Making change happen from the centre: (Pedagogical) change, my dear. And it seems not a moment too soon

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Higher Education is caught, flash hard in the eye of the perfect storm.  Brexit, Trump, the death of the expert, the rise of the VC funded learning machine, decreasing numbers wanting to go to University and the increasing resistances of an emboldened institutional population.  So, you might think that change is the byword for the modern institution, pro-acting and reacting in equal measures to the forces that imperil and empower it.  But that is not what’s happening.  Each year of enrolments sees a repeat of last year plus or minus 10% with whiteboards washed down, VLEs reset, inductions planned and the occasional blast from the laying of foundations of new buildings filled with the old order.  Institutional systems rust on practices and processes, from freezing timetables to filling buildings from Week A to Week Z in an ordered fashion, hour by hour, with front facing spaces ready for the next batch of fresh faced empty vessels.  The drive to start the next semester is already too far gone to think about arresting its momentum and making change happen.  Too many people, too many resources and way too much risk.

 

On the other hand, institutional strategy outlines a sometimes-utopian vision of alignments, engagements, innovations and a so much better experience.  One where everyone pulls in the same direction to make the institution a player and a partner in the digital world.  The daring audacity of the ambition set out by our institutions is inspiring, unachievable and necessary, often in one breath.  When you want to be part of a change, then having audacious targets moves you from the hamster wheel of eternal trying into a more longitudinal trajectory.  But audacity is the bedfellow of risk and change.  Standing still and providing the students with the same educational experience we offered them in 1979, with a few YouTube videos thrown might afford you the opportunity to slowly fall behind.  So, what do you do?

 

Future Happens is an initiative started last year on the back of a successful changehack event held in London.  The aim of the first changehack was to bring people together to debate, discuss and share how we collectively address the tensions outlined above.  How do we make the square peg of the way we do things fit the triangular hole of institutional ambition?  For many of us who run Future Happens, this is one of the most critical challenges facing educational technologists, developers, course and programme leaders, student unions and senior management.  We posed this challenge to the people who came to the first Future Happens hack ‘Digital is not the Future’ and a similar challenge will be at the heart of three changehacks we will be running in the Autumn:

 

It is easy to make pronouncements about pedagogical, technological or institutional change from the ‘islands’, when the consequences of advocating for and implementing that change are limited to your world, your classroom, your twitter feed.  They are safe spaces, full of friendly faces and welcoming and supportive practices.  But decisions, assertions and opinions all have consequences; for your students, for the worlds they inhabit and for your institutions.  The challenge comes when you need to scale what you speak.  You need to make the future happen for your entire institution. What happens when the VC, the Dean or the Director says ‘we need to this transform the whole institution’? What do you say and do? How do you make sure you say the right things, in the right rooms, with the right people?

 

Pedagogical change is not just necessary.  It is unavoidable.  Readers of this blog will have seen me make the case that learning has changed in the digital age.  Learners have changed and what they need to know is changing constantly as society and skills fragment and coalesce in different guises. But resistance to change is powerful.  Keeping the status quo as it has been can be comforting and calming.  It means all those unsettling feelings like fear, anger, distrust, polarisation and political malfeasance can be focused on one group: those who want you to feel like that by changing things.  And maybe, they are right.  Pedagogical change can be bad, it can throw the baby out with the bathwater.  It can damage people’s livelihoods, professional identities and practices.  But. BUT. Change is unavoidable.  Especially in learning and teaching.

 

Reason 1  – Why would we avoid doing learning, teaching and assessment in ways that make the education for our students better? Why would we, as professional academics ignore research and data that suggest that many of the more traditional ways of teaching and learning are not as effective as diversifying them, using technology in agile and informed ways and most importantly, finding ways people can work together?

 

Reason 2 – Things are not the same as they ever were.  There are new roles needed in teaching and learning and that change requires ambition, collegiality and expertise, but it also induces fear.  It requires people to be willing to own the change.  It needs people with skin in the game.  Lead from the front, work with others, take risks, be responsible, fall over, get back up again, make a mess, tidy it all up, wear stupid glasses and share the selfie on Instagram and most of all, again, find ways in which people can work together.  This is not a fight.  This is not them versus us.

 

Pedagogical change in higher education, in whatever form you optimistically or pessimistically think it might be, needs people to be part of it.  Despite all the best efforts of years of bureaucratic structures and behaviours, it won’t come from the top.  Tenures are short, structures are layered on top and short-term fixism, reactions to league tables and medals and the immediacy of falling financials mean that some of the fears that change instill are realised in 3D.  Equally, it won’t come from the bottom up.  HE institutions are not grassroots political parties, with burgeoning emancipatory calls to arms to defend practices at the barricades.  As I have argued before, in terms of strategic change, it has to come from the middle.  And in this instance, I mean it has to come from the centre. Not the much-maligned university centre of supposedly failed services, brickbats and rotting bouquets.  But the very cultural heart of the institution.  What is stands for.  What it believes.  The critical centre that provides the interlinking of something that holds us all the institution.  This centre is shaped by our common experiences of being part of this highly fraught, polarised and often lonely and not fun place we call work. Hell yes HE is liminal.  Its borders and boundaries are frayed, contested and its belief structures and systems are under constant threat from government, from industry, from the private sector and from a society itself that is not sure what it really wants.   But there is a sense of strategic unity that comes from collectively experienced liminality. And that sense of unity can be enhanced and leveraged to create and sustain pedagogical change.

 

What can you do to make change happen from the centre?

In the end, that is the most important question, isn’t it? What can you do?  We all believe that education is important, valuable and makes society better.  We all want what is best for students.   I won’t profess to have the answers.  What I can tell you is how I try and do things.  Pedagogical change is critical to doing what I do.  Pedagogical change is also the hardest thing to land in any HE environment.  Have I got it right and delivered transformative institution wide pedagogical change? You know where I work and the answer is we are a long way from where we want to be.   It is so much easier to feed the elephant in the room, pat her trunk and notice that she is squatting uncomfortably on the chaise lounge than to ignore that its there.

 

  1. Have an evidenced opinion

Know your stuff, build the case, collect the evidence and be sure of the facts.

  1. Find out where to say that opinion and be a part of the process

Opining on twitter or the echo chamber of conferences filled with people of the same mind as you is great.  It is reinforcing and makes us feel that we are not alone.  It won’t change your institution or the experience for your students. Get into the room, whatever that might look like.  Be a part of the capacity for change and persuade people of your vision.

  1. Bring others along with you

This can’t be done alone.  Change is an inherently social activity.  Persuading yourself is like taking a selfie only for your to see.  The risk comes from sharing it, engaging with the selfies of others, helping people to make better selfies and then deciding actually we need something better than a selfie.

  1. Have skin in the game, make a commitment

Self-evident. Put something behind your views, commit time, resources or every ounce of your persuasion reserves.  If this matters to you, if keeping education, vibrant and valued part of society is important then put skin in the game.

  1. Don’t throw stones, don’t build walls

Kind of the same really.  Just because you have decided that nothing is going to change in your course, your kit, your teaching until you retire doesn’t mean you can make others do the same.

  1. Don’t be afraid and don’t seed fear

Change makes people scared. Bat shit scared.  Especially when it gets linked by people trying to stop the change to emotive things like job security, demotion, workloads, risk of exposure.  Don’t let people make you scared.  Don’t seed the fear of other people.  It is cheap politics.

  1. Don’t just listen; talk, debate, discuss, argue

The point of change is to bring people along with it. It never works doing change to people.  Engage staff, students, society, your next-door neighbor, your boss and your team in the conversation.  Make it passionate, make it engaged, make it open, make it two-way and make it productive.  Make sure the conversation leads somewhere, that people can connect the dots and see how their part fits into the bigger picture.

  1. Want to make things better, seeing how you can

The Hummingbirds say this so much better than I could, from their song ‘Get on Down’ released in 1989

You can depend upon it, I’ve got my focus in you

She said ‘Don’t you be so negative,

I’m trying to think positive’

From the Hummingbirds song ‘Get on Down’

Vale Simon Holmes

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

It doesn’t matter what is in your hands

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Some strange things seem to be happening in the learning technology and T&L debates at the moment. There appears to be a growing presence of an anti-tech resistance, challenging the efficacy of technology (and those who use it). Some of these ‘think pieces’ question the motivations of those using technology in their class (both students and teachers), demean the status of social media as an active and fertile ground for intellectual debate, try and institute blanket bans for the good of the learner and actively argue that we need to ‘get back to chalk’. These have become battle lines in a fake war between protectors and challengers, defenders of the faith versus the barbarians at the gate. The innocent victims in all this posturing and puffery are the engaged teachers and learners (thanks @antonycoombsHE for the input). We can see the small bubbles of evidence for this assertion increasingly breaking through to the surface Let’s take Facebook as the canary in the coal mine;

  • There are universities who ban Facebook from fixed PCs in labs and student spaces (on the suggestion of other students, apparently)
  • The continued resistance (and active calls to ban) the use of student devices in lectures and tutorials, because of the assertion that ‘they will just be checking their Facebook’
  • On the other hand, a lot of Facebook led pilots at a delivery or curricula level have failed because students don’t like ‘their’ Facebook being hijacked for learning (although there is a lot of evidence that they are stopping using Facebook entirely, or use it to talk to each other, not the teacher!)
  • Universities wanting to hold some sway of what their staff say on social media to present a unanimity of opinion (including Facebook).

 

In the end, these are pointless battles in an entirely distracting conflict.  We are arguing about the toss and not about the game. It doesn’t matter what devices are in their hands. What matters most is good teaching. Does it matter that you have a pair of red shoes on? No. What matters is that they make you feel good. It matters that they help people identify or find you. It matters that they stop that puddle you stepped in from making your socks a squidgy mess. What matters is the experiences that people participate in. Good teaching at its heart is the creation and facilitation of experience. There is an old marketing truism that I have always found insightful. People don’t buy ¼ inch drill bits, they but ¼ inch holes. Good teaching is not the fact that someone has a MacBook open or that you have created a PowerPoint slide or even that you have knowledge that you believe someone else needs to become an expert. Good teaching creates environments and conditions for learning experiences to happen. And the creation and nourishment of any experience is a product of a complex interplay of environmental factors. Good teachers hold and move the faders on those factors in order to achieve some form of synergy. Technology is without doubt one of those factors but by itself is like breathing only the nitrogen part of the air.

 

Good teaching is device/platform/OS agnostic
The kind of devices that people use or the sometimes desperate need to find a use for a piece of technology in teaching (Pokémon GO, it is the new Snapchat) become the easier conversations to have, especially amongst learning technologists and educational developers. Yes, the type of technology being used can and does influence the experiences people learn from. And yes, if the technology doesn’t work it can impact on that experience as well. And yes again, maybe a new platform or social media will seed good ideas and promote innovation. None of these assertions are wrong. But (and there is always a but), by themselves they are the less confronting conversation to have, because they are ignoring the elephant in the room. Good teaching is a hard thing to do. Good teaching is a challenging and emotionally draining thing to do. Good teaching lifts you high and can smack you down, sometimes in the space of a single class. Good teaching sees devices and uses them when they can contribute or challenge or transform what you are trying to do in your class.

 

Denial is not an instrument of good teaching
Making someone turn a device off in order to help them learn is not a critical approach to teaching. I used to work with a teacher who brought a bucket of water into his classroom and said ‘if I hear a phone go off, it goes into the water’. Why have we become so afraid of a phone? Sure, you may want a debate or discussion that asks people to engage, visually and actively. But what kind of learning can devices help with? Learning about how people learn. So, what actually goes on behind that sea of glowing white apples you see in your lecture? Have they all got Facebook open? Probably. Are they chatting with their mates? Yeah. Are they looking up words and definitions on Wikipedia? Almost certainly. How about providing them with a backchannel for conversation using a twitter hashtag, so that you can answer questions. How about providing them with a list of sites where they can check up definitions of words that match the kind of materials you use. Denial just leads to resistance and rebellion. Nothing good will come of it.

 

Good teaching is enabled by good communications. Technology changes the way we communicate
I am not describing all technology as simply instrumental tools, without power to influence good teaching. The way technology is used to collaborate, share, critique, engage (this list is endless) shapes the way we communicate. Creativity is democratised. Identity is fluid. Spaces are safe and dangerous. Risk is minimised and multiplied. People learn differently. To ignore social media and its transformative community of practices would be a dangerous ignorance. That doesn’t mean we have to all communicate through twitter in 140 characters, nor does it mean that crowdsourcing and Yelp recommendations will replace academic knowledge as the purest form of thought.  But it is in those very defences against using technology that one of the most fundamental tensions in higher education lies; you are either with us or against us. It is a polarised debate, with no middle ground and a series of entrenched positions backed with rigid institutional structures and policies and with all the risk dumped heavily on the shoulders of students.  If they choose to deny themselves the use of technology to live their lives, will that help them pass? How strong is the gravitational pull of a 2:1? Does the view of Professor Dr Jones requiring them to only use printed book sources for their essay outweigh their need for employable skills? So, how do they respond? They tell us to use our technology better; we want better PowerPoints, we want the VLE to do stuff to help us learn. And when we can be left on our own to study and prepare and learn (like we are for 90% of our HE experience), we will do things our way. We will use social media, we will chat with each other using whatever apps we like, we will share cool stuff and be visual and we will communicate and engage with people all over the world sharing knowledge, experiences and expertise. Because that is what we do. That is how we communicate and live our lives.

It doesn’t matter what is in their hands, it will be there and it will be used. It is none of our concern whether it is in their hands or not. Knowing it is in their hands empowers both them and us to make better learning experiences.

 

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

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