Assembling the heterogeneous elements for (digital) learning

Category: quotes Page 1 of 2

An ateleological quote

Came across this presentation, “Learning how to learn” (a bit ra-ra, but covers many of the bases for changes in the world and implications for learning). It includes this quote

If you focus on results, you will never change. If you focus on change, you will get results — Jack Dixon

The quote is used widely, but I can’t find the original citation.

Ateleological connection

This quote resonates with my view that there needs to be more ateleological processes around organisations – especially schools and universities – and less of the traditional teleological processes.

A teleological process focuses on results. It defines what the goal is and measures progress against movement toward that goal. If you aren’t helping achieve that goal you’re wrong. Such an approach is a poor match for the current context of most organisations. It assumes that your existing schemata will allow you to think of what the future needs, that what will be required in the future won’t change before you get there, and that you can actually get a large group of people (e.g. academics) to work together for the same goal. Focus on the results, and you will never change.

An ateleological process focuses on the next small change to make within the very local context and focuses on making those changes fast and continuous whilst keeping in synch with what is going on in the world and the organisation. Focus on the change and you will get results.

The difference between utopian and dystopian visions

As part of the LAK11 course Howard Johnson has commented on an earlier post of mine. This post is a place holder for a really nice quote from Howard’s post, an example from recent media reports, and perhaps a bit of a reflection on responses to analytics.

The quote, some reasons and an example

I like this quote because it summarises what I see as the most common problem with the institutions I’ve been associated with. Especially in recent years as there’s been a much stronger move toward the adoption of more techno-rational approaches to management.

A utopian leaning vision can only be achieved with hard work and much effort, but a dystopian vision can be achieved with only minimal effort.

Improving learning and teaching within a modern university context is a complex task. There is no one right solution, there is no simple solution, no silver bullet. Improving learning and teaching is really hard work.

The trouble is that short-term contracts for senior management (which at some institutions now reach down to what were essentially head of school roles) and other characteristics of the organisational context mean that it is simply not possible for that really hard work to be undertaken. The organisational characteristics of Australian universities is increasingly biased towards a focus on the easy route. Something that can be implemented quickly, appear to return good results and enable a senior manager to boast about it when attempting to renew his/her contract and/or apply for a better job at a better institution.

Based on this argument, when I read this article (via @clairebroooks) and especially this quote from the article

Poor and disadvantaged students were clear winners, with university offers to students from low socio-economic backgrounds increasing by 8 per cent, following the higher participation targets set by the federal government after the 2008 Bradley review of higher education.

I find it very hard to believe that all of these institutions have adopted a utopian vision that has seen their learning and teaching practices, policies, resourcing and systems appropriately updated to respond to the very different needs and backgrounds of these students. Including the necessary re-visiting of the curriculum and learning designs used in their large introductory courses. The courses these students are going to be facing first and which traditionally, at most institutions in most disciplines, have significant failure rates already.

Instead, I see it much more likely that they’ve simply changed who they’ve accepted. At best, they may have thrown some additional resources (an extra warm body or two) to some central support division that is responsible for helping these students. These folk may even have had a couple of meetings with staff who teach those first year courses.

This is not to suggest there aren’t some brilliant folk doing fantastics work in both the central divisions responsible for the bridging and orientation of these students, or in the teaching of large first year courses. It is to suggest that this work is often/usually in spite of the organisational vision, not because of it. It is also to suggest that the existence of such work is almost certainly not repeatable or sustainable. My guess is you could go to any institution boasting how well it is serving these students and by selectively removing a handful of people cause the edifice of good practice to fall apart. The institutional systems wouldn’t be able to continue the good practice in the absence of those key folk.

The utopian vision professed by these institutions will be the result of the hard work of a few who have generally had to battle against the institutional vision and context.

One utopian vision for learning analytics

As Howard suggests much of the discussion of analytics has focused on the dystopian vision. It’s a vision I see as most the likely outcome. At least in the current institutional context.

But at the same time, I do believe that some applications of analytics can help improve the learning and teaching experience of students and staff. It’s important to be aware of and keep highlighting the dystopian vision, but it’s also important – and perhaps past time – to develop and move towards a utopian vision. Or at least to learn from trying. The following is an attempt at the early formulation of one of these. This particular vision connects with some of what I’ve been trying to do. The following does assume an institutional context for learning – that’s what I’m familiar with – am not sure how much of it would be useful for outside an institutional learning context.

Having just listened to John Fitz’s presentation via the lak11 podcast I’d like to pick up notion he mentioned of the self-regulated learner and the idea that analytics can provide useful assistance to that learner. A brief and incomplete summary of an aspect of John’s point would be that there is value in providing the learner with the information provided by analytics in order to enable the learner to make their own decisions.

I would like, however, to expand that to idea to the notion of the self-regulated teacher and the potential benefits that analytics can provide them. From my perspective there are at least three broad types of learner involved in any institutional learning context. They are:

  1. The formal student learner enrolled in a course/program.
    These folk are primarily interested in learning the “content” associated with the course.
  2. The formal teacher learner charged with running the course/program.
    These folk are/should be primarily interested in learning how they can improve the learning experience of the student.
  3. The institutional learner within which the course/program is offered.
    These “folk” are/should be primarily interested in learning how to improve the learning experience of the students and teachers within the institution. Similar to Biggs’ (2001) quality feasibility ideas. Though they are more often primarily interested in defining the learning experience, rather than engaging with and improving existing practices.

At this stage, I’m interested in how analytics can be used to help learner types 1 and 2. I’m keen on changing the learning/teaching environment for these learners in ways that help them improve their own practice (what I see as the task for learner type 3 and the task they aren’t doing). For right or wrong, for most of the higher education institutions I’m associated with the learning environment means the LMS. At least in terms of the contributions I might be able to make.

My small-scale utopian vision is the modification of the LMS environment to effectively bake in analytics informed services and modifications that can help student and teacher learners become more aware of possibly relevant improvements to their practice. Some examples include:

However, I don’t think these examples go far enough. There’s something missing. Additional thought needs to be given to the insights from the behaviour change literature which suggests that simply knowing about something isn’t sufficient to encourage change in behaviour.

This comes to the idea of scaffolding conglomerations. One idea for such a conglomeration might be to:

  • Embed SNAPP into an LMS (e.g. Moodle).
    At the moment, SNAPP is a browser based tool so it can only generate visualisations based on data in courses that the user has access to. For most people in most LMS this means you are limited by the inherent course division fundamental to LMS design. You can’t see and act upon the social networks evident in other courses.
  • Build around SNAPP some responses based on common patterns.
    One example might be a “Prompt all isolated students” feature that would present the academic with a template email (designed based on insights from theory or experience) that can be sent automatically to all discussion forum participants that aren’t connected to others. It might automatically include some statistics showing success rates between students that are isolated and those that are connected.
  • Enable user-contribution of common responses.
    Enable staff to add their own pattern response sequences.
  • Link SNAPP data with other Moodle and institutional data.
    Allow staff and students to see additional anonymised information with the SNAPP visualisations. e.g. shade red all those students who exhibit network connections similar to those who have failed the course previously.
  • Provide links to resources about good practice.
    When SNAPP detects a pattern where one person (e.g. the teacher) is the focal point of all interaction within a discusion forum, it provides a link to the literature and instructional design practice that suggests this is wrong and identifies approaches to modify practice.
  • Makes SNAPP data visible to other teachers within a cohort.
    All teachers within the psychology courses can see the network visualisations in each others courses. Thereby making visible and open for discussion social norms within those courses.

Time to stop worrying about dystopian vision (and also writing about a potential utopian vision) and start doing something. As per the Alan Kay quote

Don’t worry about what anybody else is going to do… The best way to predict the future is to invent it.

Changing times and connectivism

This is a simple holding place for some ideas and quotes from George Siemens’ recent Connectivism: Changing times talk.

Fundamental task of education

Translating this into high school teaching within formal settings raises some interesting questions

…the fundamental task of education is to enculturate youth into this knowledge-creating civilization and to help them find a place in it….traditional educational practices – with its emphasis on knowledge transmission – as well as newer constructivist methods both appear to be limited in scope if not entirely missing the point. (Scardamalia and Bereiter, 2006)

This is the challenge Siemens mentions later

Challenge to repurpose education on explicit system-wide connections and connectedness model

Challenging at the best time of times, but aiming for system-wide, that will be hard.

Knowledge == learning


In networks, knowledge and learning are the same thing: one is the product and the other the process


Siemens starts his suggestions with

Complexity, emergence, self-organisation

Which reinforces my beliefs/prejudices and hence is good. However, it also reinforces how had achieving anything system-wide will be when techno-rational management practices is the standard in formal education, especially public education.

Then comes

Social and knowledge connections

I have some ideas about how an individual teacher might enable some of this. Though building on it within a school would be also beneficial. Making the practice common for a cohort would perhaps be the first step.


Knowledge-building (growing)

My interpretation is that this is the ultimate goal. You want to model this for the students and then hope that they develop the practice/skill to continue this. Definitely looks like signing up and working at CCK 2011 should be a priority.

Segue into analytics

Towards the end there is the connection to analytics. Had wondered what got Siemens interested in this.

Complete (or nearly) connectedness requires emphasis to shift to data analysis, visualization

This has been one of the questions I’ve been asking of myself. One of the best known guidelines for teaching is that you have to start with what the learner knows. If they can’t easily make the connection to what you’re trying to teach, they won’t make the connection, the won’t learn. How do you know what a class of 20 to 30 kids know? How do you know what an individual student knows? How can you create environments that enable them to find the connections?

How and what “analytics” can you implement/harness within a school setting? Must admit that analytics as a term turns me off, reminds me of business intelligence folks and feeding management.

Leadership as appreciating resistance

Am busy reading and trying to do up a grant application, when I should be working on the PhD. However, I couldn’t bypass this quote from FUllan (2001: 65)

Defining effective leadership as appreciating resistance is another of those remarkable discoveries: dissent is seen as a potential source of new ideas and breakthroughs. The absence of conflict is a sign of decay … investing only in likeminded innovators is not necessarily a good thing. They become more likeminded … If you include the naysayers, noise in the early stages will yield later, greater implementation.

It resonates strongly with me for two reasons:

  1. the increasing prevalence of the opposite definition of leadership; and
    The trend towards increasingly corporate approaches within universities means that increasingly there are short-term management positions which have to deal with increasing demands for accountability from government etc. The simple and increasingly prevalent approach is to stomp all over resistance and naysayers. “You’re not a team player” and “Why so negative” are the common statements I’ve heard from this approach.

    This type of success is the “I deny your reality and substitute my own” approach to leadership. It’s an approach that only ends up annoying people and failing in the long-term.

  2. the importance I place on this definition.
    Given the above, it should be no surprise that diversity of opinion is important to me. Increasingly, it is something I seek to encourage in the groups I work with, though it can often be very difficult to do. First in terms of people recognising the value of diversity of opinion. For example, I was on an interview panel where one member refused to consider someone for a job because they didn’t know a particular body of literature that the panel member thought important.

The really difficult distinction to make is between “appreciating resistance” and recognising the idiots. To often resistance is equated as being an idiot, and there’s a danger that appreciating resistance may mean paying too much attention to idiots.


Fullan, M. (2001). Leading in a culture of change. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass

The suffocating straightjackets of liberating ideas

Doing some reading and came across the following quote which I had to store for further use. It is quote in Chua (1986) and is ascribed to Berlin (1962, p 19)

The history of thought and culture is, as Hegel showed with great brilliance, a changing pattern of great liberating ideas which inevitably turn into suffocating straightjackets, and so stimulate their own destruction by new emancipatory, and at the same time, enslaving conceptions. The first step to understanding of men is the bringing to consciousness of the model or models that dominate and penetrate their thought and action. Like all attempts to make men aware of the categories in which they think, it is a difficult and sometimes painful activity, likely to produce deeply disquieting results. The second task is to analyse the model itself, and this commits the analyst to accepting or modifying or rejecting it and in the last case, to providing a more adequate one in its stead.

Chua (1986) uses it as a intro to alternate views of research perspectives. But it applies to so much.

For me the most obvious application, the one I’m dealing with day to day, is the practice of e-learning within universities. Post-thesis I think I need to figure out how to effectively engage more in this two stage process. I think the Ps Framework provides one small part of a tool to help this process, need to figure out what needs to be wrapped around it to encourage both steps to happen.


Berlin, R. J. (1962). Does political theory still exist? Philosophy, Politics and Society. P. Laslett and W. G. Runciman, Basil Blackwell: 1-33.

Chua, W. F. (1986). “Radical developments in accounting thought.” The Accounting Review 61(4): 601-632.

Wicked problems, requirements gathering and the LMS approach to e-learning

Increasingly, the IT requirements of organisations are being met through the application of “enterprise systems”. Large systems created by commercial vendors (though increasingly there are also open source variants, which while offering small improvements still suffer some of the same problems) that are meant to provide an integrated solution to a large scale system with an appraoch that combines “best practice” processes and techniques with information technology that will “scale” to meet the requirements of the organisation. Examples including ERP systems like Peoplesoft for finance, human resources and, at universities, student enrolment. In terms of e-learning at Universities the current dominant approach is also to employ “enterprise systems”. With e-learning the “enterprise system” is known as the learning management system (lms), course management system (cms), virtual learning environment (vle) or some other 3 letter acronym. Examples include: Blackboard, Moodle and Sakai.

In this context, based on the experience and observations of myself and colleagues from around the world, I’m suggesting the following as a nascent (and fairly cynical) process model for how IT departments approach development of feature requests from users. Have you got any additional steps you’d like added?

The process model is

  • Ignore the request.
  • Explain that the request can’t be done.
  • Explain to the requester how the same outcome can be achieved using another process within the existing system. The suggested approach will be so time and resource consuming for the requester that they are unlikely to use it.
  • Explain how the cost and resource implications of the request mean it can’t be implement at this point in time.
  • Explain how, given the need to upgrade to the next version of the enterprise system, IT needs to spend all of its technical resources on upgrading to the next version and consequently can’t implement the request feature.
  • Funnel the request through a reference group, project board or governance committee who are meant to identify whether or not the request is sensible and worth expending scarce resources. Such groups are usually made up of users – usually management or innovative end-users – and IT people. The user representatives usually have no IT knowledge and have to rely on the objective expert knowledge of the IT people.
  • Explain how the given feature doesn’t neatly fit within the model on which the enterprise system is built and how that would require IT to extend the enterprise system beyond “vanilla” and that it can’t do that. Since, if it goes beyond vanilla the next time it has to upgrade to the next version of the enterprise system it will have to re-implement the feature request, and that’s expensive.
  • If we get to this stage, the feature request might be implemented. The first stage of this implementation will be to funnel the request to a business analyst who will be tasked to determine the complete requirements for the request. The business analyst will, at the start of this project, usually have no knowledge of the business (e.g. the nature of learning and teaching) or of the technology that will be used to implement the feature. They are meant to develop an objective and complete set of requirements that doesn’t need to be sullied by additional knowledge.

    It is highly likely that the implementation will not be completed due to a range of factors.

So, in an enterprise system environment, I would suggest that it is highly unlikely that any feature request from a coal-face user will be implemented. If the request originates from someone important within the organisation, chances are that it won’t be implemented either, but it will go a slightly different route (e.g. it probably won’t have to go to the reference group).

But even if the request makes it all the way to the final step, there’s a problem.

Fundamental difficulty in establishing system requirements

The following is a quote from Sommerville (2001, p32). This is the 6th edition of one of the standard textbooks on software engineering. This is what it has to say about establishing system requirements.

A fundamental difficulty in establishing system requirements is that the problems which complex systems are usually built to help tackle are usually ‘wicked problems’ (Rittel and Webber 1973). A ‘wicked problem’ is a problem which is so complex and where there are so many related entities that there is no definitive problem specification. The true nature of the problem only emerges as a solution is developed.

This is the source of the well known problem in software engineering – “The user won’t know what they want until they see it, and then they will want something different to what they told you during the requirements gathering stage”. This is the reason why the business analyst approach and the related teleological approach to systems development is deeply flawed in just about any context, but especially those that are diverse and less than stable.

I’m hard pressed to think of any context that is more diverse and less stable than that involved with the implementation of e-learning within a university.


I know of any number of really talented, nice people that work within IT departments and are driven to provide the best service they can to their clients. I’ve also seen a few that are not so nice, talented or appropriately motivated.

Personally, I don’t believe in universal models. I don’t think that all systems/institutions use the model above. I do think, in some situations, that the above model might be appropriate – not just e-learning. However, most IT departments profess a belief in universal models (i.e. single templated processes to implement any system regardless of its type). Most profess that you must generate requirements and only then start implementation, get sign off and then don’t touch the system for years. They don’t see the need for alternatives, in some situations.

Yes, I have developed alternate solutions or approaches. I’m not just being critical.


Rittel, H. W. J. and M. M. Webber (1973). “Dilemmas in a general theory of planning.” Policy Sciences 4(2): 155-169.

Sommerville, I. (2001). Software Engineering, Addison-Wesley.

The perils of re-organisation – Gaius Petronius

While chasing down some work by Fullan on educational change I came across the following well-known quote that happens to, based on recent experience, have a fair bit of resonance.

We trained hard…but it seemed every time we were beginning to form up into teams we were reorganised. I was to learn later in life that we tend to meet any situation by reorganising, and what a wonderful method it can be for creating the illusion of progress while producing confusion, inefficiency, and demoralisation. — Gaius Petronius, A.D. 66

Imagine my surprise when, via Wikipedia, I discover that the attribution given by Fullan is apparently incorrect.

No matter, the quote still resonates.

Quotes about innovation and creativity

Theoretically, I’m in the process of starting a new job that is focused on encouraging e-learning and innovation within a university context. I’m still reading some of the different literature but the following quotes resonate with me around this position and how it is likely to evolve.

The purpose and place of “idea” departments

McLuhan and how innovation roles/departments are isolation wards

In big industry new ideas are invited to rear their heads so they can be clobbered at once. The idea department of a big firm is a sort of lab for isolating dangerous viruses.

This is a real danger for the new position as it sits outside the organisational structures in which the vast majority of learning and teaching occurs. Especially when this presents barriers to the following.

Innovation is fostered by information gathered from new connections; from insights gained by journeys into other disciplines or places; from active, collegial networks and fluid, open boundaries. Innovation arises from ongoing circles of exchange, where information is not just accumulated or stored, but created. Knowledge is generated anew from connections that weren’t there before. — Margaret Wheatley

New: The following quote mirrors, to some extent, the McLuhan quote. It’s taken from a Clay Shirky post on the future of newspapers

Leadership becomes faith-based, while employees who have the temerity to suggest that what seems to be happening is in fact happening are herded into Innovation Departments, where they can be ignored en masse. This shunting aside of the realists in favor of the fabulists has different effects on different industries at different times.

The importance of failure

Woody Allen on failure

If you’re not failing every now and again, it’s a sign you’re not doing anything very innovative.

Edwin Land

The essential part of creativity is not being afraid to fail.

Thomas Watson Sr

Success is on the far side of failure.

Innovation ain’t logical

Einstein on the connection between innovation and logic

Innovation is not the product of logical thought, although the result is tied to logical structure.

Discoveries are often made by not following instructions, by going off the main road, by trying the untried. — Frank Tyger

That so few now dare to eccentric marks the chief danger of our time — John Stuart Mill

Solutions look for problems

And one I find particularly appropriate for e-learning.

We are surrounded by engineers’ folleys: too many technical solutions still looking for problems to solve.

The uncreative mind can spot wrong answers, but it takes a very creative mind to spot wrong questions. — Anthony Jay

Pattern entrainment

As pattern matching intelligences human beings decision making is based on a first-fit pattern match with past experience. One of the reasons horseless carriage innovations.

The importance of creativity and what it is

Creativity, as has been said, consists largely of rearranging what we know in order to find out what we do not know. Hence, to think creatively, we must be able to look afresh at what we normally take for granted. — George Kneller

Along similar lines

It’s easy to come up with new ideas; the hard part is letting go of what worked for you two years ago, but will soon be out of date. — Roger von Oech

Of course, management is always important.

It isn’t the incompetent who destroy an organisation. The incompetent never get in a position to destroy it. It is those who achieved something and want to rest upon their achievements who are forever clogging things up. — F. M. Young

Once we rid ourselves of traditional thinking we can get on with creating the future. — James Bertrand

Open and closed

A quote from John Cleese on open and close modes, I see some connections with the Model 1 and Model 2 behaviours observed by Argyris.

We all operate in two contrasting modes, which might be called open and closed. The open mode is more relaxed, more receptive, more exploratory, more democratic, more playful and more humorous. The closed mode is the tighter, more rigid, more hierarchical, more tunnel-visioned. Most people, unfortunately spend most of their time in the closed mode. Not that the closed mode cannot be helpful. If you are leaping a ravine, the moment of takeoff is a bad time for considering alternative strategies. When you charge the enemy machine-gun post, don’t waste energy trying to see the funny side of it. Do it in the “closed” mode. But the moment the action is over, try to return to the “open” mode—to open your mind again to all the feedback from our action that enables us to tell whether the action has been successful, or whether further action is need to improve on what we have done. In other words, we must return to the open mode, because in that mode we are the most aware, most receptive, most creative, and therefore at our most intelligent.

Argyris identifies attempts to “maximise winning and minimise losing” and “minimise generating or expressing negative feelings” as being key governing variables in Model 1 behaviour – the dominant model used in most organisations.

The things we fear most in organizations—fluctuations, disturbances, imbalances—re the primary sources of creativity. — Margaret Wheatley

The achievement of excellence can only occur if the organization promotes a culture of creative dissatisfaction. — Lawrence Miller

Difficulties of innovation

Also an aspect of pattern entrainment.

And of course, Machiavelli’s quote

It ought to be remembered that there is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things. Because the innovator has for enemies all those who have done well under the old conditions, and lukewarm defenders in those who may do well under the new. This coolness arises partly from fear of the opponents, who have the laws on their side, and partly from the incredulity of men, who do not readily believe in new things until they have had a long experience of them.

Theory and practice – quote and connection with e-learning?

Given my pre-occupation with the thesis, which involves the formulation of a design theory for e-learning. It’s of little surprise that I have an interest in the theory, practice and e-learning. Came across the following quote this morning in checking some literature, and I like it – new quote for a thesis chapter.

Theory without practice leads to an empty idealism, and action without philosophical reflection leads to mindless activism. – Elias & Merriam, 1980, p. 4

Currently this quote speaks to me because I observe the practice of e-learning within universities being performed with zero philosophical reflection.

The quote is the lead in to an article that is talked about here and more recently here


Elias, J. L., & Merriam, S. (1980). Philosophical foundations of adult
education. Malabar, FL: Robert E. Krieger

Quotes from Snowden and the mismatch between what univeristy e-learning does and what it needs

For the PhD I’m essentially proposing that the current industrial model of e-learning adopted (almost without exception) by universities is a complete and utter mismatch with the nature of the problem. As a consequence of this mismatch e-learning will continue to have little impact, be of limited quality and continue to be characterised by 5 yearly projects to replace a software system rather than a focus on an on-going process of improving learning and teaching by using the appropriate and available tools.

Dave Snowden has recently described a recent keynote he gave and from that description/keynote I get the following two quotes which illustrate important components of my thesis and its design theory. I share them here.

Tools and fit

The technology in e-learning is a tool. A tool to achieve a certain goal. The trouble is that the Learning Management System/LMS (be it open source or not) model, as implemented within universities, typically sacrifices flexibility. It’s too hard to adapt the tool, so the people have to adapt. The following is a favourite quote of mine from Sturgess and Nouwens (2004). It’s from a member of the technical group evaluating learning management systems

“we should change people’s behaviour because information technology systems are difficult to change”

While I recognise that this actually may be the case with existing LMSes and the constraints that exist within universities about how they can be supported. I do not agree with this. I believe the tools should adapt with the needs of the people. That a lot more effort needs to be expended doing this, and if it does significant benefits flow.

Consequently, it’s no surprise that Dave’s quote about tools, resonates with me

Technology is a tool and like all tools it should fit your hand when you pick it up, you shouldn’t have to bio-re-engineer your hand to fit the tool.

Seneca the Younger and ateleological design

Dave closes his talk with the following quote from Seneca

The greatest loss of time is delay and expectation, which depend upon the future. We let go the present, which we have in our power, and look forward to that which depends upon chance, and so relinquish a certainty for an uncertainty.

For me this connects back to the fact that (almost) all implementation of e-learning within universities focus on using a plan-driven approach, a teleological design process. It assumes that they can know what is needed into the future, which given the context of universities and the rhetoric about “change being the only thing that is constant” is just a bit silly.

Teleological design causes problems, ateleological design is a better fit.

Validity is subjective

Just another quote, but a good one. And one that connects with a recent post about the difficulty of getting agreement around learning and teaching and the difficulty this creates within universities when you want to try and improve the quality of that learning and teaching.

Validity is subjective rather than objective: the plausibility of the conclusion is what counts. And plausibility, to twist a cliché, lies in the ear of the beholder.
Cronbach (1982)

Perhaps then, it is no surprise to see where the quote comes from? This book on the evaluation of educational programs.


Cronbach, L. J. (1982). Designing evaluations of educational and social programs. San Francisco, Jossey-Bass.

The insanity of changing LMSes/VLEs

There is a definition of insanity that I’ve seen seen attributed to either Einstein or Benjamin Franklin,

“The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results”

That quote, at least for me, has connections with one of more certain origins.

Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.

which comes from George Santayana

The connection with LMSes and e-learning

There is an orthodoxy in e-learning at universities. Implement a learning management system like Blackboard, Moodle, Sakai…. Different names, slightly different features but essentially the same type of tool. A big integrated “ring to rule them all”.

At least going by the literature I read and the experience I have the success of LMSes has been far from good. Either the LMS is rarely used or what use it is put to is at a very low level in terms of quality learning and teaching.

Given this is known, then why are many universities up to their second, third and even fourth learning management system? Why are they doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results?

My answer

In the following presentation I give my answer, which is essentially

  • Implementation of e-learning is really complex and requires a mix of skills and knowledge.
  • It’s easier to adopt a fad – the LMS – than engage with the complexity.

To some extent, this might have some connection with the idea of task corruption.

Those who disagree with the definition of insanity

There is not universal agreement on the validity or source of the “Einstein” quote. George Sanger has a post titled “The definition of Insanity is, perhaps, using that quote”. Of course, I and a number of the folk commenting on the post disagree.

One of the most credible seeming points made against this quote is

It contradicts the notions of experimentation and practice.

Which, on reflection, doesn’t apply. For me at least, experimentation and practice, means that you will not be doing the same thing again and again. You will be trying slightly different things. Each time you practice you will be working to improve what you are doing, to learn from your mistakes.

The source of the insanity quote

Wikiquote attributes the insanity quote to Rita Mae Brown and her book “Sudden Death”

Further evidence of problems with evaluation of teaching

In a couple of recent posts (and this one) I’ve essentially been arguing that most evaluation of teaching at universities is actually worse the useless. The following quote from White (2006) provides some additional ammunition.

Research has suggested that grade leniency is the most significant factor in positive evaluation of teaching (Greenwald & Gilmore, 1997; Marsh & Roche, 2000). These pressures may be resulting in grade inflation by some teachers and departments, and concomitantly, unrealistic student expectations with respect to the marks they should be awarded.


Greenwald, A. G., & Gilmore, G. M. (1997). ‘No pain no gain’: The importance of measuring course workload in student ratings of instruction. Journal of Educational Psychology, 89(4), 743–751.

Marsh, H. W., & Roche, L. A. (2000). Effects of grade leniency and low workload on students’ evaluations of teaching: Popular myth, bias, validity or innocent bystanders? Journal of Educational Psychology, 92(1), 202–228.

White, N. (2006). “Tertiary education in the Noughties: the student perspective.” Higher Education Research & Development 25(3): 231-246.

Reflective problematisation – description of reflection in "reflective alignment"?

Thinking about reflective alignment, I came across the following quote in Booth and Anderberg (2005). Thought it might be useful so am saving it here.

the equally important notion of reflective problematization – deliberately distancing oneself from the familiar, deliberately avoiding the taken-for-granted and considering the alternatives that might be at hand, relating to theories and experience and reaching an analytical insight into productive change.

The connection with “reflective alignment” is that this is a pretty good description of the type of reflection which I observe in the “good” teachers. It’s the type of reflection “reflective alignment” would seek to encourage and enable.


Booth, S. and E. Anderberg (2005). “Academic development for knowledge capabilities: Learning, reflecting and developing.” Higher Education Research & Development 24(4): 373-386.

When was this – past experience of e-learning

It’s amazing at how perspectives around technology and its use in education don’t change. In the presentation on this page I use some quotes from the what if presentation by Karl Fisch to outline some previous fearful perspectives on the impact of technology on learning that mirror many of the perspectives held of e-learning.

The following couple of quotes illustrate that the positive perspectives of technology can also be found in history.

Both the processing and the uses of information are undergoing an unprecedented technological revolution… This is perhaps nowhere truer than in the field of education. Once can perdict that in a few more years millions of schoolchildren will have access to what Philip of Macedn’s son Alexander enjoyed as a royal perogative: the services of a tutor as well-informed and as responsive as Aristotle.

Patrick Suppes, “The Uses of Computers in Education.” – 1966, Scientific Amercian

The world has arrived at an age of cheap complex devices of great reliability: and something is bound to come of it.

Vannevar Bush, “AS WE MAY THINK”,
The Atlantic Monthly, July 1945

Common sense (the things we take for granted) is the big obstacle for innovation

Wesley Fryer has a post summarising a talk given by Sir Ken Robinson. I’m pulling out a few relevant quotes/recollections for later use.

Update: One of the comments on Wesley Fryer’s post points to video of Sir Ken giving a similar talk in another venue.

Common sense and innovation

Common sense (the things we take for granted) is the big obstacle for innovation

Resonates for me because on the main aims of my research in e-learning is that the “common sense” that surrounds current practice in e-learning is a big obstacle for innovation (and adoption, acceptance…). A perspective expanded in this post.

Excellence comes through customizing

The enemy of raising standards is conformity

Quality through consistency has been one of my bug bears for over 10 years. Talked about briefly here. I’m a fan of Oscar Wilde’s take on consistency

Consistency is the last refuge of the unimaginative.

Metaphors for higher education

a better metaphor for education is not manufacturing, but is agriculture

When you consider much of higher education is importing practices from manufacturing…

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