Assembling the heterogeneous elements for (digital) learning

Category: emd

Mediawiki, organisational websites and emergence

This week the unit I work for finally got its website up and going. The Curriculum Design & Development Unit (CDDU) is tasked with helping CQU “become a world leader in flexible and on line learning”.

Towards that end the website has been implemented using Mediawiki and its current content and structure has been put together using a very emergent process.

Rather than doing the up-front analysis and design of a traditional approach, we’ve basically made it up as we’ve gone along. Different folk making suggestions, changing or improving other peoples work and talking about what it all means.

I think this approach has worked because we’re a new unit, still figuring out exactly what we’re doing, who we are and how we fit with the rest of the organisation. This type of emergent approach has helped us formulate some answers to these questions.

There remains a question about how this emergent, “Web 2.0” approach will scale and work as the site progresses and our needs for it. There have been observations that the “Web 2.0” approach is more difficult in corporate settings because of the 1% rule. The idea that only 1% of contributors in online environments (e.g. Wikipedia) will contribute.

The implication is that 1% of the large number of visitors to Wikipedia still means a lot of contributions. 1% of the number of visitors to the CDDU website is going to be really, really small. So, consequently there’ll be very few contributions.

The difference for the CDDU site is that we’re not aiming for its main purpose to be built around user contributions. The site/wiki is there to help CDDU do its work. We, and the people we work with, will be the major contributors.

How many visits and contributions we get will be dependent on how well we use the tool, not on how many people visit and the subsequent 1% of contributions.

It shall be interesting to see how it emerges. For now I’ll keep a track here of how the statistics go

  • 15th August – 2,367 page views, and 365 page edits
  • 27th August – 5,751 page views and 629 page edits
  • 29th September – 26,181 page views and 1,215 page edits
  • 12th October – 31,689 page views and 1,367 page edits
  • 18th October – 34,718 page views and 1,457 page edits
  • 3rd November – 43,808 page views and 1,703 page edits
  • 11th November – 50,087 page views and 1,729 page edits
  • 13th December – 66,687 page views with 1,806 page edits
  • 1st Jan, 2008 – 73,605 page views with 1,827 page edits

Possible Futures v2.0

Twice this year I’ve been asked to give a presentation at CQU’s Foundations of University Learning & Teaching, essentially an induction program for academics new to CQU. The topic of the presentation I give is “Some Possible Futures for Learning: Lessons and Enablers”.

The topic had been “futures of e-learning” but increasingly I think the “e-” is old hat and tends to demonstrate a lack of understanding about the spread of ICTs into learning. At CQU, there is very little learning and teaching that isn’t in someway enabled by ICTs. Using the “e-” is a bit like going back 50 years and calling learning “f-learning” (f = face-to-face).

Resources associated with the presentation (including slides and probably audio) can be found here.

As always, but especially in this case, external factors prevented me spending the amount of time I would have liked on the presentation. It will be okay, but there are still holes, flaws and poor structure.

However, v2.0 does include more discussion of some of the applications of these ideas at CQU over the next 6 months. This provides a more concrete example of what can be done.

If I get to do this again next year, I might start improving it enough to get to the stage that I’m happy with hit.

Thoughts on Carrick Awards Forum

This is a work in progress

A couple of weeks ago I attended the 2007 Carrick Awards Forum at RMIT on behalf of CQU. The main aims in attending, at least from my perspective, included getting a better “feel for Carrick” and forming some ideas about how CQU can be more successful in having staff receive these rewards.

In summary, the main points I took away included:

  • The vast majority of the award winners won because of their internal drive and motivation to be good teachers. Most had been doing what they were doing for years.
  • They generally had only limited assistance from the university teaching and learning support structures (much of the total support they did receive came in the form of assistance in writing the Carrick nomination).
  • A number of the presenters told stories about how they had to actively ignore, bypass or battle existing university policy, structures or technology.
  • None of the work I saw was based on any brand new insight into learning and teaching. All of it was based on well-known principles.
  • However, all those well-known principles were made truly effective through how the individual award winners adopted and adapted the principles to suit their own context and, often, their own unique personalities.

What follows are some thoughts on short and mid/long term strategies, which might be useful for CQU. Some are specific strategies for CD&DU.

First, a disclaimer, I believe this is an example of a wicked design problem (Rittel and Webber, 1973). There is no one silver bullet, or even a small number. There are no objective or definitive measures to determine if one approach is “best”, or often even better than others. Any change, no matter how small, is going to have effects. Some of these will create entirely unexpected results, either positive or negative.

Short term

Set the bar high

Where applicable (i.e. probably not early career), only staff who can demonstrate a consistent, on-going interest in good learning and teaching should be considered and generally only if there is something unique which sets them off.

The same perhaps should be applied to the CQU L&T awards. If it becomes that case that anyone can get one, it would soon tarnish the image.

Consider the impact of CQU’s context

All of the presenters I saw (maybe there were some I didn’t see that were different) at the Carrick awards forum were teaching in a context that applied at CQU in the early 90s. There was generally a single academic or a small team. These people had essentially total responsibility for a course, or small sequence of courses, for a consistent time period. They had problems to solve and the time and responsibility to solve them.

This is, in my experience over the last 5 year not the context many CQU academics find themselves in. A huge number of factors significantly restrict the innovation (and the quality) which a proportion of CQU coordinators can undertake. These factors include: ESOS requirements that all international students meet face-to-face (somewhat lifted in recent times), the majority of students being the direct responsibility of a number of other staff (the last course I taught had 250+ students, I was directly teaching 8), the need to coordinate upwards of 20 other staff, many of those staff being casual tutors paid according to traditional expectations and little or not ability to change this model, and perhaps the most important the sheer complexity of delivering these courses being extremely difficulty and making individuals and the organization significantly risk adverse in terms of changing models.

These and many other factors make it incredibly difficult for a significant proportion of CQU staff to do anything like the approaches shown at the Carrick awards forum.

There are other universities with similar contexts and issues. The apparent absence of any of their staff as Carrick award winners seems to indicate that CQU isn’t the only university having trouble dealing with these issues.

Some of the tactics which might alleviate some of these factors include

  • The existence of a process that allows the proposal, implementation and evaluation of significant innovations in large, complex courses involving the AICs.
  • Different models of ownership of courses and involvement of all teaching staff associated with courses in development, delivery and evaluation.

Examine the Bulmer Fellowship

Dr Michael Bulmer, a statistician from UQ, announced he’d received a Carrick associate fellowship to look at automated assessment of reflective journals. Essentially, approaches to allow students in large classes to maintain individual reflective journals that would enable academic staff to keep on eye on the student without the need for large amounts of manual marking. One of the solutions to this problem is the use of textual analysis software like Leximancer.

This has interesting connections with the BAM project which is slowly increasing in use at CQU (use in the 2nd half of 2007 may reach 3 or 4 courses).

Long Term

For ideas around what can be done long term I’m going to fall back onto the Trigwell model (2001) shown below.

Trigwell's Model of University Teaching

If our aim is to improve the strategies teachers’ are using and hence the quality of the learning and teaching then we have to implement strategies that encourage the improvement of the context, teachers’ thinking and their planning.

Teaching/Learning Context

There are broad range of fundamental holes, inefficiencies, problems and scope for improvement within the teaching/learning context. Some of these are long term issues specific to teaching and learning, some are more recent and have more to do with the University and its general direction.

Some initial, far from exhaustive thoughts on potential actions follow. Obviously what is on the list is limited by my current time and my current problems/issues. Will work on this list over time.

  • ITD, DTLS and the faculties need to work more collaboratively and effectively on a range of projects targeted at specific academic needs.
    e.g. making the course profile process simpler and more efficient, marking copy detection for plagiarism easier etc.
  • Change to the learning context not based in a demonstrable, direct need of academics or students need to be minimised.
    e.g. dropping both Webfuse and Blackboard and adopting Moodle could not be demonstrated as in response to a direct need for academics and staff. It would be for perceived needs of the “organisation”.

Teacher’s thinking

  • Targeted invitations to Carrick award winners to specific CoPs.
    Based on the assumption that you can only change practice by addressing the teachers conception of their identity. Bring in award winners which match the “identity” of various groups. Aim to maximise the homphily of the award winner and the CoP
  • DTLS/Faculty fellowships
    Implement short-term fellowships which bring faculty folk down to DTLS for specific (usually faculty-based) projects. The aim being to develop more connections between DTLS and the faculties.
  • What are they thinking?
    Perform research into what faculty are thinking now. What are their problems? Use this to inform changes to the teaching/learning context. Use it as a basis for longitudinal research to measure over time what is done.

Teachers’ planning

  • Reworked REACT process that encourages the use of a CoP based approach for the planning/design of a course.
    i.e. rather than have academics plan out a course by themselves, with little or no interaction with others. Modify the REACT process to act as a CoP based approach to course design. It might work something like this

    • Identify a collection of 6-12 academics from diverse disciplines and background who are developing a course for offering in a given term.
    • Combine them with selection of learning designers, various technical people (e.g. video production/streaming) and perhaps the odd invited guest
    • There would a fixed sequence of gatherings (perhaps half days) at which the CoP would share insights and plans.
      The sequence might be based around the ADDIE process or something similar.

    This, would hopefully, open up the diversity of input the teacher receives during the planning process for a course, establish connections across disciplines, and potentially provide a more cost effective approach to learning design than the traditional one (designer) on one (course) approach

Helping create innovative, good quality learning and teaching

In an earlier post I drew on a “model of teaching” from Trigwell (2001). The model is shown below

Trigwell's model of teaching

Sadly, because of the “streaming” way I tend to write these blog posts, I titled that post “A model for evaluating teaching”, this title did not match the intent of the post.

This post is intended to revisit the purpose of that post and build on it using insights gained from the comment made on that original post.

Purpose of the two posts

I’m currently responsible for a group that is charged with helping academic staff improve the quality of learning and teaching at CQU.

I’m trying to get a handle on how we should go about doing this.

My attraction to Trigwell’s model is that matches nicely with my own beliefs which might be summarised as creating a teaching/learning context which positively influences the thinking of academics and enables them to effectively translate that into planning, strategies and student experience.

I’m actually, to a large extent, not at all interested in evaluating teaching. I tend to like the phrase, “It’s not how bad you start, it’s how quickly you get better”.

My Orientiation

The comment on the original post by Kathleen Gray pointed to a paper by Ray Land (2001), the abstract for which is

This article explores the notions of change that seem to underpin the ways in which academic developers practice within speciŽ c organizational contexts and cultures. Drawing on a two-year empirical study across UK institutions it links concepts of change to the different ‘orientations’ that developers consider appropriate to their strategic terrain. It provides an opportunity for colleagues to examine their own concepts of change and a conceptual tool for auditing the extent to which the approaches adopted in our Units and Centres might appropriately address the cultures and needs of our organizations.

Land (2001) identifies 12 orientations (not claimed to be exhaustive) for academic development practice. I feel a resonance with the following

  • Romantic (ecological humanist)
    My romantic notion is that staff want to be effective in their T&L, it’s just other contextual factors that get in the way. Fix those and some good things will happen.
  • Vigilant opportunist
    At least to the extent that I try and take advantage of opportunities that help support the above point.
  • Reflective practitioner
    A key plank in an effective teaching/learning context, at least for me, is a culture that requires or strongly encourages critical reflection amongst colleagues (it’s not how bad you start, it’s how quickly you get better). The REACT project is all about this.
  • Internal consultant
    By the nature of CQU’s structure our group will need to act somewhat along these lines. Though I hope we will not stop at an advisory capacity but take a more active role, not in the direct teaching process but in terms of creating that contet.
  • Interpretive-hermeneutic
    I’m a strong believe in diversity of views. Mainly because it is through the unique combination of those views and abilities that really interesting innovation arises.

What I reject and why

The orientations to which I am somewhat less favourably inclined include

  • Managerial
    I’ve argued in a number of places (paper, presentation and various posts on this blog) why I think this approach is incredibly problematic for a university context, especially at this point in time. Since this approach generally involves a small number of people, with limited perspective and rationality (we all have limited rationality) it results in a limited solution.
  • Political strategist
    Within a university, or any organisation, to some extent you cannot get things done unless you play the political game. However, just at CQU I’ve seen too many examples of folk for whom the political game is the be all and end all. Those folk, in my experience, are poison for the organisation.
  • Researcher
    Land’s characterisation of this group is that they present compelling educational research evidence as the most effective way of influencing colleagues’ practice. How naive can you get? The questionable assumptions behind this approach include finding research that is beyond question, matches the research prejudices of the academic audience, effective bridges the research/practice relevance gap and talks effectively to the unique features and problems of the local learning and teaching context. Personally, I’m a great believe in Rogers’ diffusion theory in terms of how people choose to adopt innovations. I even co-authored a paper applying diffusion theory to choosing innovations.
  • Professional competence
    Who seeks to ensure staff have a baseline competence. Again diffusion theory and academic freedom enters the picture. Academic staff won’t engage effectively in that sort of training, especially if divorced from a purpose they find meaningful, at least that’s my belief.
  • Modeller-broker
    Getting academic staff to adopt good practice because they are shown it. Observability is one of the characteristics which Rogers’ indicates can improve the likelihood of adoption. But it is fairly minor when compared to relative advantage, complexity and compatibility. There’s also the question of how similar the identity/context/nature of the modeller and the observer. The more difference, the less likely is adoption.
  • Discipline-specific
    The problem here is the lack of diversity. Most discipline people tend to think alike. Effective collaboration of diverse folk offers a much better long term quality of outcome.

Other factors

Land (2001) also talks about the understanding of the context, the nature of the organisation, the university. Land (2001) identifies 6 cultures: anarchic, collegial, enterprise, hierarchical, managerial and political.

I believe there are aspects of all 6, but that the presence of all 6, especially when combined with a range of uncertain, rapidly changing external factors, contributes to an overall tendency towards anarchy.

Land then goes on to present a range of different understandings/approaches to change. Again many of these apply – I even mention diffusion theory which is one – but I lean towards “uncertainty, non-linearity and chaotic theories of change”.

Returning to the original problem

So then, how does a group helping learning and teaching operate. Some initial thoughts:

  • It’s more than what the students want.
    A lot of emphasis within the Australian university context understanding what students want from learning and teaching. First, there’s a lot of literature in a number of design fields that indicate the folly of resting too much on what users want. They generally don’t even know and what they do know is generally limited to their past experience with no appreciation for what might be possible.

    More importantly, knowing what students want is relatively easy compared to how you get academics to make use of this information to improve the student experience. Typically there will be a range of factors in the learning/teaching context that get in the way.

    Once you know what the students want (even though its questionable) you need to look at how you change the learning/teaching context to make it possible, even desirable for academics to change their thinking, planning and strategies to enable these to be implemented.

  • Knowing the current state of affairs
    You can’t improve the current teaching/learning context unless you know what the current state is. This is incredibly difficult. There is no one objective teaching/learning context. Different academic staff will perceive it in different ways. Certainly a tutor in a large course will perceive it differently to the Vice-Chancellor.


Keith Trigwell, Judging University Teaching, The International Journal for Academic Development, 6(1): 65-73

Land, R. (2001). “Agency, context and change in academic development.â€? The International Journal for Academic Development. 6(1): 4-20

Aims of a curriculum design group at a university

This is a collection of rough ideas about what the overall aim should be for a curriculum design group at a University. In particular, a University like Central Queensland University.

The driver for this is that I’m now the “leader” of just such a group. A group that has been newly formed. We’re starting from scratch and need to figure out how, what and why we’re going to work. Obviously, this is very much a work in progress and required input and comments from a range of folk (one of the reasons for doing this on my blog).


Essentially CQU has been without curriculum design services for a number of years. This was picked up on by the AUQA audit of CQU which offered such comments as

AUQA recommends that Central Queensland University develop strategies to systematically embed its generic skills and attributes into the curriculum, teaching and assessment practices of the University such that the CQU experience is of a consistent quality and is comparable with universities nationally.

AUQA recommends that Central Queensland University encourage a more collegial approach to curriculum development, which will both stimulate and incorporate scholarship and research and philosophical discussions about quality education

AUQA recommends that Central Queensland University develop a systematic approach to encouraging and resourcing research-informed teaching

AUQA recommends that Central Queensland University increase its emphasis on academic professional development, via a variety of forms, especially focusing on such pedagogic issues as curriculum development and review, assessment practices and the teaching-research nexus


This question is much more important than it might appear. How people interpret what we do will influence what we can do. We need to have a consistent, simple message about what we do so we can simply spread the word.

The AUQA report focuses on curriculum design and the name of the unit in which we reside is the Curriculum Design & Development Unit.

This article from the British Medical Journal gives a good introduction to curriculum design. It’s definition of curriculum is one I like

If curriculum is defined more broadly than syllabus or course of study then it needs to contain more than mere statements of content to be studied. A curriculum has at least four important elements: content; teaching and learning strategies; assessment processes; and evaluation processes.

The advantage of this is that it encapsulates a lot of what we can/should do. The content section covers the tasks which the members of DTP and Rolley currently perform. Somewhat more problematically, it could also be seen to encapsulate video production. Evaluation also opens up some interesting missing roles.


I’d like to position CD&DU as a Professional Service Firm defined on this page as

A professional service firm applies specialist technical knowledge to the creation of customized solutions to clients’ problems.

We provide customised advice to CQU staff. How may the most effectively design their curriculum, given their context and the available resources?


Previous issues

  • Limited diversity in opinions
    Only the academic and the instructional designer were involved. If a team was involved, it was a couple of academics, typically from the same discipline
  • Use limited to a small collection of staff
    Only a small sub-set of staff made use of the service.

Existing issues

  • We’re a small group, limited resources
  • Uncertainty about connections/overlap with other groups


As top level aims, we should

  • Help staff develop the skills and confidence necessary so they can perform curriculum design themselves.
  • Provide an environment that encourages collaboration across disciplines.
  • Provide an environment that encourages implementation of good practice in L&T, an environment that makes it easy to do this.

Underneath those aims potentially fits the following

  • Be seen as academics who research.
  • Raise the visibility of our work and ourselves.
  • Make it ease to contact us.
  • Be seen as a one stop shop for preparation of course material
  • Treat print and online as two of a range of options

…there’s many more that should go here. Onto other things.

Should the learner always be the focus?

A discussion of ITForum provided a pointer to an interview with Badrul Khan (who provided the link). In it he suggests that instructional design deals with just 2 dimensions (pedagogy and evaluation) of 8 dimensions required to create learner-focussed learning material.

It includes the observation that the learner must always be the focus of instructional design. I agree, but with a reservation that is linked to my new job in instructional design.

My reservation is based on the following observations

  • The idea that the learner must always be the focus of instructional design is an innovation for most university faculty.
  • The diffusion theory literature, along with a lot of other literature, indicates that you will not get adoption of an innovation by simply coming along and saying, “This is better than what you are doing, you should really do it.”.
  • The person making the adoption decision in instructional design is each individual faculty member. Regardless of whether or not they are being “required” to do it, they still make a decision.

Hence, I tend to think that the focus of instructional design (defined as what we do to help academics design instruction) is on encouraging the faculty member to adopt the innovation that “the learner should be the focus”.

Diffusion theory has been criticised for having a pro-innovation bias that, amongst other effects, can separate members of a social system into the superior innovators group and the inferior recalcitrants group (McMaster and Wastell, 2005). i.e. you are a bad boy if you don’t accept the innovation.

This is not what should be aimed for, instead something like the following

Here we would argue that the innovation succeeded due to internal development, through a participative process involving strong local leadership, engaged staff and the fortuitous occurrence of a series of local crises that aligned all stakeholders around the need for change.


McMaster, T., & Wastell, D. (2005). Diffusion – or delusion? Challenging an IS research tradition. Information Technology & People, 18(4), 383-404.

New job, new start, new challenges

A couple of days ago (Feb 1st, 2007) I started a new job at CQU. A job that will give me lot more cause to “edublog”, but at the same time restrict exactly what I can blog.

I am the new Head of E-Learning and Materials Development at CQU. What this essentially means is that I am in charge of both the curriculum design group (the e-learning in the title) and the group currently responsible for much of the print production (the materials development).

The situation at CQU, as I see it, is summarised as follows

  • Instructional/curriculum design has been let slide, just a bit.
  • The organisation, which originally was a large print-based distance education provider, hasn’t handled the advent of e-learning well.
  • Print and e-learning/online are treated very separately.
  • The complexity of the institution’s operations have increased considerably over the last 10 years.
    For example, 12,000 students in 1996 to 30,000 in 2007. In 1996 98% students were studying at the main campus or via distance education. By 2006, that was down to 49.5%. In 2006, at least 50% of the students where from a non-english speaking background (NESB).
  • The Australian Universities Quality Agency (AUQA) audit of CQU had a few things to say about curriculum design.

A challenging situation, but one that promises lots of interesting discussion and thought. I’m hoping to use the blog as a place to air some initial ideas that will develop into something that might get tried in action at CQU.

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