During the last week I have been in Canberra for various events, including giving a presentation on BIM at University of Canberra. Somewhat surprisingly (as last I knew, he was in New Zealand), Leigh Blackall was in “audience” at the presentation, and as is Leigh’s wont, he asked some serious questions. I was troubled by those questions and needed time to reflect on what an answer might be.
This is an attempt to develop an answer to why I was troubled. In part, this attempts to pick up a comment I’d made earlier on Leigh’s blog about thesis, anti-thesis and synthesis
The initial question Leigh asked which troubled me is repeated in his blog post on the presentation. It is
I asked the obvious question of why, or if BIM might consider developing outside the framework of Moodle say, as a Firefox based or other Feed Reader plug in, and offering a file that can be imported to Moodle (as well as a spreadsheet, a MediaWiki table, a Wikispaces Table, MySQL database, a text document and a PDF to email), and thereby offering the functionality of BIM to a wider user base than just Moodle.
The immediate answer I gave is reported faithfully in Leigh’s post
David explained that the project was constrained in many ways to the needs of the sponsoring Institution,
(as is the fact that we had broader discussions.
What troubled me (in part) about my response is that the constraints of the sponsoring institution is both more and less than it sounds. In part it is what is simply easiest, the institution pays my wage and it uses Moodle. But it is also, to me, what is the best way in terms of improving L&T.
It appears to be the difference between an “inside out” approach (which I’m taking and will argue has a chance of success) and an “outside in” approach (which is somewhat close to what Leigh suggests). At the very least, it makes for a good title.
The main reason I didn’t start with Firefox or some other external way of developing BIM, is that I’m taking an inside out approach to improving learning and teaching. i.e. I’m starting with what is being used within the organisation and trying to change it for the better. The organisation is currently using Moodle, so if I want more people to be thinking about using Web 2.0 and reflective student journals in their L&T, I have to start with Moodle. Doing so lowers the barriers to entry and actually makes it somewhat likely that people will use it. It even fits (with some difficulty) within the constraints of how Moodle is being managed within the institution.
In commenting on Leigh’s post, Peter gets close to the approach
The central question though for an educational developer is how to promote innovation and change and it seems to me that it has to be based on an invitational ethos: teaching staff need be convinced of the benefits of technology adoption, they sometimes come to it slowly, they come to it in surprisingly unexpected ways at times and positive things happen.
I actually think more than this is needed and will pick up on it below. But first..
To a limited extent, Leigh’s approach could be characterised as outside in. Start with the outside stuff, support those people and then perhaps change might eventually occur within the institution. However, in responding to Peter’s comment Leigh suggests a perspective that doesn’t really both with the “inside” (current universities)
To borrow your highway metaphor, a bypass is needed, one that goes around that old town, and offers a more direct route for the people in need of credentials with minimal debt. Remember, the experiences in the old town have become irrelevant. An old road can remain for those who like nostalgic tourist routes, but an alternative route is needed.
There are many within current institutions that react negatively to this perspective, however, I can see the need for it. Mainly because, as Leigh points out, there are significant barriers within universities that suggest that an inside out approach may not work.
I don’t believe a passive approach can be effective when considering our dense hierarchies, performance reviews, infrastructure, broken feedback systems, conservatism and the wrong sorts of incentives and rewards.
Limits in developing innovative pedagogy with Moodle
In fact, I’m hoping to use the development of BIM and the limitations of this approach as the basis for a couple of publications, including a presentation at MoodleMoot AU 2010. (still waiting to hear if the submission has been successful). The “theme” for this conference is “without limits….”. Rather than accepting that Moodle is “without limits”, I argue that
e-learning with Moodle, as currently practised, has a number of limits and that progress can be made through the recognition, understanding and removal of those limits.
So, what may you ask, is my problem with Leigh’s comments?
Both-and, not either-or
The questions around the quality of L&T within universities, the requirement from society for different approaches and the future of universities are complex. So complex, that it’s never going to be about a single answer, there is no such thing. For this, and other personal reasons, I prefer a both-and approach. It’s not about outside-in or inside-out, it’s about both.
Actually, I should paraphrase, in terms of improving L&T within universities, it’s a question of both-and. In terms of responding to societies changing needs around learning (or simply recognising a long-standing need that has been ignored), I’m not so sure there is a need for an “inside-out” perspective. However, as I’m paid by a university to improve the quality of L&T, I see the need for a both-and approach for the long-term benefit of the university (and hopefully society…there’s a big question in there).
What this means is that there is a huge need for folk like Leigh and many others (Leigh gives a list of some in this post) who are identifying and creating insights into what the “outside” should be. The value is not just for the “outside” it’s also for the universities and other institutions as it helps identify some options around where we need to be.
However, there is also a need – at least at the moment – for folk who are taking the “inside-out” approach. Thinking about how to effectively make the “inside” a better fit or enabler for what the outside should be like. That need may not exist in the future, but for the moment it does and because this is a complex area, I think we need both.
Inside-out is currently failing
As stated above and numerous times on this blog, I think the current approaches being used within universities are failing. Most L&T at universities is poor quality by traditional standards, let alone if measured by adoption of social media. For me, this is not a sign that it is impossible, it’s a sign that the principles of current approaches are just plain wrong. This is what my current work is looking at.
Why is it failing?
The following diagram represents what I think is a fundamental mismatch (The image is taken from this post by Donald Clark).
As I said above, this problem is a complex one. Based on the above diagram, the best type of solution arises from immersion in the problem. The problem is that most universities are attempting to solve this problem by analysis.
For along time I’ve been saying that learning and teaching is a wicked problem (Rittel & Webber, 1973). Clark’s blog post (source of the image) draws on another of Rittel’s publications to suggest that for a complex problem
This is because as Rittel (1972) discovered — the best experts within these types of environments are those affected by the solution — since they are the only ones to have experienced the complexity of the problem, they are the best experts for helping to improve that environment.
At the moment, universities are only paying lip service to involving the “experts” – the students and teachers. Most of it is being driven by “management” who don’t have in-depth experience of a specific context. Their decisions are driven more by other considerations than in-depth understandings of the current context. Importantly, this isn’t about asking the students and teachers what they want, for me, it’s about understanding what they are experiencing and where they are now as an important first step in helping them go somewhere else.
At the same time, the approach taken by the “outside in” folk – like Leigh – also has the same failure. It doesn’t seek to understand the existing context or practice of the students and staff. But that’s okay, that’s not what they are about, they are about figuring out and creating a better future. (I fully recognise that this is a gross simplification and generalisation. However, I do think it’s a distinction that has some value.)
What is both-and?
As an inside-out person, I believe any success comes from having deep knowledge of the current context (the experience of staff and students) and marrying that with “solution” knowledge from the experts and insights into how the environment can be changed in a way that encourages and enables the staff and students to improve their experience. This describes BIM:
- knowledge of current context;
The need for BIM arose out of my need to teach a 200+ student course that had a “reflective” journal assignment which had significant problems (a problem faced by other staff).
- expert knowledge; and
I knew about Web 2.0, the benefits of student-owned journals/blogs and the institutional need for and staff/teacher familiarity with the LMS.
- environment change.
Add a module to Moodle that enables staff to manage individual student blogs hosted on external services.
But it’s not enough
This is what really troubled me, and now I’m becoming repetitive in the same post. The above by itself is not enough. As a measly e-learning and innovation specialist I have no power to make the further changes in the environment that are necessary to make BIM truly attractive.
I guess the real reason why Leigh’s questions troubled me, is that I’m frustrated at my inability to make the change and the on-going blindness of institutional leadership.
How’s that for a positive end to a rambling post?
A response to Leigh
Couldn’t leave it there, let me return to the original question from Leigh. I believe that an inside-out approach is probably more likely to help improve L&T on a broad-scale within a university than an outside-in approach. I value the insights offered by outside-in folk, but I think I need to value the experiences of the students/staff within a university and build on that experience to help improvements happen. Perhaps, it’s simply a question of purpose. My purpose is to help improve L&T within universities, yours is more about helping those people who are already learning outside of universities.
That’s why I think building BIM on top of Moodle was a better fit for my purpose. A purpose, which I agree, is fairly narrow.
Rittel, H. W. J., & Webber, M. M. (1973). Dilemmas in a general theory of planning. Policy Sciences, 4(2), 155-169.