Category Archives: Uncategorized

Looking for a new narrative

I woke from a dream this morning – no, it’s ok, I’m not going to tell you about it in detail – and am now wondering about the kind of story that I see myself living in.

I have a lot of obstacle/barrier dreams, the frustrating kind of dreams where you are trying to do something simple but you never seem to be able to get it done because things are always not going to plan. (My dentist tells me that I grind my teeth in my sleep – I’m guessing that this is why). I’m now starting to wonder if this shapes my outlook on the world in my waking hours – if the story that I see myself living in is an ongoing struggle against the things getting in the way of what I’m hoping to achieve. (At an unconscious level at least).

As someone with a keen interest in storytelling, it occurs to me that this is a fairly common model for narratives – at least in the Western tradition that I’m most familiar with. We have a hero (clearly me, because if you can’t be the hero in your own story, then when?) who needs to do something, overcomes opposition/barriers to do so and is generally triumphant. This is almost invariably the model in video games, where you also develop skills and/or acquire resources that help you to overcome increasingly challenging obstacles (or enemies) until the final “boss fight”. Or take a romantic comedy – the hero (or heroine) has a goal but obstacles get in the way (more often hilarious misunderstandings or their own character flaws) that need to be addressed before they achieve their objective.

We all instinctively understand this model and this is why it’s the in-between material in the story (what do we know about the character, what unusual scenario did they confront, what other incidental things happened) that we use to judge whether it’s a good or a bad story – which is to say whether or not it is well told. When things don’t go to plan and the hero doesn’t achieve their goal, well, we have mental models for this as well so it’s not necessarily a surprise but because it’s still an outlier in many ways, the story seems to carry extra emotional weight.

I think maybe the way that I’m currently looking at my PhD topic sits firmly in this (former) narrative structure. The hero (either teachers or intrepid TEL edvisors) want to enhance teaching and learning using technology (because there are bucket-loads of evidence that this can help) yet there are barriers (cultural, competence-based, resource related and ???) that prevent this from happening. The quest is to overcome these barriers so that teaching and learning is enhanced and everyone lives happily ever after.

What if, however, this whole storytelling model is wrong?

What if it is grounded too much in this idea of competing and opposing forces where only one can triumph? I’ll happily acknowledge that most of these issues are far more nuanced than this makes out and the conflict of needs/priorities is generally not oppositional or malicious but I have to wonder whether our (or my) storytelling model is sophisticated enough to deal with this. How often have I taken circumstance as a personal slight and missed an opportunity to work with instead of against it. I read somewhere recently that brain scans indicate that when people read something online that goes against their beliefs, the brains first immediate response is to go straight to the defensive part of fight-or-flight and our capacity for cognition and understanding drops instantly. So it’s not just me struggling with our conflict based paradigm perhaps at least.

Something else I’m mindful of here is the impact of the Western emphasis on individualism vs collectivism. I like people but, as an introvert, I’m also pretty happy with my own company and I’m mindful that maybe in my story, as the hero, I expect myself to do most of the work. I understand rationally that this is simply just not how things will or can happen and that it takes a village etc etc but this is the model of many of the stories that we tell. The hero might get some help from friends but they largely resolve the quest on their own.

So if our (my) current story isn’t the best one, then what is? Is there are better way of looking at this question of how we can better support TEL practices than simply overcoming obstacles and getting from A to B? I have to give credit to my supervisor here, who, when I was putting together my initial PhD proposal suggested that I change the focus from barriers to more positive strategies. I think perhaps what I missed was that it doesn’t just need to be positive strategies for overcoming the barriers – because this is still a barrier-centric position.

I don’t have the answers but I like that I can at least see more clearly that there are different paths.

Research update #21 – Where is this going?

When I tell academics what stage of my PhD I’m up to, they invariably smile wistfully and tell me that this stage is probably the best part of academia ever and I should just enjoy it. ‘It’ being the freedom of exploration and just meandering through the literature while I work out what I’m actually trying to do. There’s no overt pressure to publish – though the need to have my thesis proposal accepted looms over my head – and in some ways it’s the purest opportunity to be scholarly.

Which is fine and I do enjoy a good meander but the more I think about my question – currently What can TEL advisors do to better support TEL practices in Higher Ed – the more it seems to be leading down some quixotic path to single-handedly change centuries old organisational cultures. Actually tangible pedagogical questions seem kind of tangential to addressing the bigger issue of how to affect meaningful change. (I know I have a tendency to wildly overreach in projects). It seems as though I’m spending far more time thinking about organisational and structural kinds of questions than teaching and learning – I guess it’s all social sciences and the aim is ultimately to enhance teaching and learning but I sometimes wonder if I’m going the right way. This was magnified by the last thing that I read, a draft chapter that is going into a book on the practices and contributions of professional staff in Higher Ed. I will write up a post about it shortly but I’m not sure what the etiquette is in this instance – it feels like I should wait until the book is published.

In broad strokes though, there were some interesting – though perhaps not as revolutionary as the author seems to think – ideas about different organisational models for providing multi-disciplinary support in professional development. So, again, it almost feels as though I’m studying some aspect of management than education but it still seems quite valuable and – most importantly for me – practically applicable. It does feel as though large chunks are gradually coalescing – I need to talk about what TELT advisors (I should really say TEL edvisors but I just don’t know that this term does everything that I want it to) are and what we do and how we sit in the current H.E. context. This then leads into what teachers do here – there’s something about practices and how and where they overlap and how we can find synergies (who knew that was a word I would ever take seriously). From there maybe something about the practices of the organisational leadership and then wrapping it all up with an exploration of a host of practical actions and strategies to take us forward. But I’m not sure that this is researchy enough – however having somewhere to go afterwards stills seems vital at this stage.

Bringing this all back to my Pat Thomson list of PhD blogging topics, I guess this sits square in “Things that worry me about my PhD“. I understand that this is meant to be a research apprenticeship and that it’s not about solving problems necessarily but not ending up with something meaningful feels wasteful. I also get that it’s a PhD, not a Nobel Prize and it’s just part of a lifelong journey, so maybe that’s how I need to think to avoid getting sucked into the trap of needing to solve all the problems yesterday.

Research update #18: Wow, it’s been a while

While I haven’t been ‘here’ writing up things about readings, there’s still been a little bit of research action going on under the surface. I had a great meeting in person with Peter and Lina a month or so ago where I asked more questions than normal and it felt like more of a two-way conversation. (In our phone/skype chats, I’ve often felt like I needed to prove that I’ve been working, so I’ve largely just rattled off things that I’ve come across and new ideas for directions for the research, rather than drawing on the wisdom at the other end of the line. I mean, I still got some of that in the comments but seeking it out more pro-actively definitely seems more productive)

I’ve also been working on a paper submission with my TELedvisor network colleagues for ASCILITE 2017. What was meant to be a 5 page concise paper, kind of describing a work in progress rapidly blew out to 17+ pages (without appendices). I think this might have been partially because we have a lot to say on this topic – why the names for TEL edvisor roles are so ill-defined and what it means as workers in the third space – and perhaps a little bit because there’s a little bit of a sense of having something to prove. We aim to shape this into a journal paper, so will need to trim it pretty substantially.

The work has helped me to think more about how Social Practice Theory might be practically applied – I haven’t found much if anything about this in the literature yet but I’m assuming that’s more because I haven’t looked enough rather than that my ideas are breath-takingly innovative. I think that it will be useful to go deeper into the practices of TEL edvisors and the practices of teachers (and maybe or maybe not management) to see what the barriers to good TEL practices actually are – rather than the plausible excuses that people use to make them sound better.

I also seem to have gotten caught up with a lot of research adjacent work – putting together an application to be a HERDSA Fellow for example – which seems useful long term and professionally (I hope) but not directly relevant. I think I’m looking to bolster my pedagogical and research credibility – which, as a professional staff member, I’m almost never given credit for.

I was seriously pondering printing out all of my education qualifications this morning and creating a poster that I would stick to my office door – maybe with a sign saying “You can talk to me about teaching too, you know”. Might come across as a little defensive – or, you know, unhinged. So I probably won’t do that.

Anyhoo, back to the reading. I only have two chapters to go in this social practice theory book – now I just need to find it in my newly set up study. (I did move house, so I feel that has contributed to my study gap in some ways)

 

Thoughts on: The Dynamics of Social Practice: Everyday life and how it changes – Chapter 4 (Shove, Pantzar and Watson, 2012)

Chapter 4 of The Dynamics of Social Practice takes us from the ways that the elements of practices circulate, emerge and disappear to the people that ‘carry’ these practices and some of the reasons that they pick them up and abandon them (or defect from them, to use the preferred terminology of the authors).

After my post on Chapter 3 came in at 3000+ words and took a day and a half to write, I thought I’d look for a new approach for this post. So here’s my mindmap of core concepts that I’m hoping will help me take a bit more of a top down view.

Chapter 4 mindmap

Something that I’ve felt was missing in discussion of practices up until now was the human element, the practitioners. The authors, taking a practise-centric perspective unfortunately refer to practitioners as carriers, which I kind of get from that viewpoint but it still feels wrong. Putting this quibble aside, the authors do identify some valuable issues when it comes to the spread of practices in relation to people, not the least of which being that inequalities of opportunity and access can play a significant role in who becomes a practitioner.

Rather than asking how social and material inequalities restrict the potential for one or another practice to develop, should we not also think about their impact on individual lives and the chances that people have?… It is so in that the chances of becoming the carrier of any one practice are closely related to the social and symbolic significance of participation and to highly structured and vastly different opportunities to accumulate and amass the different types of capital required for, and typically generated by participation (p.61)

The authors lean heavily on Bourdieu here, who I’m yet to really dip into but from what I’ve seen of his work, I think we’re on the same page.

Shove et al discuss the importance of pre-existing networks (and communities of practice) that expose practitioners to new practices. In this particular instance, they frame the discussion in terms of the emergence of the Punk movement.

…critical features, like the diameter of the circle and the density of links within it, proved to be important in allowing rapid interaction between members, establishing patterns of mutual obligation and enabling a productive concentration of energy and effort. The same arrangements that allowed punk practices to emerge also enabled them to take hold and diffuse. In effect, the networks through which punk came into being, and through which its carriers were recruited, were formed by previous interests and affiliations. This suggests that new and emerging practices exploit connections forged and reproduced by practices that co-exist or that went before. Needless to say, these links are not randomly distributed but, in the case of punk, neither were they configured by intent. (p.62)

There’s further discussion later in the chapter about the way that people can belong to multiple communities of practice and that practices can spread between these communities. It’s the last sentence of the quote above though that makes me think the most about how we can make use of these networks to spread new practices. It seems as though working with existing networks might be far more effective than trying to start new ones from scratch. This seems to create challenges in my research, where the nature of academia seems to be that it is regarded as a solitary practice and I’m not sure what these existing networks might be. Hopefully it’s just that it’s harder rather than impossible.

In looking at the work of Brown and Duguid on Communities of Practice, the authors note that “the ties and connections through which practices develop and circulate, and by means of which they reach and capture new recruits, do not necessarily map onto organisational or institutional structures” (p.62) 

I’ve certainly found this to be the case in my workplace, which is why I’ve made a significant effort to connect with my colleagues across colleges and other institutions based on our work types and backgrounds.

Drawing on the work of Wenger, the authors go further, noting that

if communities of practice are born of the experience of doing, they cannot be willed into existence or designed from afar. But it is also puzzling. If communities are defined by the practices in which members engage, can they also act as conduits through which the practices flow? (p.63)

There is also a tipping point where practices are so widespread that surrounding elements (materials, meaning) help to reinforce them.

Where practices are widespread within any group or society, the chances encounter are that much higher. And in situations where participation is simply expected, recruitment follows as a matter of course. There are, in addition, instances in which people are required to adopt or refrain from certain practices by law. There are no laws about showering on a daily basis but the practice has become embedded through material and not only social networks. As a result, people are, in a sense recruited to showering by the design of the bathroom and the products on sale, as well as by the expectations of family and friends (Burke, 1996) (p.63)

This echoes sociomaterial theory, as far as I can see.

Once someone has been exposed to a practice and been recruited to it, the next logical step – if the practice is right for them – is that it becomes part of their ‘career’. They progress from a novice practitioner through a range of performances of the practice, often in the company of other practitioners, to mastery of it. At some point they might even adopt it into their identity, so that they become a full practitioner – like a ‘jazz musician’ or a ‘drugtaker’ – probably both in that specific instance. (oooh, 50’s zinger)

The practicalities of becoming what Lave and Wenger (1991) refer to as a ‘full practitioner’ and the sequences and stages involved vary from one practice to another. This is relevant in that at any one moment, a practice will be populated and carried by people with different degrees of experience and commitment. (p.65)

Shove et al take a brief sidestep at this point to consider the ‘career’ of a practice itself. At times, it feels like they’re trying to be a little too cute/clever with language but I can also see what they’re getting at. It’s essentially the evolution of the practice over time. They discuss the fact that you might expect novices to be try to bend or break a practice with new ideas and approaches, given their lack of reverence for the history of the practice but find that it just as often (if not moreso) tends to be more those that have achieved mastery that are the most at ease with changing things. This makes sense to me, in that you need to know the rules before you can break them. It does suggest that it’s useful to maintain a certain flexibility or fluidity in the definition of a practice, as there will always be changes and permutations as it ages.

The impact of these changes in practices on their associated communities of practice can be significant and amplify the changes – which sometimes then change the communities

Outside the realm of formal organisation, and sometimes within it too, evolving practices routinely change the margins of relevant networks and the scope of who they do and do not include. As snowboarders split away from skiers, new communities of practice formed. Similarly, when practices diffuse through social hierarchies, for instance as people emulate those of higher status, the meaning of participation changes; an influx of new recruits often leads to the exit of others…Patterns of participation matter not only for who gets the opportunity to do what, but for who it is that shapes the future of a practice, and for how individuals are shaped by the experience  (p.66)

The final section of this chapter looks at what happens (and how and why) when practices collapse and experience large scale defections.

Schatzki suggests that judgements about whether practices have died or merely been transformed should reflect the extent and character of change. He provides the following guidance: ‘where multiple mutations are accompanied by continuities in other components, a practice lives on’, but ‘when changes in organisation are vast or wholesale, or a practice’s projects and task are simply no longer carried out, former practices expire’ (2002: 244) (p.67)

They identify three key pathways that reflect change in practices; innovations, fads and fashions.

An innovation is simple – it merely renders a previous practice redundant or inferior. In the UK in the 1950s, 40% of journeys were made by bicycle but over subsequent decades and car culture grew, this shrank to just a few percent.

Fads seemingly spring from the air, recruit a lot of people very quickly but then disappear just as quickly. Shove et al identify three key reasons that fads fail as ongoing practices and use hula-hooping to illustrate their points. The first is that they often lack the depth needed to give people ‘internal reward’ – otherwise known in gamification circles as intrinsic motivators. Once someone has mastered the basics of hula-hooping, there’s little to progress onto and no other practices that connect to the skills that have been developed, such as one might find in gardening or cooking. So there’s also little connection to social meaning or other practices, all three factors making sustainability hard.

To put this observation the other way around, practices are, perhaps ironically, better able to retain commitment when they afford scope for innovation… These interpretations suggest that mass defection is possible, and perhaps even likely, where practices are not consistently internally rewarding, not laden with symbolic significance and not enmeshed in wider networks (p.68)

Fashions though tend not to lead to significant defections or adoptions because they do little in terms of changing underpinning meanings or practices.

Fashions are different in that they are characterized by cyclical processes of substitution: last year’s model is replaced by this year’s design, but in the end and at the level of practice, nothing really changes (p.67)

When examining defection/recruitment, Shove et al are careful to make the point that these things are not necessarily just ‘two sides of the same coin’. The relationship can be more complex than this. Looking at the rise of Internet use in the 1990s, researchers were concerned that the hours being spent were replacing family/social time, without recognising that part of people’s family/social practices were now just being done online.

While it isn’t mentioned in this book, there is a model used to describe change in Education Technology – SAMR. (Substitution, Augmentation, Modification, Redefinition). This seems as though it could be valuable in the way that we discuss social practice theory and particularly changes when looking at TELT practices. I’m not 100% sure how yet but it’s there.

Shove et al raise an interesting question without an answer – in fact it seems virtually impossible to realise but could be highly enlightening.

…what if there were some means of assessing the rates at which individual practices are changing, and hence the relative ‘plasticity or rigidity (lock-in) of the interlocking systems of practice of which society is composed’ (Shove, 2009: 30) …Should such a thing as a societal index of practice transformation exist, it might indicate that certain domains of daily changes are moving more quickly, or are more dynamic than others. It might show that some such changes are necessarily synchronized, or cumulative, and that others are not. As they go about their daily lives, people are unknowingly engaged in reproducing and enacting multiple and varied cycles of change, simultaneously shaping the lives of practices and being shaped by them. (p.69)

I honestly don’t even know where you’d start with this, it seems to operate as such a large scale. Would we measure the number of participants? The complexity of their practices? (This might be achievable across a limited set of practices in TELT perhaps.)

The authors conclude this chapter by noting that our identities and careers shape the practices that we join. They refer to the work of Pred , who sees our lives as revolving around

a handful of ‘dominant projects’, these being inter-linked practices that in combination ‘require that participating individuals expend their labour power or in some other way engage themselves in activity in a given manner, at a given time and place (Pred, 1981: 16) (p.70)

So what have I drawn from this overall and what can I bring into my research? The point about the challenges of imposing a community of practice from above rather than working with existing networks is well taken however one of the challenges that I’m encountering in universities is that those networks of teaching practice are non-existent or hidden. Research is the primary focus of a university – I guess I should say this university as it is an ‘elite’ one – and research is seen as a solitary process, in this school at least. Less so in sciences I’d imagine.

The idea of a career path both for the practitioner and the practice itself is also interesting – I have a feeling that when it comes to TELT practices that this might not necessarily align with the position/status of the academics, so that feels like an area of sensitivity. Fostering and supporting fluidity in the definition of the practice makes sense and so does encouraging innovation.

Fads are something that we’re plagued with in TELT and these frequently come down from on high – MOOCs for example. These are more connected to existing practices and networks though, so maybe fashions is a more accurate term.

The transfer of practices through the multiple communities of practice that practitioners are connected to also makes a lot of sense and I’m sure there must be ways to better make use of this.

(Drawing a mindmap of this chapter was actually a really useful idea – way to go brain)

Finally I guess the question of access and opportunities to engage in practices is certainly something important in my work with TELT practices.

Lots to think about but I’m really enjoying this book.

 

 

 

 

 

Thoughts on: The Dynamics of Social Practice: Everyday life and how it changes – Chapter 3 (Shove, Pantzar and Watson, 2012)

Having set out the case for defining practice as the interwoven relationship between three key elements; materials, meaning and competences (I always want to say competencies here) in Chapter 1 & 2, the authors move on to examine how the elements can exist independently, how they (and by definition, practices) move from place to place and how practices emerge, disappear and persist.

I’ll be honest, it gets kind of meta in some places and there’s a degree of toing-and-froing (which they acknowledge) between the idea that in a practice, the three elements can or can’t exist without each other. We seem to land on the fact that clearly they can but the practice itself can’t exist without them all.

The good news is that the more I read of this, the more it seems like a nice theoretical hook to hang my research on. So far I can generally accept the ideas that are being put forth and I’m starting to substitute TELT practices into their other examples to see how well they fit. It’s all got me thinking about practices in a new way that I think might help me to pin down how I plan to actually conduct this research. (Spoiler alert, after having the grandest of ambitions for a massive multi-part research project last year, I’m realising that something more modest would still be perfectly acceptable)

Here are some of the core ideas put forward in this chapter, some useful supporting quotes and some of my stray ideas, questions and observations. (Quick note to self – reading this as an e-book means that there are no proper page numbers – the front cover of the book is considered page 1 – so double check the page numbers for quotes that you actually plan to use)

Practices constantly evolve while their component elements tend to stay more stable. 

As structured and situated arrangements, practices are always in the process of formation, re-formation and de-formation. By contrast, elements are comparatively stable and are, as such, capable of circultating between the places and enduring over time. We are consequently surrounded by things that have outlived the practices of which they were once a vital part… Abandoned biscuit presses, outdated computer equipment and tools for tasks no longer undertaken are obvious examples but understandings, meanings and types of expertise are also discarded as practices evolve. (p.46)

The authors make a sweeping statement that I’m still considering on a philosophical level but looking around my desk at all of the ‘made’ objects (materials), it kind of makes sense. I’m trying to think of things, skills or meanings that we don’t have a use for that we do these things with. I have half a thought that there would be practices that are “carried” or move between locations based on new ideas about uses of material items but I’m not yet sure what that means to me.

…it is only through their integration in practice that elements are reproduced, eroded or carried from one setting or population to another (p.47)

The fact that requisite elements co-exist does not guarantee that they will be linked together but the potential is there (p.47)

The question of access to specific materials needed for practices is raised and ties to the development of different technologies (trains, trucks, planes etc) that mean that access options change and thus associated practices can emerge or evolve. I’d say that the Internet sits nicely in that category of access when it comes to the material elements of TELT practices – though I’m curious about where exactly software and web services sit. They’re on one hand a thing that people use but on the other, contain certain knowledge/competences that save people from having to carry out particular sub-practices in the course of doing larger practices. But perhaps that is just what tools (materials) do? Hopefully we’ll go deeper into the crossover between materials, tools and competences.

There’s also the question of what impact the choice of specific materials in a practice means – some materials playing better with others and creating opportunities to do some things but not others. (Which feels like another of the many areas where these ideas cross paths with sociomaterial theory). I definitely think there’s room in my research for a look at what impact the choice of particular technologies has on practices.

At this point, the authors observe that in terms of practices moving from place to place, the issues faced in terms of the material elements differ from those related to competences and meaning.

Rather, the point is to recognise that whereas forms of (co)location, transportation and access are typically important for the diffusion of material elements, forms of competence and meaning circulate in  characteristically different ways (p.49)

The authors go on to explain that they appreciate the importance of the human factor in learning/developing competences but also that they are more interested in the wider question of how competences travel between practices as well as between people. I can accept that this is the nature of the theory that they are formulating but I’m also mildly concerned about the extent to which they have been discarding complexities in the pursuit of an argument.

I do still think that there is merit in what they are exploring though, so it might just need to be a matter of remembering to re-add these factors down the track when I’m doing my research. The practice of in-person learning-by-doing in a teacher/student relationship seems kind of pertinent when we’re looking at interventions to pass along skills and knowledge (competences), rather than looking at them in the abstract. Maybe we’ll get back to this later in the book – I believe the next chapter is about how people are recruited to practices.

When looking at how competences travel, particularly between different contexts, the authors talk about ‘abstracting’ and ‘reversal’ as core parts of the process. By ‘abstracting’, they mean stripping away localisations in the knowledge/skill that wouldn’t apply everywhere to leave the essential ‘knowledge’. On arrival at the new location, this ‘abstracted’ knowledge needs to be ‘reversed’ so that it again becomes contextually relevant.

Personally I don’t feel that ‘abstracted’ or ‘reversed’ (moreso the latter) really work well in terms of capturing these concepts. My video background makes me lean more towards encode (or code) and decode, from the Codec software used in the process of creating and sharing video files. (But maybe these aren’t perfect either).

The basic idea that knowledge has to be ‘abstracted’ form a local situation before it can travel, and that it needs to be ‘reversed’ when it arrives in some new destination, complicates popular interpretations of knowledge transfer as a simple process of sending and receiving. This representation is, however, consistent with an account of practices as integrative performances in which elements are conjoined. The suggestion that abstract knowledge circulates between such moments or sites of enactment is also relevant in thinking about how competences circulate (p.49)

This new space that the competences can sit in between the start point and destination is another thing that I’m still trying to grasp. Is it just a verbose way of describing publishing and documenting of knowledge of activities within practices?

Theories of abstraction and reversal depend on distinguishing between local understanding on the one hand, and what Disco and van der Meulen (1998) term ‘global-level cognitive ‘cosmopolitan’ knowledge, that is, knowledge that has been dis-embedded from its local origins and is consequently capable of travelling widely whilst maintaining its own integrity. As discussed in Chapter 2, this idea brings with it the related, and somewhat strange, image of knowledge temporarily existing in limbo, contained in what Arie Rip describes as a dislocated holding tank or reservoir, carried by what one might call an epistemic community and knowledge users pick up their own new combinations from the reservoir (1998). This vision of a gigantic depot of abstracted, de-contextualised buy not yet re-embedded knowledge is intriguing, as is the related suggestion that resources like libraries and the Internet, along with material objects and systems of regulation and certification, harbour pools of knowledge that have been variously certified, legitimated and prepared for travel (p.50)

I find the idea of the Internet acting as a reservoir of ‘cosmopolitan’ knowledge interesting but would argue that there is an abundance of local knowledge as well. Fortunately, the authors choose not to dwell on the reservoir, though I imagine I’ll go back to this, and move on to questions around what “has to be done to make knowledge movable (decontextualization and packaging), to let it move (infrastructure) and to make it work elsewhere (contextualization, standardization) (Deuten, 2003: 18)” (p.50)

Having the skills to decode is seen as it’s own special form of know-how and Shove et al suggest that this ability is often tied to pre-existing related knowledge of the competence.

This suggests know-how can only travel – by means of abstraction and reversal – to sites in which practitioners are already prepared to receive it because of prior, first-hand, practice based experience (p.50)

I’m broadly ok with this but think it ignores the capacity of teachers at the arriving end to teach inexperienced people these new skills. Maybe (and I’d suggest often) the teachers come from the originating place to run training and then leave. Clearly it’s easier for people to learn something (and teach it) if it can be connected to existing scaffolded knowledge but it’s far from impossible otherwise. I guess learning how to learn comes into this somewhere as well. The importance of standards and regulations relating to practices can’t be underestimated either, in that it increases the quality of the practices which would be an incentive to participate.

The extent to which competences can be used in a number of different practices is also a key factor in their transportability.

The concept of transferable skills is relevant in this regard. Having been mastered in one setting, competences like those of controlling a ball or speaking in public can be carried over and reproduced in others… This does not necessarily involve recognizable stages of abstraction and codification. Instead, specific competences are transferable because they are common, or at least common enough to a number of different practices (p.51)

This leads us to the question of whether we can reframe the way that we think about the contexts in which certain practices prevail as a way to foster the transfer of competences. In order to help sell more home appliances (e.g washing machines), there was a push in the late 18th century to move the ‘efficient practices and attitudes’ of the business world into the home. This was largely intended to change attitudes to housework that made it easier to sell the time/labour saving benefits of the new technology. (It probably wasn’t done with a specific understanding of social practice theory but they knew what they were doing)

Developing these ideas, certain elements of know-how bridge between practices not by means of abstraction and reversal but by somehow constituting – and potentially changing – the texture and the quality of the social fabric in which many such practices were rooted (p.52)

This brings us along neatly to the final element of the trio, meaning.

One thing that occurs to me here is the necessity of shifting the culture in Higher Education to one that is more willing to embrace TELT practices. I’ve been considering trying to appeal to the notion of scholarship in this regard – academics don’t suddenly stop researching and learning about their disciplines so why should teaching be any different. At the same time though, it is different and getting academics to look at teaching from a different mindset than their research one is a clear goal. Whereas research is a relatively individualistic practice, teaching is better explored collectively. I don’t kid myself that getting this message across will be easy but I think it’s valuable.

On that note, emotions and feelings seem to be an important factor in determining what practices a teacher will and more importantly will not embrace. My suspicion is that they have far more impact than any rational arguments in favour of doing a thing and my question is, how do we examine and address them. Do they sit in the meaning element or kind of alongside? Is this an area that people have looked into deeply – I’ve seen plenty of work about attitudes but I don’t think this is what I need.

The authors accept that the question of meaning is complex and it could be very easy to get caught up in discussions about local/personal meaning and disputed meanings. Once again, they choose to simplify this to pursue their core ideas about “how elements of meaning diffuse and what this means for the circulation of practices in and of which they are a part” (p.53)

Linking new knowledge, ideas and meanings to existing ones is identified as a core element of this. Firstly however, the authors identify the need to isolate meaning related to practice from the meaning attached to which groups in society (and their attendant status) participate in this practice.

The dynamic relation between the status of participants and the meaning of the practices they carry is widely discussed, usually with the aim of understanding how social and cultural hierarchies are reproduced and sustained. By participating in some practices but not others, individuals locate themselves within society and in doing so simultaneously reproduce specific schemes and structures of meaning and order. In Bourdieu’s terms, all cultural practices are ‘automatically classified and classifying, rand ordered and rank ordering’ (1984: 223). … In other words, the interest in what Nordic Walking says about the person who does it, not in how meanings like those of outdoor life circulate between practices or in how they combine with or break away from other symbolic constructs. By contrast, we want to put the element of meaning at the centre of our enquiry (p.53)

While it’s not what the authors intend, this discussion of the ties between status and meaning suggests to me that, in my work, I should consider opportunities to link the use of TELT practices with being a more well-rounded scholar.

Shove et al clarify what they hope to do by shifting focus from the people to the meanings nicely here

But in the context of the present discussion the question is not ‘Who determines whether smoking cigarettes and driving fast cars is transgressive or cool?’ but rather “How are categories like those of being cool, healthy or youthful populated with practices, how does this population change and with what consequences for these frames of meaning?’ (p.54)

Discussion of meaning meanders a little here, largely because the authors acknowledge that it is complex and not something that any one practitioner is able to shape. They point out that meaning changes and is “extended and eroded as a result of dynamic processes of association” (p.54) and also that meanings can merge into larger meanings – such as youth culture becoming seen as part of ‘Americanization’ (p.54). Their key point though is that meaning is often mediated – or at least people/groups attempt to mediate it and spread it though the community.

The catch is that while the media has a vital role in disseminating ideas, pictures and texts, there is no guarantee that these will stick. As with the abstraction and reversal of competence, the decoding and appropriation of meaning is an inherently local, inherently uncertain process. In addition, opportunities for association and re-classification are, to a degree, constrained and enabled by existing patterns and distributions of meaning (p.54)

In other words, you can try to shift meanings to embed new practices but don’t count on being able to do so. (This is perhaps where the authors’ preference for simplifying complex ideas lets them down.)  I can still see the value in trying though and off the top of my head, I would think that desirable meanings to have associated with TELT practices would include; innovation/ being up to date, caring, quality and connection.

One of the things that I’m liking the most about this book is that the authors are strong on their structure and their process for building an argument. They start and end each new idea (or set of ideas) with a robust summary of the key points. There’s a solid summary of the six key ideas that we’ve just worked through on page 55. (I’m not including it because I think I’ve covered it already) . They then return to the central theme, that the elements are interdependent in practice.

Although we have discussed them separately, competence, material and meaning are often so closely related that if one element should travel alone (abstracted and packed in isolation), it is likely to remain dormant until joined by others capable of bringing it into the frame of a living practice. This observation reminds us that the relevant elements need to co-exist if practices are to extend or endure (p.55)

Emergence, disappearance and persistence

The final section of this chapter is somewhat shorter than the rest but continues to explore interesting territory. I’ve previously looked at this idea under the concept of ‘change and continuity’ – introducing new practices but supporting effective current ones as well. The tertiary education sector in Australia (and I imagine globally) has undergone massive change in some ways over the last 30+ years and this has, I believe, led to change-fatigue and a mistrust of ‘innovation’. This mistrust of innovation in general dates back far further than this, clearly – remembering the Luddites – and the authors find a great quote to sum it up

innovation of this sort disrupts and destroys. It changes the technology of process or product in a way that imposes requirements that existing resources, skills and knowledge satisfy poorly o not at all. The effect is thus to reduce the value of existing competence, and in the extreme case, to render it obsolete. (Abernathy and Clark, 1985: 6)  (p.56)

In TELT terms, this makes me think of the SAMR (Substitution, Augmentation, Modification, Replacement) model, which sets out perhaps a gentler set of steps to climb in innovation.

Shove et al’s main point here appears to be that as some practices emerge, they replace others which fade into redundancy. Their component elements may or may not go down the same path, depending on whether they can be repurposed elsewhere.

Practices themselves might change – such as the act of writing with ink, which went from quills, to fountain pens and then to biros. The competence stayed largely the same – though the skills needed to manage the materials changed – but the materials changed greatly. The meaning of using a fountain pen 80 years ago (functional) also changed in comparison to those who use it now (luxurious).

It was at this point, as I was reading about changes in practice and materials that I noted that I was writing notes on a printed piece of paper with a pencil while leaning on the back of a new iPad. I had read previous chapters as an eBook on the iPad but wasn’t happy with the way that I was able to take notes and make comments directly on the text. I’m not entirely sure what this means but it seems interesting at the very least. I guess it’s that the material still needs to be fit for purpose and we will change our practices based on what works best for us. Perhaps there’s something in there about the precise affordances offered by the materials and the emotional responses that we have to them – I do like the tactile nature of pencil.

Writing on paper, leaning on an iPad

The text that I was reading at the time seems particularly apt

For our second example, we home-in on the relation between materials and competence. In organising and scripting human and non-human actors, objects and infrastructures determine boundaries of competence, certain aspects being delegated to the technology, others remaining with the human. In some situations, materials stabilise and obdurately reproduce know-how from the past, but in other cases the effect is the reverse. As we have seen, radical technological innovations can undermine the value of established skills and knock rival artefacts and systems out of the way. These processes are often linked. As things fall out of use, the know-how associated with them tends to disappear as well (p.57)

There’s a particular point made in here about machines removing the need to have know-how to do certain things, effectively taking over competences. This is definitely something that I’ll be thinking over in more depth.

Shove et al sum up this section as follows

In describing instances of emergence, disappearance and persistence we have noticed that relations between elements may vary as patterns of participation change. We have shown that material elements transform, carry and preserve forms of competence; that instructions are useful in keeping knowledge in circulation but that more [performance] is required to keep it alive; and that elements of meaning are capable of hopping from one practice to the next (p.59)

So what do I take away from this?

It’s useful to consider how the elements function and move and evolve in their own right and it is equally important to remember that their relationships with their other elements have a significant impact on what forms they take.

In terms of my research into how TELT advisors (or possible TEL edvisors – toying with a terminology change) support TELT practices, this can inform strategies for implementing change as well as creating additional lines of inquiry into what the barriers to TELT practices are.

Next chapter up is about how people are recruited to practices – though it’s been a while since I’ve done a research update here so that seems kind of important too.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Why it’s better to be a TELT Advisor than an Education Advisor

For people working in roles like mine in tertiary education – education designers, academic developers, learning technologists etc – one our greatest challenges is being listened to and having our skills and knowledge recognised.

I think that adopting an overarching term for our roles such as TELT (Technology Enhanced Learning & Teaching) Advisor might be one way to address this.

Celia Whitchurch (2008) describes a sector of the workforce in Higher Education whose day to day work overlaps the teaching and administration areas – the so-called ‘third space professionals’. She refers to a broader set of staff members than I am here – she includes curriculum developers, student study skills advisors and more – but people who support and advise academics/teachers about teaching practices without actually teaching themselves certainly fit well into the third space category.

I’ve been involved in many discussions trying to find an umbrella term for people in these roles – the academic developers (people who train academics in teaching and learning), learning technologists (people who support the use and implementation of educational technology) and education designers/developers (people who help to design and build courses and learning resources). All of these people do more than the minimal descriptions that I’ve offered and the vast majority tend to do all three of these things at different times.

In the course of discussions with my colleagues, we have settled (for now) on Education Advisor as an umbrella term for our roles. Using Advisor rather than Support person was an important distinction for more than a few people because they felt strongly that Advisor puts us on a more equal footing.

We are frequently (but not exclusively) professional staff members which means that while we may have extensive experience in teaching and learning and qualifications to match, in the academic-centric culture of universities, because we are not teaching (or researching), we are not part of the tribe, we are not peers to the teachers we work with. We are Other. Even the academics that move over to roles in this area are sometimes jokingly referred to as having ‘gone over to the dark side’.

On a personal level, none of this bothers me overly. The vast majority of academics that I work with are decent people that appreciate my support and I enjoy the work that I do. Teaching & Learning and Research are the core reasons for being of universities so I can understand how the culture of the institution tends to privilege the people working directly at the chalkface – or Screenface if you will. (And the research-face as well, of course. Yes, this term started well but…).

This culture also means that there is significant pressure on academics to demonstrate their value, both in their research and (to a lesser extent still, sadly) in their teaching practice. Knowledge is the currency of the academic. To admit that you don’t know something is therefore to make yourself vulnerable. It is assumed then that academics are experts in their field (reasonably so) and also in teaching.

The assumed expertise in teaching seems curious in some ways, given that teaching is a profession and a craft in its own right and people working in this area at any level other that higher education are mandated to have relevant qualifications. There are, of course, many fantastic teachers among academics, but it’s often more by luck than design. Some do choose to undertake teaching qualifications or training but in an institutional culture that strongly favours research over teaching, there is little incentive to do so.

Education Advisors however, do tend to have these qualifications and training, as well as years of experience in teaching and learning. In spite of this, there is an intense reluctance from academics to seek or take pedagogical advice from education advisors. I don’t understand why this is but I have some theories. Seeking or taking advice on teaching, I believe, is effectively seen as sending up a signal that they lack some of the core skills that define their value to the university. It might also come down to basic tribalism in some instances – education advisors aren’t in the teaching tribe, they’re professional staff (mostly) and therefore what could they really offer. I’m sure there are other factors and this may not mirror the experiences of all of my colleagues but I’ve had university leaders say to me directly “I’m going to hire an academic to support this project because they understand pedagogy”.

This is where being a TELT advisor is an advantage.

Yes, it grows a little tiresome being seen primarily as the first port of call for technical questions relating to the use of the LMS or the lecture capture system or any of the other institutional ed. tech tools when we know how much more we have to offer BUT academics are far more willing to admit that they need help with education technology than with education. They’re not expected to know the tech and this liberates them to be learners.

TELT knowledge is our ticket to the conversation about teaching and learning in our institutions. Rather than burning energy trying to demonstrate that we know more about teaching and learning than just the TELT side (which, can still be what we make it), we should make the most of our niche.

Another key reason to do this is that the higher up the chain you go in tertiary education institutions, the more excitement there is about ‘innovation’ and the promise of education technology. Sometimes the excitement is because the executive actually see the benefits in teaching and learning terms and sometimes it is because it represents ‘doing something’ (and being seen to be ‘doing something’) and sometimes it is even just a matter of keeping up with the Joneses – or one-upping them. Whatever the reasons, and I hope I’m being pragmatic rather than cynical, being the local ‘experts’ in ed tech and innovation in TELT practices gives us more perceived value in these terms than other teaching support areas and creates more opportunities to do good.

So in a nutshell, we’re better off self-identifying as TELT advisors because it creates a niche, academics are more open to seeking advice and support in areas tied to technology and we sit comfortably in the innovation space, which is so hot right now.

(I’ll concede that it’s a clunky term but I’m yet to hear a better one that truly reflects our knowledge, skills and practices and which keeps the focus on teaching and learning)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

 

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

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

Another reason to trust your supervisor anyway.

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

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

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

Chapter 1 – Introduction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • How do practices emerge, exist and die?

  • What are the elements of which practices are made?

  • How do practices recruit practitioners?

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

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

Chapter 2 – Making and breaking links

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

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

Some more definitions of Materials / Competence / Meaning

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Another interesting question raised was

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reasons to use ePortfolios

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ePortfolios framework Holt et al 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Orlikowski helpfully went on to explain why this mattered.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In the ‘absent presence’ approach, Orlikowski considers that

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

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

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

Orlikowski feels that researchers working through this lens

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We’ll see.

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

photo-28-10-2016-2-48-46-pm

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

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

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

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

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