Technology and academic freedom

I’ve been invited to participate in a research project that will look at academic freedom in the United States of America, which is a fascinating topic, but before I jump in, I thought I’d try and link it with my previous project. (My doctoral thesis which I am about to submit. Fingers crossed!). That looked at models of educational development units and how they might fit into the contemporary university.

In my thesis, I noted in passing that there was some dissatisfaction among academic colleagues with what might be categorised as technical-rational interpretations of educational development, or if you prefer a certain impatience with attempts to reduce university teaching to a set of tips and techniques. Because my work involves supporting educational technology, and because I think technology tends to impose certain practices, or ways of working, I suspect instrumentalism is a route we can be very easily tempted along.

The question that I’m beginning to wonder about is whether the way we use technology could be a threat to academic freedom. I’m aware of the Edupunk movement, open source and web 2.0 of course, but corporate software does seem to continue to exercise a powerful hold over higher education. Most of the corporations offering services to universities appear to be relatively benign, (for now anyway!) but what started me thinking was an excellent introduction by Beshara Doumani to a collection of essays entitled “Academic Freedom after September 11”. He identified three threats to academic freedom – Government, private advocacy groups, and the privatisation of the university, this last in the sense that the benefit of higher education was perceived as shifting from the state and wider society, to the individual, the student as consumer.

Doumani was writing in 2004, at the height of the Bush administration’s paranoia about Islamic terrorism, and while government interference does have the potential to threaten academic freedom, for now I want to think about the other threats. Since the financial crisis of 2009, universities are being urged to broaden their income streams, which isn’t entirely unreasonable, but seems to me to run the risk of allowing funders to direct what is taught, or how it is taught. Drifting slightly off topic for a moment, would an evangelical church want to fund a hypothetical Darwin Research Institute for example?  More locally for Lincolnshire would the food industry be keen on funding a programme that taught students how to grow their own food?  (I’m not saying they wouldn’t, just that there are potential hostages to fortune).

Getting back to the point, if we persist in using corporate technology then we can only do what those corporations want us to do. One of those things (if the corporation has any sense) is likely to be to train students in using their products so they’ll take them into the workplace.  Incidentally we’re also committed to paying their bills, if their services are all we are able to use. Just to add to the fun we are often subjected to licensing agreements that mean we lose access to our data if we decide we no longer need the software.   We’re effectively locked in and therefore not free to do anything that these suppliers might one day disapprove of.  (I’m not saying that this is all some sort of conspiracy theory. It’s much more subtle than that! )

Now I might be talking myself out of a job here, (since one of my roles is to provide support for Blackboard users) but if we are serious about protecting academic freedom I think it well worth our while exploring, and researching the potential of alternative open source and web 2.0 technologies as well as advocating their use.  That can lead to accusations of self-indulgent hobbyism, but these things take time because we can’t ram these alternatives down our colleagues’ throats, or we get back to the technical-rational problem I talked about above. There’s also a risk that the seeds we plant don’t germinate, but to end on a positive note if we are going out to raise funds from the local community, perhaps we could sell our expertise to others. The exploitation of open source technology such as Mahara for E-portfolios , WordPress MU for building  web sites, for local businesses seems to me to be one source we could explore by assisting them in installing the software, providing training and consultancy for their staff and so on. Thus we’d be engaging with the community without compromising our own academic freedom.

Phew. What a long post!

Social Media and the EDU

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.

The EDU: an idea whose time has gone?

The title of this post was inspired by a colleague who suggested that I use it for an article. I might still use it, but as you’ll see below, I’m not sure that the question mark isn’t the most important part of the title.  Anyway, it arose out of some research I have been doing into educational development units, and it’s intended as more of a reflective piece on the role these units play in the 21st Century University.

I’ve just completed a reread of the second edition of  Diana Laurillard’s “Rethinking University Teaching” (Yes, I know, I should get out more !). I think her model of teaching and learning as an iterative conversation has a lot of merit. The notion that learners can simply absorb information from a lecturer, a book, video, or other “narrative” medium (to borrow Laurillard’s phrase) does seem to run a very high risk that the learner will misinterpret or misconceive whatever it is they are supposed to be learning. Obviously, if the learner has an opportunity to articulate their conceptions, then a teacher is in a position to identify those misconceptions and “correct” them, even if this takes several cycles.

 One of the key outcomes of reading Laurillard’s book for me though is her argument that  those misconceptions are themselves a source of data about how students come to know. We should analyse students’ submissions for common errors, and try to devise some form of understanding about why these misconceptions arise.  I can already hear the choruses of “That’s all very well, but who has the time to do that?”  And of course, that’s only one suggestion for what we need to know about students learning. How do we make learning materials customisable for different disciplines?  Not only that, how do we show that they are easily customisable? As Laurillard admits there is no real tradition of collaboration between university departments, and certainly not between universities. Indeed one might argue that the uncritical admiration of politicians for all things “Business” since 1979 has led to an inappropriate stress on “competition” between universities, which simply leads to a lot of re-inventing the wheel as they try to outdo each other in providing slightly better versions of the same service.

 Now, I didn’t really mean to start this post by pontificating about teaching or even about Government Policy – it was meant to be more of a reflective piece about the implications of Laurillard’s arguments for Educational Development Units. The research I’ve been doing into these units does tend to suggest that those working in them do see themselves as operating in a conversational framework that is not unlike the one Laurillard developed as a model of how students (and in her later chapters, organisations) learn.  This is important because, given the recent announcement about cuts to the teaching grant that was slipped outbefore Christmas, I suspect that such units are even more vulnerable than they were before.

 Actually, I do accept that EDUs have not been as successful as they might have been in bringing about a total transformation of the Higher Education landscape, but this is because they have never been large enough to play the full part in the conversation that they need to.  And, they’ve shown, in my view a quite proper reluctance to impose models of learning on academics. There is no one model of learning that is appropriate across every discipline, and to attempt to impose one would have been to guarantee failure. It’s also true that there are quite high epistemological walls between the different disciplines, by which I mean that physicists don’t take much notice of what historians are doing. (Why should they? Well, they’re actually in the same business – teaching!)  Please don’t think I’m pathologising academics as “failing” here. My argument is that they are so hemmed in by disciplinary structures not to mentionorganisational structures, that there needs to be some unit that performs the EDU’s role.  

What the EDUs can do and have been doing, is actually help to rebuild some misconceptions about learning that are still commonplace in Higher Education. (e.g.,the idea that posting PowerPoint slides on a VLE constitutes “e-learning provision”.) They can help colleagues explore the wilder shores of the VLE to find ways, such as wikis, discussion groups, course web sites, and so on to allow learners to articulate their conceptions and show staff that they need to engage with those (mis)conceptions.  They also play a vital role in helping staff to develop innovative approaches to teaching, by working with IT and other support staff to ensure that, for example, new technologies are introduced in ways that don’t compromise the safety of networks.  They could do more. The sort of research into student misconceptions described above, provided it was done together with disciplinary colleagues, would be an example, as would be a similar analysis of validation or course review documents. 


So, no I don’t think the EDU is an idea whose time has gone. If anything, that time is still to come. There is a lot of work still to be done. Yes, too many courses still accept that a presence on the VLE consists of a few PowerPoint files and fail to provide opportunities for students to participate, through mechanisms like wikis and blogs. But as more and more students are getting and benefiting from this kind of approach, then more and more students will demand it. If you want to change the practice of academics then you have to do it through their experience of dealing with their students. There has to be someone in the University who can co-ordinate and share this kind of practice.

Academic identity and e-learning.

Being at a bit of a loose end this morning, I wandered into the University Library and picked up the Times Higher Education Supplement. (No, I don’t have a life!) Anyway. There was an interesting article describing a paper about academics’ reluctance to engage with e-learning, something that most of us working in educational development units can tell one or two stories about, and does get the odd mention in the thesis I’m working on. I am not saying that all academics are completely technophobic. Far from it. In my experience most are not, and I don’t think the author of the paper is saying that either.

But she does pick on something I found in my own research – that e-learning (and indeed wider attempts at “educational development”) can be seen as undermining academic identity. I think it was Ray Land who first described educational development as a “modernist project” which of course carries with it modernist notions of “improvement” and doing things “better” which implies that things are currently not being done very well. It’s hardly surprising then that it isn’t welcomed with open arms. The problem is that technology isn’t going to go away, and I think, “academic identities” are inevitably going to change. I don’t see how it can be otherwise. It’s easy to be sniffy about students doing Google searches instead of “proper” research but the fact is that, like it or not, the Internet contains more facts and arguments about them than we can carry in our crania no matter how exalted they may be. (and, yes, I know there’s more to the Internet than a Google search, and I also know that there’s as much crap out there as there is good stuff!)

I’m not saying academic identities will disappear, just that they’ll change. I think we’ll see much more openness in terms of learning resources being made available, but the most radical change may well come in assessment. I think, as I’ve probably blogged about before (and Stephen Downes certainly has), that the degree classification will in a few years be seen as much less important than the students’ blog, e-portfolio, and publicly available work. The challenge for academic staff will be ensuring that the student’s public persona is critically and disciplinary sound.

(Mind you I suspect that if and when that happens employers will start to complain that they have too much information, and wouldn’t it be better if universities summarised a student’s achievement, by oh I don’t know, describing an excellent student as “first class” and, shall we say, a less (but still very good ) student as “upper second class” student, a reasonably competent one as “lower second”…)

What is educational development, exactly?

Well, I don’t know, exactly. But recently, I have been doing a lot of research into models of educational development units and I have come to the conclusion that slightly different perceptions are held by those who work in them, by those who pay for them, and by those who use their services.  This is actually a massive oversimiplification but essentially the first group see themselves as working collegially with academics to enhance the quality of learning and teaching, the second see the units as a mean to achieve specific objectives, (e.g. getting more students into university and keeping them there, or making more use of the technologies that institutions have spent a lot of money on) and the third see them as a sort of support service, especially with regard to using technology.  That isn’t a negative critique – there are valid reasons why they might hold such positions, but they do lead to misconceptions.

I raise this because this quote, taken from Jim Groom’s admirable bavatuesdays blog made me think a little bit more about how these different perceptions affect the technology aspect of our work. 

“For too long, instructional technology has been enveloped within the broader notion of information technology. We need to drive a permanent wedge between those two areas of university life in the understandings of our communities. Information technology makes our phones and networks and computers and smart boards work, and collects and protects student, staff, and faculty data so that we can get credits and get paid. This is crucial stuff. But it doesn’t foreground teaching and learning.

Instructional technology is about pedagogy, about building community, about collaboration and helping each other imagine and realize teaching and learning goals with the assistance of technology.”

Just as “information technology” is not “instructional technology”, “educational development is not staff development”.  Yes, of course they have things in common, possibly even a shared foundation, which is why I’m not entirely sure about the image of “driving a wedge” between them. But we still have work to do in getting the fact that they are growing apart (quite rapidly) to our colleagues.

Structure and Agency in the Educational Development Unit

I gave a seminar with this rather overblown title in the Centre for Educational Research and Development’s seminar series last Tuesday (24th February, 2009.) Essentially my argument was that educational development units, through their agency, are actually making a change in the way government policies relating to higher education are implemented.  My argument is that there has been a move from a normative “you must do it this way” sort of cast of mind, to a much more collegial “lets work together to bring about this” sort of approach. In some cases that means some policies do get less priority than others and they all get revised or subverted

Anyway, here’s a brief podcast based on my talk – it’s very heavily abridged, as I don’t really think I can say what I want to in the time available but I try and get across my main findings in the short time. I’m working on producing a fuller journal article. If I get it published I’ll let you know!

Structure and Agency (MP3 file)

Podcast transcript (PDF file)

Writing up

Spent 4 hours this afternoon wrestling the literature review chapter into some sort of shape – it’s still far too long, but I’ve lost about a third of it. I think it does read rather better too. One of the strange things about thesis writing though is that you can’t really do it in a linear fashion. In a funny sort of way I need to know what the data I’ve collected tells me before I can really bring the literature review chapter, or the methodology chapter in. That’s not the way you’re supposed to do it of course – the literature review is supposed to inform the methodology, and the research questions, which are then answered by the data. Of course reality isn’t exactly like that. I’m not suggesting you fit the questions to your answers – You don’t. But you do have to do something a bit like that to make the thesis read coherently.

Where I’m at now anyway, is an argument that there are quite strong structural pressures on EDUs to deliver – but that these pressures can lead to them doing the wrong thing. One thing I found interesting was that they do tend to like putting on workshops and training sessions, but that these only work if the client groups actually want them.  Seems obvious, but the pressure to be seen to “doing something” means that there’s a possible that the EDU can be hitting its performance indicators, by providing workshops that nobody goes to!  Actually, most of the interviews reveal that they actually offer quite innovative forms of support – assisting with teaching in other disciplines being one of the most striking, but also working with staff to meet student demand, or trying to see how e-learning might fit into completely new disciplines (New to the developer I mean). The problem is that these are “expensive” – they tend to be one to one,  time consuming and add greatly to the developer’s workload. But they’re exactly the sort of model that teaching and learning theorists advocate. Which does suggest that the theorists might be right! So in spite of an implication I found in the literature that educational developers don’t practice what they preach, I’ve found some evidence that they sort of do!


Read a bit more about this last night, in a 2005 article by Barnett. He does seem to assume that the term “university” refers to a sense of universality that surrounds the university, and has always surrounded the University. I’m not so sure. I’m inclined to agree with Olaf Pedersen’s rather more mundane explanation, which is that the term probably originates from the Latin phrases used in papal bulls that referred to the “universality of the teachers and students” in a studium generale. I’m no Latin scholar, so I’ll dig out the quote Pedersen uses if I’ve time.

That’s not to say that some in the University have not appropriated the meaning of universality for themselves over the centuries. I’m pretty sure they have. But I think Barnett’s claim really can’t be given more than the status of an assertion unless of course you include his own appropriation of it as evidence. Which it is, I suppose.

Then again, I’m just nit-picking here. I think Barnett is largely right to draw attention to the multiplicity of “knowledges” and the university’s role in their expansion. From my point of view the consequences are that there cannot be one single “idea of the university”. (Whatever Cardinal Newman might have thought!) I think I’m beginning to disagree with my supervisor’s idea of a changing “idea of the University” over time. I suspect that there have always been multiple and competing “knowledges” (Church, State, Town, Gown etc. in medieval times.)

For the EDU of course, the issue is which “knowledge” has the most power. And what are the consequences of the exercise (or not) of that power?