Research update (and post #100)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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