An experiment in blog-based discussions

One of the major tools used (and mis-used) in most university-based e-learning is the discussion forum, or mailing list, or some other form of software for managing/creating multi-person dialogue. The PLEs@CQUni project is attempting to figure out and experiment with social media tools as a way to improve existing practice. An obvious need is to identify if, how and with what limitations these tools can be used to manage/create multi-person dialogues of the sort most academic staff associate with discussion forums.

The perceived need for this type of identification is mostly pragmatic. It is based on the observation that the decisions and actions people take are mostly based on patterns formed by previous experience. This is why most e-learning continues to be of the “horseless carriage” type. Being able to show academic staff that a new technology can re-create aspects of previous practice is an important step in getting them to move. This is the first step in the journey. We have to help get them out the door.

The question and assumptions

Chances are that blogs are going to be a major component of a PLE. Some of the more interesting work in this area certainly suggests this. So the modified question for this post and the activity I hope will arise from it is

What are the mechanics, benefits and limitations of using individual blogs to manage a multi-person discussion?

The idea is not to have a single blog on which everyone posts. The idea is to encourage the PLE type assumption where each participant in the discussion has their own blog and uses their blog to make their contribution.

The assumption should be that, if possible, each participant in the conversation can have their own blog on a different provider. i.e. everyone shouldn’t have to get a blog on to engage in the discussion.


This should be a type of action research. We’re not going to talk about it. We’re actually going to try and do it, and learn from the doing. This blog post will serve as the first part of an artifact that will arise out of this process. Those who participate will attempt to use this post as the first part of a conversation, by using their own blog.

Your task is to use whatever blog-based means you like to continue this conversation. The aim of the conversation is to discuss and come to some conclusion about the question listed above.

I will kick the ball rolling by sharing some resources arising from a quick google. A link to it should appear below ASAP.

Kant – separation of reason and experience


I’m slowly working through some PhD related work (the post on the paper I’m reading will come out later today) and that brought me across the following description of an argument of Kant’s from the wikipedia page on Kant

Kant argues, however, that using reason without applying it to experience will only lead to illusions, while experience will be purely subjective without first being subsumed under pure reason.

I haven’t time to follow up on this or to go to the original source, so the following may suffer from that. However, I find that I interpret this as being very conncted to what I’m currently doing and writing about.

Separation of expert analysis/design and lived experience

My understanding is that Kant was arguing against both the empirical and the rational view of the world/philosophy. To some extent (possibly doubtful in its validity) I see a connection here with some of the problems I’ve been writing about.

The rational world, in my thinking, can be ascribed to aspects of the “expert designer” approach. An expert/consultant/designer in information technology, curriculum, organisational structure applies a range of theories and rules of thumb to design a solution. Such an expert has varying but only small amounts of experience with what actually goes on in the context.

For example, a curriculum designer doesn’t really know what goes on in a course. What the students experience, what the staff say and do etc. What knowledge they do have is based on less than perfect methods such as observation, evaluation results and self-reporting of the students and staff.

The lack of understanding of the lived experience limits what they can see and do. They generally aren’t aware of, or abstract away, the complexities of connections between elements within such a system (should point out that I’m talking primilary about design that happens within human organisations).

As a result of this lack, any solution is likely to be less than perfect.

On the other hand, the academic who is teaching the course (typically) has a large amount of lived experience. A deep understanding of what happens in the course. However, it will be somewhat limited by their patterns and what they are trained to see. In addition, (typically) they will also have no understanding of the various theories and rules of thumb that can help understand what happens and design new interventions.

So as the Wikipedia author ascribes to Kant. Solutions developed purely by an expert designer, without experience, will lead to illusion. While a solution based solely on experience will be purely subjective.

There needs to be a strong and appropriate mix of reason and experience. The right mix of practice and theory.

Implications for information technology

I wonder what this perspective would say about information technology development projects that develop entire systems divorced from experience/reality until they are completed and ready to be put into place?

Implications for the PLE project

For the PLEs@CQUni project this implies that the research project, in order to encourage use of PLE related concepts within learning and teaching, needs to be informed by both theory and experience.

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.

Tool users, research, hammers and the law of instrument

The following quote is from (Hirschheim, 1992) and is questioning the practice of research/the scientific method

Within this context the researcher should be viewed as a craftsman or a tool builder – one who builds tools, as separate from and in addition to, the researcher as tool users. Unfortunately, it is apparent that the common conception of researchers/scientists is different. They are people who use a particular tool (or a set of tools). This, to my mind, is undesirable because if scientists are viewed in terms of tool users rather than tool builders then we run the risk of distorted knowledge acquisition techniques. As an old proverb states: ‘For he who has but one tool, the hammer, the whole world looks like a nail’. We certainly need to guard against such a view, yet the way we practice ‘science’ leads us directly to that view.

Using a hammer to make an omelete

I’ve used this image in a recent presentation as a background to an important point that I’ve hammered again and again and again. “If all you have is a hammer, then everything is a nail”.

Apparently this is called the law of instrument and came from Abraham Kaplan’s The conduct of inquiry: Methodology for behavioural science. Apparently first published in 1964.

Information technology

There is a false dichotomy often trotted out in the practice of information technology: buy versus build. The impression being that “building” (being a tool builder) is a bad thing as it is wasteful. It’s seen as cheaper and more appropriate for the organisation to be a tool user.

As the “buy” option increasingly wins over the “build” option I believe I am increasingly seeing the law of instrument raise its ugly head within organisations. The most obviously bad example of this I’ve seen is folk wanting to use a WebCT/Blackboard course site for a publicity website. But there are many, many others.


You can see this in the group of staff (and institutions) who have “grown up” in e-learning with learning management systems. Their hammer is the LMS. The LMS is used to beat up on every learning problem because it is seen as a nail.

This is especially true of LMS support staff who do not have a good foundation knowledge in technology and learning and teaching. Every problem becomes a question of how to solve it with in the LMS. Even though the LMS may be the worst possible tool – like making an omelette with a hammer.

Asking tool users what they’d like to do

A common research method around new types of technology in learning and teaching sees the researcher developing a survey or running focus groups. These are targetted at group of people who are current tool users. For example, students and staff of a university currently using an LMS. The research aim is to ask these “tool users” what they would like to do with a brand new tool, often one based on completely different assumptions or models from the tool they are using.

This approach is a bit like giving stone age people a battery powered (was going to use electric knife, but no electricity – the point is the knife is powered and cuts “by itself”) knife. They’d simply end up using it like they use their stone axes (they would bang what they are cutting). They have been shaped by their tool use. They will find it difficult to imagine the different affordances that the new tool provides until they’ve used it.


I believe this was the context in which Kaplan first originated the law of instrument. Folk who get so caught up in a particular research methodology that they continue to apply it in situations where it no longer works.

Expert designer: Another assumption PLEs question

In a serious of blog posts (starting with this one) I’ve been trying to develop a list of fundamental assumptions about learning and teaching at Universities which the various concepts associated with personal learning environments (PLEs) bring into question.

This post attempts to add another.

The expert designer

Experts only

Within the practice of learning and teaching at universities there are a number of levels that assume the need for an expert designer (or a small group thereof). These include:

  • Senior management (and their consultants);
    Any important decision must be made by the small group of senior managers. Typically they will draw on “experts” to provide analysis and recommendations and then the senior management (or manager) will make the decision.

    Senior management is difficult and requires great skills and foresight and subsequently couldn’t just be left to normal people to make the decision. They don’t have the skill.

  • Learning design; and
    The design a university course is performed by the academic (or small group thereof) with demonstrable discipline expertise in the form of PhDs. They might be aided by their consultants, the instructional designers and other technical staff, but in the end it is the academic staff who make the decisions.

    After all, learning all about a discipline area is difficult. It requires great depth and breadth of knowledge to understand how best to do this. You couldn’t leave this sort of thing up to the learners. They don’t have the knowledge to do this.

  • Provision of information technology systems.
    Information technology is complex and complicated. There is a broad chasm of difference between looking after your home PC and managing large, complex and important enterprise systems. Such a task requires enterprise IT experts, and their consultants, to make these difficult decision and ensure that the organisation isn’t losing money.

    You can’t simply leave information technology decisions up to the end-user. They don’t have this breadth and depth of knowledge. They would make mistakes. It would waste resources.

And the list could go on for each of the professional groups or divisions that infest a modern university. Ordering textbooks, booking travel, looking after gardens and buildings, all of these activities, as implemented in a modern organisation, assume that there is a need for the experts to take control.

Problems with this approach

The main problem with this tendency is “one size fits all”. The central, small group of designers can never fully understand the diversity of all of their clients and in many cases could never efficiently provide a customised service to each of them. For example, a university course is never customised for an individual student’s pre-existing knowledge – even though this is one of the things we know is important for learning.

Web 2.0, social media and other advances in technology are bringing this practice into question. Increasingly there are abundant, inexpensive and simple to use tools which users can adopt, and more importantly, adapt to their own preferences. These tools, through the use of standards, can be used to access organisational services (if they are configured appropriately).

It’s becoming possible for the end-user to use the tools they already know. Rather than being forced to use the tools selected by the central IT folk of the organisation they now work for or are studying at.

Related to this is that this approach assumes that the “non-experts” actually need the input of the experts. Increasingly with IT you don’t. Similarly, many folk can learn things quite effectively all of the time through informal learning without the need for the discipline expert. The need and supposed rise of lifelong learning means that this trend should only increase.

Following on from this is the assumption that the experts really are experts. I’m sure anyone that has worked within an organisation can point to organisational decisions which demonstrably suggest that the experts weren’t so expert.

PLEs@CQUni: Origins, rationale and outcomes so far

Yesterday I gave a presentation on the PLEs@CQUni project. It was a 30 minute presentation designed to give a quick overview of the origins of the project, why it is being run the way it is and what some of the outcomes have been so far. At a very brief, higher level. There are numerous talks in various aspects of this presentation.

The video should be available in a couple of days. Sadly, with various contextual factors playing a role the talk is somewhat sarcastic, not that this is something really new. The slides are on slideshare.

Perhaps the only thing that is truly new is an attempt to identify some of the fundamental assumptions about the practice of university learning and teaching which concepts we place under the PLEs bring into serious question. This is a topic I’ve blogged about and will probably continue adding a few more. You can see the start of that conversation on this post and should see links to subsequent posts at the end.

While the ideas within these are not new, the attempt to get them into a coherent whole for use at my host institution is somewhat new. Though perhaps not all that valuable.

PLEs@CQUni – VoiceThread for Research Posters

Last night the PLEs@CQUni project helped support a public session titled “Psychology and Public Health Infotainment”. The purpose was to show the relevant local community practitioners research posters prepared by students in CQUni course – PSYCH13021, Special Topic in Psychology.

Our involvement was to help in the use of VoiceThread as a means to present the students’ posters and enable visitors to make comments on the research posters.

The complete list of all the posters is available.

Overall the experience of the whole project has been positive and proven how, with a bit of help, that many of the growing number of available services on the web can help improve learning and teaching at universities.

This small scale and very simple project was simply investigating how it would work, gathering some more knowledge. Based on the experience, it would be pretty easy to leverage this and similar tools to make a dramatic impact.

Another assumption which PLEs over throws

In a previous post I started developing some ideas about the current assumptions associated with university learning and teaching which the concepts surrounding the nebulous term of PLEs bring into question. This post struggles with suggesting another one – consistency.

Consistency is the last refuge of the unimaginative


As I travel through my working life within universities I am bombarded with this idea of consistency. Some examples of how it crops up:

  • All course websites should have the same structure and appearance.
    The idea here is that students are confused, and are complaining about being confused, because the course websites for their courses are all different. They don’t know where to find things.
  • All text-based material produced by the university should use the same template.
    This is a hang over from the old print-based distance education days and I first wrote about it back in 1996.
  • Consistency of course delivery and student participation.
    The Australian Universities Quality Agency in its audit report of CQUni wrote

    As a University with multiple teaching sites, CQU has developed a system for ensuring the consistency of course delivery and student participation which may be amongst best practice in the Australian sector.

    When agencies tasked with auditing and reporting on quality assurance speak, institutions listen. Consistency of course delivery is important.

Problems with calls for consistency

Personally I find this emphasis on consistency simplistic, limited, likely to enshrine problems and essentially a complete and utter mismatch with the nature of learning and teaching, of people and the diversity between and within disciplines. Some of the problems I see with consistency follow.

Solving the wrong problem

When it comes to students not being able to find material on course websites, I would suggest that it is not lack of consistency that is the problem. It’s the lack of quality.

There are well established principles for the design of the structure and appearance of websites to maximise findability. Most of course websites are designed by people who aren’t aware of these principles using systems that actually make it really difficult to make use of those principles.

That’s the old style solution, good design.

The new style solution is to make use of a good search engine. The majority of folk don’t find things on the web by navigating through a course design. They “google it”. If the systems used by universities were able to provide a good search engine, there wouldn’t be a problem.

Often the call for consistency is an attempt to achieve quality through consistency. Which is essentially a cop out. What is needed is the much harder task of achieving quality through quality.

Remember, the prime example of quality through consistency is McDonalds. They are the same everywhere. I wonder how many universities want to be known as the McDonalds of higher education.

Diversity is a key component of innovation

It’s well known within the realm of innovation that one of the necessary (but not sufficient) conditions for innovation is diversity. Aiming for consistency will kill off innovation and open up an organisation to the threat of being unable to respond to changes in the market.

I’ve written about this previously and given some pointers to some related thinking.

Everything is not the same

Back in 1996 I wrote about a problem with consistency. The rules to keep consistency didn’t recognise an instance where the content was really different. Applying the rules broke the meaning. The rules of consistency didn’t apply in every case. There is inherent diversity.

Everyone is not the same

At the beginning of this week I attended a video-conference session by George Siemens. He started the session with an overview of what we know about learning from the research. One of the 6 points he mentioned was “Incorporates prior learning“.

This means that learning should aim to start with and be tailored to actively engage with the knowledge which each learner brings to an experience. It would be very, very rare to find any two learners with the same prior learning.

Another of the 6 points he made was “Is multi-faceted, multi-dimensional“. In that it treats the whole person. It engages with them and their situation. It is different.

What is it important for CQUni

I currently work for CQUniversity. This discussion is especially important given the recent push for the university to be associated with the brand/slogan “Be what you want to be”. As outlined here

What are the assumptions which PLEs/Learning 2.0 etc overthrow

Friday I am supposed to be giving a 30 minute overview of the PLEs@CQUni project. The tentative title is “PLEs@CQUni: Origins, Rationale, Outcomes and Future?”. As part of the origins section I was going to talk about some of the fundamental assumptions of university learning and teaching which PLEs, learning 2.0 and associated concepts, memes and propaganda are undermining, or at least questioning. The following is an attempt to outline some of those and hopefully a plea for the perspective of others.

This isn’t an attempt to get the definitive list. I’m sure there are others out there – pointers welcome. This is an attempt to put together a short list which can be used to make strong points to my potential audience and encourage them to consider that, just maybe, it’s time to reconsider a few practices.

Closed classrooms

Old, closed classroom

The idea that the classroom is restricted by four physical walls and a roof has been under attack through the use of e-learning. However, much of e-learning, as currently practiced, still restricts learning and participation to the classroom. If not the physical classroom, at least to those that are enrolled in the course.

There are levels to this. At the most restrictive level even the members of the course aren’t able to access the content and learning archived in an online course before or after the term/semester has ended. Even if this access is possible, anyone not in the course cannot typically gain access.

Increasingly through movements like open educational resources, open courseware, open access journals and others the notion of restricting access to learning within universities, especially public universities is being questioned.

The practice of openness was a fundamental component of the early Internet and subsequently the open source community. That practice has started to inform/infect other areas of practice and certainly appears to be embodied in social media.

David Wiley picks up these theme and does it more justice in this journal article. And put it into practice.

George Siemens and Stephen Downes are taking this to the extreme with an open course on connectivism and connective knowledge.


The traditional practice of university teaching and the most common current practice of e-learning at universities were based on one fundamental assumption – scarcity.

The knowledge held by the university academic was scarce. Learners would find it difficult, if not impossible, to access that knowledge via any other means but attending formal courses run by the university and the academic with the knowledge. Textbooks were scarce and expensive.

In the 90s, access to the Internet was scarce. Especially in the early to mid-1990s people were often enrolling at Universities in order to gain access to the Internet. Universities became responsible for providing the modems and other infrastructure to provide that access. Subsequently, services on which to host content, discussions and other services on the Internet/World-Wide Web were scarce. Universities had to provide the infrastructure to host the content, discussions and other services associated with learning and teaching.

Then a funny thing happened. These things became abundant. People didn’t have to come to universities for information, expertise, Internet access or Internet content, discussions and other services. They were spoiled for choice.

The first place I go to find an answer to a question is Google. I’m sure I am not alone.

The first place I go if I want to

  • put a powerpoint file online is Slideshare;
  • share an opinion or a publication is WordPress;
  • engage in some collaborative editing of a paper is Google docs; or
  • share some images is Flickr.

And each of the above tend towards being open.

Knowledge and internet services are now abundant. As George Siemens mentioned in a recent talk “When you have 3 dogs you give them names. When you have 10,000 cattle you don’t bother”. Number or amount matters. You do different things when resources are scarce than when they are abundant. Practices have to change.

We have already started thinking and doing playing with how this might change in terms of providing course websites with out first Web 2.0 course site.

Primacy of formal learning


The majority of the emphasis in university learning is on finishing the course. Be it the learning going through the course or the academic teaching/designing the course, the focus is on the course. At the extreme end of this perspective is the situation where the course doesn’t connect with the outside world. Doesn’t recognise that most learning doesn’t happen in a formal classroom.

On the web and in the literature you can find numerous folk (1 and 2 ) who will suggest that the vast majority of learning does NOT happen in a formal education or training environment. Most learning occurs in ad hoc, unexpected interactions with peers, family and friends.

In the current “knowledge-based economy” it’s the responsibility of universities to recognise that learning doesn’t stop when students graduate (not does it start when they enrol). They will keep learning, the will need to. It’s our responsibility to help them develop these skills and perhaps to collaborate with them in the on-going need for lifelong learning. Perhaps leveraging the benefits of their informal learning as the move through life can improve the quality of our formal courses.

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.