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It does not matter what is in your hands: Good teaching in the digital age

Picture by Chris Bull 679/16 ALT Conference day two.

Picture by Chris Bull
ALT Conference day two.

Peter Bryant is the Head of Learning Technology and Innovation. In this post (which is reposted from his personal blog he debates what makes for good teaching in a digital age and advocates for a debate about the right questions, not the wrong technology.

Some strange things seem to be happening in the learning technology and T&L debates at the moment. There appears to be a growing presence of an anti-tech resistance, challenging the efficacy of technology (and those who use it). Some of these ‘think pieces’ question the motivations of those using technology in their class (both students and teachers), demean the status of social media as an active and fertile ground for intellectual debate, try and institute blanket bans for the good of the learner and actively argue that we need to ‘get back to chalk’. These have become battle lines in a fake war between protectors and challengers, defenders of the faith versus the barbarians at the gate. The innocent victims in all this posturing and puffery are the engaged teachers and learners (thanks @antonycoombsHE for the input). We can see the small bubbles of evidence for this assertion increasingly breaking through to the surface Let’s take Facebook as the canary in the coal mine:

  • There are universities who ban Facebook from fixed PCs in labs and student spaces (on the suggestion of other students, apparently)
  • The continued resistance (and active calls to ban) the use of student devices in lectures and tutorials, because of the assertion that ‘they will just be checking their Facebook’
  • On the other hand, a lot of Facebook led pilots at a delivery or curricula level have failed because students don’t like ‘their’ Facebook being hijacked for learning (although there is a lot of evidence that they are stopping using Facebook entirely, or use it to talk to each other, not the teacher!)
  • Universities wanting to hold some sway of what their staff say on social media to present a unanimity of opinion (including Facebook).


In the end, these are pointless battles in an entirely distracting conflict.  We are arguing about the toss and not about the game. It doesn’t matter what devices are in their hands. What matters most is good teaching. Does it matter that you have a pair of red shoes on? No. What matters is that they make you feel good. It matters that they help people identify or find you. It matters that they stop that puddle you stepped in from making your socks a squidgy mess. What matters is the experience that people participate in. Good teaching at its heart is the creation and facilitation of experience. There is an old marketing truism that I have always found insightful. People don’t buy ¼ inch drill bits, they buy ¼ inch holes. Good teaching is not the fact that someone has a MacBook open or that you have created a PowerPoint slide or even that you have knowledge that you believe someone else needs to become an expert. Good teaching creates environments and conditions for learning experiences to happen. And the creation and nourishment of any experience is a product of a complex interplay of environmental factors. Good teachers hold and move the faders on those factors in order to achieve some form of synergy. Technology is without doubt one of those factors but by itself is like breathing only the nitrogen part of the air.


Good teaching is device/platform/OS agnostic
The kind of devices that people use or the sometimes desperate need to find a use for a piece of technology in teaching (Pokémon GO, it is the new Snapchat) become the easier conversations to have, especially amongst learning technologists and educational developers. Yes, the type of technology being used can and does influence the experiences people learn from. And yes, if the technology doesn’t work it can impact on that experience as well. And yes again, maybe a new platform or social media will seed good ideas and promote innovation. None of these assertions are wrong. But (and there is always a but), by themselves they are the less confronting conversation to have, because they are ignoring the elephant in the room. Good teaching is a hard thing to do. Good teaching is a challenging and emotionally draining thing to do. Good teaching lifts you high and can smack you down, sometimes in the space of a single class. Good teaching sees devices and uses them when they can contribute or challenge or transform what you are trying to do in your class.


Denial is not an instrument of good teaching
Making someone turn a device off in order to help them learn is not a critical approach to teaching. I used to work with a teacher who brought a bucket of water into his classroom and said ‘if I hear a phone go off, it goes into the water’. Why have we become so afraid of a phone? Sure, you may want a debate or discussion that asks people to engage, visually and actively. But what kind of learning can devices help with? Learning about how people learn. So, what actually goes on behind that sea of glowing white apples you see in your lecture? Have they all got Facebook open? Probably. Are they chatting with their mates? Yeah. Are they looking up words and definitions on Wikipedia? Almost certainly. How about providing them with a backchannel for conversation using a twitter hashtag, so that you can answer questions. How about providing them with a list of sites where they can check up definitions of words that match the kind of materials you use. Denial just leads to resistance and rebellion. Nothing good will come of it.


Good teaching is enabled by good communications. Technology changes the way we communicate
I am not describing all technology as simply instrumental tools, without power to influence good teaching. The way technology is used to collaborate, share, critique, engage (this list is endless) shapes the way we communicate. Creativity is democratised. Identity is fluid. Spaces are safe and dangerous. Risk is minimised and multiplied. People learn differently. To ignore social media and its transformative community of practices would be a dangerous ignorance. That doesn’t mean we have to all communicate through twitter in 140 characters, nor does it mean that crowdsourcing and Yelp recommendations will replace academic knowledge as the purest form of thought.  But it is in those very defences against using technology that one of the most fundamental tensions in higher education lies; you are either with us or against us. It is a polarised debate, with no middle ground and a series of entrenched positions backed with rigid institutional structures and policies and with all the risk dumped heavily on the shoulders of students.  If they choose to deny themselves the use of technology to live their lives, will that help them pass? How strong is the gravitational pull of a 2:1? Does the view of Professor Dr Jones requiring them to only use printed book sources for their essay outweigh their need for employable skills? So, how do they respond? They tell us to use our technology better; we want better PowerPoints, we want the VLE to do stuff to help us learn. And when we can be left on our own to study and prepare and learn (like we are for 90% of our HE experience), we will do things our way. We will use social media, we will chat with each other using whatever apps we like, we will share cool stuff and be visual and we will communicate and engage with people all over the world sharing knowledge, experiences and expertise. Because that is what we do. That is how we communicate and live our lives.

It doesn’t matter what is in their hands, it will be there and it will be used. It is none of our concern whether it is in their hands or not. Knowing it is in their hands empowers both them and us to make better learning experiences.

Title image from

Reposted from The DIGITAL Stranger


September 30th, 2016|innovation, Teaching & Learning|Comments Off on It does not matter what is in your hands: Good teaching in the digital age|

Digital is not the future – A UAL/LSE online hack

hack poster 3

Digital is not the future – Hacking the institution from the inside

Within many higher education institutions, the patterns and responses of resistance to change make anything different from the norm forced into the position that has to justify ‘why?’ Debates about the potential of technology, the tensions of techno-determinism and the fears of replacement and redundancy have centred the discourse on service rather than pedagogy. The problem is that the genie is already out the bottle. There is no going back to chalkboards and overheads,we won’t be shutting off the internet any time soon. Technology and the digital are already integral to what we do but the presence of technology does not automatically equate to a shift in practice.

So, we came up with the idea of this hack. How do we change the discourse and empower people like us to actively shape teaching and learning at our institutions? What are the key messages, tools and strategies available that put the digital in the heart of the conversation and not as a freak show, an uncritical duplication of institutional norms or a fringe activity of the tech savvy?

The aim of this hack is to design collectively the solution to the problem. A problem that we all know exists but perhaps have never cracked. The problem of potential. The problem of resistance and acceptance. The problem of teaching and learning in the post-digital age. The problem of defining what a university is in the same.

An open document?
We have made a Loomio community, which open for anyone to edit. You can find it here, and registration is simple and easy!


This is a conversation that will be made better by involving more people. The aim of the community is to frame the discussions and debates we need to have at our institutions in order put innovation and the digital at the heart of the institutional approach to learning and teaching. There is a case to be made that institutionally, we have failed. ‘Traditional’ custom and practice is legitimised in the digital, whilst practice based innovation can be banished to the fringe or the grassroots. Techno-solutionism is equally legitimised, where ‘solutions in a box’ and services drive our activity; an activity that often replicates existing practice rather than transforming it. This widens the gap between ‘academic’ practice and the changing nature of learning in a digital era, masked by the procurement of new, and by implication, ‘innovative’ technologies

What do you have to do?
What we seek from the physical and online hacks is a form of radical pragmatism. You are in the room, because you are the institution, you are the senior management, you are the expert.

The rules of this hack are simple.

Rule 1: We are teaching and learning focused *and* institutionally committed
Rule 2: What we talk about here is institutionally/nationally agnostic
Rule 3: You are in the room with the decision makers. What we decide is critical to the future of our institutions. You are the institution
Rule 4: Despite the chatter, all the tech ‘works’ – the digital is here, we are digital institutions. Digital is not the innovation.
Rule 5: We are here to build not smash
Rule 6: You moan (rehearse systemic reasons why you can’t effect change – see Rule 3), you get no beer (wine, juice, love, peace, etc)

We have chosen 5 common scenarios which are often the catalyst for change in institutions. As we noted above, you are in the room with the new VC and you have 100 words in each of the scenarios below to effectively position what we do as a core part of the institution. Why is this going to make our institutional more successful/deliver the objectives/save my (the VCs) job? How do we demonstrate what we do will position the organisation effectively? How do we make sure we stay in the conversation and not be relegated to simply providing services aligned with other people’s strategies? Anyone who has been around the system for any length of time will recognise these scenarios and will have been through many of them. They are critical junctures at where momentum for change peaks.

Scenario 1
Strategic review of the institution and budget planning for 2020
Scenario 2
Institutional restructure because of a new VC
Scenario 3
Undertaking of an institution wide pedagogical redesign
Scenario 4
Responding to and implementing TEF
Scenario 5
Institutional response to poor NSS/student experience results

Write on the basis that you are pitching your responses to the above to the new VC and senior management.

Re-imagining learning for a post-digital age

LSE2020 papercraft by Helen Page

papercraft for LTI by Helen Page

As part of our LSE2020 series which looks at what teaching and learning could look like in 2020, Peter Bryant (Head of Learning Technology and Innovation) has published three thought-provoking posts on his personal blog ( that make the case for how technology can facilitate and transform the experiences of learning and teaching in a post-digital age.

Re-imagining learning for a post-digital world (part 1) – Solutions not problems
‘Re-imagining learning for a post-digital world (part 2) – Introducing Post-Digital Learning Experiences’
Re-imagining learning for a post-digital world (part 3) – A design for learning?

December 8th, 2015|Blogging, innovation, LSE 2020, Projects, Teaching & Learning|Comments Off on Re-imagining learning for a post-digital age|

Five reasons why using technology could make your teaching and learning better!


The use of technology is an issue that is danced around quite a lot, especially here at the LSE. Technologists, academics, students all debate the notions of pedagogy before technology and how we can avoid the pitfalls of technological determinism or the replacement of every one of us with the robot Sheldon from the ‘Big Bang Theory. The reality is that this should never have become a polarised debate, where the choice was either the unregulated and ill-defined change agenda driven by technological adaptation or the last line of defence of the ‘way it has always been’. Technology (if such a concept can be simply defined) is a means; a society changing and generation shaping means for sure, but a means nonetheless. LTI are here to be part of your approach to engaging with technology to enhance learning and teaching. From the simplest innovation to the most transformative intervention and at a pedagogical or instructional level, technology is a critical part of modern teaching. So, if you are thinking about whether you should use ‘technology’ in your teaching or learning, contemplating a change in pedagogy or simply finding out what your colleagues or learners are doing with their technology, then maybe these five reasons might help shape your thinking.

1. All your students are already using technology to a wide variety of degrees
This is a simple assertion. All of us are using technology; from cash machines, to smartphones, to laptops to tablets to our oyster card. Each of these pieces of technology serves a purpose. They change the way we do things. They change the language we use and they shift core practices around processes (such as paying, communications, processing and thinking). There are no universal rules about this. Generations after us are not naturally better than their parents at being technologically adept. These technologies are simply there. They develop, change and progress like most other means. In your classroom you have an array of devices more powerful than any of the ones that went before. There are ways to use that technology for the benefits of learners and learning. Instant communications, collaborations, interactions outside the classroom, annotations, engagement with readings, critical thought, right down to managing the calendar. These skills are not native, nor are they uniform. Learners and teachers may need support, training, mentoring and practice. That’s where we can help.

2. All the jobs students will do are shaped in part by technology
We use technology to do all our jobs. You are reading a blog now. Almost every discipline has been impacted by technology; from research practice to visual rhetoric through to open access. How do we integrate these changes into curricula, teaching and assessment? Like any other programme/design process, we are research informed, we maintain rigour and we understand what skills and knowledge graduates will need to be develop expertise and understanding. Technology is just another part of that. Technology can help simulate real world employment situations, global phenomena or inter-personal scenarios. Technology can develop the communication, collaboration, identity or teamwork skills required in most modern workplaces. Technology skills such as media making, coding, social media or searching are critical trans-disciplinary concepts. Either inside or outside teaching and learning, having access to these skills enhances the employability of your graduates. LTI have a number of great cases where courses and programmes have embedded these skills. Maybe some of those practices will work for your course/programme or have an impact on your student satisfaction?

3. Technology is not a scorched earth approach to teaching
No institution wants to replace you with robots after recording your lectures. There is no replacement for the interaction and engagement face to face contact supports (either live or facilitated). However, you can add aspects of innovation to your teaching that build on and magnify that impact. Encouraging students to interact and engage through collaborative assessment, support each other and provide peer feedback, comment and discuss your lectures and tutorials or annotate and debate your PowerPoint slides. Technology does what it says on the box. It enhances, it adds, it disrupts and it transforms. Whether this is technology students use outside the classroom, or the innovative, flexible spaces were are looking to create within; Technology does not teach. Technology does not make people learn. You do. Students do. We want to work with you to enrich the student experience through innovative approaches to pedagogy, to the embedded use of technology such as Moodle, lecture capture and social media and through encouraging your students to use their own technologies to enhance their own learning.

4. Technology can make things possible that you previously thought impossible
One of the great potentials of technology is change. Technology for education represents a wonderful catalyst for change. One department commented to us recently that they have been waiting for the technology to catch up with their thinking. Maybe thinking about technology will change the way you think about assessment, challenge some of your assumptions about feedback, maybe it will open a door or close another. Maybe technology will shift the lecture from being bounded by transmission pedagogies to being discursive and interactive. We advocate for technologies to be more than an economic replacement of one practice with another. They are a chance for a rethink, a chance inspiration or a series of experiments that allow you to embed some play and fun into your teaching and learning. One of the most important roles here at LTI is innovation, thinking about and making available cutting edge ideas, practices and platforms in order to provide all staff with opportunities to rethink and experiment with their teaching.

5. Technology does enhance learning
Give it a go. The gap between what our learners see and understand as their online learning experience and the face to face experience is narrowing. It is all just learning. The capabilities required to search quickly, determine the veracity of information and do this whilst doing three other things are developing rapidly. These skills are by no means universal or natural, but they are developing and they are shaping how people learn. From students being able to re-watch lectures 8 or 9 times to make sure they understood concepts to being able to access a support network at 4am through twitter (or just to know when the Library lift is out of order @LSELibraryLift) technology is enhancing learning right now. LTI are here to help you, offer ideas and a critical (but friendly) perspective. We can offer you money, technology and expertise. We are happy to share with you all our experiences, knowledge and coffee. But most of all we share our confidence that we can help you make your teaching and learning better.

Want to get in touch? Drop us an email

Hacking Learning – The pedagogy and the practices behind Constitution UK


In January 2015, the London School of Economics and Political Science, through the Institute of Public Affairs, launched the third stage of an innovative civic engagement project which aimed to crowd source the UK Constitution.  Involving over 1500 participants, generating hundreds of ideas and thousands of comments and votes, the crowd generated the clauses of the constitution, commented on them, voted them up and down, debated the relative merits of competing clauses and then refined them to a manageable number that could be aggregated and argued at a constitutional convention in April 2015.


‘On the whole I found the experience very stimulating and to discover there are a lot of folk out there who are thinking along very similar lines to my own leads me to hope that such exercises are the seed to seeing real change in this country.’ (Comment from project participant)

Learning Technology and Innovation came into the Constitution UK project in September 2014 to pilot an innovative model of engagement and participatory online learning that challenges the dominant paradigms of on-line pedagogy and design. Our approach is built on the potential that exists in leveraging and magnifying the power of the community and the ‘massive’, in order to empower citizens to engage in debate and identify solutions to what may be intractable, impossible or controversial problems or challenges.  Our approach is informed by some detailed theoretical and practical interrogations of a number of conceptual frameworks such as peer learning, incidental learning, digital pedagogies, crowd learning and ideation. It also integrates some aspects of modern digital pedagogy such as hacktivism, making and digital citizenship (especially in terms of participatory democracy), exploring the notion of learning as incidental, tacit and exploratory.  There were no readings,  there was no ‘course’, no lectures, no explicit theories, just a series of challenges, a semi-gamified process of engagement and a framework to create, motivate and empower the community to make something based on what they knew and had learnt.


 ‘Many other participants were considerably more educated than I am, and I don’t usually get the opportunity to attend things like this, while I expect it is more normal for the (large!) group of people who had postgraduate degrees. It was wonderful to be included’ (Comment from project participant)

Our approach challenged the role of the institution and the academic in an open space.  The ‘traditional’ constructs and practices that define scaffolded learning, course design and pedagogy and constructive alignment were flipped to entrust learning to an engaged, creative and critical community.  The project was underpinned by an innovative pedagogical model, informed by the notion that learning can occur through a variety of informal engagements and activities, supported by both peer and academic interaction, but not privileged by either, effectively flipping the role of the academic and academy.  The environment in which people could choose to learn and/or apply their learning was relatively unstructured, fluid and under the control of the community.


‘There are issues about the fact that the technology privileges people who have access and time to take part, which needs to be addressed. There are other ways it could be developed, but generally I think this is a very positive and exciting initiative.  I do think universities should be doing this kind of thing, and more of it.’ (Comment from project participant)

This pilot led to some interesting observations about the model we were testing, especially regarding what is defined as participation and how deep or resonant (lasting) that participation was.

1. Harnessing slacktivism and/or clicktivism

The fleeting nature of mainly online interactions through social media is directly apparent in engagement statistics around MOOCs.  What constitutes involvement can be measured in single clicks.  In a community where participation started at the point where competing ideas and perspectives were voted up or down in hopefully informed ways, the depth or resonance of learning becomes an interesting question.  Modern educational lore (especially in the MOOC space) argues that ‘being there’ is an educationally valid a form of participation as ‘learning there’.  Certainly a challenge for our approach was harnessing the power of clicking, hacking and slacking within a community, or at least accepting that there may be learning informing those behaviours.  The game aspects of our model rewarded a more in-depth engagement, but towards the end of the project where motivation and participation had begun to wane, rewarding clicking (through the mechanism of up/down votes on an idea) increased overall engagement with the project as opposed to the more traditional trail off.

2. Social observability (where the more public the engagement, the more there is observable ‘subsequent meaningful contribution’ (Kristofferson et al., 2014)

Where learning was demonstrated by participants in the project, it was clearly in the glare of the public and open to the community to comment.  One of the key aspects of the model was to make it easy not to lurk. Barriers to entry were low, it was easy to post, comment and vote.  In fact, despite expectations before the project, we found it easier to generate ideas than to get votes!  But most importantly, it was safe community, with excellent facilitators, a wide variety of participants from a number of fields of society and a very gands off approach by the academics. Ideas became comments which became votes, flipping engagement from the traditional .  Having their idea voted down didn’t stop people from participating.  Openness, transparency and authenticity of interaction directly enhanced the quality of the ways people demonstrated their learning and (sometimes vocally) expressed their views and ideas.  It is what makes collaborative learning powerful, the ability to share your views, debate, defend, redefine and restate them in the face of competing and supporting opinion.  It is a 21st century skill of sorting and validating the relevant from the sea of information (in this case the millions of words on the platform)


‘Community members were surprisingly good at separating their own views (I voted this idea down) from the broader task (but the community supports it, so what is a workable provision). Debate was generally high quality and respectful, with many very well informed participants.’ (Community from community participant)


3. Keep the involvement of the crowd at the highest possible level
Wherever ‘traditional’ educational assumptions pervaded the pilot, it was clear that these ran counter to the wider intentions of the approach.  The approach sought to value the crowd, leverage what it means to be part of a community and learn incidentally and through doing.

‘…have noticed there was a tendency to assume only academics could properly understand and assess the issues, a common problem not just with academics but other professionals, we tend to assume it is only our own professions that can really grasp the issues in full.’


The Constitution UK was a brilliant first pilot of what we hope will be an innovative programme of projects harnessing the power of the crowd, learning by, through and from the community in ways that challenge and shape the traditional approaches to pedagogy and leverage the transformative and disruptive influences of the social sciences.


We are presenting the findings from the pilot at three conferences over the next four months, if you are interested in finding out more, we will be sharing the slides, papers and outputs from those conferences on this blog, or just come along and see what we have to say.


Academic Practice and Technology Conference – July 7th 2015

Crowd Sourcing the UK Constitution – Participation and learning in a post-digital world

ALT-C – Association of Learning Technology – September 2015

Stop making sense: Learning, community, digital citizenship and the massive in a post-MOOC world

14th European Conference on e-Learning – ECEL 2015 – October 2015

Disrupting how we ‘do’ learning through participatory social media: a case study of the Crowdsourcing the UK Constitution project

‘The experiment gave this 85 year old retired professional engineer a feeling that there’s hope for Britain yet’ (Comment from project participant)


Image from

May 18th, 2015|Constitution UK, innovation, Projects|Comments Off on Hacking Learning – The pedagogy and the practices behind Constitution UK|

Crowdsourcing the UK Constitution


Last night was the successful launch of the Constitution UK Phase II project, a collaborative platform designed to crowdsource and hack the UK constitution, led by Professor Conor Gearty of the Institute for Public Affairs.  LTI was a partner in the project along with the IPA and supplied significant leadership around the instructional and technological design of the platform and how the engagements and interactions of participants will help achieve the desired outcome and build on the reputation of the LSE as an innovative learning organisation.

For 10 weeks the project invites you to share your views and ideas on what should be in a new modern written UK constitution. You will be able to submit content, vote ideas up or down and question the experts. Your ideas and discussions will count. At the end of March your ideas will feed into a Constitutional Convention where we will put together a written constitution using only the crowdsourced content in time for the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta, June 2015. Discussions will include the role of the Head of State, the Prime Minister, how should we elect our representatives?, what is the purpose of Parliament?, what powers should be devolved?, what should be the responsibilities of local government?, what rights do I have in the UK and how may these be affected or maintained by our judicial system and the European Union. Finally what values do we uphold in the UK?  Moderators, all of whom have expertise on different aspects of constitutionalism, will be on hand to assist you with the process of constitution drafting.

On behalf of Learning Technology and Innovation, the team led by Darren Moon and including Chris Fryer and Malte Werner has worked closely with Conor and the team of the IPA to develop innovative methods of engagement, train the facilitators and moderators and work closely with the platform (Crowdicity), social media organisations and special interest groups to ensure a successful integration of learning outcomes and the effective and representative engagement of the community in the platform.

The contribution of LTI was recognised by Professor Conor Gearty  at the launch last night. I would like to take this opportunity to thank the LTI team for their commitment, enthusiasm and effort, above and beyond the call.  They have been instrumental in getting this project running within an extremely tight deadline, to deliver on the innovative approaches that the project demanded and to provide the School with an excellent example of what we can do when we are provided with an engaged academic project, funding that supports non-traditional and learner-led approaches to on-line learning and a wholehearted commitment from an enthusiastic and passionate advocate whose voice and engagement motivate and empower a community to get involved.

We invite all of you to share in this involvement, be part of the process and participate in one of the largest digital civic engagement projects in the UK.  Go to, sign up and take part.


Update > Constitution UK project has been awarded a Campus Technology for Innovation (pg 30).

January 16th, 2015|Constitution UK, innovation, Open Education, Projects, Teaching & Learning, Tools & Technologies|Comments Off on Crowdsourcing the UK Constitution|

The dream of the 90s is alive in Portland: Innovative pedagogies and living the dream


Sometimes, as we navigate the perilous waters of higher education reform and renewal we get sidetracked into debates about detail.  How do we define open? What do the letters in the MOOC acronym really mean? Which systems help us replicate the practices we have entrenched in our teaching rooms?  Despite our best intentions, these sidetracks can sometimes come across as a case of technology leading the debate ahead of pedagogy.  Arguably, this can be rationalised to some extent by the fact that as a sector we have often struggled with and sometimes openly resisted the debates surrounding innovative pedagogies.   This is not to say there has not been a debate in some quarters (and not just amongst the beltway) but I would not feel afraid to say that in most institutions the forms of teaching and learning that were in place decades (centuries?) ago remain dominant and defended or excused in a variety of ways.


The clear intention of the e-Learning and Innovative Pedagogies Conference, held at Pacific University in Oregon was to engage in a process of sharing and significant debate amongst practitioners around these very issues.  With participants from all corners of the globe (Australia, Middle East, US, UK, Asia, Europe, Africa and South America) the discussions were incredibly robust and engaged.  Finding a narrative for HE and for the LSE through this was challenging and rewarding pursuit.  Representing schools, FE, vendors, private trainers and teaching/research intensive universities, the delegates shared experiences, small and large shaped by their own unique engagements with the sector.


Inspired by the work based learning (through assessment rather than recognition) experiments of the University of Wisconsin the theme of flexibility kept reoccurring.  Their programme (called UW flex) allowed people with significant work experience to complete courses using a combination of online competency based resources and rigorous assessment at an accelerated self-pace with flexible entry points, recognising the learning that comes from experience (very similar to the WBL model of Middlesex University).  For me, this idea of flexibility, whether it be in the idea of an empty room, devoid of rows (or square walls), or in the way in which the VLE can be reinterpreted as a tool of interaction not delivery or administration, is critical to our understanding of what can constitute a new pedagogy for the post-digital age.


How much will we let 21st tools shape the way we teach?   These tools have already shaped society (although interestingly this was a twitter free conference).  It was argued in a number of forums that pedagogy must dictate the use of technology.  I have espoused this very line more times than I can remember. However, what happens when the pedagogy won’t bend?  What happens when learning, interaction and engagement don’t fit the way we want to structure teaching and assessment?  This was a significant challenge faced by a number of people at the conference.  Delivering business education in China where many sites are blocked, arts education in Japan (where students are more engaged in their mobiles than their interaction with staff) or trying to teach advertising in Southern California where all the key industry players are in New York present challenges to the way we construct and execute our pedagogy.


I presented a paper based on this blog post which argued that there are a number of disconnects that demand a debate about what constitutes a pedagogy for the post digital age.  These included the way learners identify, acquire and verify knowledge, the way we prepare them to ask the right questions (as opposed to requiring the right answers) and the impact of the increasing variety of spaces that catalyze and fertilise learning (that are located outside the lecture space).   In the light of this paper, and my engagement with the others that I saw over the two days (including two very practical keynotes from within the Pacific University faculty), I kept coming back to flexibility.  Learners will want to engage with our institutions in a variety of ways, requiring us to have both macro approaches to learning informed by modes of agile micro flexibility.  What might this look like at scale? That is the challenge for higher education in this post digital age.  Certainly, some of the more entrepreneurial providers have started to apply a start-up approach to these problems, fracturing the educational offering, tailoring it specific industry contexts and providing it in manageable and viable chunks (once again, the UW Flex model represents one possible future).


In summary, it shouldn’t take a conference for these debates to be seeded.  They should be happening in lunchrooms, staff meetings, student committees and conversations.  They should be central to the way we all talk about teaching and learning.  The greatest outcome this conference could have hoped for was the challenging of established orthodoxy…technology and pedagogy are instruments of change, they are not always sequential and they are not always scaffolded into each other.


October 9th, 2014|Uncategorized|1 Comment|

Thoughts on innovation in higher education – Sorting the revolutionary change from the merely cosmetic

*apologies to Alvin Toffler for the appropriation of his quote for the title*


“Once I began thinking in terms of waves of change, colliding and overlapping, causing conflict and tension around us, it changed my perception of change itself. In every field, from education and health to technology, from personal life to politics, it became possible to distinguish those innovations that are merely cosmetic, or just extensions of the industrial past, from those that are truly revolutionary.”
Toffler Alvin. The Third Wave. 1980.

I have spent the last few months presenting findings from the first year of a project (from my previous institution) that was designed to transform learning and teaching with technology. Most of the papers have centred on the notions of institutional resistance to technology and how through a process of encouraging play and experimentation with technology, we believed that the vision could overcome this resistance to change and open up the debates around the changing nature of pedagogy. We kept coming back to the same conclusion, shoulder shrugged. Resistance seemed to be an inevitable outcome of even the smallest and least controversial of innovations. This resistance came in many and varied forms, from the outright to the passive. It permeated all aspects of the implementation. Everything from the hearts and minds exercises to the practical expressions of benefit to the students was seen through the lens of resistance. Both inside and outside the institution there were colleagues who were interested and engaged participators in the debate, whilst there were others who questioned the practicality or even the point of such philosophical musings, preferring a more practical take on technological innovation (DIY or not do it all seemed to the polarised positions).

The more I presented these findings, the more I found myself almost apologising for my views. I became critical of the project and our apparent failings in achieving the aspirational intentions we set out to achieve. I started second guessing many of the insights or broader ideas that emerged from this intense period of research and reflection. I was using phrases like ‘I don’t I want to throw the baby out with the bathwater’ and ‘I am not advocating a revolution’. When in many ways I actually wanted to advocate that so we could have a real, engaged and impactful debate, rather than a question or two at conference, usually prefaced with the words ‘This is not so much a question, more a statement…’. I wanted to be the radical voice, challenging orthodoxy and unsettling the status quo. Not because it felt good to be a rebel but because I honestly believe that innovation comes from challenging your ideas with others and collaborating to do something better. But instead I retreated into saying what I believed and putting my hands up and almost saying ‘sorry’ after I had said it.

Recently I read a book chapter by James G. March from Stanford (published in 1976) called ‘The Technology of Foolishness’ where he argues that organisations and the decisions they make can become wrapped up in a web of ‘received doctrine’ of intelligence and choice. He aligns this doctrine with three assumptions of rational decision making (the pre-existence of purpose, the necessity of consistency and the primacy of rationality). Any e-Learning approach is judged by the objectives and purposes it sets (and not always achieves), the importance of ensuring that consistency is achieved across disciplines and through qualifications usually resulting in the provision of a lowest common denominator service (where the least controversial aspects become the organisational norm) and that the rational expectations of faculty and student experience are indeed more primary to the aspirational expectations of people choosing to innovate, experiment and push boundaries.

March argues that we as adults have constructed a world in which we know what is good for ourselves. We ‘know’ the consequences of any decision we or others make, whilst children are freed from this rationality and predictive intelligence. The result in the case of institutional resistance to technology is a series of common mantras….

#‘It’s a nice idea, but it won’t work’,
#‘It would be good to do if we had more time’
#’I am sure it’s a great thing with the kind of students YOU teach, but with my kind of students…’
#’The lecture has worked for 125 years, why do we need to change it?’
#’Students don’t know what they want, but our employer’s sure do’

So, why do we find it hard to even have these debates without resorting to a series of well-worn defences based on our understandings of what are the almost guaranteed consequences of what is being proposed? March argues that for effective decision making we need to ‘suspend (our) rational imperatives towards consistency’. What does this mean in terms of e-Learning? For me, this is about introducing conceptual and attitudinal behaviours into higher education design, pedagogy and management that will not always embraced, either by staff overworked at the coalface or by management beset by constraints and objectives too often in conflict or contrary to the philosophical intent of the academy.

March describes these behaviours in the context of what he calls the ‘technology of foolishness’. Linked closely to the notions of play, where the usual rules are suspended allowing us to seek out new rules through experimentation and reject the usual objections to rational behaviours or accepted intelligence. Resistance to technology in higher education occurs despite the overwhelming evidence of societal change arising from the internet and social media (technology-change sceptics? Technology change is not man-made perhaps?). People who play with technology in higher education are often seen as zealots, tinkerers, or techies or at best, early adopters. Their work is often marginalised to their own context, shared with the converted and siloed within e-Learning-centric activity and practice. Many institutions still actively separate learning and e-Learning as if the ‘e’ part of this cutting edge experimental state is not really the same as teaching. Comparing online learning and face to face teaching is seen as not comparing apples with apples. The debates around using technology and changing pedagogy are positioned as dichotomous, mutually exclusive and competing paradigms, ignoring the decades of successful and innovative blended learning.

Take the dreaded MOOC debate. This has become rent with almost an ideological extremism bordering on George W Bush’s euphemistic ‘you are with us or against us’ argument. I recently presented at a MOOC conference where I took what I thought was a fairly critical approach to the debates around the impacts of MOOCs on HE. Granted it was to a room of MOOC advocates and providers, so ‘fox in a henhouse’ was probably an appropriate metaphor. But I felt, not through any comments or questions or responses, that I needed to temper my opinions a little, ensure it was clear that I was not a MOOC sceptic or technology neophyte making uninformed observations around a well understood field. What became clear to me after presenting these opinions in a number of places is that there is an accepted and arguably melodramatic narrative that MOOCs will change the world, the education has already passed a tipping point, weak brands will die and strong brands will survive, just like the music industry. Anyone who argues against this is misinformed, ignorant or an idealist pining for the days gone by. And it is easy to portray those who disagree with you as naysayers, luddites or people who just don’t get it. Now, this is not a universal set of behaviours. I have had some engaging and pragmatic debates with MOOC players, and both our understandings are better for it.

As a sector it is critical that we apply the same rigour and criticality to our own behaviours as we do to our students and our research. We need to be able to engage in debates, discussions and experiments at an institutional level. It is equally important that these debates are not just navel gazing or pointless circles of rhetoric and opinion. They need to be centred on questioning the key assumptions made in our delivery of learning and teaching.

Graeme Gibbs wrote his seminal piece ‘Twenty terrible reasons for lecturing’ in 1981, yet 34 years on we are still arguing about it and every word he said is prescient today as it was then.  Now, we can assume that, for example, the debate around the lecture has been won and the evidence is overwhelmingly in favour of the sage (by sheer evidence of activity). We can equally assume that it is harder to change the status quo than it is to accept it. But for me the debate that occurs around the lecture is not interesting. It is like a football game, where one team keeps back passing and plodding around until the other guys get a chance to do the same. March equally agrees that a dichotomous ‘one or the other’ approach will get us nowhere in enhancing and promoting innovative decision making. He argues for a combination of foolishness and rationality that will allow for the development of ‘unusual combinations of attitudes and behaviours supported by an embracing of playfulness and inconsistency. The ability of an institution to embrace and celebrate real innovation is crucial. The ability to reconsider what we consider success and failure and how we let these expectations shape the way we implement and evaluate new ideas and strategies.

“…an education that is understood in complexity terms cannot be conceived in terms of preparation for the future. Rather, it must be construed in terms of participation in the creation of possible futures” Davis and Sumara (2009)

What does this mean for those of us who are arguing for new approaches for teaching and learning? Are we ground down by these resistances, the side-tracking and the endless debates about the same thing? We need to re-examine the way we approach the debates around the efficacy or importance of making change. These are three fairly general observations I would make, that might represent a starting point to the debate. I will note that these could be seen as entirely aspirational or perhaps idealistic. In the light of my previous reflections, I just say, SO WHAT! Debate me!!

1. We must create and nurture an organisational culture that supports innovation. People who experiment and challenge rules and recognised ways of doing things are not rebels, or radicals or crazies. Innovation comes from places that can’t be actively pigeonholed or defined. An organisational imperative to support innovative practice is crucial. The ability to fail in those innovations equally critical. What does it look like? No idea! It will be different from one place to the next. Not everyone can do the 3M model. But what is important is that innovation is not a buzzword, or a work package. Innovation is a culture; it is an attitude to challenging the status quo and actually having the will and support to change if it proves necessary. People doing innovative stuff need to get rewarded and celebrated.

2. We must accept that there is a role of ambiguity, chaos and uncertainty in an organisation. Now, any one of us who has been in HE for any length of time is pretty well screaming at the top of their lungs – WELCOME TO MY LIFE! And yes, that much is true. These factors have often been linked with fear and paralysis to provide a gorgeous and lush motivational cocktail for faculty and staff in HE. But, the ability of staff to dive in without knowing the answer, develop counter-intuitive approaches to learning design, use technology in a way that seems to be against the institutional systems put in place to govern it and share those experiences in an environment of support not defence, will at least encourage them to try again. At best it will be the game changing, epoch making thing that MOOCs will never be. How did we come up with the model of teaching and learning we use now…someone tried something different and it worked. Wonder if they were regarded as pariahs?

3. We must understand how learning has already changed and in what ways do we need to respond to the change. The learners arriving at university are already e-learners, with lives lived in a post-digital world, where there is no real and online world, there is just the world. They have developed skills for living in a 21st century world which are different or at least adapted from those required to live in a pre-digital world. Technology is not class or category of learning. It is a means, a society changing and generation shaping means. It is transformative, emancipatory, democratic (for now), challenging and contrary. Institutions have to develop the skills of adaptation, agility, flexibility and criticality around technology and its impact on learning. The line between learning and eLearning is already well and truly blurred. Perhaps it needs to vanish altogether.

My final quote from March goes a little like this, ‘There is little magic in the world, and foolishness in people and organisations is one of the many things that fail to produce miracles’. I don’t have a magic bullet, or equally bulletproof case studies that prove beyond this will work. This is however, the debate we have to have. The debate that we need to start in order to challenge, reinforce or change the way we do higher education. Do I have solutions, answers, suggestions or models that might help? Yes, of course! You can dig through the archives of this blog for the views of a range of eminent scholars, practitioners and rock and roll victims (I will leave it to you to decide which I am!). But perhaps in a small way, each of us engaging in this debate will go some of the way to ignoring the hyperbole and get to the heart of what learning and teaching will look like in the post-digital age. And yes, it will more than likely have to be revolutionary or at least different from what went before.


Follow me and more of these debates on twitter @peterbryantHE

ReferencesDavis, B., & Sumara, D. (2009). Complexity as a theory of education. TCI (Transnational Curriculum Inquiry), 5(2), 33-44.
March, J. G. (1976). The technology of foolishness. Ambiguity and choice in organizations, 69, 81.

July 28th, 2014|innovation|4 Comments|