Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Competing narratives and eLearning

This diagram is more convincing in German, Ja?
In a couple of weeks, I'm presenting a paper at an eLearning conference.  It's about 'competing narratives' (used in a metaphorical sense, but also in a technical sense from the change management literature) at play in the implementation of new eLearning strategies in Higher Education.

If you're already bored, read no further; I'll post something sexy about music or politics in a while.

I'm going to use this blog to post segments of the paper for feedback from interested parties.

The idea of ‘competing narratives’ is a central one in the contemporary literature on change management. Before embarking on any major project or initiative within an organization there is likely to be significantly differing views on how to change, why to change, and, of course, whether to change at all. During the often turbulent process of change itself, individuals and discrete groups within the organization report quite different perceptions even of what it is that is, in fact, occurring. And after the project is complete, competing perceptions remain as to what, if anything, has changed; and if it has, whether for better or for worse (Ogbonna and Harris, 1998; Boddy and Paton, 2003). 

These competing narratives pose a challenge for managers.  While differences of perspective, priority and interpretation are an inevitable fact of organizational behavior, they nevertheless need to be incorporated within a structure or context that allows effective organizational operation.  For instance, structures that permit dissonant world views and competing narratives to paralyze decision-making lead to ineffectiveness and entrenched conflict. On the other hand, “structures which enable those with alternative views, based on detailed local knowledge, to articulate their interpretations of the project and its context … may at first be uncomfortable to those whose interpretations are thus challenged” but can nevertheless lead to successful outcomes for the project as a whole (Boddy and Paton, 2003).  Critical to such success is the centrality of trust in the process of management communication: trust that competing narratives are allowed to be heard, and valued as sincere.  The classic managerial mistake is to marginalize, discount, and therefore demonstrably distrust narratives and perspectives that differ from overarching institutional aims (Paton and McCalman, 2008).
This idea of competing narratives in the organizational change process has immediate resonance for those working to introduce educational innovation in contemporary universities. In particular, the narratives that surround the adoption or rejection of e-learning are distinctive, powerful and emotive.  If it is crucial to the establishment of relationships of trust that “those with alternative views … [can] articulate their interpretations”, and we take as read that academic communities are, in general, sites of confident and articulate verbal communication, one might naively assume that contemporary universities would handle competing narratives in the change management process relatively effectively. This is a questionable assumption.
Succeeding posts will identify several of these (perhaps fictional) narratives:
  • 'Barbarians at the gates': the massifiaction of HE through technology
  • 'o tempora! o mores!': the decline in standards caused by technology
  • 'Open the pod-bay doors please, HAL': the dangers of technology
  • 'The altar of efficiency': technology will make teaching cheaper. Oh, and produce a paperless office
  • 'Into something rich and strange': if it's online, it's automatically better

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Some Deep thinking about music and kids

Last Friday I attended the latest Canberra performance of the DeepBlue orchestra.

Emerging out of QUT's Creative Industries area, DeepBlue seeks to redefine the idea of "orchestra" for the contemporary world. Essentially a small string band with a rhythm section, mixing desk and multimedia backdrop, the group performs music ranging from "straight" classical (Barber's Adagio for Strings) through contemporary compositions by Australian composers and members of the orchestra, to arrangements of pop songs. The performances themselves are choreographed and full of energy, visual excitement and, overwhelmingly, just good fun.

DeepBlue is strikingly successful in breaking through the customs and desiccated conventions of traditional classical performance. I could - and probably will - write about just how important I think this is from a purely artistic perspective. However, what really interests me here is the way in which they have rethought the educational side of their engagement with the public.

DeepBlue makes a point of collaborating with the young musicians in each town they play, with their YoungBlue program. Previously, a school or youth music string group would prepare in advance and then join the orchestra on stage for one of the items. This is a clever engagement strategy, but not all that new an idea.

For this tour, DeepBlue are using a different strategy. ANY young string players in the towns being played can sign up for this experience. They download the score and an mp3 of the piece, practise on their own (DeepBlue performs from memory and encourages the kids to do so too) and then get together for a single rehearsal and workshop (essentially choreographic) on the afternoon of the concert.

Kids on stage in the Canberra concert
This is new. This is actually educationally ground-breaking. It's more like a flash mob than a rehearsal, and works in a really positive way. The whole sense of "drilling" that characterizes SO MUCH of children's musical experience is absent: there is no martinet school music teacher hectoring the children into a technically polished (as if that is ever achieved) but emotionally lifeless version of the music. Instead, the children have to take responsibility for their own preparation, and with that responsibility comes confidence, and a sense that they "own" their own performance.

You can HEAR this confidence in the results. You can see it in their eyes. And it beautifully parallels the way in which the DeepBlue adult performers come across as a groups of individual personalities and diverse talents rather than a sort of orchestral music-making machine.  Interestingly, it is the technology that makes it possible: to download the scores and mp3s into one's own home is hardly ground-breaking technology, but it is only really now that it is the sort of second-nature technology for enough parents that such a scheme as this would be viable.

I saw a great performance last Friday: fresh, human, and in-your-face emotional. I'm not sure I saw the future of the orchestra - maybe it has many futures, or more likely none. But I think I saw the future of music education.