Breaking BAD to bridge the e-learning reality/rhetoric chasm

@damoclarky and I got a bit lucky. Our ASCILITE paper has been accepted with revisions. Apparently the first reviewer hated the “theoretical construct” we were using to make our argument. The following is what we originally wrote, sharing it here to hopefully spark some critique and improvement (and also not to entirely waste the writing when I gut it and start again).

Start with the problem and then the “construct”, both adapted from the paper.


In a newspaper article (Laxon, 2013) Professor Mark Brown makes the following comment on the quality of contemporary University e-learning

E-learning’s a bit like teenage sex. Everyone says they’re doing it but not many people really are and those that are doing it are doing it very poorly. (n.p).

E-learning – defined by the OECD (2005) as the use of information and communications technology (ICT) to support and enhance learning and teaching – has been around for so long that there have been numerous debates about replacing it with other phrases. Regardless of the term used there “has been a long-standing tendency in education for digital technologies to eventually fall short of the exaggerated expectations”(Selwyn, 2012, n.p.). Writing in the early 1990s Geoghagen (1994) seeks to understand why a three decade long “vision of a pedagogical utopia” (n.p.) promised by instructional technologies has failed to eventuate. Ten years on Salmon (2005) notes that e-learning within universities is still struggling to move beyond projects driven by innovators and engage a significant percentage of students and staff. Even more recently concerns remain about how much technology is being used to effectively enhance student learning (Kirkwood & Price, 2013). Given that “Australian universities have made very large investments in corporate educational technologies” (Holt et al., 2013, p. 388) it is increasingly important to understand and address the rhetoric/reality chasm around e-learning.

Not surprisingly the literature provides a variety of answers to this complex question. Weimer (2007) observes that academics come to the task of teaching with immense amounts of content knowledge, but little or no knowledge of teaching and learning, beyond perhaps their personal experience. A situation which may not change significantly given that academics are expected to engage equally in research and teaching and yet work towards promotion criteria that are perceived to primarily value achievements in research (Zellweger, 2005). It has been argued that the limitations of the Learning Management System (LMS) – the most common university e-learning tool – make the LMS less than suitable for more effective learner-centered approaches and is contributing to growing educator dissatisfaction (Rahman & Dron, 2012). It’s also been argued that the “limited digital fluency of lecturers and professors is a great challenge” (Johnson, Adams Becker, Cummins, & Estrada, 2014, p. 3) for the creative leveraging of emerging technologies. Another contributing factor is likely to be Selwyn’s (2008) suggestion that educational technologists have failed to be cognisant of “the more critical analyses of technology that have come to the fore in other social science and humanities disciplines (p. 83). Of particular interest here is the observation of Goodyear et al (2014) that the “influence of the physical setting (digital and material) on learning activity is often important, but is under-researched and under-theorised: it is often taken for granted” (p. 138).

Our argument is that the set of implicit assumptions that underpin the practice of institutional e-learning within universities (which we’ll summarise under the acronym SET) leads to a digital and material environment that contributes significantly to the reality/rhetoric chasm. The argument is that while this mindset underpins how universities go about the task of institutional e-learning, they won’t be able to bridge the chasm.

Instead, we argument that another mindset needs to play a larger role in institutional practice. How much we don’t know. We’ll summarise this mindset under the acronym “BAD”. Yep, we think institutional e-learning needs to break BAD.

Breaking BAD versus SET in your ways

The following table contrasts the two frameworks and expands their acronyms. A slightly more detailed examination of the two frameworks follows

Table 1: The BAD and SET frameworks for e-learning implementation
Component BAD SET
How work gets done Bricolage – concrete problems are solved through creative recombination of existing resources Strategy – a desired future state is identified, all resources required to achieve state in most efficient way identified and provided.
How ICT is perceived Affordances – ICT is protean. It can be modified to enhance and transform current practice; and, to make it easier for the users. Established – ICT is fixed and implemented vanilla. Processes change to fit and users trained to use the provided functionality.
How you see the world Distributed – the world is complex, dynamic and unpredictable. Tree-like – the world is relatively stable and predictable. It can be understood through logical decomposition into a hierarchy.

How work gets done

(this was originally titled “How stuff happens” but was probably what one reviewer described as “inappropriately colloquial”. Need a better label for this. The idea is that the organisation only recognises work of a particular type. It’s the only way it conceives of anything interesting/important happening. Not sure the following explains this well enough)

It would be an unusual contemporary Australian university that was not – at least proclaiming the rhetoric of – following a strategic approach to its operations. Numerous environmental challenges and influences have led to universities being treated as businesses with an increasing prevalence of managers using “strategic control and a focus on outputs which can be quantified and compared” (Reid, 2009, p. 575) to manage academic activities. In line with this has been the increasing strategic approach to learning and teaching. The requirement that Australian universities have institutional learning and teaching strategic plans publicly available on their websites prior to accessing a government learning and teaching fund (Inglis, 2007) is just one example of how university teaching has become an object of policy with the learning and teaching excellence necessarily including the specification of goals (Clegg & Smith, 2008). The perceived importance of strategic approaches to institutional e-learning is illustrated by Carter et al’s (2011) identifying the importance of ensuring “Technology alignment with goals of the organization” (p. 207). The strategic or planning-by-objectives (e.g. learning outcomes, graduate attributes) approach also underpins how course design is largely assumed to occur with Visscher-Voerman and Gustafson (2004) finding that it underpins “a majority of the instructional design models in the literature” (p. 77). These approaches to understanding “how stuff happens” are so ingrained that it is often forgotten that these ideas have not always existed (Kezar, 2001) and that there is an alternate perspective.

(An example comparing bricolage and engineering approaches might be useful, might actually be a better structure for this section)

An example of this alternate perspective can be found in the idea of bricolage or “the art of creating with what is at hand” (Scribner, 2005, p. 297). Bricolage involves the manipulation and creative repurposing of existing, and often unlikely, resources into new arrangements to solve a concrete problem. A bricoleur (someone who engages in bricolage) when faced with a project does not analyse what resources may be required to fulfill that project (a more strategic approach), instead they ask how the project can be achieved with the resources already available (Hatton, 1989). Hatton (1989) used bricolage to understand the work of teachers, though Scribner (2005) thinks somewhat negatively. In terms of developing strategic applications of ICT, Ciborra (1992) argues that the “capability of integrating unique ideas and practical design solutions at the end-user level” (p. 299) (bricolage) is more important than strategic approaches.

As argued by Jones et al (2005) there are risky extremes inherent in both the strategic and bricolage approaches to process. The suggestion here within the context of university e-learning is that it would be fruitful to explore a dynamic and flexible interplay between the strategic and bricolage approaches. The problem is that at the moment the strategic is crowding out the bricolage. As Groom and Lamb (2014) observe the cost of supporting an enterprise learning tool (e.g. LMS) limits resources for user-driven innovation, in part because it draws “attention and users away” from the strategic tool. The demands of sustaining the large, complex and strategic tool dominates priorities and leads to “IT organizations…defined by what’s necessary rather than what’s possible” (Groom & Lamb, 2014, n.p). The established view of Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) in part arises from the predominance of the strategic view of how work happens.

How ICT is perceived: Affordances or Established

Widely accepted best practice within the IT industry is that large integrated systems – like an LMS – should be implemented in their “vanilla” form as they are too expensive (Robey, Ross, & Boudreau, 2002). This way of perceiving ICTs assumes that the functionality provided by technology is established and cannot be changed. This perception of an LMS encourages the adoption of only those pedagogical designs that are supported by the existing LMS functionality and precludes the exploration of contextually specific learning designs (Jones, 2012). Perceiving and implementing the LMS as a established product simplifies and reduces the cost of training and support, but increases the difficulty of adoption as teaching staff attempt to use a standardised system to support hugely diverse disciplines, teaching philosophies and instructional styles (Black, Beck, Dawson, Jinks, & DiPietro, 2007). Perhaps in no small way the established view of ICT in e-learning contributes to Dede’s (2008) observation that “widely used instructional technology applications have less variety in approach than a low-end fast-food restaurant” (p. 58). This perception of ICT challenges Kay’s (1984) discussion of the “protean nature of the computer” (p. 59) as “the first metamedium, and as such has degrees of freedom and expression never before encountered” (p. 59). However, this perception of ICT is closely linked with the techno-rational assumptions of the strategic view, an approach that is increasingly seen as a naïve view of ICT, technology and organisations.

(Remove some of the quotes and tell a better story).

Goodyear et al (2014) argue that in thinking about design for networked learning it is vital to acknowledge “the likelihood of slippage between the task as set and the actual activity” (p. 139). Hannon (2013) describes a case where “meso-level practitioners – teaching academics, learning technologies, and academic developers” (p. 175) undertake “hidden effort” (p. 175) to deal with the gap between technology and pedagogy that arise from the application of centralised technologies. Rather than stick with the established functionality provided by an information system increasingly technically literate users draw upon increasingly available technologies to develop systems that bridge the gaps between their needs and the established information system. While often seen as dangerous and inefficient such systems can provide a resource of creativity and innovation that helps organisations survive in a competitive environment (Behrens, 2009). Such systems arise because ICT is not seen as established, but rather as one of a number of components of an emergent process of change where the outcomes are indeterminate because they are contingent on the specifics of the context and the situation (Markus & Robey, 1988). In particular, they arise due to an on-going process – not unlike bricolage – where users are exploring how the affordances of ICT can be leveraged to address concrete problems. The phrase affordances is used here as defined by Goodyear et al (2014) “not as pre-given, but as co-evolving, emergent and partly co-constitutive” (p. 142) and as a way of exploring how what is actually done with e-learning systems is “influenced by the qualities of the place in which they are working” (p. 137). Our view is that it is necessary for the implementation of e-learning systems to be perceived as an on-going and emergent exploration of the affordances that could be the most useful for the students and teachers within a given context. Echoing Johri’s (2011) observation that bricolage shifts focus away from the established “design of an artefact towards emergent design of technology-in-use, particularly by the users” (p. 212).

(that can certainly be improved upon)

How you see the world: Distributed or Tree-like

Techno-rational methods such as strategic planning and software development (or at least act like they) perceive the world as a hierarchy or as being tree-like. These methods use analysis and logical decomposition to reduce larger wholes into smaller more easily understood and manageable parts (Truex, Baskerville, & Travis, 2000). This approach is problematic because the isolation of components is largely imaginary and their separation leads to a loss of rich interdependencies between components (Truex et al., 2000). Enterprise systems are informed heavily by these tree-like conceptions and this is reflected in university e-learning environments and their poor fit with the heterarchical and self-organised potential of contemporary technologies and educational practices (Hannon, Ryberg, & Riddle, 2014). Goodyear et al (2014) argue “that the dominant images of the object of our research do not yet reflect the extent to which learning networks now consist of heterogenous assemblages of tasks, activities, people, roles, rules, places, tools, artefacts and other resources, distributed in complex configurations across time and space and involving digital, non-digital and hybrid entities” (p. 140). We suggest that the same applies to the dominant conceptions underpinning the implementation of institutional e-learning systems.

The limitations of tree-like models and a preference for distributed models are evident in a number of sources. Holt et al (2013) argue for the importance of distributed leadership in institutional e-learning to the growing complexity of e-learning meaning that no one leader at the top of a hierarchical tree has the knowledge to “possibly contend with the complexity of issues” (p. 389). The tend towards distribution is obviously evident in connectivism and its “thesis that knowledge is distributed across a network of connections and therefore learning consists of the ability to construct and traverse those networks” (Downes, 2011, n.p). Siemens’ (2008) list of some of the concepts from which connectivism arises – such as activity theory, distributed and embodied cognition, complexity and network theory – illustrate the breadth of this move to distributed understandings. The socio-material approaches to studying and understanding networked learning (and technology embedded practices more broadly) mentioned by both Hannon (2013) and Goodyear et al (2014) echo a distributed view and underpins the emergent view of technology mentioned in the previous section. It also links with the idea of bricolage as paying close attention to what occurs within the distributed network and responding to context-specific problems by experimenting with the affordances perceived by the components of an network/assemblage to reduce the chasm between rhetoric and reality.

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