PLEs and the institution: the wrong problem

Yesterday, I rehashed/summarised some earlier thoughts about “handling the marriage of PLEs and institutions. Since then, I’ve been reflecting on that post. Am coming to the belief that this is just the wrong problem, or perhaps just a symptom of a deeper problem. (Signal the start of the broken record).

All of the students and academic staff (the learners) of a university have always had their own PLEs. It’s only with the rise of Web 2.0, e-learning 2.0 and related movements/fads that the PLE (and/or PLN) label has become a concern. And only because of this has the question of how, or indeed if, an institution should provide a PLE arisen. In much the same way that universities – at least within Australia – have had to deal with distance education, flexible learning, lifelong learning, open learning, blended learning and a whole range of similar labels and fads.

The product focus

The problem that I am seeing is that university teaching and learning – and the systems that underpin and support that teaching and learning – are “product” or fad focused. i.e. folk within the institution note that “X” (i.e. open learning, blended learning, PLEs, e-portfolios etc) is currently the buzz word within the sector around learning and teaching and hence the organisation and its practices are re-organised – or at least seen to be re-organised – to better implement “X”. From this you get a whole bunch of folk within institutions (from senior management down) for whom their professional identity becomes inextricably linked with “X”. Their experiences and knowledge grow around “X”. Any subsequent criticism of “X” is a criticism of their identity and thus can’t be allowed. It has to be rejected. Worse still, “X” becomes the grammar of the institution, everything must be considered as part of “X” (thus good) or not part of “X” (thus bad).

Various factors such as short term contracts for senior managers; top-down management; certain research strategies that generate outputs through investigating “learning and teaching with “X””; the increasing prevalence of “project managers” within universities and the simplistic notions many of them have; deficit models of academics; and the wicked nature of the learning and teaching problem all contribute to the prevalence of this mistake.

The process focus

What I described as a way to handle the marriage of PLEs and institutions is no different from the approach we used to implement Webfuse and no different from the process I would use to attempt to support and improve learning and teaching within any university. It’s an approach that doesn’t focus on a particular “X”, but instead on adopting a process that enables the institution to learn and respond to what happens within its own context and outside.

Some broad steps:

  • Ensure that there’s a L&T support team full of the best people you can get with a breadth and depth of experience in learning, teaching, technology and contextual knoweldge.
    This is not a one off, it’s an on-going process of bringing new people in and helping the people within grow to exceed their potential.
  • Implement a process where the L&T support team is working closely and directly with the academics teaching within the context during the actual teaching.
    i.e. not just on design of courses before delivery, but during teaching in a way that enables the support team to help the teaching academics in ways that are meaningful, contextual and build trust and connections between the teaching academics and the support staff.
  • Adopt approaches that encourage greater connections between the L&T support team, the teaching academics, students and the outside world.
  • Support and empower the support team and teaching academics to experiment with interventions at a local level with a minimum management intervention or constraints in terms of institutional barriers.
  • Observe what happens in the local interventions and cherry pick the good ideas for broader incorporation into the institution’s L&T environment in a way that encourages and enables adoption by others.
  • Implement mechanisms where senior management are actively encouraged to understand the reality of teaching within the institutional context and actively charged with identifying and removing those barriers standing in the way of teaching and learning.
    The job of the leaders is not to choose the direction, but to help the staff doing the work get to where they want to go.

What’s important

The identity of “X” is not important, be it graduate attributes, constructive alignment, PLEs, Web 2.0, social media, problem-based learning, blended learning etc, all these things are transitory. What’s important is that the university has the capability and the on-going drive to focus on a process through which it is reflecting on what it does, what works, what doesn’t and what it could do better, and subsequently testing those thoughts.

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