There was a story widely reported in the press here in Australia about the learning capabilities of the sulphur-crested cockatoo, an Australian native bird who have found a way to open large household garbage bins with their beaks. These birds are a common site across Sydney and other Australian towns and cities and their squawk at dusk is a soundtrack to Australian urban life. It seems that these ubiquitous birds watched one of their own opening a bin (and accessing the tasty morsels inside) and through social interactions and observations have learnt how to replicate it, perfect it and improve their technique and then pass it on to others. If I was able to ask these birds how they felt about learning how to open bins I reckon they would be pretty proud of themselves. According to experts, the muscle combinations required to open the bin are extremely complex. These cheeky birds have learnt something that keeps them alive in an urban environment and they seem pleased as punch. The star of this blog seems to be anyway.
I wonder how many students in our higher educational institutions feel the same pride at learning something new. The student experience in modern universities is often deeply influenced by negative engagements and compromises. From the moment they navigate the selection and admission processes, students are exposed to structurally reinforced practices in teaching, learning and assessment that are driven (at least in part) by negative reinforcement, or by an overt promise of reward after adversity. These practices are deeply ingrained in government policy, in university marketing strategies, in teaching practice and curriculum design and in how institutions interact with the community and industry. They are often contradictory and hidden, exposed only in student satisfaction surveys and in the longer-term engagement (or not) with a student’s university as alumni.
One of these negative engagements is fear. Many of our students feel frightened during the university experience. Bledsoe and Baskin (2014) argue that whilst fear is a part of being human, it can also be damaging and debilitating, noting that ‘fear isn’t just a matter of sweaty palms and rapid heart rate. It impacts our cognitive processes—how we perceive our environment, how we remember things, whether we can focus and pay attention, how well we plan and then execute that plan, and how well we problem-solve’. Fear is built into assessment (fear of failure, fear of poor performance and its impact on employability, fear of technological failure, fear of group work). Fear is built into curriculum design, privileging high stakes assessments over lower stakes and formative tasks with relevant and helpful feed forward. Fear is defined through consequences, with every decision you make, every question you answer, every group you work with and every grade you get impacting on your ambition to work for employer X or in job Y. Imagine spending your entire university experience afraid. How would that impact on your learning? Would you do anything to ensure your worst fears weren’t realised? Would it change how you interacted and connected with colleagues and teachers? Fear is a built-in aspect of how we do education in the 21st century but as a predominant motivator it is not productive or healthy. Making fear the central force for engagement, participation, performance, and success undermines the capacity of education to promote agency, independence, creativity and altruism.
Another negative engagement is transaction. Shifts in funding emphasis towards student fees, the rapid increases market competition for students across the sector globally and the aspirationally symbiotic relationship of higher education curriculum design and employability have positioned education as a transaction between students and the institution. Some of it is made explicit in the marketised language seeping into our lexicon (customers, clients, training, segments etc). In other instances, transactional behaviours are more insidious, existing as the bargains made with students around the outcomes of ‘paying’ for their degree. Transactions are framed by bargaining, negotiation, winner/loser and power dynamics. These behaviours, whilst being skills central to some careers, do not encourage open learning, academic judgement and engagement or collegiate connections. They also engender another negative engagement, that of competition. In this experience, students can be pitted against each other for limited employment outcomes (leading to the terrible and heart wrenching title of a recent report by students about their experiences at a leading UK institution ‘Get a 2:1 and move on with your life’) and they compete for higher and higher GPAs to deliver an advantage over the colleagues. In a purely transactional environment, the price exchanged for an outcome is not learning, it is fees. Grades are not earnt (or learnt), they are purchased. An employment outcome is deserved, not achieved. Academics become the gatekeepers to the desired end. Transformation is usurped by transaction.
I am not doom-trolling here. There are very few examples of a purely transactional, competitive or fear based University (in its entirety, or to the exclusion of other experiences). But, our system is deeply disrupted, frayed at the edges and pulled in counter-productive directions by government, industry and the ‘market’. One thing this pandemic has shown us is that in crisis our humanity fractures in both positive and negative ways. We can see the best in people, with charities and social enterprises popping up to help those in need and educationalists rising to the occasion going above and beyond to ensure their students can continue their studies in inspiring, rigorous, and transformational ways. We also see the seeds of fear, individualism and loud claims of personal freedoms and decrying those who ‘mandate’ them being taken away for the greater good. The same fractures are shaping higher education, during and post the crisis caused by the pandemic. Our design of teaching, learning and assessment is undermined, challenged, and sometimes crashes under the weight of the fractures and pressures exerted upon it, some that were there before COVID and others that were heightened during the pandemic.
Whatever perspective you take on the efficacy of online learning (remote, emergency, call it what you like) one thing held true during the pandemic and continues to do so – the design of teaching and learning to be experienced by students is critical to ensuring that our education is lasting, transformative, flexible, and inspiring. Negative engagements are a part of education, I would be Pollyanna to think otherwise. Within an ecosystem of learning design, the negative experiences provide affordances that can be harnessed and their damage ameliorated. An effective learning design ecosystem identifies the pinch-points where negative engagements become structured into the student experience and design pathways for students to navigate their way through the uncertainty and transitions of higher education.
What is a learning design ecosystem? It is an approach to learning design that embraces the complexity of the experiences and traits that influence how people engage in learning (see an example of an ecosystem I have used recently at the bottom of this post). It moves learning away from singular, linear journeys from point A to point B (where the fear of failure or the expectation of reward can drive momentum) towards more complex representations of the intersections impacting and shaping the lives of students and staff. This model recognises that students can use and apply knowledge and skills they have gained from across their education, from their work and life experiences and from their networks and communities to describe and share the liminality of their lives, to both navigate and lead others through rites of passage, to understand and solve critical challenges and to make a difference to their societies, cultures and communities. It is a narrative thread that helps students weave their story as they graduate into an uncertain world.
‘Every student will have a different approach to how they can be a leader for good through crisis and into post-crisis. We don’t want 1000 students singing from the same hymn sheet, we want 1000 different songs.’ From the University of Sydney Business School Leading in a Post-Crisis World program
A learning design ecosystem embraces the complexity of learning by supporting multiple pathways and paces through the learning experience. It recognises that all the inputs (experience, skills, knowledge) and outputs (destinations, satisfaction, transformations) are not equal, and that each unique combination, mixed with a unique experience of learning, teaching and assessment results in something individual, not standardised and metricised. A learning design ecosystem is essentially transdisciplinary, in that it looks at the understanding of the ‘present world’ and privileges the unity of knowledge to address critical educational and life-wide challenges. To that degree, it needs to be connected, ensuring the actors who engage with the design ecosystem leverage and benefit from the connections made through learning. Finally, in this pandemic world, a learning design ecosystem needs to be hybridised. In a world of hybrid learning (I refuse to use that other portmanteau), pitting one mode off against the other is a pointless display of gladiatorism. Any mode of learning can successfully deliver on the designers and students ambitions if designed well, and that means we need to design teaching and learning activities in ways that spaces does not limit the engagement and participation of students, but ensure that the affordances of space are shared and leveraged between cohorts (see my blog post here on learning design principles for lectures here.
The sulphur-crested cockatoo learnt something. It didn’t matter to them that being the only bird that could open a bin made them special or unique, or that they were the only one that could feast on potato skins or they got that job at BinOpeners PLC. They fly in flocks, they protect each other, they share their learning and they feel proud about it, I am sure This has been a difficult time for higher education. Perhaps there is an opportunity in taking a connected and complex approach to designing learning ecosystems to see past the deeply embedded language and custom and practice of the marketised university, the massified classroom and build ecosystems of design that don’t ignore the policy, governance, and realities of a modern university, but integrate them into the experience of teaching and learning.
Find a way to be more like the cockatoo and be a bit proud of the transformation that we participate in and that can be shared collectively with others, your community, your friends, your network, at your place, the university. Be more cockatoo I say.
BLEDSOE, T. S. & BASKIN, J. J. 2014. Recognizing student fear: The elephant in the classroom. College Teaching, 62, 32-41.