Monday, November 05, 2012

I've found blockages in the university sector

Steps required to create a new course
Snakes and Ladders
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This past 3 weeks, I've been working to identify the blockages to educational development within the Australian university sector. I was inspired by the remarks of Australian Vice Chancellors recently, who claimed that the regulation of universities was a significant impediment to innovation in our sector.

Looking at the 2 main pieces of legislation that govern the operations of university teaching and assessment, I could identify very few, if any blocks - in fact I may have found a couple of enablers (item 16 of TEQSA2011, and item 19.115 of HESA2003).

So next, instead of looking at the frameworks, guidelines and policies at this stage - where I expect to find a number of issues and perhaps blocks, I thought I'd try and find and describe the blockages that are well known at the "coal-face" so to speak. The things that are regularly talked about by teaching and assessing staff at all levels below Dean.

My hope is that by looking at the legislation and then what happens on the ground, I might be better equipped for finding the specific areas of interest in the various guidelines, frameworks and policies. Once familiar enough with those guidelines, frameworks and policies, I should be in a sound position for designing methods and systems, and advising others with more confidence that I can account for the problems that impact on innovation and development.

What follows is some sweeping and very general statements to a number of blocks as I have experienced them working in the sector for over 10 years now. Many have said that the skill in change work is learning how to work around and through these sorts of blocks, but I have witnessed and been part of far too many failures at that game to know that, either the skill is very complex and held by a very elite few, or the idea of working around and through these issues is a little bit flawed.

So, at great risk to my personal safety and long and prosperous career, I'm listing these here as a kind of reference point in my on-going project to investigate the blockages widely reported on in the university education sector. Please forgive me if my sweeping generalisations offend.

Course and subject approval processes are dense and complex
  1. New course accreditation processes are very slow, dense and complex at best, and can become almost impossible when added to professional accreditation process, the political/technical issues in many change proposals, and the increasing casualisation of staffing and other issues brought about by academic capitalism.
  2. Subjects and even more modular units of study are held to course and faculty approval processes for them to attract funding and other supports that help establish sustainability.
  3. The local systemic idea of a course and subject is linear, time limited, access restricted, and protectionist. This presents sometimes intense ideological/political/technical difficulties for many change proposals

Centralised marketing tends to be generalised and risk averse

  1. Many educational change proposals today, such as open and networked educational practices, eventually confront central marketing policies, and brand management trumps educational and pedagogical design at the moment
  2. Efforts to adopt contemporary marketing methods (Cluetrain Manifesto 1996) are often at odds with established marketing methods, budgets and policies that are centrally governed
  3. Centralised marketing largely concerns itself with the University-as-a-whole brand, making it less responsive to subject level or smaller event needs.

Centralised Information Communications Technology tends to be too narrow and risk averse

  1. Centrally supported software is understandably limited and user admin rights are often not permitted
  2. ICT decisions are based on "business case" less than pedagogical and educational cases
  3. Central ICT systems are considered in terms of large scale "enterprise readiness", rather than smaller scale, distributed, networked and diverse needs
  4. Service has gained a reputation (unfairly perhaps) across the sector as being non responsive, and not enabling

Centralised Teaching Support tends to be too generic, under resourced and inherits the risk aversion of other central services

  1. Centralised teaching support services are understandably limited by the centralised systems, tools and policies of ICT, marketing and others that they help administer, and that they are resourced to support. They are often not resourced to respond to projects that are pitched outside those domains
  2. Their services are therefore more concerned with projects that can be managed at an all-of-university level, rendering support for small, niche, counter, and other projects where innovation can immerge, untenable
  3. This limitation to centralised service ultimately influences their employment decisions, the diversity in staff skills and outlook, and their networks, which risks their ability to respond to challenges and innovate

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