Assembling the heterogeneous elements for (digital) learning

The confusion of small and big changes

Over the last couple of days I’ve enjoyed a small discussion that has arisen out of some comments Kevin has made on my blog. This post is an attempt to partially engage with the most recent comment. I echo Kevin’s conclusion, I’d love to hear anyone else’s take on this.

The unanswered question

The main point I’d like to discuss is the question of small versus big changes. I have an opinion on this, but there’s not enough evidence to suggest that it’s an answer. The basic question might be phrased as: How do you improve the quality significant improvement in the quality of L&T in universities? You could make this much more general, along the lines of “How do you change organisational practices?”, but I’m going to stick with the specific.

I’m familiar with two broad responses:

  • Revolutionary (usually top-down) change; and
    This is where the necessary change is identified by someone, eventually they get agreement/the ability to implement the change through some sort of change management process. This usually involves some big change. e.g. the adoption of a new LMS for a university, trashing the LMS and adopting WPMU for L&T, adopting university wide graduate attributes, requiring every academic to have a formal teaching qualification etc. Or even more radical, the death of universities and their replacement by something else.
  • Evolutionary (usually bottom-up) change.
    Small-scale changes in practice, usually at the local level.

Kevin’s comment gives a good summary of the common problem with the evolutionary change approach

In my experience, especially at a large institution, taking the “small changes” route is the road to perdition. For me, this means I have to engage in a million little negotiations to get the small to accumulate to something significant. At the rate I’m going it will take me two lifetimes to bring about real change in the English Department.

As I mentioned above and indicate by the heading for this section, I don’t have what I would call an answer. I have an argument for the approach I would take and some evidence to support it, but I don’t think I can call it “the answer” (yet).

What I think is the answer

Last I year I gave a presentation called Herding cats, losing weight and how to improve learning and teaching (slides and video are available). In that presentation, the analogy used is that revolutionary change is like herding cats and that evolutionary change is like losing weight. Using this analogy I argue that the herding cats approach to improve the quality of teaching at a University has not worked empirically and that there is significant theory to explain why it will never work. That same theory suggests that an evolutionary approach informed by lessons learned from weight loss, is much more promising.

The general solution I suggest is one slide 200 or so (it was only a 60 minute presentation) and goes under the title “reflective alignment” and can be summarised as

All aspects of the learning and teaching environment are aligned to enable and encourage academic staff to reflect on their teaching with the aim of achieving 3rd order change.

Framed another way, the teaching environment at a university encourages and enables academics to be changing their thinking and practice of teaching. That is essentially do what they do now, make small changes each time they teach a course, but rather than changes that are not constrained by the same ways of thinking about teaching.

Having academics continually making these sorts of 3rd order changes (within an institution that encourages and enables them to make those 3rd order changes) will result (I think) in radically different and significantly improved learning and teaching.

When small changes won’t work

Like Kevin, I think that universities relying on small changes to improve learning and teaching will not work. Mostly because the university environment does not encourage nor enable the type of small scale changes that are required.

In the herding cats presentation a large part of the time was listing the parts of the university teaching environment that actively prevents the type of 3rd order change that is necessary. In fact, much of the bleating in posts on this blog are complaining about these limitations. Some examples include:

  • Rewards that favour research, not teaching.
    No matter how many formal teaching qualifications an academic is forced to acquire, if they get promoted (both at their current and other universities) through the quality of their promotion, then they will focus on research, not teaching.
  • Pressures arising from quality assurance and simplistic KPIs.
    Since the mid-1990s I’ve observed that it is only the courses with large failure rates or student complaints that get any attention from university management. Students, like most people get scared when their expectations aren’t meant. That means if you try something innovative students will complain. In addition, if you try something innovative you might have problems, which management hate. If you try something different, you are more likely to have to waste time responding to “management concerns”. The presentation references research showing that this is preventing academics from trying innovative work.

    With the rise of quality assurance and corporate aproaches to management, this trend is getting worse.

  • Removal of autonomy;
    As I’ve argued in a couple of posts top-down management is removing academic autonomy and perhaps purpose and subsequently reducing academic motivation.
  • Constraining systems;
    Increasingly universities are using information systems to perform learning and teaching. Those systems are designed on particular assumptions that limit the ability to change. The most obvious example is the LMS (be it open or closed source). This recent post includes discussion of this point around the LMS.

    The people, processes and policies within universities are being set up to use these systems. If you use something different, you are being inefficient.

  • Simplistic understandings of innovation.
    When it comes to understanding innovations (e.g. something as simple as a new LMS), universities have naive perspectives of the adoption process. As recognised by Bigum and Rowan (2004) this naive perspective assumes that the innovation passes through the adoption process largely unchanged, which means that the social must conform with the innovation.

    i.e. As the institution starts to adopt Moodle across all its courses, Moodle can and should stay exactly the same. You only need to show people how to use Moodle, nothing more. If what they want to do is not supported by Moodle, then they need to conform to what Moodle does, regardless of the ramifications.

My argument is that all of this and other factors within a university environment actively prevent small changes having broad outcomes. The university environment is actively discouraging 3rd order change and isn’t even very good at achieving 2nd order change.

But small change can’t make a big difference

Ignoring all that, people still get stuck on the idea of lots of small change creating really big change. They are wrong.

To justify that, first let me draw on people recognised as being much smarter and more important than I (Weick and Quinn, 1999)

The distinctive quality of continuous change is the idea that small continuous adjustments, created simultaneously across units, can cumulate and create substantial change.

The main reason people have trouble with this idea (I think) is that they think that the world is ordered and predictable. That the world is an ordered system. If you make a small change, you get a small effect. However, when you’re talking about a complex system, small changes can create radical outcomes.

I don’t have time to expand on this here, it’s talked about in the presentation I mentioned above. Anyway, Dave Snowden and any number of other people make this point better than I.

Big and small change in the wrong place

Here’s a new idea. One of the reasons why I think most universities are failing to improve the quality of their teaching is that they are focusing on big and small change in the wrong places.

In my experience, most universities are trying to make big improvement in teaching by introducing big changes in what academics do. Use a different system, use a different pedagogy, radically change your teaching so you are constructively aligned, get a teaching qualification etc. But at the same time, there is no radical change in the how the teaching environment works. There are no solutions to the above problems with the environment.

What I am suggesting is that there should be big changes in the environment to enable small changes on the part of the academic. In fact, in the presentation I argue that the aim is to help the academics do what good teaching academics have always done (Common, 1989)

Master teachers are not born; they become. They become primarily by developing a habit of mind, a way of looking critically at the work they do by developing the courage to recognise faults, and struggling to improve.

References

Bigum, C. and L. Rowan (2004). “Flexible learning in teacher education: myths, muddles and models.” Asia-Pacific Journal of Teacher Education 32(3): 213-226.

Common, D. (1989). “Master teachers in higher education: A matter of settings.” The Review of Higher Education 12(4): 375-387.

Weick, K. and R. Quinn (1999). “Organizational change and development.” Annual Review of Psychology 50: 361-386.

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2 Comments

  1. kwilco

    Bravo! Am I understanding? The “big” change is choice architecture and the “small” change is the ability of instructor/designers to make contrary choices if they so choose.

    • Hadn’t thought of it that way. You can see I’m still working this through myself.

      My initial thought was that the big change is the “choice architecture” as you mention. But the small change was the on-going series of small choices that the architecture would encourage academics to take.

      i.e. for me the “choice architecture” is designed to encourage academics to reflect upon and tweak their courses. Rather than just copy what has gone before. But because these are changes driven by their own reflection, based on their own context, within an environment that is helping them make these changes in effective ways, I think the outcomes will be radically different.

      I didn’t explain that well. Sorry. Back to the thesis.

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