Gonna be a new race! Scaling the walls of institutional change

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There’s gonna be a new race
Kids are gonna start it up
We’re all gonna mutate
Kids are saying yeah hup! 
Radio Birdman – New Race

 

I was having a discussion recently with a group of students about the linking of industry practice and teaching in Higher Education.  It made me reflect back on my own industry experiences as an arts and retail marketer in the early 1990s.  I was in marketing for one of Australia’s largest book chains and later was marketing director for a community radio station.  There would be few aspects of that practice that have not undergone significant change.  Aside from the obvious changing nature of the products themselves, distribution has been re-imagined and a lot of theoretical rationale for why retailers exist has been made redundant.  Price has become a global concept and promotion is rooted in modes and mediums barely imagined in 1991.  But mostly importantly, the customer themselves have changed, with the way they seek, consume, share and obtain media driven by skills and behaviours shaped by engagement and interaction with technology.

 

The same progressive shift in user behaviors is clearly evident in higher education, manifesting itself in similar shifts to our 4P’s (Price has been thrown into turmoil by the free aspect of MOOCs and £9000 fees in England, Product is shifting through OERs, e-learning and again, MOOCs…you can work out the rest).  However, the predominant model of teaching, learning and assessment across many universities is still mired uncritically in 19th century models and practices, as if the radio didn’t even exist and bookstore was a cloth hatted man serving your needs individually by drawing dusty leather bound tomes from his darkened shelves.

 

Making change without doubt one of the most difficult organisational processes of them all.  Management guru Tom Peters used to talk about change by noting that one of the most empowering changes he saw in a workplace was where the team agreed to move a filing cupboard three feet to the left, because that filing cupboard had been getting in the way of work flow for years and no-one ever felt empowered to move it.  When ‘big ticket’ changes like e-learning or a new teaching, learning and assessment strategy come along, the common mantra is to label them as huge changes that will require decades of time and billions of pounds to effect.   When I worked in FE in Australia just repeating that mantra sometimes ensured whole eras of changes actually swept over and past my department (much to my chagrin and regret now!).  How can I change programmes I have planned for, notes and lessons I have carefully designed, room booking systems made years in advance, professional standards inflexible since the time of Harold and the arrow?

 

There are two obvious paths to take this blog post, and I am going to ignore both of them.  It is too easy to compare education to the anachronistic and arguably fading world of physical book retail.  Equally, it is too easy to rant about the slow changing nature of higher education institutions.  Now is the time to take the path of least resistance.  Through a lot of the literature and debate around this topic there have been three ideas, nay comments really, that have resonated with me in terms of how we as developers and strategists for e-learning can make organisational change happen and stick.  As with all my blogs recently, I am not arrogant enough (yet!) to suggest that these suggestions will shake the world and solve all the problems.  They just might however, give you an insight into a way forward.

  1. 1. From little things big things grow

Davidson and Goldberg (2009) argue that ‘…institutions of learning have changed far more slowly than the modes of inventive, collaborative, participatory learning offered by the Internet and an array of contemporary mobile technologies’.  Slowey (2012) noted that in Ireland there has been a high-take up of e-learning platforms such as the VLE, but this is often in a more instrumental manner (efficiency, cost etc).  Trying to change the entire practice of any institution is a difficult task. That said, it is unsustainable that learners arrive at HE with skills that are out of sync with those required to engage in study and then are different again to those required to gain and participate in practice.  There is some evidence to suggest that e-learning in institutions is often the purview of the e-learning evangelist, someone who is motivated to try different things constantly and that these evangelists represent a minority of provision, bringing into play accusations of scalability and context.  Garofoli and Woodall (2003) used an old marketing concept (the adoption cycle) and applied it to HE, suggesting that many changes don’t get out of the early adopter phase (where e-learning is championed by people who favour ‘revolutionary change’ through self-sufficient, risk taking, experimental behaviours.  Donovan noted (as early as 1999!) that;

‘Early adopters often are lauded as ready-made advocates for technology, but this rampant enthusiasm is a double-edged sword: sometimes it is contagious, but more often, it is perceived as techno-zealotry. This is off-putting to the majority of faculty, who may resist the adoption of technology by saying, ‘I can’t do that because I’m not like him/her’ [an early adopter].’

 

Adopting one small new practice because you are aware that learners and learning has changed is far less frightening that throwing all of it out because some e-learning cheerleader tells you that it works.  I was labelled by a very eminent colleague recently as an e-learning evangelist.  I politely retorted that I am not an e-learning evangelist; I am an evangelist about the benefit that can be had from encouraging people to talk to each other; a much simpler premise for change.  And that is often all it takes to seed change.  How about trying out clickers in your classroom because you want students to engage in opinion sharing? What is the harm in asking learners to share their group interactions with other learners through a Google doc or making a short video on their phone and uploading it to youtube? Instead of printing a huge readings book, how about making a scoop.it site and getting the learners to comment on each reading in a dialogue on the site, or even better, encouraging them to add readings to the list?  These are small incremental changes, but all linked to social interaction and engagement.  They are not sea-changes nor are they barbarians banging at the gate.  There is something to be said for the idea of from little things, big things grow.

2. ‘When I graduate I will probably have a job that doesn’t exist today’

I was watching the rather ubiquitous video made by the Kansas State University five years ago called “A vision of students today’ and the even having watched it many times, that quote above had never really resonated with me until this year.

In so many fields and disciplines the pace of change is facilitating both a change in what we do, but equally where, when and why we do what we do at work.  I have heard many people protest that the modern youth (post and including Gen Y for want of a better descriptor) are not prepared to do the hard yards at work like we did.  In some ways, the way we teach in HE is informed by a similar ‘rite of passage’ approach, where the learner is expected to undergo the same university experience that we did.  Certainly when I finished university the jobs I went for were the same ones that existed before I started (recruited by the same people, the same companies and more than likely the same interview questions!).

 

In my field of marketing, expertise in social media, micro-segmentation, border-less distribution and DIY were not even glimpses on the page of my monolithic textbook.  Even when I was teaching marketing, the skills present in both the curriculum and practice are different to what is required today.  Of course, there are principles, universal truths perhaps, that transcend the ages, but even they get questioned at some point.

 

If we accept that employability and finding a good job are now central motivations for undertaking HE then clearly there needs to be a closer, even symbiotic dialogue between HE and work (or practice).  We also have to accept that without doubt technology has changed the way work happens and the way work is constructed and defined as a function of a consumer or capitalist society.  From learning design through to how we interact with a group of learners in front of us or in front of our screens, the recognition that the way we did it before, or the way we had it done to us maybe insufficient for the requirements of the 21st century learner.  Perhaps we react to this by trying out the benefits of user generated content, encouraging the development of Personal Learning environments, we might set assessments that encourage learners to explore and define professional identity through social media or we might simply model the modern working environment through collaborative or socially engaged activity.

 

3. Learners are not native to technology, they were introduced to it.

In the youtube clip called ‘Rethinking Learning – the 21st century learner’ (linked above) noted e-thinker Henry Jenkins observed that often when we talk about e-learning we get caught up discussing the skills required for the workplace and not the skills required by the 21st century learner to engage as a member of society (which he noted included creativity, civic engagement and socialising).  One teacher (Nichole Pinkard) argued that no child was born digitally native (mirroring much of the debate around Prensky’s work) and that you can trace back to where they were exposed to a piece of technology that resonated for them and they went from simply consuming and using to producing and sharing.  I have seen this happen with my 5 year old niece, who has taken the digital camera we gave her and aggregated traditional photography skills such as depth of field and perspective along with digital skills of texture and colour and shape aligned with the type of photography supported by the camera (as well as taking a mean self-picture!).  Perhaps she will become a photographer, or something else visual, or perhaps not, but the skills of technology use are emerging earlier on our children because of the ubiquity of the technology and its fundamental ability to change the way something is done.

 

The generation of learners entering HE now have used devices, computers, the internet and mobile technology almost all of their life.  They didn’t have to re-learn how to do something (remember going from rotary phones to push button to mobile).  They know how to find information on the internet.  They have developed skills in determining authenticity and realness (see my earlier posts).  They consume and make content (in 2011, over 50% of YouTube’s licensing payments come from user generated content and depending on definitions between 66 and 80% of videos uploaded are user generated).  They bring with them skills to HE we can chose to ignore through our teaching, learning and assessment or that we can chose to build on and embrace them.  We as a profession cannot continue to promote and support the ‘empty vessel’ mode of HE teaching and learning, where we assume that students start university ready to be filled with all the knowledge we choose to disseminate.  Once again, small initiatives and ideas can be the way to bring about this change without tearing down the walls of the lecture theatre.  Student-led learning such as class presentations can be enhanced to encourage creativity and innovation not repetition, learners can be supported to build and develop networks between groups and cohorts through collaborative and inter-disciplinary projects like the one run at the University of Technology, Sydney called ‘Shopfront’ (see http://www.shopfront.uts.edu.au/).  Mobile phones can be embraced as a way of linking notes to practice in a classroom, or a method of crowd-sourcing or resource discovery.  None of this is rocket science.  What is important to note is that I strongly believe that underpinning of this should be a vision for what kind of institution you want to be a part of, what kind of pedagogy informs your learning, teaching and assessment, how do you want find out about your learners and adapt to their skills?  And that this vision should be supported by action, people, evaluation and sharing.  It should align pedagogy and technology in an agile and collaborative way.  And finally that there is not one size this will fit all and they as markets have fractured, retail has personalised and the largest selling book of 2012 was originally a piece of internet distributed Twilight fan fiction, we also need to find unique and personalised paths through our reconstruction.