Friday, September 23, 2022

Learning - from magic solutions to meaningful processes

Photo by Dollar Gill on Unsplash

Learning cannot be forced or planned. We can create the right conditions for learning and offer a variety of strategies but the learning comes from within. You have to want to learn and you have to learn how to learn. So in education we work on helping learners to work out how they learn best and then apply those principles to the things they want to learn. We can nudge, guide, support, motivate, challenge and applaud but in the end it is up to the learners. Learning is individual and subject to so many variables but still we search for ways to measure efficiency and upscale process that are simply not scaleable.  

These themes emerge in an interview article from the Centre for Public Impact, 5 Lessons from Olli-Pekka Heinonen and the Finnish National Agency for Education. Please watch the interview on the above link to hear the full details of his proposals. Olli-Pekka Heinonen is the Director General of the Finnish National Agency for Education and in a longer interview he discusses how the Finnish education system has tried to avoid falling into the trap of performance ratings, checkboxes and national solutions. He claims that scaling is failing because it assumes that what works for some will work for all - rather obvious it would seem but so often forgotten. There is no right answer, it all depends on the situation, circumstances and the learning context. Instead of national initiatives in terms of methods and structure we need to empower local initiatives and encourage teachers to compare and adapt from each other.

The alternative vision for scaling developed in EDUFI’s work moves from seeking to scale the innovation(s) that worked in one place, and implementing those in other places, to scaling the capacity for learning and innovation itself. “What works” is actually the capacity for learning and experimentation in each place, so that is what must be scaled.
We need to develop the preconditions for innovation and allow for collaborative communities to share and adapt new methods. As with the students, help teachers to learn how to innovate and experiment, offer spaces for collaboration and exchange of experience and support their processes. From magic solutions to meaningful processes. 

Another area that he discusses is the prevailing obsession with accountability with all the efficiency reviews and checklists that so many institutions and individuals feel trapped in. This box-ticking mentality leads to a fear of falling lower in the various rankings that seem to define today's education systems. Self assessment can easily lead to self deception as you become increasingly under pressure to tick the right boxes in your quality review.
The research evidence, together with vivid personal accounts, show that target-based performance management approaches undermine real-world performance by creating the conditions in which people systematically lie to one another. Olli-Pekka's experience is that “payment by results” and other forms of results based management undermine the capacity to do effective work and gets in the way of learning. “We should rebuild the performance management system entirely”, says Olli-Pekka.
Once again he advocates helping institutions to build capacity and focus on development than imposing criteria from above. It sounds so obvious but sadly so few governments seem to understand and instead treat education like an industry that can be planned and controlled. We can do so much better.

Tuesday, September 13, 2022

Post-pandemic university - real or cosmetic change?

Photo by Loïc Fürhoff on Unsplash

Educational technology enables us to rethink teaching and learning. It offers us the opportunity to widen participation in education, create more accessible and inclusive learning spaces and to offer greater levels of flexibility and collaboration. That sounds great but why haven't we seen this revolution yet, even after the pandemic? There seems instead to be a backlash against online education now that campuses are "back to normal".  The trouble is that changing the way that universities teach is not simply in the hands of digitally skilled teachers and support staff. The whole system needs to change and that has not happened yet.

This is discussed in an excellent article by Neil MoselyIs the university education model forever changed?. Teachers can experiment and redesign their courses to a certain extent but there are many constraints against radical change. Changing a course syllabus can take months if not years. Teachers are allotted a set number of lecture hours during which they are expected to lecture. Facilitating collaborative problem-based learning based mostly on asynchronous activities does not fit into the administrative system. Even if the teachers get support and inspiration it's not easy to challenge these principles.

As well as that they didn’t realise that changing the mode of teaching and study needs a change of the way you operate. It’s not simply a case of providing the technologies, some workshops, some inspirational “innovative” requires something much more fundamental than that.

The university model is what it is because of the many parameters that make it and define it as a model. If you want to change the model then it’s not simply a case of imploring staff to do something different within the confines of the old model, but rather orchestrating the organisational change necessary to move to a new model.  

This rings true for so many educational technologists who offer inspirational workshops, seminars and consultation to teachers but discover that the uptake is low or the effects marginal beyond the dedicated band of true believers. True the university is much more digital today than before the pandemic but the fundamental principles remain untouched. Hybrid teaching or lecture capture would seem to be typical compromises where we can basically continue as usual but with an optional digital add-on.. Is digital an integrated part of the whole university experience? Are online students equally treated and equally welcome? The hybrid classroom looks promising but is it really breaking any barriers of simply preserving hierarchies?
If you want to change the teaching and study model then you have to change the organisational model that buttresses it. This is hard, and the pandemic hasn’t necessarily helped as it has led to a conceited sense of organisational agility. When thinking about where universities are at due to the pandemic and gauging this against where they might like to be, we would all do well to heed the words of Irene Peter:

“Just because everything is different doesn't mean anything has changed.”
We still have a long way to go.

Wednesday, September 7, 2022

On a personal note at a crossroads in life

Photo by Jordan McQueen on Unsplash

Since the last post two significant events have happened to me - retirement and a heart operation. Both demand a period of transition to recover and adapt. I hadn't expected the two to coincide so closely so many of my retirement plans are on hold till I'm fit again but it is a time for reflection and deciding what things to continue and what to stop.

One hard decision was to wind up my Swedish news blog, Flexspan, and its weekly newsletter. This has operated in parallel with this blog but featured short news items about news, articles, research and events in educational technology both in Sweden and outside. I managed around four to five posts a week since 2009 and had a very central place in my life. Breaking up is always hard to do but I decided that I would adjust my interest and involvement in educational matters to a much lower level and create space for other interests. So I have now written my farewell post on that blog (if you can read Swedish see here) and have received lots of positive feedback from colleagues from all educational sectors. Blogging can be quite a solitary activity unless you're a major figure in your field and comments are uncommon so it's very pleasant when suddenly some nice comments come in. I will continue this blog for as long as it feels relevant. I realise that the less I read about education the less I will have to write about. Maybe I'll change the focus of the blog but at the moment it's hard to imagine a blog-free life.

Over these years I've learned an awful lot. Back at the end of the 00s, I was extremely optimistic about how digital technology was opening up education and all the exciting opportunities to change teaching and learning for the better. I took part in several projects on open educational resources, MOOCs and so on and there seemed to be a powerful movement in higher education towards open, accessible and inclusive education far beyond the confines of the physical campus. I thrived on the wonderful communities, collaboration and discussion and was inspired by so many innovative thinkers around the world. If only we could get the message across to the management and authorities! My posts from that era certainly convey that enthusiasm but the breakthrough never really happened. It took a pandemic to achieve that but even if everyone now has experience of online education the signs are that the instinct to go back to normal again are extremely strong. In some places online is seen as merely a pandemic stop-gap solution that worked quite well but can never replace the real thing. Read Martin Weller's recent posts on this theme: The fake online vs in-person culture war and Energy crisis and hybrid learning for some insights on this.

There is still plenty energy and innovation out there and many inspirational educators to follow. But technology has been swallowed up by big business and so much of educational technology seems focused on surveillance and control rather than freedom and innovation. I worry about the future and find it very hard to find any light ahead in a world that seems increasingly driven by greed and willful stupidity. I hope that education can find a way to develop digital learning spaces that don't track and sell user data to corporations or government but it's a big ask. I am also concerned that higher education is being marginalised in countries where research is increasingly dismissed, ignored and openly ridiculed by populist politicians and pundits. If so few decision makers take research seriously, especially when it tells them things they don't want to hear, then we have a very dangerous situation. No country is immune from this trend.

I will continue to post here on whatever grabs my attention in the world of education but otherwise I intend to do a lot of hiking, reading, music and other activities that give me energy. But first I need to get my health back on track.