A manifesto for being a part of strategic pedagogical change

Where we hope our students will engage and thrive in the theoretical and practical communities created through our learning design, teaching and assessment, the same cannot be said of how we initiate and implement teaching and learning change from an institutional through to curricular level. Driven by the sometimes-disruptive predictions for the future of our Universities, pedagogical change is often seen as the panacea for all manner of strategic threats or the rocket fuel to take advantage of the opportunities the new environment affords. Almost every institution undertakes programs of pedagogical change in regular cycles, shifting philosophies and modes of assessment, identifying and implementing technological solutions and translating the complex frames of future prediction, industry expectation and market potential into readily deliverable forms of learning. We are often behest to whatever trend, assumed strategic necessity or technological payload everyone else believes they need to have. What is interesting though is how little the core fundamentals of our pedagogy have changed, whilst the periphery and the compliance have turned over dozens of times.

Real pedagogical change (the kind the addresses the core experiences, practices and realities of teaching and learning) needs people to lead it, challenge it and make it happen, as technology. goodwill and assumptions will only carry you so far. There is no magic fix or single system that will bundle up all the experiences, capabilities and outcomes for student learning and deliver them in a cloud shaped box. This kind of change needs to come from the very cultural heart of the institution, the critical centre shaped by our common experiences of being part of this highly fraught, polarised and often lonely place we call our University, with its frayed boundaries and contested and liminal spaces. Successful pedagogical change happens because the institution (from the top and the bottom) listens and engages with the people in the middle. It makes sure the right people are in the right rooms, participating in the conversation. It challenges the assumptions around why are we making this change and who are we making it for. It understands and recognises that change elicits fear, challenges confidence and fuels assumptions of obsolescence and redundancy. It happens because you are a part of it, you have a voice in it and you understand what it means to own and participate in collective strategic responsibility. And yes, I know it isn’t easy. Maybe you are not let into the room. Maybe, if you are there, you don’t know what to say. Perhaps you are the person who pipes up when no one can connect to EDUROAM and you help out. Perhaps, the louder voices and dominant perspectives simply cancel you out, filling your eyes and ears with white noise and anger.

No one has all the answers. No one can say they don’t have frameworks, memories, experiences or fears that don’t get in the way of making education better. Equally, no one can say that they have nothing to add to the story. But whether it is colleagues or friends, your professional associations (like SEDA or ALT or ASCILITE), your senior management teams or mentors, being a part of something, being in the community and drawing inspiration, ideation and support from them makes it easier, We encourage our students to learn collectively, to construct knowledge socially and challenge critical assumptions to help address wicked and pernicious challenges; maybe we need to start heeding our own message. So, we come to this manifesto for being a part of strategic pedagogical. It is drawn from my own personal experiences, my own successes and my own heroic failures. I have sat in the room with the VC and had to sell the kind of change I wanted to lead in 30 words or less. I have had to make the case for funding when my idea was only one of hundreds competing for the same diminished pot. I have had to argue for change when almost nobody at the institution wanted it, the majority resisted or ignored it but almost everyone knew that we desperately needed it. It is nerve wracking, frightening and exhilarating often within the same gulp of air. But it was being a part of a network, running Future Happens with colleagues and friends Donna Lanclos and Dave White, taking risks with pilots and stepping into the dark barefoot that made it work. I don’t have the answers, all I got is how I work everyday to make education better. I hope it helps you.

1. Have a plan
Come up with ideas. Think through how they might work or fail. Ideate outside and inside the box. Know how you will make it happen. What are the risks and pain points. How much money/resources/people/policy do you need. Don’t go in empty handed. Have a plan.

2. Reward and recognise excellence and achievement

We punish failure or set standards to ensure we are not bad (as opposed to getting better). Reward people intrinsically and tacitly. Listen to people and hear them talk about teaching. Share those lessons with others. People respond to being seen and recognised. Reward and recognise excellence and achievement.

3. Be in the conversation

It easy to throw stones from the outside, it’s harder to put those ideas and opinions into the conversation. Be in the room, influence those who are if you can’t. Don’t let pedagogical changer be done to you. You know stuff, you have done stuff, you have something to say. Make sure you say it. Be in the conversation.

4. Connection is the glue

None of this can be done alone. Finding, nurturing and leveraging connections is critical to being a part of change. This not about alliances and political expediency, although these play their part in any change. Connections join the dots of knowing, doing and making. Connection is the glue.

5. We don’t know what the students want – but we need to

There is so much telling and not enough listening in terms of student engagement. We assume so much through distorted and blurry filter of our own experiences as students. We need to find ways to hear the stories of students, understand them and incorporate them into any change we initiate. This is more than representation, surveys and feedback loops. We need to know what the students ‘want’.

6. Expose yourself to risk

This is not always safe. You are spending money, you are changing things that cut to the core of things like job insecurity, professional identity, graduate outcomes or rankings and metrics. Bit change means you have to take some risks. Trust your experience, trust the people around you. Safe is great, but safe can also be a form of resistance. Expose yourself to risk.

7. Look outside and inwards

You can learn from people around you. Workable solutions, innovations and transformations come from everywhere. Look inwards for experiences and look outwards for inspiration.

8. Be rigorous, evidence based and critically reflective

We work in an academic environment. We are curious, we are critical, and we think through why things. Whatever you suggest, argue or advocate for, make sure before, during and after you have built in evaluation, evidence and rigor. It is more than analytics, it is knowing why something happened and knowing how to make it happen again, scale it or share it with others.

9. Enhance, don’t replace

So much of what we do is predicated on replacing something. Technology is often simply reinforcing practice, just using the latest version or platform. The real challenge of pedagogical change is where we seek to enhance practices, technology or learning. How do we make it better? How do we argue that we have all the raw materials and tools we need and yhat it is time to learn how to use them better. Can we break break/bend/shake/remix what we do now and come up with something completely different?

10. The Future Happens

It does. It really does. We can’t go back to the way it was. That doesn’t mean all change is inevitable and it doesn’t mean we throw out every baby and their bathwater. Embracing the notion that things will change and that you want to be a part of it is the most important thing on this list.

Postscript: The dream of the nineties is alive

Avid readers will know that one of the most important parts of this blog for me is how fundamental music is to my thinking about higher education. It is an amazingly personal but shareable prism to view the world through. Running through the writing of this manifesto was some subliminal reflection on music from my past, specifically the indie/alternative scene of the 90s. From the start of the decade when I was in second year at University through to the end when I was entering my 7th year of teaching marketing and management, discovering new music was so important to my routine. Whether it was doing my radio show on 2RRR in Sydney, filtering tracks as either filler between the hours of talk in one show or telling the story of a specific scene in another, or making mix tapes for special sandgropers, being emotionally carried away or sweating until there wasn’t anything left to give was an everyday experience. I learnt to yell my insides out with every inch of breath (The Geraldine Fibbers – Dragon Lady) and I experienced broken hearts, minds and lost innocence (Scud Mountain Boys – Grudge Fuck). I danced around the room like a madman (Lush – Hypocrite) and I saw how dark it could really be (Tori Amos – Silent All These Years).

I have been listening to heaps of these songs over the last few weeks, rediscovering amazing and lost tracks, having bits of my brain activated that had stored lyrics, guitar riffs and memories of gigs gone by. But the one thing I kept coming back to was that these songs were soundtracks to a time when I felt a part of something. A community of fans who could fill a stadium or barely trouble the back of a Mini. The nineties for me were an era of learning how to learn through making, through sharing, through participating and through curating. I used music in my teaching, I shaped my identity through owning and collecting music (much to the chagrin of some around me 😉 and I took great joy in sharing music with people and having music shared with me. So, I just thought I would share some this music with you. Below is a link to two podcasts I made a few years back. I had the plan of doing one for each year of the 90s. I finished two before life got in the way. I have also made a Spotify playlist for you to browse through. Maybe you will feel like you have become a part of something different or be reminded of the things you were once a part of. Or maybe you will scream along to the Geraldine Fibbers like I am doing right now as I am 34000 feet in the air. I’ll rip myself to piece ‘til the end of time, then I’ll glue them back together in a stupid rhyme



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.