From the Middle Out – making pedagogical change happen in a complex, messy world

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At the heart of defining and understanding resistance is the idea that two opposing forces are at work; the force being resisted and the force doing the resisting. In terms of universities and the way they engage with change, the forces of resistance can create dichotomous arguments; Traditional vs techno-centric.  Student-led vs research informed. New vs old. Affordances vs Resistances. Technologies vs Pedagogies. Service vs Strategy.

 

These arguments then become entrenched positions for which even the slightest weakness (showing admiration for the benefits of other side) indicates that you have swapped teams.  Handy little clichéd arguments emerge that privilege ‘established technologies’ like the VLE over new fangled innovations, or that talk about technological innovation as something to come, a concept that exists only in potential, like the flying car or world peace. In an earlier blog post, I described these types of narratives as a form of passive resistance to change, where there was a sense of accepting the need for change whilst resisting in other ways. Westberry, McNaughton, Billot & Gaeta (2015) argue that in fact the bigger issue arises where technology challenges the pedagogical primacy of the academics ‘goals, beliefs and practice’.  It is in this context that people have to construct plans, strategies and arguments to implement pedagogical change, especially change informed and inspired by technology.

 

In some senses, in HE we are chasing our tails. At the end of the day, much of that change we talk about in terms of potential has been and gone.  It is not inevitable when it has already happened.  Potential is not a measure of the past (you are reading a blog people, not a position paper or my own private diary!).  The problem we have as a sector is that whilst the world around us has engaged in the digital, education in the main remains staunchly divided on whether we need to.  The fact that learning technologists and educational developers have to make the case that innovation is not just a nice thing to do, but is essential for our survival seems to be as ludicrous as having to argue that the worlds climate has changed and we risk global annihilation by doing nothing…oh, oops.

 

The fact remains that technology and innovation often get side-lined in institutional discourses and funding pitches because they are thought of as an add-on, a luxury, value-added or simply the domain of the techno-mages. However, in institutional strategies and plans, innovation, technology and cutting edges approaches dominate the public discourse. Technology offers brand value, a differentiator from the rest of the pack.  This leads advocates to constantly cite strategy as the ace in the pack for our activity.  We can deliver this innovation in spades.  Just fund us, give us the resources we need to unbind us from the eternal circle of system updates and getting the basics right.  Let us turn to the two established strategies for implementing organisational change.

 

Bottom up

We can leverage the bottom up enthusiasm of our champions, who have been piloting and practicing for decades.  Their momentum and enthusiasm will eventually infect the rest of the faculty.  We can take their interventions and scale them to larger cohorts and bigger projects.

But the problem with bottom up is that institutions are a bit like a cow, impossible to tip over (yes, that myth has been dispelled). The pace of change and the fear that a lack of tenure creates means that an intransigent block begins somewhere above the grassroots and steadfastly refuses to engage. Time. Resources. Policy. Custom and Practice.  We all know the reasons, and they are legitimate (in part). They simply do not create a fertile environment for change.

 

Top down

We can expect strong leadership from the top down.  They wrote the strategy.  They want the university to go in singular direction, to position itself against the competition and deliver on the KPIs. People will listen to them because all we ask for is direction from our leaders.

But the problem with top down is that management and leadership across higher education has become diffused, disaggregated and siloed. An inspired direction from the VC becomes a call to do more with less from the DVC and a set of rolled eyes from the Dean.  We have all heard it before. Another strategic plan, another restructure, what are we this time; faculties or Schools? Departments or Divisions? Keeping your head below the parapet, doing your job to the best of your ability without changing too much is the only way to survive. Once again, this is not a fertile environment for change.  And in both cases, technology becomes the cause célèbre for resistors and the politically savvy.  And from that arises so many myths and misconceptions about technology that have blighted our sector for decades.  You have heard them;

 

  • Technology is just about the kit, so until you get my data projector working, you can’t do anything more innovative
  • Technology is there to replace me with robo-lecturers to save money
  • Technology is a luxury; good teaching will always be more important
  • Technology and pedagogy are mutually exclusive domains
  • Technology will capture my soul (OK, I made that last one up)

 

So, what is the solution? The solution is to find a different of making change happen. Top down and bottom up have failed to deliver change in terms of technology at most institutions. I am proposing something new, called ‘Middle Out’.  What is the Middle Out?  If you are a fan of the HBO series ‘Silicon Valley’ you will be giggling now. And quite rightly so. And if you are not, just google it and get it out the way. And if you do google it, you will see that Barack Obama also used a Middle Out model as part of his argument against the dominant conservative paradigm of trickle down economics, and making the case that real  economic growth comes when you empower the middle class.

 

In education, middle out represents an opportunity to truly deliver an effective change process by leading change from the middle. If change from the bottom up and top down have failed to create and sustain change (even in the face of the maelstroms of MOOCs, increased global competition and significant and lasting societal change around technology and knowledge) then we need another approach. Each week brings another start up or new player that challenges the dominant paradigms of successful higher education.  From institutional reputation, to certification through to constructed programmes of comprehensive disciplinarity, these ventures argue that modern higher education is not fit for purpose. And with each intervention a little bit of the building blocks of success get chipped away.  Anyone who has been watching what has happened to the edifice that is TAFE NSW in Australia knows what this looks like.  Poor technological decisions, a fundamental and entrenched resistance to change, a political environment more toxic than arsenic and old lace and the unflinching and unrestrained impact of commercial provision have led to questions about whether one of the worlds largest education providers simply shuts down after training millions of adults. The traditional modes of adult education, whether right or wrong, are under significant threat and it is not enough to put our head in the sand and hope it goes away.

 

So, what is middle out? Middle out is a way of advocating and most importantly delivering strategic change in higher education. It is especially relevant (and it is where I have tested it across three institutions in the UK) to pedagogical change in the digital age. The way in which institutions allow or even encourage entrenched perspectives through spreading resources and support too thinly across multiple programmes creates an environment that can doom initiatives that rely on top down and bottom up to long term failure.  Middle out provides a third way, a different path to achieving the change required to shift the majority of the organisation.  Middle out takes initiative and courage on behalf of the organisation.  It needs advocates who passionately believe the only way to succeed is to build networks of collaboration and common purpose.  It needs senior management committed to rewarding that collaboration (as opposed to simply expecting it through diktat). It requires people to be willing to celebrated and rewarded for doing, achieving, piloting, experimenting and accepting.  At the heart of defining and understanding acceptance is the idea that two complementary forces are at work; the person making the change to be accepted and the person applying criticality as a way of accepting the change.

 

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Scaled projects that have institutional impact
(SCALE)
Connected approaches that cross function, discipline and faculty (CONNECTION)
Stimulating change through high profile, highly visible interventions (STIMULUS)
Projects that make an impact with learners, teachers and the institution (IMPACT)

SCALE

In middle out, the idea of scale is counter-intuitive to existing lore around change (slowly, slowly or rip the Band-Aid off).  Scale represents an opportunity to test initiatives, effect fundamental shifts of practice and undertake this within an environment where it matters.  Large cohorts, full programmes, first year courses, major policy areas such as assessment or curriculum redesign.  Scale means having enough resources, staff and support to engage in change at a substantial size and scope.  This is not new to learning technology or educational development.  We have all started and then moved VLEs, brought in lecture capture or started any number of institutionally supported systems.  We have reacted to major changes in QA policy or practice.  But these ‘solutions in a box’ have been and gone and they have left little resonant and lasting pedagogical change.

In the digital age, learning and doing have changed and these changes are not easily located in a box. Because the changes are messy, contested and to be fair it’s a little chaotic and under-intellectualised. Scale gives you enough variation and dilution to see if the change or strategy actually works, evaluate it effectively and make the case that if it works at scale, then it will work in smaller instances and at a local level.  Maybe it’s the opposite of trickle down education.  An instance where change is large enough to test something in real time and then have it explode outwards through the institution, from the top to the bottom.

 

CONNECTION

Middle out argues that trans-disciplinarity and inter-disciplinarity can align functional areas to identify commonalities and informed practice.  Effecting change from connection draws on the strengths of disciplines and knowledges and shares them between and across.  One of the criticisms of technological change in education is that much of the insight and transformations reside at a local level within course groups, TEL teams or sometimes individual teachers.  There is often no way to share that expertise. When institutions have a Damascene moment and decide that everyone is going to do something online or that all assessment will be electronic by next week, it is not the people who have whittled away at the coal face for years that are consulted, but new teams flushed with cash and caché that start from scratch, imbuing the early adopters with resentment and cartoonish grumbling.  Middle out aims to at least try and allay that fear by building networks of practice, virtual and physical, by sharing expertise through cross functional projects, whole-of-team interventions and impactful dissemination of practice.  Connection draws together teams from cognate and tangential disciplines to approach change from a multidisciplinary perspective. Connection encourages these teams to take their success and knowledge back to their disciplines and cascade change from within.  In other instances, it is a simply a community of practice sharing common experiences from engaging in change across disciplines. A community of gamers, a community of social media users, or a community of visual researchers.

 

STIMULUS

Middle out is not a model driven by numbers.  Bigger is not always better.  The aspiration of using middle out is to focus is on what can make change happen and then cascade it through the organisation.  So much change dies on the branch.  Restructure after restructure. Initiative after initiative can look like churn rather than burn. Stimulus is a good example of middle out as a strategic approach.  Stimulus argues that change can accelerate through the effervescent effect of a successful and impactful catalyst.  Maybe that is a learning space, a platform, a show and tell, a training course, a set of grants or an award.  For example, a learning space is just a room until it changes the way people use it, and people change the way its used. The room becomes the stimulus for change.  And these changes don’t have to be big. They can be something such as recognition.  At the LSE, we have developed a project called LSE Innovators.  The aim of the Innovators project is to celebrate individual passions and innovations within teaching and learning through case studies and multimedia presentations. They celebrate the staff member as championing innovations that enhance the student learning experience.  They offer real examples of practice that can inspire, inform or shape the practices of others, inside and outside the institution. These have been viewed hundreds of times across the School and the sector and they act as a stimulus to innovation, reducing barriers of fear and resistance. It is the stimulus that changes practice, and if that stimulus is available widely then all the better.

 

IMPACT

Another good example of middle out a strategic approach to allocating resources is impact.  If only it were a simple equation of money+time+any programme+technology=success.  Not every project is created equal and through a combination of politics, structure, context and luck different projects have different impact.  The trick is working out which projects have the greatest potential impact.  Sometimes it is the smallest project, a simple intervention that you have nurtured and support, invested time and money into and evaluated effectively that explodes into significant change.  It is this project that convinces the important opinion leaders to spread the initiative and scale it.  Maybe it is the persuasive voice of the right salesperson, maybe it is fact they will not be the first person to climb Everest.  Maybe it is simply that the fear of failure is 10% less than before and that takes it below your risk threshold.  Impact cannot be underestimated in a middle out strategy.  And as with the other components of a middle out approach, impact is enhanced by award and reward, evaluation and dissemination, sharing and mentoring.  Impact projects often benefit from the leadership of a guru or figurehead (as do stimulus projects). I met one colleague at a university in the US who argued their most important advocate for change was a long standing science professor, awarded to the hilt, who simply decided one day to record his lectures. Smallest change, but with a massive impact because people said, well, if Bob can do it, why can’t I? He became an advocate telling everyone how this had changed his teaching and had enhanced his students learning.  He critically reflected after watching his videos and changed the way he taught for the better.  Many of his colleagues have followed him.

 

So there you have it. Four examples of what a middle out change strategy can look like. Does it work? To be honest I could sit here and say ‘yup, worked for me’ and it has.  But the real answer is that each institution has to develop its own unique approach to developing a culture of acceptance and engagement rather than resistance.  Resistance is fine if it shapes the change to be better, more successful or lasting.  Equally, passive acceptance can be just as damaging as unreconstructed resistance.  Middle out is a way to craft a successful change process around pedagogy and technology.  But in the end, we have start with the need to change, a successful plan of what we need to change to and why and finally we need the resources that mean that necessary change happens for the right reasons.  And then we can look at middle out.  We can look at making the changes that we should be making about how we teach, how are students learning and how we can expand the debate from simply making PowerPoint better or Moodle less clunky and into what skills and experiences should we delivering for the next generation of adult learners.

 

 

 

 

…like a fool – Sorting the revolutionary change from the merely cosmetic

*apologies to Alvin Toffler for the appropriation of his quote for the title and to Superchunk for the first part*

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“Once I began thinking in terms of waves of change, colliding and overlapping, causing conflict and tension around us, it changed my perception of change itself. In every field, from education and health to technology, from personal life to politics, it became possible to distinguish those innovations that are merely cosmetic, or just extensions of the industrial past, from those that are truly revolutionary.”
Toffler Alvin. The Third Wave. 1980.

I have spent the last few months presenting findings from the first year of a project (from my previous institution) that was designed to transform learning and teaching with technology. Most of the papers have centred on the notions of institutional resistance to technology and how through a process of encouraging play and experimentation with technology, we believed that the vision could overcome this resistance to change and open up the debates around the changing nature of pedagogy. We kept coming back to the same conclusion, shoulder shrugged. Resistance seemed to be an inevitable outcome of even the smallest and least controversial of innovations. This resistance came in many and varied forms, from the outright to the passive. It permeated all aspects of the implementation. Everything from the hearts and minds exercises to the practical expressions of benefit to the students was seen through the lens of resistance. Both inside and outside the institution there were colleagues who were interested and engaged participators in the debate, whilst there were others who questioned the practicality or even the point of such philosophical musings, preferring a more practical take on technological innovation (DIY or not do it all seemed to the polarised positions).

The more I presented these findings, the more I found myself almost apologising for my views. I became critical of the project and our apparent failings in achieving the aspirational intentions we set out to achieve. I started second guessing many of the insights or broader ideas that emerged from this intense period of research and reflection. I was using phrases like ‘I don’t I want to throw the baby out with the bathwater’ and ‘I am not advocating a revolution’. When in many ways I actually wanted to advocate that so we could have a real, engaged and impactful debate, rather than a question or two at conference, usually prefaced with the words ‘This is not so much a question, more a statement…’. I wanted to be the radical voice, challenging orthodoxy and unsettling the status quo. Not because it felt good to be a rebel but because I honestly believe that innovation comes from challenging your ideas with others and collaborating to do something better. But instead I retreated into saying what I believed and putting my hands up and almost saying ‘sorry’ after I had said it.

Recently I read a book chapter by James G. March from Stanford (published in 1976) called ‘The Technology of Foolishness’ where he argues that organisations and the decisions they make can become wrapped up in a web of ‘received doctrine’ of intelligence and choice. He aligns this doctrine with three assumptions of rational decision making (the pre-existence of purpose, the necessity of consistency and the primacy of rationality). Any e-Learning approach is judged by the objectives and purposes it sets (and not always achieves), the importance of ensuring that consistency is achieved across disciplines and through qualifications usually resulting in the provision of a lowest common denominator service (where the least controversial aspects become the organisational norm) and that the rational expectations of faculty and student experience are indeed more primary to the aspirational expectations of people choosing to innovate, experiment and push boundaries.

March argues that we as adults have constructed a world in which we know what is good for ourselves. We ‘know’ the consequences of any decision we or others make, whilst children are freed from this rationality and predictive intelligence. The result in the case of institutional resistance to technology is a series of common mantras….

#‘It’s a nice idea, but it won’t work’,
#‘It would be good to do if we had more time’
#’I am sure it’s a great thing with the kind of students YOU teach, but with my kind of students…’
#’The lecture has worked for 125 years, why do we need to change it?’
#’Students don’t know what they want, but our employer’s sure do’

So, why do we find it hard to even have these debates without resorting to a series of well-worn defences based on our understandings of what are the almost guaranteed consequences of what is being proposed? March argues that for effective decision making we need to ‘suspend (our) rational imperatives towards consistency’. What does this mean in terms of e-Learning? For me, this is about introducing conceptual and attitudinal behaviours into higher education design, pedagogy and management that will not always embraced, either by staff overworked at the coalface or by management beset by constraints and objectives too often in conflict or contrary to the philosophical intent of the academy.

March describes these behaviours in the context of what he calls the ‘technology of foolishness’. Linked closely to the notions of play, where the usual rules are suspended allowing us to seek out new rules through experimentation and reject the usual objections to rational behaviours or accepted intelligence. Resistance to technology in higher education occurs despite the overwhelming evidence of societal change arising from the internet and social media (technology-change sceptics? Technology change is not man-made perhaps?). People who play with technology in higher education are often seen as zealots, tinkerers, or techies or at best, early adopters. Their work is often marginalised to their own context, shared with the converted and siloed within e-Learning-centric activity and practice. Many institutions still actively separate learning and e-Learning as if the ‘e’ part of this cutting edge experimental state is not really the same as teaching. Comparing online learning and face to face teaching is seen as not comparing apples with apples. The debates around using technology and changing pedagogy are positioned as dichotomous, mutually exclusive and competing paradigms, ignoring the decades of successful and innovative blended learning.

Take the dreaded MOOC debate. This has become rent with almost an ideological extremism bordering on George W Bush’s euphemistic ‘you are with us or against us’ argument. I recently presented at a MOOC conference where I took what I thought was a fairly critical approach to the debates around the impacts of MOOCs on HE. Granted it was to a room of MOOC advocates and providers, so ‘fox in a henhouse’ was probably an appropriate metaphor. But I felt, not through any comments or questions or responses, that I needed to temper my opinions a little, ensure it was clear that I was not a MOOC sceptic or technology neophyte making uninformed observations around a well understood field. What became clear to me after presenting these opinions in a number of places is that there is an accepted and arguably melodramatic narrative that MOOCs will change the world, the education has already passed a tipping point, weak brands will die and strong brands will survive, just like the music industry. Anyone who argues against this is misinformed, ignorant or an idealist pining for the days gone by. And it is easy to portray those who disagree with you as naysayers, luddites or people who just don’t get it. Now, this is not a universal set of behaviours. I have had some engaging and pragmatic debates with MOOC players, and both our understandings are better for it.

As a sector it is critical that we apply the same rigour and criticality to our own behaviours as we do to our students and our research. We need to be able to engage in debates, discussions and experiments at an institutional level. It is equally important that these debates are not just navel gazing or pointless circles of rhetoric and opinion. They need to be centred on questioning the key assumptions made in our delivery of learning and teaching.

Graeme Gibbs wrote his seminal piece ‘Twenty terrible reasons for lecturing’ in 1981, yet 34 years on we are still arguing about it and every word he said is prescient today as it was then. What was the number one song in 1981? Bette Davis Eyes by Kim Carnes.

Are we still playing that song every year saying well, it worked well for the radio in 1981, let’s keep playing it? And by the way, ask an average 18 year old who Bette Davis was? Radio silence for sure there.

Now, we can assume that, for example, the debate around the lecture has been won and the evidence is overwhelmingly in favour of the sage (by sheer evidence of activity). We can equally assume that it is harder to change the status quo than it is to accept it. But for me the debate that occurs around the lecture is not interesting. It is like a football game, where one team keeps back passing and plodding around until the other guys get a chance to do the same. March equally agrees that a dichotomous ‘one or the other’ approach will get us nowhere in enhancing and promoting innovative decision making. He argues for a combination of foolishness and rationality that will allow for the development of ‘unusual combinations of attitudes and behaviours supported by an embracing of playfulness and inconsistency. The ability of an institution to embrace and celebrate real innovation is crucial. The ability to reconsider what we consider success and failure and how we let these expectations shape the way we implement and evaluate new ideas and strategies.

“…an education that is understood in complexity terms cannot be conceived in terms of preparation for the future. Rather, it must be construed in terms of participation in the creation of possible futures” Davis and Sumara (2009)

What does this mean for those of us who are arguing for new approaches for teaching and learning? Are we ground down by these resistances, the side-tracking and the endless debates about the same thing? We need to re-examine the way we approach the debates around the efficacy or importance of making change. These are three fairly general observations I would make, that might represent a starting point to the debate. I will note that these could be seen as entirely aspirational or perhaps idealistic. In the light of my previous reflections, I just say, SO WHAT! Debate me!!

1. We must create and nurture an organisational culture that supports innovation. People who experiment and challenge rules and recognised ways of doing things are not rebels, or radicals or crazies. Innovation comes from places that can’t be actively pigeonholed or defined. An organisational imperative to support innovative practice is crucial. The ability to fail in those innovations equally critical. What does it look like? No idea! It will be different from one place to the next. Not everyone can do the 3M model. But what is important is that innovation is not a buzzword, or a work package. Innovation is a culture; it is an attitude to challenging the status quo and actually having the will and support to change if it proves necessary. People doing innovative stuff need to get rewarded and celebrated.

2. We must accept that there is a role of ambiguity, chaos and uncertainty in an organisation. Now, any one of us who has been in HE for any length of time is pretty well screaming at the top of their lungs – WELCOME TO MY LIFE! And yes, that much is true. These factors have often been linked with fear and paralysis to provide a gorgeous and lush motivational cocktail for faculty and staff in HE. But, the ability of staff to dive in without knowing the answer, develop counter-intuitive approaches to learning design, use technology in a way that seems to be against the institutional systems put in place to govern it and share those experiences in an environment of support not defence, will at least encourage them to try again. At best it will be the game changing, epoch making thing that MOOCs will never be. How did we come up with the model of teaching and learning we use now…someone tried something different and it worked. Wonder if they were regarded as pariahs?

3. We must understand how learning has already changed and in what ways do we need to respond to the change. The learners arriving at university are already e-learners, with lives lived in a post-digital world, where there is no real and online world, there is just the world. They have developed skills for living in a 21st century world which are different or at least adapted from those required to live in a pre-digital world. Technology is not class or category of learning. It is a means, a society changing and generation shaping means. It is transformative, emancipatory, democratic (for now), challenging and contrary. Institutions have to develop the skills of adaptation, agility, flexibility and criticality around technology and its impact on learning. The line between learning and eLearning is already well and truly blurred. Perhaps it needs to vanish altogether.

My final quote from March goes a little like this, ‘There is little magic in the world, and foolishness in people and organisations is one of the many things that fail to produce miracles’. I don’t have a magic bullet, or equally bulletproof case studies that prove beyond this will work. This is however, the debate we have to have. The debate that we need to start in order to challenge, reinforce or change the way we do higher education. Do I have solutions, answers, suggestions or models that might help? Yes, of course! You can dig through the archives of this blog for the views of a range of eminent scholars, practitioners and rock and roll victims (I will leave it to you to decide which I am!). But perhaps in a small way, each of us engaging in this debate will go some of the way to ignoring the hyperbole and get to the heart of what learning and teaching will look like in the post-digital age. And yes, it will more than likely have to be revolutionary or at least different from what went before.

References
Davis, B., & Sumara, D. (2009). Complexity as a theory of education. TCI (Transnational Curriculum Inquiry), 5(2), 33-44.
March, J. G. (1976). The technology of foolishness. Ambiguity and choice in organizations, 69, 81.

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

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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.

1984
 “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
 
 1998
“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
 
 2013
“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