E-Learning down at the crossroads: ‘up there is just a sea of possibilities’ – Innovation in all its guises


Rock music has taught us much, but especially about the different faces and manifestations of innovation.  Like much of my last few blog posts, this notion is no more evident in punk and indie music, with innovation and influence spanning every form and genre.  A case in point is the very first track of Patti Smith’s classic album of poetry and punk, ‘Horses’.  ‘Gloria’ is a mash-up of lyrical power (‘Jesus died for somebody’s sin, but not mine’) and rousing sixties rock in the guise of ‘Gloria’ by Them.  The muse that inhabits that song is powerful, impassioned and perhaps even contrary.  And the result of such innovation resonates today, with my vinyl copy of ‘Horses’ spinning on my turntable as I write this blog and Patti Smith influencing generations of other bands and particulatly female performers.

Innovation in the digital university can equally appear in many unique forms and arise from the most obvious and darndest of places.  Recently I went to a conference where I saw some brilliant examples of tiny innovations occurring within the context of massive organisational behemoths (such as a VLE or a research intensive university).  Some were cutting edge; others were using established technology or pedagogy for the first time, like an 18 year old discovering Patti Smith in their parent’s record collection and deciding to pick up a guitar or a notebook.


What worried me was the reaction of the so-called innovators of our sector, who derided those experiments as ‘small-scale’ or ‘old-hat’.  Some of the questions hinted (blatantly sometimes) that using Twitter for example for the first time and talking about it was boring, so 2010!  If we take the view that innovation in e-learning can only come from the cutting edge then we are committing ourselves always to the fringe, the minority and to the exclusive.  If we deride somebody who has tried something new based on the experiences of those pushing the boundaries, shouldn’t they be celebrated and embraced, not made a pariah or an object of ridicule?


At the heart of this debate is the discourse around the wide-ranging organisational impact of both the policy and practical agendas of e-learning.   Over the last decade, there have been a significant number of examples where practice change has occurred as a result of, or in concordance with, technology, technology-enhanced learning, social networking and e-learning.  These have been primarily located within smaller discipline-based projects, sometimes cross-institutional or inter-disciplinary.  There is little evidence of institutional-wide change.  A number of potential causes have been identified including a lack of institutional and staff experience with technology and a predilection towards replicating existing practice on new technological platforms as opposed to identifying a new pedagogy more in tune with the changing needs of learners and the community (including employers).  However, I think these smaller projects that cross from the radical edge act as a bridge to the making them mainstream. Acceptance comes from successful usage and recognition.  When recognition fails to arrive because efforts are derided, then the enthusiasm for the change wanes and behaviours revert to those of the safer past.


When someone decides to celebrate their changes in practice, however small, it should be celebrated as another incremental move towards changing the institution in the same way society has already moved.  Eventually, a lot of incremental change becomes a much larger thing.  If you are like me, in a role that should support these experiments and projects, then finding a way to aggregate the experiences and outcomes of these projects and showing them to the world (or at least to the VC or the rest of the institution!) should be our primary and most important responsibility. We have started trialling things like an emerging academic network where newer academics can share the cool things they have been doing in the classrooms and labs with peers. We also try and encourage people to present these works in progress at our teaching and learning conferences (https://showtime.gre.ac.uk/index.php/edu/SHIFT2012).


To return to Patti Smith, I saw her live nearly 20 years ago in Sydney.  We had a fourth row seat.  As she was singing Gloria to an entranced crowd, she jumped off the stage and prowled like a cat in leather pants.  She was exhorting the crowd to dance, to participate in the enthusiasms and excitations should was feeling.   A few got and moved around.  We stayed down because so many behind us were still firmly bum on seated (and I am not a dancer).  Patti came over to our row, and specifically to my mate who was seated in the aisle seat.  Bob, my mate, had Patti in his face, palms outstretched begging him to get and dance with her.  Now, this is not a small moment in any music fans life.  What does Bob do?  He can sit there and not dance.  He can get up and dance. Or he can do the third thing which is dance in his seat, wave his arms about and look frankly a little silly, but still be able to claim he danced with Patti Smith and maintain dignity in the face of dancing embarrassment.   And the moral of this cautionary tale?  It could be the when presented with an opportunity, dance with the lady! Or it could be that giving something a go, trying something that perhaps other people think is simple, easy, been done before or safe could well be most adventurous thing you have ever done.  And that should be celebrated and the story told again and again (like the dancing with Patti Smith story has so many times, in so many bars).






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