Assembling the heterogeneous elements for (digital) learning

Why minimium standards (probably) won't work and will probably become maximum standards

I’ve reached a phase in my thesis work that allows me, long after I should have, to return to Cavallo (2004). I had previously put in a place holder to remind me to go back to this paper. The full impact of the paper will likely become evident over the next few days, but this post focuses specifically on an issue I see arising locally.

The local issue

My current institution is adopting a new LMS. Which LMS isn’t important for this discussion. One of the approaches they will be using to ensure quality is that of “minimum standards”. i.e. organisational units will specify a list of minimum components and services that every course website will be required to have. More recently I hear that these minimal standards will be enforced as part of a quality assurance process that will involve an academic moderate, head of school and curriculum designers in checking that each course meets those minimum standards.

This approach has been coming for some time. Based on my current knowledge of how this is to be implemented I have significant disagreements with some of its assumptions, grave concerns about its short-term effectiveness and even graver concerns about the long-term impacts on the quality of learning and teaching at the institution.

Most of these concerns and disagreements are based around the fundamental model of change embedded within this approach. A model of change which Cavallo (2004) provides alternate possibilities.

Standards, change and problem representation

I feel that some of the differences in opinion on this issue may arise from differences in problem representation. I believe it possible that the folk pushing the minimum standards are representing the problem as “How do we ensure that students experience at least a basic experience with online course sites?”. Where as I think I’m representing the problem as “How do you improve, and continue to improve, the quality of the student experience?”.

The first problem representation lends itself more to the answer of standards. Where as my problem representation lends itself more, in my mind at least, to the solution being “learning” on the part of the academics in charge of those courses. In this, I agree with Cavallo’s (2004) point

As we see it, real change is inherently a kind of learning. For people to change the way they think about and practice education, rather than merely being told what to do differently, we believe that practitioners must have experiences that enable appropriation of new modes of teaching and learning that enable them to reconsider and restructure their thinking and practice. The limitations inherent in existing systems based upon information transfer models are as impoverished in effecting systemic development as they are in child development.

The view encapsulated in this quote suggests a number of weaknesses or perspectives of the minimum standards approach, including:

  • You can’t tell (through development of minimum standards) academics that they have to do something differently.
  • The only experience they will experience with the application and policing of minimum standards is someone telling and checking what they are meant to do.
  • Minimum standards are an impoverished method for effecting systemic development – i.e. it won’t work

Best practices and grafting

This quote comes from a bit earlier in Cavallo (2004)

The push towards scientific, research-based approaches aimed at improving education as mandated in the No Child Left Behind act [2] will suffer due to the implicit model of growth as a matter of grafting a series of discrete treatments into a complex system and assuming they will be applied faithfully and uniformly and will fit into the existing local cultures.

For me, this also illustrates a weakness of the minimal standards approach. To a certain extent the minimal standards approach is an example of applying “best practices”. The minimal set of standards is meant to encapsulate what is considered a minimal set of “best practices”.

Consequently, I see it very much related to what Cavallo (2004) is talking about above. i.e.

“scientific, research-based approaches” = best practices = minimal standards

Additionally, how the minimal standards are to be applied to each individual course is very similar to the second half of the Cavallo (2004) quote.

I’m suggesting that the “system” – the collection of actors and requirements – surrounding each course within a university is a complex system. At least that’s my experience and it seems some other knowledgeable folk agree with me

Archetypal examples of ill-structured problems are instructional design problems. (Jonassen, 1997)

Jonassen (1997) goes on to characterize ill-structured problems with the following and other points:

  • Appear ill-defined because one or more of the problem elements are unknown or not known with any degree of confidence.
  • Possess multiple solutions, solution paths, or no solutions at all, that is, no consensual agreement on the appropriate solution.
  • Possess multiple criteria for evaluating solutions.
  • Require learners to express personal opinions or beliefs about the problem, and are therefore uniquely human interpersonal activities.

I’ve complained before about the silliness of best practices. As Cavallo (2004) suggests such “grafting” on is questionable at the best of time.

Especially if you believe the assumption that these practices will be applied “faithfully and uniformly”. Remember, we’re talking about a university and academics. Academics are trained not to accept propositions uncritically and subsequently cannot be expected to adopt strategies without question or adaptation (Gibbs, Habeshaw et al. 2000).

I’ve complained previously about Quality compliance and task corruption and the risks run by prescription. The last post includes this quote from Knight and Trowler (2000)

Likewise, attempts to improve teaching by coercion run the risk of producing compliance cultures, in which there is `change without change’ , while simultaneously compounding negative feelings about academic work

Anyone else feel like I’m starting to repeat myself?

Minimum standards becoming maximum standards

I suggest that the negative feelings about academic work created by minimum standards and how they are implemented will result in the minimum standards actually becoming the maximum standards.

i.e. many of the academics will treat the minimum standards as the only things they need to do. It will limit the desire for innovation.

Another type of solution

So, if you’re aren’t going to do minimal standards, then what do you do? Well, funnily enough the solution I’ve used before is minimal standards.There is, however, a significant difference between the approach I advocate and that that I perceive as being embodied in the “bad” minimal standards.

I’m running out of time. So I won’t complete this here with an explanation of the solution we’ve used in the past. However, I will include a few connected quotes from Cavallo (2004)

The importance of contextualisation

We bring in powerful ideas about learning and through our practice illustrate how to put them to work. The possibility for spread and growth is not through the exact replication of the actions since the context will be different and the culture is dynamic. Rather, the goal is for the appropriation of the principles and the development of models of thinking so that the agents can adapt and apply with the ability to continually develop through reflection on the feedback and changing environmental conditions.

The absence of an established external purpose and the importance of knowing and responding to the problems of the actors involved.

When we run learning projects, we build upon and take practical action towards existing local concerns. We do not arrive with a fully pre-packaged project design. The design of learning projects evolves and changes in dialogue with personal, collective and local interests, conceptions, and needs. It does not assume that all host environments are the same and that one can merely impose a new model. This design dialogue is what generates involvement, commitment, and staying power — people are learning what they need to know to take action about issues that are important to them. Learners are motivated to master the knowledge they need to solve problems that mean something to them.


Cavallo, D. (2004). “Models of growth – Towards fundamental change in learning environments.” BT Technology Journal 22(4): 96-112.

Gibbs, G., T. Habeshaw, et al. (2000). “Institutional learning and teaching strategies in English higher education.” Higher Education 40(3): 351-372.

Jonassen, D. (1997). “Instructional design models for well-structured and ill-structured problem-solving learning outcomes.” Educational Technology Research and Development 45(1): 65-94.

Knight, P. and P. Trowler (2000). “Department-level Cultures and the Improvement of Learning and Teaching.” Studies in Higher Education 25(1): 69-83.


Examination focus and what it might tell us about learning and teaching


Learning and teaching processes


  1. Thomas

    “i.e. many of the academics will treat the minimum standards as the only things they need to do. It will limit the desire for innovation.”

    This is the one that concerns me the most, and simply changing the LMS isn’t going to bring on any change.

    • My biggest fear of this approach is for the curriculum designer staff being brought in to “police” the minimum standards. The phrase “shoot the messenger” springs to mind.

  2. It’s now almost a year since I posted this. The first offering of the “minimum standards” is almost complete and a post from Mark Smithers asks “Does it work?”

    Based on my admittedly biased perspective, I would answer no.

    A few weeks before the start of term most academics discovered that they had to complete a check list and consequently prove that their site met the minimum standards. During this time I heard many – but still anecdotal – reports that the moderators and teaching staff had arrived at a solution. i.e. they ticked all the boxes without checking.

    If you talk to some other folk, you might get another perspective.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Powered by WordPress & Theme by Anders Norén