Thursday, September 16, 2010

Assessment, achievement, and the archaeology of university politics.

Robert Burgess, VC of the University of Leicester, gave the keynote at the second day of the iPed 2010 Conference in Coventry. He has for seven years been steering a process that seeks to revise assessment, degree classification and academic credit.

His overview of this seven-year process betrayed his evident weariness with the propensity of the Government, the media, and the sector to reduce the complexity of some of the issues into simplistic terms (such as the abolition of the Honours Degree Classification).

First, he outlined a familiar story; the nature of change in Higher Education over the last two decades. Key issues for assessment that arise from these changes include:

- move from elite to mass Higher Education system;
- changes in the sector, students, pedagogy, curriculum;
- robust international reputation of the Honours degree;
- increased personal investment in education from students (fees) requires a more transparent, robust and detailed record of what the student has a tautly achieved.

To respond to these and other imperatives, Burgess' review recommended the replacement of the Honours Classification System with a portfolio-like Higher Education Achievement Record. This would provide a more detailed record of student activities and strengths, down to the level of the type and nature of the individual assessment tasks completed. All very sensible stuff, if not rocket science.

However, as is typical in the political game of university education, Burgess was unable to persuade the sector to abolish the Honours classification system, thus the HEAR will be introduced in parallel with the existing classifications. Thus another archaeological stratum of practice is laid down on top of, but not replacing, the previous concepts and practices.

Why are universities so unable to clear away the artifacts and relics of previous practice to respond to changed circumstance? What has for decades seemed like a quaint and decorative fascination with tradition now threatens to make the relevance of many still-current university approaches to education genuinely questionable. Times have actually changed.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

A new ethics for Web 2.0? I'll drink to that

Time to get personal!

The boundary between the personal and the professional was a thread that wound its way through this morning's debate on ethics.

Steve Wheeler traversed the territory of the ethics of Web 2.0 engagingly. He started by taking a photo of us all and threatening to post it to Facebook. How would we feel? What are the issues? What if the photo were of us reeling out of the conference bar at 11.00 pm? Steve argued that the new issue introduced by social media is their persistence. Existing paradigms no longer obtain: we need new bottles for new wine.

In one sense this is true. Our behaviour is governed and limited by codes, laws, guidelines and professional expectations that are derived, ultimately, from ethical considerations. These codes no longer fit comfortably to regulate our online behaviour for many of the reasons Wheeler observed. John Traxler had earlier made the distinction between ethics as regulatory practice, and a "lighter, informal ethics" that is about our individual non-professional behaviour. But how easy is it now to separate the two?

However, are the underlying ethical issues all that different? Privacy, respect, obscenity, tolerance, freedom - all the value-laden ethical signifiers are as relevant as ever. Or are they?

Frances Bell examined one aspect of this question in detail. She explored the fuzzification of the "public/private" binary opposition that occurs in the digital world, and called on educators to exercise a responsibility to model and make explicit ethical behaviors for our students. But for me, this begs the question as to what constitutes ethical behaviour in a world of public/private confusion.

Andy Black seemed to relish the confusion. He cited the tangled timelines of his Twitter feed, wi running, canoeing, general observation and educational reflection interweaving. This is my personal enthusiasm, I will admit. In Andy's Twitter feed, we cannot escape the human being, separate it off from the professional identity. Sure, Web 2.0 makes it necessary to do this more explicitly and overtly. If we want to! Surely this is a key ethical point; that we can now actively destroy the boundary not so much between public and private, but between personal and impersonal? Our learning and teaching (among other online behaviors) can be now more personal and intimate. This almost certainly allows it to be more powerful: and this ups the ante, increase the risk of success or disaster.

This is the point that engages me. Are these technologies in fact redefining the underlying concepts which determine our ethics (concepts like "privacy" and "freedom")?

Karl Royle's slightly oblique presentation on ethics and gaming was neatly complemented by Mark Childs, who immediately raised the issue of "seriousness" in how various online experiences ( for example, Second Life) are treated by students and observers. Students sometimes reject participation, and their reasons and reasoning are illuminating. This notion of seriousness was one of the points he has observed (students not taking online social media learning opportunities as serious); others were new ways of attachment to online environments, the potential for deception, the potential for disturbing or unfamiliar social (or anti-social) behaviors. His most telling example was to do with offense. Some students refused to or worried about participation because of the potential for them to be offended.

Do students have the the right not to be offended? Can education take place in a "walled garden" in which individuals can be protected from challenge? Not intellectual challenge, obviously - but Mark was essentially asking us the question "do we have a responsibility to protect students from ethical or moral challenge, or indeed do we have a responsibility to challenge students ethically?"

It probably is clear already that I would favor the second approach. Much of the experience that social media provides can be deeply confronting. But confrontation, I would argue, is a central part of education. I think we have a tendency to cocoon students in tailored learning environments, when we think about "meeting student needs". But what a student needs is not always what makes them comfortable. Sometimes, students need to be challenged and confronted, and sometimes even offended.

(As do conference plenary audiences! The ethics of this are not always simple, as we found yesterday morning.)

Finally, James Clay asked the question that had been the elephant in the room. "Who determines the framework of right and wrong behavior in our (online) lives?". The clearest answer from the panel was "the Ethics committee". Which just missed the point, of course.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Waiting for the sea-change

Richard Noss, in his initial introduction to the conference as a whole, answered my first key question, as an Australian coming (back) to the UK to think about teaching and learning. By and large, the awaited radical transformation - the sea-change, if you will - has yet to occur in the ways in which technology and new paradigms of social communication fundamentally shift the way we teach and learn.

This is clearly true of Australia, but my question had been to what extent the much more overtly policy-driven agenda towards e-Learning in the UK had been effective. What I am hearing initially is: not all that much. As Noss pointed out, the transformation in other parts of our lives (social, financial; who doesn't bank online nowadays?) has been rapid and pervasive. Likewise in both Australia and the UK, dramatic shifts in the nature and culture in HE have taken place as a result of other external drivers (student fees, internationalization, widening access).

So why do we sit here, waiting for the sea-change? Even those who avowedly rally to turn back the tide, fighting a rear-guard action against the evils of technology in the classroom, appear to be fighting phony war. When will come the large scale institutional commitment to drive whole universities into the forward into the utopia or dystopia of the future.

Saul Tendler, somewhat perfunctorily, took a contrary view, and talked about the transformation he had seen over the past twenty years. However in his passing reference to "new ways to deliver material", he revealed that while the available gadgets, bells and whistles may have changed, his paradigms of learning had, maybe, not. "Deliver material": the junk mail paradigm of teaching and learning.

But Donald Clark returned to the theme that "nothing much changed". The ways in which physics, for instance, is being taught now remains the same as it was when Clark was a student thirty years ago. Clark used the lecture as a metonym for the intractability of higher education practice, and observed teachers' unwillingness, in the main, to adopt a research-informed, scientific or reflective attitude to their own practice or to the nature of learning as causal.

Systematically, Clark destroyed the rationale for the lecture as a teaching method. "It's not just that that the great majority of lectures are shit ... The method itself is flawed ... it's a fossil, a mediaeval relic. ... We have to have a more sophisticated view of the solution to this problem than just to shove them down on tape.". The passivity; the lack of critical reflection or collaboration; the lack of practice or repetition; the lack of collaboration; the cognitive overload: these are all persuasive arguments as to why the lecture is an unsuitable learning experience.

Clark's review of the history, philosophy and etymology of the lecture was an entertaining tour-de-force. But by and large, he was preaching to the converted. The talk was more motivational than informative - and that was no bad thing. Those of us committed to transforming education for the better could deal with a morale boost.

Yes, we are convinced. The lecture is bunk. So WHY, Donald, WHY do we continue to subject our students to an uninteresting and unedifying diet of second- and third-rate lecture experiences? This is the question, which was left haning.

Which brings us back to my original question. Why - given the technologies available to us, the prevalence of leadership committee to transformation in at least some parts of many of our institutions, and the decade or more that has passed since we have been trying - why are we still waiting for the sea change?

That sad truth about most contemporary higher education is that it is not rich or strange. On the contrary: it is poor and ordinary.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Poster presentation uploaded

My poster presentation "'Open the Pod-Bay doors, please, HAL': narratives of crisis in e-learning in HE" has been uploaded to the conference website.  You can view the whole thing here

I didn't get to post all the individual narratives as discussion topics here - ran out of time.  However I really am interested in whether certain observations or assertions I make obtain more widely.  For instance, how relevant is this twelve-year-old conceptualisation of the "Lone Ranger"?  In my experience at my institution, very relevant.  But perhaps ANU is unusually archaic?

The Lone Ranger is a familiar figure on the e-learning landscape. The innovative individualist, pursuing his or her own idiosyncratic change agenda, is perhaps the most ubiquitous practitioner of e-learning, and as a strategy for establishing identity as a practitioner is arguably the only successful one at universities where the dominant paradigm for academic work is the traditional collegial model of an individual academic taking virtual sole responsibility for a course. Such a model still obtains most prevalently at research-intensive universities.

Peter Taylor's (1998) description of the Lone Ranger is still very much to the point:

"The overwhelming evidence is that the development of more flexible learning environments through the use of CITs has been energised and enacted primarily by lone rangers—individual staff members who are energetic, early adopters of innovation, and who are motivated by a desire to improve the accessibility and quality of their teaching. This phenomenon ... is consistent with the commitment of academics to the principle of professional autonomy. This is an innovation-driven approach to the development of new practices. But what are the outcomes?

There are some positives, and some negatives. The positives tend to cluster around the achievement of intentions--improvement in access, in retention rates, in the quality of teaching and learning. Some individuals even gain promotion. But the most important outcome is that these lone rangers have laid a foundation for new teaching methods based on the available CITs. In this sense, they have done much to create the potential to catch the CIT wave, and to make it pay off for students in substantive ways. These are extremely important outcomes, and should be celebrated and protected.

But there is also a downside. This approach has tended to produce innovation at the level of particular course offerings, but there has been a lack of institutional support and a failure to institutionalise the outcomes …In fact innovation often occurred in spite of this lack of institutional interest. ... Well-developed evaluations of such initiatives are rare. Where evaluations have been conducted, and reports written, little notice was or is taken of their findings or recommendations. …The lone ranger approach emphasises the importance of investing creative energy, but has done little to articulate that investment with the broader institutional context. This is a high cost, low return strategy."

The fascinating thing about this description of e-learning innovation in the mid-1990s is perhaps how relevant it remains. In the context of this paper, the lone ranger identity or narrative can be seen as a way of explicitly avoiding institutional engagement with change issues. Innovators can be characterised as individualists and thus functionally excluded from the educational decision-making process.