Assembling the heterogeneous elements for (digital) learning

Category: connectedcourses

You want digitally fluent faculty?

The 2014 Horizon Report for Higher Education has identified the “Low Digital Fluency of Faculty” as the number 1 “significant challenge impeding higher education technology adoption”. I have many problems with this, but the image below captures my main problem.

You want digitally fluent faculty? by David T Jones, on Flickr

As a fairly digitally fluent faculty member I have yet to work for an institution of higher education that is able to deal with digitally fluent faculty. I’ve spent the last 20+ years banging my head against the digital illiteracies of higher education institutions. So to hear that the low digital fluency of faculty is seen as the #1 challenge impeding technology adoption is really rather aggravating.

(And I do know that Nicholson’s character didn’t actually say both lines)

Breaking BAD to bridge the e-learning reality/rhetoric chasm

@damoclarky and I got a bit lucky. Our ASCILITE paper has been accepted with revisions. Apparently the first reviewer hated the “theoretical construct” we were using to make our argument. The following is what we originally wrote, sharing it here to hopefully spark some critique and improvement (and also not to entirely waste the writing when I gut it and start again).

Start with the problem and then the “construct”, both adapted from the paper.


In a newspaper article (Laxon, 2013) Professor Mark Brown makes the following comment on the quality of contemporary University e-learning

E-learning’s a bit like teenage sex. Everyone says they’re doing it but not many people really are and those that are doing it are doing it very poorly. (n.p).

E-learning – defined by the OECD (2005) as the use of information and communications technology (ICT) to support and enhance learning and teaching – has been around for so long that there have been numerous debates about replacing it with other phrases. Regardless of the term used there “has been a long-standing tendency in education for digital technologies to eventually fall short of the exaggerated expectations”(Selwyn, 2012, n.p.). Writing in the early 1990s Geoghagen (1994) seeks to understand why a three decade long “vision of a pedagogical utopia” (n.p.) promised by instructional technologies has failed to eventuate. Ten years on Salmon (2005) notes that e-learning within universities is still struggling to move beyond projects driven by innovators and engage a significant percentage of students and staff. Even more recently concerns remain about how much technology is being used to effectively enhance student learning (Kirkwood & Price, 2013). Given that “Australian universities have made very large investments in corporate educational technologies” (Holt et al., 2013, p. 388) it is increasingly important to understand and address the rhetoric/reality chasm around e-learning.

Not surprisingly the literature provides a variety of answers to this complex question. Weimer (2007) observes that academics come to the task of teaching with immense amounts of content knowledge, but little or no knowledge of teaching and learning, beyond perhaps their personal experience. A situation which may not change significantly given that academics are expected to engage equally in research and teaching and yet work towards promotion criteria that are perceived to primarily value achievements in research (Zellweger, 2005). It has been argued that the limitations of the Learning Management System (LMS) – the most common university e-learning tool – make the LMS less than suitable for more effective learner-centered approaches and is contributing to growing educator dissatisfaction (Rahman & Dron, 2012). It’s also been argued that the “limited digital fluency of lecturers and professors is a great challenge” (Johnson, Adams Becker, Cummins, & Estrada, 2014, p. 3) for the creative leveraging of emerging technologies. Another contributing factor is likely to be Selwyn’s (2008) suggestion that educational technologists have failed to be cognisant of “the more critical analyses of technology that have come to the fore in other social science and humanities disciplines (p. 83). Of particular interest here is the observation of Goodyear et al (2014) that the “influence of the physical setting (digital and material) on learning activity is often important, but is under-researched and under-theorised: it is often taken for granted” (p. 138).

Our argument is that the set of implicit assumptions that underpin the practice of institutional e-learning within universities (which we’ll summarise under the acronym SET) leads to a digital and material environment that contributes significantly to the reality/rhetoric chasm. The argument is that while this mindset underpins how universities go about the task of institutional e-learning, they won’t be able to bridge the chasm.

Instead, we argument that another mindset needs to play a larger role in institutional practice. How much we don’t know. We’ll summarise this mindset under the acronym “BAD”. Yep, we think institutional e-learning needs to break BAD.

Breaking BAD versus SET in your ways

The following table contrasts the two frameworks and expands their acronyms. A slightly more detailed examination of the two frameworks follows

Table 1: The BAD and SET frameworks for e-learning implementation
Component BAD SET
How work gets done Bricolage – concrete problems are solved through creative recombination of existing resources Strategy – a desired future state is identified, all resources required to achieve state in most efficient way identified and provided.
How ICT is perceived Affordances – ICT is protean. It can be modified to enhance and transform current practice; and, to make it easier for the users. Established – ICT is fixed and implemented vanilla. Processes change to fit and users trained to use the provided functionality.
How you see the world Distributed – the world is complex, dynamic and unpredictable. Tree-like – the world is relatively stable and predictable. It can be understood through logical decomposition into a hierarchy.

How work gets done

(this was originally titled “How stuff happens” but was probably what one reviewer described as “inappropriately colloquial”. Need a better label for this. The idea is that the organisation only recognises work of a particular type. It’s the only way it conceives of anything interesting/important happening. Not sure the following explains this well enough)

It would be an unusual contemporary Australian university that was not – at least proclaiming the rhetoric of – following a strategic approach to its operations. Numerous environmental challenges and influences have led to universities being treated as businesses with an increasing prevalence of managers using “strategic control and a focus on outputs which can be quantified and compared” (Reid, 2009, p. 575) to manage academic activities. In line with this has been the increasing strategic approach to learning and teaching. The requirement that Australian universities have institutional learning and teaching strategic plans publicly available on their websites prior to accessing a government learning and teaching fund (Inglis, 2007) is just one example of how university teaching has become an object of policy with the learning and teaching excellence necessarily including the specification of goals (Clegg & Smith, 2008). The perceived importance of strategic approaches to institutional e-learning is illustrated by Carter et al’s (2011) identifying the importance of ensuring “Technology alignment with goals of the organization” (p. 207). The strategic or planning-by-objectives (e.g. learning outcomes, graduate attributes) approach also underpins how course design is largely assumed to occur with Visscher-Voerman and Gustafson (2004) finding that it underpins “a majority of the instructional design models in the literature” (p. 77). These approaches to understanding “how stuff happens” are so ingrained that it is often forgotten that these ideas have not always existed (Kezar, 2001) and that there is an alternate perspective.

(An example comparing bricolage and engineering approaches might be useful, might actually be a better structure for this section)

An example of this alternate perspective can be found in the idea of bricolage or “the art of creating with what is at hand” (Scribner, 2005, p. 297). Bricolage involves the manipulation and creative repurposing of existing, and often unlikely, resources into new arrangements to solve a concrete problem. A bricoleur (someone who engages in bricolage) when faced with a project does not analyse what resources may be required to fulfill that project (a more strategic approach), instead they ask how the project can be achieved with the resources already available (Hatton, 1989). Hatton (1989) used bricolage to understand the work of teachers, though Scribner (2005) thinks somewhat negatively. In terms of developing strategic applications of ICT, Ciborra (1992) argues that the “capability of integrating unique ideas and practical design solutions at the end-user level” (p. 299) (bricolage) is more important than strategic approaches.

As argued by Jones et al (2005) there are risky extremes inherent in both the strategic and bricolage approaches to process. The suggestion here within the context of university e-learning is that it would be fruitful to explore a dynamic and flexible interplay between the strategic and bricolage approaches. The problem is that at the moment the strategic is crowding out the bricolage. As Groom and Lamb (2014) observe the cost of supporting an enterprise learning tool (e.g. LMS) limits resources for user-driven innovation, in part because it draws “attention and users away” from the strategic tool. The demands of sustaining the large, complex and strategic tool dominates priorities and leads to “IT organizations…defined by what’s necessary rather than what’s possible” (Groom & Lamb, 2014, n.p). The established view of Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) in part arises from the predominance of the strategic view of how work happens.

How ICT is perceived: Affordances or Established

Widely accepted best practice within the IT industry is that large integrated systems – like an LMS – should be implemented in their “vanilla” form as they are too expensive (Robey, Ross, & Boudreau, 2002). This way of perceiving ICTs assumes that the functionality provided by technology is established and cannot be changed. This perception of an LMS encourages the adoption of only those pedagogical designs that are supported by the existing LMS functionality and precludes the exploration of contextually specific learning designs (Jones, 2012). Perceiving and implementing the LMS as a established product simplifies and reduces the cost of training and support, but increases the difficulty of adoption as teaching staff attempt to use a standardised system to support hugely diverse disciplines, teaching philosophies and instructional styles (Black, Beck, Dawson, Jinks, & DiPietro, 2007). Perhaps in no small way the established view of ICT in e-learning contributes to Dede’s (2008) observation that “widely used instructional technology applications have less variety in approach than a low-end fast-food restaurant” (p. 58). This perception of ICT challenges Kay’s (1984) discussion of the “protean nature of the computer” (p. 59) as “the first metamedium, and as such has degrees of freedom and expression never before encountered” (p. 59). However, this perception of ICT is closely linked with the techno-rational assumptions of the strategic view, an approach that is increasingly seen as a naïve view of ICT, technology and organisations.

(Remove some of the quotes and tell a better story).

Goodyear et al (2014) argue that in thinking about design for networked learning it is vital to acknowledge “the likelihood of slippage between the task as set and the actual activity” (p. 139). Hannon (2013) describes a case where “meso-level practitioners – teaching academics, learning technologies, and academic developers” (p. 175) undertake “hidden effort” (p. 175) to deal with the gap between technology and pedagogy that arise from the application of centralised technologies. Rather than stick with the established functionality provided by an information system increasingly technically literate users draw upon increasingly available technologies to develop systems that bridge the gaps between their needs and the established information system. While often seen as dangerous and inefficient such systems can provide a resource of creativity and innovation that helps organisations survive in a competitive environment (Behrens, 2009). Such systems arise because ICT is not seen as established, but rather as one of a number of components of an emergent process of change where the outcomes are indeterminate because they are contingent on the specifics of the context and the situation (Markus & Robey, 1988). In particular, they arise due to an on-going process – not unlike bricolage – where users are exploring how the affordances of ICT can be leveraged to address concrete problems. The phrase affordances is used here as defined by Goodyear et al (2014) “not as pre-given, but as co-evolving, emergent and partly co-constitutive” (p. 142) and as a way of exploring how what is actually done with e-learning systems is “influenced by the qualities of the place in which they are working” (p. 137). Our view is that it is necessary for the implementation of e-learning systems to be perceived as an on-going and emergent exploration of the affordances that could be the most useful for the students and teachers within a given context. Echoing Johri’s (2011) observation that bricolage shifts focus away from the established “design of an artefact towards emergent design of technology-in-use, particularly by the users” (p. 212).

(that can certainly be improved upon)

How you see the world: Distributed or Tree-like

Techno-rational methods such as strategic planning and software development (or at least act like they) perceive the world as a hierarchy or as being tree-like. These methods use analysis and logical decomposition to reduce larger wholes into smaller more easily understood and manageable parts (Truex, Baskerville, & Travis, 2000). This approach is problematic because the isolation of components is largely imaginary and their separation leads to a loss of rich interdependencies between components (Truex et al., 2000). Enterprise systems are informed heavily by these tree-like conceptions and this is reflected in university e-learning environments and their poor fit with the heterarchical and self-organised potential of contemporary technologies and educational practices (Hannon, Ryberg, & Riddle, 2014). Goodyear et al (2014) argue “that the dominant images of the object of our research do not yet reflect the extent to which learning networks now consist of heterogenous assemblages of tasks, activities, people, roles, rules, places, tools, artefacts and other resources, distributed in complex configurations across time and space and involving digital, non-digital and hybrid entities” (p. 140). We suggest that the same applies to the dominant conceptions underpinning the implementation of institutional e-learning systems.

The limitations of tree-like models and a preference for distributed models are evident in a number of sources. Holt et al (2013) argue for the importance of distributed leadership in institutional e-learning to the growing complexity of e-learning meaning that no one leader at the top of a hierarchical tree has the knowledge to “possibly contend with the complexity of issues” (p. 389). The tend towards distribution is obviously evident in connectivism and its “thesis that knowledge is distributed across a network of connections and therefore learning consists of the ability to construct and traverse those networks” (Downes, 2011, n.p). Siemens’ (2008) list of some of the concepts from which connectivism arises – such as activity theory, distributed and embodied cognition, complexity and network theory – illustrate the breadth of this move to distributed understandings. The socio-material approaches to studying and understanding networked learning (and technology embedded practices more broadly) mentioned by both Hannon (2013) and Goodyear et al (2014) echo a distributed view and underpins the emergent view of technology mentioned in the previous section. It also links with the idea of bricolage as paying close attention to what occurs within the distributed network and responding to context-specific problems by experimenting with the affordances perceived by the components of an network/assemblage to reduce the chasm between rhetoric and reality.

The balkanisation threat to network learning

As part of NGL the plan was to play with Mendely as a medium, but some limitations of Mendeley meant it didn’t quite fit the bill.

Disconnected by larsomat, on Flickr
Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.0 Generic License   by  larsomat 

Undeterred, Tracey’s spent some time exploring and sharing more about Mendeley and its possibilities for network learning. Including a journal article that explains how a tool like Mendely responds to the changes happening in science research (and perhaps research more broadly). Interesting to see Mendeley’s PKM related process (7 parts, rather than 3) –

  1. Organise
  2. Manage
  3. Read
  4. and Write
  5. Collaborate
  6. Discover
  7. Participate

Another alternative

Earlier this morning, as it happens, I received a “cold call” about colwiz that has the goal to

accelerate research by providing a robust reference manager with data sharing and collaboration capabilities

Sounds an awful lot like Mendeley. I could perhaps take the time to do an in-depth comparison – I might do that one day as I can see some interesting applications in terms of learning and teaching – but I don’t have the time just right now.

But what worries me is this as yet another example of the balkanization of the network world. I wonder how easily I – as a current Mendeley user – interact with a research group using colwiz (and vice versa)? My guess is that we’d all have to standardise on one reference manager. This tendency for the commercial imperative to focus on getting everyone into their tool at the expense of interconnections between tools. I’m pretty sure this will get a mention at some stage in connected courses.

As it happens the movie “A Beautiful Mind” was on TV last night which begs the question whether this commercial tendency might benefit from understanding of “Governing Dynamics”?

Further illustration of the potential silliness of some responses to a network world is illustrated by my initial searches for an image or clip from the movie. My first find comes up with the message

The clip you are trying to watch is unavailable in your region. We periodically let studios know which clips are in high demand so please check back soon

A later search reveals this blog post which has the same clip embedded but via YouTube.

The network routes/works around blockages or breakdowns. Wasn’t that one of the aims behind the design of the Internet?

Which begs the next question, Is there anyone designing some software to allow connections to be made between disparate reference management software? Will making connections between balkanized commercial interests become a demand that another entity will have to satisfy? Perhaps, a commercial opportunity?

Learning how to make waves

Had to share this quote that I came across via an artefact produced by a student. Actually, the version I’ve found in the original is slightly different, but the intent is the same.

We have to do more than teach kids to surf the net, we have to teach them to make waves (Shneiderman, 1998, p. 29)

I haven’t read the rest of the article but the quote resonates with me and a couple of recent experiences. In particular the idea that perhaps the first step to help “them to make waves” is that the teachers and the educational organisations that employ them are making waves. And Shneiderman (1998) agrees since just before the above quote comes (emphasis added)

Some technology cheerleaders and national leaders focus on installing computers in classrooms as a measure of success in transforming education. However, even if there were one computer available for each student, with appropriate software and network access, there is no assurance that education would improve. The technology alone can never be a solution, but in the hands of a knowledgeable teacher, appropriately designed technology can become a useful tool. (p. 29)

The trouble is that increasingly I’m thinking that what it means to a “knowledgeable teacher” is extremely limited. Beyond this I also get a feel that the solutions commonly adopted to make teachers more knowledgeable also only address part of the problem.

What’s missing?

On Edge by jurvetson, on Flickr
Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License   by  jurvetson 

Back in 2003 I wrote (Jones, 2003)

the basic premise of this paper is that a gap exists between the functionality of all institutional information systems and the needs of the staff and students (n.p.)

That particular paper (Jones, 2003) goes on to illustrate various gaps that existed between the systems provided by one university and the requirements of the staff and students. The paper also describes how a group I worked with was able to bridge those gaps/gaping chasms.

The problem is that rather than bridge those chasms, most institutions are reverting to relying on the people to bridge the chasms. Or in the words of Douglas Rushkoff (2010)

…instead of optimizing our machines for humanity – or even the benefit of some particular group – we are optimizing humans for machinery.

Perhaps institutions are defining knowledgeable teachers as those who bridge these chasms.

Are teachers making waves with technology, or are they being overwhelmed by technology?

So when the 2014 Horizon Reports (e.g. Johnson et al, 2014) are identifying the “Low digital fluency of faculty” as one of the “Significant challenges impeding higher education technology adoption”, I’m not so sure.

It’s not enough to know how to use the technology (to bridge the chasm), you need to be able to change the technology.

Why isn’t it happening?

So why aren’t the IT units of universities helping change the technology to bridge the chasms? Groom and Lamb (2014) identify this problem

IT organizations are often defined by what’s necessary rather than what’s possible, and the cumulative weight of an increasingly complex communications infrastructure weighs ever heavier.

and they then quote Martin Weller about the problems associated with large enterprise systems like an LMS

“..The level of support, planning and maintenance required for such systems is considerable. So we developed a whole host of processes to make sure it worked well. But along the way we lost the ability to support small scale IT requests that don’t require an enterprise level solution. In short, we know how to spend £500,000 but not how to spend £500.” The myriad costs associated with supporting LMSs crowd out budget and staff time that might be directed toward homegrown, open-source, and user-driven innovation

The world view associated with maintaining large enterprise systems is an anathema to change. The accepted industry best practice recommendation is to implement such systems in their “vanilla” form because local changes are too expensive (Robey, Ross, & Boudreau, 2002)

Making waves as changing technology

My belief is that if teachers and organisations want to make waves, rather than surf (the net, the next fad or fashion etc). Then they need to do it by changing technology, by understanding the premise offered by Rushkoff (2010)

Digital technology is programmed. This makes it biased toward those with the capacity to write the code.

Better results come from being able to change digital technology. The ability to bridge the chasms has to be brought back into organisations who wish to be seen as leaders in the “digital age”.

The Connected Courses folk seem very much to get this idea. Overnight the #ccourses tweet stream seemed to include some significant mention of the notion of “tinkering” as a useful approach to knowledge production. Hopefully some universities will get the idea that enabling the ability for teachers and students to tinker with the technologies they used for learning is almost certainly going to be a brilliant way for the organisation to learn to make waves.


Groom, J., & Lamb, B. (2014). Reclaiming innovation. EDUCAUSE Review, 1–12.

Johnson, L., Adams Becker, S., Estrada, V., & Freeman, A. (2014). NMC Horizon Report: 2014 Higher Education Edition. Austin, Texas.

Jones, D. (2003). How to live with ERP systems and thrive. In Tertiary Education Management Conference’2003. Adelaide.

Robey, D., Ross, W., & Boudreau, M.-C. (2002). Learning to implement enterprise systems: An exploratory study of the dialectics of change. Journal of Management Information Systems, 19(1), 17–46.

Rushkoff, D. (2010). Program or be programmed: Ten commands for a digital age. New York: OR Books.

Shneiderman, B. (1998). Relate–Create–Donate: a teaching/learning philosophy for the cyber-generation. Computers & Education, 31(1), 25–39. doi:10.1016/S0360-1315(98)00014-1

Too much stuff, not enough time

The plan by now was that I would have spent a few weeks engaging with the readings from NETGL and figuring out what they can offer some insights for enhancing and transforming the two courses I currently teach. By this time I’d also have set up my new domain (something I have actually done) and moved this blog to that domain. But that was not to be. Connected courses is starting soon and it’s to relevant and interesting to not engage.

I don’t have a good track record of engaging with “MOOCs”. Not off to a good start with this one, at least in my head. But perhaps as the participants of NGL have learned over the last few weeks, part of the trick is figuring out what you can do with the time you have (and having the discipline to make sure you make some time). Time for me to feel a little of their pain and see just how well I can handle it.

Signing up for Connected Courses

So once again I venture into the realm of a “MOOC”. Will be interesting to see if the organisers of Connected Courses shudder a little bit when that particular label is used. Especially given that Connected Courses is being described as

Connected Courses is a collaborative community of faculty in higher education developing networked, open courses that embody the principles of connected learning and the values of the open web.

With a mission of

Our goal is to build an inclusive and expansive network of teachers, students, and educational offerings that makes high quality, meaningful, and socially connected learning available to everyone.

It does have a Syllabus so there are some artefacts of a “course”. That said there are some very interesting people behind it, so should be lots to learn and fun to be had. If I get the chance to engage fully.

The main reason for this fairly rambling post is to ensure that I have at least one post in the “connectedcourses” category on this blog. I’m trying to connect my blog to the course and the advice is

Please make sure this URL works and links to the place to the place that shows your tagged/categorized blog posts. If you have not written any, do not proceed. The wheels may fall off your bus (just kidding)– there needs to be at least ONE post visible at this address when when you enter it in a web browser

Seems the aggregator they are using has the same problem with empty feeds as BIM. I have to give the same advice to folk in my courses. I wonder if the need is as slightly annoying to them as it is to me. There’s also the problem with finding the feeds for categories/tags, rather than the whole site. Slightly reaffirming that these folk are having the same problems, but also a challenge to see if I can modify BIM to address these issues.

I had hoped to have relocated this blog to my shiny new domain by now, but time hasn’t been in abundance recently. Likely to be a recurring theme over coming months.

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