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

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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

 

Re-imagining learning for a post-digital world (part 1) – Solutions not problems

Solutions not problems

REIMAGINING

 

Over the last few years I have made the case for a substantive and meaningful debate about redefining pedagogy and reimagining teaching and learning firstly for a digital age and more recently for what many are calling the post-digital world.

The logical impossibility of Status Quo: Six disconnects that demand a digital pedagogy (or at least a good debate about it)

‘I am going to blow the whole thing to kingdom come’: In praise of discontinuity within a digital pedagogy 

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

 

But why do we need to debate or design a new pedagogical approach for our modern institutions? There are now more university students and graduates than ever before. The impending death of institution as foretold by many MOOC advocates never happened. Even the studied, reflective and critical arguments made by authors such as John Seely Brown, Randy Garrison, George Siemens and Martin Weller about the impacts of technology on the skills and competencies required by institutions and academics have only been realized in part or through specific components of the wider educational experience.

“The kind of learning that will define the twenty-first century is not taking place in a classroom”
A New Culture of Learning: Cultivating the Imagination for a World of Constant Change; Douglas Thomas and John Seely Brown (2011)

 

‘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)’ George Siemens and Martin WellerHigher education and the promises and perils of social network’, Revista de Universidad y Sociedad del Conocimiento (RUSC), vol. 8, no. 1, pp. 164-170

 

Even the much quoted Alvin Toffler line (‘The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn’) becomes demonstrable mainly in the context of incredibly poor spelling borne out of auto-correct and predictive text rather than in the form of transferable skills and knowledge that can be applied to ever changing professional and personal circumstances.  Time after time in surveys like the NSS we see students wanting more of what we might call a traditional academic experience. They want more feedback, they ask for more ‘face time’ with academics, they continue to want lectures and tutorials. The disconnects between the way learners live their lives and the experiences learners have in the academy are hard to disassemble. It is a complex interplay of expectation, outcome, explicit and tacit connections between the experiences informed by exposed and imagined discipline specificities. It is critical though that we as academics and teachers look to understand these disconnects. Perhaps it is acceptable to simply allow the two streams to exist in parallel with the occasional eruptions, disruptions and transformation dealt with as they arise. But maybe we are missing a trick. Nothing stands still. Industries rise and fall. Movements, momentums, equilibriums all change. To assume that we as institutions will not learn ourselves would be dangerous (and patently incorrect in part as there are so many brilliant examples across the sector of where we have). However, there is a dominant institutional paradigm, which in reality is the giant elephant in the centre of the room.

 

The elephant in the room
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Within many institutions, the patterns and responses of resistance to change position anything different as being the position that has to justify why? There is little criticality around the norm. There is a lot of rigorous defence. It is up to the people advocating for change to make the case for ‘why’. It has worked for centuries as a reason for doing something holds water, even in the light of accusations of historical revisionism (e.g. the modern mass lecture doesn’t date from the 14th century, it is a purely 20th century construct made possible by broadcast technologies). Doing something differently puts you a limb, out on the edge, fringing zealotism. I wrote about this story extensively in my last blog post on ambient conservatism and risk aversion and the behaviours that go with working in those environments

 

Perhaps there is a not a strong or persuasive enough reason for many teachers and their institutions to change. I fundamentally believe that any teacher, convinced of the efficacy and benefit of a pedagogical change that enhances the outcomes for students would not resist that change. However let me apply two caveats. 1. Rational actor and 2. Perfect world. When you throw in the complexity of the institution into the mix, then it all gets a bit messy. The institution rusts behaviours, practices and pedagogy on through policy, the building and updating of the estate, staff recruitment and promotion and how they respond to league tables and the NSS.  All the while, the learners, their jobs, their community and their learning trajectories are changing at pace. The 21st century skills put forward by writers like Henry Jenkins are not a myth. They intersect through social media, collaboration, interaction, relationships, consumption, work and life. If you have never seen them, Jenkins explores them in his brilliant work on Participatory Culture, linked here.

 

Play: The capacity to experiment with the surroundings as a form of problem solving. Performance: The ability to adopt alternative identities for the purpose of improvisation and discovery. Simulation: The ability to interpret and construct dynamic models of real-world processes. Appropriation: The ability to meaningfully sample and remix media content. Multitasking: The ability to scan the environment and shift focus onto salient details. Distributed cognition: The ability to interact meaningfully with tools that expand mental capacities. Collective intelligence: The ability to pool knowledge and compare notes with others toward a common goal. Judgement: The ability to evaluate the reliability and credibility of different information sources. Trans-media navigation: The ability to follow the flow of stories and information across multiple modalities. Networking: The ability to search for, synthesize, and disseminate information. Negotiation: The ability to travel across diverse communities, discerning and respecting multiple perspectives, and grasping and following alternative norms.

 

What does this mean for learning? Learners arriving at university are already e-learners and have been almost all of their lives. Information search has been transformed by the internet and then made necessary by the sheer immensity of information. Learners have had to develop different cognitive approaches to seeking and searching behaviours, to manage disorientation, non-linear browsing and authentication and validation of information. The notions of what is real and authentic are defined very differently. Identity is fluid, rent with multiplicity and diversity. There is no visible distinction between the on-line world and the real world. There is just the world. How we use networks and connections in order to share content, validate opinion and acquire information has fundamentally changed with social media. This is not about the technology. This is about the change it has facilitated.

 

‘…(learners) communicate in a language that many academics don’t yet understand. It’s an everevolving language of interpretation and expression, an interactive approach to learning, creating, and responding to information through a complex montage of images, sound, and communication. Students are pushing learning into a new dimension; it’s a mistake to continue to try to teach them in time-worn ways. Their choices of communication need to be diversified to include, for example, visual interpretations of texts and historical figures or soundtracks for poetry. Students can take advantage of the enormous resources of the Web, transforming what they find there by using digital technologies to create something new and expressive.’ John Seely Brown 2001

 

And, this is not happening to learners as they grace adulthood, this is part of their primary education, or even earlier. Like counting rods were to my generation, the phone and the tablet are tools of learning (amongst other things). These skills and devices are brought to higher education in a highly tailored, personalised and agile digital backpack. It is not a universal one-size fits all backpack for sure. Not all students are experts in all technologies. But when they arrive, the pedagogical framework that underpins much of our education doesn’t value or even recognise those skills. This is not a ‘have or have not’ polarised debate. Those are pointless when discussing learning because they extremes are just that, extreme. There are degrees here. The VLE requires digital literacies and applies some of the ‘modern’ frameworks of search and access skill, although it can and often does privilege sequential access to knowledge, enforce a linear methodology of consumption and browsing and doesn’t support excursions of clicking to other sources of information. 20th century learning wrapped in 21st century technology. A discussion forum seems to support some of the new learning behaviours (not 21st century – in fact one of the earliest components of the internet, pre-world wide web was the bulletin board dating back to the early 70s). They support students to engage with each other, discuss and learn on-line. In reality, there are many studies that argue that students don’t use them and if they do, they need to be rewarded with grades. I counted over 100 studies published over the last 10 years aimed at enhancing the effectiveness of the forum with solutions ranging from timely instructor interventions, to redefining success measures (a forum with little discussion is not a failure!) to positioning forums as solely on-line tools where the deficits can be picked up in a face to face mode. So, they remain the holy grail of blended learning…the course with an active discussion forum!

 

But back to the ‘no persuasive reason’ argument briefly – do students have a persuasive enough reason to push for pedagogical change to their education experience? Is it pragmatic to approach education as a transaction, where you accept (and sometimes propagate) the conditions in order to graduate? Or have we through history, received wisdom or a keening sense of nostalgia created the expectations of a higher education experience and rewarded the acceptance of them? Even the completion of a degree programme is often not enough. In the UK, the government reward institutions for increasing the number of ‘good’ degrees (2:1 or higher). There is a growing movement of modern learners and graduates who ascribe to the theory of 2:1 or your career plans are shot. If all of that is in the hands of the institution and system of teaching and learning, what reward is there to challenge it?

 

Solutions not problems
What I am promising from the next two posts is not a solution in a box. It is not an easily defined pedagogy like social constructivism or connectivism. It is not clean or neat. It is messy and chaotic. The common factor – the belief that the status quo is not inevitable, that the perception of equilibrium is changeable. That innovation is not a buzzword, nor is a dirty word. This is the first part of a three-part article. Parts two and three, which will be published after summer, outline what I am calling a ‘learning experience’ approach to teaching and learning in a post-digital world. How do we leverage the massive potential of modern learning in a higher education context? How do make higher education better and more relevant to the community who clearly value the contribution that a higher education can make? How do we empower teachers and learners to change and make the persuasive case to the institution to change along with them?

 

You can now read parts 2 and 3 of this blog post.  These will introduce the idea of post-digital learning experiences as a solution to the problems put forward here.