This weekend provided a wonderful story of the power of intrinsic motivation, and a perfect example of what I think is increasingly wrong with Australian higher education, especially its use of technology.

The story

My two sons (5 and 3) have been going to swimming lessons for the best part of the year. We’ve found a wonderful swimming teacher. A locally-based university student from Poland who takes the boys for solo 30 minute lessons one after the other. A great learning environment. What’s more, due to the time we go, the pool is almost deserted. A much better space to learn how to swim than some alternatives.

And yet, for last 6 weeks at least, the oldest boy’s improvements had plateaued. He can swim up and down with the kickboard at a great rate of knots. Had even got the hang of the arm motion, while kicking and looking down with his face under water. But a psychological gap had formed around swimming by himself. The idea of swimming away from his instructor for the side of the pool, just a metre or two away, reduced him to hysterics.

In recent weeks, we’ve plied him with bribes, gentle threats and just about every other tactic we could think of. None worked. The hysterics might reduce in volume, but were still present. At times evidence of his fear would arise when getting ready to go to swimming. He was saying he hated swimming. That all changed this weekend.

For some reason and from somewhere, he’s developed the idea that he wants to be a diver when he grows up. He wants to swim under the ocean with tanks on his back and fix things. The first I heard of this was when we were getting ready to go to swimming. The first thing he did when he got to swimming was to tell his instructor about his new career goal.

Obviously this was something we could build on. We’d already laid the ground work with comments about the importance of being able to swim to the career prospects of a diver. The instructor picked up on this and worked it into the lesson. Even to the extent of changing the routine a little to build on this interest.

The change was phenomenal. There was no crying or other signs of hysterics. The task of getting him to go under water, touch the bottom, wait and then surface was easy. Swimming solo not a hassle. He probably swam solo more times in this one lesson, than in all his previous lessons. On the way home, the future diver was saying things like “I love swimming” and “Daddy, do you know how many days a week I want to go swimming? Everyday.”. The eagerness was palpable in his voice.

The intrinsic motivation provided by the desire to be a diver, combined with a great environment and an instructor that leveraged that intrinsic motivation has made a huge difference.

The relationship with educational technology

A while ago I blogged about an interview given by Alan Kay. He used the analogy of computers being like musical instruments. The entire discussion around technology has (almost) entirely focused on the instruments and not on helping the teachers become musicians. The aim isn’t to give every teacher a piano, we have to give them a love for music.

I took Kay’s argument in a direction that supports my pet peeve. i.e. I think the environment Australian (this may apply more broadly – countries, schools etc – but I’ll limit my claim to my where I’ve had experience) universities create around technology actively prevents academics from becoming musicians, from engaging more heavily with educational technology. Tom Haymes pulls my “Kay post” into a broader discussion, and wants to make another point about why educational technology has failed.

I have faculty who are almost physically phobic about computers and technology.

I’ve seen this same sort of phobia from academics. However, I’d like to argue that the presence of this phobia is most likely due to the limitations of how educational technology is being implemented in the university environment. In particular, the inability of existing methods to engage with, or perhaps even discover the intrinsic motivation of the phobic academics.

The deficit model of the academic

While I’ve seen academics who are phobic about using technology, or at least profess to be when having to learn the new LMS – or some even sillier, badly designed local institutional information systems. I’ve seen some of those same academics talk about how they were using Skype, Facebook, or some other technology to talk with their kids, grandkids, parents over the weekend.

Don’t take my word for it, Xu and Meyer (2007) report on a 1998 – yea, that’s right, 1998, 12 years ago – survey reporting that 70% of academics had computers at home. Jones (not me) and Johnson-Yale (2005) report on a survey of over 2000 academics that finds that academics have long-term exposure to the Internet and computer use. Duderstadt et al (2002) suggest that academics make extensive use of technology in research and scholarship. Use that in many cases drives the evolution of the technology to meet their needs.

The “blame the academic” excuse that is used typifies a deficit model. A deficit model that does not help address the problem. For me, at least in the specific examples I have seen (and perhaps more broadly), the deficit model is a symptom of what is wrong with how universities are implementing educational technology. To be somewhat more provocative, it’s a symptom of the folk responsible for educational technology planning within universities trying to find someone to blame, rather than accept that they’ve gotten it wrong.

An example: “enforce the checklists”

Here’s perhaps an extreme example, but one I heard of recently. An institution I’m aware of has, over the last couple of years, instigated a range of checklists for tasks. The idea is that as academics create a course synopsis, a course site, moderate assignments etc, the tick boxes off on a checklist. In the last little while they even implemented an information system so that the checklists were computer-based, not paper-based.

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out what the checklists have become for the vast majority of academics. Yep, that’s right. Surprise, surprise, most academics simply tick all the boxes as quickly as they can. Regardless of whether they have complete all the tasks. It gets worse.

Recently, there was a problem in a course (or perhaps a few) that finally revealed that the academics weren’t perhaps treating the checklists as seriously as expected. Do you know what one of the “leaders” seriously suggested as a solution? “This time we have to enforce the checklists”.

How’s that for engaging with intrinsic motivation?

The weaknesses of current approaches

Tom Haynes gets at the crux of the weaknesses with this

Are we but ghosts in the machine or are we its masters? This tension comes out most clearly in the administrative vs. teaching divide. How many technologies are inflicted on us with little or no forethought as to how they will impact the frontline user? And how many of us simply accept that?

Traditional institutional educational technology within universities today can be characterised as:

  • A “rational” processes results in the “objective” selection of a single, integrated information system (the LMS) for the entire institution.
  • The information system is only recently starting to provide some of the functionality people have been using for years, but most of it still sucks.
  • A project team is set up with the aim of ensuring that all staff and students know how to and do use the system.
  • An on-going support team is set up, typically using the cheapest people available and who are then responsible for showing people how to use the system (and nothing else).
  • When someone asks to do something innovative, it is explained either that
    1. If you follow this 134 step process (the students have a 532 step process) you can get something that sort of looks like what you want to do, but not really.
    2. Computer says now i.e. the LMS can’t do that.

It goes on, but the point is that nothing about this process is designed to engage with the intrinsic motivation of the academics. It’s not even designed to engage and build upon what the academics know. It’s designed entirely to get the academics to use the selected system, because that is efficient.

And then they wonder why the vast majority of academics don’t produce brilliant examples of e-learning! And that’s before we get into other environmental issues like the relative value of teaching and research, the increasing percentage of sessional (adjunct) teaching staff, or the underpinning over-emphasis on the product, rather than people or process.

Learning the violin

Returning to Alan Kay’s analogy with musical instruments. The LMS approach to educational technology is a bit like someone deciding that all the kids in a school have to take up the violin. Even those that would have like to learn the guitar or the saxophone. You know the idea, it doesn’t matter what instrument they learn, as long as they are learning music.

Sorry, but intrinsic motivation plays a part.

Using educational technology is a learning process

When an institutional introduces a new LMS, the academics have to learn how to use the system. If the institution wants academics to improve their teaching, then the academics have to learn new methods, strategies etc. For me, teaching is fundamentally a learning process. It never stops.

For me, this means that the implementation of educational technology within universities should be thought of as “teaching”, i.e. helping others learn. So, what do we know about learning?

How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School is a book produced by the National Research Council from the US. It’s a book that “synthesizes the scientific basis of learning”. By understanding what is known about learning, the book suggests implications for teaching. The first implication for teaching is

Teachers must draw out and work with the preexisting understandings that their students bring with them.

The major problem I have with institutional attempts at implementing educational technology, is that they effectively forget or ignore what we know about learning and teaching. I suggest, that if you want high quality use of educational technology, then how the institution implements educational technology has to engage what people know, what they want, what they are having problems with. If possible, it has to identify the intrinsic motivation of the academics and respond to it.


I came across this post in my RSS feeds after finishing the above. It gives another great perspective on the deficit model mentioned above.


Duderstadt, J., Atkins, D., & Houweling”, D. V. (2002). Higher education in the digital age: Technology issues and strategies for American colleges and universities. Westport, Conn: Praeger Publishers.

Jones, S., & Johnson-Yale, C. (2005). Professors online: The Internet’s impact on college faculty. First Monday, 10(9).

Xu, Y., & Meyer, K. (2007). Factors explaining faculty technology use and productivity. Internet and Higher Education, 10(2), 41-52.