Changing Roles of Higher Educators

This blog post is my submission for assignment 2 in CCK11.  I have used links to previous posts to support my arguments.

The shifting basis of certainty has been a critical focus during week 5-8. Through readings and discussions, we have focused on complexity, chaos theory, instructional design, power and control, and the changing roles for educators.

For your second paper, select your point of emphasis as that of the instructional designer or educator. Explore changing roles for your selected field. Do you agree their roles are changing? If so, what are appropriate responses? What are impediments to change? If not, how can current trends be best utilized to serve in the traditional role of educator or designer? In your paper, focus on creative conceptualizations of different roles (or different approaches to serve new needs in existing roles) played by educators. Consider metaphors that capture your views. Times of change permit reformulations of existing viewpoints. Take this opportunity to enjoy a creative stroll in rethinking “what could be”.

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The changing roles of higher educators

My description of the future will be based on hopes and dreams, rather than an objective/rational prediction.  A creative view through a full (rather than half empty) glass.  My perspective will be from a teacher (instructor/lecturer/academic) in higher education.

I would like to see education in the future to be learner centred, controlled and personalised/individualised.  This is probably influenced by my personal politics which are more left than right, and my personal disrespect for power and control.

I have written a comprehensive blog post that articulates in a large part my vision.  It would be worthwhile to read this post as it provides a good backdrop to this article and evidence to support my view, but I have provided a brief summary as an excerpt in the following paragraph.

Learning can be managed and controlled by a teacher to the extent that it is necessary.  Leading into adult education, teachers and learners should work together to determine when this is necessary and to what extent.  A partnership if you will.  This is the personalisation that I speak of.  It is necessary when the learner does not know sufficiently enough to make informed decisions about how they go about learning something.  The old adage, “you don’t know what you don’t know” fits here for example.  Think of this level of control as a bootstrapping process (if you are knowledgeable of computers). Wikipedia describes bootstrapping (or booting a computer) as “a technique by which a simple computer program activates a more complicated system of programs.”  This is part of a computer’s startup process.  The teacher provides the simple (or not so simple) computer program that activates a more complicated system of programs – self-learning.  Put another way, the teacher provides the structure to assist the learner in making good decisions about how to learn what they wish to learn and achieve through the learning.  Depending on the context, this may be little or no assistance through to continuous and comprehensive management and support of learning.

So a metaphor for higher educators of the future to me will be that of a mentor or a learning coach. 🙂  Consider Stephen Downes 10 things you really need to learn.  These are general life-long learning skills, that once learnt, can be used to develop more specific skills and attributes – to be self-sufficient autonomous learners.

Impediments to change

There are many impediments to such a substantial change in thinking as expressed above.  This second part of my article will take a look at pattern entrainment, ignorance of education as a complex system, fixation on measurement and control, and the commodification of education as impediments to change.

Pattern Entrainment

Pattern Entrainment as explained by David Jones is:

… the tendency for peoples conceptions to be limited, entrained based on the successes of the past. What has worked for us in the past, becomes the source of all our thinking about the future.

Sir Ken Robinson suggests the current education system was designed and conceived for a different age – the intellectual culture of the enlightenment and at the time of the industrial revolution.  There are examples of entrainment in higher education with even greater distance of time.  Consider the quote by Phillips (2005): “Laurrillard (2002: 93) claims that the traditional lecture approach is ‘legitimised only by 800 years of tradition’.”  Another clear example of pattern entrainment that is impeding the advancement of education systems relates to current management practices, which are still ignorant of the fact that education systems are complex, and unpredictable.

Education as a complex system

Jean Boulton has written an article titled Managing in an Age of Complexity.  The key message of Boulton’s article is that current decision-making is founded on the assumption of certainty.  But is this assumption sound in the context of higher education?  Do we educate in a world of certainty and determinism?  Is there a simple cause and effect relationship to our decision-making?  I have previously reflected on these questions and come to the conclusion that the answer is largely no. Yet higher education continues to be managed on the assumption of certainty and determinism. I see this at our institution all the time as expressed in my reflections.

Boulton warns against too much reliance on measurement to tell you what is happening in a complex system.

Measurement and Control

One of the most significant impediments to change is the ongoing preoccupation with measurement and control.

Universities came into existence during the pre-modern period, approximately 1000 years ago, and were the ‘holders’ and controllers of knowledge (Phillips, 2005).  This notion of control is still evident in the culture of Universities today (Phillips, 2005).

Sir Ken Robinson has had much to say about the current education system.  Robinson says that a story told to past generations was that if you worked hard, do well, go to university, then you will get a job.  The current generation of kids don’t believe this, and they are right according to Robinson.  Having a university degree no longer guarantees a job in modern society. Add to this that another detractor of college study being that it “marginalises what you think is important about yourself” (Robinson).  A result of being institutionalised.

Mark Smith reflects on the views of Ivan Illich relating to the process of institutionalisation in education.  Smith suggests that it undermines people by diminishing their confidence, their creativity, and their capacity to solve problems.  All critical elements of self-sufficient autonomous learners.

Phillips (2005) has this to say about how teachers perceive their responsibilities as educators:

While some teachers see their responsibility as laying out ‘knowledge’, in the form of content, they are not always confident that learning will occur. Instead, they hope students will learn (Phillips and Baudains 2002: 15). In this scenario, the teacher’s responsibility is to ‘teach’, which implies determining the content, and controlling its sequence. The teacher assumes a pre-modern position of power, while the learner has the responsibility to ‘learn’. If a student fails, it is their fault (Laurillard 2002: 11).

This pre-occupation with content, rather than process (learning to learn) is an element of the problem.  It promotes a reliance or dependence on the teacher to learn, because they know what you must learn.  Again, an impediment to autonomous and self-sufficiency.

According to Robinson, education systems around the world are moving more and more to standardisation and measurement, when they should be moving in opposite direction.  He asserts that a casuality of standardisation is the loss of divergent thinking.  The ability to think laterally or to question the question, a critical skill for life-long learning.  Robinson provides statistics that show that as children grow up, they lose their ability to think divergently.  The implication is that our education systems kill divergent thinking.

The net effect of this focus on standardisation and measurement is task corruption.  It’s no longer about the learning.  Teachers are focused on the measurement.  They are teaching to the test.  Furthermore, as learners move into higher education, they have been conditioned to do the same – learn to the test.  How many times have you been asked, “do I need to know this for the exam?”  So we have our measurement, the learner can do xyz in a classroom with an invigilator, pen and paper, and a wall-clock.  Rowntree said of exams, as quoted by Phillips:

The traditional three hour examination tests the student’s ability to write at abnormal speed, under unusual stress, on someone else’s topic without reference to his customary sources of information, and with a premium on question spotting, lucky memorisation, and often on readiness to attempt a cockshy at problems that would confound the subject’s experts

Is this how we perform in the real world?  Modern education is an assembly line – a sausage factory, churning out shrink-wrapped uniform graduates, with a GPA stamped on their forehead, in the name of quality and standards.  I acknowledge that graduates need to differentiate themselves and that employment is a competitive market, but when you are learning to a test, ultimately how meaningful is a GPA?  My point is that we are too focused on standardisation and measurement.  We need to get the balance right.

Commodification of education

Education is increasingly a commodity in these times. More and more, Australian Universities are pitted against one another competing for students.  The more students you have, the more money you get.  This is in a country where almost all Universities are government owned and run.  I think there are maybe 2 or 3 Universities in Australia that are privately owned.  While in contrast to the United States for example where many Universities are not Government owned and run, education is increasingly a customer-driven industry, and their products to be traded.

There is support for the idea that people learn better by collaborating rather than competing.  While not an absolute and dependent on context, it is a reasonable assertion within the higher education context.  With universities competing, there is greater focus on “commercial in-confidence” than on openness.  The problem is that in competing for students, focus of institutions can stray from being “about the students and their learning journey and quality” to the less noble “how can we recruit and retain as many students as possible?”  Another example of task corruption.


There are many impediments to my vision.  But how exciting would it be to have a system of education that is individualistic and  empowers learners to work in partnership with educators to achieve their goals, whatever they might be.  Where the focus is on the learner, and not corrupted by the growing need to measure what is arguably unmeasurable.  A system that does not churn out standardised products in graduates with a grade stamped into their forehead, which means little other than the graduate can complete tests.  The higher education system, and Universities will hopefully unlearn their entrained views and processes and move into the 21st century anew.

As Colin puts it, “I think it [how universities operate] will [change], and it will also get very ugly when it does.”

Academic Publication References

Phillips, R., (2005), Challenging The Primacy of Lectures:  The Dissonance Between Theory and Practice In University Teaching, Journal of University Teaching and Learning Practice, Vol 2, Issue 1.

4 thoughts on “Changing Roles of Higher Educators

Add yours

  1. Hi Damien,
    I like your “bootstrapping” metaphor; it works well in the context of your post. I also like the concept of a new kind of learning coach, and it would be great to see education moving in this way. In the US at least, though, the primary and secondary system is completely moving the opposite way, toward more standardization and testing. And when students don’t take seriously and don’t do well on the meaningless tests, it’s the teachers’ fault according to most legislators and parents. No one wants to admit a broken system.


    1. G’day Leah,

      Great to hear from you again. Hope your progress is going better than mine in CCK11. I’m always trying to play catchup. 🙂

      I assume that you work in K-12 based on your comments. I can see how this shift towards standardisation and testing can really demoralise teachers.

      Task corruption can seriously undermine the best intentions.


  2. Hello Damien,

    I enjoyed your discussion, and much of it rings true for my experience in a Canadian University, and my mother’s experience in Canadians High Schools (especially in the realm of standardization and “learn to test”).
    Bootstrapping is an interesting metaphor; but it implies a starting of something, something that is hopefully already “processing”. rather than starting “cold”. I like the idea of doing something simple to engage a more complex process, perhaps like a function call, where you can pass a few parameters along and invoke a very complicate process that may invoke other functions and have output you may not even imagine?

    I seem to be lucky in my little corner of the UNI-verse. The instruction I do is largely ad hoc with creatives learning to tell stories with digital video. It is a small practical element in an academic program and we seem to have a lot freedom to let learners perform to their desires (for some we might be little better than a basic computer usage course, while others end up in the Film Industry or taking Master of Fine Arts degrees in Canada and the US). Sometimes I feel the urge to push toward professionalization, but in a lot of ways, I think our production courses have a flexibility right now that lets learners make what they will of them, even if the finished products are inconsistent.

    Great post!

    1. G’day David,

      Thanks for your feedback on my blog post.

      I see your point in that learning is constant, and so from that perspective, bootstrapping might not be a good fit as a metaphor.

      I guess the context of bootstrapping relates to the commencement of new study. I probably didn’t explain that very well in the article. As you continue to progress through a course of study, your ability to self-manage and be autonomous will grow. For some, part of the bootstrap is just knowing how to start while for others, the bootstrapping is ongoing support throughout the course of study.

      Thanks again for your comments.


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