Further reflection on creating innovative, good quality L&T

During 2007 I’m participating in the ASCILITE mentoring program. My mentor and I have been using a discussion on this blog as part of that process. This post is a continuation of a discussion started on an earlier blog post. In particular, I’m going to pick up and reflect upon some of Kathleen’s comments.

Some disclaimers

This type of medium is particular problematic for this type of conversation. So a few disclaimers are probably due.

  • The vast majority of my personal experience has been at CQU. Much of what I say/claim can only be said to apply to that context and obviously has been tremendously influenced by that context.
  • Some of the language used may seem to be very certain of itself. I’m no where near that certain. If I included all the uncertainty I felt with appropriate language these posts would be much longer. All of this is part of a process of reflection and all very uncertain.
  • As with many discussions like this I think some points of disagreement can be traced back to a differences in the definitions and understandings applied to certain terms.

Why/How so clear?

Kathleen asked

I am interested that you are able to be so clear about your orientation/s; for myself I now think of these as a repertoire of approaches, one or more of which may need to be deployed “professionallyâ€? depending on the AD work to be done, regardless of one’s personal inclinations.

I agree, that most of the approaches Land describes do need to be employed at certain times. I’ve used each of the approaches at various times. To me this is the epitome of the “vigilant opportunist”. With my particular brand of opportunism including heavy doses of reflective practitioner and interpretive-hermeneutic.

When I say “I am somewhat less favourably included” towards some approaches I’m suggesting that I don’t see them as a useful way of approaching the overall problem. Generally, this is because the understanding of the context (a strong tendency to anarchy) and my beliefs about encouraging adoption of innovations lead me to believe that each of these orientations have significant flaws. Flaws that mean that the orientations are not useful as an overall umbrella approach.

I summarised some of those flaws in the original post.

What do you plan to do?

Some really good questions drive this section. It’s also been a problem I’ve been pondering for some time. I’m hoping that at some stage over the next couple of months to be working on some presentations and papers that explain it in more detail. The following is a rough first crack.

To set the context, Kathleen said

I think it’s important to clarify what you plan to do in a way that is ‘out there’, i.e. generally (a) understandable to and (b) agreed upon by your clients/ staff / sponsors / stakeholders – what is it that you’re aiming to solve or support, in a prioritised, observable way? Further how will you and they know when you’ve got there, and whether it was a path that you’d take again or recommend that others take?

Before getting to that, I’ll start with a response to these comments

Although you’ve given short shrift to the compelling power of an evidence-based approach to L&T, does this mean you don’t think research evidence matters generally in directing educational change or that you have other less formal ways that you use to reach decisions about what your unit will do?

The description Land (2001) gives of the researcher orientation is

Sees most effective way of inÂ?fluencing colleagues’ practice as being through presentation of compelling educational research evidence

I believe educational research is important for informing what is done and for understanding what has worked elsewhere and why. But I believe that the presentation of compelling educational research evidence is a very poor way of influencing colleague’s practice.

Which probably brings us to what I see as the ultimate aim of a group like CD&DU, to encourage and enable colleague’s to adopt L&T approaches that demonstrate appropriate qualities.

A favourite maxim I use is

It’s not how bad you start, it’s how quickly you get better

I see “creating” innovative, good quality education as an approach to enabling and encouraging staff to “get better”. Getting better is a process of adopting changes, often very small, to previous practice.

It’s this task which is a wicked design problem which, at least to me, is intimately tied with the local institutional context. Which brings us to the belief that the most effective way to encourage and enable change is to engage with the local context in all its diversity and uniqueness.

Which brings us to ateleological design (Introna, 1995) which I’ve banged on about previously. I’m also going to bring in the Trigwell “model of teaching” I’ve used previously.

Trigwell’s Model of University Teaching.

I’ll try to answer the questions about how I believe we might work using the attributes of an ateleological design process identified by Introna (1995)

  1. What is the ultimate purpose?
    To achieve a sense of wholeness/harmony. In this context, the aim is to create in the academics a sense of rightness around L&T. Not a goal I think that can be achieved in any university I’m aware of, but its an aim.

    What does this mean really? Even I think it all sounds a bit “hippie”. For me, the wholeness/harmony can be said to be a characteristic of the T&L context shown in Trigwell’s model of university teaching. Why? Well, if the T&L context isn’t good, then chances of encouraging change in teacher’s thinking, planning and strategies, just ain’t gonna happen.

    Some examples, if the T&L context includes: an over-spending on corporate systems and processes at the expense of T&L systems and processes; a need to cut staff; senior staff indicating that research and innovation around T&L is not valued and is in fact actively discouraged; huge increases in the complexity and expectations of teaching without subsequent increases in support, processes and infrastructure etc. Then encouraging change is going to be “pushing it up a hill”.

    Now a group like CD&DU can’t hope to change many of those factors. But it can do some things to encourage wholeness/harmony and not do others that break it.

  2. What are the intermediate goals?
    Maintaining a sense of equilibrium/homeostasis between the system and the external world. To some extent this is reducing the sense of change for change sake but maintaining a system that responds.

    Most Australian academics are now more than familiar with the idea that the context within which universities find themselves is forever changing and that if universities don’t change, they are liable to cease to exist. This is usually an argument for the latest, greatest massive change that the university requires to “make it competitive”.

    Massive change is bad. It screws with the wholeness and harmony of the T&L context. While massive change is going on the chances of encouraging change in teachers thinking, planning and strategies is just not going to happen. Massive change like this comes in many flavours. Restructuring of organisational units is a favourite. As is moving to a new version of software (Blackboard 6.3 to 7.3) or to new software (Blackboard to Moodle).

    Such massive change is a bit like the descriptions of the effect of the erruption of Krakatoa on the local ecosystems described in the Wikipedia page on homeostasis. Massive change destroys all the complexity and interconnectedness of the ecosystem and forces it to start from scratch. While the ecosystem is recovering from that disaster the focus on improving learning and teaching can’t be great.

  3. The design focus?
    The focus is on the process used to achieve the goals and purpose. Not on a specific task or purpose, but on a process.

    A good example of what is meant here is this page on “responding to a draft”. It talks about the task being not to grade a final report, essay or thesis but to work with the students on the draft, help them with the process not grade the product.

    Focus on the process to get better, rather than on the product – Blackboard, Peopelsoft, Sakai, Moodle.

    The quote below from Lord John Brown is also tightly connected with this focus on process, not product.

  4. Who is doing the design?
    Everyone. Some connections with Land’s interpretive-hermeutic and reflective practitioner. Not a particular group, but where possible as many people as possible have some influence over the direction. An approach that bypasses more of the centralised governance type approaches and focuses on the enabling the frontline folk.

    The core strategic advantage and the most expensive resource which universities have at their disposal are the staff. Rough figures indicate that around 90% of a universities annual costs are staff salaries. But most design and management is focused on “controlling” them, especially the few bad apples. Teleological design, by its nature, limits the ability to design to a small few.

    The aim in ateleological design is to allow as many people as possible to design. To allow them to do their own thing with a minimum of interference of judgement. To let a 1000 flowers bloom. Celebrate the diversity.

    A concrete example of this around e-learning are the “real course sites” in Webfuse. The idea was that there was a “default course site” put in place to serve the needs of the organisation. But there was an area, essentially empty, in which academics could do their own thing, if they wised. We never supported this as much as we should’ve, but we really couldn’t. But that approach allows some interesting things to develop which can then feed back into the default.

  5. The scope of the design?
    Where possible attempting to focus on the whole. Not on a particular part of the problem.

    Too many of the problems within organisations come about because different, small parts of the organisation focus on their little patch. So an information system to manage the approval of new course proposals (including synopses and learning outcomes) doesn’t share the information with anything else.

  6. The design process?
    A focus on local adaptation, reflection and learning. A strong focus on the local needs and making small changes based on what has been learned.

    Sticking with homeostasis and decentralised design the design process becomes local adaptation. What does person X need. Solve that problem with a small solution. Don’t get hung up on trying to abstract it out and apply it to everyone. If the small change is done well it might be applicable to others, but they get to choose, they are co-designers.

    Small change is also important as it doesn’t cause great interruptions in the L&T context and contributes to wholeness and harmony by people seeing that the process is solving their problems. This creates trust.

    For a short period of time we achieve this sort of process (to a limited extent) within the Faculty of Informatics and Communication (which no longer exists because of a massive change). Here are a couple of quotes illustrating the trust that can develop

    ..the precedent of other IT systems made available in Infocom (…) suggests that it
    would be extremely user friendly for people with very limited computer
    competence/confidence.

    my positive experience with other Infocom systems gives me confidence that OASIS
    would be no different. The systems team have a very good track record that inspires
    confidence

  7. The problem to be faced?
    Traditional design has to deal with complexity and conflict (due by having to make sure people move towards the chosen purpose). Ateleological design’s problem is time. It can be seen as to slow.

    At this stage, I think Introna missed out on one of the problems of ateleological design – loss of control. Ateleological design means that management has to let go of the control, of their perceived right to make big, far-reaching decisions and instead focus on the process. Here’s a quote from Lord John Brown, the then Group CEO of BP, illustrating part of the problem.

    Giving up the illusion that you can predict the future is a very liberating moment. All you can do is give yourself the capacity to respond . . . the creation of that capacity is the purpose of strategy

    If you take a complexity/chaos view of organisations you also know that small changes in a complex system can have incredibly far-reaching impacts. So I’m not sure that the “time” problem is such a a big problem for ateleological design.

  8. Design management?
    Is, as much as possible, decentralised. Again moving it out to the frontline.
  9. Design control?
    Via a range of rules and regulators, not in line with a master plan.
  10. What does that actually mean? Still working on that to some extent. More to come.

    The previous post summarises it this way

    1. Start with what the institution currently has/does
    2. Work closely with the staff and students to become aware of the issues they are facing.
    3. Tweak the current systems to address those issues without major overall changes
    4. Return to step 2

    Extremes considered harmful

    This is not to indicate that ateleological design is the only approach required. Any extreme can be harmful. Certainly in the Australian university context and the governments tendency to control (and other reasons) you can’t do without some asepects of telological design.

    The problem, IMHO, at the moment is that most universities are leaning much to far towards the teleological end. Especially in a context like L&T which is very definitely a wicked design problem.

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One thought on “Further reflection on creating innovative, good quality L&T

  1. Kathleen Gray

    Though I’d play devils’ advocate in my comments today…:)

    Re your favourite diagram: wouldn’t it be fairer to say that the ultimate aim is to create in the students a sense of rightness around L&T?

    Re your examples (“overspending …….increases in support): to what extent do you consider that as the head of a university infrastructure unit, it is up to you (and by extension your unit) to use your role and position in the organisation to influence for the better other aspects of the infrastructure that pose barriers to improving L&T?

    Re maintaining a sense of equilibrium/homeostasis between the system and the external world: The world isn’t external to the system, but rather, the world is constituted of interconnected systems. Massive change isn’t bad or good, it just is part of how the world turns, in ecological terms. Homeostasis is the quality that enables rapid recovery from massive change – 100 years in the case of Krakatoa is pretty quick in geological time! Homeostasis doesn’t preclude change; r and K strategies are equally important to it. If you have trouble accentuating the positive, think of all the biodiversity that flourishes when a few resource-hogging climax species are brought low by massive change – it ushers in a time for widespread flora and fauna renewal and a different stage in the ecosystem cycle that is far from simple or unsophisticated and has its own beauty.

    Although they can be grossly mismanaged, versioning up or migrating over (Blackboard 6.3 to 7.3 or Blackboard to Moodle) aren’t really massive changes in comparison to others that university leaders have to implement. Restructuring organisational units may bring lesser or greater changes – but “restructuringâ€? is not a bad word, and is part of any manager’s repertoire, including yours.

    Local adaptation, small change, trust – what if by proceeding mainly in this way you are actually fiddling while Rome burns, rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic, building false confidence in the status quo, or otherwise trying to sustain the unsustainable?

    You might find Geoff Sharrock’s article in the current Australian Universities Review 49(1&2) thought-provoking to read, especially his conclusions about activist forms of leadership, engaging staff in considered adaptation, and organisational reinvention from within.

    Cheers,
    Kathleen

    Reply

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