More on the expert designer – efficiency and effectiveness

A previous post has gotten a comment which I want to follow up on. The interface for writing a post gives more opportunity to be creative than that provided to add comments.

A clarification of the intent

Due to a few factors my intent may not have been clear. So one more attempt at clarity.

Let’s concentrate on one level, rather than the 3 or 4 I used in the original post. Perhaps the most connected to my current work is that of teaching and the common saying that modern teachers need to “not be the sage on the stage, but become the guide on the side”.

Sage on the stage

This is the age old image of the university course and it’s face-to-face sessions. The primary purpose of the professor is to analyse the topic area, identify what is important and deliver it to the students. The professor is the expert designer. The sage on the stage.

The content of the course is packaged into a format entirely controlled by the professor. A format that fits the expert designers conception of what it should look like.

Guide on the side

The alternative recognises that the learner needs to be much more in control of their learner. They have to actively construct learning through activities, tasks and approaches that are most suitable for them.

In this model, the professor gives up much of the control associated with the expert designer approach. Instead the concentrate on providing scaffolding, encouragement and guidance to the learner to aid them in their journey through the content. The design of the specific learning experience is largely the responsibilty of the learner.

Spectrum not a dichotomy

It should be pointed out that this is not a dichotomy. You don’t have two extreme boxes. At one end is the expert designer option in which the designer controls all. While at the other end you have each individual doing their own design.

Instead there is a full spectrum of approaches inbetween where the control of the designer becomes less and less.

A software example

A software example would be WordPress not having plugins. Instead any and all new features for WordPress would be under the control of the WordPress software developers. The expert designers.

By providing support for plugins, WordPress allow aspects of control and design to be broaden to a move diverse group.

The comments

There will always be experts because it is more efficient for an organization to use division of labour techniques to maximize greater skill levels and greater productivity as a whole.

There are three ways I’d respond to this

  1. There is more to life than efficiency.
  2. The measurement of efficiency is a highly questionable exercise.
  3. I’m not sure the “expert” route is always more efficient.

More to life than efficiency

I can think of two competing characteristics that are often in competition to efficiency.

  1. Effectiveness

    Teaching a course with a single academic is considerably more efficient than teaching it with 5. However, for a variety of reasons (e.g. more academics, means more people marking which might mean quicker turnaround time on feedback and better quality and quantity of feedback, which probably means better learning), doing it with 5 might result in a more effective outcomes.

  2. Ability to adapt
    When things change you have to have some “fat” to enable change. In terms of organisations and innovation, Christensen’s disruptive innovation work seems to indicate that having and allowing different approaches is actually a good thing.

Measurement of efficiency is questionable

How and who measures what is efficient?

About 6 or 7 years ago I was fighting battles with a group of “expert designers” responsible for the institutional ERP. The group I worked with had created a web-based system for academic staff to view data in the ERP (i.e. student records). The system did a lot more than this, but this was the focus of the ERP group.

One of their arguments was that having two systems was inefficient. Instead of using our duplicate (shadow) system, academics should be using the ERP provided system. It was more efficient this way. The university didn’t have to support and maintain two different systems.

That sounds right doesn’t it? If you based your assumptions solely on what appeared in the university accounting system you would be right.

However, if you knew the organisation in a little more detail than captured in the accounts. You would be aware that the ERP system’s approach was taking academic staff 20 minutes to generate a simple list of students in a course. And this is one of the simplest tasks academics needed to do.

The web-based duplicate system we’d developed could do it in under a minute.

Reliance on the ERP system was requiring at least one faculty to employ additional staff to perform this task for the academics. In other faculties, academics were having to waste their time performing this task or weren’t doing it.

Is that efficient?

The expert route isn’t always efficient

I think the above story also illustrates how the expert route isn’t always more efficient. Sometimes (many?) the experts get caught up in the law of instrument. They did in the above case. All they had was an ERP, they had to solve every problem with the ERP, even though it was inefficient and terrible.

Trust and the expert

The organisation has to trust the experts to provide the information from their area of expertise.

One of the problems with experts is the law of instrument. They start to see every problem with the lens of their expertise. Even when it isn’t appropriate.

Experts, especially those in support/service positions, tend to over emphasise the importance of the requirements of their expert area over the broader needs of the organisation.

PLEs and experts

I would have thought that PLEs would lead to MORE specialization as it is far easier to build a targeted learning path to turn out experts.

I think we’re getting back to the area of confusion.

Currently, when it comes to providing the tools for students to use for e-learning. Most institutions use the expert designer approach. The IT unit goes out and evaluates all the available tools, makes the most appropriate choice and everyone uses it.

The extreme PLE approach is that the institutional experts don’t select or design anything. Each individual student takes on the role of designer. They are more familiar with what they have used before, what they want to do. They do the design.

In reality, at least in the work we’ve done so far, is that the truth is somewhere in between. The institution minimises the design of technology but it still provides some scaffolding, some direction and support to help the learners make their own choices.

One thought on “More on the expert designer – efficiency and effectiveness

  1. Thanks for the clarification, I think the problem is that there exists a position in the uni that is classified as an “expert designer”, whereas I have been thinking purely about “experts”.

    As an example of what I was assuming, imagine the university had to re-hire all its lecturers. The university would not want to hire 500 (guessing?) people all alike, they would want to hire people with diverse expertise as there are many courses they wish to provide in many different disciplines. The organisation as a whole benefits by dividing the labour required for teaching into discrete areas where only a subset of knowledge is required, therefore placing an expert of that knowledge in that position regardless of their other areas of knowledge increases the overall knowledge that the universtiy can leverage.

    In the guide on the side example I would still see the “guide” as an expert, but an expert at scaffolding and preparing an environment for learning. They would also harness other “experts” to provide content for their specific area, be it through reading their papers, querying them, discussing, or direct instruction. The guide on the side would in fact utilize more experts than the sage on the stage. Same too with the WordPress analogy. The WordPress staff are experts in providing an API to harness other people’s expertise.

    For PLEs I was thinking more outside of a course and at the whole student journey from childhood to worker. With PLEs they can (under guidance from personal learning managers, parents, mentors, etc) undertake a targeted path toward a specific goal; essentially to become and expert. Society as a whole will benefit from this type of arrangement as long as it can extract value from those individuals, which is why there needs to be a strong emphasis on communication and bridging to share knowledge.

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