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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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