I’ve been thinking that a core theme of my research – looking at how to support TELT practices in Higher Education – is Continuity and Change. This is a tiny bit tongue in cheek, referencing a deliberately meaningless slogan used initially in the HBO series Veep but later briefly embraced by the Australian Government.
It seems useful because it sums thing up fairly well; initiating change to new TELT practices where necessary but also supporting (and incrementally evolving) existing practices when they are already effective.
The Learning and Teaching Support Network (LTSN) Generic Centre – which no longer appears to exist but may have become something else – created a wonderfully thoughtful guide to implementing change in Higher Education in 2003 called “Change Thinking, Change Practices“.
I’ve been poring over this for the better part of a week because it is absolutely packed with insights both from theory (drawing heavily on Social Practice Theory) and a number of case studies. It up-ended a few of my own long-held ideas about implementing change (the need to win hearts and minds before getting started for one) and I think it’s well worth investing the time to read through if you are involved in or considering change in your institution.
Change in a higher ed institution can come from the top-down (a.k.a centre-periphery – the executive), bottom-up (teachers) or middle-out (departments, education support teams). These different sources of change become very important because they reflect different philosophical approaches to change. As with most things, I’d suggest that an approach drawing from all three is most valuable.
The paper identifies five common views of change that feed into these.
- Technical/Rational – the top level identifies a need for change, makes a policy and a plan and the plan is enacted precisely
- Resource allocation – Change needs resourcing and once this is provided, change will just occur
- Diffusionist: Epidemiological – Change is driven by experts and early adopters that can successfully communicate the value of the change and inspire uptake
- Kai Zen or continuous quality improvement – changes is driven incrementally from the bottom (practioners) working in communities of practice to identify needs in their area
- Models using complexity – sponsors (otherwise undefined) of change create the conditions needed for change to flourish by providing resources and knowledge.
Unsurprisingly perhaps, none of these views make me entirely happy, with my pesky view that educational ecosystems of institutions are messy and we need to take a holistic approach to working with them. Fortunately this seems to be the position taken by the guide.
Rather than summarise the whole thing, I’ll explore the themes that emerged in determining conditions for success.
The change that is initially identified and planned for is rarely the change that you’ll end up with. This is generally a good thing because it means that as more people have become involved in the process, they have taken some ownership of it and better informed it. Having the flexibility to allow change to take its own course can generate wider acceptance.
The guide repeatedly comes back to the idea of viewing change as a process (‘changing’) rather than an outcome (‘CHANGE’)
“The innovation was ‘fuzzy’ enough to appeal to a variety of interests and points of view, even competing ones” (p.24)
Contextual awareness and understanding
This brings us neatly to the vital importance of understanding the local needs, history and practices of the place where the change is to be implemented. The guide stresses that incremental change at a departmental level has higher rates of success and provides a number of valuable case studies in support of this.
There’s a relatable but entirely frustrating contradiction about implementing change in a localised context; while change proposals with a solid backing of evidence and knowledge is more widely valued, there is simultaneously a resistance to external influences.
…colleagues will often balk at change unless it was ‘invented here’; they’ll discount foreign innovations. NIH (not invented here) breaks change forces (P.33)
I’ve already seen this on a number of occasions in my time in Higher Education when I’d get excited about something that I’d seen being done elsewhere that seemed particularly relevant to our needs only to have it met with the most disinterested of mehs. This often surprised me coming from people that I would assume to be open to knowledge and all good ideas but that downplays the tribal/parochial nature of these kinds of organisations.
This in turn led me to a side-thought, is it harder to drive change in an institution that is perceived to be (and considers itself) at the top of the heap? When your branding and culture pushes the idea of being an elite institution does this simultaneously facilitate NIH thinking in addition to diminishing the perceived urgency of change?
A lot of factors come to bear on practitioner willingness to engage with new practices. The extent to which they have been involved in formulating the change is clearly a significant part, as is their understanding of its benefits. These intrinsic motivators provide deeper engagement with change but take longer. Extrinsic motivators, whether they be direct inducements (more time or resources) or policy directives will get results more quickly but at a shallower level.
I’ve long believed that it is vital to win hearts and minds before embarking on change processes but this guide makes a compelling case that “there is a lot of value in using tools and expertise to change practices: beliefs can follow” (P.21)
This makes sense to me on the level that giving people a lived experience of a change in practice can give them a deeper understanding of it.
Capacity / support
Whatever changes are proposed, it is essential that practitioners have the capacity to enact them. (Evidently this isn’t as obvious as it sounds). Change that builds on existing practice (scaffolded, essentially) thus becomes far more likely to succeed than entirely new practices.
A combination of training, Community of Practice support and the involvement of local support experts – such as education designers and technologists – is essential either way.
Resources / tools
The other facet that seems obvious is the need for adequate resourcing for the project. Particularly tools that are fit for purpose. This guide speaks at length about working with lecturers in the planning phase to collaboratively design and build tools (e.g. a new form of rubric) that can be used in practice to implement the changes.
This has the added benefit of creating more relevant and robust tools that incorporate local, contextual needs.
“Don’t assume that the way you think of an innovation is the way it will be understood on the ground” (p.19)
Language can also be loaded – “for many academic staff, the word ‘quality’ itself had come to symbolise additional administrative burdens which detracted from rather than enhanced their core work” (p.25)
HE institutions are fueled by words – using them well can mean the difference between failure and success. (No pressure)
A key element in successfully implementing a change process is remembering that it is more about the act of changing, so in some ways it never entirely ends. Putting a rigorous evaluation process into place that is clear about what is to be measured and how makes a massive difference.
There is a lot of other invaluable tips and strategies to effective change processes in this guide that are informed by theory and evidence from case studies. It expands greatly on the phases of implementation, considering them as pre-adoption (gather requirements), adoption (gaining support) and implementation. I compare this with the Ako Aotearoa model described by Akelma (2012) of initiation (arguably pre-adoption/adoption), implementation and institutionalisation.
If you have any involvement whatsoever with change in your HE institution, you need to read this paper