28 August 2015

Mark Smithers' 20 years on

In response to Mark Smithers' post, 20 Years in eLearning, where he laments the wrongs and rights of eLearning as generally implemented in universities, and proposes that we place less emphasis on a teaching academic doing 'it' for themsleves, and surround them with designers and specialists to carry them into a world of new practice...

I'm going to attempt a usual left-of-field response, but first let me say I'm very impressed you've held out 20 years, and that after all that time you're still optimistic and energetic enough to put yourself out there. I'm a little over half your time and I'm just about spent!
I certainly agree with your summary of what 'we' did wrong. But I pause at your use of it to lobby for more educational designers and specialists.
I'm going to use that wonderful quote against your proposal: 
Perfection (in design) is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away. Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
What if we did that, seriously. Took away The LMS, the institutional email, the lecture capture, the IT support, the educational designers and developers, the layers and layers of admin and managers, the obsessive codification, hell! At least 2/3rds of the modern university - especially if networks of teachers and learners have formed beyond any institution (such as in our field). Basically get rid of anything and everything that stands between someone who can teach and someone who wants to learn. All that would remain would be some buildings, some labs and special equipment, WiFi, teachers and students and very simple administration.

But there would be design:
We'd put down some compelling principles that guide practice. Not a "strategic plan" like all the other university strategic plans I've seen out there, but a manifesto of sorts, compelling, relevant, editable, and supported by logical and fresh policies. I like "Free access to the sum of all human knowledge" for example, but that's been taken. Oh look! We might have found a leading partner...

I think we all agree that openness be a principle... I would hope that those principles be shaped by what we discover in how people learn outside the institutions. Very very little research goes on there. Maybe we could collect what little there is and use it in the Wikipedia article for Networked Learning. An an example of policy inspired by these new principles, you might check out the Proposed Policy on Intellectual Property I helped develop while at Uni of Canberra. The NTEU glowingly endorsed it.. I'm very proud of this work, I'm sad it has not been recognised.
We'll also need to accept that the vast majority of practice will be 'poor'. As it always has been. I think our anxiety over the problem of successfully scaling online practice is unwarranted. I'm sure the same ratio existed before the Internet, it was just less obvious. The problem is systemic, if you take an Illich frame of mind. Universities are autocratic societies with almost no free agency, no democratic process, utterly disenfranchising, and arguably more like a medium of social control than of intellectual freedom and development. Even more so now that 70% of the workforce is casual, precarious and directed. This would be an interesting field of research to pursue. I'm convinced that institutionalised education has bureaucratised teaching and learning right out of people, and that we can work to undo a great deal of that.
I realise that such a change process seems far outside our reach. Such are the layers of hierarchy, payscales and control that systematically cause us to think so low. But perhaps your proposed solution could be used to create that change. But I would suggest that more of 'us' start teaching in the mainstream, and/or make evident to the mainstream our various ways of teaching and learning - after we better articulate the principles we generally embody, freed from the institutional constraints. Let's try and resist interfering with other teachers via managerial mandates. Let's offer to teach with them, in a friendly kind of way, to demonstrate or lead by example, and withdraw if our principles are compromised. I had the opportunity to do it once, at the University of Canberra, teaching a subject I knew little about, with a co-teacher who did . We networked that course. If you search "BPS2011" you'll see the online footprint we left in one single instance of the course. Assessments were multilingual, student generated content. The exam was a spectacular event! It was a remarkable success in taking a failing course and turning it around using those same principles we have not yet articulated, and all without triggering any of the bureaucracy of the host university. Sadly, the main teacher came back from holidays and went back to their old ways, but the students and other staff saw the difference. We inspired a change in imagining of what was possible, but the university system eventually crushed all hope of it scaling, as the casuals moved on and the full timers quit...


Bronwyn hegarty said...

You were also the main driver for the change to IP policy at Otago Polytechnic and the default position is still Creative Commons by attribution, and is taken up by the majority of teaching staff. I totally agree that learning and teaching needs to be designed at the grass roots level, but with good support and mentoring from highly innovative educational developers/designers who understand the concepts of openness.

The big team now ensconced at your old haunt is very conservative, and tied into, for example, organizationally and cross-organisational designed and controlled moodle courses, eportfolios and collaborative developments of resources are discouraged unless they are within an institutionally controlled brief. We have actually gone back by at least 10 to 15 years to the production model. It makes me weep!

The innovative learning experience you were involved in sounds wonderful. This was heutagogy in action for sure. How could people be so short-sighted and put the lid on it? I wonder if you had gathered formal evaluative evidence whether this would have helped to convince the main teacher and the institution to keep going? Too late now. Great post Leigh.

Leigh Blackall said...

Thanks Bron,

Despite the criticisms it received, and that it was not ultimately endorsed by Otago Poly execs of the day, I still think the Return on Investment analysis we did was worth considering. I may not have got the measures all right, or even half right, but at least we were attempting to evaluate.