The following arises from a combination of factors including:
- Mark Smithers blog post Selling solar panels to oil sheiks;
- Listening today to an episode of All in the Mind on When good people turn bad; and
- My own growing interest in distributed cognition and related issues as ways to improve learning and teaching within universities.
Old wine in new bottles
Perhaps the key quote from Mark’s post is
This post is simply to try and say what many people don’t want to say and that is, that most universities really don’t care about educational technology or elearning.
My related perspective is that the vast majority of university learning and teaching is, at best (trying to be very positive), just ok. There’s a small bit that is really, really bad; and a small bit that is really, really good. In addition, most interventions to improve learning and teaching are not doing anything to change this distribution. At best, they might change the media, but the overall distribution is the same.
There’s a quote from Dutton and Loader (2002) that goes something like
without new learning paradigms educators are likely to use technology to do things the way they have always done; but with new and more expensive technology.
I am currently of the opinion that without new management/leadership paradigms to inform how universities improve learning and teaching, the distribution is going to remain the same just with new and more expensive organisational structures. This article from the Goldwater Institute about administrative bloat at American universities might be an indicator of that.
Don’t blame the academics
The “When good people turn bad” radio program is an interview with Philip Zimbardo. He’s the guy responsible for the Stanford prisoner study, an example of where good people turned really bad because of the situation in which they were place. The interview includes the following from Prof Zimbardo
You no longer can focus only on individual freedom of will, individual rationality. People are always behaving in a context, in a situation, and those situations are always created and maintained by powerful systems, political systems, cultural, religious ones. And so we have to take a more complex view of human nature because human beings are complex.
This resonates somewhat with a point that Mark makes
the problem of adoption is primarily not a technical one but one of organisational culture
. I agree. It’s the culture, the systems, the processes and the policies within universities that are encouraging/enshrining this distribution where most university learning and teaching is, at best, just ok.
The culture/system doesn’t encourage nor enable this to change. When management do seek to do something about this, their existing “management paradigm” encourages an emphasis on requiring change without doing anything effective to change the culture/system.
The proposition and the interest
Which is where I am interested in and propose the following
If you really wish to improve the majority of learning and teaching within a university, then you have to focus on changing the culture/system so that academics staff are encouraged and enabled to engage in learning about how to teach.
In addition, I would suggest that requiring learning (e.g. through requiring all new academic staff to obtain a formal qualification in learning) without aligning the entire culture/system to enable academic staff to learn and experiment (some of these characteristics are summarised here) is doomed to failure.
I’d also suggest that there is no way you can “align” the culture/system of a university to enable and encourage academic staff learning about teaching. At best you can engage in a continual process of “aligning” the culture/system as that process of “aligning” is itself a learning process.
Easy to say
I can imagine some universities leaders saying “No shit Sherlock, what do you think we’re doing?”. My response is you aren’t really doing this. Your paradigm is fundamentally inappropriate, regardless of what you claim.
However, actually achieving this is not simple and I don’t claim to have all the answers. This is why this is phrased as a proposition, it’s an area requiring more work.
I am hoping that within a few days, I might have a small subset of an answer in the next, and hopefully final, iteration of the design theory for e-learning that is meant to be the contribution of my thesis.
Dutton, W. and B. Loader (2002). Introduction. Digital Academe: The New Media and Institutions of Higher Education and Learning. W. Dutton and B. Loader. London, Routledge: 1-32.