Wednesday, February 17, 2010

The institution is stronger than the revolutionaries

I started writing yet another rant about just how difficult it is to develop appreciation and practice of networked teaching and research in higher education. At a pause between repetitive paragraphs I noticed George's tweet to his post Teaching in Social and Technological Networks.

George's post is somewhat repetitive also (if you've been following him for a while) and so I felt a little more at ease with my own broken record. As always though, George is concise and thought provoking/reminding, and yet - while he works in a tertiary education institution himself, I can't help thinking that not enough consideration is given to just how strong and deeply embedded our culture of institutionalised education is.

Perhaps George looks 30-50 years out (if so, I think some indication of time is needed in his writings), but in my own time span of 5-10 years, I see claims by many including my own, going on about how this technology has changed society (clearly it has) and so it follows (does it?) That education, teaching and research practices will change also.., but I see very little evidence of any REAL change at all!

Most teachers (with the exception of what might be the 1%) just flat out lack the time/motivation or incentive to engage in these new practices. Their work place computing environments can't even operate the media sufficiently, some local networks going so far as to block or censor it, most others just "not supporting it". And above all is the software that is provided by their institutions. Those LMS, SMS, CMS, recording lecturns, email, and single-sign-ons, that encourage the business as usual practices, or "innovation" in a direction completely the opposite to the networked learning future George, others and myself see: IMS common cartridge, copyright, access management and restricted journal publishing scams.

I see little evidence of change in the 4 tertiary education institutions I have worked at, including one that took so called giant strides in the direction of open education using social media. In that one most hopeful case, in reality it was a very small minority of teachers who were willing to attempt the new practices against all odds. Those who did eventually work out a networked teaching/learning/research approach were seen as subversive, and either left or were made part time as an indirect result of their subversive work. Oh,but the rhetoric of openness, access, equity and networked futures was adopted, and sure enough some people have worked out how to profit using that rhetoric, but at the expense of real change.

Perhaps I am just too impatient, too intolerant, too bigoted as one person called me recently. Probably.

There are good conceptual ideas in George's post for the remaining 1% a little late to the garage party. George pointed to an interesting looking paper too: University knowledge in an age of supercomplexity. The abstract reads great, so I'm going home to read it through. Hopefully I'll re find my faith that has been slowly melting away over the past 12 months. Another one that looks like it might be worth a read is Thwarted Innovation, by Zemsky and Massy 2004.


Mark Smithers said...

I too find little change in higher education practice over the last 20 years. I'll have a look at your interesting looking links but you may be interested in 'A critique of Tapscott and William's views on university reform' by Tony Bates if you haven't seen it already.

It's at

Mike Bogle said...

I wish I had the time to articulate this properly (and I haven't read George's post yet), but I'm right there with you on this one, Leigh.

The issue I see it is that the culture is so deeply entrenched that it's become invisible, and it's not until you completely remove yourself from the space that you can actually recognise how institutionalised things really are - and the degree to which administration and management are dictating or constraining learning and learners.

I believe (either naively or because I truly need to) that there are people who would do things differently, but perhaps just haven't realised it yet - as if it's a matter of helping them see there are in fact alternatives to the models most people have long since taken for granted.

That said, the day to day constraints and bureaucratic requirements I'm seeing people face are an absolute killer - no doubt about that. To me that's a huge issue to contend with - in terms of not just leaving space for exploration and experimentation, but also cultivating a willingness to do so.

That's the headspace I'm in right now. I see lots of practical, even minimalistic solutions being implemented because of work overload. It seems a real shame that learning should suffer so much just because of administration and bureaucracy...

I'm really not sure how to resolve this - perhaps I'm overlooking something simple. The point is I at least wanted to chime in and say you're not alone in your frustration - I'm feeling it all too clearly right now.

Perhaps the main thing we need to do at this point is stay in contact with each other as a network, because I think there's empowerment in that - and in the face of such overwhelming resistance or unwillingness, empowerment is a valuable thing.

Diego Leal said...

Ten years later, and mostly after last year, I share your feeling, Leigh.

Maybe change takes much longer than we thought, but based on my own experience, the rethoric of change is still just that: rethoric, and concrete experiences are, at best, marginal.

Every now and then, I'm amazed at how small is our own echo-chamber. Discussions start to sound recurrent, repetitive, while most of our institutions (at least in my country) keep working in LMS environments, which also are being underused. Those who are not into LMS, are not even thinking (yes, go figure) about these issues.

What's sad (I'd say, again, based on my own experience) is that maybe some of us start to wonder if all this effort will really takes us anywhere.. When you think about it, it's not just an issue of transforming a system (which in itself is daunting task), but transforming the way each one of us relates to learning and even life. Now that sounds even crazy...

Will the NetGen (whatever that means) takes us there? I have my doubts. Then again, I might be wrong, and maybe we just need to clear up our heads a little bit... :)

Sarah Stewart said... you lose faith...give up trying to change things...what do you do then?

Jeffrey Keefer said...

I tend to wonder why higher education is always so slow to adapt, especially with such bright minds doing interesting research.

Perhaps the answers lies in a reward system with a WIIFM (What's In It For Me?) that has not adapted in hundreds of years? Then again, what is in it for me as an adjunct faculty member to change, either (saying rhetorically and sarcastically)??


bjdavies said...

Having come to a Uni from TAFE a year ago, I am staggered at the lack of innovation in teaching & learning. I had hope that a recent wide internal research project into elearning would provide some evidence of student needs and drive change.

Alas no! Apparently the majority of respondents want: all lectures recorded; every class in the LMS, and all ppt slides available before the lectures. Sigh!

At least they also wanted wireless everywhere and more powerpoints to charge their mobile devices.

However, I am unbowed. I suspect that if we do provide what the students have requested, then they will want more innovation.

I have also considered that the model used in my TAFE at least and through both the Reframing the Future and Australian Flexible Learning Framework (Learnscope) project funding was to provide the teaching staff time (paid time) to learn and trial the technology.

Based on this, I'd like to see pilot programs implemented where Uni Academic staff have similar opportunities. Time and credit for work instead of not on top of, their existing load.

I have a few small trials going at the moment and hope to create some positive examples to inspire others.

Leigh, Mike, Mark: please don't give up. Along with Dean, Alex and others you inspire other Aussies to keep plugging away. It may not be in our lifetimes but change will come and you will have been the Aussie voices that people will remember.

I'd also be interested in how other internationals are fairing. e.g. Alec Couros (who I'd love to get to visit Aust. sometime soon.

Leigh Blackall said...

Hi Mark, thanks for the link to Tony's post, I left a comment recommending the article that I linked to here. Have you had a chance to read it yet? I'll probably post my thoughts about it next week.

Mike, yes, I think if we are to maintain resiliance in all this, we need to maintain support for each other. I've noticed a considerable decline in the amount of cross posting and commenting going on in the edublogs. I suspect it is a certain insecurity striking us all. Like you, I'm wondering about the elephant in the room we each can't see in full. I'd like to really pick apart the culture of education, cut through the rhetoric, and understand what makes it tick.

Diego, the good thing is, I think its fair to say that educational culture has more in common internationally than it doe not. And so if we each dig deep to find critiques, what ever we find and from where, should be useful to us wherever we are. Of course, this digging may just uncover what we already know - that its impossible to change, and that our ideas will have better chance on the outside - as Downe's has always stated.

Sarah, this is a reality check. I can't keep wasting my time and life spirit on a brick wall. So I'm widening my perspective, taking on the elephant in the room, see if some new idea comes of it. At the same time, I'm growing my beard and saving pennies for a little block of land to run goats on :)

Jeff, I wonder that too.. at Otago Polytechnic, I hoped that by showing a positive financial and human resource gain I might convince the bosses into investing real money into the idea, setting up incentives and rewards and see if that would trigger movement. As Mike and I'm sure everyone inside knows, we need to:

Establish a motivation
Make time
Set up rewards
Adjust performance review criteria
Balance the bias in publishing rewards

I left Otago before I could push this anywhere, but I knew it wasn't going to take as an idea. Too many people still had no clue what it was all about. Maybe we'll get lucky here at Uni Canberra.. or maybe another approach or opportunity will come.

BJ, thanks for the support.. it does help the moral, even after all this time. I've emailed Alec and he said he will drop a comment in the next few days.

Personally, I would like get closer to the ground. Adult and community education in a small town, on topics and subjects that have tangible benefits to the lives of people in that town. A relationship with the local paper and radio, well documented online, and integrated in community events like festivals, markets, film nights, public consultation, business, health and schools.

Thanks all for your comments and support. I look forward to better posts by each of you, exploring this elephant. I think I have the tail...

Alec Couros said...

(just realized the Blogger doesn't allow long comments, so I split this into two comments)

Part I:

Over the last year, I've moved back and forth in my own thoughts and feelings about how any of what 'we' do can ever penetrate the walls of higher education. I agree with you, Leigh, on this 1% - the majority of educators who lack the motivation and time to do anything but keep the status quo. Often, I feel like the 30-50 year change window makes sense - that we really need a generation for 'this' to happen. But, it really doesn't take me long to see how much has changed, at least for me, over the last 10 years.

I've been in my position for just over a decade. While I was originally hired because 'I knew stuff about computers', my institution knew quite early that they wanted to keep me and they supported me through my grad work. In 2001, I began a mentored, developmental PhD program - and it was as close to an apprenticeship as you'll find in higher education. I never stopped being a learner, I I was fortunate to work closely with a master learner, and I take this with me in every course I facilitate. This relationship, one that can occur in higher education, is an enduring inspiration.

But that's just on the learning side of things. Now, a bit about my passion.

Alec Couros said...

Part II:

When I first began looking for a dissertation topic, I didn't look very far. Because I was doing work with preservice teachers and technology, it was going to be something like "technology integration in teacher education programs" (yawn). Then, I came across a free seminar held at the U - poorly attended (maybe 5 people) - about this free and open source software movement. It was boring presentation by a boring presenter - but the idea excited me. I researched Stallman, Raymond, the computer hacker culture of the 60's and WOW - I was blown away. I knew then that this underlying idea of free and open source was the most important thing I had ever heard. No, not in the way it was delivered, or meant to be heard. But, in the way the message hit my "guy who lives and breathes teaching" brain. I knew this was important, and it became my area of study and practice.

So, in my time at the U:
- I was the first to publish my dissertation under a CC license, something that was strongly frowned upon at my U, but has since made sense to so many others.
- I create 'stuff' that thousands of people read or use, and this goes beyond any possible expectations I could have ever had about publishing.
- I have moved many of my colleagues to ask one of the most important questions in a research institution, which is, "why do we publish?". Which leads me to ...
- I've recently helped create an open access journal in my Faculty, and it has generated an important conversation around publishing, access, openness, teaching, etc. ...
- I have made my entire tenure and promotion application open and transparent to others to see ( ... things are looking very good (will know in March), and several universities have inquired about adopting the approach.
- I consult dozens of graduate students annually, the large majority who are not mine or at my institution, but learners who trust me as much as the faculty with whom they work with.
- Students who take my open courses (for credit) come back, 1-2 years later, to mentor those currently taking the courses.
- I see the change that my students (who are teachers) cause in their classrooms.

I didn't mean this to be a list of "things I do", but when I do this, it makes clear the ripples such practice will cause. And whether the change we desire will take 5 years, or 50 years, it doesn't matter.

And Leigh, in your last comment, you mentioned working in a "small town" helping to create "tangible benefits". I love these ideas, but from my perspective, it can be done with and through an institution of higher education. At least, it should be. 'Real' activities such as u describe should not be exclusive to community workers and volunteers.

Summary: This work is hard, but it will make a difference. Please don't give up. We need the revolutionaries. We need you.

Leigh Blackall said...

Thanks Alec, as much as your humble self might feel about the "me story" it is great to get this retrospective. SO many of us tune into each other half way along the journey, and all we know of each other is what we have gleened from the RSS feed from the date we first subscribed. I think more of us should write a reflection like this, not only does it help us get to know each other, but through your experience I can recognise the changes you see, and realise them around me as well. Thanks

Sarah Stewart said...

I have shared your frustration for a few years now, Leigh...not just working in education but also in industry (esp health). Having see the power of networked learning, communication and collaboration, I don't understand why others don't 'get it' - that all they're concerned with is firewalls and whether their staff will waste all their time playing on Facebook.

However, change has to be owned by the people we're working with - it won't come as a result of us ranting on - to a large degree, it will come when people see us role model change.

I spent a lot of time working in the aged care industry, in Australia, last year - I was told a couple of weeks ago, that as a result of listening to me and seeing how I worked, Aged Care Queensland now used Google Docs to collaborate and Skype to run conference calls - a little step, but a very significant one , to my mind.

Leigh Blackall said...

Hi Sarah, it could be though - you've tapped into the 1% in that sector... at Otago Polytrchnic there are 400 staff. I'd say 4 staff are using networked learning to any real measure, yes?

You've all probably seen this by now, is new to me:

Alexander Hayes said...

Ho hum.

Some people must be incredibly bored and disenfranchised with their own lives to be agreeing with you Leigh.

Why not just leave the whinging bits behind and stand forward in leader mode with the opportunity you have and show everyone what your made of ?

It's ok to lament or have expected more or lost your way amongst the cacophony of the web but for gods sake please realise that your Phd will suffer marekedly if your going to go down the path of lamenting life due to 'institution' when in fact your strength is in unifying them.

Blah blah.....says he with a blank research tab and a distaste for serial open ( and shut ) basket cases -

Nancy White said...

I think change from within the education sector has to be triangulated from outside. Change at a system level. So while you are plugging away internally, what are the external forces that can also triangulate and catalyze change?

UNCISS said...

Good reminder of our BBQ talk down my the Murrumbidgee River Nancy. This does remind me of something I should be doing...

Nancy White said...

So what should you be doing?

Leigh Blackall said...

Seeking comment from 2 projects in Australia:
1. Creative Commons Australia
2. Gov 2.0 Task force

Trouble is, last time I triaglated, the external agency sucked me and the Institution into a relationship that compromised the original vision. Usual bandwagon riding.. the trick with it is getting a third party endorsement without that leading to an over committed relationship with that agency. The effort of developing open education and research practices using social media out to be enough in itself. A university in Australia attempting this should be big news to agencies such as these.. who in their own right are trying to drive change.

Nancy White said...

Leigh, perhaps thinking about triangulating with a network, rather than an institution. This taps the people in institutions (and outside) rather than the "institution" itself. Does that make any sense?

Of course, the risk is always there that they won't agree. ;-)

Nancy White said...

It is interesting your observation about the power of an outside voice to influence. I find this happens too. You can't be a prophet in your own lands, eh?

The observation about online staying online intrigues me. I need to reflect on that a bit.