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.

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.

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.

 

PLEs: for the connectives or collectives?

This blog post relates to my study of CCK11.

The concept of the personal learning environment is founded on the idea of learning control and autonomy.  It is a personal environment for the learner – learner centric.

Yet practically, formal education is a controlled environment.  We live in a world with tighter and tighter controls on learning.  The Australian Government for example has been pushing in recent years for a national curriculum for K-12, replacing the disparate state-based curriculum currently in place in our 6 states and 2 territories.  Tertiary education too in many disciplines requires accreditation with professional bodies, again requiring adherence to standardised requirements for students.  Students must develop specific skills and attitudes as a part of a program’s curriculum for the curriculum to be certified and for students to be acknowledged in the field in which they have studied.

I’m not suggesting this is all bad, but it is at odds (at least on some levels) with the ideals of personal learning environments – the learner having control of their own learning.  In fact, I have wrestled with a similar dilemma previously in my assessment of ePortfolios for higher education where there are competing goals.

This dichotomy of autonomy vs. control relates to week 5 discussions around networks and groups.  In particular, the idea of connectives, and collectives.  You could argue that collectives (accreditation/prof bodies & governments) have specific goals for students.  They want to ensure consistent outcomes for graduates.  This can be at odds with connectives – students who have their own goals for their learning.  Where is the happy medium on the spectrum?  If Europe can adopt a common currency, then perhaps education can too? 🙂

PLEs and PLNs

This blog post relates to my study of CCK11.

What are the downsides? (http://net.educause.edu/ir/library/pdf/ELI7049.pdf)

As a learning platform that is by definition always evolving, a PLE requires students to engage in ongoing decision making to maintain, organise, and grow their learning environments.  The process of self-directed learning requires a degree of self-awareness, and it must be given time to mature.  Some students, however, may have never taken the time to think about their own metacognition or to reflect on how they learn best.  These less experienced students may not be ready for the responsibility that comes with building and managing a PLE.

Interesting, and a serious downside indeed.  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?  Let me explain my context, and why I believe this downside is understated, and why I don’t believe this ideal is realistic in a global way – a panacea.

I’m from Australia.  Higher education in Australia is partly funded by the Australian Government.  Students pay a portion of the tuition fees, and can defer their payments until after they obtain a job.  In the meantime, the tuition debt only grows inline with the CPI.  In other words, Australian tertiary students do not pay interest on their loans, and only pay a proportion of the overall costs which are subsidised by the Government.  Tertiary education in Australia is very accessible. Given this accessibility, and the diminished cost to the individual, there is greater diversity in the motivations of students in Australian higher-ed.  The fall-out from failure isn’t as significant as other countries where the individual bears the burden of the full costs of their education.  Don’t get me wrong, I think we have an outstanding system in place, that provides equitable access to higher education.  You don’t have to be wealthy to have a go in Australia.

I’m getting to the point… promise. 🙂  Take the following quote from a blog post I wrote some time ago, where I was reflecting on the book Teaching for Quality Learning at University, written by John Biggs.

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.  These two characters form the cornerstone of his theories into the effectiveness of active versus passive learning.

Not all students are motivated in the same way when it comes to managing their learning.  Robert is not so interested in managing his learning – its about hoops to jump through to get his piece of paper (qualification).  Constructive Alignment, a theory by John Biggs suggests amongst other things that learning must be active – it is all about what the students do.  This in my opinion has merit, but like all theories, is contextual.  That aside, Biggs believes that you can create learning situations that force students such as Robert to be more active learners. As John puts it in an epilogue to the Teaching Teaching & Understanding Understanding Video (Part 3):

Thus we see that alignment throughout the system is based on the relevant constructive student activity.  In our “apply” example, the intended learning outcome, the teaching/learning activities, and the assessment task are all focused on that single verb “apply”:  we have woven a constructive web from which students would find difficulty in escaping without learning.

However, this method of making it difficult for students to escape in my view can often lead to task corruption.  It astounds me what lengths students will go to to avoid doing something if their heart just isn’t in it.

When I reflect on my early teens as an undergraduate student, my level of maturity and my motivations at the time were not conducive to learning management.  I was more interested in drinking, girls, and having fun.  I’m not suggesting that all teenagers are this way, but I don’t believe I was unique either.  Only when I commenced my Master degree, in my mid-20s did I become mature enough to take on the responsibility of managing my own learning.  This is evident through my improved GPA. 🙂  At the time, the web 2.0 revolution had not yet hit mainstream and many of these ideas had not yet been conceived (Oh I’m getting old).

Some may be able to manage their learning using a PLE/PLN, and I see PLE/PLNs as but one way of student learning.  We must remember the crucial point that whatever we do, it must fit the context.  Forcing students to create their own PLE/PLN and be able to manage their learning through this personalised environment is thwart with danger.  Even if you spend the time developing students’ abilities to manage their own learning, doesn’t mean that they will actually do it.