Assembling the heterogeneous elements for (digital) learning

Loosing weight, nudging and changing the L&T environment – early foundations of my work

What follows is an attempt to develop some of the foundations of what is driving the work I do in my current position.

The main aim

My main aim is to help improve the quality of learning and teaching within the university I work for.

The fundamental flaw

It’s my suggestion that almost all of the current institutional attempts to improve learning and teaching suffer the same fundamental flaw. They attempt to herd cats, they focus on what management does, rather than focus on what the teachers and learners do every day and in particular the tremendous problems created by the systems within which they operate.

To be a little more concrete,

  • Senior management embark on vision statements etc. exclaiming the importance of teaching.
  • Senior management seek to identify broad-scale, one-size-fits-all solutions, e.g. we’ll have a common course template, a single system etc..
  • Institutions develop high-level policies about how courses/programs should be designed, but pay little attention to actually how these tasks are carried out leading to problems and compliance.
  • If everyone has a certificate in higher education, then they will be good teachers.

At the same time, there is ignorance of (though it’s probably a case of “don’t mention the war”) the complete and utter mismatch between the system/environment in which academic staff work and improving L&T. A few references/quotes from this post

Academic staff are trained, selected and evaluated on the discipline expertise and their ability to perform quality research. The experience and training of academic staff not only focuses on discipline and research expertise it can, and often does, socialise aspiring academics towards a vision of academic work that emphasises these tasks (Austin 2002). While universities promote the importance of teaching the create ambiguous, even contradictory expectations by rewarding academic staff primarily for research (Zellweger 2005) and creating environments where spending more time teaching is a negative influence on academic pay (Fairweather 2005).

But it’s more than that, I would argue that even if we changed the rewards aspect. For example, if a university effectively introduced a practice where good teaching staff could get promoted solely on the quality of their teaching, there would remain little change. The very nature of the system and the subsequent day to day experiences of teaching staff are blocking improvements in learning and teaching.

My point overlaps in part part with the point being made by George Siemens in this post

More than any other element, this systemic inertia is responsible for limited innovation in education.

The processes within most universities are equivalent to a group of obese people with chocolate cravings living and working in a chocolate factory. Day to day they are being exposed to influences and practices that actively work against them loosing weight.

The solutions being proposed for learning and teaching within universities are a bit like addressing the chocolate problem above by:

  • Allocating the each group of these big folk with a nutritionist that will explain to them the requirements of good nutrition.
  • Employing special expert nutritionists to come and talk to the big folk about various strategies for good nutrition.
  • Providing a single menu and exercise regime that all big folk are expected to follow.

You have to change the nature of the system so that it encourages and enables people to change what they do.

Nudging and choice architecture

I’ve been reading Nudge: Improving decisions about health, wealth and happiness for some time. A review of the book with some connections to higher education was recently posted on Tomorrow’s Professor.

The review suggests that the book is based on two key foundations:

  1. There is no such thing as neutral design.
    Whatever system, process or tool you are talking about it embodies a design. The design may not be intentional, it may be a result of unconnected decisions. The big point is, however, that the nature of that system will influence the likelihood of particular outcomes.

    Obviously this connects with the point I’m trying to make above that the design of the current teaching system within universities are more likely to result in bad outcomes, rather than good.

  2. People do not act rationally.
    Most systems, processes and policies assume that people make perfectly rational decisions. They don’t. People have numerous, well-known flaws in their abilities to make rational decisions.

The book talks about how “choice architecture” can be used to nudge people towards doing good things. The book takes an approach called “libertarian paternalism” where people are not forced to do the right thing, they are free to do what they want. However, they assume that it is okay, and in fact a good thing, to design the choice architecture in order to influence people’s behaviour. Which brings up the definition of a nudge (Thaler and Sunstein, 2008; p6)

is any aspect of the choice architecture that alters people’s behaviour in a predictable way without forbidding any options or significantly changing their economic incentives.

The centrality of the pedagogue

When it comes to improving teaching and learning a, if not the, major role is played by the individual pedagogue/teacher and what they believe. At some stage, the teacher makes a decision to improve or change their practice, or not. My argument is that the “choice architecture” inherent in universities is set up to actively discourage people to make the decision to improve their teaching and learning.

If you don’t get them to make this decision, the outcome of whatever you do will be limited.

Principles of good choice architecture

Thaler and Sunstein (2008; pp102) give six principles for good choice architecture:

  1. iNcentives;
    They suggest four questions about incentives – who uses? who chooses? who pays? who profits – and outline some examples of how naive incentive setting fails.

    For example, the question of salience or do the people making choice actually notice the incentives they face. A case could be made here between the “incentive” of teaching awards to improve learning and teaching not being noticed because of the broader incentive to do research.

  2. Understand mappings;
    A decision involves a mapping between the choice and the ultimate consumption experience. How do people making choices make rational decisions about the ultimate experience of their choice?

    One example in L&T might be the decision to try something innovative. What if people map the attempt to try something new with the possibility of failure and then censure from the “standards focused” management? Are they likely to try something innovative?

  3. Defaults;
    People will usually take the path of least resistance, they will do the easiest thing, the default. The default in L&T within higher education is passive lectures, tutorials, a couple of assignments and exam. The entire system of L&T is setup to enshrine these defaults.
  4. Give feedback;
    Thaler and Sunstein (2008; p92)

    The best way to help Humans improve their performance is to provide feedback. Well-designed systems tell people when they are doing well and when they are making mistakes.

    In my experience feedback to academics about their L&T is minimal to non-existent.

  5. Expect error;
    People will make mistakes, the system should be designed to expect this and be as forgiving as possible. I would suggest this isn’t high on the agenda in current structured, corporate approaches to teaching.
  6. Structure complex choices.
    People adopt simplifying strategies when faced with complex choices (go with the default etc.). Those simplifying strategies are often flawed in some way and directly influence outcomes.

    What assistance does the L&T system within a university provide to help academics make choices about L&T?

Using these principles

While not wishing to be exclusive about these principles, there would seem to be strong support for using these to help guide the design of changes within a university system for L&T. I’m hoping to do just this in the choice and design of projects I work upon. For example:

  • Indicators project and;
    I’m particularly interested in how this project can be used to give feedback to teaching staff about what is happening within their online courses and how this feedback can be used expect error, structure complex choices, understand mappings and develop incentives through a collaborative process of reflection.
  • bottom up curriculum mapping
    I’ve been thinking about a bottom up approach to curriculum mapping. My main interest is how to modify slightly existing practice to develop curriculum maps within a program that can give feedback to participants about the problems in a course. In addition, there are possibilities that such an approach can be used to structure complex choices – be developing “wizards” that help guide the solution to identified problems – and perhaps help change some of the defaults.
  • The old REACT idea.
    This was intended to give feedback, help structure complex choices and understand mappings, while at the same time attempting to provide some incentive.


Thaler, R. and C. Sunstein (2008). Nudge: Improving decisions about health, wealth and happiness. New York, Penguin.


BIM – Tidy up #3


BIM – Tidy up #4 – Security checks


  1. David, I hope you don’t think I’m being facetious here. I really enjoyed your post; it resonated with a lot of my own thoughts. But I must confess it has left me curious about how you would tackle the chocolate factory problem.

    I think the weight loss issue has the potential to be a good analogy, but following the analogy through and applying the above principles to resolve it would, for me, really strengthen the argument.

    What do you think? 🙂

    • G’day Lindsay,

      You have asked the $64,000 question. How to do it. That’s been an interest of mine for a while and you’ll find various theories, insights and vague ideas littered through out the posts on my blog.

      First, I don’t think there’s any universal silver bullet. i.e. everyone having a teaching qualification, product X or fad Z will work everywhere. The specifics of any answer to that question is contextual.

      But there are some general principles which I think apply, at least at the moment. A quick summary (and first time I’ve tried to formulate them)

      1. Improvement only comes if the individual teachers change.
      2. The system within which they work has to not only be conducive but actively encouraging and enabling of them wanting and being able to change.
        The NUDGE acronym in this post is part of this. This article offers some details from a weight loss perspective which might be useful to apply in L&T.
      3. What the individual teachers do from day-to-day, the processes built into the system, have to be designed to encourage and enable change.
      4. The interactions they have with all other actors (people, policies and systems) have to encourage and support the effective engagement with and response to diverse meanings, skills and aims.

      Sorry, fairly abstract and I don’t think complete. But time is getting away. I did give a talk last year which used this analogy a bit more. There might be some useful stuff in it. The video is here.

      Thanks for the comment.


  2. Hi David,

    Thanks so much for the link to the Heath & Fitness article on effecting individual behaviour change strategies – it really brought home how the same principles can apply to, well, all kinds of behavioural change.

    I’m particularly interested in this link because I started off as a teacher, then trained as a personal fitness instructor, and now I’m an educational developer. I’ve come across a lot of people who don’t like to equate learning and behavioural change; I don’t know if you’ve had similar experiences in talking to colleagues; I’ve encountered a common perception that aiming to change people’s behaviour is a rather sinister goal. But what, really, is the point of learning if it doesn’t impact on what we do?

    I used to think that helping people to lose weight was very different to helping them to improve the teaching & learning experience. For a start, I used to believe that you didn’t have a hope in hell getting someone to lose weight unless they really wanted to, whereas I could always see ways of leading teachers to try something new. Now, however, I see ways in which I can use my knowledge of both contexts to enhance my practice. Thank you!

    • G’day Lindsay,

      I haven’t heard anyone state the “sinister perception”, but I expect it’s only a matter of time. In terms of a response, I recommend the “Nudge book” I link to in the post, they address this question.

      Part of their response would be something like…

      In a modern university the organisation is doing all sorts of things to require/force people to change. My institution is talking about graduate attributes, grad certs in L&T for all academic staff, rewards for good teaching etc. Universities are already doing this, but they are doing it badly.

      The “Nudge” approach is to do it in such a way as not to require people to do it, but to design the “choice architecture” so that it is more likely that they will. People can always opt out.

      The second response might be “Don’t you want to improve your teaching?”. I’d suggest most academics would say yes I do. I just don’t want to be told how to do it or what I should change to. As you said, you could always see ways of leading to teachers to try something new.


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