On trying to be optimistic in a stupid world

It’s been an “interesting” few weeks destined to challenge the optimism of the most optimistic person – of which I’m not. Broader events in the world do appear to be the outcome of a conspiracy to rob the world of optimism. Mix in some personal woes – death of a grandparent, illness (no great problem), interruptions to routine brought on my Apple’s inability to provide a working iPhone, and the stupidity of organisations (especially universities that have been recently restructured) – and it’s definitely a time for pessimism.

I am a pessimist because of intelligence, but an optimist because of will.

Antonio Gramsci by flickrenric, on Flickr
Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.0 Generic License   by  flickrenric 

It’s only in the last couple of years that I’ve come across this quote from Antonio Gramsci

I am a pessimist because of intelligence, but an optimist because of will.

It resonates as my pessimism (i.e. my inability to whitewash the limitations of a solution with the supposed benefits) often gets me labelled as “being negative”. Which always struck me as unfair as most of what I do in terms of “research” has been “design research” and informed by the optimistic view that it can be made better. Hence the tag line for this blog.

Lately I’ve found myself sinking into a more negative form of pessimism, perhaps brought on the difficulty (due to organisational stupidity, and not a small part of my own) I’ve had getting back into “making things better”. Perhaps this is a realisation that my sanity needs time being able to make things better.

Perhaps linking to Bryan Alexander’s point

I lost sight of human capacity and agency

in a round about way. My own feeling of agency has been taking a beating.

What could be with a blank cheque

Which makes it interesting to come across related struggles, solved in part by focusing more on what could be.

Bryan Alexander started the ball rolling with his post – “Returning to optimism” in which he diagnoses the source of his gloom as being “Analyzing education at the macro level in 2013-14”. Interesting much of my current malaise arises from working within education at the micro-level. Bryan describes his failure as

of late I’ve failed to pay enough attention to the positive developments. And I haven’t been open enough to the ways we can shove history around and make things better.

Anne shares some of the malaise of dealing with the micro-level of education

Over the last several years, I have watched as policy, curriculum changes and the great scrabble for implementation and compliance have gradually begun to suck all the fun out of learning! Our schools days are so cram-packed with achieving outcomes so that boxes can be ticked and grades can be assigned that the process of learning and discovery has been compromised.

But then explains how she and others are taking steps to “shove history around and make things better”. Like Brendon is thinking about, Anne has implemented a “Genius hour” in her class with positive results

What a change I saw in my students. We both found ourselves looking forward to Friday afternoons

In terms of think about what could be, Anne links to an interview some middle school students did with Sir Ken Robinson in which he was given a blank cheque “to design a learning place of his dreams”.

Brown fields, green fields and systemic change

Of course, this brings me to this point from (emphasis added)Siemens (2008)

Yet, in spite of small-scale innovation, new methods typically do not result in new spaces and structures of learning. As noted by David (1990), new innovations are adopted in the context of existing physical spaces. Changes of a more significant and profound nature need to be enacted at a system-wide level. The adoptions of blogs and wikis in classrooms, or use of Second Life and other virtual worlds, or the use of social networks to connect learners with peers around the world, still occur largely within a classroom context. To truly harness the transformative potential of new technologies, change at a systemic level is required.

Add in some points from Dave Snowden from this presentation and it’s not hard for pessimism (or perhaps negativity) to rear it’s ugly head. One of the points Snowden makes is that in human systems

you are always dealing with people’s perceptions of the present and memories of the past….you never get to build on green fields. You are always building on what’s called brownfields.

In the absence of my iPhone I’ve been sent back to physical books as the source of reading material. The two most recent I’ve been reading are Confronting managerialism: How the business elite and their schools threw our lives out of balance and “An Elusive Science: The troubling history of education research. Both a historical pieces, one of the rise of managerialisation and the US-based business schools and the other on education in the US. Both show how entrenched the idea the quantitatively focused, hierarchical mindset of management/control is in both fields. Which is only increasing Australian universities and will only increase more.

The idea of a greenfield free of these “memories of the past” seem unlikely as does building the type of systemic change that is necessary on the dirty brown fields of today’s education system. A topic Anne picks up in her follow up post.

Some short-term futures for learning @ CQU

On Monday I gave a presentation titled “Some short-term futures of learning @ CQU”. The aim was to provide CQU staff with an understanding of the services and work being done by CD&DU.

The slides and video of the presentation are available here

It uses the metaphor of developing a course as being similar to building a house or other type of building. With this metaphor, the academic becomes the owner-builder and CD&DU becomes the associated building trades. It then introduces two example of the recent CD&DU work.

Personality type – INTP

D’arcy Norman (yes, I did borrow the look of my blog from his, though I use my own photos which aren’t quite as accomplished as his) has a post about the results of an online survey which apparently evaluates your temperament type. My results…

You Are An INTP

The Thinker

You are analytical and logical – and on a quest to learn everything you can.
Smart and complex, you always love a new intellectual challenge.
Your biggest pet peeve is people who slow you down with trivial chit chat.
A quiet maverick, you tend to ignore rules and authority whenever you feel like it.

You would make an excellent mathematician, programmer, or professor.

I must say I was a bit skeptical. Last year I was introduced to the Keirsey temperament types and did a much longer, paper-based survey. The result was the same, INTP. In Keirsey language that maks me an Architect Rational.

Aims of a curriculum design group at a university

This is a collection of rough ideas about what the overall aim should be for a curriculum design group at a University. In particular, a University like Central Queensland University.

The driver for this is that I’m now the “leader” of just such a group. A group that has been newly formed. We’re starting from scratch and need to figure out how, what and why we’re going to work. Obviously, this is very much a work in progress and required input and comments from a range of folk (one of the reasons for doing this on my blog).


Essentially CQU has been without curriculum design services for a number of years. This was picked up on by the AUQA audit of CQU which offered such comments as

AUQA recommends that Central Queensland University develop strategies to systematically embed its generic skills and attributes into the curriculum, teaching and assessment practices of the University such that the CQU experience is of a consistent quality and is comparable with universities nationally.

AUQA recommends that Central Queensland University encourage a more collegial approach to curriculum development, which will both stimulate and incorporate scholarship and research and philosophical discussions about quality education

AUQA recommends that Central Queensland University develop a systematic approach to encouraging and resourcing research-informed teaching

AUQA recommends that Central Queensland University increase its emphasis on academic professional development, via a variety of forms, especially focusing on such pedagogic issues as curriculum development and review, assessment practices and the teaching-research nexus


This question is much more important than it might appear. How people interpret what we do will influence what we can do. We need to have a consistent, simple message about what we do so we can simply spread the word.

The AUQA report focuses on curriculum design and the name of the unit in which we reside is the Curriculum Design & Development Unit.

This article from the British Medical Journal gives a good introduction to curriculum design. It’s definition of curriculum is one I like

If curriculum is defined more broadly than syllabus or course of study then it needs to contain more than mere statements of content to be studied. A curriculum has at least four important elements: content; teaching and learning strategies; assessment processes; and evaluation processes.

The advantage of this is that it encapsulates a lot of what we can/should do. The content section covers the tasks which the members of DTP and Rolley currently perform. Somewhat more problematically, it could also be seen to encapsulate video production. Evaluation also opens up some interesting missing roles.


I’d like to position CD&DU as a Professional Service Firm defined on this page as

A professional service firm applies specialist technical knowledge to the creation of customized solutions to clients’ problems.

We provide customised advice to CQU staff. How may the most effectively design their curriculum, given their context and the available resources?


Previous issues

  • Limited diversity in opinions
    Only the academic and the instructional designer were involved. If a team was involved, it was a couple of academics, typically from the same discipline
  • Use limited to a small collection of staff
    Only a small sub-set of staff made use of the service.

Existing issues

  • We’re a small group, limited resources
  • Uncertainty about connections/overlap with other groups


As top level aims, we should

  • Help staff develop the skills and confidence necessary so they can perform curriculum design themselves.
  • Provide an environment that encourages collaboration across disciplines.
  • Provide an environment that encourages implementation of good practice in L&T, an environment that makes it easy to do this.

Underneath those aims potentially fits the following

  • Be seen as academics who research.
  • Raise the visibility of our work and ourselves.
  • Make it ease to contact us.
  • Be seen as a one stop shop for preparation of course material
  • Treat print and online as two of a range of options

…there’s many more that should go here. Onto other things.

Universities as a business – but which business

Last week I gave a presentation to new academic staff at CQU, a part of their “induction” process. The presentation was titled Some possible futures of e-learning: Lessons and enablers.

The basic premise was something along the lines

  • Current e-learning practice is far from good.
  • Future e-learning practice will look nothing like it.
  • What are some the contextual factors, the lessons and the enablers that might guide the creation of that future practice?

One of the lessons I proposed was that the idea of the “University as a business” was a bit limited.

University as a business

The literature in and around higher education has, for at least 20 years, included a large percentage of discussion that universities should be run as businesses. Actually, I’m pretty sure I’ve seen references that this has been a complain, typically from business and politicians for a lot long than that.

This following quote summarises much of the current rationale behind that idea (Dodd, 2004)

Declining revenues and public support … coupled with increased competition, performance requirements, constituent accountability, globalization and changing political climates. All of this has forced a new reality for higher education … one that requires greater efficiency, effectiveness and business-like processes.

So if we adopt business-like processes then universities will be better value for money and all will be right with the world.

The main problem I have with this is that not all businesses are the same. Which type of business should a university borrow its practices from?

Types of businesses

I don’t believe it is possible to treat all businesses the same. The strategies and tactics required to run IBM are different from those to run a supermarket chain, a local corner store or a professional sports team.

I also don’t believe that each business or organisation is so unique that it needs to be entirely individually catered for. I think/hope that there is a useful middle road. McKelvey & Aldrich (1983) seem to agree, at least the quote in Rich (1992) indicates this

Classifying organizations into types presents an alternative to the idea that organizations are either all alike or are all individually unique.

University as a professional service firm

An ex-Harvard Business School professor, David Maister has made a name through working with professional service firms and is the author of the book Managing the Professional Service Firm. His description, from this book, of the professional service firm has, for me, striking similarities with universities.

Two aspects…create the special management challenges of the professional service firm. First… a high degree of customization in their work … Second, … strong component of face-to-face interaction with the client

Straight after this description comes the quote which strikes at the heart of the current “efficiency” emphasis in university management.

Management principles and approaches from the industrial or mass-consumer sectors, based..on standardization, supervision, and marketing of repetitive tasks..are not only inapplicable…but may be dangerously wrong.

What does that say about the adoption of such practices as quality assurance and Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) systems by universities?

The Oxford Said Business School has an article online about professional service firms.


David Dodd (2004). Decisions, data and the universities as a business. College Planning & Management

B McKelvey and H Aldrich (1983) Populations, natural selection, and applied organizational science. Administrative Science Quarterly, 28: 101-128

Philip Rich (1992). “The Organizational Taxonomy: Definition and Design.” The Academy of Management Review 17(4): 758-781

Slowing change and persuading academics

Linda Larsen has posted a summary of a presentation – “Aligning IT Innovation with Institutional Strategic Priorities” by Freeman Hrabowski (his bio is somewhat impressive), the President of the University of Maryland.

A major point he tries to make is summarised in these two quotes

  • “our real challenge is that the academy is slow to change”
  • “Again, working with faculty in the persuasion mode is the most appropriate and successful way. Don’t force all incoming instructors to use IT. If forced, they’ll find ways to get around it. Have conversations –…PERSUADE! ”

This is an idea I agree with, so obviously it’s a good idea. I wrote about this in an earlier post

An interesting mis-reading

What I’m really interested here is unpacking a mistake. When I first skimmed through the summary I read the first quote

our real challenge is that the academy is slow to change

as something completely different

our real challenge in the academic is to slow change

CQU, my place of work, currently has underway a project to upgrade its ERP – Peoplesoft. The project has been going for a few months. The somewhat funny observation is that a new version of Peoplesoft was released in December, 2007. The CQU project is upgrading to the version before this.

Anyone who knows anything about ERPs and upgrade projects knows that this project is not cheap. Millions of dollars. More importantly, there will be significant change associated with staff having to adapt to the new technology and new processes.

So what was the rationale behind the upgrade? Was it because the upgrade, and the expenditure of the large amount of money, was connected to the institutions strategic goals. Is the rationale to grow the business?

No, the rationale was that the version of the software CQU was using was about to become unsupported.

The institution is being forced to change. There is additional change happening to the organisation that wasn’t necessary.

This is what I mean when I say/think that universities need to slow change.

The source of change

In our paper, The Teleological Brake on ICTs in Open and Distance Learning, some colleagues and I draw on Introna’s (1996) distinction between teleological and ateleological design.

The vast majority of what passes for design or development in universities fits under (or at least claims to fit under) teleological design. Purpose driven, some rational person/group decides what to do and then all work from then on is aimed at achieving that purpose. Usually by breaking down the work into small bits done by specialists.

Introna (1996) suggests that the intermediate goal of teleological design is effectiveness and efficiency. The scope of design is usually set at part of the problem. So the IT folk only see their problem of dealing with Peoplesoft. The evaluate what should be done on that limited scope. In that scope it is most effective/efficient if they are running a system that is supported by Peoplesoft.

They don’t, and no-one else really is empowered, to look at the broader picture. To ask the question about whether or not it’s in the best interests of the entire organisation to upgrade.

Because of this problem, the entire organisation is required to undergo change and invest a lot of resources.

The ateleological alternative has as its intermediate goal equilibrium and homeostasis. In this model, change does happen but it is small-scale change that contributes to and enhances the current understanding of the organisation rather than radical change that may interrupt and cause disconnections.

Change is minimised, change is slowed.

So, what’s the solution

The question I’ve then been asked is, “How do you solve the problem of Peoplesoft not supporting our old version?”.

According to Introna (1996) the design process for ateleological design is local adaptation, reflection and learning. Design management is decentralised but always keeps as the design scope the entire organisation and the intermediate goals of equilibrium/homeostasis and the ultimate purpose of wholeness/harmony.

So the IT department should be focusing on minimising the change experience by the rest of the organisation. They might take time to reflect, and possibly learn, about whether or not the organisation can afford to spend X million dollars every few years to upgrade to the next version of Peoplesoft. They might ponder if there are approaches by which that amount of money could be minimised.

All the best practice literature around ERP implementation says that ERPs are hard to customise and that it is cheaper to change the organisation and its processes to fit the ERP.

An alternative approach is to put an intermediary information system (almost certainly multiple information systems) between the organisation and the ERP. This is assuming that the organisation isn’t ready to admit the folly of ERPs and write off its investment.

The aim is that the intermediary information system is implement using an ateleological approach that slows change. While the ERP can continue along its teleological path.


Introna, L. (1996). Notes on ateleological information systems development. Information Technology & People, 9(4), 20-39.

Evaluating the drivers for LMS adoption

Coates, James and Baldwin (2005) identify/propose 5 drivers behind the adoption of LMS

  1. Means of increasing the efficiency of teaching
  2. Promise of enriched student learning
  3. The drive of new student expectations
  4. Competitive pressure between institutions
  5. A response to massive and increasing demands for greater access to higher education
  6. A culture shift towards the control and regulation of teaching

The questions around these include

  • How many, if any, institutions have stated these explicitly?
  • Have they attempt any sort of evaluation about how well their choice and implementation have achieved those goals?
  • Can we evaluate the current crop of LMS and their ability to respond to those drivers?

The last point is potentially the most interesting. Some initial thoughts

  • Do current LMS really provide the facilities that enable an institution to control and regulate teaching? How many actually use this facility?
  • Do current LMS really provide scope to improve T&L, provide greater access, or reduce costs?

In a recent survey of CQU staff we found the following somewhat relevant results

  • Enriched student learning/improved teaching and learning
    When asked if adoption of Blackboard would assist CQU become a flexible learning leader (one of its strategic aims) responses included

    • 56% of staff didn’t know if this was the case
    • 25% thought it unlikely
    • 17% thought it likely
  • Control and regulation of teaching
    Which organisational unit should be responsible for quality of the LMS

    • 61% the relevant faculty
    • 27% division of teaching and learning services
    • 12% information technology division

    “Do you believe that implementing Blackboard is a way to place additional controls on teaching and learning activities at CQU?”

    • 44.5% yes
    • 13.3% no
    • 10% no response
    • 32.3% no difference

Is pedagogical the only lens

Christian Dalsgaard in a 2006 paper suggests

Social software has initiated discussions about the extent to which tools should be separated or integrated in systems (see Levine 2004; Blackall 2005; Cormier 2005; Wilson 2005; Siemens 2005; Anderson 2006a; 2006b). However, the discussion will find no answer, unless it is placed within a context of pedagogy. Use and organization of tools within e-learning can be approached in different ways depending on the chosen pedagogy (Dalsgaard, 2005). Different pedagogies will have different things to say about the problem of integration vs. separation. A discussion of the educational value of different tools must use a pedagogy as a starting point.

There is certainly value in this perspective. But I’m not sure it is the whole picture and not sure it can even be used as the only criteria because

  • There is no one pedagogy that can be used for all courses at a University.
    Assuming of course that you are coming at this from an organisational perspective, I cannot see how any university could argue that there is one pedagogy that all staff in all courses would use. Or that there is “one right way” that should be used in all courses.
  • Pedagogy is not the only reason considered
    Again from an organisational perspective, pedagogy is not the only consideration. Certainly most decision making about technology adoption is not rational. For decision makers there will be other reasons why a technology is (or is not) chosen.