Category Archives: curriculumDesign

Implications of cognitive theory for instructional design

The following is a summary/reflection of Winn (1990), the abstract follows

This article examines some of the implications of recent developments in cognitive theory for instuctional design. It is argued that behavioral theory is inadequate to prescribe instructional strategies that teach for understanding. Examples of how instructional designers have adopted relevant aspects of cognitive theory are described. However, it is argued that such adoption is only a first step. The growing body of evidence for the indeterminism of human cognition requires even further changes in how instructional designers think and act. A number of bodies of scholarly research and opinion are cited in support of this claim. Three implications of cognitive theory for design are offered: instructional strategies need to be developed to counter the reductionism implicit in task analysis; design needs to be integrated into the implementation of instruction; designers should work from a thorough knowledge of theory not just from design procedures.

Summary

Suggests problems arise when decisions within instructional design are driven by cognitive theory, not behavioural. Mostly around the assumptions of rationality and predictability and the subsequent appropriateness of the traditional teleological design process used by instructional design. Suggests some approaches/implications that might help address these somewhat.

Reflection

The ideas expressed here offer support for the ideas I’ve been formulating about how to improve learning and teaching at Universities. Which obviously means I think it is an important bit of work by an intelligent person. It probably does have flaws. Will need to read and reflect more.

Still not sure that these principles have been applied broadly enough (though the conclusion seems to indicate yes). Winn has focused on changes to the practice of instructional designers in how they approach design without talking about how they may have to change how they work with the academics. Instructional design, for me, is as much about staff development as it is about design, at least within the current university context. Instructional design within universities can’t scale unless it builds capacity amongst the academic staff and the system to help in design.

Many of these limitations of instructional design are similar to those I’ve been trying to push around the institutional implementation of e-learning and more generally about approaches to improve learning and teaching e.g. graduate attributes.

Introduction

Starts with a definition of instructional design from Reigeluth (1993) – essentially it is a set of decision-marking procedures which, given the outcomes to be achieved and the conditions under which they are to achieve them, develops the most effective instructional strategies.

Generally done with analysis of outcomes/conditions, selection of strategies, iterative testing until some level of success achieved. The decisions are guided by instructional theory.

Gives examples of instructional design processes informed by cognitive theory.

Suggests evidence that cognitive theory is impacting thinking/actions of instructional designers, however, suggests that cognitive theory requires further changes in the way they think/act. Has problems with the analysis and selection/testing stages. Current approaches are not sufficient.

Suggests that instructional design should be driven by an understanding of theories of learning and instruction, rather than mastery of design techniques.

I’m assuming here he means that the type and nature of the steps within design process itself should be informed by these, not what he also recognises is that the decisions made within these steps are already driven by this. I’m a bit slow this morning.

Instructional design and behavioural theory

Supports/explains the notion that instructional design originated in behavioural theory, the dominant learning theory of the time when ID originated. Shows how instructional design processes evolved to fit the needs of behavioural theory. Examples include the reductionist nature of task analysis and pilot testing being sufficient to debug instruction that consisted of stimulus-response prescriptions. i.e. behavourists did not consider that there were “mental operations” within the learner that might mediate between stimulus and response. This resulted in design being separated from implementation.

If instruction can be developed to the point where acceptable student performance is likely to occur, then it matters little whether instruction is implemented immediately after the designer has attained this standard, or at some later time and in some other place.

Connects with literature that acknowledges the separation (Richey, 1986), thinks it creates problems (Nunan, 1983, Streibel, 1989, Winn, 1989) and others which think it desirable (Heinich, 1970 and 1984). Desirable because “it allows instruction to be brought up to a high standard, and then to be distributed far and wide so that all students can enjoy the advantages of top-rate teaching”.

Lastly, suggests the idea that instructional design can be “done by the numbers” also arises from the behavioural tradition. The idea is that any novice designer can be successful if they just follow the process – do it by the numbers.

In summary, 3 important areas where behaviourism still exerts power over instructional design:

  1. Reductionist premise that you can identify the parts, then you can teach the whole.
  2. Separate design from implementation.
  3. Assumption that following good procedures, applied correctly results in good instruction.

Sticking with the behavioural traditions, suggests that these 3 are not a problem, if you’re limiting yourself to low-level skills. The problems arise when you go to high levels of cognitive processing.

Cognitive theory

The aim here is to explain why the three assumptions are problematic as informed by cognitive theory – the obvious though here is what would constructivism or connectivism suggest.

The description of cognitive theory is

Changes in behavior are seen as indirect rather than direct outcomes of learning. Observable behavior is mediated and controlled by such mental activities as the acquisition, organization and application of knowledge about the world (Neisser, 1976; Rumelhart and Norman, 1981); by the development of skills that allow the encoding, storing and relrieval of information (E. Gagne, 1985; Shuell, 1986); by people’s motivation (Keller, 1983); their perception of what a task requires of them (Salomon, 1983a); and their perception of their likelihood of success (Salomon, 1983b; Schunk, 1984). Consequently, students are seen as active in the construction of knowledge and the development of skills, leading to the conclusion that learning is a generative process under the control of the learner (Wittrock, 1979, 1982).

To my somewhat untrained ear, this sounds like it has aspects of constructivism.

References Bonner (1988) as identifying a number of the differences between traditional designers and those informed by cognitive theory including:

  • task analysis;
    Traditionally aims to identify directly observed behaviours. Cognitive theory requires that “unobservable” tasks be analysed. i.e. the mental tasks to be mastered prior to observable performance being possible. examples including identifying declarative and procedural knowledge or schemata required to perform. Also recognition that novice to expert involves many steps that need to mastered.
  • objectives;
    Statements of what the student is to accomplish under what conditions and to what criterion is a behaviourist approach. Cognitive objectives are schematic representations of the knowledge to be acquired and procedures to apply.
  • learner characteristics;
    Focus on the schemata/mental models students bring to instruction, not their behaviours. May not be a clear line between what they need to know and what they know – learner as dirty slate.
    This acknowledges the importance of current knowledge of the world, represented in mental models, for the acquisition of new knowledge and skills. Research (De Kleer and Brown, 1981; Larkin, 1985; and authors contributing to Gentner and Stevens, 1983) has shown that learning occurs as students’ mental models acquire refinement and accuracy.

  • instructional strategies;
    Behaviourism selected instructional strategies based on the type of learning to take place, the type of learning outcome.
    But because the cognitive conception of learning places so much importance on the student’s development of adequate knowledge structures, cognitive procedures and mental models, the designer should create opportunities for what Bonner calls a “cognitive apprenticeship” centered around problem-solving rather than prescribe strategies apriori.

    Some general principle may determine aspects of the strategy, however, it evolves like a conversation.

Rieber (1987) point out, is that instruction that is designed from cognitive principles can lead to understanding rather than just to memorization and skill performance.

This speaks to me because too much of what passes for improving learning and teaching strikes me as most likely to create memorisation and skill performance, not long term change.

The need for further change

While instructional designers are adopting principles from cognitive theory, the idea is that recent thinking in cognitive psychology and related fields brings into question some the assumptions of cognitive theory as currently accepted. Moving onto the reasons:

  • metacognition;
    Metacognition research shows that students have or can be trained to acquire the ability to reflect on their performance and adopt/adapt different learning strategies. This means that the intent of a instructional design can be circumvented if the student finds the chosen strategy problematic. If the instruction is not adaptable or the student doesn’t choose a good strategy, then the instructional design is compromised.

    I wonder what implications this has for constructive alignment and its idea of forcing the student to do the right thing?

  • dynamic nature of learning;
    Very interesting. As the learner learns, they develop knowledge and skill that is different from the start. The analysis performed at the start to select the instructional strategy no longer holds. If the analysis was done now, a different strategy would be required.
    Nunan (1983) develops this line of reasoning in his argument against the value of instructional design, drawing on arguments against the separation of thought from action put forward by Oakshotte (1962) and Polanyi (1958).

  • emergent properties of cognition;
    This is the argument against reductionism. Emergence is defined as the idea where the properties of the whole, cannot be explained solely be examining the individual parts of the whole. The nature of the whole affects the way elements within them behave. The suggestion is that a number of people have claimed that the actions of the human mind exhibit emergent properties (Churchland, 1988; Gardner, 1985).

    The reductionism that underpins task and learner analysis “acts counter to, or at best ignores, a significant aspect of human cognition, which is the creation of something entirely new and unexpected from the “raw material” that has to be learned.

  • plausible reasoning;
    A designer informed by cognitive theory assumes that the thought processes of a student will be as logical as the instruction itself. In order to learn from a machine, the student has to think like a machine (Streibel, 1986). There is lots of evidence to suggest people are not logical. “Plausible reasoning” is Collins (1978) idea that people proceed on hunches and incomplete information. Hunt (1982) suggests plausible reasoning has allowed the human species to survive.
    If we waited for complete sets of data before making decisions, we would never make any and would not have evolved into intelligent beings.

  • situated cognition; and
    Somewhat related to previous. Streibel (1989) argues that “cognitive science can never form the basis for instructional design because it proceeds from the assumption that human reasoning is planful and logical when in fact it is not”. References Brown, Collins and Duguid (1989); Lave (1988) and Suchman (1987) – i.e. situated cognition folk – to argue that the way we solve problems is dependent on the situation in which the problem occurs. We do not use formal or mathematical reasoning.
  • unpredictability of human behaviour.
    The 5 previous points suggest that human behaviour is indeterminate. Csiko (1989) gives 5 types of evidence to argue that the unpredictability and indeterminism of human behaviour is central to the debate concerning epistemology of educational research. Winn (1990) suggests it applies equally well to instructional design:
    1. Individual learner differences interact in complex ways with treatments which make prediction of performance difficult.
    2. Chaos theory suggests the smallest changes in initial states lead to wild and totally unpredictable fluctuations in a systems behaviour. Something that is more pronounced in complex cognitive systems.
    3. Much learning is “evolutionary” in that it arises from chance responses to novel stimuli
    4. Humans have free will which can be exercised and subsequently invalidate any predictions about behaviours made deterministically from data.
    5. Quantum mechanics shows that observing a phenomenon, changes that phenomenon so that the results of observations are probabilities, not certainties.

Though eclectic, this body of argument leads one to question seriously both the assumption of the validity of instructional prescriptions and the assumption that what works for some students will work for others.

While prediction may not be part of instructional design, it is of the theories it depends upon and Reigelluth (183) points out that any theory of instruction, while not deterministic, does rely on the probability that prescriptions made form it for its validity. Without such validity, you may as well rely on trial and error.

Conclusions

Cognitive theory has been incorporated into instructional design, but behaviourism influence remains and that causes problems.

Cognitive task analysis to develop objectives is just as reductionist as behaviourist approaches.. The whole approach designers take needs to be re-examined. Three directions might include:

  1. Analysis and synthesis;
    Addressing reductionist analysis – instructional strategies need to ensure knowledge/skill components are put back together in meaningful ways….e.g. Reigeluth and Stein’s (1983) use of “summarisers” and “synthesizes” in elaboration theory.

    Balance analysis as a design procedure with synthesis as an instructional strategy. Such prescriptions should exist in instructional theories.

  2. Design and implementation;
    For instruction to be successful, it must therefore constantly monitor and adapt to unpredicted changes in student behavior and thinking as instruction proceeds……To succeed, then, instructional decisions need to be made while instruction is under way and need to be based on complete theories that allow the generation of prescriptions rather than on predetermined sets of prescriptions chosen ahead of time by a designer. (p64)

    Requires the teacher to monitor and modify strategies as they’ve been prescribed. Requires teachers to be well schooled in instructional design and a solid knowledge of theories of learning and instructions – so that they can respond in some sort of informed way. e.g. need methods that will allow them to invent prescriptive principles when the need arises.

    Second recommendation is that the designer needs to monitor the actual use of the instructional system during implementation, or for the designer to make provision for the use to change instruction strategies.

  3. Theory and procedure.
    Decisions about instructional strategies need to be based on more than just the application of design procedures. Rather than techniques being taught, the principles should be.
    This problem is made worse by researchers who are content to identify strategies that work on single occasions rather than determine the necessary conditions for their success (Clark, 1983).

Reservations about instructional design

The following is at first a rambling diatribe outlining some of my reservations with instructional design as it is practiced. Then it is a summary/reflection on Winn (1990) – “Some implications of cognitive theory for instructional design”. The abstract for Winn (199)

This article examines some of the implications of recent developments in cognitive theory for instmctional design. It is argued that behavioral theory is inadequate to prescribe instructional strategies that teach for understanding. Examples of how instructional designers have adopted relevant aspects of cognitive theory are described. However, it is argued that such adoption is only a first step. The growing body of evidence for the indeterminism of human cognition requires even further changes in how instructional designers think and act. A number of bodies of scholarly research and opinion are cited in support of this claim. Three implications of cognitive theory for design are offered: instructional strategies need to be developed to counter the reductienism implicit in task analysis; design needs to be integrated into the implementation of instruction; designers should work from a thorough knowledge of theory not just from design proceduts.

Actually, I’m running out of time, this post will be just the diatribe. The summary/reflection on Winn (1990) will have to wait till later.

Some context

The following line of thought is part of an on-going attempt to identify potential problems in the practice of instructional design because I work within a Curriculum Design & Development Unit at a University. I am trying to identify and understand these problems as an attempt to move toward something that might be more effective (but would likely have its own problems). The current attempt at moving toward a solution will hopefully arise out of some ideas around curriculum mapping.

The diatribe

Back in the mid-1990s I was being put in charge of my first courses. The institution I worked at was, at that stage, a true 2nd generation distance education provider bolted onto an on-campus university (the university was a few years old, having evolved from an institute of advance education). Second generation distance education was “enterprise” print distance education. There was a whole infrastructure, set of processes and resources targeted at the production of print-based study guides and resource materials that were sent to students as their prime means of education. A part of the resources were instructional designers.

From the start, my experiences with the instructional designers and the system they existed within was not good. The system couldn’t see it was increasingly less relevant through the rise of information technology and the instructional designers seemed more interested in their knowledge about what was the right thing to do, rather than recognising the realities of my context and abilities. Rather than engaging with me and my context and applying their knowledge to show how I could solve my problems, they kept pushing their own ideal situations.

Over 15 years on, and not a lot has changed. I still see the same problem in folk trying to improve learning and teaching at that institution. Rather than engage in an on-going process of improvement and reflection, it’s all about big bang changes and their problems. Worse, then as now, only the smallest population of the academics are being effectively engaged by the instructional designers. i.e. the academics that are keen, the ones that are willing to engage with the ideas of the designers (and others). This is perhaps my biggest concern/proposition, that the majority of academics are not engaging with this work and that a significant proportion of them (but not all) are not improving their teaching. But there are others:

  • Instructional designers are increasingly the tools of management, not folk helping academics.
    In an increasingly managerialist sector, the “correct” directions/methods for learning and teaching are increasingly being set by government, government funded bodies (e.g. ALTC and AUQA) and subsequently the management and professionals (e.g. instructional designers, staff developers, quality assurance etc.) that are institutionally responsible for being seen to respond effectively to the outside demands.

    There are two problems with this:

    1. the technologists alliance; and
      The professionals within universities, because of their interactions with the external bodies and because their success depends on engaging with and responding to the demands of the external body, start to think more like the external body. For example, many of the folk on the ALTC boards/etc are from university L&T centres. Their agenda internally becomes more about achieving ALTC outcomes, rather than outcomes for the academics. Geoghegan (1994) identified the technologists alliance around technology, it is increasingly in existence for L&T.
    2. do what management says.
      Similarly, because senior management within universities are being measured on how well they respond to the external demands. They to are suffering the same problem. In addition, because they are generally on short-term contracts there’s increased demand to respond via short-term approaches that show short-term gain but are questionable in the long-term. Instructional designers etc are then directed to carry out these short-term approaches, even if they will hurt in the long term are or seen as nonsensical by academics.

    The end result is that academics perceive instructional designers as people doing change to them, not doing change with them or for them. Not a good foundation on which to encourage change and improvement in something as personal as teaching.

  • Traditional instructional design is not scalable.
    My current institution has about 4 instructional designers. The first term of this year sees the institution offering 400+ courses. That means somewhere around 800 courses a year. That’s 200 courses a year per instructional designer. If you’re looking at each course being “helped” once every two years, that means each course gets the instructional designer for 2 days every 2 years, at best.

    In this environment, traditional ADDIE type big-bang approaches can’t scale.

  • Instructional design seems informed by a great knowledge of ideal learning and teaching, but none of how to effectively bridge the gap between academics and that ideal.

References

Geoghegan, W. (1994). Whatever happened to instructional technology? 22nd Annual Conferences of the International Business Schools Computing Association, Baltimore, MD, IBM.

Winn, W. (1990). “Some implications of cognitive theory for instructional design.” Instructional Science 19(1): 53-69.

How to make curriculum mapping useful to university academics

The following is an attempt to make concrete various ideas that have been floating around about a project to take a very different approach to curriculum mapping. There’s a small glimmer that these ideas may form the basis for an ALTC grant application

The following includes:

The idea

The outline of the idea is:

  • Implement the following changes by working closely with the academics and changing the project, its processes, aims etc in response to the learning that occurs.
  • Modify Moodle (this is the LMS my current institution uses) so that it is possible that all activities and resources within a course site can be linked to course learning outcomes, institutional graduate attributes and other criteria/categories (outcomes etc).
  • For courses within a program that has been through a recent accreditation, use those resources to add the outcomes etc. to existing courses, resources and activities.
  • Have this process involve collaboration between the academics and people who can help with and change the system, explain the meaning of learning “terminology” and generally make it a helpful and positive experience.
  • Work with academics to ensure that current Moodle courses have outcomes etc populated appropriately.
  • Modify Moodle so that when an activity or resource changes, there are visible reminders that the outcomes etc associated with that activity/resource should also be changed. Make it simple for the academic to change these.
  • Ensure that when a course site is copied from one term to another, the outcomes etc are part of that copy process.
    The intent is that once the outcomes etc are in place, the academics only need to modify those bits that have changed and they are supported and encouraged to do so during what they normally do.
  • Draw on this information to develop different curriculum maps for different purposes. The maps can draw on the fact that there are links from the outcomes etc to actual data in the LMS (e.g. student posts on the discussion forum, assignments, quizzes etc.)
  • Work within a program with the teaching academics to make the use of the curriculum maps a useful and important part of what they do in the process of their normal course delivery. i.e. make it part of the way we do things around here. (This does not mean writing policies.)

The main part of the project would be having a group of people with the right mix of technical and educational knowledge actively working with the academics to identify how this information could be made useful for the academics. Some work would also be done for other stakeholder (e.g. accreditation bodies).

The actual uses of the information would arise from this collaboration, but some possible examples might include:

  • Access to examples of implementing an attribute or outcome within the program or the institution.
    Problem: The assumption is that given an outcome staff will pick a learning design that will help the students achieve that outcome. Most academic staff don’t have the abstract knowledge to do this. Seeing concrete examples might help.

    1 solution: Provide an interface that matches the current outcome of interest for the academic, with a other similar outcomes in other courses. Allow the academic to drill down and see the actual activities and resources mapped to those.

  • Representation of the holes and duplications in a course.
    Problem: Generally, the people teaching courses in a program don’t know what’s going on in another course or in the program as a whole.

    1 solution: Provide a program level summary that identifies the holes and duplications in attributes, outcomes, activities and resources.

What is curriculum mapping

Just to be sure that we’re talking about the same thing, the following offers some definitions of curriculum mapping

Curriculum mapping is a representation of the different components of the curriculum in order that the whole picture and the relationships between the components of the curriculum can be easily understood (Harden 2001). Curriculum mapping displays the essential features of the curriculum in a clear and succinct manner (Prideaux 2003) and provides a context for planning and discussing the curriculum (Holycross 2006).

If you want more information, the above quote is taken from this report.

Problems with current practice

The following list is based on my observations, the literature and anecdotal reports from others:

  • Staff don’t engage meaning it is unlikely to change practice.
    The curriculum mapping process is seen as an add-on, it solves someone else’s problem or something that someone else does for them. With the lack of engagement, it becomes questionable whether these considerations become a key part of day to day thoughts and subsequently makes any long-term change in understanding and practice.
  • Divorced from practice leading to unreliability of what is reported.
    Completing a curriculum map is done either at the beginning or the end of a course. It’s not done during a course. This separation leads to the reliability of what is included in a curriculum map being highly questionable. One reason for this is that memory is not perfect, what is recalled and reported may not be what went on. Then there’s the whole question to task corruption and compliance.
  • Complexity leads to unreliability.
    The task of mapping out an entire course is complex. Most curriculum mapping requires that it be done as one task after the course is complete. The complexity of the task leads to mistakes, either through academics rushing it or the inevitable problem of chinese whispers when the academics are communicating information to a third party.
  • Tools that are not integrated into practice leading to duplication and unreliability.
    Curriculum mapping is usually done with pen and paper, an excel spreadsheet or perhaps a commercial stand alone tool. Yet another tool for academics to use. Each of these tools have their limitations. But perhaps the most important is that the new curriculum mapping tool is not the LMS or any of the other systems the academic users for learning and teaching. It’s something else to learn and doesn’t even connect with other tools. These tools don’t actively reduce the workload for the academic or provide additional functionality. It’s all cost and no benefit.

Current representation

In order to implement curriculum mapping across a program or institution, you have to design how you are going to do this. How you understand or represent the problem significantly impacts upon how you design your solution. Representation has a profound impact on design work (Hevner et al., 2004), particularly on the way in which tasks and problems are conceived (Boland, 2002). The formulation of the initial state into an effective representation is crucial to finding an effective design solution (Weber, 2003).

I suggest that the process widely used to implement curriculum mapping is similar to most projects within organisations and universities. It is a teleological process. Truex et al (2000) identify a shared assumption about teleological design processes involving a three-stage rational sequence: “(1) determine goals, (2) determine steps and events that lead to these, (3) follow the steps and generate the events”.

In curriculum mapping this means some group, typically not coal-face teaching academics, identify the need for curriculum mapping. Common groups include accreditation agencies, quality assurance groups and other business and government bodies. In response to this need another group, generally some sort of central learning and teaching group, decides on a process to perform the curriculum map and then engages with and encourages academics to complete the curriculum map.

The focus – the central/core aim – of the institution then becomes of completing this project. The focus has moved away from improving learning and teaching but to actually getting the forms filled in. The questions academics are asked become, “have you completed the form yet?”. The academics start complying and not engaging.

If done well, the project will achieve its aim of getting completed curriculum maps. However, the quality of those maps will be questionable and there’s a good chance the majority of academics are annoyed at having to waste more time and teaching and learning when they all know that they get recognition and promotion for research.

One alternate representation – changing thinking

Oliver et al (2007) describe the practicalities of curriculum mapping as (emphasis added)

far from simple and require a shift in educational thinking

The “shift in thinking” is the foundation of the representation of curriculum mapping that informs the following idea.

The core aim of this project is to change the educational thinking of academics and consequently improve learning and teaching.

Representing the problem this way means that different ideas and approaches to complete the problem. For example:

  • You only change what people think by changing what they experience day to day.
  • You only change what people do day to day if it provides them with some demonstrable benefit. That the choice architecture around what they do is such that they voluntarily make a good choice.
  • You only know what will give them demonstrable benefit by really understanding their experience and if they trust you.
  • You only know what they experience and have their trust if you are interacting with them throughout the process and providing them real assistance.

This is why the above basic outline of an idea cannot be implemented as a traditional project, with set goals and outcomes. It has to be implemented as a learning project. The following from Cavallo (2004) captures this well

As we see it, real change is inherently a kind of learning. For people to change the way they think about and practice education, rather than merely being told what to do differently, we believe that practitioners must have experiences that enable appropriation of new modes of teaching and learning that enable them to reconsider and restructure their thinking and practice. The limitations inherent in existing systems based upon information transfer models are as impoverished in effecting systemic development as they are in child development.

References

Boland, R. J. (2002). Design in the punctuation of management action. Frontiers of Management Workshop, Weatherhead School of Management.

Cavallo, D. (2000). “Emergent design and learning environments: Building on indigenous knowledge.” IBM Systems Journal 39(3&4): 768-781.

Hevner, A., S. March, et al. (2004). “Design science in information systems research.” MIS Quarterly 28(1): 75-105.

Oliver, B., S. Jones, et al. (2007). Mapping curricula: ensuring work-ready graduates by mapping course learning outcomes and higher order thinking skills. Evaluations and Assessment Conference. Brisbane.

Weber, R. (2003). “Still desperately seeking the IT artifact.” MIS Quarterly 27(2): iii-xi.

Increasing weak ties, not strong – improving learning and teaching

I’m wondering if too much of the focus on improving teaching within universities is focused on groups within strong(er) ties at the cost of increasing the weaker ties.

Strong(er) ties

It’s my observation that attempts within institutions of higher education to improve learning and teaching generally focus their strategies on discipline groups. At my current institution strategies currently being adopted include:

  • Seeking to employ strong leaders within discipline/school groupings.
  • Increase the power of those discipline/school groupings, and subsequently reduce the power of broader multi-discipline groupings.
  • Align curriculum designers along school/discipline groupings.

There are also some traditional attempts at cross-disciplinary, cross-institution approaches to improving learning and teaching. For example, running special presentations/sessions by visiting or local experts and setting up communities of practice around certain specific interests. It could be argued that these are focused on encouraging weak ties. However, I would argue that the type of people who participate in these approaches are generally the small percentage of university academics who are inherently interested in teaching and learning and improving their own teaching. i.e. a group that’s likely to create strong ties and a group that represents a very small percentage of the overall academic population.

In addition, interaction between support folk (e.g. curriculum designers, information technology folk etc) are increasingly being limited through governance structures. That is, you can only talk to someone who knows about Moodle and get them to do something if you’ve gone filled out various forms, it’s been discussed at various project boards, received approval, been run through the project manager/analyst….

Weak ties

This post doing the rounds this morning examines the question of Dunbar’s number. A theoretical cognitive limit on the number of strong ties that anyone person can handle. Many of the above approaches, appear to suffer from this limit (as well as other problems).

The post goes onto argue, based on this book, that the real value of collaboration arises from weak ties and that weak ties can “beat” Dunbar’s number.

A major flaw in improving teaching

It’s my current thought that a major flaw in attempts to improve learning and teaching at universities, especially the ones I’m currently seeing within my institution, is that they focus on creating formal, strong ties between people. Ties that are limited in terms of size but more importantly in terms of variety.

There’s a need to focus more on enabling and encouraging weak ties that cross disciplinary and organisational boundaries. In particular, in enabling them to creating meaningful innovation and change and also to hold them accountable in someway.

Thoughts on DEHub research themes

My current institution is currently a member of the DEHub – “A community for learning and teaching, research and Innovation in Distance Education”. The exact connection with my current institution and more importantly the folk doing work in distance education/learning and teaching remains somewhat vague. However, it is probably time for me to actively see what connections exist with my work and interests, there should probably be a lot.

DEHub – Research themes

It would seem the folk at DEHub have done a fair bit of work generating a collection of research themes. It seems 15 were identified, with 7 prioritised for action in 2010. Those 7 are:

  1. Theories and models – trying to examine various theoretical frameworks that underpin distance education and what these might imply for future directions of distance education.
  2. Globalisation of education and cross-cultural aspects – i.e. global environment, need to consider different cultures etc.
  3. Access, equity, social inclusion and ethics – how can “e-learning” & high quality education be made available to those with limited resources.
  4. Professional development and faculty support – prof development seen as a pre-requisite to innovation and change (big assumption) and primary importance placed on identifying competencies of online teachers and how to develop them.
  5. Learner support and development approaches – how to support learners from marketing through alumni relations
  6. Curriculum design – focus on issues of educational design process for learning and course development. – emphasis on pedagocial approaches, how learning is achieved and assessed, design of culturally appropriate learning materials and opportunities for development of new educational technologies
  7. Interaction and communication in learning communities – connected with the curriculum design stage, this seeks to examine design that fosters engagement with an empahsis on online communities, gender differences and cross-cultural aspects of online communication.

Some immediate reactions

The following are some knee-jerk reactions to these research themes.

What about frameworks and models from further afield?

In trying to answer the question what distance teaching theories and models are required to meet future needs the range of identified research questions seem somewhat limited. There are a few questions around OERs (a recent fad), a couple about government, some connection with work integrated and lifelong learning but nothing really “out” there. I get the impression of a group stuck in a paradigm.

What about the impacts of different theories of learning (e.g. connectivism) on the assumptions of distance education? There is perhaps a bit of this in the question about models of education related to life-long learning. Rather than simply focus on OERs – an end product – what about the implications of openness on the processes associated with learning and distance education? What barrier/benefits exist from a truly open course or open curriculum design?

What about the very different insights that arise from complexity for the practice of distance education? A lot of the distance education literature (and a lot of the literature around L&T in higher education) strikes me as being based on assumptions of order, rationality and predictability that I simply don’t see as existing in organisations. In fact, I’d argue that the focus on order, massification and industralisation of print-based distance education was a direct contributor to its inability to adapt to the online world. It’s also a flaw in what I see around current practices of university e-learning with LMSes.

And that’s just drawing on a couple of my interest areas. There’s a lot more that I’m not all that familiar with.

Perhaps I’m just being a bit hard, or not seeing past the less confronting language used to phrase the questions.

The on-going separation of curriculum design and staff development

Through personal experience I’ve observed the silliness of making curriculum design separate from academic staff development/support. Based on that experience and some theory from complex systems and ateleological design I believe this is a fundamental flaw in much of higher education.

Curriculum design should not be separate from professional development nor from the support structures that enable academic to do the teaching. Instead, the network of people, knowledge, processes and systems that enable and support an academic to learn and teach needs to include significant capability within curriculum design. The processes involved in an academic actually doing the learning and teaching needs to include activities and events the encourage and enable the on-going evaluation and re-design of teaching.

More on this below, perhaps.

Effectiveness and efficiency of design methodologies

The guiding question for the curriculum design theme is

What design methodologies are effective and efficient for the design, development, implementation and evaluation of effective teaching and learning for social media-enabled environments?

In the subsequent discussion what I was interested in was exactly how would you measure the effectiveness and efficiency of instructional design methodologies? One of my bug bears is that most existing approaches to instructional design require quite significant involvement of an instructional designer. This is in part due to the academics not having expertise in instructional design but also largely because most instructional design methodologies require a fair bit of expertise.

<p At one stage, we had 2 and a bit curriculum designers responsible for helping in the improvement/re-design of a thousand or so courses. Heavy-weight instructional design processes simply could not scale in such an environment. The artificial separation of professional development and curriculum design at the organisational level also significantly hindered this work.

To some extent this is a symptom of the overly mechanical/techno-rational approach taken to curriculum design. The JISC project, Transforming curriculum design and curriculum delivery through technology, seems to promise something different in some of its blurb. But on further reading it’s heading down what might be an even more techno-rational approach that adopts an almost obsessive compulsive approach to tidiness and neatness.

Further work

There’s obviously connections between what I’m meant to be doing and DEHub. I’ll need to look further into how and what form this connection can make, what connection can be formed with other members of the unit I work with, and how some of the disagreements may be discussed, researched and harnessed.