Thoughts on: The Dynamics of Social Practice: Everyday life and how it changes – Chapters 1 & 2 (Shove, Pantzar and Watson, 2012)


Social Practice Theory echoes Sociomaterial theory it seems, in that it takes an holistic perspective of things and treats them very much as the sum of their parts. In this instance however we are looking at the things that people do (practices) rather than how things are organised.

SPT was suggested to me early on by my supervisor as an area for exploration but for some reason it (and all theory for that matter) got put into the ‘for later’ basket. I think at some level I didn’t want to color the way that I looked at the questions too much – but I think I was also daunted by the high-concept nature of theory. I probably still am but now that I’ve finally decided to take a look, it does at least seem as though it will become digestible as I spend a little more time with it.

Another reason to trust your supervisor anyway.

Given that the central focus of my research question is Technology Enhanced Learning & Teaching PRACTICES, it makes sense to spend time unpacking what we actually mean by practices. What I hadn’t considered until now is that there are a lot of facets to practice and this may well lead to new ways of thinking about them for me, as well as presenting new opportunities to help shape them.

When I launched into this book – and as it’s a book, it seems useful to post chapter by chapter – it quickly became apparent to me that I have entered a new headspace. It seemed to be a very ontological and epistemological world, laden with a lot of abstract philosophy about the nature of being. As we’ve progressed the authors have grounded it somewhat with more tangible examples – skateboarding and driving a car – as well as asking the question – so why is it helpful to look at this? This has been invaluable in helping me to consider the practicalities and as I read on I was able to start substituting TELT  in whatever the text example of a practice was.

What I’m going to do for now, rather than summarise the intro and opening chapter, is summarise key ideas and questions that have been raised, along with some notable quotes.

Chapter 1 – Introduction

One of the aspects of the discussion that drew me in immediately was the importance of both change and stability in practice. I have previously, slightly cheekily perhaps, identified “change and continuity” (see also Veep – HBO series; Turnbull. Malcolm) as being of equal importance when looking at TELT practices. Embracing innovation but also refusing to throw the baby out with the bathwater by exploring options to maintain existing good practices.

The authors begin with an overview of the literature on practice to provide context and also to demonstrate the areas where current theory is lacking, building an argument for SPT. As such, it jumped around significantly and ideas that I grappled with and eventually understood (and in some cases agreed with) were then summarily dismissed. Value was still found in some recent work by Giddens, Reckwitz and Schatzki. Latour pops up with work in Science and Technology Studies (STS) and Bourdieu also makes an appearance.

Bourdieu has worked with ideas of practice since the 1970s – Outline of a theory of practice (1977 – English version) and The logic of practice in 1990. He described “habitus – concept embodying aspects of practical consciousness and of norms and rules of conduct. (Aspects that other theorists take to be part of practice themselves)” (p.13)

Reckwitz sees a practice as “routinized behaviour” that exists as a “block or pattern which can be filled out by a multitude of single and often unique actions” (p.14). Schatzki sees it as a “temporally and spatially dispersed nexus of doings and sayings” (p.14). The ‘doings’ and ‘sayings’ thing came up regularly in looking at Sociomaterial theory. Reckwitz also identified “interdependencies between diverse elements including forms of bodily activities, forms of mental activities, ‘things’ and their use, a background knowledge in the form of understanding, know-how, states of emotion and motivational knowledge” (p.14)

From this, Shove et al simmer practice down into three core elements, all interrelated: Competences, Materials and Meanings. Pretty well everything from here on in when it comes to practices is built on these categories. (They acknowledge that this does represent a simplification of what is contained in the elements but it is the relationships between the elements that seem to be the key). To provide an example, in the practice of skateboarding, the material includes the skateboard, helmet and the built environment that is skated in/on. The competences include the ability to ride the skateboard and perhaps the ability to avoid the police when skating in wrong areas. The meaning is bigger and broader and might include how bystanders feel about skaters or how the skaters see themselves as rebels of some kind.

practices emerge, persist, shift and disappear when connections between elements of these three types are made, sustained or broken (p.19)

On the material side, the theorists get more complicated and I must admit that I’m still processing some of these ideas. Hopefully it’s just the language being used. Schatzki says that “artefacts, materials and technologies are not literally part of practices but instead form ‘arrangements’ that are co-produced with practice but which are nonetheless distinct…the practices that are tied to arrangements… help constitute social phenomena” (p.16)

“Other authors reach much the same conclusion, defining technologies as ‘configurations that work’ (Rip and Kemp, 1998) and observing that ‘individual technologies add value only to the extent that they are assembled together into effective configurations’ (Suchman et al, 1999 p.399)” (p.17)

Another core idea is that a practice exists largely in its own right, rather than being something owned or controlled by a practitioner. They aren’t simply a set of actions in the mind of an individual, but “essentially modes of social relations, of mutual action” (p.15). Individuals are more like the carrier/hosts of a practice.

A final key idea is that when someone ‘does’ a practice, it is a performance of that practice. In being performed, the practice “exists and endures because of countless recurrent enactments” (p.15) I’d have to suggest that the individual tweaks that people bring to their specific performances lead to a gradual evolution of the practice over time.

I have to wonder if there is an element of practice that is the act of looking for ways to enhance practice – and is this a meaning or a competence?

Shove et al draw five core questions from these ideas that they then go on to discuss individually in subsequent chapters. Chapter 2, covers the first question and is discussed in this post.

  • How do practices emerge, exist and die?

  • What are the elements of which practices are made?

  • How do practices recruit practitioners?

  • How do bundles and complexes of practice form, persist and disappear?

  • How are elements, practices and links between them generated, renewed and reproduced? (p.20)

Chapter 2 – Making and breaking links

Our strategy is to follow the elements of practice and to track changing configurations over time (p.23) 

The authors use the practice of driving to illustrate their points here. When people began driving, it was accessible mainly to the rich, with unreliable cars that meant that one needed to be as proficient a mechanic as one was a driver. Chaffeurs with mechanic skills were in high demand. Driving was seen as an adventure rather than a day to day activity. To sell more cars, they became more reliable (also presumably due to manufacturers learning more about the art of car making and collecting feedback from drivers) and so the meaning of driving changed and so did the skills needed and the materials themselves.

Some more definitions of Materials / Competence / Meaning

Materials – “objects, infrastructures, tools, hardware and the body itself” (p.24)

Competences – “Know-how, background knowledge, understanding, deliberately cultivated skill / shared understandings of good or appropriate performance in terms of which specific enactments are judged. Knowing in the sense of being able to evaluate a performance is not the same as knowing in the sense of having the skills required to perform” (p.24)

Meaning – “social and symbolic significance of participation at any one moment” (p.24)

The discussion of Meaning takes a brief sidestep at this point into an idea of Schatzki’s called “teleoaffactive structures” (p.24). The authors describe this as “embracing ends, projects, tasks, purposes, beliefs, emotions and moods… central to the organising and ordering of practice and to the location of social practice  within what Schatzki describes as ‘timespace’ (Schatzki, 2010b). He uses this concept to elaborate on the point that what people do has a history and a setting: to show that doings are future oriented, and that both aspects are united in the moment of performance” (p.24) It seems that Schatzki puts this outside of practice but Shove et al prefer to keep it in, in meaning, for simplicity.

I found another definition, evidently from one of Schatzki’s doctoral students. It takes us on a slightly different path to Shove et al but is certainly interesting to consider and probably makes my job harder but hopefully richer 🙂

Schatzki defines a social practice as nexus of doings and sayings organized by understandings, rules, and what he terms “teleoaffective structures.” An understanding is a sense of how to go on in a basic activity, e.g. knowing how to ask questions, give orders, make a left-hand turn, show respect by bowing, and so on. A rule is a linguistic formulations concerning how things should count or how they should or should not proceed. A teleoaffective structure is a linking of ends, means, and moods appropriate to a particular practice or set of practices and that governs what it makes sense to do beyond what is specified by particular understandings and rules.

(No discernable information about the author of this blog post sadly)

A key point that the authors return to is that the linking of the three elements isn’t the end point or normalisation of a practice – the linkages need to keep being remade over and over.

As time passes and practices evolve, the nature of a competence might change. So the ability to crank start a Model T Ford on a cold day moves from doing ‘driving’ to doing ‘history’. Meanings – particularly in terms of social significances – just tend to be overlain with the new ones.

Another interesting question raised was

“Do shared elements bridge between different practices and if so, with what consequences for the different pursuits of which they are a part” (p.32)

There’s another quote worth sharing relating to the local differences in practices

One way of making sense of the relation between standardization and persistent diversity is to suggest that practices like driving are ‘homegrown’ in the sense that each instance of doing is informed by previous, related and associated practices. At the same time, each instance is to a large extent defined by the elements of which it is composed. Manufacturers, governments, driving schools and international associations are consequently instrumental in circulating common forms of competence, meaning and materiality. In so doing, the contribute to the standardization of driving as it is reproduced in different locations. This distinction between elements  – which can and do travel – and practices viewed as necessarily localized, necessarily situated instances of integrations (which does not travel) is useful in making sense of the roles consumers, producers and governments play in the reproduction and diffusion of different ways of life. (p.34)

What happens when performances of a practice occur simultaneously in the same space?

The fact that driving is constituted by and takes place in the midst of the routines and habits of other road users, all of whom have ‘careers’ of different durations, reminds us that the lives of practitioners and practices intersect. In short, there is something emergent and collective about driving (and other practices) which has to do with the relation between many co-existing performances situated alongside and in the context of collectively accumulated experience (p.35)

This makes me think that it is worth considering that the practice of teaching occurs at the same time as the practice of learning. (And also that, as more people do a thing, the meaning of that thing changes)

So, what does all of this mean and more importantly, what does it mean for my research?

I think that the key ideas about practice are certainly worth pursuing further and I’ll be interested to see where they lead. To bring this back to TELT practices, it’s more evident that ever now that TELT really represents two distinct practices and I’ll probably want to spend more time breaking down learning and teaching into their composite elements. I think my main focus is still going to be teaching, as this is the area that I support.  I think SPT gives me some interesting options to explore in terms of how practices are shared and how they evolve, which speaks to change but also to stability/continuity.

Ideally, I’ll find some new and better ways to understand and describe (and have others do the same with their personal practices) what TELT practices really are and what they are made of.

In terms of developing a research methodology, I’m still not entirely clear but it feels like it leads to a clearer path, whatever that ends up being.












Thoughts on “Academic Leaders’ perspectives on adopting ePortfolios for developing and assessing professional capabilities in Australian Business Education” (Holt et al, 2016)

While I’m still letting the sociomaterial stew simmer in the back of my mind, it seems like a good time to dig in to something that feels slightly more practical (not to mention incredibly relevant to my day to day work).

This paper is about the first stage of research in a major Australian project looking at the use of (and attitudes towards) ePortfolios in Higher education business schools. As someone working in a business school and advocating the use of ePortfolios, it is unsurprisingly of some interest. Now that we’ve had a real live semester of ePortfolios actually being used in teaching – rather than speculated upon – it’s particularly nice to be able to come to this with something more than a theoretical viewpoint. (I’ll freely admit that it was used only in two subjects and in one, the lecturer only picked up the tool in week 6 of a 13 week semester, but what they’ve already learned and the success that they have had has been incredibly encouraging)

As you might expect, the paper dives into a detailed explanation of the context of using ePortfolios in Higher Ed – it notably hasn’t been as commonly used in business disciplines, something that the authors attribute in part to the diversity of kinds of disciplines in this field. Some (e.g. accounting) have distinct pathways with clearly articulated accreditation leading to specific careers while others contribute more generally to a student’s ability to work in ‘business’. The authors suggest that professions including medicine, law, engineering, teaching and architecture might be more suited to tools and practices supporting the collection of evidence that can be used in external accreditation processes and this might be why ePortfolios have been reported on less frequently in business. All the same, they argue that there are still many compelling reasons that ePortfolios should be used in business schools.

This paper focuses particularly on attitudes towards ePortfolios amongst academic leaders in business schools – Associate Deans (Education/ Teaching & learning), program/course directors and subject/course/unit conveners. (It does seem that survey responses from teachers were also accepted though the details on this are a little hazy).

A lot of reasons (excuses?) are given for why ePortfolios aren’t being used widely which align with those that I’ve come across commonly in the literature (and day to day practice) about the use/non-use of ed. tech in general. Seeing these has helped me to reframe my research question – though I still need to run this by my supervisors – to How can (and do?) Education (or TELT?) Advisors help universities overcome barriers to adopting TELT practices? (Previously – How can Higher Education better support TELT practices?). This is no small thing for me, as it feels like I’m narrowing the focus of the research to something more achievable and personally meaningful.

Anyway, there are a few points of particular interest that this paper covers – reasons for using ePortfolios in business ed., perceived strengths amongst management and the beginnings of a framework for effective implementation of ePortfolios in this space.

Reasons to use ePortfolios

The use of ePortfolios across Higher Ed. is tied very closely to the development of professional capabilities (a.k.a competencies) and employability skills. I’d suggest that the technology can do more than this in terms of offering new opportunities for content management, creation and publishing that might finally enable us to move beyond linear text heavy essays into student construction of richer resources that more adequately reflect the world that we now live in. That said, the portfolio has been a vital tool for demonstrating one’s skills to prospective employers for centuries and the ePortfolio is simply the latest iteration of this.

The authors identify a common set of professional capabilities that universities aspire to equip students with via threshold learning outcomes and program and graduate attributes. ( I think we include something about being a global citizen and thought leader but the rest all seem fairly common and laudable)

1. Professional judgement: Use knowledge and skills to solve novel business challenges.
2. Problem solving: Use knowledge and skills to identify and solve common business problems.
3. Communication: Demonstrate oral, written and visual communication skills appropriate to the needs of different business stakeholders.
4. Teamwork: Demonstrate skills in working collaboratively with colleagues in undertaking complex and varied work tasks.
5. Leadership: Demonstrate skills in constructively influencing the work of colleagues individually and in teams towards mutually agreed goals.
6. Digital literacy: Use knowledge and skills in ICT to frame, analyse and report on business problems and their solutions.
7. Self-management: Demonstrate skills in self-initiative, self-motivation and self-directed learning in business studies and practices.
8. Creativity and innovation: Demonstrate the capacity to generate new ideas to meet customer needs, and in the understanding of how good ideas become marketable products.
9. Entrepreneurship: Appreciate how new businesses are created, grow and adapt to changing market conditions.
10. Social responsibility: Develop a critical awareness of businesses’ obligations to the societies within which they operate, and to those parties who directly contribute to their viability.
11. Cultural awareness: Demonstrate knowledge and skills in working effectively with cultural diversity as related to global and international business practices.
12. Sustainability as applied to business organisations: Develop a critical awareness of businesses’ need to evolve and adapt to the imperatives of an economically, environmentally and socially sustainable world in the service of future generations.
13. Ethics: Develop a personally meaningful set of values to guide professional practice which reflect honesty, fairness, respectfulness, loyalty, composure and competence. (p.5-6)

The academic leaders were asked which of these they rated as most important and which they were most satisfied with the current development of in their students. Communication and problem solving were rated as most important with entrepreneurship at the end of that list. (Accountants tended to rate creativity and innovation lower than others). In terms of how well they think their colleges/schools are doing, academic leaders felt most confident about problem solving, digital literacy and communication and least about leadership and creativity/innovation. (However, confidence in the teaching of all 13 capabiliities ranged from 2.53/5 to 1.68/5, so across the board, there’s work to be done in this space)

There’s also an interesting breakdown of the pedagogical approaches that academic leaders in business colleges saw as being valuable in supporting these varying capabilities – I’m not sure if they were provided with a set list because the choices seem limited. Exams are nowhere to be seen though, which I find heartening.

1. Problem solving: Ranked in order of decreasing importance, respondents indicated: 1. Case studies; 2. Projects; 3. Work-placement; and 4. Simulations, might be effective ways to assess a student’s ability to solve problems.
2. Communication: Case studies, projects, presentations and written work appear to be the most favoured ways to assess a student’s ability to communicate.
3. Teamwork: Group projects and work placements appear to be the most favoured ways to assess a student’s ability to work in a team.
4. Leadership: Projects appear to be the most favoured ways to assess a student’s ability to lead a team.
5. Digital literacy: Projects, simulations and assignments appear to be the most favoured ways to assess a student’s digital literacy.
6. Self-management: Projects and work placements appear to be the most favoured ways to assess a student’s ability to self-manage.
7. Creativity and innovation: Projects appears to be the most favoured way to assess a student’s creativity and innovation.
8. Entrepreneurship: Projects perhaps within a business context appears to be the most favoured way to assess a student’s entrepreneurial skills.
9. Social responsibility: Projects and Case studies appear to be the most favoured ways to assess a student’s sense of social responsibility.
10. Cultural awareness: International study and work tours appear to be the most favoured ways to assess a student’s cultural awareness.
11. Business Sustainability: Case studies, work placements and projects appear to be the most favoured ways to assess a student’s understanding of sustainability in a business context.
12. Professional judgement: Case studies, work placements and simulations appear to be the most favoured ways to assess a student’s professional judgement skills.
13. Ethics: Case studies and projects (p.9-10)

The perceived drivers of the implementation of ePortfolios offers some interesting insights into the value that academic leaders ascribe to ePortfolios and perhaps some selling points to stress when having the discussion about using them. (I have to admit at this point though that I’ve noticed that a lot of research seems to centre around people’s perceptions of things rather than the concrete realities of them. Maybe this is just the nature of education as a social science and there is certainly value in understanding why people make the decisions that they do in this space but just because people feel a certain way about a tool or a practice doesn’t necessarily make it so. Unless we are also looking at what is needed to shift perceptions, I’m not altogether sure what we hope to achieve by simply cataloguing them.)

The best reasons seen for using ePortfolios included “Improve student reflective learning”, “Enhance Student work placement experience”, “allow students to better demonstrate the achieve of learning outcomes to others” and “improve student understanding of learning outcomes.” (p. 11) Considered least important was “the imperative to use technology given the nature of the institution, i.e. mission, vision etc” (p.11) – which I’m fairly ok with and I’m also pretty happy that a teaching and learning goal was most highly valued. (But are people saying this because it seems like the right thing to say?)

In examining which kinds of support were most useful when using ePortfolios (and I suspect any other ed. tech), there was no clear preference for any of the following:

guidance on the purpose of the ePortfolio; guidance on how to use the ePortfolio; a workshop alongside to support the ePortfolio process; tutor/mentor support; IT helpdesk support for the learner; and support for producing media files. (p.12)

At least this seems like a solid checklist for developing a support plan and an implementation strategy.

The paper draws a few implications from the survey results as well as the existing literature, these align pretty well with my own feelings about ePortfolios and unfortunately they tend to make implementation projects harder, because taking a whole of program/degree approach to the use of ePortfolios in a siloed institution tends to get put quickly into the ‘too-hard basket’.

Housego and Parker (2009) and Woodley and Sims (2011), reflecting on their respective investigations, conclude that ideally ePortfolios should be integrated appropriately into the whole curriculum. With this in mind, ePortfolio implementation for assessing professional capabilities can be seen in the context of: whole-of-program-based curriculum designs; the major disciplinary studies allowing specialisation in business degrees; key areas of the curriculum dealing with work-integrated learning (WIL) (see Papadopoulos, Taylor, Fallshaw, & Zanko, 2011), foundational core and capstone studies, and those dealing directly with managerial capabilities like intrapersonal and interpersonal intelligence. (p.14)

I do note with some interest though that perhaps my college’s biggest success story with ePortfolios came in a fairly reflective unit related to management (post-grad), which aligns well with the final line of the paragraph.

The final section of the paper and perhaps the one that gives me the most to unpack (and which also excites me the most about the future work of this team) is a preliminary guidance framework for the implementation of ePortfolios in undergraduate business programs.

ePortfolios framework Holt et al 2016

This is absolutely something that I’m going to take to the powers that be at my institution to explore further. All in all this is a rich paper and I greatly look forward to future reports from this project.

Papadopoulos, T., Taylor, T., Fallshaw, E., & Zanko, M. (2011). Engaging industry: Embedding professional learning in the business curriculum final report. Sydney: Australian Learning and Teaching Council.

Thoughts on two papers about Sociomaterial theory by Orlikowski (2007 & 2010)

Maybe it’s two papers or maybe it’s a paper and an essay – but they’re both published in journals so I think they should be considered valuable in terms of my lit review. I think I prefer essays in all honesty, though it seems like papers have more currency. My problem with papers is that more rigour is required to demonstrate the value or validity of one’s argument while an essay is able to cut to the heart of the idea more quickly and spend more time teasing it out. If I understood Sociomateriality better I suspect that I could probably explain this in terms of the ‘constitutive entanglement’ between the form/technology and the practice of writing but I’m not quite there yet. These two pieces however have at least given me enough of a taste of this theory to want to pursue it further.

Looking at Orlikowski’s work in this area is a slightly sideways step for me in that it focuses on the complex, holistic relationships that exist between the material (primarily technology in this instance) and people and what they do in the workplace. Clearly Higher Ed is a workplace as much as a place of learning (it would be interesting to see where learning sits on a spectrum of work) but her interest lies more in conventional workplaces and her discipline is more about management and organisations.

One thing that I found in reading these is that it became a lot clearer after I got to the tangible examples, so I’m going to start with that and then backtrack to the more cerebral side of the theory. (I actually find this in a lot of presentations – I’d really like people to show me the thing first and then explain why and how they did it.) The author does a nice thing in the 2010 paper where she describes a scenario of people using a “synthetic world” (p.127) (essentially a company virtual world like Second Life but before the virtual part of the term was in wider use) and then refers back to this as she describes how the different current theoretical approaches would explore it.

Anyway, the two examples that cut through best for me were descriptions of searching via Google and what happens when a workplace gives its staff all Blackberries (mid-2000s) with push email. The core idea put forward is that when we examine how organisations work, we shouldn’t consider what people do and what impacts tech has as two separate things but more as a unified whole.

Orlikowski starts by describing the way we often discuss searching with Google.

‘I googled it’ has become a well-accepted and widely understood reference to the online activity of information searching on the web. And what most of mean by this colloquialism is that we ‘used’ the Google search capabilities to obtain some information.

But this account, while simple and descriptive, is problematic. In the terms of the preceding discussion, it privileges the users, clearly putting the locus of control principally in the hands of the human researchers and relegating the technology to a relatively passive, even domesticated role (2007, p.1439)

She quickly moves on to describe how Google searches work, driven by the PageRank algorithm that weigh up incoming and outgoing links and credibility (to an extent) and relationships between linking webpages to determine the order in which search results are displayed. (Presumably there are some commercial influencers in there as well). It is people however that actually choose which sites to link to and how – and this changes organically over time – so when we think about how we search, if we focus more on the machine or the people, we aren’t getting as clear a picture as if we were to focus on both at one, as one integrated system of sorts. I think this is what she means when she uses (frequently) the term ‘constitutive entanglement’ (2007, p.1435)

At this point I need to reiterate that most of these concepts are fairly new to me in terms of taking an ontological (nature of being) and epistemological (theory of knowledge) view on things. I haven’t spent a lot of time considering them but I can see that they offer an interesting lens to look at larger questions through.

Orlikowski helpfully went on to explain why this mattered.

The same Google search issued by a researcher at different times will produce different results in terms of webpages displayed and their order. While this would also be the case if the researcher had conducted her search in libraries and colleague’s offices, the Google example manifests it more acutely. The information obtained with a Google search done today will shape research practices differently than had the Google search been done last week or last month. And in certain circumstances, such differences may be quite consequential. Indeed, as contemporary commentators writing about the web have noted, algorithms such as Google’s PageRank don’t so much ‘search reality’ as create it (2007, p.1440)

Her other example that illustrated the interconnectivity between the social and material was a case study about Plymouth, a small(ish) private equity firm in 2000 that gave its employees BlackBerrys. (Prestige mobile phones with push email notification – kind of a big deal when they came out but now massively overshadowed by smartphones). This company had a relatively decent philosophy when it came to work/life balance and treated employees well.

In the course of analyzing the communication practices of these information professionals, it became increasingly evident that attempting to understand their practices in conventional ‘media use’ terms neglects critical aspects of what they are experiencing. In particular, viewing the professionals as ‘using’ their BlackBerrys to communicate with each other significantly overlooks how their communication practices have been substantially reconfigured through their engagement with Blackberrys. (2007, p.1441)

In a nutshell, everyone in the company became addicted to checking their emails and responding almost immediately. (The ‘Crackberry’ effect) If people didn’t get a reply from someone at virtually any time, they would quickly grow worried that something was wrong. It wasn’t necessarily that everyone became workaholics but their behaviour changed. This wasn’t the intent in introducing the tech and nor was it what the tech was designed to do but in examining the phenomena, Orlikowski realised that existing theoretical approaches either focused on the tool or the people but not sufficiently on the intertwining of the two and the way that each shaped the other.

As sociomaterial practices, mobile communications at Plymouth is signficantly changing why, when, where and how members interact. Norms of communication are reconfigured, altering expectations of availability and accountability, redefining the boundaries of the workday, and extending and intensifying interactions within the communication network. Plymouth members experience both increased flexibility (about where and when to work) and increased obligation to be continually responsive. The resulting blurring of employees’ work and and personal lives is beginning to undermine the espoused family-friendly values of the firm. (2007, p.1444)

Orlikowski’s main point throughout these papers is that current approaches to examining organisations either ignore the role of ‘things’ (“absent presence” – 2010, p.127) or overplay them (“exogenous force” – 2010, p.127) or overplay the way that people use them (“emergent process”- 2010, p.127). By delving deeper into how things shape behaviour and vice versa by treating people and things as more of an holistically integrated kind of entity (if my understanding holds up), we can come to a richer understanding of how organisations function. (To be honest though, I do still feel like I need to dig much deeper into this theory as I feel like this explanation is missing some core points.)

One of the biggest problems that I have in appreciating Sociomateriality at this point brings me back to the 2010 paper that uses the example of the ‘synthetic’ (virtual) ‘world’ to describe how the different preceding approaches would explore in looking at the use of that tech in the workplace. It contrasts this with what a sociomaterial exploration would examine. It’s probably a matter of my more practical orientation but I’m more interested in the questions examined in the other ‘flawed’ approaches. Perhaps the trick is to find the kinds of questions that a sociomaterial focus would support.

In the ‘absent presence’ approach, Orlikowski considers that

“organisational researchers could use synthetic worlds methodologically, as platforms for coordinating and conducting their inquiries into social behaviour. They are unlikely, however, to inquire into specific technological entailments of synthetic worlds, how they are taken up and changed by participants or how they configure participants’ interactions and with what outcomes. In the absent presence perspective thus, the role and influence of synthetic worlds for distributed collaboration – like technology more generally – will likely remain backstage concerns” (2010, p.129)

This seems less problematic to me than the author if the researchers aren’t actually researching the interaction between technology and behaviour. It almost feels as though Orlikowski’s point is that ‘you aren’t looking at this thing – distributed collaboration – that I consider important and this lessens your research’. But perhaps I’m missing something.

Next we come to the ‘exogenous force’ approach, which assumes that “technology is an exogenous and relatively autonomous driver of organisational change, and as such, that it has significant and predictable impacts on various human and organisational outcomes, such as governance structures, work routines, information flews, decision making, individual productivity and firm performance” (2010, p.129)

Orlikowski feels that researchers working through this lens

“would generally not be interested in studying the specific instance of the MPK20 synthetic world. Instead, common features of various synthetic worlds would be assessed (or represented through proxies such as investment value or information richness) in an attempt to produce statistical regularities about the effects of synthetic worlds in general. These worlds would be predicted to produce certain identifiable impacts on organisations, including impacts on the phenomenon of distributed collaboration. For example, studies might focus on how investments by organisations in synthetic worlds influence the productivity of distributed participants and how these effects might vary across the type of team, organisation or industry.” (2010, p.130)

Once again, this kind of feels like comparing apples and oranges, even though I’m happy to agree that simply exploring the role of tech (and assuming that it leads to change autonomously) seems fairly flawed.

The flip-side of this viewpoint seems to be that of the ’emergent process’ with scholars arguing that “technology results from the ongoing interaction of human choices, actions, social histories and institutional contexts. Technology here is understood as material artifacts that are social defined and socially produced, and thus as relevant only in relation to the people engaging with them…  Scholars working from this perspective sought to explain how the particular interests and situated actions of multiple social groups shaped the designs, meanings and uses of new technologies over time.” (2010, p.131)

“With respect to studying the MPK20 synthetic world, researchers following an emergent process perspective would likely conduct detailed analyses of specific interpretations of and interactions in MPK20 to understand how such a world enables and constrains distributed collaboration. Thus, researchers might conduct ethnographic studies of the MPK20 environment, becoming members of Project Wonderland and participating in the various events and activities of the team. These inquiries might examine how members’ communication in MPK20 differs from their face-to-face interaction, how the roles, norms and identities generated by members within MPK20 resemble or differ from those outside MPK20… Structurational accounts might focus on what forms of structuring are evident in users’ situated engagements with MPK20, comparing the practices of Project Wonderland team members within and outside of MPK20 in an attempt to identify whether and how existing or new structures for distributed collaboration are enacted by team members in the synthetic world, and with what individual, team and organisational consequences over time” (2010, p.132)

Once again, if that was what I was investigating, this seems like a reasonable way to do it. Personally I would find the results of this research interesting. Orlikowski does make a reasonable point that it assumes that the technology is finished and finalised (in design terms) when people start using it, when the reality is that peoples’ use and discover of flaws or opportunities to improve it based on their usage – particularly in software – can lead to significant changes from the first version.

In essence, I guess the main flaws identified with these approaches, and the reason for pushing for a new, more holistic one, is that they lack nuance and underestimate the complexity of both tech and human behaviour. They don’t see the interrelationships between the two and the ways that each shapes the other – the “constitutive entanglements” (2010, p.135). From here the paper digs deep into metaphysics and a lot of discussion of the nature of existence that, coming into this cold, I’m currently struggling with. Orlikowski does refer to Barad’s notion of ‘thingification’ which I at least enjoy as a word. In terms of my research, I’m honestly not sure how deep down the ontological rabbit hole I want or need to go but I imagine I’ll come back to this for a further poke around at some point.

Bringing it all back then to what a sociomaterial exploration of the ‘synthetic world’ would look like, which gives us something to compare to the other lens, Orlikowski offers this.

a perspective of entanglement would focus on understanding MPK20, not as the necessary result of a powerful technological infrastructure, or as principally reflecting the interpretations and interactions of the human developers or users, but as a dynamic sociomaterial configuration performed in practice. Rather than attributing agency either to individual actors (designers, engineers, team members) or particular technologies (computers, algorithms, graphics engines, networks), capacities for action would be studied as relational, distributed and enacted through particular initiations of the MPK20 synthetic world. Drawing, for example, on the notion of apparatus, researchers might study how different performances of the MPK20 synthetic world configure communication and information sharing in Project Wonderland, and how these make some practices and knowledge more salient and determinate than others and with what consequences. A sociomaterial perspective would highlight how synthetic worlds are not neural or determinate platforms through which distributed collaboration is facilitated or constrained but integrally and materially part of constituting that phenomenon. Researchers might also examine how integrating MPK20 into everyday practices reconfigures the phenomenon of distributed collaboration within an organisation and what implications this generates for inclusion and exclusion, for responsibility and control. (2010, p.136)

I wouldn’t normally include that much text in a quote but it’s the closest I can come to understanding how a sociomaterial viewpoint looks. It does seem like it could be valuable in certain circumstances but I’m not yet sold that it is a be-all and end-all. The author on the other hand appears to think that it is.

I propose that we recognise that all practices are always and everywhere sociomaterial, and that this sociomateriality is constitutive, shaping the contours and possibilities of everyday organizing (2007, p.1444)

We’ll see.





Research update #14 – A break and some progress

I had grand ambitions of working on my research every day over the Christmas/New Year break – I took a few days off beforehand, my housemate is overseas, conditions were ideal.

Ultimately I realised that what I actually needed was time to do nothing. Between full-time work and serious study last year, it felt at times as though my mind never quite shut down. So when the time came to sit down and read and process and write, my brain just said “nope” and I said “well ok then”. It was the right thing to do.

I’ve accepted that I can’t answer all the questions that interest me and that I need to delve more fully into a specific area. My other professional activities seem to be nudging me towards the role of Education Advisors in Tertiary Education in supporting TELT – though I do feel as though there is a rich vein to explore currently in looking at the nature of the Higher Ed. executive in driving learning innovation, particularly in terms of fast tracking plans to blow up the lecture by demolishing large lecture spaces. Lots of good stuff for a sociomaterialist in there I’d imagine.

However Education Advisors (I think) occupy a space that I find a little more relatable and that hopefully I can do more with in the longer term.

My project plan is fairly well out of whack in terms of covering the literature that I had hoped to on a month by month basis, if I intend to have my thesis proposal ready by July. July is an arbitrary target that I’ve set and I think it could be pushed out a couple of months without too much tut-tutting.

I’ve been avoiding looking at theory too much up until now, fearing that it would limit my scope and my ability to explore. Also I suspect I was a little scared of picking the wrong one or rejecting the one that I should or need to pursue. But I guess I can’t really make that call until I have a better idea of what’s in them so I spent today swimming through a soup of new language and concepts in the realm of Sociomaterial theory. I’d come across Wanda J Orlikowski a few times previously so I read an essay and a paper by her relating to new ways of thinking about technology in the workplace. I’m still processing it and feeling like spending the last few years studying sociology and management/organisation concepts might’ve been useful but it does offer an interesting lens to look through.

Among the new terms that I’ve encountered:

  • constitutive entanglement (not playing Twister in the High Court)
  • sociotechnical ensemble (not Inspector Gadgets party overcoat)
  • temporally emergent (not coming out of the Tardis)
  • absent presence (not the lack of gifts from deadbeat friends)
  • thingification (that’s just cool)

Happy New Year and I hope you have a marvellous 2017 full of wonder and joy. I hope we all do.

Research update #13

One of my principle reasons for using this blog in my research/study is that it offers an effective and searchable way to put my first-draft thoughts and quotes/references down in a central and searchable space. I found this very useful when I did my Masters and hope that it will prove equally useful now.

My main challenge is the overwhelming amount of ideas and information that I’m currently swimming in. By taking on – at least for now – the challenge of developing an holistic understanding of the factors influencing (positively and negatively) the use of TELT in Higher Ed, I’ve opened myself to trying to understand the nature of H.E itself and how all of the pieces work together (or don’t, depending on how they seem to feel in the morning)

This has meant that I had a virtual bombsite with (digitally) jotted down questions and ideas for my job and quotes and scattered references and issues. I think I’ve now put this into some kind of triage/processing system. In brief, I’ll read the paper/book/etc, scrawl barely legible notes on it in pencil, highlight (it seems) every other word and then convert that into a blog post here.

From there, useful quotes (all annotated and properly cited) go into a quotes/refs page in Scrivener under the broad factor heading (e.g. Teachers and teaching). Simultaneously I have another page (organised by factor) with appropriate citations that is for my questions and ideas. These get filtered down to key points which go into a Notes for Lit Review page (again organised into factors) and this will give me the structure of the Lit Review itself and help me to make some semblance of order of my thinking.

I’ve just finished updating the Questions/ideas and Quotes/Ref pages and am up to transferring that to Notes.  All of which means that it’s been a little while since I’ve actually read something new however revisiting the range of papers that I’ve already looked at was interesting in terms of seeing which areas my thinking has progressed in. (not many but some)

Going by my project plan, I should be moving on now to looking at Universities as Organisations as a factor – which I’ve never been 100% sure what I mean by but it seems relevant and like a handy catch all for a lot of spare influencers.

Generally still feeling ok about things.

Research update #12: Crazy but worthwhile

So I’ve just posted my thoughts on a paper by King & Boyatt about factors that influence the adoption of e-learning. This has taken me far longer to work through than any other paper – though there was probably a small interruption there in the middle because I’m a bit of a political tragic and I’ve been hoovering up stuff about the U.S election and had a little trouble focusing for a while (and now I really don’t want to talk about or hear about it. Perfect time to bury myself in research )

Anyway, while I can feel time ticking away (which I’m told is a perpetual feeling for PhD students), I don’t think that the time I spent on processing this paper was wasted because it has helped me to think about a few things in my big picture and also it has raised a few questions that I’m keen to dig into deeper. Primarily that of what the real and most powerful motivators are for the adoption of TELT/e-Learning practices (and there are always multiple ones because that is the complex kind of world that we live in) and how do they affect our approach to implementing this for the right reasons.

I’ll leave the question of how we fundamentally shift university culture until my next project I think.

Thoughts on: Exploring factors that influence adoption of e-learning within Higher Education (King & Boyatt, 2015)

This is a big post because it is about a journal article that covers some of the core issues of my thesis in progress. I’ve spent far longer looking over, dissecting and running off on a dozen tangents with it than I had expected. My highlights and scrawled notes are testament to that.

scrawled notes

In a nutshell, King and Boyatt attribute the success (or otherwise) of adoption of e-learning in their university to three key factors. Institutional infrastructure, teacher attitudes and knowledge and perceived student expectations. This seems like a reasonable argument to make and they back it up with some fairly compelling arguments that I’ll expand on and provide my own responses to shortly.

They use this to generate a proposed action plan which includes a coherent and detailed university level e-learning strategy – which includes adequate resourcing for technological and pedagogical support, academic development training, leadership, guidance, flexibility and local autonomy. Everything that they propose seems reasonable and sane yet (sadly) quite optimistic and ambitious. From their bios, I think that the authors aren’t teachers themselves but education advisors like myself but the perspective put forward in the article is very clearly from an academic’s perspective. (Well, 48 academics from a range of discplines, ages and years of teaching experience.) All the same, there were more than a few occasions when I read the paper and thought – “well it’s fine to suggest communities of practice (or whatever) but even when we do set them up, nobody comes more than once or twice”.

I guess the main difference between this paper and my line of thinking in my research is that I want to know what gets in the way, and I didn’t get enough of that here. I also found myself thinking a few times that this kind of research needs to avoid falling into the trap of forgetting that teaching is only one (often de-prioritised, depending on the uni culture) part of an academic’s practice and we need to factor in the impact that their research and service obligations have on their ability to find time to do this extra training. To be completely fair though, the authors did recognise and note this later in the paper, as well as the fact that the section on perceived student expectations was only that – perceptions – and not necessarily a true representation of what students think or want. So they propose extending the study to include students and the university leadership, which seems pretty solid to me and helps to strengthen my personal view that this is probably a thing I’ll need to do when I start my own research. (I’m still in proposal/literature review/exploration swampland for now). To this I would probably add the affordances of the technology itself and also the Education Advisor/Support staff that can and would help drive much of this.

This paper sparked a number of ideas for me but perhaps the most striking was the question of what are the real or main reasons for implementing e-learning and TELT? Is it simply because it can offer the students a richer and more flexible learning experience or is it because it makes a teacher’s life easier or brings some prestige to a university (e.g. MOOCs) or (in the worst and wrongest case) is perceived as a cost-saving measure. There is no reason that it can’t be all of these things (and more) and that makes a lot of sense but some of the quotes from teachers in the article do indicate that they are more motivated to adopt new tools and teaching approaches if they can see an immediate, basically cost-free benefit to themselves. Again, I’m not unsympathetic to this – everyone is busy and if you’re under pressure to output research above all else, it’s perfectly human to do this. But it speaks volumes firstly about the larger cultural questions that we must factor in to explorations of this nature and secondly about the strategic approaches that we might want to take in achieving the best buy in.

From here, I’ll include the notes that I took that go into more specifics and also include some quotes. They’re a little dot pointy but I think still valuable. This is most definitely a paper worth checking out though and I have found it incredibly useful, even if I was occasionally frustrated by the lack of practical detail about successfully implementing the strategies.


“In addition, the results suggest that underpinning staff motivation to adopt e-learning is their broader interest in teaching and learning. This implies a bigger challenge for the institution, balancing the priorities of research and teaching, which may require much more detailed exploration” (p.1278)

Glad to see this acknowledged.

This paper focuses on Adoption. What are the other two phases in the Ako paper?
Initiation (a.k.a adoption), Implementation and Institutionalisation
Getting people to start using something is a good start but without a long term plan and support structure, it’s easy for a project to collapse. The more projects collapse, the more dubious people will be when a new one comes along.

Feel like there are significant contradictions in this paper – need for central direction/strategy as well as academic autonomy. Providing people with a menu of options is good and makes sense but that makes for huge and disparate strategy.

The three core influencing factors identified. (How well are they defined?)

Institutional infrastructure
Includes: institutional strategy, sufficient resources (to do what?), guidance for effective implementation.

Question of academic development training is framed with limited understanding of the practicalities of implementation. Assumption that more resources can simply be found and allocated with no reciprocal responsibilities to participate.

Support needs identified:
Exploration of available tools and the development of the skills to use them
Creating resources/activities and piloting them
Developing student skills in using the tools
Engaging with students in synchronous and asynchronous activities
Monitoring and updating resources

Unclear over what time frame this support is envisioned. Presumably it should be ongoing, which would necessitate a reconsideration of current support practices.

“Participants suggested the need for a more coordinated approach. A starting point for this would be consideration of how available technologies might be effectively integrated with existing pedagogic practices and systems” (p.1275)

Issues basically boil down to leadership and time/resourcing. Teachers seem to want a lot in this space – “participants in this study reported the lack of a coherent institutional-wide approach offering the guidance, resources and recognition necessary to encourage and support staff.” At the same time, they expect “ongoing consultation and collaboration with staff to ensure a more coherent approach to meet institutional needs” (both p.1277).

If you want leadership but you also want to drive the process, what do you see leadership as providing? I do sympathise, this largely looks more like a reaction to not feeling adequately consulted with however my experience with many consultation attempts in this space is that very few people actually contribute or engage. (This could possibly be a good question to ask – phrased gently – what actions have you taken to participate in existing consultation and collaboration processes in ed tech)

“A further barrier to institutional adoption was the piecemeal approach to availability of technologies across the institution. Participants reported the need for a more coordinated approach to provision of technologies and their integration with existing systems and practices” (p.1277)

Probably right, clashes with their other requests for an approach that reflects the different disciplinary needs in the uni. How do we marry the two? How much flexibility is reasonable to ask of teachers?

Staff attitudes and skills
Is this where “culture” lives?

“including their skills and confidence in using the technology” (p.1275)

“A key step for broadening engagement is supporting staff to recognise the affordances of technology and how it might help them to maintain a high-quality learning experience for their students.

[teacher quote] There’s a lot of resistance to technology but if you can demonstrate something that’s going to reduce amount of time or genuinely going to make life easier then fine” (p.1275)

Want to know more about the tech can do – a question here is, for who. Making teaching easier or making learning better? Quote suggests the former.

What about their knowledge of ePedagogy? (I need to see what is in the Goodyear paper about competencies for teachers using eLearning. Be interesting to compare that to the Training Packages relating to eLearning too)

A big question I have, particularly when considering attitudes relating to insecurity and not knowing things – which some people will be reluctant to admit and instead find other excuses/reasons for avoiding Ed Tech (”it’s clunky” etc) – is how we can get past these and uncover peoples’ real reasons. It seems like a lot of this research is content to take what teachers say at face value and I suspect that this means that the genuine underlying issues are seldom addressed or resolved. There are also times when the attitudes can lead to poor behaviour – rudeness or abruptly dropping out of a discussion. (Most teachers are fine but it is a question of professionalism and entitlement, which can come back to culture)

In terms of addressing staff confidence, scaffolded academic dev training, with clear indicators of progress, might be valuable here. (Smart evidence – STELLAR eportfolios – Core competencies for e-teaching and some elective/specialisation units? This is basically rebuilding academic development at the ANU from the ground up)

“The findings highlighted the importance of a pedagogic-driven approach to implementation that supports staff in recognising the potential of technology to add value to students’ learning experiences. While staff recognised that support was available centrally, they suggested that it needed to be more closely tailored to the specific needs of staff and extended to include online guidance at point of need and communities of practice that facilitated sharing between colleagues” (p.1278)

These seems to strengthen the case for college/school level teams. I am well aware that teachers tend not to engage with academic development activities and resources outside their discipline area – which I think is partially tribal because the Bennett literature suggests that there are actually few differences in teaching design approaches from discipline to discipline. This seems like a good area for further investigation. What kind of research has been conducted into effectiveness (or desire for) centralised Academic Dev units vs those at a college level?
Perceived student expectations
Definition: Students expect their online learning world to match the rest of their online experiences.

“One student expectation reported was the availability of digital resources accessible anytime and anywhere: participants suggested that students expected to access all course materials online including resources used as part of face-to-face sessions and supplementary resources necessary to complete assignments.” (p.1276)

Seems like there are a lot of (admittedly informed) assumptions be made of what students actually want by the teachers in this section. Maybe it is reasonable to say that everyone wants everything to be easier. But when does it become too much easier? When they don’t need to learn how to research?

Student need to learn how to e-Learn

“These findings suggest that for successful implementation of e-learning, students need to be supported to develop realistic expectations, an understanding of the implications of learning with technology and skills for engaging in these new ways of learning and make the most out of the opportunities that they present” (p.1277)

Interestingly phrased outcome – DO students need to learn more about the challenges of teaching and/or the mechanisms behind it? Is this just about teachers avoiding responsibilities? It sounds a bit like being expected to study physics or road-building before going for a drive.

“However students confidence with online tools and resources was perceived to vary and the finding suggest that students need to be supported to develop skills to engage effectively with the opportunities that e-learning affords…

It is not clear whether this is an accurate portrayal of student views or whether staff attributed their own views to the students. It would be valuable to ascertain whether this perception is a true representation by repeating the study with students.” (p.1278)

Again, nice work by the authors in catching the difference between student perspectives and teacher assumptions. I guess the important part is that whether the students hold the views or not, the teachers believe they do and this motivates them to use the technology.

Students don’t want to lose F2F experiences and they don’t want eLearning forced upon them when it seems like a cost-cutting measure. They do want (and expect) resources to be available online.


Proposed elearning strategy

“Reflecting on the factors that influenced the adoption of e-learning, participants suggested the need for an institutional strategy that :

Defines e-learning
Provides a rationale for its use
Sets clear expectations for staff and students
Models the use of innovative teaching methods
Provides frameworks for implementation that recognise different disciplinary contexts
Demonstrates institutional investment for the development of e-learning
Offers staff appropriate support to develop their skills and understanding” (p.1277)

I’d add an additional item – Offers staff appropriate support to develop and deliver resources and learning activities in TELT systems.

I have a lot of questions about this strategy – what kinds of expectations are we talking about? Is this about the practical realities of implementing and supporting tools/systems which recognises limits to their affordances? Modelling the use of innovative teaching practices – just because something is new doesn’t mean that it is good. I’d avoid this term in favour of best practice and/or emerging. Is modelling really a valid part of a strategy or would it be more about including modelling/showcasing as one of the activities that will achieve the goals. The goals, incidentally, aren’t even referred to. (Other than the rationale but I suspect that isn’t the intent of that item)

Overall I think this strategy is an ok start but I would prefer a more holistic model that also factors in other areas of the academics responsibilities in research and service. The use of “e-learning” here is problematic and largely undefined. There’s just an assumption that everyone knows what it is and takes a common view. (Which is why TELT is perhaps a better term – though I still need to spend some time explaining what I – and the literature – see TELT as)

Face to face support complemented by online guidance (in what form?)
Facilitated CoPs to support academics sharing their experiences. (Can we anonymise these?? – visible only to teachers (not even exec). If one of our problems is that people don’t like to admit that they don’t know something, let them do it without people knowing. )

Wider marketing of support services in this space to academics. (I don’t buy this – I think that teachers get over marketed to now by all sections of the university and I’ve sent out a lot of info about training and support opportunities that get no response at all)

Faculty or departmental e-learning champion (Is that me or does it need to be an academic? Should we put the entire focus onto one person or have a community. Maybe a community with identifiable (and searchable) areas of expertise

Big question – how many people use the support that is currently available and why/why not?
My questions and ideas about the paper:

Demographics of the sample reasonably well spread – even genders, every faculty, wide distribution of age and teaching experience as well as use of TELT. No mention of whether any of the participants are casual staff members, which seems an important factor.

It’s fine to look at teaching practices but teaching doesn’t exist in a vacuum for academics. They also have research and service responsibilities and I think it would be valuable to factor the importance of these things in the research. The fact that nobody mentions them – or time constraints – suggests that they weren’t part of the focus group or interview discussions.

My overall take on this – the authors expand on previous work by Hardaker and Singh 2011 by adding student expectations to the mix. I’d think there is also a need to consider the affordances of existing technology (and pedagogy?) and perhaps also a more holistic view of the other pressure factors impacting teachers and the university.

“The findings highlighted the importance of a pedagogic-driven approach to implementation that supports staff in recognising the potential of technology to add value to students’ learning experiences.” (p.1278)

There are a lot of reasons that TELT is actually implemented in unis and while this might be the claim as the highest priority, I would be surprised if it made the top 5. Making life easier for the uni and for teachers, compliance, cost-cutting, prestige/keeping-up-with-the-Joneses and canny vendors all seem quite influential in this space as well. Understanding how the decisions driving TELT implementations are made seems really important.

King, E., & Boyatt, R. (2015). Exploring factors that influence adoption of e-learning within higher education: Factors that influence adoption of e-learning. British Journal of Educational Technology, 46(6), 1272–1280.

Research update #11: It wasn’t procrastination after all

Half-way in to the slightly manic process of reorganising my Scrivener notes for my PhD thesis proposal, I wondered if I wasn’t using it to avoid to actual work. I was painstakingly working through a host of references (some with annotations – mainly from the abstract I suspect) – that I had added early on from my initial proposal and largely just dumped into my broad categories without much further thought. I haven’t since come back to them or considered how relevant or useful they are or what I plan to do with them.

My larger goal in this exercise was to try to find some kind of structure for my thinking – I’m increasingly aware that the Higher Education ecosystem is intricate and complex and most if not all of the moving parts impact on each other far more than the current literature seems to acknowledge. I’m still not sure what the best way to represent this is, but I’m hoping that creating some order will help me to place the myriad random thoughts and questions that I’ve come up with so far in something more manageable.

Which seems to be a point that I often reach in large projects (none as large as this, admittedly) before losing interest and moving on to something new. As I thought about this, I worried that I was doing this exact thing here.

Fortunately, I wasn’t. I eliminated a number of papers that seemed relevant on the surface but really weren’t, I found a few more that I’d completely forgotten that I have put into the high priority reading list and I think that now I have a place for everything and everything in its place. There’s a section for the actual writing (broken up by broad topics), a section for notes (broken up by broad topics which I’d say will get more and more subtopics), a section for quotes and references (with sub-sections for individual papers) and some general miscellaneous pages for ‘other’ stuff. What works best about this for me is the way that it lets me quickly jump around the proposal when something useful needs to be jotted down and the side-by-side structure of Scrivener lets me easily copy-paste chunks. It looks a bit like this.

scrivener screenshot

The other part of this process that was useful was finding a brief paper that has the same focus as my research, which gave me some assurance that I’m on track with my ideas as well as check whether I’m missing anything vital. (Turns out that I think that they are missing a few things, which is obviously good for me. I’ll post about this one shortly)



Research update: needing to reorganise Scrivener

I’m feeling more back on track with my PhD proposal literature reading and idea synthesising than I have for a little while but I don’t feel much closer to understanding exactly what I want to do yet. The closest I can come to it is that I want to identify the things in H.E that get in the way of people adopting TELT practices (that actually improve teaching and learning, not that are simply ‘innovative’) and find practical, implementable strategies to overcome them. I feel as though there is more than enough research out there about what these effective TELT practices are, I’m happy to take it as a given that TELT can help, and so I’m left wondering which sector of ‘education’ I’m looking at.

Is this in fact more about organisations and management and how things run? I have a feeling that it’s bigger than this which is why I still have technology and TELT pedagogy as standalone areas of investigation on the roadmap (as well as students, unis as organisations and TELT support strategies). One thing that I thought about as I was reading the Bennett et al (2016) paper was the fact that it didn’t include the impact of other academic activities (e.g preparing research grants) on the practical design process. This wasn’t the focus of the paper, obviously but the more I look at TELT in Higher Ed., the more inextricably intertwined and complex it all seems. (I’m mindful that I need to remember the advice here that it’s a PhD, not a Nobel prize)

I’m hoping that better organising my ideas in Scrivener might help me out. At the moment, it’s just a place where I have copy/pasted virtually everything that I’ve been finding in the many folders and subfolders and pages and subpages that make it a beautiful tool. Using Scrivener to work on an application to upgrade my HEA fellowship helped me to see for the first time what a powerful writing tool it can be, in that it effortlessly supports a writing style that jumps all over the place as ideas form. So my focus this weekend is to try to tame this beast – and may God have mercy on my soul.

Thoughts on: The process of designing for learning: understanding university teachers’ design work (Bennett, S., Agostinho, S & Lockyer, L. 2016)

When this paper was recommended to me because I’m currently looking into the work and role of university teachers (academics/lecturers/whathaveyou), I was hesitant because I thought that it might be more focused on the solutions area of my research and at this stage I’m more interested in understanding the problems. Nonetheless I read it because, well, I’d be an idiot not to listen to my supervisor and also because I was taught at one point or another by all of these women when I did my Masters and I have a lot of time for them and their work.

It explores one of the fundamental activities that makes teachers teachers – learning design – and examines the approaches that a group of 30 university teachers from diverse disciplinary backgrounds take in either developing a new course or redesigning an existing one. As I’m finding in a lot of education research, this is something that has been explored far more in research into teaching in Primary and Secondary teaching but scantly in Higher Ed.

I might just digress for a moment to a question of language because the more time I spend in this space, the more keenly aware I become of how seriously it is taken. Bennett et al make an interesting deliberate decision to use the term ‘teachers’ instead of academics, lecturers or even tutors, (professor being more of a title perhaps), which are the  terms commonly used in Higher Ed. Personally, I prefer it because in this specific context of teaching, teacher seems more accurate. ‘Academic’ also incorporates research and ‘lecturer/tutor’ are both tied to relatively specific teaching activities but ‘teacher’ captures all aspects of the act of teaching. I don’t yet feel confident enough in my role as an education advisor / professional staff member to use it however, because I worry that some of the ‘teachers’ that I work with would take it as diminishing their stature. I’m not saying that’s fair by any means and in fairness I know many more who wouldn’t give it a second thought – I think. I guess a question to consider here is also whether we can compartmentalise an academic’s activities so that they are variously a teacher or a researcher. And where does ‘scholar’ sit in that? So instead I do a little linguistic dance where I jump between academic and lecturer for the most part when I think what I’m really talking about in the context of my work is someone that teaches. In keeping with the style of the paper, I’ll stick with teacher here and ponder further use later.

The authors explain that Higher Education in Australia since the 1990s has experienced a major period of change and this has

brought significant pressure on educators to adopt new and innovative educational approaches within a relatively short time. Design support services exist centrally or within the faculties of all Australian universities, but these are limited resources for which there is strong demand, leaving many university teachers to rely on their own skills. This is a particular challenge for discipline experts, who often have limited pedagogical training and are expected to balance teaching work with research, professional service and administrative responsibilities (p.9)

(And this is before we even start to consider the impact of the increasing reliance on international students and ongoing casualisation on the sector)

In an attempt to identify opportunities to empower teachers to design better learning experiences, the authors set out to understand their existing design processes. They conducted semi-structured interviews with 30 teachers that had been found by contacting professional organisations in Australia and vetted to ensure a diverse sample of disciplinary backgrounds and teaching experience. They were asked about their process and experiences in designing new units and/or redesigning existing units and given generic prompts to expand their responses.  Wherever possible they were encouraged to discuss multiple examples to minimise possible biases that might be encountered in discussing single experiences. The responses were coded and arranged into categories to create a hierarchical structure. (I hope you don’t mind the inclusion of these relatively dry methodology descriptions – I’m still working out my own). I’m mindful of the difference between this approach in understanding the ways that teachers work and that taken in the Goodyear study in a recent post of mine, where teachers provided a description of their work and thoughts as they did it, rather than months later. Given the complexity of design in comparison to responding to forum posts, there are clearly major practicalities to consider however I’d imagine that there is probably a happy middle ground. (To their credit, the authors do acknowledge the time distance as an improvable factor in their research)

There were a few notable findings, most significantly that the discipline area of teaching had virtually no impact on the design process that the teachers undertook. While there was roughly a 50/50 split between teachers who identified learning outcomes first versus those who identified the content they wished to cover, essentially all worked through a reasonably iterative process where they started with the broad considerations of the course and gradually focused on specific details. The content/outcomes focus was sometimes influenced by the fact that the teacher hadn’t previously taught a unit and needed to refresh their own understanding of the core concepts. This was generally part of a course redesign. It was also interesting to note that course re-designs were sometimes also deemed necessary because a new teacher to the subject found that the previous curriculum was too tightly aligned with the specific research interests of the previous teacher, which they didn’t share.

The interviews led to the creation of this model of general design processes


One random observation that I also found interesting – none of the participants sought design assistance or used existing learning design models or tools. The authors comment that

it may be that the use of these approaches and guides has been integrated into the tacit practices of higher education teachers, or it may reflect their limited adoption. Further research is needed to resolve this question. Although this study helps to understand what teachers currently do, with the intention of informing further support strategies, there is clearly a related question of what teachers should do that also needs to be addressed as part of an overarching research goal” (p.16-17)

Bennett et al acknowledge several areas for improvement in their research – 75% of the participants were teachers with 10 or more years of experience which doesn’t offer insights into the perspectives of early career teachers, who may arguably have a greater need for support in learning design. Selecting participants based on their membership of relating teaching organisations would also have tended to load the study with the kinds of people that already have an enhanced interest in teaching practices too.

From my personal perspective, while I agree that there can only be benefits in taking more sophisticated approaches to learning design, I would have liked to have seen an examination of the quality of the courses that these teachers were actually designing and/or the impact that they had on student learning. For all we know, these courses could all have been designed uniformly badly. My main takeaway though was that, in the absence of formal training and in the presence of unfortunately (and inexplicably) under-resourced support units, Higher Education teachers may gradually work out at least what works for them in terms of learning design and evolve this across the course of their careers.

A few other areas seemed to be lacking that I think needed to be factored in as well – the timing of course design. In Higher Education in Australia, the weeks before the beginning for Semester 1 coincide with the application period for Australian Research Council (ARC) grants and this can be a time of significant pressure for academics to sustain their research, which still contributes more substantially to their standing within the university than their teaching does. While it makes for a much messier question, ignoring these impacts on academics’ activities may not provide us with the complete picture that we need to better support their teaching.