Sunday, October 16, 2016

Underestimated barriers to change

Change is often seen as a threat rather than an opportunity. It demands that I have to rethink the way I work, it will require considerable effort and there's always the risk that I somehow won't manage to adapt or may even lose my job. Those who advocate change already see a clear place for themselves in the new order and an opportunity to succeed. Others aren't so sure there's a place for them and therefore are skeptical. In education we see how difficult it is to change whether that change is about the integration of educational technology, internationalisation or learner-centred pedagogies. There are often lots of inspirational grassroots projects, training initiatives, policy and strategy documents as well as support from top management. Campus buidlings and facilities can be redesigned to foster and support the desired changes but somehow, despite all this, the changes never really take root. Are there hidden forces at work here?

Two such forces I'd like to propose are culture and administrative structures (maybe two aspects of the same thing actually). Culture is often about hidden unwritten codes of how things are done at this institution. It's about unofficial, alternative hierarchies, understandings and traditions. These are extremely hard to even identify never mind change but I think they often explain why many change initiatives never really progress beyond the enthusiasts. It can be a culture of academic freedom, a concept open for a wide range of interpretations, that gives every member of staff an opt-out clause for any change they don't really like. This can derail even initiatives that have the full support of the management. No-one opposes the change directly but simply reserve the right to opt out.

This is expressed in a short article in EdTech, On Campus, Change is Constant, and That’s Good, which identifies culture as the hardest nut to crack in any change process. Culture is often engrained in the walls of the institution and is extremely hard to identify. Many don't even realise that there is such a culture, it's simply the way we do things round here.

Every stage matters, but I believe culture may matter most. It’s also surprisingly easy to overlook. Ruben and Gigliotti define culture as “the organization’s language, history, norms, rules and traditions that may influence the dynamics of change.” In any community, these are the factors that shape individuals’ day-to-day experiences, perceptions and expectations. Tuned-in leaders craft strategies that take culture into account; out-of-touch leaders fail to do so, and as a result they risk sabotaging new initiatives.

The second factor, administrative structures, is much more obvious and can stifle innovation before it has a chance to succeed. Often an institution is limited by structures imposed from government levels; statistics, accountability, box-ticking. For example teachers are assigned a limited number of contact hours with students and these are often categorised as "lecture hours" or "tutoring hours" with the former tending to have a higher price tag than the latter. If you still call them lecture hours it is hardly any suprise that teachers will continue to lecture. If you flip the classroom the reporting structure has difficulties. More flexible course forms and new styles of teaching are generally not supported by these structures and with most countries judging universities on a narrow range of performace indicators the risk of failure is greater than the potential benefits of innovation.

Cultural change is a long-term process and it involves much more than new technology, new buildings, new strategies, new training programmes and so on. It's about changing the default attitude to innovation from skepticism to curiosity. Structural change should be easier since it involves changing the ways we administer and report education. However, any changes must come from a higher level where the culture may be very different to that at institutional level. So even if institutions can change they may be restricted by structural restrictions from above.

Catch 22?