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 –

Shit or get off the pot: Why are we still talking about the seismic impacts technology will have on higher education?


It is a fascinating exercise to look back at how academics and scholars viewed the impact of  computers in education.  There have been discourses around technology and computer-mediated learning for over three decades.  What is interesting in the 20 or so articles I read (ranging from 1970 to 1985) is that we are having the same debates, with the same arguments being constructed around the same fault lines, roughly split between evangelists and critics advocating or arguing against the impacts and benefits of technology in higher education;


“We are, whether fully conscious of it or not, already in an environment for higher education that represents the most drastic change since the founding of the University of Paris and Bologna…some eight or nine centuries ago.” Stephen Muller – President Johns Hopkins talking about technology in 1985
“In each instance, technology failed to live up to its early promise for three reasons: resistance by teachers, high cost, and the absence of demonstrable gains in student achievement” – ‘Looking into education’s high-tech future’ Raymond Bok 1985


With the almost ubiquitous impact of technology, whether in the form of devices, usage or interaction, in many aspects of society, there still seems to be significant contesting of the relevance of technology to the way we do higher education teaching, learning and assessment.

 “Communication between people occurs in a social context including role relationships eventually negotiated by participants. Developing and maintaining these relationships assists the society, and the entire communicative process is a necessary condition for a person’s definition of a self-identity. Contemporary technologies potentially limit the development of social relationships and broadening of self?concepts. Computers cannot fulfil many social functions and could disrupt the social fabric, thereby losing vehicles for defining and constructing self.” – ‘Technology and the crisis of self’ – Gratz and Salem, Communication Quarterly v.32, n.2, 1984
“It is often very tempting first to draw a simplified picture of the role of the teacher in “traditional” or even “old-fashioned” education and then present contrasting visions of a new role in the future. In my opinion, there is too much easy and superficial talk about revolutions and paradigm shifts in education. Revolutions don’t happen that often…” ‘The role of university teachers in a digital era’ – Ljoså, paper presented to the EDEN Conference, Bologna, Italy 1998
“The potential of technology to transform teaching and learning practices does not appear to have achieved substantial uptake, as the majority of studies focused on reproducing or reinforcing existing practices.” – Kirkwood, Adrian and Price – ‘Technology-enhanced learning and teaching in higher education: what is ‘enhanced’ and how do we know? A critical literature review.’ Learning, Media and Technology 


There are thousands of examples of individual projects both here in the UK and around the sector globally where small and medium scale applications of e-learning, web 2.0 technologies, infrastructure investment or new pedagogies have been implemented and evaluated to varying degrees of success (Smith 2012). There is little evidence that there has been institutional level change, in terms of teaching, learning and assessment or pedagogical strategy, aside from changes in administrative processes connected to those strategies or to enshrine within them the didactic content-driven transmissive models of the existing pedagogy. Nor has there been the associated promised revenue generation or cost savings (Blin & Munro 2008; Kirkwood 2009; MacKeogh & Fox 2008; Stepanyan, Littlejohn & Margaryan 2010).


I used to work in a bookstore in the late 1980s back in my hometown of Sydney, Australia.  There was no way in the days of pastel pink walls and stacked tan and maroon bookshelves did we ever believe that the model of book retail would ever change.  The main technological change I saw from the time when I used to go into the bookstore as a five year old was to replace the grand central staircase with escalators.   As I grew more knowledgeable of the business I would see the impact of technology in terms of stock control, buying, customer service and range development.  But once again, little could we predict that less than 10 years after I finished working there, it would be the last major bookshop standing in the city because technology had not simply changed the way they did business, it changed the business itself.  As yes of course, there were more reasons as to the failure of hundreds of bookstores than simply the power of Amazon.  But at the core of it, book buying as an industry changed.  It started with distribution, then it went to price, then it went to promotion and finally it went to product, with e-books and e-readers changing the very way the product is produced and consumed.



This model of change (for better or for worse) can be seen happening in hundreds if not thousands of every day practices.  Yet despite some change within higher education, we are still arguing about the impacts of technology, perhaps fiddling whilst Rome burns.


“People will argue that you don’t get the same interaction as in a face-to-face environment. But the vast majority of our students elect never to show up on campus as we record our lectures and don’t force participation. In terms of project work – they organize themselves digitally – they set up a Facebook group, meet over Google+ hangouts and Skype, and occasionally in person. This really changes the need for face to face interaction.” David Glance, Director of the UWA Centre for Software Practice, University of Western Australia


It is clear that the modern university will not look the same as it does now. The challenges and significant changes that the digital age represents cannot afford to be reacted to by putting a new coat of paint on an old car. The modern university will have to adapt to a world that is looking for new ways to get from point A to point B, driven and navigated by learners and a community that are not necessarily constrained by roads or engines.


 “…educational policymakers have not learned anything from these decades of research, whose recurring theme has been the complexity (if not outright failure) of educational change and the inadequacy of so many reform ideas…we have so little evidence that anyone has learned anything new about the processes of teaching and schooling beyond the confines of their own personal locations.” Bascia, N. & Hargreaves, A. 2000, ‘Teaching and leading on the sharp edge of change’, in N. Bascia & A. Hargreaves (eds), The sharp edge of educational change, Routledge, London, pp. 3-28.


For me, the phrase that adorns this blog post, ‘shit or get off the pot’, represents a critical line in the sand for all of us engaged in the strategic and pedagogical direction of higher education.  Can we afford the same moments of blessed ignorance afforded to the management of Borders and HMV who staunchly refused to embrace the new behaviors of users and when they did it was too little, too late?  Are MOOCs the wake-up call that perhaps all is not right in neverland?  As noted by David Glance, the users of higher education are adapting the new skills they have in information and digital literacy to interacting and engaging with each other and the academy in different ways.  We all know the statistics around mobile text usage, the continued decline in email in 16-20 year olds and continued blurring between the personal and professional in terms of web 2.0 usage.


“Tasks that were previously the domains of faculty are now under the control of learners: searching for information, creating spaces of interaction, forming learning networks, and so on. Through blogs, wikis, online video, podcasts and open educational resources, learners are able to access content from leading lecturers and researchers around the world. Through the use of social media, learners are able to engage and interact with each other (and in some cases, directly with researchers and faculty)”. Siemens & Weller, ‘Higher education and the promises and perils of social network’, Revista de Universidad y Sociedad del Conocimiento (RUSC) 2011

How long can we continue to argue the toss about technology in higher education?  I argue that the tipping point has already been passed.  The ability to access information and further, the skills to use that information in creative, constructive or problem solving ways are embedded and integrated into school level learning and social interactions from a young age.  Significant aspects of business practice are linked inexorably with technology and more importantly, are different from the way they were even 5 or 10 years ago.  Yet we, as often the largest employer in a region, the hub of innovation and the heart of entrepreneurship and intellectual capacity are debating whether there is any benefit that can be gained from technology in our practice.  We talk about our 19th century learning model as one that has worked in the past, why are questioning its relevance now?  Perhaps the answer to the question as to why there has been little measurable institutional impact of changes in technology is that there have been very few instances of an institutional strategic imperative to respond to the change.


Are we trapped in a model of fundamentally believing what is right about what we do that we can’t see that not everyone shares this belief?  Often anyone who advocates for technology is labeled an evangelist or an advocate, sometimes used as terms of derision in the same way users of Facebook are branded addicts because they use Facebook more than the person undertaking the research does (I hasten to tell the story about whether my long dead grandfather would consider all of his grandchildren as addicts for the amount they are addicted to their cars, because he only drove his olive green Morris Minor to church on Sundays).  Whilst we arguing about whether Twitter is an intellectual copyright minefield, or whether Dropbox own our data or if we should ban students from using Wikipedia and Google learners are acquiring knowledge from different sources, they are interacting in the ways they feel comfortable doing and they will seek something different from higher education if what we offer is in discord from what they want.


‘It’s tragic because, by my reading, should we fail to radically change our approach to education, the same cohort we’re attempting to “protect” could find that their entire future is scuttled by our timidity.’ David Puttnam Speech at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, June 2012


So much of our scholarship on e-learning is about tools and platforms, arguing the relative merits of second life or twitter, or analyzing the dropout rates of MOOCs.  What we are missing in our research and in our arguments at a strategic level is a narrative around what are the changing educational requirements and conditions that necessitate a critical review of our teaching and learning pedagogies.  Employers are actively searching a potential employee’s digital profile, how do we integrate that into our teaching of professional practice? Crowd-sourced information is driving sales and reputation in industries as automotive, travel and arts and culture.  The issue is not the use of technology by the academy, but how that technology leads to a new model of collaborative, interactive and authentic higher education experience.  As Michael Wesch notes;


“We want to put them in a state of wonder. They’re insatiably curious. If we (teachers) inspire them, then we can work to harness and leverage technology and create with them.”
Michael Wesch from Kansas State University who directed ‘A vision of student’s today’


It is time for us to shit or get off the pot.  In my opinion we cannot afford to continue this cyclical and eventually damaging ‘will they, won’t they?’ dance of unresolved technological tension.  There has to be a critical, empirical and research informed evaluation of our pedagogical practices.  The systems by which we enhance our programmes and courses need to be agile and responsive.  And this has to happen quickly and publicly.  Our agenda in some ways is being controlled for us by companies like Pearson and the reputational one-two of things likes MOOCs and hacktivist education coming from organisations like Coursera, FutureLearn, TED and the Gates Foundation.  At the moment we as universities are relying on the import of credentials and qualifications.  But this is being broken down through new industries, new jobs and continued (in my opinion, flawed) belief that learning can be simply broken down and aggregated like the way you collect football cards, swapped, bartered and finally made into a set.  This is a not a call to throw the baby out with the bathwater.  In fact, it is the opposite.  We need to make a case that we are at the centre of facilitating a creative, engaging and innovative culture.  We support learners to develop a skills set that is authentic, transferable and shareable.  We have decades of interactions, conversations, research, investigations and experience.  Technology does not diminish that.  Technology provides a way in which our learners can connect and join with that body of knowledge.  Technology affords the learners with an opportunity to add to it, share it, remix it and create something new from it.  But at the heart of that is still the institution, the space that encourages, supports and fertilizes that creativity.  But by banning mobile phones in classrooms or insisting that lectures are compulsory (as the only way to learn something is to listen to it being intoned from afar),  we are creating the constructs of our irrelevance.


‘Last fall, the Harvard Business School began requiring every entering student to purchase an IBM personal computer. Those who were unfamiliar with these machines received special instruction in their use. Software was distributed to enable students to manipulate financial data. Word processing programs were provided to assist students in preparing their reports’ Looking into education’s high-tech future’ Raymond Bok 1985