Category Archives: ed tech

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
Definition:
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
Definition:
Is this where “culture” lives?

Includes:
“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.

Outcomes

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)

Support:
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. https://doi.org/10.1111/bjet.12195

Thoughts on: A Devil’s Dictionary of Educational Technology (Bryan Alexander and friends)

Bryan Alexander is pretty great, kind of like the wild haired California wizard of the eLearning world. His work (in collaboration with commenters on his blog) in creating the Devil’s Dictionary of Educational Technology just makes him even cooler.

A couple of my favourites:

Big data. n. pl. 1.When ordinary surveillance just isn’t enough.

World Wide Web, n. A strange new technology, the reality of which can be fended off or ignored through the LMS, proprietary databases, non-linking mobile apps, and judicious use of login requirements.

 

Research update

This blog post will probably be of interest to maybe five other people (including my Mum) but it’s part of a process that I’ve decided on for tracking what I’m doing and maintaining some accountability, so here we are. It’s kind of the beauty of blogging – the whole “long tail” thing – that ultra-niche voices can still have a platform. (And in defense of my own posts, this will be far from the least coherent post that I have read this week)

So in my last post I mentioned that I’m putting processes and systems in place to help me work better on my PhD. (Well, my PhD proposal I should say – this has to be approved before I actually embark on the proper research itself). As I’ve mentioned, my topic is currently very broad but I expect that over the next year it will come into a much sharper focus. The absence of deadlines however has meant that I’ve felt that I’ve been drifting from one shiny topic to the next. People keep telling me that this is by far the best stage of a PhD and that this opportunity will probably never come again but there are still things that I need to get done in this time and having a clearer vision of what they are and when they should be done soothes my soul.

project plan screenshotMuch of what I’ve done is create an increasingly granular series of tasks and put them in 3 different tools – the Excel project plan, Wunderlist and Trello. In essence they are all glorified to-do lists but with varying functionality, including attaching teams/people, documents, calender items and integrating them with other productivity systems like Slack.

Managing all three seems a little like triple handling but the spreadsheet should be mainly just about denoting progress now and I like the whole-year perspective that it offers. IFTTT lets me automatically create Wunderlist tasks when I add them to a Trello card so this should also simplify matters.

TrelloScreenshot

(That’s Trello – it looks pretty plain at the moment but has given me a much needed roadmap for the different topic areas that I plan to investigate month by month)

The July topic – Universities as organisations – aligns well with both a (workplace) university strategic review as well as an upcoming ACODE University Benchmarking event that I’m hoping will offer some tangible insights into the ‘state of the actual’ in TELT practices. It also ties to the ongoing discussion/review process that I’ve been leading of ed tech and TELT in my university and the associated governance structures. (The powers that be are expecting a report with some recommendations in early August.)

wunderlist screenshot

The overall to-do list has gotten a little smaller -for now – though it needs updating and there are some ongoing tasks tied to digitising the myriad handwritten ideas and questions that come to me pretty much day and night now.

All this aside, it’s still hard not to feel that I haven’t made a lot of progress in the last few weeks – I guess it would be more accurate to say I haven’t made as much progress as I would’ve liked in terms of reading and writing things but I feel far more ready to do this in a more effective and productive way now.

On a day to day level though, the reading that I’ve been doing and the ideas that I’m starting to synthesise are really starting to feed into my professional practice and are giving me more confidence in the decisions and plans that I’m putting forward.

So let’s see how that goes.

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

 

 

Thoughts on: Two guides from Ako Aotearoa on education projects and researching learners

It was always my intention that researching in the area that I work in would help me to shape my professional practice (and it is) but I’ve been surprised lately at how much things are flowing in the other direction. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what is needed to make an educational project successful and how we know that learners have actually benefitted.

This is partially coming from the big picture work that I’m doing with my peers at the university looking at what we’re doing and why and partially from my own college, which has recently launched a Teaching and Learning Eminence Committee/project to look into what we’re doing with teaching and learning. I wasn’t initially invited onto the committee, (it’s all academics), which speaks to some of the ideas that have been emerging in some of my recent posts (the academic/professional divide) as well as the fact that I need to work on raising the profile of my team* and understanding of our* capacity and activities in the college.

Anyway, while trawling through the tweetstream of the recent (and alas final) OLT – Office of Learning and Teaching – conference at #OLTConf2016, I came across a couple of guides published recently by Ako Aotearoa, the New Zealand National Centre for Tertiary Teaching Excellence, that fit the bill perfectly.

logo

One focusses on running effective projects in teaching and learning in tertiary education, it’s kind of project managementy, which isn’t always the most exciting area for me but it offers a comprehensive and particularly thoughtful overview of what we need to do to take an idea (which should always be driven by enhancing learning) through three key phases identified by Fullan (2007 – as cited in Akelma et al, 2011) in the process of driving educational change – initiation, implementation and institutionalisation. The guide – Creating sustainable change to improve outcomes for tertiary learners  is freely available on the Ako Aotearoa website, which is nice.

I took pages and pages of notes and my mind wandered off into other thoughts about immediate and longer term things to do at work and in my research but the key themes running through the guide were treating change as a process rather than an event, being realistic, working collectively, being honest and communicating well. It breaks down each phases into a number of steps (informed by case studies) and prompts the reader with many pertinent questions to ask of themselves and the project along the way.

The focus of the guide is very much on innovation and change – I’m still thinking about what we do with the practices that are currently working well and how we can integrate the new with the old.

The second guide – A Tertiary practitioners guide to collecting evidence of learner benefit – drills down into useful research methodologies for ensuring that our projects and teaching practices are actually serving the learners’ needs. Again, these are informed by helpful case studies and showcase the many places and ways that we can collect data from and about our students throughout the teaching period and beyond.

It did make me wonder whether the research mindset of academics might conventionally be drawn from their discipline. Coming from an organisation with an education and social science orientation, one might expect an emphasis on the qualitative (and there are a lot of surveys suggested – which I wonder about as I have a feeling that students might be a little over-surveyed already) but the guide actually encourages a mixture of methodologies and makes a number of suggestions for merging data, as well as deciding how much is enough.

Definitely some great work from our colleagues across the ditch and well worth checking out.

(* The team is me – but one day…)

Defending University ICT teams

There has been a minor flurry of activity in the local edublogosphere (it’s a word) with three widely applauded posts from Martin Weller, Mark Smithers and David Jones about the problems with university ICT teams. (I guess more precisely it is the problems with university ICT policies and practices but tomato/tomato)

And look, to be honest these are probably some things that I’ve said myself on many occasions and I know I have heard them from my Ed Tech colleagues just as often. My main problem with the posts is that I think that significant parts of the arguments come very much from the perspective of the academic in an ideal world and dismiss the day to day practicalities of the organisation.

Martin and Mark both approach the issues through the prism of the following seven complaints.

  • Security is used rather the same way Governments use terrorism – as a means of controlling things and removing freedoms
  • Increasingly academics have no control over their machines, and cannot install or trial new software
  • Even basic tasks are often highly frustrating and time consuming
  • Support has been centralised so there is no local advice or help
  • Senior IT managers have been brought in from other sectors with little understanding of the university culture
  • Increasingly academics are circumventing official systems to buy their own machines, or host their own services, often in their own time and at their own expense
  • There is little room for experimenting with tools beyond the VLE

Right off the bat I noticed that the first two and the final two are variations on a theme – ‘I, as an academic, can’t do whatever I want, whenever I want within the university ICT system’. 

Ok, sure, it’s not that simple and they make some particularly valid and important points about the drive for innovation, the need to be able to try something and fail (particularly in the pursuit of knowledge) and breakdowns in organisational communication. Martin stresses that “it is about how universities have created the environment where academics and IT are now in a rather dysfunctional relationship”.

Mark expand on the points raised by Martin and offers a few concrete examples of policies and practices that cause frustration and David goes on to introduce a little bit of theory that supports the value of individualised solutions in innovation.

I absolutely agree that a service provision unit such as an ICT team should do as much as possible to meet the needs of its users. A few questions leap to mind at this point:

  • Who are the users?
  • How do they prioritise the competing needs of users?
  • How do we untangle needs vs wants?
  • Who pays for it?
  • Who supports it?
  • What other factors constrain the I.T. teams?

Universities exist for research and education – so academics are clearly at the heart of the purpose of the institution. All three writers acknowledge that there are legitimate security concerns that must be addressed but there seems to be a disconnect between the things that impact the university and those that impact the lecturer. It’s someone else’s problem.

In my role as a education technologist, I sit at the intersection of all of these groups and I have seen two specific issues in the last year that are very much the lecturer’s problem when it comes to implementing new technologies. One relates to the risk of privacy breaches of student data (which can be as minimal as their email address), particularly when using online services hosted overseas. Under Australian law, for every breach, the person that signed up for the service directly – often the lecturer – is liable for a $300,000+ fine and the university is up for $1m+. For each breach. (So 100 students = $30m fine for the lecturer alone)

The second issue falls under competition and consumer law – third line forcing. In a nutshell, a service provider (the university) can’t mandate the use of services provided by a third party. In English, if you put a link to a Pearson quiz into the LMS and make it 20% of the grade, you’re breaking the law. Allowing students an alternative makes this acceptable and this is why we can’t make any textbook mandatory – just highly highly recommended.

These are important not just for the financial and reputational well-being of the university and the academic but for the rights of the students. It’s not sexy but its important.

As a former senior manager of a university IT team, I was a little surprised that Mark downplayed these kinds of things – although I guess they are more legalistic, even though the relate directly to tech. (Also, different countries, different laws etc etc)

To cover some of the other questions briefly:

I’ve had a few academics come to me to help them implement projects tied to specific tools that sales reps have gotten them excited about. Because sales reps are approaching academics more and more and they aren’t always the most reliable people for identifying whether their product meets the academics T&L needs. So the first thing that I do is rewind the conversation to the desired teaching and learning outcomes and then review the best options. Academics are human and are just as susceptible to the charms of a sales rep as anyone else. Sometimes the Ed Techs and ICT teams have the bigger picture perspective needed.

University and College/Faculty ICT teams don’t just sit around waiting to say no to people. There’s ongoing support to manage and scheduled projects/upgrades to implement. This is all tightly budgeted for and these people are generally always working on something. So when a new projects come up, time and money has to be found to support them. Even then, it’s rarely just a matter of installing a piece of software and moving on – how does it play with the rest of the system? Does it need to connect to other parts of the system?, does it require other things (e.g. a particular version of Java) to work?, if the uni system is updated and the software isn’t, will it collapse (and vice versa)?, what if some part of it isn’t working – who is responsible for trying to fix that? More confident academics might feel competent enough to take that responsibility on but many more will just assume that this is the role of the ICT team. Who trains the students in how to use it – what if they have problems and need support? None of these things necessarily need to be a barrier to implementing something new but I feel that they have been downplayed or ignored in the other posts.

The last thing that I want to do is to paint a picture that nothing new can or should be done and I think there are a number of areas where there is common ground.

The needs of teaching and learning, academics and students should be a high priority in university organisational culture and reflected in ICT team activity wherever possible.

The needs and responsibilities of the organisations should be better understood and appreciated by academics and students.

More effective communication and greater transparency of systems and processes will help both of these things. User Experience needs to be a bigger part of the design too.

We work in a holistic, learning ecosystem where everything is connected and we can be far more effective by using these connections and the expertise that we all possess, both academic and professional staff.

Innovation is a key part of developing knowledge and failure is an unavoidable consequence sometimes. We should still strive to reduce the risk of failure wherever we can though by drawing on the collective knowledge available.

New processes should be explored for supporting innovation so that the best potential tools and pedagogical approaches can be used and risks minimised. They should be evidence based as far as possible but have the flexibility to allow for trail blazers. The potential impact of new tools and pedagogical approaches (in terms of transferablility, contribution to scholarship?) has to be a factor. A “beyond-the-pilot” mindframe is also needed for these kinds of projects, so that after successful testing there can be a clear pathway and resourcing for a move into a wider, production environment.

Flexibility is important in terms of what environments and tools are available for teaching and learning (and research – see even here I must admit that this has barely been on my radar) but there needs to be agreement and acceptance of what can and can’t be supported.

None of this is particularly “sexy” – it doesn’t lead to big flashy announceables or bragging rights at high level conferences and dinners but I think it is important for us all to work together more effectively and with greater understanding. There are always going to be all kinds of personalities in our organisations and some will be less helpful than others for no good reason but I still have to believe that the vast majority of us work in tertiary education because we believe in it.

More thoughts on: “Digital is not the future – Hacking the institution from the inside” – Technology, practical solutions and further questions

Previously on Screenface.net:

I’ve been participating in an online “hack” looking at “Digital is not the future – Hacking the institution from the inside” with a number of other education designers/technologists.

hack-poster-3
It’s been pretty great.

I shared some thoughts and summarised some of the discussions tied to the issues we face in supporting and driving institutional change, working with organisational culture and our role as professional staff experts in education design and technology.

There’s still much to talk about. Technology and what we need it to do, practical solutions both in place and under consideration / on the wishlist, further questions and a few stray ideas that were generated along the way.

Technology: 

Unsurprisingly, technology was a significant part of our conversation about what we can do in the education support/design/tech realm to help shape the future of our institutions. The core ideas that came up included what we are using it for and how we sell and instill confidence in it in our clients – teachers, students and the executive.

The ubiquity and variety of educational technologies means that they can be employed in all areas of the teaching and learning experience. It’s not just being able to watch a recording of the lecture you missed or to take a formative online quiz; it’s signing up for a course, finding your way to class, joining a Spanish conversation group, checking for plagiarism, sharing notes, keeping an eye on at-risk students and so much more.

It’s a fine distinction but Ed Tech is bigger than just “teaching and learning” – it’s also about supporting the job of being a teacher or a learner. I pointed out that the recent “What works and why?” report from the OLT here in Australia gives a strong indication that the tools most highly valued by students are the ones that they can use to organise their studies.
Amber Thomas highlighted that “…better pedagogy isn’t the only quality driver. Students expect convenience and flexibility from their courses” and went on to state that “We need to use digital approaches to support extra-curricular opportunities and richer personal tracking. Our “TEL” tools can enable faster feedback loops and personalised notifications”

Even this is just the tip of the iceberg – it’s not just tools for replicating or improving analog practices – the technology that we support and the work we do offers opportunities for new practices. In some ways this links back closely to the other themes that have emerged – how we can shape the culture of the organisation and how we ensure that we are part of the conversation. A shift in pedagogical approaches and philosophies is a much larger thing that determining the best LMS to use. (But at its best, a shift to a new tool can be a great foot in the door to discussing new pedagogical approaches)

“It is reimagining the pedagogy and understanding the ‘new’ possibilities digital technologies offer to the learning experience where the core issue is” (Caroline Kuhn)

Lesley Gourlay made a compelling argument for us to not throw out the baby with the bathwater when it comes to technology by automatically assuming that tech is good and “analogue” practices are bad. (I’d like to assume that any decent Ed Designer/Tech knows this but it bears repeating and I’m sure we’ve all encountered “thought leaders” with this take on things).

“we can find ourselves collapsing into a form of ‘digital dualism’ which assumes a clear binary between digital and analogue / print-based practices (?)…I would argue there are two problems with this. First, that it suggests educational and social practice can be unproblematically categorised as one or the other of these, where from a sociomaterial perspective I would contend that the material / embodied, the print-based / verbal and the digital are in constant and complex interplay. Secondly, there perhaps is a related risk of falling into a ‘digital = student-centred, inherently better for all purposes’, versus ‘non-digital = retrograde, teacher-centred, indicative of resistance, in need of remediation’.” (Lesley Gourlay)

Another very common theme in the technology realm was the absolute importance of having reliable technology (as well as the right technology.)

Make technology not failing* a priority. All technology fails sometime, but it fails too often in HE institutions. Cash registers in supermarkets almost never fail, because that would be way too much of a risk.” (Sonia Grussendorf)

When it comes to how technology is selected for the institution, a number of people picked up on the the tension between having it selected centrally vs by lecturers.

“Decentralize – allow staff to make their own technology (software and hardware) choices” (Peter Bryant)

Infrastructure is also important in supporting technologies (Alex Chapman)

Personally I think that there must be a happy medium. There are a lot of practical reasons that major tools and systems need to be selected, implemented, managed and supported centrally – integration with other systems, economies of scale, security, user experience, accessibility etc. At the same time we also have to ensure that we are best meeting the needs of students and academics in a host of different disciplines. and are able to support innovation and agility. (When it comes to the selection of any tool I think that there still needs to be a process in place to ensure that the tool meets the needs identified – including those of various institutional stakeholders – and can be implemented and supported properly.)

Finally, Andrew Dixon framed his VC elevator pitch in terms of a list of clear goals describing the student experience with technology which I found to be an effective way of crafting a compelling narrative (or set of narratives) for a busy VC. Here are the first few:

 

  1. They will never lose wifi signal on campus – their wifi will roam seemlessly with them
  2. They will have digital access to lecture notes before the lectures, so that they can annotate them during the lecture.
  3. They will also write down the time at which difficult sub-topics are explained in the lecture so that they can listen again to the captured lecture and compare it with their notes. (Andrew Dixon)

Some practical solutions

Scattered liberally amongst the discussions were descriptions of practical measures that people and institutions are putting in place. I’ll largely let what people said stand on its own – in some cases I’ve added my thoughts in italics afterwards. (Some of the solutions I think were a little more tongue in cheek – part of the fun of the discussion – but I’ll leave it to you to determine which)

Culture / organisation

Our legal team is developing a risk matrix for IT/compliance issues (me)

(We should identify our work) “not just as teaching enhancement but as core digital service delivery” (Amber Thomas)

“we should pitch ‘exposure therapy’ – come up with a whole programme that immerses teaching staff in educational technology, deny them the choice of “I want to do it the old fashioned way” so that they will realise the potential that technologies can have…” (Sonja Grussendorf)

“Lets look at recommendations from all “strategy development” consultations, do a map of the recommendations and see which ones always surface and are never tackled properly.” (Sheila MacNeill)

“Could this vision be something like this: a serendipitous hub of local, participatory, and interdisciplinary teaching and learning, a place of on-going, life-long engagement, where teaching and learning is tailored and curated according to the needs of users, local AND global, actual AND virtual, all underscored by data and analytics?” (Rainer Usselman)

“…build digital spaces to expand our reach and change the physical set up of our learning spaces to empower use of technology…enable more collaborative activities between disciplines” (Silke Lange)

“we need a centralised unit to support the transition and the evolution and persistence of the digital practice – putting the frontliners into forefront of the decision making. This unit requires champions throughout the institutions so that this is truly a peer-led initiative, and a flow of new blood through secondments. A unit that is actively engaging with practitioners and the strategic level of the university” (Peter Bryant)

In terms of metrics – “shift the focus from measuring contact time to more diverse evaluations of student engagement and student experience” (Silke Lange)
“Is there a metric that measures teaching excellence?… Should it be designed in such a way as to minimise gaming? … should we design metrics that are helpful and allow tools to be developed that support teaching quality enhancement?” (David Kernohan)  How do we define or measure teaching excellence?
“the other thing that we need to emphasise about learning analytics is that if it produces actionable insights then the point is to act on the insights” (Amber Thomas) – this needs to be built into the plan for collecting and dealing with the data.

Talking about the NSS (National student survey) – “One approach is to build feel-good factor and explain use of NSS to students. Students need to be supported in order to provide qualitative feedback” (David Kernohan)  (I’d suggest that feedback from students can be helpful but it needs to be weighted – I’ve seen FB posts from students discussing spite ratings)

“We should use the same metrics that the NSS will use at a more granular levels at the university to allow a more agile intervention to address any issues and learn from best practices. We need to allow flexibility for people to make changes during the year based on previous NSS” (Peter Bryant)

“Institutional structures need to be agile enough to facilitate action in real time on insights gained from data” (Rainer Usselmann) – in real time? What kind of action? What kind of insights? Seems optimistic

“Institutions need at the very least pockets of innovation /labs / discursive skunk works that have licence to fail, where it is safe to fail” (Rainer Usselmann)

“Teachers need more space to innovate their pedagogy and fail in safety” (Silke Lange)
“Is it unfair (or even unethical) to not give students the best possible learning experience that we can?…even if it was a matter of a control group receiving business-as-usual teaching while a test group got the new-and-improved model, aren’t we underserving the control group?” (me)

“I can share two examples from my own experiences
An institution who wanted to shift all their UG programmes from 3 year to 4 year degrees and to deliver an American style degree experience (UniMelb in the mid 2000s)

An institution who wanted to ensure that all degree programmes delivered employability outcomes and graduate attributes at a teaching, learning and assessment level

So those resulted in;
a) curriculum change
b) teaching practice change
c) assessment change
d) marketing change ” (Peter Bryant)

“One practical option that I’m thinking about is adjusting the types of research that academics can be permitted to do in their career path to include research into their own teaching practices. Action research.” (Me) I flagged this with our Associate Dean Education yesterday and was very happy to hear that she is currently working on a paper for an education focussed journal in her discipline and sees great value in supporting this activity in the college.

“I think policy is but one of the pillars that can reinforce organisational behaviour” (Peter Bryant)- yes, part of a carrot/stick approach, and sometimes we do need the stick. Peter also mentions budgets and strategies, I’d wonder if they don’t change behaviour but more support change already embarked upon.

Technology

“let’s court rich people and get some endowments. We can name the service accordingly: “kingmoneybags.universityhandle.ac.uk”. We do it with buildings, why not with services?” (Sonia Grussendorf) – selling naming rights for TELT systems just like buildings – intriguing

We need solid processes for evaluating and implementing Ed Tech and new practices (me)

Pedagogical

“Could creating more ‘tailored’ learning experiences, which better fit the specific needs and learning styles of each individual learner be part of the new pedagogic paradigm?” (Rainer Usselman) (big question though around how this might be supported in terms of workload

“At Coventry, we may be piloting designing your own degree” (Sylvester Arnab)
“The challenge comes in designing the modules so as to minimise prerequisites, or make them explicit in certain recommended pathways” (Christopher Fryer)
I went on to suggest that digital badges and tools such as MyCourseMap might help to support this model. Sylvester noted that he is aware that “these learning experiences, paths, patterns, plans have to be validated somehow” Learner convenience over pedagogy – or is it part of pedagogy in line with adult learning principles of self-efficacy and motivation. In a design your own degree course, how do we ensure that learners don’t just choose the easiest subjects – how do we avoid the trap of having learners think they know enough to choose wisely?

“digital might be able to help with time-shifting slots to increase flexibility with more distributed collaboration, flipped teaching, online assessment” (George Roberts)

 

“At UCL we are in the midst of an institution-wide pedagogic redesign through the Connected Curriculum. This is our framework for research-based education which will see every student engaging in research and enquiry from the very start of their programme until they graduate (and beyond). More at http://www.ucl.ac.uk/teaching-learning/connected-curriculum

The connected bit involves students making connections with each other, with researchers, beyond modules and programmes, across years of study, across different disciplines, with alumni, employers, and showcase their work to the wider world…

There is strong top-down support, but also a middle-out approach with faculties having CC fellows on part time secondments to plan how introduce and embed the CC in their discipline.

From a TEL perspective we need to provide a digital infrastructure to support all of this connectivity – big project just getting going. Requirements gathering has been challenging… And we’re also running workshops to help programme and module teams to design curricula that support research-based and connected learning.” (Fiona Strawbridge) – liking this a lot, embedding practice. What relationship do these fellows have with lecturers?

 

“I am imagining that my research, personal learning environment would fit perfect with this approach as I am thinking the PLE as a toolbox to do research. There is also a potential there to engage student in open practice, etc.” Caroline Kuhn

“There may be a “metapedagogy” around the use of the VLE as a proxy for knowledge management systems in some broad fields of employment: consultancy, financial services, engineering…” (George Roberts)  (which I’d tie to employability)

“We need to challenge the traditional model of teaching, namely didactic delivery of knowledge. The ways in which our learning spaces are currently designed -neat rows, whiteboard at front, affords specific behaviours in staff and students. At the moment virtual learning spaces replicate existing practices, rather than enabling a transformative learning experience. The way forward is to encourage a curricula founded on enquiry-based learning that utilise the digital space as professional practitioners would be expected to” (Silke Lange) – maybe but none of this describes where or how lecturers learn these new teaching skills. Do we need to figure out an evolutionary timeline to get to this place, where every year or semester, lecturers have to take one further step, add one new practice?

“Do not impose a pedagogy. Get rid of the curricula. Empower students to explore and to interact with one another. The role of the teacher is as expert, navigator, orienteer, editor, curator and contextualisor of the subject. Use heuristic, problem-based learning that is open and collaborative. Teach students why they need to learn” (Christopher Fryer)

 

This is but a cherry-picked selection of the ideas and actions that people raised in this hack but I think it gives a sense of some of the common themes that emerged and of the passion that people feel for our work in supporting innovation and good practices in our institutions.  I jotted down a number of stray ideas for further action in my own workplace as well as broader areas to investigate in the pursuit of my own research.

As always, the biggest question for me is that of how we move the ideas from the screen into practice.

Further questions

How are we defining pedagogical improvements – is it just strictly about teaching and learning principles (i.e. cognition, transfer etc) or is it broader – is the act of being a learner/teacher a part of this (and thus the “job” of being these people which includes a broader suite of tools) (me)

What if we can show how learning design/UX principles lead to better written papers by academics? – more value to them (secondary benefits) (me)

“how much extra resource is required to make really good use of technology, and where do we expect that resource to come from?” (Andrew Dixon)

Where will I put external factors like the TEF / NSS into my research? Is it still part of the organisation/institution? Because there are factors outside the institution like this that need to be considered – govt initiatives / laws / ???

Are MOOCs for recruitment? Marketing? (MOOCeting?)

“How do we demonstrate what we do will position the organisation more effectively? How do we make sure we stay in the conversation and not be relegated to simply providing services aligned with other people’s strategies” (arguably the latter is part of our job)
“How do we embed technology and innovative pedagogical practices within the strategic plans and processes at our institutions?” (Peter Bryant)

Further research

Psychology of academia and relationships between academic and professional staff. (Executive tends to come from academia)

“A useful way to categorise IT is according to benefits realisation. For each service offered, a benefits map should articulate why we are providing the service and how it benefits the university.” (See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Benefits_realisation_management ) (Andrew Dixon)

Leadership and getting things done / implementing change, organisational change

How is organisational (particularly university) culture defined, formed and shaped?

Actor-network theory

Design research

Some ideas this generated for me

Instead of tech tool based workshops – or in addition at least – perhaps some learning theme based seminars/debates (with mini-presentations). Assessment / Deeper learning / Activities / Reflection

Innovation – can be an off-putting / scary term for academics with little faith in their own skills but it’s the buzzword of the day for leadership. How can we address this conflict? How can we even define innovation within the college?

What if we bring academics into a teaching and learning / Ed tech/design support team?

Telling the story of what we need by describing what it looks like and how students/academics use it in scenario / case study format offers a more engaging narrative

What is the role of professional bodies (E.g. unions like the NTEU) in these discussions?

Are well-off, “prestigious” universities the best places to try to innovate? Is there less of a driving urge, no pressing threat to survival? Perhaps this isn’t the best way to frame it – a better question to ask might be – if we’re so great, what should other universities be learning from us to improve their own practices? (And then, would we want to share that knowledge with our competitors)

“I was thinking about the power that could lie behind a social bookmarking tool when doing a dissertation, not only to be able to store and clasify a resource but also to share it with a group of likeminded researcher and also to see what other have found about the same topic.” (Caroline Kuhn) – kind of like sharing annotated bibliographies?

Bigger push for constructive alignment
I need to talk more about teaching and learning concepts in the college to be seen as the person that knows about it

In conclusion

I’d really like to thank the organisers of the Digital is not the future Hack for their efforts in bringing this all together and all of the people that participated and shared so many wonderful and varied perspectives and ideas. Conversation is still happening over there from what I can see and it’s well worth taking a look.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Rethinking Ed Tech at our university

I mentioned a couple of weeks ago that I’ve embarked on some sort of ramshackle process of evaluating what we’re doing in terms of Ed. Tech and design with some of my fellow Ed Techs and Designers in the colleges and central team. This is with a view to finding ways to work together better, build relationships and ultimately make some recommendations to the high ups that may or not be acted upon. (At the very least I’m optimistic that people on the ground will communicate and collaborate better and with a renewed clarity)

In some ways, we’re racing the clock, as our VC has started his consultation tour as the first part of his review/reform/something process. Best case scenario is that we’ll be able to feed our findings/opinions/fervent wishes into his process and change might be kickstarted. Worst case is – well, let’s not think about that. Something with dragons and ice zombies or something.

So we had our second discussion today and were able to successfully identify six core themes with some attendant issues and questions to press on with for more in-depth investigation. The goal is to try to come up with something tangible for each theme every two weeks, through a combination of online and in person discussions. This will ideally give us a greater sense of what we’re about (I hate to use the term mission statement but perhaps something less aethereal) which will inform some revised terms of reference for our lower level parts of the ed. tech governance structure. (This is where I’m expecting the greatest resistance but who knows.)

These are the themes that we have arrived at. (If you feel that we’ve missed something or over-estimated the importance of something, please feel free to leave a comment.)

Language and philosophy/vision: 

Is it eLearning, blended learning, technology enhanced learning (and teaching), online learning or just plain old teaching and learning? Why? Are we about education innovation or education support? (It’s not simply about the language either – this can be quite political).

What are we ultimately trying to achieve for the learners, the academics, the university, etc?
Are there a set of key principles that guide us?

Best practice

How do we define, encourage and support best practices in teaching and learning? (And in other areas?) How can we best serve teachers and learners? Is it strictly about the cognitive, pedagogical aspects of teaching and learning or do other factors need to come in to the training and advice that we offer including accessibility, equity and pastoral care?

Influencing

What can we do as humble (yet expert) professional support staff to be listened to? How do we take a more substantive role in the decision making processes that directly affect us?

Communication and collaboration

What can we do between our various colleges and teams to work together more effectively and share our skills and knowledge? How can we support wider dissemination of ideas in the university and in the wider education design/technology community?

Transparency

What can we do to build better relationships between the colleges and central teams and to increase understanding of each other’s needs and obligations? Can we simplify the decision making process to streamline approvals for changes and new initiatives?

Governance:  

How can we make the elements of the existing governance structure work more effectively together and better utilise the resources available?

These are some sensitively phrased questions and ideas to get started – this process is going to be complicated by virtue of the range of different stakeholders with competing priorities and differences of opinion will be inevitable. My hope is that by keeping focus on the mutual benefits – and sticking to the discussion topics – progress will be made.

This is the padlet in progress – you should be able to add things but not change them.

(I should mention that some of the themes were inspired/expanded by the discussions in the “Digital is not the future” hack – particularly the question of expertise)

Thoughts on: “Digital is not the future – Hacking the institution from the inside” – how education support staff can bring change

One of the best things about my research and being part of a community of practice of education technologists/designers is that there are a lot of overlaps. While I’d hate to jump the gun, I think it’s pretty safe to say that harnessing the group wisdom of this community is going to be a core recommendation when it comes to looking for ways to better support Tech Enhanced Learning and Teaching practices in higher education.

So why not start now?

There’s a lively and active community of Ed Techs online (as you’d hope) and arguably we’re bad at our jobs if we’re not part of it. I saw an online “hack” event mentioned a couple of weeks ago – the “Digital is not the future – Hacking the institution from the inside” discussion/workshop/something and joined up.

hack-poster-3

There’s a homepage (that I only just discovered) and a Twitter hashtag #futurehappens (that I also wish I’d noticed) and then a Loomio discussion forum thing that most of the online action has been occurring in.

Just a side note on Loomio as a tool – some of the advanced functionality  (voting stuff) seems promising but the basics are a little poor. Following a discussion thread is quite difficult when you get separate displays for new posts that only include most of the topic heading and don’t preview the new response. (Either on screen or in the email digest). Biographical information about participants was also scant.

All the same, the discussions muddled along and there were some very interesting and thoughtful chats about a range of issues that I’ll hopefully do justice to here.

It’s a joint event organised by the London School of Economics (LSE) and the University of Arts, London (UAL) but open to all. Unsurprisingly then, most participants seem to be from the UK, so discussions were a little staggered. There was also an f2f event that generated a sudden surge of slightly decontextualised posts but there was still quite of bit of interest to come from that (for an outsider)

The “hack” – I have to use inverted commas because I feel silly using the term with a straight face but all power to the organisers and it’s their baby – was intended to examine the common issues Higher Ed institutions face in innovating teaching and learning practices, with a specific focus on technology.

The guiding principles are:

Rule 1: We are teaching and learning focused *and* institutionally committed
Rule 2: What we talk about here is institutionally/nationally agnostic
Rule 3: You are in the room with the decision makers. What we decide is critical to the future of our institutions. You are the institution
Rule 4: Despite the chatter, all the tech ‘works’ – the digital is here, we are digital institutions. Digital is not the innovation.
Rule 5: We are here to build not smash
Rule 6: You moan (rehearse systemic reasons why you can’t effect change – see Rule 3), you get no beer (wine, juice, love, peace, etc)

We have chosen 5 common scenarios which are often the catalyst for change in institutions. As we noted above, you are in the room with the new VC and you have 100 words in each of the scenarios below to effectively position what we do as a core part of the institution. Why is this going to make our institutional more successful/deliver the objectives/save my (the VCs) job? How do we demonstrate what we do will position the organisation effectively? How do we make sure we stay in the conversation and not be relegated to simply providing services aligned with other people’s strategies?

The scenarios on offer are below – they seemed to fall by the wayside fairly quickly as the conversation evolved but they did spark a range of different discussions.

Scenario 1
Strategic review of the institution and budget planning for 2020
Scenario 2
Institutional restructure because of a new VC
Scenario 3
Undertaking of an institution wide pedagogical redesign
Scenario 4
Responding to and implementing TEF
Scenario 5
Institutional response to poor NSS/student experience results

(It was assumed knowledge that TEF is the upcoming UK govt Teaching Excellence Framework – new quality standards – and the NSS is the National Student Survey – student satisfaction feedback largely.)

Discussions centred around what we as Ed. Designers/Techs need to do to “change the discourse and empower people like us to actively shape teaching and learning at our institutions”. Apart from the ubiquitous “more time and more money” issue that HE executives hear from everyone, several common themes emerged across the scenarios and other posts. Thoughts about university culture, our role as experts and technology consistently came to the fore. Within these could be found specific issues that need to be addressed and a number of practical (and impractical) solutions that are either in train or worth considering.

On top of this, I found a few questions worthy of further investigation as well as broader topics to pursue in my own PhD research.

I’m going to split this into a few posts because there was a lot of ground covered. This post will look at some of the common issues that were identified and the from there I will expand on some of the practical solutions that are being implemented or considered, additional questions that this event raised for me and a few other random ideas that it sparked.

Issues identified

There was broad consensus that we are in the midst of a period of potentially profound change in education due to the affordances offered by ICT and society’s evolving relationship with information and knowledge creation. As Education designers/technologists/consultants, many of us sit fairly low in the university decision making scheme of things but our day to day contact with lecturers and students (and emerging pedagogy and technology) give us a unique perspective on how things are and how they might/should be.

Ed Tech is being taken up in universities but we commonly see it used to replicate or at best augment long-standing practices in teaching and learning. Maybe this is an acceptable use but it is often a source of frustration to our “tribe” when we see opportunities to do so much more in evolving pedagogy.

Peter Bryant described it as “The problem of potential. The problem of resistance and acceptance” and went on to ask “what are the key messages, tools and strategies that put the digital in the heart of the conversation and not as a freak show, an uncritical duplication of institutional norms or a fringe activity of the tech savvy?”

So the most pressing issue – and the purpose of the hack itself – is what we can do (and how) to support and drive the change needed in our institutions. Change in our approach to the use of technology enhanced learning and teaching practices and perhaps even to our pedagogy itself.

Others disagreed that a pedagogical shift was always the answer. “I’m not sure what is broken about university teaching that needs fixing by improved pedagogy… however the economy, therefore the job market is broken I think… when I think about what my tools can do to support that situation, the answers feel different to the pedagogical lens” (Amber Thomas)

The very nature of how we define pedagogy arose tangentially a number of times – is it purely about practices related to the cognitive and knowledge building aspects of teaching and learning or might we extend it to include the ‘job’ of being a student or teacher? The logistical aspects of studying – accessing data, communication, administrivia and the other things that technology can be particularly helpful in making more convenient. I noted the recent OLT paper – What works and why? – that found that students and teachers valued these kinds of tools highly. Even if these activities aren’t the text-book definition of pedagogy, they are a key aspect of teaching and learning support and I’d argue that we should give them equal consideration.

Several other big-picture issues were identified – none with simple solutions but all things that must be taken into consideration if we hope to be a part of meaningful change.

  • The sheer practicality of institution wide change, with the many different needs of the various disciplines necessitates some customised solutions.
  • The purpose of universities and university education – tensions between the role of the university in facilitating research to extend human knowledge and the desire of many students to gain the skills and knowledge necessary for a career.
  • The very nature of teaching and learning work can and is changing – this needs to be acknowledged and accommodated. New skills are needed to create content and experiences and to make effective use of the host of new tools on offer. Students have changing expectations of access to information and their lecturers’ time, created by the reality of our networked world. These are particularly pointy issues when we consider the rise of casualisation in the employment of tutors and lecturers and the limits on the work that they are paid to do.

Three key themes emerged consistently across all of the discussion posts in terms of how we education support types (we really do need a better umbrella term) can be successful in the process of helping to drive change and innovation in our institutions. Institutional culture, our role as “experts” and technology. I’ll look at culture and expertise for now.

Culture

It was pretty well universally acknowledged that, more than policy or procedure or resourcing, the culture of the institution is at the heart of any successful innovations. Culture itself was a fairly broad set of topics though and these ranged across traditional/entrenched teaching and learning practices, how risk-averse or flexible/adaptable an institution is, how hierarchical it is and to what extent the ‘higher-ups’ are willing to listen to those on the ground, willingness to test assumptions, aspirational goals and strategy and change fatigue.

Some of the ideas and questions to emerge included:

  • How do we change the discourse from service (or tech support) to pedagogy?
  • “The real issue is that money, trust, support, connectedness and strategy all emanate from the top” (Peter Bryant)
  • “the prerequisite for change is an organisational culture that is discursive, open and honest. And there needs to be consensus about the centrality of user experience.” (Rainer Usselmann)
  • “We need to review our decision making models and empower agility through more experimentation” (Silke Lange) – My take on this – probably true but perhaps not the right thing to say to the executive presumably, with the implication that they’re currently making poor decisions. Perhaps we can frame this more in terms of a commitment to continuous improvement, then we might be able to remove the sense of judgement about current practices and decision makers? 
  • “we will reduce the gap between the VC and our students… the VC will engage with students in the design of the organisation so it reflects their needs. This can filter down to encourage students and staff to co-design courses and structures, with two way communication” (Steve Rowett)
  • “In the private (start-up) sector, change is all you know. Iterate, pivot or perservere before you run out of money.That is the ‘Lean Start-up’ mantra… create a culture and climate where it is expected and ingrained behaviour then you constantly test assumptions and hypotheses” (Rainer Usselman)
  • “Theoretical and practical evidence is important for creating rationale and narratives to justify the strategy” (Peter Bryant) – I agree, we need to use a research-led approach to speak to senior academic execs

While change and continuous improvement is important, in many places it has come to be almost synonymous with management. And not always good management – sometimes just management for the sake of appearing to be doing things. It’s also not just about internal management – changes in government and government policy or discipline practices can all necessitate change.

One poster described how change fatigued lecturers came to respond to an ongoing stream of innovations relating to teaching and learning practice coming down from on-high.

I don’t think anyone will be surprised to hear that staff got very good at re-describing their existing, successful practice in whatever the language of the week was.

Culture is arguably the hardest thing to change in an organisation because there are so many different perspectives of it held by so many different stakeholders. The culture is essentially the philosophy of the place and it will shape the kinds of policy that determine willingness to accept risk, open communication, transparency and reflection – some of the things needed to truly cultivate change.

Experts

Our status (as education designers/technologists/support with expertise) in the institution and the extent to which we are listened to (and heard) was seen as another major factor in our ability to support and drive innovation.

There were two key debates in this theme: how we define/describe ourselves and what we do and how we should best work with academics and the university.

Several people noted the difference between education designers and education technologists.

“Educational developers cannot be ignorant of educational technologies any more than Learning Technologists can be ignorant of basic HE issues (feedback, assessment, teaching practices, course design, curriculum development etc).”

Perhaps it says something about my personal philosophy or the fact that I’ve always worked in small multi-skilled teams but the idea that one might be able to responsibly recommend and support tools without an understanding of teaching and learning practice seems unthinkable. This was part of a much larger discussion of whether we should even be talking in terms of eLearning any more or just trying to normalise it so that it is all just teaching and learning. Valid points were made on both sides

“Any organisational distinction between Learning & Teaching and eLearning / Learning Technology is monstrous. Our goal should be to make eLearning so ubiquitous that as a word it becomes obsolete.” (SonJa Grussendorf)

” I also think that naming something, creating a new category, serves a political end, making it visible in a way that it might not be otherwise.” (Martin Oliver)

“it delineates a work area, an approach, a mindset even…Learning technology is not a separate, secondary consideration, or it shouldn’t be, or most strongly: it shouldn’t be optional.” (Sonja Grussendorf)

There was also an interesting point made that virtually nobody talks about e-commerce any more, it’s just a normal (and sometimes expected) way of doing business now.

For me, the most important thing is the perception of the people that I am working with directly – the lecturers. While there is a core of early adopters and envelope pushers who like to know that they have someone that speaks their language and will entertain their more “out-there” ideas when it comes to ed tech and teaching practices, many more just want to go about the business of teaching with the new learning tools that we have available.

As the Education Innovation Office or as a learning technologist, I’m kind of the helpdesk guy for the LMS and other things. Neither of these sets of people necessarily think of me in terms of broader educational design (that might or might not be enhanced with Ed Tech). So I’ve been thinking a lot lately about rebranding to something more like Education Support or Education Excellence. (I’ve heard whispers of a Teaching Eminence project in the wind – though I haven’t yet been involved in any discussions)

But here’s the kicker – education technology and innovation isn’t just about better teaching and learning. For the college or the university, it’s an opportunity to demonstrate that yes, we are keeping up with the Joneses, we are progressive, we are thought leaders. We do have projects that can be used to excite our prospective students, industry partners, alumni, government and benefactors. So on this level, keeping  “innovation” or  “technology” in a title is far more important. So, pragmatically, if it can help me to further the work that I’m doing by being connected to the “exciting” parts of university activity, it would seem crazy not to.

There was some debate about whether our role is to push, lead or guide new practice. I think this was largely centred on differences of opinion on approaches to working with academics.  As I’ve mentioned, my personal approach is about understanding their specific teaching needs (removing technology from the conversation where possible) and recommending the best solutions (tech and pedagogic). Other people felt that as the local “experts”, we have a responsibility to push new innovations for the good for the organisation.

“Personally I’m not shy about having at least some expertise and if our places of work claim to be educational institutions then we have a right to attempt to make that the case… It’s part of our responsibility to challenge expectations and improve practices as well” (David White)

“we should pitch ‘exposure therapy’ – come up with a whole programme that immerses teaching staff in educational technology, deny them the choice of “I want to do it the old fashioned way” so that they will realise the potential that technologies can have in changing not only, say, the speed and convenience of delivery of materials (dropbox model), but can actually change their teaching practice.” (Sonja Grussendorf)

I do have a handful of personal Ed tech hobby horses that the College hasn’t yet taken an interest in (digital badges, ePortfolios, gamification) that I have advocated with minimal success and I have to concede that I think this is largely because I didn’t link these effectively enough to teaching and learning needs. Other participants held similar views.

Don’t force people to use the lift – convince them of the advantages, or better still let their colleagues convince them. (Andrew Dixon)

A final thought that these discussions triggered in me – though I didn’t particularly raise it on the board – came from the elephant in the room that while we might be the “experts” – or at least have expertise worth heeding – we are here having this discussion because we feel that our advice isn’t always listened to.

Is this possibly due to an academic / professional staff divide? Universities exist for research and teaching and these are the things most highly valued – understandably. Nobody will deny that a university couldn’t function in the day to day without the work of professional staff but perhaps there is a hierarchy/class system in which some opinions inherently carry less weight. Not all opinions, of course – academics will gladly accept the advice of the HR person about their leave allocation or the IT person in setting up their computer – but when we move into the territory of teaching and learning, scholarship if you like, perhaps there is an almost unconscious disconnect occurring.

I don’t say this with any particular judgement and I don’t even know if it’s true – my PhD supervisor was aghast when I suggested it to her – but everyone has unconscious biases and maybe this is one of them.

Just a thought anyway but I’d really like to hear your thoughts on this or anything else that I’ve covered in this post.

Next time, on Screenface.net – the role of technology in shaping change and some practical ideas for action.

 

 

Thoughts on: “What works and why?” OLT Project 2016

The Office for Learning and Teaching (OLT) is an Australian government body intended to support best practice in enhancing teaching and learning in the Higher Education sector.

It funds a number of research projects, which in 2013 included “What works and why? Understanding successful technology enhanced learning within institutional contexts” – driven by Monash University in Victoria and Griffith University in Queensland and led by Neil Selwyn.

The final report for this project has now been published.
They also have a project website running at http://bit.ly/TELwhatworksandwhy

Rather than focussing on the “state of the art”, the project focuses on the “state of the actual” – the current implementations of TELT practices in universities that are having some measure of success. It might not be the most inspiring list (more on that shortly) but it is valuable to have a snapshot of where we are, what educators and students value and the key issues that the executive face (or think they face) in pursuing further innovation.

The report identifies 13 conditions for successful use of Tech Enhanced Learning in the institution and with teachers and students. (Strictly speaking, they call it technology enabled learning, which grates with me far more than I might’ve expected – yes, it’s ultimately semantics but for me the implication is that the learning couldn’t occur without the tech and that seems untrue. So because this is my blog, I’m going to take the liberty of using enhanced)

ed tech conditions for success graphic

The authors took a measured approach to the research, beginning with a large scale survey of teacher and student attitudes toward TEL which offered a set of data that informed questions in a number of focus groups. This then helped to identify a set of 10 instances of “promising practice” at the two participating universities that were explored in case studies. The final phase involved interviewing senior management at the 39 Australian universities to get feedback on the practicality of implementing/realising the conditions of success.

So far, so good. The authors make the point that the majority of research in the TELT field relates to more cutting edge uses in relatively specific cohorts and while this can be enlightening and exciting, it can overlook the practical realities of implementing these at scale within a university learning ecosystem. As a learning technologist, this is where I live.

What did they discover?

The most prominent ways in which digital technologies were perceived as ‘working’ for students related to the logistics of university study. These practices and activities included:

  • Organising schedules and fulfilling course requirements;
  • Time management and time-saving; and
  • Being able to engage with university studies on a ‘remote’ and/or mobile basis

One of the most prominent learning-related practices directly to learning was using digital technologies to ‘research information’; ‘Reviewing, replaying and revising’ digital learning content (most notably accessing lecture materials and recordings) was also reported at relatively high levels.

Why technologies ‘work’ – staff perspectives

Most frequently nominated ways in which staff perceived digital technologies were ‘working’ related to the logistics of university teaching and learning. These included being able to co-ordinate students, resources and interactions in one centralised place. This reveals a frequently encountered ‘reality’ of digital technologies in this project: technologies are currently perceived by staff and students to have a large, if not primary role to enable the act of being a teacher or student, rather than enabling the learning.

Nevertheless, the staff survey did demonstrate that technologies were valued as a way to provide support learning, including delivering instructional content and information to students in accessible and differentiated forms. This was seen to support ‘visual’ learning, and benefit students who wanted to access content at different times and/or different places.

So in broad terms, I’d suggest that technology in higher ed is seen pretty much exactly the same way we treat most technology – it doesn’t change our lives so much as help us to live them.

To extrapolate from that then, when we do want to implement new tools and ways of learning and teaching with technology, it is vital to make it clear to students and teachers exactly how they will benefit from it as part of the process of getting them on board. We can mandate the use of tools and people will grumblingly accept it but it is only when they value it that they will use it willingly and look for ways to improve their activities (and the tool itself).

The next phase of the research, looking at identified examples of ‘promising practice” to develop the “conditions for success” is a logical progression but looking at some of the practices used, it feels like the project was aiming too low. (And I appreciate that it is a low-hanging-fruit / quick-wins kind of project and people in my sphere are by our natures more excited by the next big thing but all the same, if we’re going to be satisfied with the bare minimum, will that stunt our growth?) . In fairness, the report explicitly says “the cases were not chosen according to the most ‘interesting’, ‘innovative’ or ‘cutting-edge’ examples of technology use, but rather were chosen to demonstrate sustainable examples of TEL”

Some of the practices identified are things that I’ve gradually been pushing in my own university so naturally I think they’re top shelf innovations 🙂 – things like live polling in lectures, flipping the classroom, 3D printing and virtual simulations. Others however included the use of online forums, providing videos as supplementary material and using “online learning tools” – aka an LMS. For the final three, I’m not sure how they aren’t just considering standard parts of teaching and learning rather than something promising. (But really, it’s a small quibble I guess and I’ll move on)

The third stage asked senior management to rank the usefulness of the conditions of success that were identified from the case studies and to comment on how soon their universities would likely be in a position to demonstrate them. The authors seemed surprised by some of the responses – notably to the resistance to the idea of taking “permissive approaches to configuring systems and choosing software”. As someone “on the ground” that bumps into these kinds of questions on daily basis, this is where it became clear to me that the researchers have still been looking at this issue from a distance and with a slightly more theoretical mindset. There is no clear indication anywhere in this paper that they discussed this research with professional staff (i.e. education designers or learning technologists) who are often at the nexus of all of these kinds of issues. Trying to filter out my ‘professional hurt feelings’, it still seems a lot like a missed opportunity.

No, wait, I did just notice in the recommendations that “central university agencies” could take more responsibility for encouraging a more positive culture related to TEL among teachers.

Yup.

Moving on, I scribbled a bunch of random notes and thoughts over this report as I read it (active reading) and I might just share these in no particular order.

  • Educators is a good word. (I’m currently struggling with teachers vs lecturers vs academics)
  • How do we define how technologies are being used “successfully and effectively”?
  • Ed Tech largely being used to enrich rather than change
  • Condition of success 7″the uses of digital technology fit with familiar ways of teaching” – scaffolded teaching
  • condition of success 10 “educators create digital content fit for different modes of consumption” – great but it’s still an extra workload and skill set
  • dominant institutional concerns include “satisfying a perceived need for innovation that precludes more obvious or familiar ways of engaging in TEL” – no idea how we get around the need for ‘visionaries’ at the top of the tree to have big announceables that seemingly come from nowhere. Give me a good listener any day.
  • for learners to succeed with ed tech they need better digital skills (anyone who mentions digital natives automatically loses 10 points) – how do we embed this? What are the rates of voluntary uptake of existing study skills training?
  • We need to normalise new practices but innovators/early adopters should still be rewarded and recognised
  • it’s funny how quickly ed tech papers date – excitement about podcasts (which still have a place) makes this feel ancient
  • How can we best sell new practices and ideas to academics and executive? Showcases or 5 min, magazine show style video clips (like Beyond 2000 – oh I’m so old)
  • Stats about which tools students find useful – data is frustratingly simple. Highest rating tool is “supplementing lectures, tutorials, practicals and labs” with “additional resources” at 42% (So 58% don’t find useful? – hardly a ringing endorsement
  • Tools that students were polled about were all online tools – except e-books. Where do offline tools sit?
  • Why are students so much more comfortable using Facebook for communication and collaboration than the LMS?
  • 60% of students still using shared/provided computers over BYOD. (Be interesting to see what the figure is now)
  • Promising practice – “Illustrating the problem: digital annotation  tools in large classes” – vs writing on the board?
  • conditions for success don’t acknowledge policy or legal compliance issues (privacy, IP and copyright)
  • conditions for success assume students are digitally literate
  • there’s nothing in here about training
  • unis are ok with failure in research but not teaching
  • calling practices “innovations signals them as non-standard or exceptions” – good point. Easier to ignore them
  • nothing in here about whether technology is fit for purpose

Ultimately I got a lot out of this report and will use it to spark further discussion in my own work. I think there are definitely gaps and this is great for me because it offers some direction for my own research – most particularly in the role of educational support staff and factors beyond the institution/educator/student that come into play.

Update: 18/4/16 – Dr Michael Henderson of Monash got in touch to thank me for the in-depth look at the report and to also clarify that “we did indeed interview and survey teaching staff and professional staff, including faculty based and central educational / instructional designers”

Which kind of makes sense in a study of this scale – certainly easy enough to pare back elements when you’re trying to create a compelling narrative in a final report I’m sure.