Assembling the heterogeneous elements for digital learning

Qualms about the alignment project

Yesterday, I posted a draft of an application for what is currently being called, the alignment project. Stephen Downes has commented on the alignment project in is OLDaily. Stephen’s comments are

This is totally not my approach, but a careful and detailed articulation of an alternative. It should be considered…..I would criticize the duality the approach presupposes, between ‘quality’ (alignment) and the disorganized ‘lone wolf’ approach to teaching.

Stephen is not alone in having qualms about the project. I have some as well. This is an attempt to make those qualms explicit and see if I can develop an argument/perspective that addresses at least some of them. After a week or two of developing the application draft, I’m a bit too close to the idea. I need to be more critical so that the idea can be improved.

I welcome suggestions and arguments, especially those targeting weaknesses or mistakes in the application

Aside: people wonder why I post to this blog. The prime reason is exactly the type of comment Stephen has made and what it encourages and enables me to think about. The duality Stephen mentions is important and not something I would have thought to closely about without his spark.

Summary

My response to Stephen’s criticism is that I recognise that this duality is a big problem. It’s also the most likely outcome of the project, i.e. those lone-wolves who aren’t seen as being “aligned” are also seen as “poor quality”. My intent, however, is to use alignment as an idea acceptable to higher education that can be used to modify a broken system to increase the level of reflection and discussion around L&T that occurs as part of the everyday practice of teaching academics. That “alignment” is a means, not the end.

I also think it unlikely that this is what will happen.

Qualms about constructive alignment

The alignment project as described draws heavily on John Biggs work on constructive alignment. I’ve always had to qualms about constructive alignment:

  • Assumption of plan-driven or teleological design.
    Constructive alignments is a teleological design process. It assumes you can identify the outcomes at the start and use that as a basis to identify/design the actions necessary to get students there. A number of aspects of learning, even in its limited form of university-based learning, make me doubt whether or not this is really all that possible. The next point picks up on human agency, but other aspects include the inherent diversity in learners backgrounds, capabilities and aims. Even in higher education the talk is of the increasing diversity of students. Given that diversity, how do you claim to identify a set of outcomes that is suitable for all, let alone develop activities and assessments that are suitable for all?

    I have a long standing preference for ateleological design processes and have a (potentially forlorn) hope that the alignment project might be more ateleological than teleological.

  • Assumption that you can “force” students to learn.
    Here’s a quote from Biggs (2001) that illustrates the assumption that troubles me

    In aligned teaching, where all components support each other, students are
    “trapped” into engaging in the appropriate learning activities, or as Cowan (1998) puts it, teaching is “the purposeful creation of situations from which motivated learners should not be able to escape without learning or developing” (p. 112). A lack of alignment somewhere in the system allows students to escape with inadequate learning.

    At one level I’m worried about this perspective because of what words such as “trapped” and “inescapable” can mean, what it says about the people in charge of such a system.

    My more pragmatic problem with this perspective is that I don’t think it can work. People always have some level of agency. Many university students are highly pragmatic, they will use their agency to subvert the system to achieve their ends with means they find acceptable. I’m not convinced that even the best constructively aligned course can escape the effects of compliance and task corruption.

Qualms about the reflective institution

The alignment project is essentially aimed at implementing something that approaches Biggs (2001) idea of a reflective institution. The application gives a summary of the stages involved in achieving Bigg’s goal. I’ve actually written about the idea previously back in February last year I wrote

However, the detail of his suggested solution is, I think, hideously unworkable to such an extent as likely to have a negative impact on the quality of teaching if any institution of a decent size tried to implement it. As Biggs (2001) says, but about a slightly different aspect, “the practical problems are enormous”.

I’ve been involved with the underbelly of teaching and learning at universities to have a significant amount of doubt about whether the reality of learning and teaching matches this representation to the external world. I’ve seen institutions struggle with far simpler tasks than the above and individual academics and managers “game the system” to be seen to comply while not really fulfilling (or even understanding) the requirements.

The project’s assumptions

In my head, the project is based on the following assumptions:

  • For most academics, the majority of teaching is copying a previous course, making some minor modifications and teaching it.
  • Preparation for teaching is generally driven by administrative deadlines (the bookshop needs to order textbooks on date X, teaching starts on Y etc) and systems (you use system X to order the textbook, the LMS to create your course site).
  • Most, if not all, of these systems do not encourage or enable the academic to think about the concepts of learning underpinning these decisions. They just have to choose the textbook, make sure the assignment is different from last year and ensure that there are no egregiously out of date references in the lectures.
  • Consequently, most academics (upwards of 50%) just do what they did last time, teach the way they were taught. (There are exceptions, but they are the minority).
  • If you add into these systems some minor tweaks that encourage and enable academics to reflect on the conceptions of learning within the course, and provide some appropriate support, then you might encourage the majority to start reflecting and eventually improving their teaching.

To some extent the project is based on the nature of the teaching context at the participating institutions. For example, my current institution has specified that every course will have a Moodle course site.

Qualms about the project and some possible responses

The following are the qualms that I can think about the project. Can you suggest more? For each of these, I’ve tried to describe what I think is a response.

It will die within a week

Qualm: The alignment project is still in pre-application days. There are on-going discussions with various institutional leaders about whether or not they think that this is an idea that they can support. There’s always a chance that by this time next week (or not long after) the project will be dead due to lack of support.

Response? If that happens, I’m hoping we can continue with the project on a smaller scale. Perhaps with just a single program or two at my current institution to explore some of the ideas and their impacts. At the very least, I’m interested in how/if some form of curriculum mapping can be put into Moodle.

Teleological design

Qualm: As I’ve stated above, I don’t think teleological design works. In particular, I don’t think this is the way most academics approach the design of the teaching. The draft alignment project application actually cites literature that shows academics are mostly making minor changes to existing courses. This post expands on this literature. When I’ve seen constructive alignment in action, it’s typically been as part of a large redesign of a course. For all sorts of reasons I think this is a failing.

Response? The methodology expressed in the project proposal recognises this and seeks to introduce the question of alignment in a way which fits with the focus academics have on minor modifications to existing teaching. The hope is that by making alignment a visible part of the tools and support around making minor modifications, then staff may start thinking about alignment and be able to make minor modifications that improve alignment. The aim is not massive redesign to ensure alignment. It’s about minor changes that improve alignment.

And, if I’m honest, the aim for me is not really to get them implementing constructive alignment. It’s just to create an environment that encourages and enables academics to reflect on their teaching and how they are doing it.

Using it as a stick

Qualm: This is one of my biggest fears. Theoretically the project will result in the alignment (or lack thereof) to be readily visible to all folk associated with a course/program. This is going to include people in formal leadership positions. This could very easily lead to this being used as a stick to beat the “bad” teachers. In Bigg’s (2001) words, a focus on the teacher, rather than the teaching.

Response? The only defense I can see against this is ensuring that the folk in those leadership positions are intelligent folk who can see the problems with this. Or, perhaps at the least, ensure that their actions are visible enough so other more enlightened folk can mitigate their effects. In some situations, I’m not sure we’d be able to convince teaching academics of the potential success of this approach.

In the project, I think this can be addressed by having people on the project reference group that are broadly recognised as being experts in this field and having them interact closely with the members of the institutional steering committees (containing formal leaders). Hopefully during the project they can learn the lessons which inform latter practice.

Corruption

Qualm: In terms of a likely outcome, I can see – given my comments about human agency above – that some/most academics would employ task corruption once the alignment project was in place. Task corruption is where an group or individual, consciously or unconsciously, adopts an approach to a task that either avoids or destroys the task. White (2006) talks about two approaches

  • amputation – where parts of the task are no longer performed; and
  • simulation – the emphasis is on being seen to have done the task, not actually to have done it.

Response? In the end, I don’t think there’s anything that can prevent this from happening. All you can do is provide an environment in which the practice becomes valued. That’s what I think this project is about, making alignment part of the culture, the way things are done. This will never entirely successful and is likely not to succeed. However, the responses currently in the project include:

  • making alignment and the responses to it visible;
    Much current corruption occurs because university teaching is a primarily solitary act. There are questions around whether this is a good thing, about forcing one’s views on others. But then academia is supposed to be about peer review.
  • enable and encourage;
    The focus is on creating an environment that helps academics engage in this. If they aren’t engaging then the environment needs to be tweaked, hence the focus on action research. This needs to be on-going.

Technological gravity

Qualm: Related to the above is the conception of technological gravity that McDonald and Gibbons (2009) define and which I’ve posted about (and linked to edupunk). This idea is based on the idea of three major assumptions around learning and teaching:

  1. Technology I – different technologies automatically lead people to develop quality instruction.
    i.e. Moodle is an LMS designed with social-constructivist principles and it’s open source. If the institution adopts Moodle then the quality of instruction will improve.
  2. Technolgy II – different techniques/methods lead people to develop quality instruction.
    i.e. if all our courses are designed using constructive alignment, then student learning outcomes will improve.
  3. Technology III – characteristics of a local situation are used to identify the technologies and methods that will have a practical, positive influence in solving a defined problem/improve learning.
    i.e. this is the bit I think has some connections with edupunk – perhaps what Stephen describes as the lone-wolf approach above.

Technological gravity is defined as the force that seems to suck people and institutions away from Technology III and towards Technology I and II. This project is just as likely to suffer from technological gravity as anything else. McDonald and Gibbons (2009) identify three reasons for technological gravity:

  1. distracted focus;
    i.e. the institution has to get ready for a quality audit and needs to focus on that.
  2. status quo adherence;
    i.e. the changes introduced are re-interpreted (or mis-interpreted) and slightly adapted to fit with current practice. “Of course, my 3 hour lecture on the basics of theory are help the students develop critical evaluation skills.”
  3. over-simplification.
    i.e. doing X is too hard, we need to make it simpler for folk to do routinely. By making it simpler, something is lost.

Responses? In terms of focus, the aim of the project is to embed this in the institutional systems. It should just happen. Buy-in of leadership, building it into institutional systems (the LMS) etc are all steps being taken. This will be hard.

With status quo adherence, if the project works then this should hopefully be the type of problem with which the quality enhancement process focuses on. That process is focused on encouraging people to reflect, in part visibly.

In terms of over simplification, this is perhaps where the quality feasibility stage comes in. Mm, weak

The quality and lone wolf duality

Qualm: Stephen’s qualms include

the duality the approach presupposes, between ‘quality’ (alignment) and the disorganized ‘lone wolf’ approach to teaching.

I think this is based on the idea that any disorganised “lone wolf” approach to teaching is by definition not aligned and consequently can’t be thought of quality teaching.

Response: I don’t think the project can respond to this. The first stage of Bigg’s (2001) reflective institution (and consequently of this project) is to make the quality model clear. The model in this case is some sense of alignment. Being aligned is by definition quality.

If you strongly believe in constructive alignment, then this is probably not a problem. However, as I outlined above, I have qualms about constructive alignment. If you asked most people around here whether I am a lone-wolf or a quality-focused/aligned kind, most would answer lone-wolf. Given these how can I justify this project and my involvement with it?

Having thought about this, my current response has two themes:

  • the alternatives are even worse;
    Anything has to be better than what I see as increasingly common practice within Australian higher education. I’ll pick up on this more below.
  • I’m not as dogmatic as Biggs.
    In the following, I’ll argue that I’m my perspective is not as black and white as the duality Stephen has identified. Instead, I’m taking a more gray perspective. Perhaps seeing the quality model as not a dichotomy or end-point, but encouraging a dialectic.

My impression of Biggs (solely from his writings) and some of the constructive alignment practitioners I’ve met (perhaps they influence my perspective of Biggs) are of a very dogmatic perspective. Alignment provides the answer, and the answer is good. If you are not a follower of the answer, you are a heathen. If you follow alignment, you need to re-design your course so that it is 100% aligned – as approved by the constructive alignment church. There’s almost a touch of Technology II about constructive alignment.

To me, learning and teaching is much more complex. I can see how a perfectly aligned course could have horrendously horrible outcomes, depending on the context. I can also see how an apparently mis-aligned course can generate good quality outcomes. For me, the aim of the alignment project is not to achieve perfectly aligned courses and hence quality student learning outcomes. The aim of project is to modify everyday teaching practice so that it encourages and enables academics to start asking questions, rather than simply following administrative processes. Am I trying to make use of a Technology III perspective of alignment?

So, why use alignment at all? Because the system is broken – I pick this up in the next section.

So why do it

All of the above has got me thinking about why I’m pushing this project. Here are my answers.

I have a job

At the simplest and most pragmatic level, I have a job. The institution pays me to do certain things that it deems important and ALTC grants are pretty high on the list of importance. If I want to continue to have a job, I need to demonstrate I’m fulfilling their goals.

That’s not sufficient though. I also think I could enjoy the job (eventually) and generate some benefit broader than my personal employment.

The system is broken

As it happens earlier this week I was listening to this discussion Stephen had in Argentina. One of the topics covered was that, in his opinion, the current educational system in which his “audience” were working within, is broken. One point being that it is very difficult, if not impossible, to use a lot of his approaches within such a broken system.

In terms of the higher education sector in Australia, I agree with Stephen, the system is broken. Even worse, for some time I have been dismayed at the increasingly prevalent broken approaches that are being adopted in the quest for improving the quality of L&T within that broken system. It’s a common theme on this blog. What is currently being done within Australian universities to improve L&T will, at best, offer slight improvements for the folk who were already improving, or at worst, significantly decrease the overall quality of L&T (while at the same time showing “evidence” of improvement).

At this stage I come back to some thinking about inside-out versus outside-in that was sparked by questions from Leigh Blackall. In my job I think I have to come up with approaches that can change the system from the inside-out. It’s an aim likely to fail.

To do this, you have to have some connection with what is being done within the system. Alignment is broadly and generally unquestioningly accepted within higher education, especially amongst the leadership. This project will be attractive because of this acceptance. Most have accepted the value of alignment. More importantly, in my experience most people can, from a common sense perspective (“Common sense is the collection of prejudices acquired by age eighteen”), accept the idea of alignment as a good thing. It’s also a fairly simple thing to understand (though difficult to implement).

What this means is:

  1. Management can see the rationale for this and how it fits with the external demands they are having to deal with.
  2. Teaching academics can (hopefully) see the initial sense of the idea, at least enough to start talking about it.

i.e. this helps get the idea accepted and helps the project introduce into everyday practice some discussion about L&T that moves beyond administrative tasks. It helps introduce a change that might move the system in the right direction (but won’t fix it).

In summary, alignment is a means to an end. It’s not what is fundamental about this project. What is fundamental is encouraging a bit more reflection around L&T into everyday practice. I don’t really care how aligned the courses are, as long as academics are working in an environment that helps them reflect on their L&T and do something about it.

Of course, translating that view into reality and avoiding alignment being seen as an ends, is another story all together.

References

Biggs, J. (2001). The Reflective Institution: Assuring and Enhancing the Quality of Teaching and Learning. Higher Education, 41(3), 221-238.

McDonald, J., & Gibbons, A. (2009). Technology I, II, and III: criteria for understanding and improving the practice of instructional technology Educational Technology Research and Development, 57(3), 377-392.

White, N. (2006). Tertiary education in the Noughties: the student perspective. Higher Education Research & Development, 25(3), 231-246.

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