Assembling the heterogeneous elements for (digital) learning

The grammar of school, psychological dissonance and all professors are rather ludditical

Yesterday, via a tweet from @marksmithers I read this post from the author of the DIYU book titled “Vast Majority of Professors Are Rather Ludditical”. This is somewhat typical of the defict model of academics which is fairly prevalent and rather pointless. It’s pointless for a number of reasons, but the main one is that it is not a helpful starting point for bringing a out change as it ignores the broader problem and consequently most solutions that arise from a deficit model won’t work.

One of the major problems this approach tends to ignore is the broader impact of the grammar of school (first from Tyack and Cuban and then Papert). I’m currently reading The nature of technology (more on this later) by W. Brian Arthur. The following is a summary and a little bit of reflection upon a section titled “Lock-in and Adaptive Stretch”, which seems to connect closely with the grammar of school idea.

Psychological dissonance and adaptive stretch

Arthur offers the following quote from the sociologist Diane Vaughan around psychological dissonance

[In the situations we deal with as humans, we use] a frame of reference constructed from integrated sets of assumptions, expectations and experiences. Everything is perceived on the basis of this framework. The framework becomes self-confirming because, whenever we can, we tend to impost it on experiences and events, creating incidents and relationships that conform to it. And we tend to ignore, misperceive, or deny events that do not fit it. As a consequence, it generally leads us to what we are looking for. This frame of references is not easily altered or dismantled, because the way we tend to see the world is intimately linked to how we see and define ourselves in relation to the world. Thus, we have a vested interest in maintaining consistency because our own identity is at risk.

Arthur goes onto to suggest that “the greater the distances between a novel solution and the accepted one, the large is this lock-in to previous tradition”. He then defines the lock-in of the older approach as adaptive stretch. This is the situation where it is easier to reach for the old approaches and adapt it to the new circumstances through stretching.

Hence professors are ludditical

But haven’t I just made the case, this is exactly what happens with the vast majority of academic practice around e-learning. If they are using e-learning at all – and not simply sticking with face-to-face teaching – most teaching academics are still using lectures, printed notes and other relics of the past that they have stretched into the new context.

They don’t have the knowledge to move on, so we have to make them non-ludditical. This is when management and leadership at universities rolls into action and identifies plans and projects that will help generate non-ludditical academics.

The pot calling the kettle black

My argument is that if you step back a bit further the approaches being recommended and adopted by researchers and senior management; the way those approaches are implemented; and they way they are evaluated for success, are themselves suffering from psychological dissonance and adaptive stretch. The approaches almost without exception borrow from a traditional project management approach and go something like:

  • Small group of important people identify the problem and the best solution.
  • Hand it over to a project group to implement.
  • The project group tick the important project boxes:
    • Develop a detailed project plan with specific KPIs and deadlines.
    • Demonstrate importance of project by wheeling out senior managers to say how important the project is.
    • Implement a marketing push involving regular updates, newsletters, posters, coffee mugs and presentations.
    • Develop compulsory training sessions which all must attend.
    • Downplay any negative experiences and explain them away.
    • Ensure correct implementation.
    • Get an evaluation done by people paid for and reporting to the senior managers who have been visibly associated with the project.
    • Explain how successful the project was.
  • Complain about how the ludditical academics have ruined the project through adaptive stretching.

Frames of reference and coffee mugs

One of the fundamental problem with these approaches to projects within higher education is that it effectively ignores the frames of reference that academics bring to problem. Rather than start with the existing frames of reference and build on those, this approach to projects is all about moving people straight into a new frame of reference. In doing this, there is always incredible dissonance between how the project people think an action will be interpreted and how it actually is interpreted.

For example, a few years ago the institution I used to work for (at least as of CoB today) adopted Chickering and Gamson’s (1987) 7 principles for good practice in undergraduate teaching as a foundation for the new learning and teaching management plan. The project around this decision basically followed the above process. As part of the marketing push, all academics (and perhaps all staff) received a coffee mug and a little palm card with the 7 principles in nice text and a link to the project website. The intent of the project was to increase awareness of the academics of the 7 principles and how important they were to the institution.

The problem was, that at around this time the institution was going through yet more restructures and there was grave misgivings from senior management about how much money the institution didn’t have. The institution was having to save money and this was being felt by the academics in terms of limits on conference travel, marking support etc. It is with this frame of reference that the academics saw the institution spending a fair amount of money on coffee mugs and palm cards. Just a touch of dissonance.

What’s worse, a number of academics were able to look at the 7 principles and see principle #4 “gives prompt feedback” and relate that to the difficulty of giving prompt feedback because there’s no money for marking support. Not to mention the push from some senior managers about how important research is to future career progression.

So, the solution is?

I return to a quote from Cavallo (2004) that I’ve used before

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.

Rather than tell academics what to do, you need to create contextualised experiences for academics that enable appropriation of new models of teaching and learning. What most senior managers at universities and many of the commentators don’t see, is that the environment at most universities is preventing academics from having these experiences and then preventing them from appropriating the new models of teaching.

The policies, processes, systems and expectations senior managers create within universities are preventing academics from becoming “non-ludditical”. You can implement all the “projects” you want, but if you don’t work on the policies, processes, systems and expectations in ways that connect with the frames of reference of the academics within the institution, you won’t get growth.


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

Chickering, A. W., & Gamson, Z. F. (1987). Seven principles for good practice in undergraduate education. AAHE Bulletin, 39(7), 3-7.


First the fridge dies, and then…


Usage of Webfuse course sites


  1. dveness

    Fantastic. This is the best thing I’ve read this week, and possibly the most sensible comment on change in universities I’ve read for some considerable time.

    Enjoy your last afternoon at CQU.

    • G’day Deborah,

      Thanks for the comment.

      Reflecting on this post, has got me thinking about a bit of potential hypocrisy.

      Management often do trot out the “guide on the side” as a model of good teaching. But they don’t apparently think it’s a good model for management.

      I’m really keen to hear stories of institutions who think they have this problem licked. Would love to see it in action.


  2. Hi David,
    Well said. I resonate with your experience and thinking. It seems to be a complex problem, when it comes to the use of Web 2.0 in teaching and learning, blended with politics and educational “ideals” when technology enhanced learning and online learning are available out there in the web and social media competing with the 4 walls beautiful garden.
    Who is leading the change? Who is in power for ensuring the change is “embraced”, “adapted” or “dealt with”? Like you, I am keen to hear stories of institutions who have been successful in introducing technology into learning and teaching. Could we learn from both successes and FAILURES?
    I have written a response post to too.
    My blog:
    Many thanks David for you insights into this.

    • G’day John,

      I like your comment on the “rather ludditical” post. The conservatism of students is yet another part of the “frame of reference” of academics which contributes to their reluctance to change. Many students are themselves highly pragmatic and come to university with expectations, which you point out clearly.

      I think we could learn from successes and failures, however, increasingly I am having some problems with the “self-reporting” that is the common approach to reporting on institutional interventions for improving learning and teaching. Generally, the folk who drove the intervention are responsible for the evaluation and its presentation. It’s honest conversations we need, not sure we’re getting that.


  3. Hi Dave, everyone. My question is in the depth and detail of what you say. If I understand you, it is basically a more sophisticated reasoning for the cliche in our circles: “take small steps, start from where they are at”.

    As a proponent of so-called radical practices in ed development, ive always struggled with the contradictions in these statements. It seems to me that all educational development to date, has ignored it! The institutions take the advice from their ed development centres, and adopt learning management systems, a device that bore no resemblance to online experience that most people had, and were going to have. Same for learning objects, repositories, databases, etc.

    So, I guess I’d like you to go further and be more specific. In my view, the problem you outline is fundamental to the nature of institutionalisation – creating and preserving problems only they can serve.

    so rather than taking small steps from a fundamentally flawed being, set up an alternative and enable it to compete, or demonstrate itself at least. I’m attempting this at UC.

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