Assembling the heterogeneous elements for (digital) learning

Category: reflectivealignment Page 2 of 3

Reservations about instructional design

The following is at first a rambling diatribe outlining some of my reservations with instructional design as it is practiced. Then it is a summary/reflection on Winn (1990) – “Some implications of cognitive theory for instructional design”. The abstract for Winn (199)

This article examines some of the implications of recent developments in cognitive theory for instmctional design. It is argued that behavioral theory is inadequate to prescribe instructional strategies that teach for understanding. Examples of how instructional designers have adopted relevant aspects of cognitive theory are described. However, it is argued that such adoption is only a first step. The growing body of evidence for the indeterminism of human cognition requires even further changes in how instructional designers think and act. A number of bodies of scholarly research and opinion are cited in support of this claim. Three implications of cognitive theory for design are offered: instructional strategies need to be developed to counter the reductienism implicit in task analysis; design needs to be integrated into the implementation of instruction; designers should work from a thorough knowledge of theory not just from design proceduts.

Actually, I’m running out of time, this post will be just the diatribe. The summary/reflection on Winn (1990) will have to wait till later.

Some context

The following line of thought is part of an on-going attempt to identify potential problems in the practice of instructional design because I work within a Curriculum Design & Development Unit at a University. I am trying to identify and understand these problems as an attempt to move toward something that might be more effective (but would likely have its own problems). The current attempt at moving toward a solution will hopefully arise out of some ideas around curriculum mapping.

The diatribe

Back in the mid-1990s I was being put in charge of my first courses. The institution I worked at was, at that stage, a true 2nd generation distance education provider bolted onto an on-campus university (the university was a few years old, having evolved from an institute of advance education). Second generation distance education was “enterprise” print distance education. There was a whole infrastructure, set of processes and resources targeted at the production of print-based study guides and resource materials that were sent to students as their prime means of education. A part of the resources were instructional designers.

From the start, my experiences with the instructional designers and the system they existed within was not good. The system couldn’t see it was increasingly less relevant through the rise of information technology and the instructional designers seemed more interested in their knowledge about what was the right thing to do, rather than recognising the realities of my context and abilities. Rather than engaging with me and my context and applying their knowledge to show how I could solve my problems, they kept pushing their own ideal situations.

Over 15 years on, and not a lot has changed. I still see the same problem in folk trying to improve learning and teaching at that institution. Rather than engage in an on-going process of improvement and reflection, it’s all about big bang changes and their problems. Worse, then as now, only the smallest population of the academics are being effectively engaged by the instructional designers. i.e. the academics that are keen, the ones that are willing to engage with the ideas of the designers (and others). This is perhaps my biggest concern/proposition, that the majority of academics are not engaging with this work and that a significant proportion of them (but not all) are not improving their teaching. But there are others:

  • Instructional designers are increasingly the tools of management, not folk helping academics.
    In an increasingly managerialist sector, the “correct” directions/methods for learning and teaching are increasingly being set by government, government funded bodies (e.g. ALTC and AUQA) and subsequently the management and professionals (e.g. instructional designers, staff developers, quality assurance etc.) that are institutionally responsible for being seen to respond effectively to the outside demands.

    There are two problems with this:

    1. the technologists alliance; and
      The professionals within universities, because of their interactions with the external bodies and because their success depends on engaging with and responding to the demands of the external body, start to think more like the external body. For example, many of the folk on the ALTC boards/etc are from university L&T centres. Their agenda internally becomes more about achieving ALTC outcomes, rather than outcomes for the academics. Geoghegan (1994) identified the technologists alliance around technology, it is increasingly in existence for L&T.
    2. do what management says.
      Similarly, because senior management within universities are being measured on how well they respond to the external demands. They to are suffering the same problem. In addition, because they are generally on short-term contracts there’s increased demand to respond via short-term approaches that show short-term gain but are questionable in the long-term. Instructional designers etc are then directed to carry out these short-term approaches, even if they will hurt in the long term are or seen as nonsensical by academics.

    The end result is that academics perceive instructional designers as people doing change to them, not doing change with them or for them. Not a good foundation on which to encourage change and improvement in something as personal as teaching.

  • Traditional instructional design is not scalable.
    My current institution has about 4 instructional designers. The first term of this year sees the institution offering 400+ courses. That means somewhere around 800 courses a year. That’s 200 courses a year per instructional designer. If you’re looking at each course being “helped” once every two years, that means each course gets the instructional designer for 2 days every 2 years, at best.

    In this environment, traditional ADDIE type big-bang approaches can’t scale.

  • Instructional design seems informed by a great knowledge of ideal learning and teaching, but none of how to effectively bridge the gap between academics and that ideal.


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

Winn, W. (1990). “Some implications of cognitive theory for instructional design.” Instructional Science 19(1): 53-69.

Implications arising from the absence of the "sameness of meaning"

A few days ago Stephen Downes – a little unusually – made a sequence of comments/tweets on Twitter around the “sameness of meaning” and its impossibility. Since then I’ve had a number of experiences and discussions that suggest some of the problem associated with learning and teaching policy, process and structure within universities arises because too many people assume that there is sameness of meaning.

Communication and the commonality of meaning

Let’s start with this tweet

Communication isn’t about commonality of meaning. That’s impossible. It’s about being able to at least approximately predict the response.

Further explanation flows from this tweet

What happens is, the word we transmit (and maybe gestures, etc) forms only a small part of the other person’s understanding of what you said

and this one

Your word is only a stimulus; Most of the person’s understanding is based on his prior knowledge, and that is what produces the response

And I particularly like this one as a guideline for how to move forward

“Get me a gazelle” would work just as well if your listener understood that he should deliver a Heineken; meaning doesn’t matter, results do

Implications for design

This talks to me because much of what I do could be broadly called “design”. Mostly it’s around the design of information systems. This means much more than technology. Information systems (in the meaning I am using) also embodies all the other “wetware” (i.e. people and organisational) stuff required for the technology to be used and used effectively.

This definition means that I include the following as design:

  • The design and implementation of training and support for the system.
  • The creation of the policies and procedures around the system.
  • The design of the organisational structures and positions within those structures that will impact on the system.
  • How people are encouraged to make decisions about the system.

As I wrote previously (Jones, 2004) – and really just repeating what others had already said – about the impact of representation/meaning

The formulation of the initial state into an effective representation is crucial to finding an effective design solution (Weber, 2003). Representation has a profound impact on design work (Hevner et al., 2004), particularly on the way in which tasks and problems are conceived (Boland, 2002). How an organisation conceptualises the e-learning problem will significantly influence how it answers the questions of how, why and with what outcomes

The answers that a university arrives at in terms of the how, why and with what outcomes end up embodying a collection of meanings. When the organisation and its members implement e-learning they too often assume that there is a commonality of meaning. Commonality of meaning is a key part of how they represent the system. Consequently, their design is fundamentally based on the idea of commonality of meaning. I think that this is a fatal flaw for much of what is designed.

What follows are some examples of where it doesn’t hold.

Software design

My main current task is the design of BIM (code should be out by Monday at the latest) and today was a day to watch a “clueless user” (she’s actually quite intelligent she just knows little about computers and BIM) interact with BIM. BIM is designed by me. It embodies the meaning that I have formed about BIM and its task over the 3 years or so I’ve been working on it. It also embodies meanings/ideas/understandings that have formed over the last 12/15 years of doing e-learning and developing e-learning systems. That same meaning is informed by my experiences in social media (e.g. this blog)

The “clueless user” is a sessional teaching academic in management/human resources. She’s done a bit of e-learning and used BAM. She doesn’t have very much in the way of detailed mental models about how her computer works, how the Internet works or how Moodle, BIM, blogs and feeds work (or even mean).

Needless to say, having observed the user and the meanings she has demonstrated of BIM, I have a long list of improvements for the interface and operation of BIM. If some of them aren’t made, the other academics going to be using BIM are going to struggle. Understanding her meaning and responding to it has been helpful. It has forced me to reconsider and hopefully improve BIM to better fit with other meanings. It should improve BIM.

Of course, 1 person does not make a universe. But that 1 person being very different from me will help a bit.

Downes tweeted

… and my take-away is that we should be careful not to assume that people see things the same way we do, because invariably they don’t

If I’d assumed the same meaning and left BIM as, there would have been trouble for someone. The academics using the unmodified BIM would have suffered increased levels of frustration of dealing with a new system for which they did not understand the embodied meaning. There will still be some of that, but hopefully not as much.

Downes, on the implications of this

there’s so much room for error in communication we don’t notice that we mean different things, usually, and then it surprises us when we do

I’m a little bit surprised by the level of changes needed in BIM. It’s based on a system that’s been used for 3 years, that has been used by this same “clueless user”.

But by engaging in what I’ve done I’ve opened myself up to that surprise at a stage much earlier where it is simpler for me to respond. Too much of how e-learning is implemented in universities does not allow itself to be exposed to “good” surprise, instead they get “bad” – often hugely problematic – surprise.

Minimum service standards

I know of an institution that has implemented minimum service standards for course websites. The standards have been approved at all the right committees, the designers of the standards have written a paper about it, there has been mention of it some of the training sessions for staff and it is now a couple of weeks out from the start of the first term using these standards.

The meaning being heard from the designers of these standards, at least until very recently, has been “it’s all good”. The meaning being heard from the academic staff now being required to fulfill the standards and complete the accompanying checklist includes: “Where did this come from?” and “How do we comply with it?”

Even some of the designers and promulgators of the standards have different meanings. Perhaps the two extremes of those meanings are:

  • The standards are a stick with which to identify the bad teachers.
  • The standards provide a scaffold within which to have discussions about the design of learning experiences within the LMS.

Now, will this difference of meaning result in a “bad” surprise. I’m not so sure. I think organisations and how they choose to perceive the world has a lot in common with what Downes says about communication

In fact, we mostly don’t detect the errors, there’s a huge tolerance for error in communication, that’s why it works

LMS training

I would characterise the standard approach used to “train” academics how to use a new LMS – or any new system – as:

  • In the months before the release of the system hold numerous training sessions in places and at times that suit the academics.
  • Have the supervisors of the academics, and especially the senior management of the institution, reinforce how important it is to attend these sessions.
  • Within the session seek to get the academics to understand the meaning embodied into the system so they can interact with it.
  • Provide these sessions at a time and place removed from the normal context within which the academics will use the system.
  • Employ a range of technical folk who can easily understand the meaning of the system to explain it to the academics in a way that is very similar to how the technical folk learned it.
  • Assume that at the completion of the training they only need a much lower level of support and training. Generally limited to repeating the original training for new staff and providing front-line helpdesk staff to explain how any problems are due to the academic misunderstanding the meaning embodied in the system.

Can you see how the lack of a commonality of meaning is going to cause problems here. To me it’s obvious that the academics will not get the meaning embodied in the system.

The “clueless user” I mentioned above expressed this understanding of the training she experience.

I did the training in the first batch. Over 6 months ago. I haven’t touched the LMS since. How much do you think I remember?

If there is no commonality of meaning, then what?

Downes suggestion is (remember he’s thinking/tweeting in a different context, but I think it applies)

You need to experiment- Wittgenstein called it a game – to test and feel to see what word evokes what response- there is no common ‘meaning’

Given the impossibility of any commonality of meaning and the huge complexity and diversity of the meaning associated with e-learning, learning, teaching, universities, people and technology, the processes within universities and e-learning should be aimed much more at experimentation, at sharing of meaning, at encouraging surprise and enabling effective response and interaction.

What if the assumption of commonality of meaning remains? You keep operating as if there was commonality of meaning? Downes

if ‘sameness of meaning’ were required, communication would grind to a halt.

Loosing weight, nudging and changing the L&T environment – early foundations of my work

What follows is an attempt to develop some of the foundations of what is driving the work I do in my current position.

The main aim

My main aim is to help improve the quality of learning and teaching within the university I work for.

The fundamental flaw

It’s my suggestion that almost all of the current institutional attempts to improve learning and teaching suffer the same fundamental flaw. They attempt to herd cats, they focus on what management does, rather than focus on what the teachers and learners do every day and in particular the tremendous problems created by the systems within which they operate.

To be a little more concrete,

  • Senior management embark on vision statements etc. exclaiming the importance of teaching.
  • Senior management seek to identify broad-scale, one-size-fits-all solutions, e.g. we’ll have a common course template, a single system etc..
  • Institutions develop high-level policies about how courses/programs should be designed, but pay little attention to actually how these tasks are carried out leading to problems and compliance.
  • If everyone has a certificate in higher education, then they will be good teachers.

At the same time, there is ignorance of (though it’s probably a case of “don’t mention the war”) the complete and utter mismatch between the system/environment in which academic staff work and improving L&T. A few references/quotes from this post

Academic staff are trained, selected and evaluated on the discipline expertise and their ability to perform quality research. The experience and training of academic staff not only focuses on discipline and research expertise it can, and often does, socialise aspiring academics towards a vision of academic work that emphasises these tasks (Austin 2002). While universities promote the importance of teaching the create ambiguous, even contradictory expectations by rewarding academic staff primarily for research (Zellweger 2005) and creating environments where spending more time teaching is a negative influence on academic pay (Fairweather 2005).

But it’s more than that, I would argue that even if we changed the rewards aspect. For example, if a university effectively introduced a practice where good teaching staff could get promoted solely on the quality of their teaching, there would remain little change. The very nature of the system and the subsequent day to day experiences of teaching staff are blocking improvements in learning and teaching.

My point overlaps in part part with the point being made by George Siemens in this post

More than any other element, this systemic inertia is responsible for limited innovation in education.

The processes within most universities are equivalent to a group of obese people with chocolate cravings living and working in a chocolate factory. Day to day they are being exposed to influences and practices that actively work against them loosing weight.

The solutions being proposed for learning and teaching within universities are a bit like addressing the chocolate problem above by:

  • Allocating the each group of these big folk with a nutritionist that will explain to them the requirements of good nutrition.
  • Employing special expert nutritionists to come and talk to the big folk about various strategies for good nutrition.
  • Providing a single menu and exercise regime that all big folk are expected to follow.

You have to change the nature of the system so that it encourages and enables people to change what they do.

Nudging and choice architecture

I’ve been reading Nudge: Improving decisions about health, wealth and happiness for some time. A review of the book with some connections to higher education was recently posted on Tomorrow’s Professor.

The review suggests that the book is based on two key foundations:

  1. There is no such thing as neutral design.
    Whatever system, process or tool you are talking about it embodies a design. The design may not be intentional, it may be a result of unconnected decisions. The big point is, however, that the nature of that system will influence the likelihood of particular outcomes.

    Obviously this connects with the point I’m trying to make above that the design of the current teaching system within universities are more likely to result in bad outcomes, rather than good.

  2. People do not act rationally.
    Most systems, processes and policies assume that people make perfectly rational decisions. They don’t. People have numerous, well-known flaws in their abilities to make rational decisions.

The book talks about how “choice architecture” can be used to nudge people towards doing good things. The book takes an approach called “libertarian paternalism” where people are not forced to do the right thing, they are free to do what they want. However, they assume that it is okay, and in fact a good thing, to design the choice architecture in order to influence people’s behaviour. Which brings up the definition of a nudge (Thaler and Sunstein, 2008; p6)

is any aspect of the choice architecture that alters people’s behaviour in a predictable way without forbidding any options or significantly changing their economic incentives.

The centrality of the pedagogue

When it comes to improving teaching and learning a, if not the, major role is played by the individual pedagogue/teacher and what they believe. At some stage, the teacher makes a decision to improve or change their practice, or not. My argument is that the “choice architecture” inherent in universities is set up to actively discourage people to make the decision to improve their teaching and learning.

If you don’t get them to make this decision, the outcome of whatever you do will be limited.

Principles of good choice architecture

Thaler and Sunstein (2008; pp102) give six principles for good choice architecture:

  1. iNcentives;
    They suggest four questions about incentives – who uses? who chooses? who pays? who profits – and outline some examples of how naive incentive setting fails.

    For example, the question of salience or do the people making choice actually notice the incentives they face. A case could be made here between the “incentive” of teaching awards to improve learning and teaching not being noticed because of the broader incentive to do research.

  2. Understand mappings;
    A decision involves a mapping between the choice and the ultimate consumption experience. How do people making choices make rational decisions about the ultimate experience of their choice?

    One example in L&T might be the decision to try something innovative. What if people map the attempt to try something new with the possibility of failure and then censure from the “standards focused” management? Are they likely to try something innovative?

  3. Defaults;
    People will usually take the path of least resistance, they will do the easiest thing, the default. The default in L&T within higher education is passive lectures, tutorials, a couple of assignments and exam. The entire system of L&T is setup to enshrine these defaults.
  4. Give feedback;
    Thaler and Sunstein (2008; p92)

    The best way to help Humans improve their performance is to provide feedback. Well-designed systems tell people when they are doing well and when they are making mistakes.

    In my experience feedback to academics about their L&T is minimal to non-existent.

  5. Expect error;
    People will make mistakes, the system should be designed to expect this and be as forgiving as possible. I would suggest this isn’t high on the agenda in current structured, corporate approaches to teaching.
  6. Structure complex choices.
    People adopt simplifying strategies when faced with complex choices (go with the default etc.). Those simplifying strategies are often flawed in some way and directly influence outcomes.

    What assistance does the L&T system within a university provide to help academics make choices about L&T?

Using these principles

While not wishing to be exclusive about these principles, there would seem to be strong support for using these to help guide the design of changes within a university system for L&T. I’m hoping to do just this in the choice and design of projects I work upon. For example:

  • Indicators project and;
    I’m particularly interested in how this project can be used to give feedback to teaching staff about what is happening within their online courses and how this feedback can be used expect error, structure complex choices, understand mappings and develop incentives through a collaborative process of reflection.
  • bottom up curriculum mapping
    I’ve been thinking about a bottom up approach to curriculum mapping. My main interest is how to modify slightly existing practice to develop curriculum maps within a program that can give feedback to participants about the problems in a course. In addition, there are possibilities that such an approach can be used to structure complex choices – be developing “wizards” that help guide the solution to identified problems – and perhaps help change some of the defaults.
  • The old REACT idea.
    This was intended to give feedback, help structure complex choices and understand mappings, while at the same time attempting to provide some incentive.


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

Herding cats and losing weight: the vimeo video

This is in part a test of’s new support for Vimeo video. The video below is of a presentation I gave at CQU this year. The abstract is below. The slides are on slideshare.


The environment within which Universities operate has changed significantly over recent years. Two of the biggest changes have been a reduction in state funding for universities and, at the same time, an increased need for universities to demonstrate the quality and appropriateness of their services, especially learning and teaching.

Consequently, most universities have developed a range of strategies, policies, structures and systems with the intent of improving and demonstrating the quality of their learning and teaching. This presentation will draw on the metaphors of herding cats and losing weight to examine the underlying assumptions of these attempts, the resulting outcomes, question whether or not they are the best we can hope for, and present some alternatives.

The video

Teaching, academic staff development, mastery and separation

In a recent post reflecting on a presentation I referenced a TED talk by Dan Pink in which he proposed a new operating system for companies based on staff having:

  1. Autonomy;
  2. Mastery; and
  3. Purpose.

My focus is within the area of improving learning and teaching within a university. I want to pick up on the question of mastery.

A good teacher is going to feel a level of mastery over the tools and techniques they are using in their teaching. They are going to have to get this mastery from somewhere, which brings me to staff development. Most institutions aim to provide the knowledge/information to help academics develop their mastery through academic staff development.

I want to suggest that one of the biggest barriers to effectiveness of such staff development is a number of different separations. In the following I look at the ones I think exist.

Separation within academic staff development

The separation within academic staff development is talked about in a recent post by Steve Erhmann. In that post he identifies the separation between the IT and non-IT staff development. The IT development is performed by the IT department and the non-IT development is done by some other area. At my institution it’s the HR department.

It’s even worse at my institution since the folk with curriculum design knowledge and responsibility are in another unit all together and report to a different senior manager.

There are problems with this separation in terms of duplication or holes, since these separate departments rarely effectively collaborate. More problems arise because increasingly you can’t separate out the IT and non-IT knowledge. In our context, most collaborative learning is going to be implemented through some specific IT, you need to know both the technology and the principles of collaborative learning to do it well.

Separation of knowledge

Another separation I see in academic staff development is a separation between the knowledge an academic wants and the knowledge being provided by the staff developers.

In his post Erhmann uses the example of “Using collaborative learning in the classroom”. I’m yet to come across a “standard” academic (my belief is that most standard academics are not intrinsically interested in learning and teaching) that is asking for knowledge about how to use collaborative learning. The type of knowledge a “standard” academic wants is much more pragmatic and might include

  • How can I minimise my workload?
  • How do I reduce marking time?
  • How do I reduce the failure rate?

I agree that “using collaborative learning” (or some other learning theory or technique) may be, at least part of, the answer to these questions, but there is a separation in the level of abstraction.

While the trainer (IT, learning or otherwise) might be comfortable with the learning theory of technique, it generally won’t make sense to the standard academic. At best it will pull in the intrinsically motiviated teaching academics. A partial reason I suggest why Erhman makes this observation

I did notice that at most institutions the attendance was low at the workshops. Nor was there much sign that average faculty members used other forms of service (e.g., web sites, phone-in for help) unless they had to (for example, when using the course management system was required).

My suggestion is that because the people designing the training are separated from the people who need to develop the mastery. Consequently, what the two parties think is needed is different, is separated. The trainers are separated from the knowledge of the local context and of what is missing.

The educational literature tells use that staff development that is separated from or clashes with the conceptions of academics will only generate questions about validity, defense of the status quo or compliance and task corruption (Ho et al, 2001).

Then there is also the differing ideas about knowledge arising out of work around TPACK (Technological Pedagogical Content Knowledge) that suggests that the knowledge required by a teacher to have mastery of technology integration is “complex, multifaceted and situated”. It’s discipline specific.

This suggests that the idea of a universal approach to the application of technology or pedagogy while arguably possible, will not provide an effective or the most effective outcome.

Separation of process

Part of the separation of knowledge comes from the separation of process. Staff development generally occurs outside of the normal process of teaching. It often occurs at the start of the end. Curriculum design tends to focus on re-design for the next offering of the course. It assumes that mastery can be effectively developed outside of teaching time. There are argument to the contrary.

Local context is important because memory is contextual. How we know and recollect stuff depends on the context. Take a look at #2 of Snowden’s 7 principles of knowledge management. People only really know/recall the complete detail of something within a realistic context.

Another perspective

Here’s what Bransford et al (2000, p27) had to say about staff development

Professional development programs for teachers, for example, frequently

  • Are not learner centered.
    Rather than ask teachers where they need help, they are simply expected to attend prearranged workshops.
  • Are not knowledge centered.
    Teachers are introduced to a new technique without an opportunity to understand why, when, where and how it might be valuable.
  • Are not assessment centered.
    They need to try things out in their classrooms and receive feedback. Focus on change in teaching practice as the goal but neglect to develop in teachers the capacity to judge successful transfer.
  • Are not community centered.
    Conducted in isolation. Limited opportunities for continued conteact and support as teachers incoroporate new ideas.


Tony Bates offers the following suggestion in the comments of Erhman’s post

This is a relatively easy thing to fix too – form an integrated Office of Teaching and Learning with secondments/guests from IT services and the faculties working with professional instructional designers.

For me, this is a much better solution than the separation of responsibility for helping academics develop the necessary mastery into separate organisational units. At my institution, we’re currently up to at least 4 separate units, and arguably that number is at least 6. With those separate units reporting to at least 5 or 6 different senior managers.

However, simply creating this integrated structure doesn’t necessarily solve the separation of knowledge and separation of process.

In terms of knowledge, too often integrated units, especially if they are large, can start to focus on the objective value of the knowledge (i.e. my theory/technology is good) rather than the value it can provide to a standard academic. Too often these units become the home for the technologists alliance.

In terms of process, integrated/centralised organisational units can have their involvement in the teaching process limited to at the beginning and the end. They often don’t actively work with and help academics during the teaching process. The idea of secondments for academic staff into these units is an example of this. The unit works with these staff in a setting divorced from their actual teaching.

My suggested solution is that such a unit needs to be embedded into the act of teaching and learning. It needs to be providing support, observing what is working and what is not and identifying/developing opportunities for increasing academic staff mastery via small changes that are contextually based.

Importantly, increasing academic staff mastery doesn’t necessarily mean improving the knowledge or capabilities within the head of the academic staff member. It can reside in the tools and systems that support the staff member in their teaching. This is a view based on the idea of connectivism and associated thoughts.

I need to think more about that last point.


Bransford, J., A. Brown, et al. (2000). How people learn: brain, mind, experience, and school. Washington, D.C., National Academy Press.

Ho, A., D. Watkins, et al. (2001). “The conceptual change approach to improving teaching and learning: An evaluation of a Hong Kong staff development programme.” Higher Education 42(2): 143-169.

Nudging as paternalism

This is a story about serendipitous connectability connecting both the online and offline worlds and making me aware of a growing narrative or theory. Which makes me question whether or not nudging or nudge theory is libertarian paternalism

The connections

At lunch today I was reading the Australian newspaper and came across this article – “No nudging, please”. In which the author refers to something called “nudge theory” as a recent bandwagon and boils nudge theory down to being libertarian paternalism.

While I wasn’t aware of the phrase nudge theory, the descriptions of nudge theory did ring some bells

nudge theory finds individuals often behave in ways that do not conform to the conventional view of the rational economic man

This connects with some of my long term thoughts, recent reading and recent writings.

This morning, before lunch and before I read the paper, I posted the first public thoughts on a presentation I’m working on that seems to connect here. The presentation is going to argue that most approaches to improving L&T at universities assume techno-rational approaches (herding cats) – or at the least assume that people are rational – and this is why they continue to fail. I was going to argue that better approaches would be based on an environment that encourages small, on-going improvements in practice (weight loss). An approach informed by complex adaptive systems and the observation that people aren’t rational (it’s still a work in progress.

The idea that this approach could be interpreted as paternalism is somewhat troubling.

Then this afternoon, I’m trying to find some more mp3 recordings of presentations to listen to while walking (part of my personal weight loss program applying similar principles) I came across a post on choice architecture and education by Gardner Campbell

Aside: I came to Gardner’s post via a Stephen Downes’ post reporting on Gardner’s talk at OpenEd’09. Anyone have an mp3 of the video? Perhaps I should learn how/if ustream videos can be converted into mp3s.

Garnder’s post reports on his initial thoughts of the book Nudge: Improving decisions about health, wealth and happiness. Reading the Amazon page suggests that the book and the theory very much brings together the ideas I’ve been thinking about. But I still find the question of paternalism somewhat troubling.

It’s a point that Gardner picks up on in his post

Although their advocacy of “libertarian paternalism” probably won’t please either the rigid high-stakes testers or the unschoolers, it does (so far) offer in my view a very interesting model for education that takes into account the need for expert understanding and guidance of the developing learner

Does my initial concern make me a rigid high-stakes tester or a unschooler?

Why am I troubled? Should I be troubled?

One of contentions is that much of the current attempts at improving learning and teaching within universities and how they are implemented are very paternalistic. I phrase it as level 2 approaches to learning and teaching. It is my belief that these approaches get in the way and actively reduce the chance of improving learning and teaching.

This is a flaw I’m seeking to address. So any chance that I’m also be paternalistic, strikes a nerve.

I have to admit that my initial reaction to the Australian newspaper article was moderated somewhat when I saw the byline of the author

Julie Novak is a research fellow with the Institute of Public Affairs.

The Institute of Public Affairs bills itself as “Australia’s leading free market think tank” and has a tag line “free people, free society”. So they probably fit in Gardner’s “unschooler” category.

Also, I believe that Professor Michael Sandel’s Reith Lectures for 2009 titled “A new politics of the common good” do a pretty good job – from my perspective – of arguing that the application of only free market principles to education has some flaws. In fact, I’m pretty happy that this perspective provides a reasonable arguent against the “unschoolers”.

At the other end of the spectrum – “the rigid high-stakes tester” – in my context equates to the top-down managerialists and the the technologists alliance. The folk who think there is a single idea (or maybe a few) that will radically improve L&T and that if only we can get those silly academics to adopt this approach, then everything will be alright. Just about anyone from a systems background (Senge etc) fit into this group as well. As long as we all have the same values, we’ll be okay.

To me this people are strong paternalists. They’ve come up with the solution. We will do as we’re told. Only we don’t. We’re irrational, we’re different and we have agency. We will fight back. So the whole thing disolves into tension and conflict.

While the underpinnings of the nascent approach I’m trying to develop and communicate draw on aspects of nudge theory (I have to read more to find out just exactly how much) it’s not the core. The core of the idea is that the environment that support L&T at a university has to have appropriate features that continue and enable academics to reflect and change their practice. And that this approach should be based on what we know about human cognition and rationality, i.e. that we’re not.

So, rather than applying “nudge theory” to encourage academics to adopt “good approaches to L&T” that I, or anyone else, has identified. The aim is to apply aspects of nudge theory to encourage academics to reflect and support them in identifying improvements to L&T that work for them in a sustainable way.

But then, when is all said and done, organisations always have limited resources there will, at some stage, need to be decisions made. Is this where management steps in? Novak makes the following point in her Australian article

The notion that the state should nudge individuals to make better decisions overlooks the fact politicians and government officials are also afflicted by behavioural biases.

. It is important that when management do end up making decisions, that they also be aware of their limitations. That they are also nudged in the right direction.

More thinking to be done.

Herding cats, losing weight and how to improve learning and teaching

The purpose of this post is to work out some initial ideas for a presentation I’ll be giving at CQUniversity in the next month or so. The title of the presentation is probably going to be “Herding cats, losing weight and how to improve learning and teaching”. The talk is related to my current position and is the first step in making the position better known within the organisation.

I’m hoping that this post will help me formulate some of the ideas that have been floating around about this presentation. The main purpose I hope to achieve is sufficient understanding of what I’m trying to do to come up with an abstract.

If you have an comments on the following please contribute. I’m particularly interested in references that might support or argue against any of the views below.


The talk will draw on many of the perspectives I’ve recently read and shared on this blog. The basic argument is that most of what Universities, at least those of my experience, have been doing to improve learning and teaching (quality, implementation of learning management systems, L&T innovation grants, graduate certificates in learning and teaching, curriculum design, over emphasis on discipline based teaching etc.) can be characterised as attempting to herd cats. For those of you unfamiliar with the idea, it’s best summarised in an old EDS commercial (YouTube video included below).

The problem

It’s my belief, that at best these approaches help the innovators – the small percentage of university academic staff that are inherently interested in improving their learning and teaching. That’s it, that’s the only positive I see of these approaches.

The negatives include:

I think I’ll argue that such approaches are symptomatic of an increasingly techno-rational approaches to universities and learning and teaching. An increase driven in part by the change nature of the context within which higher education must operate. i.e. decreasing funds, increasing calls for accountability etc. Approaches which are based on the assumption of ordered systems.

I’ll argue that the assumptions of ordered systems and techno-rational approaches are increasingly unquestioned. In fact, I’ll suggest that the nature of these assumptions and their mismatch with the context leads to defensive routines and that these assumptions become undiscussable. Actions which further restrict the ability of an organisation to improve learning and teaching.

The solution

First, I’ll try and use the idea of losing weight as a metaphor for the individual decisions around trying to improve learning and teaching. It will suggest that achieving both goals in a sustainable way, requires a change in the day to day practice of the individual. Not something that can be achieved by outside direction.

This metaphor/analogy will be used to make connections between the nature and outcomes of fad diets and fads in learning and teaching. It will also be used to highlight what we know about individuals, cognition and rationality. In particular, this will talk about the tendency for past experience to directly influence and limit how we will act in the future and how this influences both teachers and the managers that direct teachers.

Importantly, around about here it is important to connect with some of the “lessons from people” I’ve developed for the thesis.

At this stage, I’m getting a bit more fuzzy as to content and direction. The standard approach for me at this stage would be to talk about complex systems and the work of Dave Snowden. In particular the various principles he has. I may translate this into specific examples of things that can be done and connect it back to examples at CQU. In particular the limitations of teleological approaches to the support of e-learning systems.

More work to be done here, but I think the point has to be to bring all this abstract stuff back to real examples, suggestions or principles that can be applied in this context.


The environment within which Universities operate has changed significantly over recent years. Two of the biggest changes have been a reduction in state funding for universities and, at the same time, an increased need for universities to demonstrate the quality and appropriateness of their services, especially learning and teaching. Consequently, most universities have developed a range of strategies, policies, structures and systems with the intent of improving and demonstrating the quality of their learning and teaching. This presentation will draw on the metaphors of herding cats and losing weight to examine the underlying assumptions of these attempts, the resulting outcomes, question whether or not they are the best we can hope for, and present some alternatives.

Losing weight, improving learning and teaching and complex systems

Anyone who listens to me or reads this blog (e.g. when senior management loses the plot, quality compliance and task corruption, models of growth – responding to the grammar of school, improving university teaching and learning: learning from constructive alignment by not mandating it) knows that I think there are fundamental mistakes being made at most universities when it comes to how they try and improve or change the practice of learning and teaching. The following is an attempt to explain why I think it’s very badly broken and offer an alternative approach based on different theoretical underpinnings.

How do you lose weight?

In the last 10 years I have gained about 20 kilograms. I’ve spread into middle age. So while I haven’t made any serious attempt, I’ve kept an eye on all the various weight loss movements that have come and gone and occasionally dabbled in a few. I’m still about 20 kilograms over weight.

There have been a whole range of fads in that time – the Atkins diet, the CSIRO diet, various weight loss programs based around “shakes” being pushed by chemists – and the list goes on and on. Even with my limited attention span for such issues I’ve learned the important lesson, you don’t create long-term weight loss through fads. You achieve it through changes in what you do, in your lifestyle. Changes that encourage better eating and more exercise. It’s a fairly simple (to state) requirement.

My wife on the other hand is fit and trim. She goes to the gym regularly, eats well and through this interacts with a lot of other fit and trim people. People that appear to have established the changes in lifestyle necessary for long-term health. However, even amongst people who work at the gym there is a tendency to faddism. Just recently my wife relayed the story of one of the people who work at the gym who had spent hundreds of dollars on some magical supplement from overseas that would help give that extra boost. Of course it didn’t work.

Fads don’t work. What you do day in, day out has to change.

Most importantly, telling people this doesn’t work. I know this little maxim, but for at least the last 10 years I have maintained the extra weight. I haven’t made the necessary changes in my lifestyle. I’m a fairly smart fella, I know what is required, I’ve seen all the “horror” stories and commercial about the negative impacts of being over-weight, but for various reasons I haven’t made the change.

No amount of people telling me “You have to eat healthy and exercise more.” has or is likely to change what I do.

People aren’t rational

There’s an underlying assumption that many people have that we are rational, or at the very least I’m rational, but I can’t talk for other people. The idea is that when faced with a decision we will take the time to examine each alternative, weigh the positives and negatives against each other and make the optimial decision given the current context.

If that were the case, why would there be an obesity problem in most of the developed world. Surely, if we were rational, we’d all recognise the importance of healthy living and take the necessary steps…..

Dan Ariely’s book Predictably Irrational has more to say on this.

Human beings are not rational decision makers, we do not process all available information and chose rationally.

People are pattern processing intelligences

An alternative view is that human beings are pattern processing intelligences. Dave Snowden does a good job at explaining this, take a listen to this excerpt taken from one of the many talks he’s given – sorry I’ve lost the specific link, you can access his podcast of talks

The point here is that we make decisions based on the patterns we have collected in our head. Those patterns are mostly influenced by recent experience. What we do in life, what we experience, reinforces those patterns. It’s very hard to break out of those patterns.

Can you see how this explains why it is hard to lose weight? Your way of life creates patterns, the way you eat, the amount of exercise you get, all create patterns that influence your future actions. You have to break those patterns to escape, to make the change.

How do you make the change?

As I said above, I don’t think and I think experience supports this, that having a doctor tell you to lose weight won’t help you make that change. Going on a crash diet won’t help you change the ingrained patterns. You might lose some weight, but those patterns reassert themselves and you are soon back to the same old bad habits and gaining weight again.

The person that needs to lose the weight has to want to make the change. Now, some of these folk have the will power to make drastic change. But most people don’t. Most people need the help and assistance over a long time to make the changes in their day to day activities. They start small and change over time. Make small changes over time, these start to accumulate and eventually the day to day experiences that form patterns are changing.

Over the last few months, I’ve made some small changes sufficient that I am getting into some real exercise at least four or five times a week. It’s getting to the stage that I feel I’m missing out if I don’t meet that goal. The patterns are starting to help. My most recent change is to stop buying ice-cream – we’ll see how well that goes.

I’m trying to make small changes in what I do from day to day. I’m trying to establish new patterns of activity that I can maintain. As each pattern gets established, I’m looking for more small changes.

Patterns and conceptions of learning and teaching

There is a lot of research literature from education/L&T that suggests that the quality and type of learning and teaching an academic/teacher can engage in is limited by their conceptions of learning and teaching. This is something that is hinted at in the following diagram from Trigwell (2001) – and one I’ve used before.

Trigwell's model of teaching

Typically this is talked about in terms of the conception of teaching in terms of Kember’s (1997) main orientations – teacher-centered/content-oriented, or student-centered/learning oriented – or something similar and can be represented graphical as follows.

Kember categorisation model of conceptions of teaching

Then there’s other work that finds that there are also disciplinary differences in how people teach. For example, Harpe and Radloff (2006)

There is considerable evidence that different disciplines have their own culture, language, and practices which influence their approach to learning and teaching and hence, the kind of support required for further development and enhancement of learning and teaching practice.

. Not surprisingly, this discipline based approach to L&T is also evident in online systems. For example, Smith, Heindel et al (2008)

Differences in curriculum and teaching styles across disciplines in higher education courses are also evident in online courses…….Results suggest that over five years, e-learning in pure disciplines has become more commoditized, while e-learning in applied disciplines has become more diversified and more oriented to community practice.

There are many others.

Not surprisingly, I think you’ll find that the conceptions of teaching and the discipline specific differences in teaching are largely created by the “I’ll teach the way I was taught” situation.

The link?

Can you see the link I’m going to suggest between these and the observation that human beings are pattern processing intelligences? I’m going to argue that people teach the way they were taught to a large extent because we are pattern processing intelligences.

When we are asked to make decisions about how we are going to teach, we do not take the time to examine all the literature on pedagogy and choose the approach best suited to the content and students we are teaching. We look for the patterns from our past experience that seem to fit. We select on a first fit pattern match.

Questions for you

Let me ask you some questions.

Think about a university that you know or work at. Think about the processes that are required of academics when they design and deliver a course. Think about the policies that guide these processes. Think about the resources including the rooms and the learning management systems, and how those resources are allocated. Think about the people involved in that teaching in terms of backgrounds, outlook and roles. Now answer these questions:

  • encourage change in teaching practice;
    What aspects of those processes, policies, resources and people encourage change in patterns of experience? What about this things would encourage academics to change the way they do things?

    Now, of those things that encourage them to change. What percentage of the academics at the university engage in them?

  • discourage change in teaching practice;
    Now, think about the aspects of the policies, processes, resources and people at that univeristy that discourage change? What percentage of academics at the university are effected by those forces?

Learning and teaching at universities reinforces existing patterns

I’m not going to go into a detailed list here. It is my suggestion that at most universities that the following applies:

  • Just about everything about the policies, processes, resources and people at Universities discourage change.
    Learning management systems encourage/enable continuation of previous practice. Minimum course standards discourage change. Fear of failure discourages experimentation and change. People teaching within discipline groupings discourages change. The emphasis on research at the expense of teaching, discourages change. The physical nature of the rooms and how they are timetabled discourage change……
  • The policies, processes, resources and people that discourage change effect 100% of the people teaching at universities.
  • There are very few things about the policies, processes, resources and people at Universities that encourage change in teaching.
    It might be argued that requirements for teaching qualifications encourage change. The presence of instructional design and staff development groups encourage change. Learning and teaching grants encourage change.
  • Those aspects that encourage change are embraced by a vanishingly small percentage of the teaching staff.
    At my institution you could count on two hands the number of folk enrolled in a teaching qualification. Some of them are doing it to be compliant. A small group of staff attend the staff development forums, apply for the learning and teaching grants…..

My argument is that most of what an institution does around teaching discourages change. How can you improve learning and teaching if change is discouraged? You can’t.

Institutional processes, policies, and resources allow academic staff to maintain their existing patterns of experience around teaching.

The radical weight loss approach

When universities attempt to improve learning and teaching it is most often through the equivalent of radical, faddish weight loss programs. Academics are required to engage in a new process that will improve learning and teaching, but the new process is so radically different from what they’ve done in the past that there is no fundamental change in their patterns of experience.

At best they may achieve some short-term weight loss (i.e. improvement in learning), but long-term they will revert back to their old practice and eventually put the weight back on.

In some cases, if the radical weight loss is so different, the poor teaching staff member will never actually be able to understand it. To some extent this connects with the point made in this BrainRules video about schema.

The alternative

The policies, processes, resources and people involved in the day to day teaching activities of an organisation have to be designed to have more emphasis on making small, sustainable changes to accepted, widespread practice.

Rather than enshrine and prevent change to current practice, rather than attempt large scale radical weight loss, an institution needs to focus on what the teaching staff do and create policies, processes, and resources that encourage teaching staff to gradually change the patterns they have around teaching.

In the words of Cavallo (2004)

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.

Teaching staff need to be able to experience and observe small changes in teaching practice that make sense to them. The small change has to be heavily contextual and related to the prior experience, their prior patterns. However, it needs to help them move their patterns onwards, just that little bit.

A system that continues to encourage this gradual change will not only improve over time, it will radically change how it does things. It will differentiate itself from other contexts, it will innovate.

Theoretical links

I was going to go on. But if you want some additional theoretical links, the above perspective is informed very much by ideas around complex adaptive systems and in particular the work of Dave Snowden, Stephen Downes and George Siemens.


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

Harpe, B. d. l., & Radloff, A. (2006, 5-7 July, 2006). Building on AUQA Learning and Teaching Commendations in Devolved Institutional Contexts. Paper presented at the Australian University Quality Forum, Perth, Australia.

Kember, D. (1997). A reconceptualisation of the research into university academics’ conceptions of teaching. Learning and Instruction, 7(3), 255-275.

Smith, G., Heindel, A., & Torres-Ayala, A. (2008). E-learing commodity or community: Disciplinary differences between online courses. Internet and Higher Education, 11(3-4), 152-159.

Trigwell, K. (2001). "Judging university teaching." The International Journal for Academic Development 6(1): 65-73.

Examination focus and what it might tell us about learning and teaching

Phillips (2005) includes the following quote

In most university subjects, the dominant mode of teaching consists of lectures, tutorials and laboratory practical sessions (Laurillard 2002: 81), with assessment strongly focussed on examinations.

This has some connections with some work a colleague and I are doing around what history can tell us about e-learning and some ideas I have about experimenting with the assumptions and/or mythic nature underlying lectures.


One of the points we’re liable to draw from history is that introducing new technology (or a new LMS) into a university is not, by itself, going to change the quality of learning and teaching. Mainly because the conception of learning and teaching held by the academics isn’t going to change.

The bit about “assessment strongly focussed on examinations” provides one potential indicator about what those conceptions might be. i.e. this perspective seems to suggest that

focus on examination = indicator of somewhat limited conception of L&T

That’s a very bald and poor way of putting it, there are all sorts of exemptions and limitations, but that’s the crux of it.

So what’s the case at our institution? And is there any link between how heavily weight assessment is towards an and how e-learning is used?

In terms of exams, I can determine that for the 2nd major term in 2008 the assessment database I have access to indicates:

  • 527 courses were offered;
    This does, I believe, include a number of post-graduate/research courses. This means the percentage of courses with exams might be off – more work needed here.
  • 164 of those had an exam;
  • the average weighting of that exam of total assessment was just over 54%.

Seems to be a particular focus there. I wonder if that focus converts into something observable in the use of e-learning?


The major connection with the work on lectures, but also the history stuff, is shown with the following quote from Phillips (2005)

Sometimes, ICT has been used to replace face-to-face activities, but, often, this has been an unreflective replication of existing activities (Collis and van der Wende 2002; Harris, Yanosky et al. 2003).

I hope the “lecture” work can start to highlight some of those assumptions (which go beyond simply assumptions about learning and teaching to include organisational assumptions).


Phillips, R. (2005). “Challenging the primacy of lectures: The dissonance between theory and practice in university teaching.” Journal of University Teaching and Learning Practice 2(1): 1-12.

Quality, compliance and task corruption

Within the next year AUQA are coming to pay a visit to my institution to “check our quality”. I am a major cynic when it comes to quality assurance or the various other associated buzz words. An organisational unit I joined was big on the whole quality stuff, and while it was certified it was my view that most of what it was certified to do was completely and utterly wrong for the organisation. Not to mention that it was inefficient, badly designed and we had consultants reports to tell us that (not just our own views).

In my thesis literature travels I came across this quote

These studies reinforce the view that quality is about compliance and accountability and has, in itself, contributed little to any effective transformation of the student learning experience. (Harvey and Newton, 2004)


My suggestion, based on local observations, is that quality assurance quickly descends into prescription from management and the quality folk and that this prescription is soon met with the appearance of compliance but the reality of task corruption.

I see this happening in the local context now. A small group of people are identifying what needs to be done to comply with AUQA’s visit. They are now asking/prescribing folk throughout the institution to do lots of things in preparation for the visit. The people asked to carry out these tasks are annoyed that they are being asked to perform these one off tasks on top of everything else they do and are consequently seeking to comply with the requirements with the minimum of effort – though with a maximum of complaining.

This brings me back to my point about reflective alignment (my knock off and remixing of Biggs’ constructive alignment) and prescription. Quality assurance has become about level 2 of reflective alignment – what management does.

Quality never transforms, in my experience, because it never embeds itself within the journey of staff. It’s always a bolt on because the quality folk think more about the destination prescribed by quality than about the teaching and learning.

Another quote to end from Radloff (2008)

Academic staff attitudes towards the ‘quality agenda’ can also act as an obstacle to engagement. Staff may question the institutional approach to quality which they perceive as compliance driven creating ‘busy work’ (Anderson 2006; Harvey & Newton 2004; Laughton 2003) with little positive impact on teaching practice and student learning experiences (Harvey 2006). They may therefore try to avoid, subvert or actively reject attempts to implement quality systems and processes. As Jones and de Saram (2005, p. 48) note, “It is relatively easy to develop a system and sets of procedures for quality assurance and improvement on paper. To produce a situation where staff on campus ‘buy into’ this in an authentic and energetic manner is much more difficult”.


Harvey, L. and J. Newton (2004). “Transforming quality evaluation.” Quality in HIgher Education 10(2): 149-165.

Radloff, A. (2008). Engaging staff in quality learning and teaching: What’s a Pro Vice Chancellor to do? HERDSA’2008.

Where's the inspiration? Where's the desire to improve?

The title and spark for this post comes from this post entitled “A night of ‘Biggest Loser’ Inspiration”. I came across it via a tweet from Gardner Campbell and in particular the quote from the post he tweeted (included here sans the 140 character tweet limit)

People follow inspiration and that’s where students will go — where they are inspired to learn, collaborate, build and innovate.

I’m guessing, though am currently not 100% certain, that my current institution will want me to contribute to creating this sort of inspiration in my new role. I’m excited by that, but I’m also concerned that it will be really difficult. When I’m looking at the difficulties I will face, the biggest is perhaps embodied in the second question from this quote from the post (caps in original, I’ve added the emphasis)


Where’s the desire to improve?

When it comes to improving learning and teaching I am a firm believer in the absolute centrality of teacher’s conception of learning and teaching. Yes, I agree that student learning is the focus, you want to inspire students to learn, collaborate, build and innovate. However, I work within a university setting and am tasked with helping improve the learning students receive from the university. In that setting the conceptions of learning held by the teaching staff directly impact upon the quality of the student learning.

Consequently, I currently believe that an important, if not the most important, aim for my position should be to encourage academics to reflect upon their conceptions of learning and teaching. The theory being, see the following figure from Trigwell (2001), change in those conceptions is the only way to achieve sustainable improvements in the quality of learning experience by students.

Trigwell's model of teaching

The problem is that for this will only happen if there is a desire on the part of the academics to reflect. If there’s no desire, it won’t work. My current institution has been going through some tough times which may make it hard to find that inspiration.

Further connections with the biggest loser

The post that started this, was sparked by watching the Biggest Loser – one of the recent franchises of reality shows to go global. Since I listened to some of David Maister’s podcasts from a recent book of this (Strategy and the Fat Smoker – there’s a good review/overview here) I’ve been pondering the connection between weight loss and encouraging innovation and improvement in learning and teaching (I can see at least a presentation and maybe some research arising from this work but it’s been put aside until I finish other tasks).

I particularly like this quote

If you truly want to succeed (and many people do not want it badly enough to make it happen) then you must never settle, never give up, never coast, never just accept what is, even if you are currently performing at a high level.

which I took from this review of the book. The review was done by a lawyer who focused on one chapter of Maister’s book – Chapter 17: The Trouble with Lawyers. The review includes this

He highlights four problems that prevent “lawyers from effectively functioning in groups:”

  • problems with trust;
  • difficulties with ideology, values, and principles;
  • professional detachment; and
  • unusual approaches to decision making (referring to lawyers’ propensity to attack any idea presented to locate and highlight its weaknesses, with the result that “within a short time, most ideas, no matter who initiates them, will be destroyed, dismissed, or postponed for future examination.”)

A list which I find fairly appropriate for university academics.

One of the observations that arise from the book is the examination of consultants and the businesses that employ them and a comparison with health professionals and fat smokers. Consultants are brought in to tell the business how to improve itself, just as health professionals are brought in to help fat smokers. The trouble is, that like fat smokers, most business people already know what they are doing wrong. Fat smokers know they need to stop smoking, eat well and start exercising. What do health professionals tell fat smokers? Stop smoking, eat well and start exercising. Duh!

Of course, consultants know that most business people know what the consultants know. Increasingly most of the business people have been through the same education processes and read the same literature as the consultants. Though the business people often have the huge benefit of long-term and in-depth practical experience within the specific context of the business. A consultant knows this and has to justify his/her fee. So consultants come in with a barrage of jargon and technologies (in the broadest possible senses) that the business person doesn’t have. However, in the end it all boils down to the same knowledge.

I can see a lot of similarities here between instructional designers (and other folk employed to help academics) and academics. The instructional designers are the consultants and the academics are the business people. I see instructional designers developing a barrage of jargon and technologies which essentially boil down to telling the fat smoker to stop smoking, eat well and exercise. Essentially telling the academic what they already know but making it so difficult to understand that the academic spends more time understanding than implementing.

Of course, this is a generalisation and metaphor with all the attendant limitations. But, I do believe there is a glimmer, possibly more, of truth. It also makes some assumptions and raises some questions:

  • That academics do know the equivalent of “stop smoking, eat well and exercise” for learning and teaching.
    Having worked in a number of positions that help academics in their teaching I’ve had an opportunity to see a large number of very different academics. Sadly and somewhat suprisingly, a fairly significant number appear to be somewhat clueless. However, I do wonder how much of this lack of knowledge or simply poor execution.
  • If they know, why don’t they follow through?
    What are the factors or reasons why this knowledge isn’t put into action? Can anything be done to address them.
  • Is there really an equivalent of “stop smoking, eat well and exercise” for learning and teaching?

It has to be intrinsic

Have to add this in before I close. This review of Maister’s book mentions the following as one of the many answers provided by Maister

Motivation must be intrinsic, not extrinsic. The biggest barrier to change is the feeling that “it’s OK so far.”

When I ask “where’s the desire”, I think this is perhaps the best answer. When the desire to improve and innovate is intrinsic to the academic, then the question becomes how does the university get out of their way and help them achieve?

But, how do you enable/encourage/create that intrinsic movitation? Can you? That’s the question I’d like to investigate.

Quality assurance of learning and teaching

AUQA is coming. Eventually most Australian universities will receive a second visit from AUQA. As such visitations come closer increasing levels of thought are given to demonstrating quality. What does it mean to demonstrate quality of learning and teaching?

According to Biggs (2001) the answer is

The basic question then for QA is: Are our teaching programmes producing the results we say we want in terms of student learning?

This definition seems to suggest two main questions to answer:

  1. What do we say we want in terms of student learning?
  2. How do we know if our teaching programmes are producing those results?

Given what I’ve had to say about difficulties associated with measuring the effectivness of learning and teaching, I’m not confident that that the second question can be answered by many universities.

Given that level 1 smile sheets do not work what do you do?

Why don't we (e-)learn – over emphasis on rationality and defensive routines

Work on the PhD thesis is currently going slow. There are many reasons for this, one of them is I keep following interesting streams of literature beyond the needs of the thesis. I can rationalise that most of these extra-thesis streams do connect with the work I may be doing into the future, though that doesn’t necessarily help feel good about the thesis. (aside: I continue to be amazed by the folk who haven’t learnt that the one question you do not ask someone in my position is, “How’s the thesis going?”).

Over the last month or so I’ve been focusing on historical perspectives around technology-mediated learning and the nature of organisations. This has become really depressing as it illustrates just how prone to reinventing the wheel we are in organisational practice – even in universities. This post talks about one of those streams of literature that strikes really close to home in terms of universities, e-learning, the limitations of current practice, and how we don’t learn from the past.

Blindsided by the elephant

What I’m reading at the moment is a book review by Guy Adams (1994) titled Blindsided by the Elephant (this link will let you see the first page). The title draws on the parable of the blind men and the elephant to make some points about organisations, management, organisational research and learning.

'Blind monks examining an elephant' by Itcho Hanabusa

Much of the first page tells the story about the Challenger space shuttle disaster and how engineers made management aware of the problem, but how management overrode the logic of the situation and disaster flowed from that apparently less than rational decision. This is connected to the “blind men and the elephant” parable by suggesting that researchers into organisations are the blind men and that the elephant is the organisation.

In particular, Adams takes issue with the over use of the assumption of rational behaviour

The modern age is an age of technical rationality, and our culture is therefore one that predisposes us to see human behaviour through scientific-analytic lenses that give us overly rationalised accounts of organisational life.

He then draws on work by Argyris and Schon (1978) where they identify a predominance of Model 1 behaviour in organisations. I’ve summarised the governing variables and matching action strategy in the following table.

Governing variables and matching action strategies of Model 1 behaviour (adapted from Adams (1994))
Variables Action strategy
Define goals and try to achieve them Design and manage the environment unilaterally
Maximise winning and minimise losing Own and control the task
Minimise generating or expressing negative feelings Unilaterally protect yourself
Be rational Unilaterally protect others from being hurt

The suggestion is that it is questionable that Model 1 behaviour works well in conditions of certainty. In situations characterised by uncertainty, Model 1 behaviours tend to prevent learning and become dysfunctional and self-sealing. The following quote is from Argyris and Schon (1978, p116) and is used in Adams (1994)

In a Model 1 behavioral world, the discovery of uncorrectable errors is a source of personal and organisational vulnerability. The response to vulnerability is unilateral self-protection, which can take several forms. Uncorrectable errors, and the processes that lead to them, can be hidden, disguised, or denied (all of which we call ‘camouflage’); and individuals and groups can protect themselves further by sealing themselves off from blame, should camouflage fail.

What’s worse is that these behaviours are their norms are undiscussable, invisible and cannot be talked about.

Organisational defenses

Adams (1994) is, in part, a review of Argyris (1990) – Overcoming Organisational Defenses: facilitating Organisational Learning (the reader comments on the Amazon page are interesting). Adams (1994) describes the organisational defensive routine as

  1. Craft messages that contain inconsistencies.
  2. Act as if the messages are not inconsistent.
  3. Make the ambiguity and inconsistency in the message undiscussable.
  4. Make the undicussability of the undiscussable also undiscussable.

This routine certainly reminds me of a number of example from my experience as does the following description from Argyris (1990) of what Adams (1994) describes as the fundamental flaw of rational and functional theories of organisations.

Because all functional disciplines have at their core a set of technical ideas and procedures to accomplish productive reasoning, the theory seems plausible. The problem is that the technical ideas an procedures are not self-implementable. Human beings do the implementing. Once people become involved, they bring with them their capacity for skilled incompetence and the organisational defenses, fancy footwork, and malaise that follow. But none of these are likely to be activated unless the correct implementation of the functional disciplines is embarrassing or threatening. At that point, the defenses will blunt the value-adding potential of the functional disciplines – ironically, at the very moment the organisation needs them most.

I’ve seen this within the field of project management, especially around information technology projects. Project management seems to make sense. However, the implementation of information technology within organisations, especially those as complex as universities and especially when around learning and teaching, raise also sorts of difficult and threatening problems. So, the seeming rational processes soon suffer from the organisational defensive routine described above.

Application to e-learning

It’s my belief that the practice, implementation and support of e-learning suffers from the same over emphasis on scientific-analytic lenses that Adams (1994) suggests that organisational research suffers. The very nature of research training in most disciplines leads to this emphasis, which then seems to infect most training given to professionals in those same disciplines. This predominance creates the same problem, there is a large component of e-learning that is invisible. Institutional implementation of e-learning, as with anything else, suffers also from the organisational defensive routine described by Argyris (1990).

The alternatives mentioned briefly in Adams (1994) and Argyris (1990) and his other work seem to offer some interesting insights and avenues for more research. This book by Noonan (it’s also on Google books) seems, at least according to the Amazon customer reviews, to offer a useful way to get started.

Any work arising out of this around e-learning would seem to enable us blind folk see more of the elephant.


Adams, G. (1994). “Blindsided by the Elephant.” Public Administration Review 54(1): 77-83.

Models of growth – responding to the grammar of school

This post serves as a brief placeholder of ideas and also to remind me to follow up further on this paper (Cavallo, 2004). The paper seems to offer a very interesting and informed perspective on issues that are of great interest to me, including the “Process” used in implementing e-learning within Universities and the “grammar of school”.

Even though I’ve only skimmed the paper, I would suggest that anyone currently involved in a Moodle implementation should really take the time to read this paper.

Some quick quotes follow

The problem

David Tyack and Larry Cuban postulated that there exists a grammar of school, which makes deviation from our embedded popular conception of school feel as nonsensical as an ungrammatical utterance [1]. They describe how reform efforts, whether good or bad, progressive or conservative, eventually are rejected or denatured and assimilated. Reform efforts are not attempted in the abstract, they are situated in a variety of social, cultural and historical contexts. They do not succeed or fail solely on the basis of the merit of the ideas about learning, but rather, they are viewed as successful based upon their effect on the system and culture as a whole. Thus, they also have sociological and institutional components — failure to attend to matters of systemic learning will facilitate the failure of the adoption of the reforms.

Telling people they are bad

Just as one cannot merely tell a child his thinking is incorrect
and then expect everything to fall into place, so too we cannot expect simply to tell a school, a school system, a country, that its schools are wrong and how to fix them.

Take this to the middle level, you can’t go along to an academic and say his/her use of e-learning is bad, and expect them to change it.

How to improve the practice of learning and teaching

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. The limitations inherent in existing systems based upon information transfer models are as impoverished in effecting systemic development as they are in child development.

This perspective connects nicely to the ideas of reflective alignment

So obviously, the author is intelligent, he agrees with me! The fact he was/is co-director of the MIT Media Lab’s Future of Learning group also suggests a modicum of intelligence.

Disruption and the "mythic" technologies of education

I told myself I wouldn’t blog anything more not directly related to the PhD – I’m breaking that promise because a few things I’ve read over this weekend resonate strongly with the problems that are frustrating me the most with the current practice of higher education and its management.

The blog post connects ideas from a presentation titled “Disruption and Transformation” by Gardner Campbell (I wish the other talks in the session were available online – should look), an article titled “Why School Reform is Impossible (Pappert, 1995) by Seymour Papert, Postman’s 5th of 5 things to know about technology change – technology becomes mythic, and my own views about the roles played by consistency (bad) and diversity (good).

Gardner’s observations

In his presentation Gardner makes a number of observations around the practice of learning and teaching within universities in the context of disruption and transformation. These include:

  • LMSes suck at personalisation which is important for learning, ownership and community.
    The complete lack of any support for personalisation offered by existing learning management systems, especially when compare to social network sites such as Facebook. He mentions Blackboard, but I would suggest Moodle has just the same flaws – being open source doesn’t solve the problem, at least not yet.
  • Course synopsis/profiles suck.
    An illustration of how the common views of course synopsis/profiles can be seen very negatively. How they help set exactly the wrong type of environment for learning to occur and are a particularly bad way to start a course.
  • Pre-defined learning objectives suck.
    The idea that you can pre-determine the learning that will take place for each student is questioned. Jocene, I think you’ll like that bit.

He closes the presentation by showing video of Chris Dede comparing education with sleeping, eating and bonding. Where university education tries to treat learning as more like sleeping then bonding. This post by Derek Wenmouth talks more about the video. I find particularly relevant the bit about Dede’s last comment

he points out that the major issue is with breaking down the social and political barriers – pointing out that technology will only ever take us part of the way towards the personalised learning dream

More on this below.

Consistency has become “mythic”

In Postman’s 5 things to know about technological change”, number 5 is

Technology becomes mythic, it becomes seen as part of the natural order of things.

For me the question of “consistency”, Dede’s treating learning as sleeping, has become mythic within the Australian Higher Education system. The “course profile as contract” perspective has become unquestioned, it is part of the natural order of things. Anyone who questions the importance of the contract is seen as weird. Universities spend huge amounts of time ensuring the contract is developed on-time. I know of governing councils of institutions that have taken time to discuss the fact that x% of these contracts were not ready in time. The fact that the content of the vast majority of these contracts is questionable and that the learning experience students have under the confines of those contracts is far from good, is never considered (it’s too hard).

National auditing bodies set up by the government put tremendous value on all students receiving a consistent learning experience. The idea that learning is more like bonding than sleeping is considered woolly thinking and inappropriate.

Don’t believe me, this is what the auditing body said about my current institution in it’s report

As a University with multiple teaching sites, CQU has developed a system for ensuring the consistency of course delivery and student participation which may be amongst best practice in the Australian sector.

This irrational emphasis on consistency increases the reliance and acceptance of the learning management system. The idea seems to be that if only we can make all the course websites look the same and have the same structure and content, then the student learning experience will be okay. The LMS appears to help management achieve this goal.

Of course the fact that most LMSes are based on a model that makes it very difficult to standardise is something they don’t seem to get. The LMS model is based on individual academics creating course sites manually, which creates diversity, and then copying them across each term. It leads to organisations expending effort on kludges to automate the consistent creation of course sites.

I continue to like Oscar Wilde’s take on consistency.

Consistency is the last refuge of the unimaginative

Now is the time for experiments, lots and lots of experiments

Gardner draws upon this blog post by Clay Shirkey. I’ve heard a bit about this post in the blogosphere, but hadn’t read it. I’ve fixed that flaw, you should too. It’s important.

Personally, this particular quote resonated very strongly with my current predicament

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.

Currently, in terms of e-learning at universities, I see myself as one of the realists being shunted aside by the fabulists who are peddling all sorts of unlikely visions of the future.

My take on Shirky’s article, as applied to e-learning (yes, I know that the phrase e-learning has questionable value and I should probably just use learning) within universities, goes something like this:

  • We’re living through 1500.
    How to do e-learning within universities and the how the impact of changes within society, especially the Internet, remain unanswered questions. The answers we have today are just like the failed business models used by newspapers to leverage the Internet, they are interim measures destined to fail.
  • There’s no telling what will work.
    No-one can say what model will work in the future. It’s a nature of revolution, it’s too complex to predict. We’ll only know after the fact – retrospective coherence.
  • Now is the time for lots and lots of experiments.
    Since we don’t know what will work, we need to try lots of things to find out what might.

Gardner makes the point that universities, as the supposed homes of research and learning, of knowledge generation, production and dissemination should be at the forefront of this experimentation – but we aren’t.

For me, this is because consistency has become has become mythic. The importance of sameness has become unquestioned and this gets in the way of experimentation. Experimentation means the possibility of failure and failure is to be feared and avoided. Much better to be safe and same.

Can this be done within universities

Seymour Papert in a 1995 article outlines a perspective about change in education. A perspective which I believe has some connections with the above.

In terms of “technology” becoming mythic, Papert draws on Tyack and Cuban’s (1995) idea of the “grammar of school” and links it to assimilation blindness.

The structure of School is so deeply rooted that one reacts to deviations from it as one would to a grammatically deviant utterance: Both feel wrong on a level deeper than one’s ability to formulate reasons. This phenomenon is related to “assimilation blindness” insofar as it refers to a mechanism of mental closure to foreign ideas. I would make the relation even closer by noting that when one is not paying careful attention, one often actually hear the deviant utterance as the “nearest” grammatical utterance a transformation that might bring drastic change in meaning.

Papert links these ideas back to the introduction of computers into schools and how the “deviant utterance” gets heard/transformed into the “nearest grammatical utterance”. i.e. it gets transformed into something that fits within the grammar of school. I believe Shirky makes this point in connection with how newspapers tried to deal with the Internet and I believe you can see this happening within Universities (e.g. the walled gardens of the LMS and the connection with the walls of the lecture theatre).

Papert describes the components he sees that make up schools and how they match

I see School as a system in which major components have developed harmonious and mutually supportive — mutually matched forms. There is a match of curriculum content, of epistemological framework, of organizational structure, and — here comes the trickiest point for Tyack and Cuban — of knowledge technology.

He equates a failed education reform as being similar to tweaking one of these components and then observing, like any well-equilibrated dynamic system, “when you let go it is pulled back by all the other components”.

Papert argues that reform as centralised social engineering will go wrong. He argues that

Complex systems are not made. They evolve.

and suggests that effective fostering of radical change means

rejecting the concept of a planned reform and concentrating on creating the obvious conditions for Darwinian evolution: Allow rich diversity to play itself out.

Sounds like “Now is the time for experiments, lots and lots of experiments” to me. Which brings me back to a previous post and the concept of safe-fail design from Dave Snowden.

The source of my frustration

It also brings me back to the perspective that corporate approaches to management (i.e. the top manager and/or a small group of experts/analysts make the decisions) has become “mythic” within universities. A focus on creating the conditions, letting go and seeing what happens is something they just can’t understand or appreciate.

This summarises the main source of my frustrations over the last 15 years of trying to do innovative things around learning. It’s not something I see changing anytime soon.

How do you change this social and political barrier?


Papert, S. (1995). “Why School Reform is Impossible.” The Journal of the Learning Sciences 6(4): 417-427.

Tyack, D. and L. Cuban (1995). Tinkering towards utopia: A century of public school reform. Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press.

Edupunk rules: Technology I, II and 3 – understanding and improving the practice of instructional technology

The following is a summary and perhaps a bit of a reflection on McDonald and Gibbons (nd). This is a journal article that has been accepted, but not yet officially published. It appears to be based on the PhD thesis of McDonald.

The paper uses the criteria of technology I, II and III to examine differences between researchers description of a theory and how practitioners implement it. This identifies 3 reasons for technological gravity and 3 approaches to avoid it.

As I’ve read the paper and connected that with stuff I’m talking about and reading at the moment, this has evolved into something that makes connections between Technology III and the Edupunk movement. Somewhat off topic, but it looks like a connection.

My take on the paper

This paper resonates a lot with me and my experience. It offers a useful insight and some significant literature that I can draw on both now and into the future. It also raises a range of questions and observations about the practice of improving learning and teaching within universities.

Connections with Edupunk

For me, the ideas of Technology I, II and III definitely connects or might form part of the Edupunk movement. This quote from Jim Groom really illustrates a connection with Technology I (my emphasis added)

This passage brings into sharp focus a scary reality that often gets overlooked (or is it intentionally downplayed?) in educational technology, namely that the Utopian, blue sky ideas of technology as a singular harbinger of possibility and liberation

This “Technology I” view is what the corporates are pushing. It’s a major part of what I see Edupunk rebelling against. What is Edupunk? “Edupunk is student-centered, resourceful, teacher- or community-created” from Leslie Brooks. The student-centered aspect ties directly to Technology III. Learner control is a core component of Technology III.

But wait, there’s more

In Technology III, practitioners do not use technologies or design processes only because some instructional theory specifies it, but because characteristics of the local situation lead them to believe that a certain technique or tool will have a practical, positive influence in solving a defined problem. (McDonald and Gibbons)

A key part of this emphasis on the local situation is the idea that any technique, from anywhere can be useful. The following quote, from an earlier developer of the Technology III idea, illustrates this and seems even more directly connected to the image of a Edupunk. The Technology III practitioner

Is not one who follows all of the known rules, not even one who follows all of the known rules well. . . . [but is someone who] breaks known rules and creates new rules, thus enabling [a type of instructional technology] not possible through the application of known, status quo, systematic rules. (Beckwith 1988, p. 16)


Technology I and II directly connects with my thoughts about the almost universal acceptance of fads and fashions in higher education, especially around e-learning.

Task corruption

Task corruption, work-arounds and “gaming the system” have been a topic I’ve been thinking about recently. Much of what I see in L&T at universities is about gaming the system. Being seen to do the right thing, even though you’re not.

The points made in this article about Technology I and II and how technological gravity sucks people down to that level connects directly with the ideas of task corruption and workarounds.

But it also points to broader possibilities about who is “working around” things:

  • The poor teacher – sure coal-face academics workaround things to get by in the world. This is well known.
  • The educational technologists/learning designer etc.
    One of the toughest and most uncertain, in terms of position and future, jobs at universities is that of learning designer or educational technologist. Given the difficulty and uncertainty, is it any surprise that these folk will be tempted to simplify and routinise what they do? Even if they do understand completely “Technology III” technological gravity will suck them down to technology I or II.
  • Educational researchers.
    Developing a new learning theory, process or technology is hard, especially one that will make a significant difference to learning. However, academics and researchers are evaluated on how well they achieve this, arguably, impossible goal. Is it any surprise that they seek to corrupt their task? Make it a bit easier to achieve?

    For example, design and test a theory that works well for my classes, but not so well in real life or for others. Take on research that avoids the difficulties and complexities of real life?

Examples of Technology I and II

I’m struggling to think of any recent, long-term examples of Technology III in my experience. Almost all of them, at least to me, appear to be examples of Technology I and II. Some of the examples:

  • LMS/e-portfolio/insert technology here will save the world.
    I’ve written about this one before. The new technology will save us!!!
  • PBL/constructive alignment/insert process here will save the world.
    I’ve seen this regularly. Someone reads a body of research around process X, thinks that’s great. Then begins to trumpet how process X, when applied to every course at the university, will radically improve the quality of L&T.
  • Bastardisation of process and technology.
    I’ve seen this one again and again. Even if you accept a certain technology or process as being an example of Technology III, the principles associated with it soon become bastardised beyond all appropriateness. For example, a committee focusing on ensuring that the verbs and phrasing of learning objectives is approriate but without any idea of assessment of teaching practice are appropriate to supporting those.

There are more, but time to get onto the summary


Makes the point that instructional designers/researchers develop detailed plans and specifications for creating “high-quality instruction”. Yet, when implemented, practitioners are unable to keep it going

Essential principles of an instructional approach sometimes seem to be lost as it is translated from the original theory into practice, and it instead becomes a formulaic technique for imitating common instructional structures that do not meet the goals expressed by either the practitioner or the theorist

Suggests that this may be one reason for the fad/fashion cycle in instructional ideas.

Suggests one reason for this may be the assumptions instructional technologists hold about the their field and its practice. References some literature suggesting unexamined assumptions about a discpline can negatively influence its theory and practice as they lmit peoples’ understanding to what is familiar. Assumptions that can lead to a reductive or even inaccurate view about what is involved in effective learning.

Refer to the Technology I, II and III work done by a range of folk to organise qualities of practice around three major assumptions that either limit practice or help encourage a rigorous and reflective practice. Describes each of these as:

  • Technology I – assumes media devices automatically lead people to develop quality instruction.
  • Technology II – assume design formulas/techniques automatically lead people to develop quality instruction.
  • Technology III – quality of instruction measured by consequences of instruction with students and within the larger system
    Actually, the above is the description in the journal paper. The abstract from the PhD thesis puts it this way

    Technology III was the belief that good instruction could consist of many different product or process technologies, but that technology use alone did not define good instruction. Rather, good instruction was the realization of improved systems in which learning could take place

The theorists behind this “framework” suggested that practitioners with a focus on I or II assumed they could find a technology or an instructional formula. This leads them to adopt uncritically that innovation regardless of whether or not it is compatible with any instructional principles, goals or context.

Authors suggest that their study reinforced the value of this framework. Also, it identified a “technological gravity” that pulls practitioners away from II towards I or II. They have developed strategies for mitigating the gravity. Evaluating the criteira of I, II and III can help. Doing so may help address the fundamental problems faced by the field.

Comment: The authors are using a strange mix of “practitioner” and “instructional technologists”. Hard to pick exactly who they are talking about. Front line acacdemics as practitioners. Or the instructional technologists helping them – or both?

Seems as the rest of the paper examines

  • More indepth look at I, II and III
  • Discussion of technology gravity
  • Avoiding technology gravity

Technology I

This is the “tools approach”. An approach I’ve argued against previously. If you adopt a technology, wonderful educational improvement will happen, all by itself.

This view is linked to the idea that teaching activities cause learning to take place. i.e. if the teacher is seen as a potter, moulding the students – then new tools for the potter improve the product.

The authors then connect this with the information transmission view of teaching. I’m not sure this is the only connection. Much of what I see from the eportfolio community, at least to me, strikes me as suffering the same problem and even I don’t think those folk see teaching as information transmission.

Authors now seek to describe how this view leads practitioners down the path of not maintaining the quality of innovative pedagogical approaches because “the essential principles of those approaches cannot be easily expressed using only technological tools”. The problems with and impacts of this view continue

  • quote – if you begin with a device, you develop the teaching program to fit the device.
  • learning and instructioanl problems defined in terms of latest innovation
  • instructional technology in danger of being defined by these devices.

They now raise the argument that this explains why instructors reuse old approaches with new technology. This seems somewhat counter-intuitive to me – or at least how I’ve interpreted the previous argument. At least at first. I think I see it now.

Technology II

This is the “methdological, rule-based” approach to improving instruction. Use the right design process/technique and you’re away. Assumes that design techniques/processes have an intrinsic ability to solve educational problems.

This fails because the principles of innovation teaching approaches cannot be expressed using only the known design processes and formulas.

It is important to note that Technology II is not an attack on the techniques or processes used to develop instruction, per se. Technology II criticizes a type of practice in which people view only certain methods as the legitimate way to develop instruction, and as a result overlook critical features of the instructional situation.

Bit of discussion about how the simplification of design processes/approaches lead to a translation of the process. The thing being used, isn’t exactly like what was proposed. Intenionally or not, the person implementing the process will emphasise some aspects over others.

Technology III

Ahh, this is the good (where good is purely defined as reinforcing what I believe – the authors are obviously very intelligent if they agree with me 😉 )stuff.

In Technology III, practitioners do not use technologies or design processes only because some instructional theory specifies it, but because characteristics of the local situation lead them to believe that a certain technique or tool will have a practical, positive influence in solving a defined problem.

These folk do not believe that good learning experiences can be reduced to, nor controlled by, any technology of process.

The authors include a full quote from one of the originators of the idea using chess as a metaphor

[Technology III is like] a chess game, in which players engage in an intellectual activity for which there is no one set of appropriate moves. . . . The order, and manner, in which [instructional systems are created] depends upon the character of the problem, and the aim in mind. There is no one best way, and no one way of proceeding. Neither is there one optimal solution. Everything depends upon the situation, and the skills available. (Davies 1978, pp. 22–23)

As part of this perspective, there is no one right solution. There are many suitable solutions. There is also a call to look for insight beyond the instructional technology field. A part of this view is a focus on the learners’ agency as an essential part of learning.

This broader, more open view is said to make such folk more flexible, free to change and respond to circumstances. They don’t follow the rules, the break known rules and create new ones.

Technology Gravity

Propose and explain technological gravity as

We believe our metaphor is apt because, just like physical gravity, our observation of technological gravity seems to show that invisible and perhaps near-irresistible forces act on instructional technologists to pull them towards a common point

Reference others that talk about “alluring and captivating” traps that folk fall into because they seem logical/offer security and comfort.

The authors believe that technological gravity can be avoided (a type of anti-gravity), not be developing another process for design and development, but on exposing and discussing the phenomenon to encourage reflection and examination of practices and beliefs.

They refer to the PhD thesis for more information on technological gravity

Using PBL to illustrate

I find this interesting, they use a study of PBL to examine technological gravity. The reasons given are

We chose PBL to illustrate technological gravity because of its promotion as a revolutionary development in instructional theory, its wide adoption among instructional technologists and teachers in general, and the complaints raised since its introduction that many examples of PBL practice do not implement the essential principles of the approach that originally led to its success

There method appears to have been take an original description of the PBL idea (Barrows 1986) and then look at published reports by PBL adopters. They’ve categorised Barrows principles into Technology I, II and III and found it to be clearly an example of technology III. They offer a few paragraphs explaining this claim. One of the important ones was that Barrows believed students could learn without the instructor, that in fact the best learning happened when they took control.

They chose 6, purposely sampled published reports which they characterised as:

  1. Barrows own implementation of PBL.
  2. A PBL exemplar implementation by another researcher.
  3. An implementation that was initial less than successful, but then went on to implement PBL effectively.
  4. An implementation that explicitly states that implementation was different from Barrow, but that they still expected to achieve the same outcomes.
  5. Two implementations with initial alignment with Barrows but which drifted away from those principles, eventually returning to traditional instruction.

They also performed another literature search, afterwards, to confirm their observations.

Three reasons for technological gravity

Use Beckwith (1988) for “status quo adherence” and the description that the three reasons

are presented as separate categories
to ensure comprehensiveness and to facilitate discussion. [They] are not intended to
be seen as mutually exclusive. Approach them as a set of interrelated and interdependent [influences]

Reason Definition Indicators
Distracted focus Rejecting Technology III in pursuit of other rewards Focusing on other interests; primary concern for financial rewards
Status quo adherence Searching for practices that are legitimate, professional, respectable, or traditional. Unsettling change or organizational stress; no urgent reason to change; personal identity that is threatened by Technology III.
Over-simplification Losing Technology III in the pursuit of routinization Unpredictability; overreaction to problems.

Some expansion on the reasons:

  • Distracted focus.
    e.g. teachers pursuing research rather than ed tech.
  • status quo adherence
    The way we’ve always done things around here. Can be emphasized by local uncertainty – restructures etc. What we do at the moment is okay response. Identity threatened by new approaches.

    Mentions an example of task corruption

    Yet in some of the reports we studied, practitioners still applied
    the terminology of PBL to their more traditional and formula-driven behaviors, leading to what Chen et al. (1994) called the ‘‘jargon’’ approach to PBL practice, which did little more than ‘‘re-define existing educational approaches’’ (p. 9) in language that appeared to be more innovative or forward-thinking (see also Abrandt Dahlgren and Dahlgren 2002; Herreid 2003; Kovalik 1999)

  • Over-simplification
    Fear that practice of innovation can’t be sustained unless simplified and made routine.

Avoiding technological gravity

Method How it helps
Practice legitimate evaluation Legitimate evaluation helps practitioners continually align technology or technique use with the goals they have for their practice.
Adopt guiding principles about one’s practice Strong beliefs and values help practitioners make decisions, view constraints in creative ways, and solve problems without abandoning important goals they are trying to achieve.
Cultivate opinion leaders Good opinion leaders can help alter the culture of the field, leading to Technology III becoming a more accepted alternative.

The three approach arise from their study of PBL. In more detail:

  1. Practice legitimate evaluation.
    Arose out of seeing practitioners who continually and rigorously corrected their implementations. Legitimate is used to mean not collecting data to simply justify the course of action being taken. You have to ask difficult questions, you have to want to prove that your stuff is not working and obviously you also need to have the drive to change when it isn’t working. Gives example of how Barrows kept asking questions about a part of PBL.
  2. Guiding principles.
    As a barrier against losing focus or as a crutch to use when having to make difficult trade-offs. Principles help guide decisions and prevent “back sliding”. Though I imaging this might be difficult. It’s also about having principles that are appropriate for your local context that can be used to guide modifications to the approach being adopted.
  3. Opinion leaders.
    This is perhaps the weakest of the three and is drawn from Rogers’ work on innovation diffusion. It assumes that all innovation/change is good and can also be problematic. Still a consideration.


A basic summary of the paper


McDonald, J. and A. Gibbons (nd). “Technology I, II, and III: criteria for understanding and improving the practice of instructional technology” Educational Technology Research and Development.

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