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



It doesn’t matter what is in your hands – Reprise: Challenging the learning of the future

So, this is a reprise of my last post, written in late September.

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Jisc have just launched a co-design challenge (#codesign16) looking at what should the next generation of digital learning environments do. There are a number of key assumptions that keen readers of this blog might suspect I will take issue with; should we even be talking about learning environments for a starter. As learning technologists, academics or educational developers, why do we keep talking about the box of tricks as the on-going ticket to educational success? There are a number of much prescient articles about the future of the VLE (Louis Pugilese wrote a nice thought piece on a demand side VLE a few years back HERE and Martin Weller’s 2007 dystopian future ‘The VLE/LMS is dead’. But for me, the debate about what comes next, what does the VLE of the future look like or whether it is cloud or server based is like a drowning man arguing about the political position that his rescuer has on the issue of Brexit (and deciding that drowning is better than jumping in a boat with Nigel Farage).

What we should be talking about is far more fundamental than all of that. In 2014, I wrote a blog post about some the polarising factors that are in fact paralyzing our sector, preventing us from change, supporting entrenched positions of resistance and not affording us the opportunity to truly interrogate why the hell we are educating in the first place. This was not a baby out with the bathwater argument, nor was it the call to smash it all down and start again;

He argued that the modern university needed to prepare itself for a raft of changes that represented substantial changes that arise primarily from the technologies of today. There is a clear disconnect between the pace of technological change, the use of technologies by our learners and the pace in which institutions can change and adapt to both of those. I think we have been successful in winning the battles of large scale institutional systems as a means of embedding learning technology. The difference in the post-digital age is that now, these platforms and tools don’t have to be firewalled behemoths of yore. They are lean, agile, accessible and most of all, social. There isn’t a single institutional ‘out of the box’ solution that we can get the institution to invest in. There are micro platforms, single purpose aggregations of tools, agile new start-ups and the continued predominance of a digital backpack hosted and stored in the cloud.

As a sector, we need to move away from our systems mind set and into one that creates the conditions for agility, creativity and innovation. The effort should not be on shaping the systems to be ready for 2025, it should be shaping the institution to be able to adapt to whatever is thrown at it. If we went back to 2005 and asked the institution to prepare itself for 2015, what would we have told it? What has happened in the intervening years that we could have never predicted? Funnily enough, it’s the stuff we are still trying to ways to adapt to now. Social media! Participatory culture! Digital Citizenship!  (from the post ‘We could ride the surf together – Polarisation and power of riding the wave and not staying in front of it’)

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We don’t know what we don’t know. Prediction is a mugs game for sure. The Jisc challenge here was two-fold;

1. are current systems meeting the needs of our institutions,
2. and is it time to think about the next generation of learning environments?

My question is a different one; are the current systems meeting the needs of learning? Our institutions rise and fall on that question. The one thing we have over and above informal learning, community learning, micro-learning and all the other wolves at the door is that we accredit and certify. The value of that certification comes from the people who get it pinned to their chests. If what we offer stops meeting their needs, then we stop being relevant. The next generation of learning environment must tangle with the provocative and frankly difficult question of what learning actually is. My last post looked at good teaching, and why that was important in the digital age, and in the face of claims that technology courrupts good learning practices. It argued that god teaching was system/OS/box agnostic and that what made teaching ‘good’ was essentially intrinsic and human. One of the controversial interpretations of is that advocated that good teaching as it was human could only happen in ‘real life’. It doesn’t matter what the future learning environment is, the first question is what is the future of learning going to look going to look like? Are we the right people to be a part of it? This is not a clarion call for the heaving morass who argue the age of the expert is dead. Expertise is not a pejorative term FFS. Experts fix things, make things better, cure things, understand things and share things. But we do have to ask ourselves the tough questions; should we be involved in our our students learning? What kind of learning do they need/want/have no idea about yet?

Any learning environment of the future needs to be shaped and understood with at least some interrogwtion of those questions. Gutierrez in 2014 made a broad attempt to answer these questions by saying that learning is changing in four ways;

From Individual to Collaborative Learning
From Passive to Active Learning
The Rise of Differentiated Instruction
The Phenomenon of Multi-tasking

If we assume that this is what learning is in 2020 (which is a giant leap) how would the learning environment we would need to start developing now adapt to these changes, which are no hypothetical or fictitious, they are happening in our institutions now. How can a VLE be made to support active learning; can it be hacked, can it be bent? One of the biggest arguments in the ‘VLE is dead’ saga a few years back was the rise of adaptive and predictive technologies. You know, the ones that Amazon use to tell you which books or music you should buy next. Imagine (we were told) what a VLE could do if it were to become adaptive -after removing the rise of the Apes from your brain (and stopped screaming ‘“YOU BLEW IT UP! AH, DAMN YOU! GOD DAMN YOU ALL TO HELL!’ at the small snow globe of the statue of liberty you have on your desk), take a deep breath. What is it adapting to? Learning is a crooked, messy, chaotic and non-linear pathway through living.  It doesn’t matter where it happens, on what box or within which four august walls.  It matters that we understand why people learn.  It matters we know why we should be part of it and it matters how the learning is used.  And all of that, as it has done for centuries is changing.  Sure, technology is part of the reason, but not the whole of the reason.  Our needs, desire, passions and pains to learn are changing.  Survival is an entirely different beast when you are not facing the 22 foot gleaming teeth of a giant angry pre-historic badger.  How we survive and what we are surviving is different, so how and what we learn to survive must be as well.

 

So, let’s start the debate with an open blue sky of thought.  It shouldn’t be never-ending or ponderous.  It is not a left-wing rant nor is it an affordance or a luxury that we can’t afford.  We have to ask ourselves, our friends and colleagues and our leaders the question ‘What is the next generation of learning?’ As I ask in the earlier blog post, what will our 2025 selves tell us about what we should have prepared for?  And most importantly, we need to ground that in some thinking, exploring and evidence, then we will know exactly how we will design the environments that the learning of the future will sit in.

It doesn’t matter what is in your hands

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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.

 

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

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