Disruption and the "mythic" technologies of education

I told myself I wouldn’t blog anything more not directly related to the PhD – I’m breaking that promise because a few things I’ve read over this weekend resonate strongly with the problems that are frustrating me the most with the current practice of higher education and its management.

The blog post connects ideas from a presentation titled “Disruption and Transformation” by Gardner Campbell (I wish the other talks in the session were available online – should look), an article titled “Why School Reform is Impossible (Pappert, 1995) by Seymour Papert, Postman’s 5th of 5 things to know about technology change – technology becomes mythic, and my own views about the roles played by consistency (bad) and diversity (good).

Gardner’s observations

In his presentation Gardner makes a number of observations around the practice of learning and teaching within universities in the context of disruption and transformation. These include:

  • LMSes suck at personalisation which is important for learning, ownership and community.
    The complete lack of any support for personalisation offered by existing learning management systems, especially when compare to social network sites such as Facebook. He mentions Blackboard, but I would suggest Moodle has just the same flaws – being open source doesn’t solve the problem, at least not yet.
  • Course synopsis/profiles suck.
    An illustration of how the common views of course synopsis/profiles can be seen very negatively. How they help set exactly the wrong type of environment for learning to occur and are a particularly bad way to start a course.
  • Pre-defined learning objectives suck.
    The idea that you can pre-determine the learning that will take place for each student is questioned. Jocene, I think you’ll like that bit.

He closes the presentation by showing video of Chris Dede comparing education with sleeping, eating and bonding. Where university education tries to treat learning as more like sleeping then bonding. This post by Derek Wenmouth talks more about the video. I find particularly relevant the bit about Dede’s last comment

he points out that the major issue is with breaking down the social and political barriers – pointing out that technology will only ever take us part of the way towards the personalised learning dream

More on this below.

Consistency has become “mythic”

In Postman’s 5 things to know about technological change”, number 5 is

Technology becomes mythic, it becomes seen as part of the natural order of things.

For me the question of “consistency”, Dede’s treating learning as sleeping, has become mythic within the Australian Higher Education system. The “course profile as contract” perspective has become unquestioned, it is part of the natural order of things. Anyone who questions the importance of the contract is seen as weird. Universities spend huge amounts of time ensuring the contract is developed on-time. I know of governing councils of institutions that have taken time to discuss the fact that x% of these contracts were not ready in time. The fact that the content of the vast majority of these contracts is questionable and that the learning experience students have under the confines of those contracts is far from good, is never considered (it’s too hard).

National auditing bodies set up by the government put tremendous value on all students receiving a consistent learning experience. The idea that learning is more like bonding than sleeping is considered woolly thinking and inappropriate.

Don’t believe me, this is what the auditing body said about my current institution in it’s report

As a University with multiple teaching sites, CQU has developed a system for ensuring the consistency of course delivery and student participation which may be amongst best practice in the Australian sector.

This irrational emphasis on consistency increases the reliance and acceptance of the learning management system. The idea seems to be that if only we can make all the course websites look the same and have the same structure and content, then the student learning experience will be okay. The LMS appears to help management achieve this goal.

Of course the fact that most LMSes are based on a model that makes it very difficult to standardise is something they don’t seem to get. The LMS model is based on individual academics creating course sites manually, which creates diversity, and then copying them across each term. It leads to organisations expending effort on kludges to automate the consistent creation of course sites.

I continue to like Oscar Wilde’s take on consistency.

Consistency is the last refuge of the unimaginative

Now is the time for experiments, lots and lots of experiments

Gardner draws upon this blog post by Clay Shirkey. I’ve heard a bit about this post in the blogosphere, but hadn’t read it. I’ve fixed that flaw, you should too. It’s important.

Personally, this particular quote resonated very strongly with my current predicament

Leadership becomes faith-based, while employees who have the temerity to suggest that what seems to be happening is in fact happening are herded into Innovation Departments, where they can be ignored en masse. This shunting aside of the realists in favor of the fabulists has different effects on different industries at different times.

Currently, in terms of e-learning at universities, I see myself as one of the realists being shunted aside by the fabulists who are peddling all sorts of unlikely visions of the future.

My take on Shirky’s article, as applied to e-learning (yes, I know that the phrase e-learning has questionable value and I should probably just use learning) within universities, goes something like this:

  • We’re living through 1500.
    How to do e-learning within universities and the how the impact of changes within society, especially the Internet, remain unanswered questions. The answers we have today are just like the failed business models used by newspapers to leverage the Internet, they are interim measures destined to fail.
  • There’s no telling what will work.
    No-one can say what model will work in the future. It’s a nature of revolution, it’s too complex to predict. We’ll only know after the fact – retrospective coherence.
  • Now is the time for lots and lots of experiments.
    Since we don’t know what will work, we need to try lots of things to find out what might.

Gardner makes the point that universities, as the supposed homes of research and learning, of knowledge generation, production and dissemination should be at the forefront of this experimentation – but we aren’t.

For me, this is because consistency has become has become mythic. The importance of sameness has become unquestioned and this gets in the way of experimentation. Experimentation means the possibility of failure and failure is to be feared and avoided. Much better to be safe and same.

Can this be done within universities

Seymour Papert in a 1995 article outlines a perspective about change in education. A perspective which I believe has some connections with the above.

In terms of “technology” becoming mythic, Papert draws on Tyack and Cuban’s (1995) idea of the “grammar of school” and links it to assimilation blindness.

The structure of School is so deeply rooted that one reacts to deviations from it as one would to a grammatically deviant utterance: Both feel wrong on a level deeper than one’s ability to formulate reasons. This phenomenon is related to “assimilation blindness” insofar as it refers to a mechanism of mental closure to foreign ideas. I would make the relation even closer by noting that when one is not paying careful attention, one often actually hear the deviant utterance as the “nearest” grammatical utterance a transformation that might bring drastic change in meaning.

Papert links these ideas back to the introduction of computers into schools and how the “deviant utterance” gets heard/transformed into the “nearest grammatical utterance”. i.e. it gets transformed into something that fits within the grammar of school. I believe Shirky makes this point in connection with how newspapers tried to deal with the Internet and I believe you can see this happening within Universities (e.g. the walled gardens of the LMS and the connection with the walls of the lecture theatre).

Papert describes the components he sees that make up schools and how they match

I see School as a system in which major components have developed harmonious and mutually supportive — mutually matched forms. There is a match of curriculum content, of epistemological framework, of organizational structure, and — here comes the trickiest point for Tyack and Cuban — of knowledge technology.

He equates a failed education reform as being similar to tweaking one of these components and then observing, like any well-equilibrated dynamic system, “when you let go it is pulled back by all the other components”.

Papert argues that reform as centralised social engineering will go wrong. He argues that

Complex systems are not made. They evolve.

and suggests that effective fostering of radical change means

rejecting the concept of a planned reform and concentrating on creating the obvious conditions for Darwinian evolution: Allow rich diversity to play itself out.

Sounds like “Now is the time for experiments, lots and lots of experiments” to me. Which brings me back to a previous post and the concept of safe-fail design from Dave Snowden.

The source of my frustration

It also brings me back to the perspective that corporate approaches to management (i.e. the top manager and/or a small group of experts/analysts make the decisions) has become “mythic” within universities. A focus on creating the conditions, letting go and seeing what happens is something they just can’t understand or appreciate.

This summarises the main source of my frustrations over the last 15 years of trying to do innovative things around learning. It’s not something I see changing anytime soon.

How do you change this social and political barrier?


Papert, S. (1995). “Why School Reform is Impossible.” The Journal of the Learning Sciences 6(4): 417-427.

Tyack, D. and L. Cuban (1995). Tinkering towards utopia: A century of public school reform. Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press.

8 thoughts on “Disruption and the "mythic" technologies of education

  1. First, thanks for linking to my blog and for the kind words about my talk.

    Second, and more importantly, thanks for furthering my thoughts in very sophisticated and (in my view) helpful ways. Your discussion here and elsewhere are very valuable contributions to the discussion (again in my view–Downes has given me the hiccups. sorry). In particular, thanks for pointing me to the Papert article. It’s really got me thinking hard. That it’s also depressing is unfortunate–but Papert speaks home truths here and does so in a way that is most helpful for furthering the argument. I’m not sure every bit of the grammar of school or even the idea of “instruction” is necessarily bad, but I agree wholeheartedly that the potential of computers in education has been largely overlooked or thwarted because of the bad parts of the grammar of school.

    Looking forward to reading more of your thoughts. Thanks again.

  2. As someone who draws my salary from providing so-called higher education, I can see my students are going to go out into the real world to try to solve problems in my discipline using information presented in a myriad of inconsistent ways, and are *never* going to know when they step into a situation exactly what they are going to have to know/learn to solve their problem.

    And I can see that ‘consistent LMSes’, Course synopses/profiles, and Pre-defined learning objectives are all *no kind of preparation at all* for the world we live in.

    As for what to do…? Muddle on through, as humans always have, knowing that eventually reality will win. Institutions can’t indefinitely pursue goals orthogonal to their nominal purpose without coming a cropper.

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