How do we transform institutions? Learning 2.0 and PLEs@CQUni

Graham Atwell raises some questions around the topics Learning 2.0, PLEs, Web2.0, informal and formal learning in this blog post. Apparently based on a workshop which appears to be focusing on the harnessing of these technologies/approaches in existing educational organisations

Aside: I find it somewhat interesting, given the topic, that I’ve found it somewhat difficult (I admit with only a quick google) to find anything about this workshop on the web. The closest I got was the following blurb on a calendar of events page.

This Validation and Policy Options Workshop is being organised by the Institute for Prospective Technological Studies (IPTS), which is part of the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre. The rapid growth of social computing or web 2.0 applications and supporting technologies (blogs, podcasts, wikis, social networking sites, sharing of bookmarks, VoIP and P2P services) has become an important driver of innovation in learning. IPTS is carrying out a study with the objective to assess the impact of web 2.0 trends on the field of learning and education in Europe. Christian Wilk, from the European Commission, unit ‘Cultural Heritage and Technology Enhanced Learning’, is among the invited participants.

Given my current (but potentially somewhat limited) involvement in the PLEs@CQUni project, which is attempting to answer these sorts of questions, I thought it would be worthwhile to engage with some of Graham’s questions.

Does this focus miss the main issues?

Graham suggests

I feel that in focusing on the use of technology for learning within the existing educational organisations they miss the main issues.

Based on the blurb about the workshop from above, I’m guessing Graham’s comment is specifically in the context of this workshop and perhaps that this EU research group is focusing too much learning in universities etc and thus not asking the really interesting questions which he raises such as

  • How do people not enrolled on courses use technologies for learning?
  • How can we empower learners to structure their own learning?

I can certainly see how these questions, particularly the first one, can probably be more fruitfully answered outside of existing formal institutions of learning and teaching.

However, the second question and a number of the other questions Graham asks are different. I think they can be quite effectively answered, at least in large part, within existing institutions of learning and teaching. In fact, some of them must involve those institutions. For example

  • How do we transform institutions?

    Institutional transformation (as opposed to substitution and/or replacement) would appear to require engaging the institution and its members in projects looking to radically transform how they conduct themselves.

  • How do we bring together informal learning and learning from formal sources?
  • How can we open up educational resources – materials but not just resources – to the wider community?

    These last two questions seem to require some level of engagement from the existing institutions.

I can certainly see the danger and in many cases the strong likelihood that any move by existing institutions to adopt learning/web 2.0 is likely to end up missing the point. It will end up being the use of “blogs within an LMS” or other practices which simply miss the point of learning 2.0/web 2.0. Don’t understand the fundamental principles of learning 2.0/web 2.0 and just how much of a paradigm shift they pose for much of the organisational practices and assumptions of existing institutions of learning and teaching.

Assuming that you have to engage this organisations in some way, that transforming these organisations has some value, then what will work?

A teleological process won’t work

A traditional “project-management” project approach to using learning 2.0/web 2.0 within an existing organisation will not work. It will almost certainly result in the “blogs and wikis within an LMS” approach that demonstrates a complete misunderstanding of the implications of learning 2.0/web 2.0.

This type of approach goes by a number of names

  • teleological design (Introna, 1996)
  • push systems (Seely Brown and Hagel, 2005)
  • idealistic (Kurtz and Snowden, 2007)

The features of this approach can be summarised as

  • Some senior folk decide on the purpose.
  • They use “experts” to analyse the situation and design a solution.
  • Once decided the organisation and its members must all align and adopt the identified solution.
  • Those that don’t, get “change managed” or “culturally re-aligned” so they do.

My colleagues and I have expanded on the problems with this type of approach a couple of times before. First in 2005 and again in 2007.

The main problem in this context is that this type of approach is almost 100% certain to ensure that the fundamental assumptions underpinning existing organisational practice will remain. That you’ll get the “blogs and wikis in an LMS” approach to learning 2.0/web 2.0.

IT project management will fail

Often, the experts called in to do the analysis and design in this type of project will be IT experts. This is based on the misguided assumption that the harnessing of learning 2.0/web 2.0 within an existing institution of learning and teaching is an IT implementation project. After all isn’t Web 2.0 information technology?

This is a sure sign of folk who just don’t get it.

It’s a sure sign of a project that is destined to have “blogs and wikis in an LMS”.

The level of transformation or questioning of the fundamental practices and assumptions, both organisationally and about learning and teaching, necessary to effectively make use of the key aspects of learning 2.0/web 2.0 mean that the technology questions associated with such projects are just about the simplest thing you have to handle. The broader pedagogical and organisational questions are going to be significantly more difficult and require much greater engagement and consideration.

The technical selection, installation and/or support of a blog or wiki system or incorporating RSS feeds into existing technologies is dead simple. Any IT folk worth their salt could do it. There are hosting companies that, for a very cheap price, allow you to select from a menu of such systems and can have you up and going very quickly.

Then there’s the whole question of just how well you are understanding learning 2.0/web 2.0 if the first thing you recommend to your organisation is the selection and installation of local technology. SaaS, the “computing cloud” any one?

Helping an academic with 20 years experience of learning 1.0 understand and make moves towards learning 2.0, especially if you’re in an organisation that has only just barely (if you’re generous) web 1.0 literate, is incredibly more difficult than installing and maintaining a software package (locally hosted or not). The critical success factor in transforming an organisation from learning 1.0 to learning 2.0 is not how well you manage your blog engine, it’s how effective you are in engaging and changing the perspectives of the teaching staff and the students.

If the IT function of an organisation is the major driving force behind an attempts to harness learning 2.0/web 2.0, then it will fail. The tail is wagging the dog. The organisation is focusing on the simple question and ignoring the hard ones.

A purely research based approach won’t work

There is a lot of literature published around PLEs and other associated topics that have small research groups developing principles, embodying them in prototypes and trialing them with small groups of folk. Such groups can be primarily computer science type folk or learning science type folk, the tend to do the same thing. This practice is all well and good and will generate some very useful insights.

However, it tells us nothing about how you can or what might happen when you attempt to harness learning 2.0/web 2.0 within a real organisation. When you’re dealing with real people (students and academics) who have a lot on their plate and don’t really see the point of learning 2.0 (especially when they’re being told to research), a lot of unexpected and very difficult problems arise.

The assumptions made by the research groups don’t always apply. Working out how to enable this transformation within a specific context is a lot harder than figuring out the 5 principles of a PLE prototype.

An engaged, design research approach with a focus on staff learning, might work

Transforming the learning and teaching practice of a university will fail unless the teaching staff and the students engage in the process. If they don’t change their conceptualisations of how learning and teaching should work, then the transformation will not occur.

There is a chance, at least on the surface, that it may appear to be working. All the staff may be using blogs, the students are posting. But chances are, unless they really do engage, they are simply “gaming” the system. Being seen to do the right thing because it is expected, not because they actually taken on board the “new way” of doing things.

For this reason, I suggest that the transformation of an institution through application of learning 2.0/web 2.0 would probably require the organisation to take the principles of learning 2.0/web 2.0 and use a collaborative, emergent process engage with the local organisational context and actively help the students and staff improve their experience of the context through the appropriate application of the learning 2.0/web 2.0 principles.

Such a process would focus on developing knowledge and positive experience amongst the students and staff and do so through a largish number of small-scale separate trials that are attempting very different things. Those that work continue, those that don’t get killed off and lessons are learned.

The formation of this ideas is outlined and expanded upon in two recent publications

Won’t that just result in “Blogs and wikis in an LMS”

Underpinning the above suggestion is the idea that you can only make small changes to the existing practice of experience teachers. This is, to some extent, based on the findings that people will either discount or simply not understand/see any perspective or practice that is significantly different from their existing conceptualisations. Anyone who forces radical change will encourage at best compliance, not engagement, and at worst, complete disengagement.

The idea of small changes begs the question, “Well won’t this just end up with ‘blogs and wikis in an LMS'”. i.e. you will get the old horseless carriage approach with educational technology.

Perhaps. But there are two responses which I believe suggest otherwise. These are:

  1. “The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.”
    This type of a project doesn’t end after the first step. The project and how it works has to continue to be embedded into the organisation’s fundamental operation. It has to continue to encourage and enable the staff and students to keep taking those single steps. A significant limitation of teleological design projects is that once they finish the initial implementation, they aim to maintain the status quo for long periods of time. They stop the journey.
  2. Small changes in a complex system can have large and unexpected outcomes.
    I believe that most largish institutions of learning and teaching, especially universities, are an example of a complex adaptive system. Such systems are non-linear.

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