Assembling the heterogeneous elements for (digital) learning

The bureaucratic model and the grammar and future of universities

Last week I attended a presentation by a colleague at CQUniveristy titled The Bureaucratic Model of Adult Instructional Design. The stated purpose of the presentation was

present and explore the Bureaucratic Model as a narrative that we must understand if we are to influence the direction of adult education.

The talk resonated with me as much of my current struggles/work is trying to make folk aware of a range of unstated assumptions that guide their thinking about learning and teaching within a university context. As Jay says, we have to understand those assumptions before we can think of influencing the future of learning and teaching – and somewhere in that, universities.

Since Jay’s talk I’ve come across and/or been reminded of a range of related work. Please feel free to add more here.

A vision for the future

Tony Bates has recently posted the second of his blog posts title Using technology to improve the cost-effectiveness of the academy: Part 2 within which he gives his vision for the future of universities.

A number of his implications seek to remove many of the basic assumptions that underpin university operation (e.g. semesters, fixed exams). However, a number of them show connections with an existing orthodoxy (e.g. all PhD students will have 6 months training in L&T).

That’s one of the problems I have with visioning. Too often it excludes interesting possibilities because it is held back by the background, preferences, ideas and prejudices of the people doing the visioning. My preference would be to let it emerge through a institution/setting that is flexible, open and questioning. I think much more interesting things can emerge from that situation than can ever happen because of the visioning of experts.

That’s because, no matter who you are, you have unstated assumptions that define what you can think of. Often this is addressed by having lots of different people do the visioning, but too often such attempts use approaches that to quickly focus on a particular vision, closing out future possibilities.

The grammar of school

In this post I mentioned a 1995 article by Seymour Papert on Why school reform is impossible. In this article Papert draws on Tyack and Cuban’s (1995) idea of the “grammar of school”

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.

This sounds very much like what is happening in Jay’s bureaucratic model.

The need for experiments

A lot of the current debate about the future of universities is built on the comparison with print media. i.e. look, newspapers are a long-running institution that are dieing. Look, Universities, they are a long-running institution, they must be dieing also.

Clay Shirkey has written a long blog post title “Newspapers and Thinking the Unthinkable”. A major point that he makes in his post, seems to apply directly to the future of universities and the limitations of attempts at visioning like those of Tony Bates. In particular, this

Revolutions create a curious inversion of perception. In ordinary times, people who do no more than describe the world around them are seen as pragmatists, while those who imagine fabulous alternative futures are viewed as radicals. The last couple of decades haven’t been ordinary, however. Inside the papers, the pragmatists were the ones simply looking out the window and noticing that the real world was increasingly resembling the unthinkable scenario. These people were treated as if they were barking mad. Meanwhile the people spinning visions of popular walled gardens and enthusiastic micropayment adoption, visions unsupported by reality, were regarded not as charlatans but saviors.

He then draws on the development of the printing press to talk about revolutions

That is what real revolutions are like. The old stuff gets broken faster than the new stuff is put in its place. The importance of any given experiment isn’t apparent at the moment it appears; big changes stall, small changes spread. Even the revolutionaries can’t predict what will happen

Dede’s metaphors of learning

Lastly, the following recording is of talk by Professor Chris Dede and some metaphors of learning. It is the current underlying assumption of consistency in delivery of learning that underpins much of what universities are currently doing which is my biggest bugbear. It’s what is contributing to university learning and teaching approaching what Dede describes as “the worst of fast food”.

Chris Dede: Human behaviours and metaphors for learning


Participation, impact, collecting data and connecting people


Lectures, alternatives, poll everywhere and unexpected events

1 Comment

  1. Hi David,

    Just wanted to pick up on a couple of things from this rather diverse entry. The amount of squirming amongst my colleagues within the Faculty of Sciences, Engineering and Health re the matrix structure of the faculty would only confirm Cuban’s idea re the nature of schools. The proposed new structure seems to do little else but do a bit of shuffling and calling the groupings ‘schools’ and everything is therefore okay! Like the issue of bureaucracies, I am in two minds – I acknowledge the existance of these structures and that they probably have an important function to play, but all the while I feel like I struggle against them. During my Zen moments, I can accept that this is the way it is. Unfortunately, I don’t have many Zen moments.


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