Assembling the heterogeneous elements for (digital) learning

Category: herding cats Page 1 of 3

Some notes on behaviour change and improving L&T

The following is really just taking some notes for future use. Related to the idea that attempts to improve learning and teaching within Universities needs to think about more than just workshops, manuals etc. The idea being that the aim isn’t to improve the knowledge of learning and teaching of University teachers, it’s to help change and improve what they do. Something I’ve vaguely written about ages ago (though I don’t necessarily agree with all of that).

Behaviour change

Allen et al (2002) cite Kilvington & Allen (2001)

Behaviour change = Knowing what to do + Enabling environment + Imperative

A nice simplistic representation that resonates, but is likely limited.

Later Allen et al (2002) offer

Social Network Theory (Verity 2002) is a framework that looks at social behaviour through
behaviour change, it is necessary to develop a supportive, or enabling, environment. One major aspect of developing a supportive environment is about creating links between people, which allow information and learning to occur across social networks. The creation of these links is referred to in development literature as ‘social capital’ (p. 21)

and then

Studies into behaviour change have highlighted the following aspects:

  • Behaviour change is different for every person, and does not occur in one step.
    People move through stages of change in their own ways and in their own time.
  • The enabling environment influences these stages of change.
  • People adapt and improve the enabling environment through individual and
    collective capacity development.
  • The crucial goal for any programme, then, is to enhance people’s capacity to
    modify their environment so that it enables movement through stages of change.

(p. 24)

This resonates on a few possible levels

  • The ability to modify the environment has connections to the idea of protean digital technologies and their potential benefits.
  • The importance of diversity linking to the reusability paradox.

References

Allen, W., Kilvington, M., & Horn, C. (2002). Using Participatory and Learning-Based Approaches for Environmental Management to Help Achieve Constructive Behaviour Change (Landcare Research Contract Report No. LC0102/057). Wellington, NZ: New Zealand Ministry for the Environment. Retrieved from http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=10.1.1.199.6053&rep=rep1&type=pdf

BIM and BAD

This post arises from two events today

  1. The ASCILITE’2014 call for papers came out today and I’m thinking about a paper I might submit.
  2. The first #edc3100 assignment is due today and my use of BIM has struck a unique problem that I need to solve.

The third is that I’m a touch fried from answering queries about “I submitted my assignment the wrong way” (the main problem with these queries is that they mean I have to engage with a horrible online assignment submission system) that I need to engage in something else.

The paper

The working title for the paper I’m thinking of is “The story of BIM: Being BAD as a way to bridge rhetoric and reality”.

BAD is an acronym that captures what I think is missing from the institutional approach to university e-learning

  1. Bricolage – the LMS as Enteprise Systems doesn’t allow or cater for bricolage.
  2. Affordances – resulting in an inability to leverage the affordances of technology to improve learning and teaching.
  3. Distribution – the idea that knowledge about how to improve L&T is distributed and the implications that has for the institutional practice of e-learning.

    i.e. current methods rely on the single, unified view of learning and teaching. A view that is expressed most concretely in the form of the LMS.

    This component will draw on a range of related “network” type theoretical perspectives including connectivism, Complex Adaptive Systems, embodied cognition and ANT – to name but a few.

The idea is if institutional e-learning is to get better, it needs to be BAD (more BAD?).

The following is an example of how the reality of using BIM in action supports the idea that it needs to be BAD. Or at least it’s a very small step. It captures the messiness (the distribution) of e-learning in a typical university course. A messiness that isn’t captured properly by PRINCE II and other methodologies, hierarchical organisational structures, appropriately total quality assured forms and processes and “theory” based abstractions like adopter categories.

And yes, there is some strong connection (repetition) with earlier perspectives/frameworks of mine. If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.

Background

300+ students in EDC3100 are currently using their own blogs to reflect on their learning journey (to varying levels of engagement). Their blog posts contribute almost 15% of their final result in the course.

BIM is being used to keep a track of what they are sharing. The students create their blogs on WordPress.com (or anywhere they like) and register them with BIM. BIM then keeps a copy of all their posts.

But BIM’s capability don’t match the learning design I’m using in this course. BIM was originally designed to have student posts made in response to specific prompts/questions and then have the posts marked manually be human markers. In EDC3100, the students blog about anything they want. We offer some prompts, but they can ignore them. Student posts aren’t marked, instead students have to post a certain number of posts (on average) every week, the posts have to average a certain word count, and a certain number have to contain links to online resources and the blog posts of other students.

This analysis of student posts and the subsequent mark they get is done by a program I wrote. A bit of bricolage that takes bits and pieces of information extracted (with some difficulty) from various institutional systems and makes use of them in a way that solves my problem.

With a bit of bricolage each of the 300+ students have received an email recently telling them what the system knows about their progress. This gives them sometime to tick all the boxes prior to the first assignment being due (yep, still have due dates, haven’t travelled too far from the well-worn paths).

The problem

One student has reported a problem with what the system knows about their blog. The system says that only one of the posts links to another student post, but the student’s blog actually has two posts that link to other student posts. This is confirmed.

But no-one else is reporting the problem. There’s something unique about this student’s blog that has picked up a bug in the system.

The uniqueness of this bug appears to me as one of the problems associated with the failure of institutional systems to deal with the Distribution aspect of BAD. In a complex, distributed knowledge network there is no one view. But the trad approach can only ever respond to one view. This argument needs a bit of work.

Typically this problem is because the author of the post has used a link other to the other student’s blog. The program I wrote knows the URLs for all the student blogs. It checks all the links in a post against the known student posts.

I’ve visually checked the students blog posts in BIM and they are showing valid links to student blogs.

Argghh.

The solution – Chrome is too smart – it’s distribution

This is what I see when I look at the blog post using the Chrome browser

Chrome by David T Jones, on Flickr

The link that is shown is to the blog of another student. The program should pick this up and count it as a link.

Here’s what I see when I view it under the Firefox browser

Firefox by David T Jones, on Flickr

See the difference?

The student appears to have used some form of URL shortener. Looks like a WordPress tool. While this shortened URL does point to the post of another student. My little system doesn’t know how to convert a shortened URL into a full URL. So it doesn’t count it.

It appears that I must have a plugin installed on Chrome (or perhaps Chrome is smart enough on its own) to automatically expand out the wp.me shortened URL into the full link and change what is shown to the user.

I as the user is ignorant of this change happening.

Not a bad example of Distribution. How cognition/smarts/learning is distributed amongst all of the tools. Change on bit of the network and the outcome changes.

Ateleological travels in a teleological world: Past and future journeys around ICTs in education

In my previous academic life, I never really saw the point of book chapters as a publication form. For a variety of reasons, however, my next phase in academia appears likely to involve an increasing number of book chapters. The need for the first such chapter has arisen this week and the first draft is due by February next year, which is a timeline to give me just a little pause for thought. (There is a chance that this book might end up as a special edition of a journal)

What’s you perception of book chapters as a form of academic publication? Am particularly interested in the view from the education field.

What follows is a first stab at an abstract for the book chapter. The title for the book/special edition is “Meanings for in and of education research”. The current working title for my contribution is the title to this post: “Ateleological travels in a teleological world: Past and future journeys around ICTs in education”.

Abstract

The Australian Federal Government are just one of a gaggle of global stakeholders suggesting that Information and Communication Technologies are contributing to the creation a brave, new, digital world. Such a digital world is seen as being radically different to what has gone before and consequently demanding a radically different education system to prepare the next generation of learners. A task that is easier said than done. This chapter argues that the difficulties associated with this task arise because the meanings underpinning the design of education systems for the digital world are decidedly inappropriate and ill-suited for the nature of the digital world. The chapter draws upon 15+ years of research formulating an Information Systems Design Theory for emergent e-learning systems for universities to critically examine these commonly accepted meanings, suggest alternate and more appropriate meanings, and discuss the potential implications that these alternate meanings hold for the practice of education and education research.

The plan

The plan is that this chapter/paper will reflect on the primary focus of my research over recent years and encourage me to think of future research directions and approaches. Obviously it will draw on the PhD research and in particular the Ps Framework and the presentation I gave at EdMedia a couple of years ago. It will also draw on the presentation I gave analysing the Digital Education Revolution as part of my GDLT studies this year.

Alan Kay and some reasons why the educational technology revolution hasn't happened

While reading a recent post from Gardner Campbell I was taken by a quote from Alan Kay

The computer is simply an instrument whose music is ideas

A google search later and I came across this interview with Kay for the Scholastic Administrator magazine. The article is titled “Alan Kay still waiting for the revolution” and there are some, for me, interesting perspectives. A smattering below.

The difficult part is helping the helpers

Kay identifies the greatest obstacle to his work as being “helping the helpers”. i.e. the teachers. In talking about Logo, Kay a key failure being that the second and third waves of teachers were not interesting in Logo and didn’t have the math skills to teach well with Logo.

I see this as the biggest problem around e-learning (or blended, flexible, personal etc learning if that’s your buzz word of the moment) within universities, helping the helpers.

The tokenism of computers

On computers and tokenism

But I think the big problem is that schools have very few ideas about what to do with the computers once the kids have them. It’s basically just tokenism, and schools just won’t face up to what the actual problems of education are, whether you have technology or not.

Again there’s some resonance with universities. For a lot of senior and IT management in universities there’s an idea that we must have an LMS, but there’s not always a good idea of what the organisation should do with it once it has it. The most important part of that “idea”, is being able to identify what about the policies and practices of the institution needs to change to best achieve that idea.

For example, with the LMS the institution can increase interaction between staff and students via discussion forums, e-portfolios etc. But we won’t change the workload or funding model for teaching, or recognise the need to change the timetable to remove the traditional 2 hour lecture, 2 hour tutorial model.

The difference between music and instruments

In talking about some of the limits or potential problems associated with the trend to one-to-one computer

Think about it: How many books do schools have—and how well are children doing at reading? How many pencils do schools have—and how well are kids doing at math? It’s like missing the difference between music and instruments. You can put a piano in every classroom, but that won’t give you a developed music culture, because the music culture is embodied in people……The important thing here is that the music is not in the piano. And knowledge and edification is not in the computer. The computer is simply an instrument whose music is ideas.

The provision of the LMS or some other “instrument” is the simple task. Helping the people figure out what you want to do with it and how it can be done well, is the hard part.

Helping everyone find their inner musician

Why educational computing hasn’t lived up to the potential?

So computers are actually irrelevant at this level of discussion—they are just musical instruments. The real question is this: What is the prospect of turning every elementary school teacher in America into a musician? That’s what we’re talking about here. Afterward we can worry about the instruments.

How do you encourage and enable university academics to become musicians? I don’t think you can forget about computers, e-learning or the LMS. They are already in universities. There’s a need to look out how you can change how academics experience these technologies so that they can start developing their musical ability. Sending them to “band camp” (e.g. Grad Cert in Higher Education) isn’t enough if they return to a non-musical family. The environment they live in has to be musical in every aspect.

Nobody likes a do-gooder – another reason for e-learning not mainstreaming?

Came across the article, “Nobody likes a do-gooder: Study confirms selfless behaviour is alienating” from the Daily Mail via Morgaine’s amplify. I’m wondering if there’s a connection between this and the chasm in the adoption of instructional technology identified by Geoghegan (1994)

The chasm

Back in 1994, Geoghegan draw on Moore’s Crossing the Chasm to explain why instructional technology wasn’t being adopted by the majority of university academics. The suggestion is that there is a significant difference between the early adopters of instructional technology and the early majority. That what works for one group, doesn’t work for the others. There is a chasm. Geoghegan (1994) also suggested that the “technologists alliance” – vendors of instructional technology and the university folk charged with supporting instructional technology – adopt approaches that work for the early adopters, not the early majority.

Nobody likes do-gooders

The Daily Mail article reports on some psychological research that draws some conclusions about how “do-gooders” are seen by the majority

Researchers say do-gooders come to be resented because they ‘raise the bar’ for what is expected of everyone.

This resonates with my experience as an early adopter and more broadly with observations of higher education. The early adopters, those really keen on learning and teaching are seen a bit differently by those that aren’t keen. I wonder if the “raise the bar” issue applies? Would imagine this could be quite common in a higher education environment where research retains its primacy, but universities are under increasing pressure to improve their learning and teaching. And more importantly show to everyone that they have improved.

The complete study is outlined in a journal article.

References

Geoghegan, W. (1994). Whatever happened to instructional technology? Paper presented at the 22nd Annual Conferences of the International Business Schools Computing Association, Baltimore, MD.

How people learn and implications for academic development

While I’m traveling this week I am reading How people learn. This is a fairly well known book that arose out of a US National Academy of Science project to look at recent insights from research about how people learn and then generate insights for teaching. I’ll be reading it through the lens of my thesis and some broader thinking about “academic development” (one of the terms applied to trying to help improve the teaching and learning of university).

Increasingly, I’ve been thinking that the “academic development” is essentially “teaching the teacher”, though it would be better phrased as creating an environment in which the academics can learn how to be better at enabling student learning. Hand in hand with this thought is the observation and increasing worry that much of what passes for academic development and management action around improving learning and teaching is not conducive to creating this learning environment. The aim of reading this book is to think about ways which this situation might be improved.

The last part of this summary of the first chapter connects with the point I’m trying to make about academic development within universities.

(As it turns out I only read the first chapter while traveling, remaining chapters come now).

Key findings for learning

The first chapter of the book provides three key (but not exhaustive) findings about learning:

  1. Learners arrive with their own preconceptions about how the world exists.
    As part of this, if the early stages of learning does not engage with the learner’s understanding of the world, then the learner will either not get it, or will get it enough to pass the test, but then revert to their existing understanding.
  2. Competence in a field of inquiry arises from three building blocks
    1. a deep foundation of factual knowledge;
    2. understand these facts and ideas within a conceptual framework;
    3. organise knowledge in ways that enable retrieval and application.

    A primary idea here is that experts aren’t “smart” people. But they do have conceptual frameworks that help apply/understand much quicker than others

  3. An approach to teaching that enables students to implement meta-cognitive strategies can help them take control of their learning and monitor their progress.
    Meta-cognitive strategies aren’t context or subject independent.

Implications for teaching

The suggestion is that the above findings around learning have significant implications for teaching, these are:

  1. Teachers have to draw out and work with pre-existing student understandings.
    This implies lots more formative assessment that focuses on demonstrating understanding.
  2. In teaching a subject area, important concepts must be taught in-depth.
    The superficial coverage of concepts (to fit it all in) needs to be avoided, with more of a focus on the those important subject concepts.
  3. The teaching of meta-cognitive skills needs to be integrated into the curriculum of a variety of subjects.

Four attributes of learning environments

A latter chapter expands on a framework to design and evaluate learning environments, it includes four interrelated attributes of these environments:

  1. They must be learner centered;
    i.e. a focus on the understandings and progress of individual students.
  2. The environment should be knowledge centered with attention given to what is taught, why it is taught and what competence or mastery looks like
    Suggests too many curricula fail to support learning because the knowledge is disconnected, assessment encourages memorisation rather than learning. A knowledge-centered environment “provides the necessary depth of study, assessing student understanding rather than factual memory and incorporates the teaching of meta-cognitive strategies”.

    There’s an interesting point here about engagement, that I’ll save for another time.

  3. Formative assessments
    The aim is for assessments that help both students and teachers monitor progress.
  4. Develop norms within the course, and connection with the outside world, that support core learning values.
    i.e. pay attention to activities, assessments etc within the course that promote collaboration and camaraderie.

Application to professional learning

In the final section of the chapter, the authors state that these principles apply equally well to adults as they do to children. They explain that

This point is particularly important because incorporating the principles in this volume into educational practice will require a good deal of adult learning.

i.e. if you want to improve learning and teaching within a university based on these principles, then the teaching staff will have to undergo a fair bit of learning. This is very troubling because the authors argue that “approaches to teaching adults consistently violate principles for optimizing learning”. In particular, they suggest that professional development programs for teachers frequently:

  • Are not learner centered.
    Rather than ask what help is required, teachers are expected to attend pre-arranged workshops.
  • Are not knowledge centered.
    i.e. these workshops introduce the principles of a new technique with little time spent to the more complex integration of the new technique with the other “knowledge” (e.g. the TPACK framework) associated with the course
  • Are not assessment centered.
    i.e. when learning these new techniques, the “learners” (teaching staff) aren’t given opportunities to try this out, get feedback and even to give teachers the skills to know whether or not they’ve implemented the new technique effectively.
  • Are not community centered.
    Professional development consists more of ad hoc, separate events with little opportunity for a community of teachers to develop connections for on-going support.

Here’s a challenge. Is there any university out there were academic development doesn’t suffer from these flaws? How has that been judged?

The McNamara Fallacy and pass rates, academic analytics, and engagement

In some reading for the thesis today I came across the concept of McNamara’s fallacy. I hadn’t heard this before. This is somewhat surprising as it points out another common problem with some of the more simplistic approaches to improving learning and teaching that are going around at the moment. It’s also likely to be a problem with any simplistic implementation of academic analytics.

What is it?

The quote I saw describes McNamara’s fallacy as

The first step is to measure whatever can be easily measured. This is ok as far as it goes. The second step is to disregard that which can’t be easily measured or to give it an arbitrary quantitative value. This is artificial and misleading. The third step is to presume that what can’t be measured easily really isn’t important. This is blindness. The fourth step is to say that what can’t be easily measured really doesn’t exist. This is suicide.

The Wikipedia page on the McNamara fallacy describes it as referring to Robert McNamara’s – the US Secretary of Defense from 1961 through 1968 – explanation of the USA’s failure in Vietnam down to a focus on quantifying success through simply indicators such as enemy body count, while at the same time ignoring other more important factors. Factors that were more difficult to measure.

The PhD thesis which I saw the above quote ascribes it to Yankelovich (1972), a sociologist. Wikipedia ascribes it to Charles Handy’s “The Empty Raincoat”. Perhaps indicating that the quote is from McNamara himself, just presented in different places.

Pass rates

Within higher education it is easy to see “pass rates” as an example of McNamara’s fallacy. Much of the quality assurance within higher education institutions is focused on checking the number of students who do (or don’t) pass a course. If the pass rate for a course isn’t too high, everything is okay. Much easier to measure this than the quality of student learning experience, the learning theory which informs the course design, or the impact the experience has on the student, now and into the future. This sort of unquestioning application of McNamara’s fallacy sometimes make me think we’re losing the learning and teaching “war” within universities.

What are the more important, more difficult to measure indicators that provide a better and deeper insight into the quality of learning and teaching?

Analytics and engagement

Student engagement is one of the buzz words on the rise in recent years, it’s been presented as one of the ways/measures to improve student learning. After all, if they are more engaged, obviously they must have a better learning experience. Engagement has become an indication of institutional teaching quality. Col did a project last year in which he looked more closely at engagement, the write up of that project gives a good introduction to student engagement. It includes the following quote

Most of the research into measuring student engagement prior tot he widespread adoption of online, or web based classes, has concentrated on the simple measure of attendance (Douglas & Alemanne, 2007). While class attendance is a crude measure, in that it is only ever indicative of participation and does not necessarily consider the quality of the participation, it has nevertheless been found to be an important variable in determining student success (Douglas, 2008)

Sounds a bit like a case of McNamara’s fallacy to me. A point Col makes when he says “it could be said that class attendance is used as a metric for engagement, simply because it is one of the few indicators of engagement that are visible”.

With the move to the LMS, it was always going to happen that academic analytics would be used to develop measures of student engagement (and other indicators). Indeed, that’s the aim of Col’s project. However, I do think that academic analytics is going to run the danger of McNamara’s fallacy. So busy focused on what we can measure easily, we miss the more important stuff that we can’t.

The grammar of school, psychological dissonance and all professors are rather ludditical

Yesterday, via a tweet from @marksmithers I read this post from the author of the DIYU book titled “Vast Majority of Professors Are Rather Ludditical”. This is somewhat typical of the defict model of academics which is fairly prevalent and rather pointless. It’s pointless for a number of reasons, but the main one is that it is not a helpful starting point for bringing a out change as it ignores the broader problem and consequently most solutions that arise from a deficit model won’t work.

One of the major problems this approach tends to ignore is the broader impact of the grammar of school (first from Tyack and Cuban and then Papert). I’m currently reading The nature of technology (more on this later) by W. Brian Arthur. The following is a summary and a little bit of reflection upon a section titled “Lock-in and Adaptive Stretch”, which seems to connect closely with the grammar of school idea.

Psychological dissonance and adaptive stretch

Arthur offers the following quote from the sociologist Diane Vaughan around psychological dissonance

[In the situations we deal with as humans, we use] a frame of reference constructed from integrated sets of assumptions, expectations and experiences. Everything is perceived on the basis of this framework. The framework becomes self-confirming because, whenever we can, we tend to impost it on experiences and events, creating incidents and relationships that conform to it. And we tend to ignore, misperceive, or deny events that do not fit it. As a consequence, it generally leads us to what we are looking for. This frame of references is not easily altered or dismantled, because the way we tend to see the world is intimately linked to how we see and define ourselves in relation to the world. Thus, we have a vested interest in maintaining consistency because our own identity is at risk.

Arthur goes onto to suggest that “the greater the distances between a novel solution and the accepted one, the large is this lock-in to previous tradition”. He then defines the lock-in of the older approach as adaptive stretch. This is the situation where it is easier to reach for the old approaches and adapt it to the new circumstances through stretching.

Hence professors are ludditical

But haven’t I just made the case, this is exactly what happens with the vast majority of academic practice around e-learning. If they are using e-learning at all – and not simply sticking with face-to-face teaching – most teaching academics are still using lectures, printed notes and other relics of the past that they have stretched into the new context.

They don’t have the knowledge to move on, so we have to make them non-ludditical. This is when management and leadership at universities rolls into action and identifies plans and projects that will help generate non-ludditical academics.

The pot calling the kettle black

My argument is that if you step back a bit further the approaches being recommended and adopted by researchers and senior management; the way those approaches are implemented; and they way they are evaluated for success, are themselves suffering from psychological dissonance and adaptive stretch. The approaches almost without exception borrow from a traditional project management approach and go something like:

  • Small group of important people identify the problem and the best solution.
  • Hand it over to a project group to implement.
  • The project group tick the important project boxes:
    • Develop a detailed project plan with specific KPIs and deadlines.
    • Demonstrate importance of project by wheeling out senior managers to say how important the project is.
    • Implement a marketing push involving regular updates, newsletters, posters, coffee mugs and presentations.
    • Develop compulsory training sessions which all must attend.
    • Downplay any negative experiences and explain them away.
    • Ensure correct implementation.
    • Get an evaluation done by people paid for and reporting to the senior managers who have been visibly associated with the project.
    • Explain how successful the project was.
  • Complain about how the ludditical academics have ruined the project through adaptive stretching.

Frames of reference and coffee mugs

One of the fundamental problem with these approaches to projects within higher education is that it effectively ignores the frames of reference that academics bring to problem. Rather than start with the existing frames of reference and build on those, this approach to projects is all about moving people straight into a new frame of reference. In doing this, there is always incredible dissonance between how the project people think an action will be interpreted and how it actually is interpreted.

For example, a few years ago the institution I used to work for (at least as of CoB today) adopted Chickering and Gamson’s (1987) 7 principles for good practice in undergraduate teaching as a foundation for the new learning and teaching management plan. The project around this decision basically followed the above process. As part of the marketing push, all academics (and perhaps all staff) received a coffee mug and a little palm card with the 7 principles in nice text and a link to the project website. The intent of the project was to increase awareness of the academics of the 7 principles and how important they were to the institution.

The problem was, that at around this time the institution was going through yet more restructures and there was grave misgivings from senior management about how much money the institution didn’t have. The institution was having to save money and this was being felt by the academics in terms of limits on conference travel, marking support etc. It is with this frame of reference that the academics saw the institution spending a fair amount of money on coffee mugs and palm cards. Just a touch of dissonance.

What’s worse, a number of academics were able to look at the 7 principles and see principle #4 “gives prompt feedback” and relate that to the difficulty of giving prompt feedback because there’s no money for marking support. Not to mention the push from some senior managers about how important research is to future career progression.

So, the solution is?

I return to a quote from Cavallo (2004) that I’ve used before

As we see it, real change is inherently a kind of learning. For
people to change the way they think about and practice education, rather than merely being told what to do differently, we believe that practitioners must have experiences that enable appropriation of new modes of teaching and learning that enable them to reconsider and restructure their thinking and practice.

Rather than tell academics what to do, you need to create contextualised experiences for academics that enable appropriation of new models of teaching and learning. What most senior managers at universities and many of the commentators don’t see, is that the environment at most universities is preventing academics from having these experiences and then preventing them from appropriating the new models of teaching.

The policies, processes, systems and expectations senior managers create within universities are preventing academics from becoming “non-ludditical”. You can implement all the “projects” you want, but if you don’t work on the policies, processes, systems and expectations in ways that connect with the frames of reference of the academics within the institution, you won’t get growth.

References

Cavallo, D. (2004). Models of growth – Towards fundamental change in learning environments. BT Technology Journal, 22(4), 96-112.

Chickering, A. W., & Gamson, Z. F. (1987). Seven principles for good practice in undergraduate education. AAHE Bulletin, 39(7), 3-7.

McGuffins, learning, teaching and universities

D’Arcy Norman suggests that Edupunk is a McGuffin. I like the metaphor. But I think it breaks down a bit, at least in the context I’m interested in.

Wikipedia uses a definition of a McGuffin that suggests it is “a plot element that catches the viewers’ attention or drives the plot of a work of fiction”. Wikipedia suggests that the defining characteristic of a McGuffin is

the major players in the story are (at least initially) willing to do and sacrifice almost anything to obtain it, regardless of what the MacGuffin actually is.

.

Importantly, as Wikipedia suggests

the specific nature of the MacGuffin may be ambiguous, undefined, generic, left open to interpretation or otherwise completely unimportant to the plot.

What is important is not the details or nature of edupunk, top-down quality assurance, problem-based learning, teacher-of-the year awards, or anything else. What is important is what happens as a result of the characters wanting to obtain the McGuffin. In movies, what’s important is a good plot.

I work in a university context. In that context, I think what’s important is improving the quality of learning and teaching. I don’t see enough of that happening. To a large extent I think this is due to the absence of appropriate McGuffins. The current McGuffins within a university context aren’t driving the majority of academics to improve the quality of learning and teaching.

Edupunk is the right McGuffin for some. But I’m not sure how widespread that is. The folk interested in Edupunk are generally not the ones that need a McGuffin.

So, what is the McGuffin for improving L&T within a university? Does it make sense for there to be one, or even a small number of McGuffins?

Functional fixedness, analytics, and the LMS

A blog post on the website of Gilfes Education Group (apparently a “network of independent education experts”) picks up on the Indicators project and its take on academic analytics. The post seems to largely in agreement with what we’re doing and the reasons behind it.

The following seeks to pick up on a point made in the Gilfus post about the problem arising from ownership of the data and some of the other barriers that have been proposed. The argument I develop in the following that functional fixedness is a major barrier to the effective appropriation of academic analytics to help improve learning and teaching.

But first, an experiment

Imagine if you will that we’re in a room together. I’m going to set you a task. Here’s some matches, a box of tacks and a candle (see the image below). Your task is to attach the candle to a cork board on the wall in way that means that wax from the candle does not drip onto the table that is underneath the cork board.

Candle problem set up

How do you do it?

The solution is given an image at the end of this post.

Apparently, if I rephrase the problem solution a little to the following, it might improve your chances of success.

Here’s some matches, a box of tacks and a candle (see the image below). Your task is to attach the candle to a cork board on the wall in way that means that wax from the candle does not drip onto the table that is underneath the cork board.

Functional fixedness

If you’re anything like my brother-in-law on whom I tested this out in person, you did not arrive at the solution quickly, if at all. This experiment is called the candle problem and has been used to demonstrate the problem of functional fixedness.

Functional fixedness suggests that you have fixated on the design function of the object – i.e. the box of tacks is designed to hold the tacks – so much that you cannot see how it might be put to a different use to solve this problem. To put it in the words of German and Barrett (2005)

Problem solving can be inefficient when the solution requires subjects to generate an atypical function for an object and the object’s typical function has been primed

In other words, the problem description above had the box’s typical function primed as holding the tacks, hindering your ability to see another use for the box.

Academic analytics, the LMS and functional fixedness

For most universities there is an existing set of information systems. There’s the learning management system (LMS) in which learning takes place, and there is the data warehouse and associated business intelligence tools for providing reports and information. The people within these organisations, especially those already supporting (the IT folk) and using (management) the data warehouse, have been primed to see a typical use for these systems. They are fixated on using the LMS and data warehouse in a particular way.

Add into this mix the typical under resourcing/inefficient management of IT, and the typical top-down, techno-rational approach to management and it is simply too difficult for organisational members to see the case for moving aspects of academic analytics into the LMS.

It doesn’t help that it’s messy

The matter isn’t helped much by the benefits of moving aspects of academic analytics into the LMS are somewhat uncertain and messy. Being uncertain and messy aren’t characteristics of an approach likely to overcome functional fixedness. Especially in organisational environments where being efficient (defined as doing what we already do or have strategically planned to do) is the main intermediate goal. But then this is why innovation is hard in organisations, innovation is messy.

References

German, T. and H. C. Barrett (2005). “Functional fixedness in a technologically sparse culture.” Psychological Science 16(1): 1-5.

Solution

The solution to the Candle problem is represented in the following image.

Candle problem solution

The confusion of small and big changes

Over the last couple of days I’ve enjoyed a small discussion that has arisen out of some comments Kevin has made on my blog. This post is an attempt to partially engage with the most recent comment. I echo Kevin’s conclusion, I’d love to hear anyone else’s take on this.

The unanswered question

The main point I’d like to discuss is the question of small versus big changes. I have an opinion on this, but there’s not enough evidence to suggest that it’s an answer. The basic question might be phrased as: How do you improve the quality significant improvement in the quality of L&T in universities? You could make this much more general, along the lines of “How do you change organisational practices?”, but I’m going to stick with the specific.

I’m familiar with two broad responses:

  • Revolutionary (usually top-down) change; and
    This is where the necessary change is identified by someone, eventually they get agreement/the ability to implement the change through some sort of change management process. This usually involves some big change. e.g. the adoption of a new LMS for a university, trashing the LMS and adopting WPMU for L&T, adopting university wide graduate attributes, requiring every academic to have a formal teaching qualification etc. Or even more radical, the death of universities and their replacement by something else.
  • Evolutionary (usually bottom-up) change.
    Small-scale changes in practice, usually at the local level.

Kevin’s comment gives a good summary of the common problem with the evolutionary change approach

In my experience, especially at a large institution, taking the “small changes” route is the road to perdition. For me, this means I have to engage in a million little negotiations to get the small to accumulate to something significant. At the rate I’m going it will take me two lifetimes to bring about real change in the English Department.

As I mentioned above and indicate by the heading for this section, I don’t have what I would call an answer. I have an argument for the approach I would take and some evidence to support it, but I don’t think I can call it “the answer” (yet).

What I think is the answer

Last I year I gave a presentation called Herding cats, losing weight and how to improve learning and teaching (slides and video are available). In that presentation, the analogy used is that revolutionary change is like herding cats and that evolutionary change is like losing weight. Using this analogy I argue that the herding cats approach to improve the quality of teaching at a University has not worked empirically and that there is significant theory to explain why it will never work. That same theory suggests that an evolutionary approach informed by lessons learned from weight loss, is much more promising.

The general solution I suggest is one slide 200 or so (it was only a 60 minute presentation) and goes under the title “reflective alignment” and can be summarised as

All aspects of the learning and teaching environment are aligned to enable and encourage academic staff to reflect on their teaching with the aim of achieving 3rd order change.

Framed another way, the teaching environment at a university encourages and enables academics to be changing their thinking and practice of teaching. That is essentially do what they do now, make small changes each time they teach a course, but rather than changes that are not constrained by the same ways of thinking about teaching.

Having academics continually making these sorts of 3rd order changes (within an institution that encourages and enables them to make those 3rd order changes) will result (I think) in radically different and significantly improved learning and teaching.

When small changes won’t work

Like Kevin, I think that universities relying on small changes to improve learning and teaching will not work. Mostly because the university environment does not encourage nor enable the type of small scale changes that are required.

In the herding cats presentation a large part of the time was listing the parts of the university teaching environment that actively prevents the type of 3rd order change that is necessary. In fact, much of the bleating in posts on this blog are complaining about these limitations. Some examples include:

  • Rewards that favour research, not teaching.
    No matter how many formal teaching qualifications an academic is forced to acquire, if they get promoted (both at their current and other universities) through the quality of their promotion, then they will focus on research, not teaching.
  • Pressures arising from quality assurance and simplistic KPIs.
    Since the mid-1990s I’ve observed that it is only the courses with large failure rates or student complaints that get any attention from university management. Students, like most people get scared when their expectations aren’t meant. That means if you try something innovative students will complain. In addition, if you try something innovative you might have problems, which management hate. If you try something different, you are more likely to have to waste time responding to “management concerns”. The presentation references research showing that this is preventing academics from trying innovative work.

    With the rise of quality assurance and corporate aproaches to management, this trend is getting worse.

  • Removal of autonomy;
    As I’ve argued in a couple of posts top-down management is removing academic autonomy and perhaps purpose and subsequently reducing academic motivation.
  • Constraining systems;
    Increasingly universities are using information systems to perform learning and teaching. Those systems are designed on particular assumptions that limit the ability to change. The most obvious example is the LMS (be it open or closed source). This recent post includes discussion of this point around the LMS.

    The people, processes and policies within universities are being set up to use these systems. If you use something different, you are being inefficient.

  • Simplistic understandings of innovation.
    When it comes to understanding innovations (e.g. something as simple as a new LMS), universities have naive perspectives of the adoption process. As recognised by Bigum and Rowan (2004) this naive perspective assumes that the innovation passes through the adoption process largely unchanged, which means that the social must conform with the innovation.

    i.e. As the institution starts to adopt Moodle across all its courses, Moodle can and should stay exactly the same. You only need to show people how to use Moodle, nothing more. If what they want to do is not supported by Moodle, then they need to conform to what Moodle does, regardless of the ramifications.

My argument is that all of this and other factors within a university environment actively prevent small changes having broad outcomes. The university environment is actively discouraging 3rd order change and isn’t even very good at achieving 2nd order change.

But small change can’t make a big difference

Ignoring all that, people still get stuck on the idea of lots of small change creating really big change. They are wrong.

To justify that, first let me draw on people recognised as being much smarter and more important than I (Weick and Quinn, 1999)

The distinctive quality of continuous change is the idea that small continuous adjustments, created simultaneously across units, can cumulate and create substantial change.

The main reason people have trouble with this idea (I think) is that they think that the world is ordered and predictable. That the world is an ordered system. If you make a small change, you get a small effect. However, when you’re talking about a complex system, small changes can create radical outcomes.

I don’t have time to expand on this here, it’s talked about in the presentation I mentioned above. Anyway, Dave Snowden and any number of other people make this point better than I.

Big and small change in the wrong place

Here’s a new idea. One of the reasons why I think most universities are failing to improve the quality of their teaching is that they are focusing on big and small change in the wrong places.

In my experience, most universities are trying to make big improvement in teaching by introducing big changes in what academics do. Use a different system, use a different pedagogy, radically change your teaching so you are constructively aligned, get a teaching qualification etc. But at the same time, there is no radical change in the how the teaching environment works. There are no solutions to the above problems with the environment.

What I am suggesting is that there should be big changes in the environment to enable small changes on the part of the academic. In fact, in the presentation I argue that the aim is to help the academics do what good teaching academics have always done (Common, 1989)

Master teachers are not born; they become. They become primarily by developing a habit of mind, a way of looking critically at the work they do by developing the courage to recognise faults, and struggling to improve.

References

Bigum, C. and L. Rowan (2004). “Flexible learning in teacher education: myths, muddles and models.” Asia-Pacific Journal of Teacher Education 32(3): 213-226.

Common, D. (1989). “Master teachers in higher education: A matter of settings.” The Review of Higher Education 12(4): 375-387.

Weick, K. and R. Quinn (1999). “Organizational change and development.” Annual Review of Psychology 50: 361-386.

The road not taken

A recent post of mine continued the trend of reflecting on the impacts – in my mind negative impacts – of a top-down, compliance driven culture in higher education. This bit has been encouraged by
a comment on that post which makes a number of interesting points, at least in terms of encouraging some additional thinking on my part. It’s also serindipitously coincided with some recent local events.

My interpretation

I’ve interpreted the post as suggesting that no oversight can lead to a proliferation of chaos or bad practice. In terms of talking about teaching and learning within a university I tend to agree – more on this below. There’s also a point about moving academics beyond some of their existing practices and the suggestion that the top-down chain of command isn’t really a solution. It closes with something sparked this post

Yes, this means we have to sell, not try to dictate. Long road.

Free-for-all, top-down compliance and chaos

“Chaos” or complexity is not necessarily a bad thing. However, I do except that an organisation – like a university – does generally have to do something to ensure that the quality of its teaching and learning is improving. (Note: one of my principles is “It’s not how bad you start, but how quickly you get better”. I don’t believe in “being good” as a goal, it’s an on-going process.) At the very least I think a university taking public funds has to demonstrate that it is using those funds somewhat effectively.

This is why in the post that started this thread I proposed that the first stage of improving learning and teaching (i.e. what the teacher is) is not way to achieve this. In that stage, each academic is left to their own devices. What they do is up to them and their preferences and capabilities. There is little or no support. In my experience with this stage, there are some examples of very good teaching, but the vast majority is somewhat lacking.

This is where the process/quality/teaching nazis appear. These include consultants, government, educational researchers, senior management, IT folk etc. Each of these folk have the solution. The quality of teaching would be wonderful within the organisation if only every academic used process Y, product X. If every course had mapped its graduate attributes and had a course site that met a minimum service standard, then the quality of teaching would be wonderful. So, let’s set up a project team, specify the outcomes, implement them and then report success. Typically the aim is something along the lines of “Develop a systemic University-wide approach to learning and teaching” or perhaps even worse prove efficiency and control by aiming to “Centralise the strategic planning and managing of funds for learning and teaching support, activities and initiatives”.

In my experience these approaches never work. Mainly because the decisions made by the centralised, systemic University approach to learning and teaching are informed by experiences far removed from the realities of the teaching academics. The people making the decisions are generally senior managers who have either no recent teaching experience or only very narrow teaching experiences. Instead, the experience of these folk quickly becomes limited to the “systemic university-wide approach to learning and teaching”. That is, the initiatives they identify as important (e.g. mapping graduate attributes) become their main experience. Everything they think and do arises from that project. Their experience limits what decisions they can make.

What’s worse, the current management environment in Australian university encourages short-term (5 year) contracts for senior managers. In order to keep their job or move onto a new one, these managers have to prove their “ability to lead”. This means that they have to have successfully “led” completed projects which they can put on their CV. What’s worse, those projects have to fit within the current fads within higher education. The priority of these managers is not improving the experience of coal-face teaching academics, it’s about achieving the successful implementation of “systemic University-wide” projects.

This is why senior management can be so confident saying that Project X is a great success, when the coal-face teaching academics will be telling a very different story. This is what Chris Argyris (1990) termed organisational defensive routines and model 1 behaviour in organisations – discussed in this post.

So, in the second way, which I describe as “what management does”, the decisions about how to improve learning and teaching are being made by people who have limited experience of coal-face teaching and who also have significant motivating factors to have successful projects. Is it any surprise that this approach doesn’t create long-term sustainable change?

Rather than create the “proof” of effectiveness required by those providing the funds, this approach creates compliance and task corruption. i.e. the KPIs are met, but by ticking the boxes, not in outcome. For example, I know of an institution that has developed a “checklist” for course websites. It’s a long list of requirements that a minimum course site is expected to fulfill. The idea is that academics that build these sites, and their colleagues of moderate the course and course site, will work their way through the checklist ensuring that each requirement is fulfilled. In reality, a significant number of academics are asking “Is you’re site ready?” and then ticking all the boxes.

The road not taken

My argument is that there is a third way that promises better outcomes, but it’s continuing to the road not taken. Which is somewhat surprising for my current institution given that it’s strategic plan includes the following in its vision

We strive to understand their environment and situation, their
circumstances and goals, so we can help them achieve what they want to achieve and be who and what they want to be, one person at a time.

This is a brilliant summation of what I’m trying to get at with the “third way”. My post from yesterday gives some background into the origins of this perspective (more to come).

In terms of the third way, I should have mentioned Dave Snowden’s “how to manage a birthday party story” (the video is below) which also fits nicely with the three ways I’ve expressed. Here’s the connection I make:

  • chaotic system == what the teacher is.
  • ordered system == what management does.
  • complex system == what the teacher does.

References

Argyris, C. (1990). Overcoming Organisational Defenses: Facilitating Organisational Learning, Prentice Hall.

The role of experience

Peter Albion picked up on an earlier post of mine and offers a brief description of his own experience within Australian universities. In particular, the increasing focus on compliance with bureaucratic systems as a means of assuring quality, a move back to hierarchies of command and control and apparent adoption of a Theory X view. A view that resonates with what I see within my current institution and one others talk about.

This morning I was listening to this talk by Baroness Susan Greenfield. In the end she suggests that online network is potentially harmful, but I’m going to ignore that. One of the fundamental planks for her argument is brain plasticity. i.e. that the brain is shaped by what we do with it. What we experience, what we think shapes our brain.

What is the current environment of compliance, command and control, and Theory X doing to the thoughts and brains of the academics that work within them?

Dan Pink talks about motivation and suggests that it requires workers to have feelings of autonomy, mastery and purpose. When it comes to learning and teaching within universities, I’ve argued previously that for some the current environment provides anything but that combination.

As it happens, I’m also reading at the moment a book by James Zull called The Art of Changing the Brain: Enriching the practice of teaching by exploring the biology of learning. I think this quote is interesting (emphasis in original)

..no outside influence or force can cause a brain to learn. It will decide on its own. Thus, one important rule for helping people to learn is to help the learner feel she is in control.

For me, the lesson here is that if you want to improve learning and teaching at Universities, the academics have to feel that they are in control. This does not mean they do their own thing. As Peter wrote

There is some benefit in ensuring that certain basics are in place but there is also room for some variation that provides scope for the next improvement to emerge.

The academic has to feel like they are in charge of that next improvement, to have the room for some variation. The compliance, top-down culture infecting universities (in Australia at least) is removing that control and is often ineffective in ensuring that the basics are in place because it has removed the motivation (in the form of autonomy, mastery and purpose) from the academics.

The need for a third way

One of the themes for this blog is that the majority of current approaches to improving learning and teaching within universities simply don’t work. At least not in terms of enabling improvement in a majority of the learning and teaching at an institution. Recently I finally completed reading the last bits of the book Nudge by Thaler and Sunstein. Chapter 18 is titled “The Real Third Way”. This post explores how that metaphor connects with some of the thinking expressed here.

The real third way

Thaler and Sunstein mention that the “20th century was pervaded by a great deal of artificial talk about the possibility of a ‘Third Way'” in politics. Their proposal is that libertarian paternalism, the topic of the book, represents a real third way. I’m not talking politics but there appears to be the same need to break out of a pointless dichotomy and move onto something more useful.

The characterisations of the two existing ways provided by Thaler and Sunstein are fairly traditional (stereotypical?) extremes of the political spectrum. i.e.:

  1. Liberal/Democrat – “enthusiasm for rigid national requirements and for command-and-control regulation. Having identified serious problems in the private market, Democrats have often insisted on firm mandates, typically eliminating or at least reducing freedom of choice.”.
  2. Conservative/Republican – have argued against government intervention and on behalf of a laissez-fair approach with freedom of choice being a defining principle. They argue that “in light of the sheer diversity of Americans one size cannot possibly fit all”.

Thaler and Sunstein’s third way – libertarian paternalism – is based on two claims:

  1. Choice architecture is pervasive and unavoidable.
    Small features of social situations have a significant impact on the decisions people make. The set of these features – the choice architecture – in any given social situation already exists and is already influencing people toward making good or bad decisions.
  2. Choice architecture can be manipulated while retaining freedom of choice.
    It is possible to make minor changes to the set of features in a social situation such that it encourages people to make “better” decisions, whilst still allowing them to make the “bad” decision, if that’s what they want.

Connections with improving learning and teaching

Early last year I borrowed and slightly modified Bigg’s 3 levels of teaching to identify 3 levels of improving learning and teaching. Obviously there is a numerical connection between these 3 levels and the “3 ways” outlined above. The more I’ve thought about it, the more I realise that the connections are more significant than that, and that the “3rd way” seems to be a useful way to position my beliefs about how to improve learning and teaching within a university. Here goes my first attempt at explicating it.

Expanding upon the 3 levels of improving L&T

The 3 levels I initially introduced can be expanded/morphed into ways or into stages. In terms of stages, I could probably argue that the levels/stages represent a historical evolution of how learning and teaching has been dealt within in Universities. Those three stages are:

  1. What the teacher is (i.e. ignore L&T).
    This is the traditional/historical stage that some long term academics look back on with fond memories. Where university management didn’t really get involved with teaching and learning. Individual academics were left to teach the course they way they felt it should be taught. There was little over sight and little need for outside support.

    The quality of the teaching was solely down to the nature of the teacher. If they were a good teacher, good things happened. If bad….. This was the era of selective higher education where, theoretically, only the best and the brightest went to university and most were seen to have the intellectual capability and drive to succeed regardless.

    For a surprising number of universities, especially those in the top rank of universities, this is still primarily how they operate. However, those of us working in “lesser” institutions are now seeing a different situation.

  2. What management does (i.e. blame the teacher).
    Due to the broadly publicised characteristics of globalisation, the knowledge economy, accountability etc. there is now significant pressure upon universities to demonstrate that the teaching at their institutions is of high quality. Actually, this has morphed into proxy measures where the quality of teaching is being measured by ad hoc student memories of their experience (CEQ surveys), how many of the academics have been forced to complete graduate certificates in higher education, what percentage of courses have course websites and how well the institution has filled out forms mapping graduate attributes.

    All of these changes to the practice of teaching and learning are projects that are initiated and “led” by senior university management. The success of the institution is based on how well senior university management have been in completing those projects.

    As each new fad arises within government of the university sector, there is a new set of projects to be completed. Similarly, when a new set of senior management start within an institution, there is a new set of projects to be completed. In this case, however, the projects aren’t typically all that new. Instead they are simply the opposite of what the last management did. i.e. if L&T support was centralised by the last lot of management, it must now be de-centralised.

    Most academics suffering through this stage would like to move back to the first stage, I think they and their institutions need to move onto the next one.

  3. What the teacher does.
    For me this is where the institution its systems, processes etc are continually being aligned to encourage and enable academics to improve what they are doing. The focus is on what the teacher does. This has strong connections with ideas of distributive leadership, the work of Fullan (2008) and Biggs (2001).

    For me implementing this stage means taking an approach more informed by complex adaptive systems, distributive leadership, libertarian paternalism, emergent/ateleological design and much more. This stage recognises that in many universities stage 1 doesn’t work any longer. There are too many people and skills that need to be drawn upon for successful teaching that academics can’t do it by themselves (if they ever did). However, that doesn’t mean that the freedom of academics to apply their insights and knowledge should be removed.

So, now I’ve expanded on those, time to connect these three ways with some other triads.

Connections with politics

The following table summarises what I see as the connections with the 3 stages of improving learning and teaching and the work of Thaler and Sunstein (2008).

  1. Conservative/republican == What the teacher is.
    i.e. the laissez-faire approach to teaching and learning. Academics are all too different, no one system or approach to teaching can work for us.
  2. Liberal/democrat == What management does.
    There are big problems with learning and teaching at universities that can only be solved by major projects led by management. Academics can’t be trusted to teach properly we need to put in place systems that mandate how they will teach and force them to comply.
  3. Libertarian paternalism == What the teacher does.
    The teaching environment (including the people, systems, processes, policies and everything else) within a university has all sorts of characteristics that influence academics to make good and bad decisions about how they teach. To improve teaching you need to make small and on-going changes to the characteristics of that environment so that the decisions academics are mostly likely will improve the quality of their teaching and learning. A particular focus should be on encouraging and enabling academics to reflect on their practice and take appropriate action.

Approaches to planning

This morning George Siemens pointed to this report (Baser and Morgan, 2008) and made particular mention of the following chart that compares assumptions between two different approaches to planning.

Comparison of assumptions in different approaches to planning (adapted from )
Aspect Traditional planning Complex adaptive systems
Source of direction Often top down with inputs from partners Depends on connections between the system agents
Objectives Clear goals and structures Emerging goals, plans and structures
Diversity Values consensus Expects tension and conflict
Role of variables Few variables determine the outcome Innumerable variables determine outcomes
Focus of attention The whole is equal to the sum of the parts The whole is different than the sum of the parts
Sense of the structure Hierarchical Interconnected web
Relationships Important and directive Determinant and empowering
Shadow system Try to ignore and weaken Accept most mental models, legitimacy and motivation for action is coming out of this source
Measures of success Efficiency and reliability are measures of value Responsiveness to the environment is the measure of value
Paradox Ignore or choose Accept and work with paradox, counter-forces and tension
View on planning Individual or system behaviour is knowable, predictable and controllable Individual and system behaviour is unknowable, unpredictable and uncontrollable
Attitude to diversity and conflict Drive for shared understanding and consensus Diverse knowledge and particular viewpoints
Leadership Strategy formulator and heroic leader Facilitative and catalytic
Nature of direction Control and direction from the top Self-organisation emerging from the bottom
Control Designed up front and then imposed from the centre Gained through adaptation and self-organisation
History Can be engineered in the present Path dependent
External interventions Direct Indirect and helps create the conditions for emergence
Vision and planning Detailed design and prediction. Needs to be explicit, clear and measurable. A few simple explicit rules and some minimum specifications. But leading to a strategy that is complex but implicit
Point of intervention Design for large, integrated interventions Where opportunities for change present themselves
Reaction to uncertainty Try to control Work with chaos
Effectiveness Defines success as closing the gap with preferred future Defines success as fit with the environment

I was always going to like this table as it encapsulates, extends and improves my long term thinking about how best to improve learning and teaching within universities. I’ve long ago accepted (Jones, 2000; Jones et al, 2005)) that universities are complex adaptive systems and that any attempt to treat them as ordered systems is doomed to failure.

I particularly liked the row on shadow systems as it corresponds with what some colleagues and I (Jones et al, 2004) suggested sometime ago.

In terms of connections with the stages of improving learning and teaching,

  1. No planning == What the teacher is.
    i.e. there is no real organisational approach to planning how to improve learning and teaching. It’s all left up to the academic.

    Often “traditional planning” proponents will refer to the complex adaptive systems approach to planning as “no planning”. Or worse they’ll raise the spectre of no control, no discipline or no governance over the compelx adaptive systems planning approach. What they are referring is actually the no planning stage. A CAS planning approach, done well, needs as much if not more discipline and “governance” as a planning approach, done well.

  2. Traditional planning == What management does.
    University management (at least in Australia) is caught in this trap of trying to manage universities as if they were ordered systems. They are creating strategic plans, management plans, embarking on analysis and then design of large scale projects and measuring success by the completion of those projects, not on what they actually do to the organisation or the quality of learning and teaching.
  3. Complex adaptive systems == What the teacher does.
    The aim is to increase the quantity and quality of the connections between agents within the university. To harness the diversity inherent in a large group of academics to develop truly innovative and appropriate improvements. To be informed by everything in the complex adaptive systems column.

Orders of change

There also seems to be connections to yet another triad described by Bartunek and Moch (1987) when they take the concept of schemata from cognitive science and apply it to organisational development. Schemata are organising frameworks or frames that are used (without thinking) to make decisions. i.e. you don’t make decisions about events alone, how you interpret them is guided by the schemata you are using. Schemata (Bartunek and Moch, 1987):

  • Help identify entities and specify relationships amongst them.
  • Act as data reduction devices as situations/entities are represented as belonging to a specific type of situation.
  • Guide people to pay attention to some aspects of the situation and to ignore others.
  • Guide how people understand or draw implications from actions or situations.

In moving from the cognition of individuals to organisations, the idea is that different organisations (and sub-parts thereof) develop organisational schemata that a sustained through myths, stories and metaphors. These organisational schemata guide how the organisation understands and responds to situations in much the same way as individual schemata. e.g. they influence what is important and what is not.

Bartunek and Moch (1987) then suggest that planned organisational change is aimed at trying to change organisational schemata. They propose that successful organisational change achieves one or more of three different orders of schematic change (Bartunek and Moch, 1987, p486):

  1. First-order change – the tacit reinforcement of present understandings.
  2. Second-order change – the conscious modification of present schemata in a particular direction.
  3. Third-order change – the training of organisational members to be aware of their present schemata and thereby more able to change these schemata as they see fit.

Hopefully, by now, you can see where the connection with the three stages of improving teaching and learning are going, i.e.

  1. First-order change == What the teacher is.
    Generally speaking how teaching is understood by the academics doesn’t change. Their existing schemata are reinforced.
  2. Second-order change == What management does.
    Management choose a new direction and then lead a project that encourages/requires teaching academics to accept the new schemata. When the next fad or the next set of management arrives, a new project is implemented and teaching academics once again have to accept a new schemata. If you’re like me, then you question whether or not the academics are actually accepting this new schemata or they are being seen to comply.

    The most obvious current example of this approach is the current growing requirements for teaching academics to have formal teaching qualifications. i.e. by completing the formal teaching qualification they will change their schemata around teaching. Again, I question (along with some significant literature) the effectiveness of this.

  3. Third-order change == What the teacher does.
    The aim here is to have an organisational environment that encourages and enables individual academics to reflect on their current schemata around teaching and be able to change it as they see problems.

    From this perspective, I see the major problem within universities not being that academics don’t have appropriate schemata to improve teaching, but that the environment within which they operate doesn’t encourage nor enable them to implement, reflect or change their schemata.

Conclusions

I think there is a need for a 3rd way to improving learning and teaching within universities. It is not something that is easy to implement. The 2nd way of improving learning and teaching is so embedded into the assumptions of government and senior management that they are not even aware of (or at best not going to mention) the limitations of their current approach or that there exists a 3rd way.

Look down the “Traditional planning” column in the table above and you can see numerous examples of entrenched, “common-sense” perspectives that have to be overcome if the 3rd way is to become possible. For example, in terms of diversity and conflict, most organisational approaches place emphasis on consensus. Everyone has to be happy and reading from the same hymn sheet, “why can’t everyone just get along?”. The requirement to have a hero leader and hierarchical organisational structures are other “common-sense” perspectives.

Perhaps the most difficult aspect of implementing a 3rd way is that there is no “template” or set process to follow. There is no existing university that has publicly stated it is following the 3rd way. Hence, there’s no-one to copy. An institution would have to be first. Something that would require courage and insight. Not to mention that any attempt to implement a 3rd way should (for me) adopt an approach to planning based on the complex adaptive systems assumptions from the above table.

References

Baser, H. and P. Morgan (2008). Capacity, Change and Performance Study Report, European Centre for Development Policy Management: 166.

Bartunek, J. and M. Moch (1987). “First-order, second-order and third-order change and organization development interventions: A cognitive approach.” The Journal of Applied Behavoral Science 23(4): 483-500.

Biggs, J. (2001). “The Reflective Institution: Assuring and Enhancing the Quality of Teaching and Learning.” Higher Education 41(3): 221-238.

Fullan, M. (2008). The six secrets of change. San Francisco, CA, John Wiley and Sons.

Jones, D. (2000). Emergent development and the virtual university. Learning’2000. Roanoke, Virginia.

Jones, D., J. Luck, et al. (2005). The teleological brake on ICTs in open and distance learning. Conference of the Open and Distance Learning Association of Australia’2005, Adelaide.

Thaler, R. and C. Sunstein (2008). Nudge: Improving decisions about health, wealth and happiness. New York, Penguin.

Requirements for an "indicators" Moodle block

The Indicators project team are off to Moodlemoot AU 2010. All three are giving presentations, but only two (i.e. not me) are on the indicators project. In thinking about how we might make the most of this opportunity, we’ve floated the idea of announcing an “indicators” Moodle block at the conference. This post is an attempt to make concrete our thinking and take some steps towards making it happen, hopefully even generate some interest and external comments.

What is an “indicators” Moodle block?

At least for me, at the moment, an “indicators” Moodle block is a simple extension to Moodle that just about anyone can install into their Moodle install and start getting some insights into whether or not what they (teaching staff, students or administrators) are doing is good, bad or indifferent.

Such a block would probably fulfill some/all of the following:

  • Can be embedded into a normal Moodle view.
    As a teaching staff member, or a student, the block would be part of my normal Moodle interface. It’s not located somewhere special that I have to remember to visit, it’s always there.
  • Is very visual.
    It sends a strong, very clear message. I don’t have to apply special knowledge or spend a lot of time trying to understand what it is telling me. If I’m doing something wrong, it should be red or something similar.

    This does NOT mean that is obtrusive. As a part of a normal Moodle view it can take my attention away from other stuff.

  • Enables comparisons.
    It doesn’t tell me how many times I’ve posted to the discussion forum, it tells me how much less (or more) I’ve posted than the best students, or all the students, or the worst students. In a friendly way it helps me understand how my use of the LMS compares to that of others.
  • Only uses what data is already in Moodle.
    The aim is for anyone with a Moodle install to be able to add this block and use if straight away. No need to modify/connect with external data sources (at least not yet).
  • Serves as a stepping stone to more functionality.
    The first block is our foray into providing such a service. Over time we might add more functionality. The block has to be a good open source project, something others can add to.

    Also, the block has to allow the use to provide more than just visualise the data. It should help them to plan actions they might take, to talk to others about this, to track history etc.

Other tasks

Apart from thinking about what it actually is, we also need to think about what we need to do to start implementation. Here’s my first list.

  • Identify some visualisation software.
    Most of these will be graphs or perhaps networks. We need to find a way to generate these graphs/network diagrams from PHP and in a way we can include in a Moodle block.
  • Figure out the Moodle database structure.
    Whatever we do we’ll be pulling data from Moodle. So need to find out the format for the bit we’re interested in.
  • Data caching?
    Most of these examples are likely to require getting a large bunch of data and doing some calculations before generate the visualisation. The block can’t be a performance hog, so we’re going to have to figure out some way to minimise performance impact. Caching?
  • Moodle block programming.
    Have done a little, there’s a bit of doco out there. So shouldn’t be too hard.
  • Managing the code.
    We haven’t done any joint development yet. Doing something like this would require us to figure out how we manage the development process.
  • Who does what?

Framing a body of research and innovation

Markus has finally posted the set of questions for framing a research proposal idea that he showed me weeks ago. This post is an attempt to use those questions to frame what I’m doing in my current position.

A simple test for BIM purposes, ignore

Write a research question

How can you improve the quality of learning and teaching within a university?

What is the important theoretical or conceptual setting?

Too much work in this area has not focused on the academic staff and factors or approaches that would encourage and enable them to change their teaching behaviour. The behaviour of the teacher is a key component of the quality of learning and teaching. Teaching and learning is getting more difficult.

Write 2-3 key points about why it is important (Significance? Innovation?)

  • Governments and other external stakeholders are increasingly demanding proof that university learning and teaching is good and getting better.
  • Most university learning and teaching is of less than good quality.
  • Most, if not all, interventions to improve L&T are not succeeding in widespread, long-term behaviour change (i.e. improving quality).

Write 1-2 brief objective points (formulate full aims later)

  • Evaluation of existing interventions, informed by behaviour change research, will reveal significant short-comings.
  • Interventions, informed by behaviour change research, will result in significantly greater levels of improvement of L&T.

Write a couple of points about the approach you might take

This is not necessarily just about a single research project and it is unlikely to have, at least initially, significant institutional support or recognition. A collaborative approach involving many different projects and people will be done. However, it seems likely that an on-going process of:

  1. Learning more about how behaviour change research may inform this project.
  2. Combining these insights with other knowledge to design interventions.
  3. Use the insights to evaluate both existing and new interventions. Also to further understanding of the current context.
  4. Publish.

Will I have all the expertise/resources? Should I be talking to collaborators? Might the proposal be strengthened by having a team?

A team is absolutely necessary. Knowledge of behaviour change research is essential. As is good knowledge of the local context and educational and technical skills to implement the interventions.

Do I or will I need some ‘proof of concept’, preliminary data or demonstration of competency to undertake the project?

Yes, the on-going process above will have to start small and learn from there.

Will the team/partners be competitive in this field?

At the moment, yes. There doesn’t appear to be too many people taking this approach.

What would the outcome(s) be and who benefits?

Hopefully, there will be improvements in L&T in the local context and research publications and grants around that work.

What is the ‘WOW’, ‘HOOK’, or ‘EXCITEMENT’ factor?

It appears that this is a new way of approaching an intractable problem.

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