Assembling the heterogeneous elements for (digital) learning

Category: react2008

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.

The importance of diversity to improving learning and teaching

For some time I have thought that one of the major barriers to improving/innovation in learning and teaching has been the consistency of practice and mindset held by discipline based groups. Now I’ve got some suggestion of a research basis for this view. This post attempts to explain my view, outline the research basis and draw implications for the practice of learning and teaching at Universities.

The problems with discipline-based groups

Almost without exception, academic staff at Universities are organised into discipline-based groups. All the computer scientists are in one unit, the management folk in another and yet another for the historians. These discipline groups generally have a fairly large common perspective on research and learning and teaching. They tend to teach based on methods they’ve experienced and all the members within a discipline group tend to have experience the same methods.

Anything outside of that experience is seen as strange and in the absence of outside knowledge they aren’t even aware that there are alternatives.

For example, way back when I was a member of an information technology group that were thrown together into an organisational unit with journalists, cultural studies and other decidedly non-technical, non-autistic disciplines. At some later stage I was responsible for supporting the learning and teaching of these different groups. Those staff from a more “human communications” based discipline, almost without exception, placed a great deal of emphasis on face-to-face tutorials with a heavy emphasis on student/student and student/teacher discussion. Which made it very difficult to come up with approaches for distance education students. The IT folk without that history, didn’t have the same problem. Neither group, without interactions with the other group, would normally have thought of the other approach to teaching.

Discipline-based groups tend to exclude awareness of alternatives, the tend to emphasise the importance of shared experience. They make it difficult to be aware of alternatives.

This is particularly problematic because, almost without exception, most of the major projects that attempt to improve and/or innovate around learning and teaching are discipline-based. This fundamental assumption, in my mind has always, limited the chances of true improvement or innovation. It limits the chance of them escaping the past.

Related to this practice is the suggestion that instructional/learning/curriculum designers should be physically located within faculties or departments. i.e. that they should work predominantly with folk from within a particular discipline (or set of disciplines). Over time, because of the nature of the work (e.g. these instructional designers will start to publish more within the literature of a particular discipline), I believe that this practice has the likely outcome of further constraining innovation.

What others have said

In a recent blog post Dave Snowden has suggested that perspective shift is one of the necessary (but not sufficient) conditions for innovation. Discipline-based attempts improving learning and teaching make this very difficult as they generally only involve people who have very similar perspectives.

Dave’s blog post mentioned above includes a link to an MP3 file of a talk he gave in Melbourne. I fully recommend people listen to this, even though it is disappointing to have missed out on the end of the talk due to flat batteries. This blog post which gives one summary on Dave’s talk offers some related insights.

This morning’s post from the Tomorrow’s Professor Mailing List was titled “Do Faculty Interactions Among Diverse Students Enhance Intellectual Development”. It was looking at the practice in the USA of having racially mixed classes and its effect on intellectual development. While it may be a leap (a leap too far?) to apply some of the findings to improving teaching, I certainly see some connection and value in doing so.

The post was an excerpt from

Chapter 4, Accounting for Diversity Within the Teaching and Learning Paradigm, in the book: Driving Change through Diversity and Globalization, Transformative Leadership in the Academy, by James A. Anderson, professor of psychology and Vice President for Student Success and the Vice Provost for Institutional Assessment and Diversity at the University of Albany

One of the foundation pieces of evidence the post is based upon is from the following paper

Anthony Lising Antonio, Mitchell J. Chang, Kenji Hakuta, David A. Kenny, Shana Levin,
and Jeffrey F. Milem, Effects of Racial Diversity on Complex Thinking in College Students, Psychological Science, 15(8): 507-510.

The paper aims to examine the effects of diversity on integrative complexity. Integrative complexity is the degree to which cognitive style involves differentiation and integration of multiple perspectives. The idea is that the level of IC has the following effects:

  • Low integrative complexity – take a less complicated approach to reasoning, decision making and evaluating information.
  • High integrative complexity – evaluation is reflective, involves various perspectives, solutions and discussions.

The paper’s findings included

  • Racial diversity in a group of white students led to greater level of cognitive complexity.
  • Racial diversity of a student’s friends had a greater impact on integrative complexity than the diversity of the group.

Some of the other points in the paper

  • Groupthink.
    The cohesiveness and solidarity that arises from a common group is a foundation for unanimity of opinion which results in poor decision making.
  • Minority influence.
    Presence of group members who hold divergent opinions lead to increased divergent thinking and perspective taking. Interaction with the minority enhances the integrative complexity of the members of the group who hold the majority opinion.

Implications of learning and teaching

In summary, at a high level

  • Homogeneous groups considered harmful.
    Any approach to improving learning and teaching which uses homogeneous groups will limit, possibly even prevent, innovation and improvement as the group will get bogged down in group think. Given that the majority of such projects within universities involve homogeneous groups, it questions some of the fundamental operations of universities.
  • Actively design projects to encourage positive interactions amongst people with diverse backgrounds.
    The positive flip side is that projects should actively seek diversity in its membership and engage in processes that enable positive interactions between these diverse group members. i.e. not an attempt to encourage group think or cohesion amongst the diverse members, but instead to leverage the diversity for something truly innovative.

    Hopefully those that are familiar with the unit I currently work with can see why I value and encourage the diversity of the unit and think any attempt to encourage uniformity of background and thinking is a hugely negative thing.

From these two observations a number of potential implications can be drawn

  • Discipline-based innovation in L&T will be less than successful.
  • Top-down innovations in L&T will be less than successful (as they embed an assumption that a very small, generally similar, group can make decisions and get everyone to buy into the group think.)
  • Any committee or group that contains members that have the same discipline or organisational experience (e.g. everyone has been at University X for 10+ years) will generate sub-optimal outcomes.
  • The best and most innovative teachers will have the most diverse set of teaching influences and experiences. (The diffusion of innovations literature backs this up).
  • Organisational units (e.g. teaching and learning or academic staff development units) which all have pretty much the same background (e.g. all graduated with Masters in Instructional Design) or same experience (all publish in the same set of conferences or journals) will be less innovative than they could be.
  • An L&T support unit that doesn’t regularly, actively and deeply engage with the L&T context of their organisation are destined to do things that are less innovative and appropriate.

Of course I believe this, over the last 5 years I’ve occasionally attempt to get the REACT process off the ground as an approach to improving learning and teaching. A key aim of that project was to

opening up the design of teaching to enable collaboration with and input from a diverse set of peers;

What is research? How do you do it?

A previous post announced that a group of folk at CQUniversity are about to embark on a project/exercise with the aim of helping people develop ideas for research and turn them into publications.

Any such process should probably talk about answers to two questions (amongst many others)

  1. What is research?
  2. How do you do it?

The following provides some simple answers to those questions that will form the basis for the react2008 process.


This is not to suggest that these are the only answers, or potentially even good answers. However, the claim is that they are sufficiently useful for the purpose of react2008 and reasonably defendable.

The aim is to ensure that the workshop participants have some sort of common understanding of answers to these questions that they can use as a starting point for conversation. Some level of common understanding is important.

What is research?

Generally, research aims to address important problems, or provide answers to difficult questions through the application of a disciplined process that generates new and useful knowledge. That knowledge is expressed in the form of theory.

The question of what is theory is left to later.

How do you do it?

Answers to these questions often come down to battles between research paradigms. Are you a positivist or interpretivist (or some other sort of “ist”)? The answer to this question governs how you do research, what you think it is etc.

Mingers (2001) identifies three perspectives on how to handle the question of paradigms. These include:

  1. Isolationism – where paradigms are seen to be based on mutually exclusive and contradictory assumptions and where individual researchers should or do follow a single paradigm.
  2. Complementarist – where the no paradigm is superior, but that different approaches are more or less suitable for particular problems or questions and that there should be a process of choice.
  3. Multi-method – where paradigms are seen to focus on different aspects of reality and that a richer understanding of a research problem can be gained by combining several methods, particularly from different paradigms.

The approach for react2008 will be somewhere between/inclusive of the complementarist and multi-method approaches. In short, it ignores (and probably thinks unimportant) questions of “ists”. This view has close similarities to the view suggested by Sandy’s paper (Behrens, 2008) on the use of Vaihinger’s theory of fictions as a basis for looking at information systems research. It’s used in an attempt to unite the usually battling factions of positivists and interpretivists.

Instead, it goes for a simple process of doing research (which is not seen as simply sequential), including the following steps

  1. What is the research problem and/or the research question that is of interest? Why is it important?
  2. What type of theory is most appropriate for the type of knowledge you need to answer the question?
    What types of theories there are will be outlined below.
  3. What is the most appropriate process(es) to use to develop this type of theory?

Types of theory

Arising out of the second question is the notion of what is theory, what type of theories there are and what structure should they take. Questions that are taken up by Gregor (2007) and which I draw on briefly and poorly below. Especially in the following table that attempts to summarise the 5 types of theory identified by Gregor.

Theory Type Attributes
Analysis “What is”. Analyses and describes a phenomena but no causal relationshihps are made nor predictions generated
Explanation “What is”, “how”, “why”, “when”, “where”. Aims to explain, but not predict with any precision. No testable propositions.
Prediction “What is” and “what will be”. Provides predictions and has testable propositions but does not have a well-developed justificatory causal explanation.
Explanation and prediction “What is”, “how”, “why”, “when”, “where” and “what will be”. Provides predictions and has both testable propositions and causal explanations
Design and action “How to do something”.

Gregor (2007) was writing within the information systems discipline. Consequently, this appropriation into the “e-learning” field may not be entirely appropriate. However, I would argue that there is a great deal of overlap between the two disciplines.


Behrens 2008
Gregor 2007

REACT 2008 – An exercise in scholarship?

We’re about to embark on a little experiment in the scholarship of learning and teaching going under the tag react2008. The fundamental aim is to help improve the quality of papers we will write that are targeted for publication at EdMedia’2009. The experiment is going by the names of either react2008 or writers’ workshop. The project as a central website.

Other aims of the project include

  • Helping some of the less experienced researchers develop some insight into one way of developing and writing papers – of performing research.
  • Help the participants gain some appreciation of the differences of perspective within the group and how those differences compliment each other.
  • Increasing the quantity and quality of research outputs of CDDU and the PLEs@CQUni project.

This post is intended to give a brief description of how the whole thing might work.

Subsequent posts will start talking about implementation issues and what’s next. After that each of the steps will be expanded and tasks allocated.

Principles and Background

The ideas underpinning this exercise is much informed by the Reflection, Evaluation and Collaboration in Teaching (REACT) project. The react2008 project will have a very different aim and process, however, it will be based on/informed by many of the same principles and foundations of the original REACT process.

In particular, react2008 will draw on the ideas of Shulman (1993) around the scholarship of L&T, in particular, the importance of

  • Communication and community
    react2008 will use face-to-face discussions and social network software to create a community of researchers who will have to communicate with each other about their process of writing and research.
  • Creation of an artifact
    react2008 participants are creating a paper as their final artifact. There will also be other artifacts produced along the way in terms of wiki pages and presentations.
  • Peer review
    A key part of the react2008 process is that there will be peer review throughout the process of the discussion and artifacts produced by the participants.

How will it work

react2008 will use a simple process with a small number of steps as the framework through which people will develop, implement and write about their research idea. There is no claims made that this is the only process, the best process, a sequential process or broadly suitable to all people.

However, there is a claim that it is a fairly generic process that provides enough structure to provide participants with a common language to talk about their process and enough freedom to do their own thing in terms of process and research perspective. Usefulness is seen as more important than ideological adherence.

Most steps in the process will require the production of an artifact and the submission of that artifact to a semi-structured peer-review process. The participants will be expected to both produce their artifacts and comment on the artifacts of others. The artifacts and the communication/review will be primarily done through blogs and wiki.

The current suggested list of steps is summarised below. A later post will expand in more detail on these steps.

The steps are:

  1. What’s the problem problem? What’s the question?
    The aim of research is, in this context, always seen as an attempt to solve a problem or answer a question. The first step is to develop a statement about what the research problem or question is about. (remember this isn’t a sequential process, this step will be revisited numerous times).
  2. What type of knowledge are you going to contribute?
    This work assumes that there are different types of knowledge (of theory) produced in research. Depending on the type of knowledge you wish to generate/contribute you will use different types of method.
  3. How are you going to develop that knowledge?
    You have to use some sort of appropriate process to develop the knowledge you want to write about. There are multiple choices, you need to be clear about what process and why you will be using.
  4. How does this knowledge add to and fit with existing knowledge?
    It’s important that you know how this knowledge you will generate fits with existing knowledge in the area. You need to be able to explain why it is valuable.
  5. What do you need to do to make it fit with the outlet?
    Different publication outlets have different perspectives and difference approaches are required to get accepted. You need to become familiar with the outlet.
  6. Do the work.
    At this stage you need to generate the knowledge.
  7. Give a presentation.
    Once you’ve generated the knowledge you need to begin work on presenting it to folk in some sort of finished form. A presentation will precede writing of the paper.
  8. Write the paper.
    The actual process of turning the knowledge into an appropriate form for the publication outlet.
  9. Respond to reviewer comments.
    An art form in itself.
  10. Present the paper.
    If we’re talking about a conference, then another presentation is required to further refine the initial presentation.

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