole series or shows (there are binge companions for shows like Breaking Bad) or we consume small bites on youtube. Sure, there are still examples of episodic watching (Game of Thrones), but shows now are faster paced, often shorter in duration, wider in scale. I recently watched an episode of the 70s classic ‘Space 1999’. I was taken by how slow the story was, the pacing was so different to the flash cuts and lightning progression of modern TV. These two factors combined have changed the way people consume media. They have changed the business models for producers and broadcasters and they have made starts of new media makers and distributors.

2. Pause
(back to the text)
Higher education is essentially episodic (especially in the context of residential of face-to-face teaching). Students are asked to consume content and then wait a whole week before they find out the next part. Yet, all their instincts and practices on consumption are predicated on binges and bites. MOOCs if they proved anything demonstrated the educational efficacy of education in bite form (or disaggregated for the purists). The significant increases in online education participation seen primarily in the US, especially in the context of work based learning, experiential learning and flexible pathways have equally demonstrated how binge practices can be applied to the pedagogy of higher education. Both of these are effectively fringe practices in HE. That said, new players are moving into the field. They are fracturing content, finding new value propositions for certification and making the case for the end of higher education as we have known it.

3. Dialogue
My assertion here is a simple one. I think we as learning technologists, educational developers and teachers have frequently got our focus wrong. In many cases we have centred on the mechanics of teaching. Toolkits, instruments, vehicles and containers. We have been obsessed with the 3D, widescreen, pixel definition and digiquantics (I may have made one of those concepts up). Youtube is not in itself an innovation, especially when it used to simply replace a badly stretched VHS. Reading list software does nothing to transform the educational experience for learners from that of the era of a printed handbook of readings. Equally, we can make the case that is not just about content either. It is generally accepted that the most innovative, challenging and informed TV shows are often the ones that fail to attract audiences. Arrested Development anyone? So, what is that we should focus on?

Far be it for me to assert what others should be doing. I think that is where the intractable problem rears its ugly head again. This is debate without winners and losers. There is no one right answer. Peoples jobs, identities and esteems can rest on their identification with the job they are doing. This creates dynamics that cannot be easily salved by logical debate or illogical impassioned argument. So, what was the dialogue that was tumbling around my head in that gallery in Seoul? The focus on toolkits and toys only serves to reinforce a number of unhelpful paradigms about technology; that the use of technology is the exclusive privilege of the technically adept, the young or the innovator; that technology is a ‘nice to have’, not an essential, integrated part of the action; that learning has been and always will be the same and new technology simply enhances and builds on the successes of the past. It is the acceptance of these paradigms that provides the paths of least resistance with faculty and institutions. However the past of least resistance leads to the lands of lost opportunities. Learning is changing. We have to understand how it is changing and what that means for pedagogy, teaching and the way our learners engage with their educational experience. We have to work with teachers, students, the community and employers to embed agility, literacy, connectivity and collaboration into practices and understandings about learning, not in the form of kit, but in the construction of curriculum and interactions. This needs to be a debate, a discussion, informed by experimentation, rigorous research and casual, engaging and robust arguments and hundreds of water-cooler discussions about what learning looks like in the 21st century. It has to be more than conversations that start with ‘In my day…’ These conversations need to involve students, alumni, potential students, parents, academics and the community as a whole. And it is our responsibility as learning technologists, educational developers and teachers to facilitate these discussions, to provide the environment in which inquiry, questioning, perspective and compromise can occur.

4. Wandering at ease
For me, this engagement is not a burden. It is the way around an intractable problem. Whether it be time pressure, fear, workloads that crush the soul or not being able to see the forest from the trees, it is far easier to forget that these changes are happening and get on with trialling a new platform, or attending another demo, or leaving that programme redesign to next year. The logical impossibility of challenging the status quo, the fear that perhaps there is not a single solution that we can plug in out of the box can prevent us from even recognising the argument is there, let alone engaging in it to any great depth. The critical question for me in 2015 is not about the rationale for the argument, or for the efficacy of engaging as many voices as we can in that argument, but how we can engage with those who don’t want to hear, those who see no need to speak or change. How do we advocate for change? How do we influence the society of higher education to recognise the need to debate social change? Do we need to see ourselves as a social movement? Seeters and James (2014) define social movements as;

‘(1.) the formation of some kind of collective identity; (2.) the development of a shared normative orientation; (3.) the sharing of a concern for change of the status quo and (4.) the occurrence of moments of practical action that are at least subjectively connected together across time addressing this concern for change. Thus we define a social movement as a form of political association between persons who have at least a minimal sense of themselves as connected to others in common purpose and who come together across an extended period of time to effect social change in the name of that purpose.’

Is this a call to arms? Perhaps. Am I advocating revolution? More likely. There is an opportunity to use the media and mediums we collectively own to shape this debate, to collaboratively experiment, not just locally, but globally. But what is most critical here is that we have an opportunity to engage win what Seeters and James called ‘moments of practical action’. Talk is important. What follows it is critical. And that is action. We need to hear and engage with those who are outside the box experimenting and breaking education as we know it. We need to form a community of those wanting and perhaps demanding change to the way we have done things in the past. We have to hear the voices of those who have resisted the dominant learning technology or teaching paradigms. We can’t be content with simply following the class of 1988. We need institutions to be willing to lead on these changes and not simply be content with keeping up. We need students to be part of a multivariate analysis of action. And we need you, to be the person who questions the why and not just the how. A friend of mine from Sydney sent me this quote from an Italian academic called Gianluca Bocci (2014) who argued;

‘When he does not seek to impose his/her own world on the spectator, but invites him/her to complete his/her own, through the construction of multiple paths. When s/he converses with other arts, with science, with psychology. Herein lies the deep fascination of the work of art: the end user is also a co-creator. This means admitting a plurality of registers and languages. Unfortunately, the myths of the modern era have championed univocality over plurality, both in relation to individuals and the community. Learning to pick up this polyphony of registers and languages is, I believe, one of the most important pedagogical and learning tasks of our planetary era’

To wander at ease means to be free from burden and from guided direction. This is my path. This is my garden. Maybe there is something in this post that helps you find yours, to be the co-creator of your unique take on the social movement of higher education. To help you find collaborators and people to coalesce around or co-opt to the cause. And now, Billy Bragg.

Gianluca Bocchi, Eloisa Cianci, Alfonso Montuori, Raffaella Trigona & Oscar Nicolaus (2014) Educating for Creativity, World Futures: The Journal of New Paradigm Research, 70:5-6, 336-369