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.

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