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.

Conclusions

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.

Learner Autonomy, Control and the Balance of Power

This blog post relates to my study of CCK11.

I have been struggling with how to express my view of the future role of educators in the 21st century.  I have had an idea that centres around learner centred, control and individualism, but simply haven’t been able to articulate this in my writing.

I have just listened to the Facilitator’s elluminate session for the 11th of March.  I am excited to say that after listening to this session, I think I have figured it out, and it is with the help of the participants and the facilitators.  So this article is my first attempt at putting into writing what I believe is the future role of the educator.

Towards the end of the elluminate session, discussion centred around learner empowerment.  The class was asked “What Can Educators Do to Empower learners?”  Many responses included the idea that learners should have choices and control over learning.  Stephen provided a quote from an article by Tony Bates that reviews an article by Sarah Guri-Rosenblit and Begoñia Gros where they state:

… the time seems ripe to acknowledge the fact that putting the students in the center of the learning process, and assuming that the information and communication technologies have the power of turning them into self-directed and autonomous learners have turned out to be quite naïve and unsubstantiated assumptions.

Stephen’s interpretation of the article is that in order to educate people properly, you have to exert power and control.  This then implies the above idea of empowerment as incorrect.

So it would seem that there are two opposing positions.

  1. That learning should be learner focused, and controlled.  Learners decide for themselves what they need to learn, and how to learn it.  Learners are self-sufficient & autonomous.
  2. That learners are incapable of managing their own learning and therefore must be managed and controlled by the teacher – by an expert.  Learning should produce consistent outcomes to assure competency.

Is this a dichotomy?  Funnily enough, a participant in the elluminate session made the point: “its not either / or”.

I have this little philosophy that when faced with two extremes, often (but not always) the answer is somewhere in the middle.  In this case, neither extreme is ideal, so the hard part is finding that middle ground.  The middle is a compromise in gaining most of the benefits of each extreme, with the least of the drawbacks. In this vein, I can see benefits and drawbacks from both positions above.  Too much control and learners become stifled, constrained, inculcated – they become a cog in “the [education] system”.  Too little control and in some circumstances, the learner may be unable to manage their learning to achieve their goals.

So from my perspective, 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.  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.

Guri-Rosenblit and Gros continue in their concluding remarks: “Most students, even digital natives that were born with a mouse in their hand, are unable and unwilling to control fully or largely their studies.”  I have blogged previously on the notion of learner management in the context of PLEs/PLNs, but I believe it also fits here.  The excerpt below from my article is in response to the suggestion by Educause that “… less experienced students may not be ready for the responsibility that comes with building and managing a PLE”:

Managing one’s own learning is not a trivial task – it’s a big responsibility.  Is it reasonable to expect that everyone be able to manage their own learning to this level of detail?  A noble vision, but is it practical or reasonably attainable, or simply a fairy-tale view of education? … I believe this downside is understated, and why I don’t believe this ideal [PLEs/PLNs] is realistic in a global way – a panacea.

Younger learners will require much more bootstrapping than more mature learners – generally. 🙂  Another trend relates to the motivation of our learners.  Why are they learning something?  Is it to satisfy a burning desire or to attain a piece of paper to get a job?  Is it intrinsic, or extrinsic motivation.  Consider the example used by John Biggs in his theory of Constructive Alignment.  He described two very different students as I explain in my review of his book Teaching for Quality Learning at University:

Biggs introduces two student characters that represent two distinct groups of students that comprise a class.  They are also featured in a short film titled Teaching Teaching & Understanding Understanding.  Their names are Susan and Robert.  Susan is the typical academically minded student.  She comes to classes prepared, including pre-reading class materials, reflection on this material, and questions about her understanding of it.  Then there is Robert.  Robert is characterised as a student who is there out of necessity rather than desire.  He only wants to achieve sufficiently to be able to get a good job.  The course he is doing may not have been his first choice.  He comes to class with little preparation or prior reflection.  He hopes to rote learn and memorise to be able to pass his course.

Robert is not ready to manage his own learning – to be an autonomous learner, and requires considerably more bootstrapping than does Susan.  Susan is motivated to learn, rather than obtain a piece of paper (qualification).  Susan is better prepared and motivated to manage her learning and be autonomous.  She will require less bootstrapping because she is intrinsically motivated to take on the role of being an autonomous learner.

But bootstrapping only provides the contextual knowledge and structure required to support learners to the point that they can autonomously carry on and report back if necessary.  The skills to be autonomous and self-sufficient must also be learned.

This is where I believe our modern education system is letting down society.  The balance isn’t right.  In modern times it is becoming increasingly focused on control and measurement, particularly in K-12, to the detriment of broader skills such as learner autonomy.  The net effect of this focus is task corruption.  It’s no longer about the learning.  Teachers are focused on the measurement.  They are teaching to the test.  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 measurement.  We need to get the balance right.

I recently commented on Stephen Downes’ article 10 Things you really need to learn. With the exception of reading, none were integral components of my formal education.  Yet, they are sound in my view because they develop your ability to be self-sufficient – to be an autonomous learner.

So my hope for the future of education is that we can get the balance right.  That learners are sufficiently supported and encouraged to develop the life-long skills of learner autonomy and learning management.  Yet, there are also appropriate structures – a bootstrapping process to help learners make their way and achieve their goals, whatever they happen to be (personal enlightment, or a decent job).

Damien.

Managing (universities) in an age of complexity

This blog post relates to my study of CCK11.

I have just read an article by Dr Jean Boulton titled Managing in an Age of Complexity.  I really enjoyed reading this article.  I think the main reason was that it resonated with me and my context working for an Australian University.

The key message of Boulton’s article is that decision-making is founded on the assumption of certainty.  But is this assumption sound?  Do we live in a world of certainty and determinism.  Is there a simple cause and effect relationship to our decision-making?  Boulton postulates that there are two reasons for our assumption of certainty for decision-making.  The first is psychological.  Humans desire certainty and control.  On reflection, this stands to reason.  There would be few people that would enjoy a lack of structure, order or control of one’s circumstances.  The second reason is founded in pattern entrainment. Let me explain.  The philosopher Aristotle postulated “that to be rational is to be superior” (Boulton).   In the 17th century, Isaac Newton demonstrated the physics underpinning the movement of the planets around the sun to be founded by 3 simple laws.  A mechanical system.  Apply rationality, and the success of Isaac Newton’s concept of mechanical systems became the foundation of all our thinking about systems and decision-making.  So why is this pattern entrainment?  David Jones describes pattern entrainment as follows.

Dave Snowden has given me the term “pattern entrainment” for 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.

So society has applied the successful theories of Isaac Newton around mechanical systems as a foundation of decision-making in all systems.  However, are all systems mechanical?

Boulton lists the following attributes of a mechanical system:

  • Does not interact with the outside world
  • Simple interactions between parts
  • Parts identical within the same class
  • Parts and interactions cannot change

These attributes certainly do not apply to the higher education system.  In fact, it would contradict every one of those attributes.  So what type of system is higher education?  Boulton introduces the concept of a complex system.  In doing so, she introduces the research of Russian-born physicist Ilya Prigogine where he developed a theory known as non-equilibrium thermodynamics.  His theory “recognises that most systems in the real world are … constantly changing due to their exchange of energy with the environment.  These types of systems came to be called complex systems.” (Boulton)

Attributes of a complex system are described by Boulton as:

  • Unpredictable; things in general do not go to plan
  • Non-average; small events can have big effects
  • Without diversity, there is no learning
  • Structures that are interconnected are more adaptable to changing circumstances
  • Systems may self-organise at tipping points
  • New characteristics sometimes emerge in a way that can neither be predicted nor planned

This seems a much better fit for Higher Education to me.  So how do we manage a complex system?  I believe Boulton suggests that we embrace the uncertainty and develop strategies to cope with it.  Consider unexpected events as opportunities rather than threats.  To do this, she suggests that we focus on interconnections, networks, cross-functional processes, informality, relationships and encouraging diversity within the system.

Other suggestions for approaches to managing complex systems include:

  • Scanning and fore-sighting
  • Handling complexity
  • Weaving a vision
  • Using judgement
  • Empowering others
  • Collaborating
  • Ability to adapt to changing circumstances and seize opportunities

A quote that resonates well with my context in higher education:

Everywhere around us organisations and individuals are expected to take measurements and take decisions based on their implied certainty. Schools, teachers and pupils are subject to more and more measurements; the content of courses and the way to teach them is increasingly set out in rigid fashion.

I am seeing more and more of this happening at my institution often in the name of quality.  And what of it?  Boulton continues with a quote from Mintzberg:

And, in one sense, what is wrong with all this? Of course, nothing is wrong with it – if it works, if it really leads to better management decisions, and better outcomes. But does it? Mintzberg, the well-known and respected guru
on strategy and organisations, has this to say:
“We’ve become prisoners of measurement; audits, league tables, targets. It just destroys creativity.
I am not opposed to measuring things that can be measured
– I’m opposed to letting those things drive everything else out. It has some destructive effects in business, but in education and healthcare it is absolutely devastating.
What would happen if we started from the premise that we can’t measure what matters and go from there? Then, instead of measurement, we’d have to use something very scary; it’s called judgement”.

As Mintzberg puts it, it destroys creativity.  I am seeing more and more of this too.

Time’s up for writing this blog post.  This article was a great read, and putting into my own words Boulton’s message has been worthwhile.  I hope this summary proves useful to someone else.

Damien.

Things you really need to learn by Stephen Downes

Stephen wrote an article back in 2006 as titled above.  I have just read it and I found it very inspiring. A key message I take away from his article is “Life is too short for bullshit!”

As I read each thing to learn, I reflected on my life and to what extent I had developed those skills.  I can see areas where I think I am doing well, and others where I could do better.

Very practical and sensible advice.

I’d like to learn more about the 4 types of writing (description, argument, explanation and definition).  Hopefully this will help me to better structure my second assignment for CCK11. 🙂

A great article and well worth the read.

Thanks Stephen for sharing these insights.

Damien.

PLE/PLN and the commodified education industry

This blog post relates to my study of CCK11.

Sui Fai John Mak had this to say in response to a previous blog post of mine on PLE/PLNs.

So would the education system affect how and why PLE or PLN would be applied?  How about the learners learning under such education system?  What are the implications?

Very pertinent questions indeed.  I really do like the concept of learner centred and owned environments and networks.  However, the culture of higher education, at least in Australia does not align well with these ideals.  This I believe is as a result of commodification of the education industry.  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 product 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?”.

Sadly, I don’t see the PLE/PLN concept getting very far, at least in the current climate.  I hope I am wrong. 🙂

Damien.