I’ve just been reading a rather interesting article by Richard Stacy, published in something called the “Capco Journal of Financial Transformation” (Not a publication to which I subscribe; he republished it on his blog!) which is about the potential of social media to transform practices across the business sector. It also, I thought, had considerable relevance for the way we work in educational development units.
For example in terms of content, he talks about the importance of having a social space (like a blog) not because everyone is going to rush out and read it, but because it’s already optimised for social media style interaction. The point is that when others start to engage, you’re ahead of the game, because they can pick up, for example, your RSS feeds, and you’ve provided space for them to comment on what you’re doing. (Haven’t you?)
There’s also a strong emphasis in the paper on the value of losing control – or rather transferring control from yourself (that is the EDU) to the community (that is the academic community). Now I’d argue that this is exactly what EDUs are doing. Essentially we’re not in the business of delivering a holy grail of authenticated knowledge, but trying to engage with the processes that the community (or communities) are engaging in. This doesn’t sit well with a culture of “target setting” of course and anyway conversation is a much harder asset to develop than content. Stacy suggests that businesses identify their communities and look at the conversation threads that are already there, and then identify what they have to offer, as long as what they have to offer falls within their area of expertise. Now, I have to be honest. In my research I didn’t find much evidence that EDUs were really doing that (although there was some, at one site in particular, even though they might not themselves have thought of it that way themselves, and I did detect signs of a shift towards doing so elsewhere). I also found evidence that one site was trying to go the other way and almost set the agenda for its university. I can’t generalise from five case studies, but it did seem to me that the older (pre-1992) universities were less flexible than the later ones in this regard.
What the EDUs in the newer universities I visited seemed to be trying to do is, I suppose, to set up “Communities of practice” around educational development. The problem they face is that strong communities of practice already exist, and for an individual to move from one in which they are comfortable to a new one is challenging. For an EDU, it’s less of a problem, because what they’re actually doing is trying to move into academic communities, through what Lave and Wenger might call peripheral participation. You can see it in the establishments of things like “technology” or “study skills” or “personal development planning” working groups, web sites or blogs but I think these will take a very long time to percolate through because it’s much harder for colleagues to move the other way (that is from their discipline towards educational development), than it is for EDUs to move to the disciplines. I think that’s one reason why VLE’s such as Blackboard are proving so resilient. They cater very much to what the academic community of practice wants to do, (although never exactly in the way that community would like). Perhaps social media are one way in which we can help the process of change by creating a space in which a conversation about the proper role of technology in higher education can take place. There’s some evidence of this beginning to happen elsewhere, but we’re at the beginning of a long and bumpy road, that’s going to take a lot of people out of their comfort zone.