Category Archives: change

Research update #7 New topic, academic development, continuity and change

According to my frequently revised project plan for my thesis proposal, I should now move on to my next topic for exploration, which was initially the University as Organisation but based on recent readings and discussions, it makes more sense to shift across to academics/teachers.

While I still feel that I haven’t read enough – but am assured that this feeling never goes away – I think it’s time to write up what I have found in the literature so far, understanding that this is the first of many drafts. Because I’ve been feeling that I’m not reading enough – or quickly enough – I got five more papers relating to academic development with the intention of skim reading them to identify core ideas and see which ones I should come back to in greater depth. I dedicated a 25 min pomodoro to each paper which generally included note taking.

I think I’ll actually put these into a separate post but my main outcome was that my understanding of the term “academic developer” and academic development seems to differ somewhat from the community. To be honest, I’ve not really given the different terms a lot of thought, assuming that as a nascent field, eLearning is yet to settle on broadly accepted language for people in education support roles and education designer / learning technologist / academic developer are all fairly interchangeable. As it turns out, an academic developer actually develops academics – which is to say, provides training and advice in teaching and learning to lecturers. There was little assumption in the literature that they have anything to do with making things, building course resources or taking a larger view of education technology. (Well, that’s an oversimplification)

In conjunction with a presentation from the always astute Professor Sue Bennett (University of Wollongong) at a local teaching and learning day on Monday, where she made a strong point that academics/teachers need to own education design rather than being “designed at” by education support types, I’ve realised that much of my focus over the last month or two has been from the education support perspective (with a lengthy detour into academic / professional divide territory) and shifting my frame to teachers makes a lot of sense.

In broad terms, I’m well aware that there are a great many factors at play in the success of TELT practices in Higher Ed – I’ve not even gone near the pedagogy, theory or material aspects yet – but I guess my personal experiences have led me to a point where the key seems to be the human elements. We can create the optimal environment with the most supportive conditions for success in the world, but if the people (university managers, academics, students and professionals) don’t engage or even actively resist (for a host of not always rational reasons), very little will be achieved. For me, it seems that understanding why people hold the attitudes that they do and what the best approaches are to work with these offers the greatest chance of successful change.

The question of change itself is an interesting one – it’s basically assumed that this is needed and desirable, presumably because we are in the middle of an incredible period of change (information revolution etc). The missing part of this discussion I suggest is looking at how we can support and disseminate (and strengthen I guess, which is a milder form of change) the practices that are successful already. Continuity and change, to borrow a cheeky political term. Everyone seems so fixated on on change that they forget that not everything is terrible. I’ll certainly be keeping an eye out for this in the literature as I go.

Research update (and post #100)

I thought twice about making this post, given that (according to the WordPress stats) it’s the 100th but my slightly neglected PhD Wunderlist has an ongoing to-do item involving making update posts about my research.

Once again, the work side of this work focused research has taken priority however I’m still hopeful that it has helped to inform some of my big picture thinking around the ways that universities can support Technology Enhanced Learning and Teaching in very realpolitik, pragmatic ways.

I’ve mentioned previously that I’ve been working with my other “third space” peers on a project to look at how we are currently advising the decision makers in use of ed tech. The discussion/consultation part of this process came to a close a week ago and I’ve been trying to synthesise the key ideas, issues and questions into actionable terms of reference for our two ground level reference and user groups. I presented these proposed changes to the reference group yesterday and given that they sparked a degree of impassioned discussion and some of the ideas have shaken some sensibilities, I’ll refrain from going into detail here just yet until the dust settles.

I have a few stray observations however that these discussions and this process have prompted and I think that they offer some interesting insights into the behind the scenes challenges that universities can face both in supporting TELT and in embracing change and innovation more broadly.

As a relative new-comer to the space, I’ve noticed that many of the discussions around current practices and opportunities for improvements will at some point come back to a lengthy explanation of the context in which structures and policies were put into place “back in the day”. “Back in the day we didn’t have x/y/z and a new person started and decided we should do a/b/c and yada yada yada”. Now I can appreciate the importance of learning from history and avoiding making the same mistakes over and over but there always seem to be two undercurrents to these discussions.

The first is essentially – “our current situation isn’t my fault” – ok, no worries, I’m not interested in judging, all I want to do is look at where we are right now, where we want to be and what we do to get there. The second is often a variation on – “we already tried x idea and it failed” – this is probably more useful if the conversation proceeds to “it failed because a/b/c and we learnt d/e/f from it and in the future can try g/h/i”. This rarely seems to be the case though because it seems that the simple act of making a suggestion that was tried once, five years ago, is a clear indication that the suggestor simply doesn’t understand “how things work here”.

Navigating sensibilities – particularly when they relate to struggles and disappointments that others before you may have had – in this space is a much larger challenge than I have anticipated. The simple act of saying that something could be better can be heavily laden with  implications that this is the case because someone isn’t that great at their job. (This is clearly absurd when there are so many moving pieces in an educational ecosystem that impact on getting things done that no one person could ever reasonably be held responsible for anything – which is another matter for discussion again if we want to look at the vexed question of getting things done in this space)

Just as human frailty is routinely identified as the weak link in I.T. security, I’d suggest that it is equally problematic in achieving change in higher ed.

The second real issue identified in these discussions has been the culture or more precisely the mindset that determines the approach taken to the problem. To be clearer – TELT. Rightly or wrongly (I think wrongly, clearly), our current environment magnifies the Technology part by referring to “enterprise educational technologies” and framing things in an IT project mindset. We have a set of tools and systems that are owned by a central team that academics and students are allowed to use, if they are careful. What the discussions (and, to be fair, the actual stated terms of reference of the two low-level user/reference groups) have suggested is that the mindset actually needs to be more about a service that exists to support teaching and learning through the provision of appropriate and useful technology. A major identified issue seems to be that the activities of the groups don’t reflect their stated purposes.

Perhaps I’m using slightly slanted language and I appreciate that sound IT project management practices are required to keep things humming but if a tool has no value without a user, surely the needs of the user have to be the primary focus. Anyway, the tensions between these two camps – which I truly hope are about genuine beliefs that one approach is better for teaching and learning than another rather than baser matters of position or prestige – are definitely a significant area meriting further consideration. In real terms, it’s rarely an either/or question, people, systems and institutions are complex and have any number of simultaneous drivers and learning how to work with them is probably the best outcome possible.

Quick thoughts on: 10 Principles of Organization Design, Sethi et al

With the new month, I’ve moved into the project plans that I’ve designed for my research and some new ways of working. One of these is writing and reading more quickly with a focus on a particular theme.

This month the theme is the university as an organisation. It seems valuable to begin by thinking about the space that TELT happens in and how it works at a macro level, with a particular focus on change.

So I’ve started in a not particularly academic space with a blogpost about 10 principles of organization design from Strategy-business.com – looking at things to consider in a restructure. (One of the authors is a partner at Price Waterhouse Coopers, so, not small fry in this field)

The first question to mind is how relevant this is to higher education, given that it is more about large corporations and there are variations in cultures and motivations. We’re still talking about large, complex organisations though so I feel there are a few valuable ideas and at least one contradicts my current views, which is always a healthy place to start.

Getting caught up in previous practice is often a trap in a renewal process, so the authors’ first point is to “declare amnesty for the past“. Accept that what was done, was done and refocus on what is needed and the best ways to do it. This dovetails nicely into a point that I struggle with but am considering, which is to “benchmark sparingly, if at all“. Their point is that competitors might have radically different strategies and it is hard to say whether it is even a good one. This may not apply to Higher Ed but up until this point I’ve been concerned that universities tend to be too introspective and having a greater understanding of the environment could only be healthy. Definitely food for thought either way.

Promote accountability” – without micromanaging people seems fairly obvious but is worth emphasising and they make an interesting final point about “accentuate the informal“. This refers more to the fact that “norms, commitments, mind-set and networks are essential in getting things done” and these are rarely formalised in the same way that org-charts are. Finding ways to support these elements that tend to be generated from the bottom-up in response to immediate needs can help to support formal structures.

So, as I say, this is probably tangential in some ways to my research question – how to support TELT practices in Higher Ed – and it is probably also more about looking for solutions than fleshing out the questions and issues but the ideas are interesting all the same.

 

Thoughts on: Change Thinking, Change Practices (LTSN Generic Centre, 2003)

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.

  1. Technical/Rational – the top level identifies a need for change, makes a policy and a plan and the plan is enacted precisely
  2. Resource allocation – Change needs resourcing and once this is provided, change will just occur
  3. Diffusionist: Epidemiological – Change is driven by experts and early adopters that can successfully communicate the value of the change and inspire uptake
  4. 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
  5. 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.

Flexibility

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?

Incentives

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.

Communication

“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)

Accountability mechanisms

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