Over the last few days I’ve been catching up on some writing (first last week Leigh Blackall and this morning from Richard Hall) that, at least for me, seems to be trying to find ways that the current crisis in higher ed can be used as a spring board for something better. I certainly think there is an opportunity there. Dave Snowden has argued

The best chance any organisation has to do things differently is during a crisis. During such a time people’s willingness to do things differently, to be open to working with people who they normally avoid is higher than in normal circumstances.

My problem is that when it comes to universities – especially those Australian universities that I’m familiar with – I’m not confident that anything can/will be done.

In this case, my natural cynicism has been enhanced by a couple of years of experience within one institution into a possibly unhealthy contempt. On the other hand it is also being challenged by a colleague’s observation that

you’d be the perfect person to carve out a space in the brave new world of open education.

The following is perhaps the first step in trying to reconcile the unhealthy contempt into something that might be productive. It’s an early step, and a quick one as I need to finish the thesis. So don’t be looking for answers, yet.

The failure of the PLEs@CQUni project

I was really taken with this quote from Richard Hall’s post

Can institutions afford to be stereotypical when it comes to engaging with those students’ and their identities/individuality? This doesn’t mean leaving those students to create their own outsourced personal learning environments. But it might mean an activist role for institutions in building frameworks that are open enough to make sense to the variety of students in their own contexts. The reality and medium-term effectiveness of centralisation or outsourcing of homogenised services is therefore a major issue, in light of the need for institutional uniqueness.

It captures brilliantly what was the vision behind the failed PLEs@CQUni project.

What surprised me more was that Richard also quoted and linked to a recent post of mine. The quote he included was this line

It’s the focus on the product that has led university leaders to place less emphasis on the process and the people.

In the original post, what I meant by product was degrees, not tools. The focus of management had become on we have to develop new product/degrees or improve the current ones without any thought to the people and the process that we’re using to product the product. let alone any thought about whether the product/degree is what is actually needed. The entire way of thinking within the institution is focused on that product/degree. Not surprising, because senior management on short-term contracts are being measured by the number of consumers purchasing the product/degree.

But that’s an aside. The point here is that the focus on product also underpinned the failure of the PLEs@CQUni project. A fundamental argument in my thesis is that when it comes to e-learning (and universities in general) teleological or plan-driven processes have become dominant. Not only that, I argue that for the type of activity and context in which e-learning operates, plan-driven processes are completely inappropriate. To such an extent that university folk either aren’t even aware that there are alternatives. Or, if they are aware of the alternatives, then they either disparage them as undisciplined, or have faddishly adopted the perception of using the alternatives, without really understanding or implementing them properly.

The same pressures that created the neo-liberal university Richard talks about also encourages, perhaps even requires, the adoption of techno-rational, plan-driven processes. That is, senior, knowledgable people identify the solution and then employ project boards and other folk to ensure that the entire organisation implements that solution. Senior people aren’t able to say, “We don’t know what the best solution is, we’re going to explore”. That would be seen as ignorant (the leader must have the answer) and inefficient. If you decide you don’t want to adopt the solution, you are seen as inefficient or not a team player. And eventually when the inevitable problems arise (because they really didn’t know what would be needed now, let alone in a couple of years) it’s not the senior management folk or the process that gets the blame. No, it was poor implementation. If only we had better people doing the implementation…

Humphrey Appleby

It is in this environment that a project like the PLEs@CQUni project was always going to fail. The PLE idea was, and still is very new, for most senior managers. It also sounds inefficient, “You mean each student gets to choose their own set of tools and we have to support them? Won’t that be expensive?”. In the words of Humphrey Appleby, any senior manager pushing PLEs would be making a “brave decision”. Especially when the project was described as an exploration into what can be done, you can’t waste resources on exploration. This is particularly troubling for the teleological, techno-rational, clueless senior manager when everyone knows that an LMS, preferably an open-source LMS, is what every university needs.

And then there is the influence of the innovation prevention departments most often created by the traditional hierarchical organisational structure that arises from the application of traditional decomposition. A structure that means in-depth knowledge of technology, learning and teaching, and actual learning and teaching are separated into disparate fiefdoms that can only communicate through self-serving senior managers.

Did I mention that my perspective had probably been elevated to a unhealthy level of contempt?

The problem facing responses to the existing crisis

I tend to think that these barriers will continue to exist. I’ve been waiting for senior management at universities to seriously engage in Snowden’s clarion call to think anew and avoid “The dogmas of the quiet past”. However, I think the constraints of techno-rational approaches are so embedded in the neo-liberal pressures within government/society and the thinking of senior management that I can’t see this changing anytime soon.

For example, one of the steps Leigh is suggesting is

Offer all the universities in the world your service, outlining the cost benefit analysis you’ve done for them (like Google Docs did). All you need from them is assurance they will give your graduates the rubber stamp on your assessed and moderated say so.

If a big international publishing company offered this argument, then there is a chance that some universities would adopt. Well, let’s face it. When it comes to many large classes, they already have. However, if it were a network of hippy, wiki former academics….

Then there is the increasing pressure to standardisation and accreditation being heralded within Australia by TEQSA. This pressure arises from the same techno-rational place underpinning all of the above. In that environment, I think it would be a “brave university senior manager” who would adopt such an approach. At least without the hippy, wiki former academics demonstrating how their “course” met the standard learning outcomes identified by TEQSA.

Which tends to go against everything they hippy, wiki former academics would be trying to achieve. Are the two approaches increasingly incompatible?

A way forward?

That’s a question for myself. A personal question. Do I see a way forward that might allow me to contribute? I’ve already left the institution, but am I still part of the academy? Do I want to be? What do I want?