Assembling the heterogeneous elements for (digital) learning

Category: futures

inside out

Inside out, Outside in or both?

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 question

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.

Inside out

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..

Outside in

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.

Future of universities – an age old problem

I’m in the midst of preparing some additional slides for a presentation/experiment tomorrow around alternatives for the LMS and the lecture. In part, this presentation connects with the future of universities – and perhaps learning in general – a topic that seems to have gotten increasing airplay in the last year or so. Especially in the form of pundits predicting problems with current practice. This post is in part about showing that this is not a new thing, but also about saving some nice quotes for future use.

As part of the work on the slides, I was doing a quick Google on “origins of the lecture”. One of the the bits I came across was a book titled In search of the virtual class: education in an information society in which I found the following quotes leading off chapter 4

Learning processes are lagging appallingly behind and are leaving both individuals and societies unprepared to meet the challenge posed by global issues. This failure of learning means that human preparedness remains underdeveloped on a global scale. Learning is in this sense far more than just another global problem: its failure represents, in a fundamental way, the issue of issues. (Botkin et al, 1979, p9)

I like the idea of “issues of issues”. Placing this problem of education as a fundamental problem for so much else. I also like that this comment was made 30 years ago. Something that illustrates one or more of

  • The long-term importance of the idea.
  • The on-going difficulty of doing anything meaningful about this problem.
  • The on-going market that exists for people to profess fundamental flaws within the education system.

A similar quote in the same location

There is only one problem and that is education, all other problems are dependent on this one (President Domingo Faustino Sarmiento – founder of Argentina’s national education system)

This one adds the potential observation that if all you have is a hammer (i.e. you are in the education business) then everything you see is a nail (education is the solution).

The book

The book these quotes come from seems, from my current limited reading, to be on the predictive books from the mid-1990s arguing for how technology can/will radically improve/change learning and teaching. The following is from page 73

Why is education out of step with society’s needs? Does the problem lie in the way education is administered, the methods of instruction and the content of the curricula? These are the issues that advanced industrial societies focus on as they attempt to find a solution. Our concern si with the extent to which the problem lies with the classroom as a communication system for learning. Our argument is that the classroom is a technology that emulates the way people live and work in an industrial society. It does not relate to the way people will live and work in an information society. Some countires are sufficiently into a transition to an information society for the discrepancy to be obvious.

Part of the argument is that the classroom approach is wasteful of resource of space and time.

How will universities change over ten years?

I came across a post title “Some ways university will change over ten years by Mark Smithers via a tweet from Claire Brooks. The post is, as Mark puts it, an attempt to anticipate the changing roles and functions of universities and how it will effect educational technology. To some extent it’s the sort of thing that I might be expected to do in my current position, if not to develop institutional policy, at least to inform it.

So, I plan to follow Mark’s blog and see what he comes up with. I also hope to be able to blog some reflections and reactions on what he and others have written. The aim of this is, in the first part, force me to start to formulate, make concrete and question my own views so that it can inform my practice. In part, I’ve already started this process with a post reflecting on a EDUCAUSE Review article by Bryan Alexander.

In the following I start by trying to summarise Mark’s post, before giving my reaction to it.

What Mark thinks

There are a couple of assumptions that underpin Mark’s views:

  • It’s “crucial to try and anticipate the changing roles and functions of universities over that period so that we can think about the effect on educational technology.”
  • “that the next ten years will be one of fundamental change for universities…..faced with the hugely disruptive changes being bought about by new ways of learning and sharing on the internet.”
    The comparison to record and publishing industries is made.

There are a wide range of factors involved, meaning that little is certain and his (and mine) thoughts are changing all the time. This post covers two of the more important changes, with more to follow. The two changes he starts with are

  1. Open content becomes the norm.
    The change is that learning material is increasingly becoming freely available from a variety of sources. The potential ramifications of this change which Mark identifies are:
    • Students judge a university through the quality of its open learning materials and research.
    • Universities will be forced to compete on the quality of these resources.
    • This might drive the open content away from recordings of lectures etc to more interactive/engaging content.

    Difficulties include: higher ed culture mistrustful of sharing, recognition and rewards.

  2. Rigourous and consistent assessment.
    The suggestion is that universities will need to increase “the quality, consistency and rigour of assessment in order to maintain or enhance their reputation”. This arises from the massification of higher education, dissatisfaction from high performing students and the increasing availability of learning resources enabling/creating the need for a disintermediation between learning/teaching and assessment.

    The implication from an IT perspective is that the current use of LMS gradebooks will need to be replaced by more sophisticated systems. He points to the Loosely coupled gradebook work as an example.

Some thoughts

The following are a collection of initial, ad hoc thoughts on this question – mostly because I’ve got a limited time to put this together. There are two parts to my thoughts:

  1. General observations
    I start with some observations, theories and beliefs I have a tendency towards which make me think this type of prediction are really difficult and in some cases, might even be somewhat less than useful.
  2. Specific observations
    These are thoughts about the two cases Mark mentions – open content and assessment.

As Mark has pointed out in his post, there’s a lot of complexity and perspectives around this stuff and ideas change regularly. There’s always a better way. In that, it’s a good example of a wicked problem.

General observations


As stated above, there are (at least) two assumptions underpinning Mark’s post. If you disagree with either, then you may not see this process as useful. I tend to think it’s useful, but because of the following points, possibly not for the same reasons as others.

The first assumption is that attempting to anticipate the way in which roles and functions will change is crucial. Based on what I cover below, I’m not sure whether or not it is actually possible. To some extent I’m a believer in the Alan Kay quote that the best way to predict the future is to build it. More on this below.

The second assumption is that the next 10 years will see universities having to face fundamental change. There’s been a bit of this type of thing in the blogosphere and elsewhere recently. Examples in newspapers, publishing and the recording industries have been used as examples. And this may well be true. But I’m not certain.

Students remain a very conservative collection of beasts. They have long established patterns of what a university education entails. I’m not sure they are as ready yet for this radical change. Also, at least in Australia, the Federal and State governments provide a lot of the resources and have a significant say in what University can or can’t do. They are also fairly conservative. So this will be a constraint. Whether or not you buy a newspaper or how you purchase the latest top 10 single is not exactly the same as choosing how you will study at University.

In terms of the government influence, currently there seems to be a growing trend towards an emphasis on the regions. Certainly it appears that my current institution is being encouraged to establish strong connections with the community within its region. It seems a return to a more traditional relationship between community and university.

I’m not suggesting that there isn’t a lot of change going on. I’m just not 100% convinced that change will be fundamental or that it will result in the death of Universities.

Amara’s law

This could be seen as a potential example of what I was going to call Amara’s law, however, through this post from Doc Searls I find that the naming is more open to interpretation.

Regardless of the source, the point of the law/maxim remains.

We tend to overestimate the effect of a technology in the short run and underestimate the effect in the long run.

Back in the mid-1990s when the Internet and the World-Wide Web were the next big thing. Senior management at my institution were fearful that MIT would monopolise higher education. After all, if you could go to MIT over the Internet, why would you go to some local institution? Well that hasn’t happened, not yet anyway.

Complex systems

Personally I see universities and the societies they operate in as complex systems in the sense Dave Snowden uses in his work, including the Cynefin model/framework. To keep it short, in a complex system is one

in which the relationship between cause and effect can only be perceived in retrospect, but not in advance, the approach is to Probe – Sense – Respond and we can sense emergent practice.

The nature of the system means that it is impossible to correctly identify cause and effect before hand. We might be able to guess, but the chances of laying it out logically are probably nil.

That said, in 10 years time Mark and I could probably get together and over a drink or two develop a causal connection of linkages to explain what has happened. But that’s not the same as being able to predict it beforehand. And a point Snowden makes is that if we were able to do it all again, the outcome would be different.


Open Content

I do think this is going to be an interesting one, but will it produce fundamental change? First a statement of bias, I’m a strong believer in open content. My course sites have been open since 1994 and some with significant content (Google 85321 systems administration for one example. Even with that background, I am not sure about the impact of open content. Two queries

  • Widespread acceptance of open content for course materials.
    I don’t see a majority of academics releasing their or using the open content of others, at least not easily. Mark mentions the rewards aspect that will prevent staff sharing, but the other perspective is that most the academics don’t think their content is all that good and want to limit those who can see it. The fear of being “evaluated” on the quality of their course material is a real fear. I also think a lot of those in management have this fear. They don’t want the poor material shared.

    There’s also the mindset. Being open is, I think, a mindset. Not many have it. I know of academics who are pushing the institution to adopt open content, but who get really upset if another academic colleague gets access to their course sites.

    Most staff I’m aware of already use the content of others. In the form of textbooks and the associated resources. Those resources come in a ready and easy form to use and are provided by a 3rd party. i.e. it’s not directly from another academic at another institution.

  • Content becomes the means of evaluation.
    I’m not sure that students, in any large scale, will evaluate institutions based on the quality of the content. People aren’t that rational, they are predictably irrational. Open content may become one factor but there will be others.

    This point also assumes that content is the entire learning process. There’s a lot more to teaching than the content. The history of learning objects tends to suggest this. Really good teachers who develop and build relationships will still generate word of mouth.


A short comment here. I think this point masks a bigger point when it comes to technology within institutions. The example of the loosely-coupled gradebook that Mark mentions includes the following

  1. Institutions of higher learning should focus on what they do best and on what only they can do. Namely, they should admit and register students, manage course enrollments and degree program rosters, and maintain secure records and communications tools for faculty and students engaged in the learning process.
  2. We can then leverage the best online, third-party applications for student publishing, networking, and portfolio creation. Individual institutions (or even institutions working together) would be hard pressed to produce applications comparable in quality and stability to Google Docs, YouTube, Blogger, Acrobat Online, MS Office Live, Wikispaces, and WordPress.

For too long, because technology has been expensive and scarce universities have had to provide all the technology used by its staff and students. Modem pools to get Internet access is one example from the 90s. Increasingly, however, technology is simple and abundant. Increasingly, it doesn’t make sense for a university to provide services such as blogs or email. Students and staff can get access to free services that are better supported than institutional systems.

The loosely-couple gradebook is one example. Actually, it sounds very much some of the principles underlying the BAM project


Sorry Mark. The day has gotten away from me and I haven’t engaged as well as I would have liked with your post. I look forward to your future posts.

How do you "apprehend the future"

The following is an attempt to reflect upon an EDUCAUSE Review article by Bryan Alexander entitled “Apprehending the Future: Emerging Technologies, from Science Fiction to Campus Reality”. I’m doing this because I believe the topic, at least at first glance, has connections with the new role I’m meant to fulfill at my current institution.


Provides an overview of five different methods that can be used to apprehend what the future might hold for higher education in terms of technology and its application. The methods are:

  1. The environmental scan.
  2. The delphi method.
  3. Prediction markets.
  4. Scenarios.
  5. Crowdsourcing.

The articles givesEach of the methods get the following treatement:

  • A brief description;
  • Pointers to relevant examples; and
  • A summary of the advantages and disadvantages.

The last main section recognises that all of these methods are at best, partial solutions and raises a number of challenges they face, including:

In reflecting on the problems with these methods the article suggests a number of reasons for consuming resources to undertake them. The reason I like most and which is classed as the best is that the intellectual exercise prepares the individuals and the institution.


Provides a good overview of the methods listed. What I found most interesting were the pointers to the relevant examples of each method that exist within the university/educational technology fields.

The following are some nit picks. Whether you think them relevant may be a factor of your perspective or opinion. None of them limit the value of the article.

Seems to miss some disadvantages

For example, I believe that the reliance on experts in the Delphi model is a limitation especially when dealing with potential paradigm shifts – probably connected to the unknown-unknowns mentioned in the latter parts of the article. Experts are experts because they have a large number of deeply complex mental patterns associated with a certain world view that have been built up over time. A paradigm shift encapsulates radical change in that world view which makes expert knowledge somewhat less than appropriate.

The example I’ve seen first hand is that of print-based distance education experts faced with the rise of the Internet. Or more broadly, the hypermedia community when faced the idea of the World-Wide Web.

This page on the Delphi Method seems to suggest that this is a weakness, but perhaps not for the reasons I give.

Prediction markets are not “wisdom of the crowds”

The article associates prediction markets with the wisdom of the crowds. I’m influenced here by my following of Dave Snowden who argues, quite effectively in my opinion, that prediction markets are not examples of the wisdom of crowds. Though the Wikipedia page on the wisdom of crowds thinks they are.


Showing my bias/Snowden influence – a Snowden post on scenario planning

Snowden and his group have developed the Future Backwards as an alternative to scenario planning. So it might belong here as another method.


I need to take the time to visit and examine each of the examples given of the methods. By combining the results of those with my own thinking and experience should help something interesting arise. As the article points out, the intellectual exercise of reflecting on the findings will help expand perceptions and better prepare for thinking about the future.

The next two sections make related points. Essentially, I’m trying to develop an argument that apprehending the future is only half the argument.

The role of context

The focus of the methods discussed is on knowing what the future brings. It focuses outward, not inward on the local context. I think both is needed.

The point I’m trying to make is that it’s not just about the nature of the next wave of technology but it’s how that technology is combined with the problems faced within particular contexts that can generate interesting approaches. Sometimes those approaches can be totally unthought of by the original developers of the technology. The article offers a William Gibson quote

“the street finds its own uses for things”

that captures some of this. The street or each unique context may generate a new and interesting application that the experts don’t see as they are divorced from the complexities of the context. They’ve abstracted away all those lower problems and consequently miss some stuff.

A famous Allan Kay quote seems to have the essence of what I’m trying to get at

the best way to predict the future is to invent it


You don’t know what you’ve got until you build it

Related to the above point is the assumption that if you know which future technologies are coming then you can predict the impact it will have on your local context. This assumes that the local context is, in the sense of Snowden’s Cynefin framework, is simple or complicated. In such systems cause and effect exist. You, or an appropriately skilled expert, can predict what will happen when you introduce a new technology.

Personally, I believe that the context in which learning and teaching takes place within a university is complex. It is the type of system where cause and effect cannot be predicted. You never really know what is going to happen until you try it. Also, if you try the same thing at different times, or in slightly different contexts, you are likely/certain to get different outcomes.

The article does make the point that

One challenge to any futures method is the sheer complexity of the future.

I’m suggesting that the context is another source of complexity that needs to be considered.

A Snowden suggestion is safe fail probes. Matching such probes with the options and possibilities identified by the approaches described within this article could prove useful.

Perhaps a focus on response is better?

One last thought, perhaps it’s more important to build into the system the ability to respond quickly to near-term changes, rather than predict long-term changes.

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