The problem with educational design (+ the WDC)

Once upon a time, I was a teacher. Probably quite a few (most?) of you reading either were or are as well. And while teaching is a varied and movable feast of a profession, one thing can be taken more or less for granted, and that is that pretty much every day for at least part of it, you will be teaching. You’re a teacher, you do teaching, simple, no?

Nowadays I do something rather intangibly named ‘academic development’, and I’ve just been seconded into a gig on a SAF-funded project titled ‘educational design’ (all part of the same semantic quagmire). However, if we follow the same nomenclature logic as teaching, the profession should actually be called ‘A bunch of meetings, planning and administration, some testing, making Moodle quizzes for people and sometimes you might get to go to a conference’.

The problem with educational design is that we spend so little time actually designing education.

I am well aware that higher education throws up quite a lot more red tape than K12 education, but most of the time universities are in danger of project managing themselves into the ground. There’s an awful lot of talking about deliverables that sound like doing something, cf actually doing something, and very little abounds that really looks like innovation. So – as an antidote to this, I’ve just tossed up a Weekly Design Challenge project, in which for an hour or so each week we tackle a pedagogical design problem, in a sort of conceptual hackerspace.

Functionally it’s not dissimilar to the daily quest idea – a short repeated task that keeps your hand in and ups your skills and reputation. It also neatly solves the problem of being able to show something tangible when people ask ‘can we see an example of an innovative unit?’ (because when you tell people they have to innovate that’s invariably the first question they ask). It’s also not far removed from Google’s 20% time I suppose, although it’s depressing to think that we need to specifically allocate time to do the thing that’s in our job title.

Will it work? Who knows. But at least it’s doing something.


I’ve been a bit slack about getting this up here given it was a couple of weeks ago, but better late than never, yes? At any rate, SAFFIRE was a festival of innovation-y things and general pot-stirring hosted by UC as part of their SAF-funded initiatives. A few of us who are known for liking to poke the beehive (was in good company with @marksmithers, @type217 and @jonpowles) were invited to present on whatever tickled our fancy. My presentation focused on getting outside of the higher education echo chamber and taking some cues from the ways other places were approaching innovation. The annoying thing is that I presented by live-drawing some ‘slides’ using Screenchomp (an iOS app from the same guys who make Camtasia), but the sharing feature completely failed and now I can’t get at the recording at all to even screenshot some highlights for you. So instead, you get the non-visual Cliff’s notes version. Enjoy.

What if we thought like game designers?

Academia (and most forms of education really) have a rather insane reliance on the written and spoken word as method of delivery. But – if you look at games like Angry Birds, they manage to conduct the entire experience including all the necessary instruction without using a single word. Everything is visual. Would you be able to express the last thing you wrote (paper, topic notes etc) in a purely visual form?

For some inspiration from people who can, check out Dance Your Thesis:

What if we thought like product developers?

Let’s pretend that Apple, prior to bringing out the iPad, had asked people what they wanted in a tablet device. They probably would have said they wanted a nice physical keyboard, an input device, probably running a full OS etc. Et voilá, they have created the laptop. People didn’t know that they wanted a touch-only, mobile-OS, non-keyboard device until one came out. It was panned in initial reviews then promptly sold eleventy billion units.

However – the iPad didn’t happen overnight. In the late 80s and early 90s Apple brought out the Newton – a neat little brick of a tablet device that was stylus-only, and had cool things like a mobile OS, handwriting recognition and rudimentary bluetooth. People weren’t really ready for that kind of thing and it was a giant flop, getting axed entirely in the mid-late 90s. But rather than binning it entirely they developed it in the background until they could release something people were ready for at a more opportune time.

Conversely. In higher education we slavishly adhere to the student review process of units – units are judged almost solely on how they fare in the end-of-semester student reviews. Effectively, we keep asking our customers what they want, and what they want by and large looks rather like the type of education we’ve had all along. What we need to start doing is selling them on something they don’t even know they need yet and probably doesn’t look like anything they have a concept of. And if it fails, we need to stop shelving it and start tweaking, redesigning and reimplementing.

What if we thought like MacGyver?

Ah MacGyver. Paragon of mullets, purveyor of duct tape, the stuff of every good 80s woman’s dreams. MacGyver is a champion of kludging, cobbling together anything at hand with his ever-present duct tape to solve any problem he encountered. What he did not do, interestingly, is sit around making a whole bunch of feature requests on the duct tape, pushing them through user acceptance testing and hoping the duct tape would eventually turn into a boat or a bomb or whatever he needed.

We waste so much time in higher ed trying to make our LMSs into something else – if we just added this plugin or patched this or if this looked a bit more green then we could finally do something innovative. I call bollocks. I’m interested in what we can do with what we have at hand, in exactly the form it currently exists. We can already do some really innovative stuff, we just need to turn our approach on its head. There’s nothing stopping us from starting something now, today.

EDITED TO ADD: Several of the questions I fielded following this presentation were along the lines of ‘that’s well and good but how do you marry this with the restrictions lecturers face?’. My response is – someone has to not care about them. The restrictions and red tape are very real and limit a lot of what goes on, but if we all just throw our hands up in disgust and say nothing can be done we’ll never get anywhere. Somebody has to be the cowboy who says ‘bugger that, let’s do some stuff anyway’. May as well be me.

How sustainable is sustainable?

Last week I flirted with the idea of nominating for an OLT citation (ultimately, didn’t happen, didn’t get my institutional EOI in on time). What struck me, though, was the requirement that ‘your excellence be sustained over time’. Which means that any project you nominate has to have run for at least three years (two if you’re an ECR), and even that is reduced from last year’s four years.

Four years. Think about it.

Given where we are in terms of education and evolution I find this staggering. Four years ago we were talking about web 2.0 like it was hot stuff. Four years ago virtually nobody had a tablet device and smartphones were kind of optional. Four years ago there was no Minecraft or Instagram or Angry Birds or Kinect. Four years ago you were almost certainly using a different LMS, OERs were a bit meh, and almost nobody was MOOCing and if they were they probably weren’t calling it that. Given this rate of change, how can we justify keeping something exactly the same as it was four years ago?

In higher education we like to talk about sustainability. Generally this can be interpreted as ‘we’re going to throw a stupidly large amount of resources at a temporary project team to implement a flavour-of-the-month impressive-looking project and somehow we need this to exist after all our funding runs out’. Which, in theory, is good, if something is to exist long term it needs to be able to sustain itself sans enormous pots of money and time. But – at what point does longevity become detrimental? What if what we need isn’t sustainability at all, but adaptability?

When I think about my own work, I tend to classify anything that I was doing more than a year ago as old news, outdated or irrelevant and time to move on (which makes my career look a little like the Chinese calendar – the Year of The Moodle Dailies, the Year of Coffeecourses etc etc). The only project of mine that satisfied the criteria for the OLT citation was the Moodle Dailies (by the skin of its teeth, incidentally, and only because I’m classified as an ECR), and as I was writing the EOI it occurred to me how ‘old news’ it feels to me. A Twitter conversation with @catspyjamasnz on the Moodle Tool Guide showed I’m not the only one:

By getting caught up in the concept of sustainability and requiring ‘excellence to be sustained’ over multiple years, are we creating a bigger problem than we’re solving? I’m left wondering what will happen if we don’t acknowledge that adaptability and flexibility may trump longevity. Universities are already dangerously outdated in many ways – an obsession with sustainability may just tip us over into irrelevance.

Fire up the moocmobile, Jerry, we’re joining the bandwagon

So I’ve signed up for a MOOC (I’m still undecided at which point I’ll start decapitalising that acronym). Having thought for a while now that I should at least attempt a mooc (turns out that point is now) before whinging about the genre at large, since if there’s one thing that irks me it’s people either complaining about or advocating for something they haven’t experienced (conversations around games-based learning by people who refuse to game themselves, for instance). Now I am well aware there are moocs and then there are moocs (cMOOC/xMOOC distinction etc but I have very little patience for adjectival lettering these days), and for a couple of years now I’ve had half an eye on what, to me, are proper moocs – the #ds106s and #change11s of the world. Since I have no particular desire to point criticism in that direction it might seem a little misguided that the mooc I’ve signed up for is #cfhe12, a Siemens/Downes offering. However, I did spend some time last week trawling the likes of Coursera and I just couldn’t do it. Most of the courses had descriptions like this one:

The class consists of 1 to 2 hours of lecture each week, which are made up of videos that are generally shorter than 10 minutes each. Each video contains integrated quiz questions. There are also weekly standalone exercises that are not part of the video lectures and a (non-optional) final exam.

I’ve had enough lecture/quiz/exam/essay courses to last a lifetime, and I can’t bring myself to suffer another one just for the sake of confirming what I already suspect about mainstream moocs. End of last week I came across #cfhe12 via the twitterverse, which seemed a much better fit for how I do things, so here we are.

I feel like I should be up-front about my motivations for doing this, which are equal parts curiosity and street cred. I don’t intend to participate beyond dipping in and out and discussing the odd thing here and there with a bunch of people whose opinions I value, which conveniently is exactly the type of participation suggested. This is in stark contrast to most mainstream moocs which appear to be desperately asserting themselves as ‘traditional courses’ and hence talking about things like ‘attrition’. It strikes me that if you are going to take something that conceptually doesn’t scale well (traditional edu) and try and stick an M on it (‘massification’ is another trendy that’s coined itself lately and which also irks me to no end), you really have no room to complain about the M also applying itself to attrition rates.

Anyway. I’ve had some mixed feelings about #cfhe12 thus far. I like the deconstructed, decentralised, DIY approach, the fact that many of the readings are blog posts and media articles (cf journal articles) and the fact that several of my Aus HE peers are also taking the course. I was not so enamoured with the registration process, site navigation etc although this seems to be sorting itself out now. I was pleased to see at least one member of senior executive from Aus HE enrolled to participate (@drpievann). I’m currently debating whether to get involved with the introductions discussion board – I’m never convinced that a ‘hi my name is’ is actually a better snapshot of a person than you can get from trawling their Twitter feed or blog, and threaded discussion forums, regardless of LMS, universally suck for that kind of thing. I’d rather meet someone out in their own space and converse with them that way.

So – watch this space, or don’t. I have no idea if or how #cfhe12 will fly for me but there’s one way to find out.

The televised will not be a revolution


This was originally going to be a post on the veritable cornucopia of buzzword that is MOOCs, but as @marksmithers rightly pointed out there’s not a whole lot to say. MOOCs (in the mainstream sense) are what they are – content-push delivery systems unchanged from standard university educational practices, offering no credentials for no money in a culture that supports the proliferation of neither.

MOOCs (and you can substitute any edu-buzzword flavour of the month here) get rather a lot of screen time (‘televised’ is a bit of a stretch given how the media functions these days, but who am I to pass up an excellent title on a technicality?) claiming they are going to revolutionise higher education. Now the implication here of course is that if there is going to be a revolution you’d damn well better be part of it or you’ll be rapidly rendered obsolete. Thus we find ourselves in the current situation where universities are either scrambling to get on the bandwagon, or publicly justifying non-participation. The significant problem with both of these approaches, however, is something I found summed up neatly in this article this morning.

While mostly commenting on an unrelated topic, Stokes’ comment ‘You are not entitled to your opinion. You are only entitled to what you can argue for’ struck me as interesting, along with his assertion that we should not be substituting opinions and matters of personal taste for expertise and research. Following this principle, we should expect that those who identify educational trends as innovative and revolutionary and subsequently are responsible for implementing them are education experts, perhaps with education degrees and certainly with a background in teaching and learning. Those who have worked in universities, however, will understand how rarely this is actually the case.

Frequently, the media commentary on these trends comes from senior executive, and usually presents with a business focus rather than a discussion of the educational issues. Implementation often falls to management units with a ‘strategic’ focus and involving those with backgrounds in management, consultancy, IT, project administration, marketing and so on (@djplaner offers some good comments on the implementation of fads in universities in this post). As a result, the emphasis tends to be on hype, fast-tracked implementation and deliverables rather than a critical analysis of educational value and long-term outcomes. One has to wonder how much of what we’re arguing for is based on in-depth educational research and expertise rather than the opinion of business or marketing strategy.

I am wary that this repeated hype cycle of implementation and attrition will not revolutionise anything, and in fact may result in a revolution vacuum (or are we already there?). As long as it happens in isolation from the conversations we (those of us working in edtech and teaching and learning) are having about what might truly start to change things, I don’t think we’re headed much of anywhere at all.



The post-LMS non-apocalypse


Currently we have a funded courseware redevelopment project happening, and I’ve been asked to articulate my views on a ‘post-LMS world’. The odd thing about this is that I should have a multitude of opinions on this issue but this post has languished as a draft for over a week now and I’m still not quite sure where to go with it. I think part of the problem is that I’m not one for ‘grand future visions’ and I’m also not a good use case for scalability.

So where to start?

Currently we (as in ‘higher education’) have a rather ingrained fetish with learning management systems, heavy emphasis on the ‘m’. @djplaner and @timklapdor both do a good job outlining the issues with this as well as potential solutions – here and here respectively. My main problems with LMS implementation are that it leads to a) focus on systems rather than design, and b) homogeneity. To the first point, discussions abound on features and what systems should and shouldn’t have. While I do agree with David’s point that making users fit the system isn’t a great approach, I also think that never getting outside of this features discussion is dangerous. The problem is that when you have a monosystemic (is that a word?) situation the features discussion has to dominate because there are no other options and we are stuck focusing on the system rather than design purely through lack of alternative. When you have something more like the ‘Environment’ Tim describes then you can take each system at face value and move between all of them to find the features you need.

This is why I find it difficult to answer the question ‘what would you change about Moodle?’ or ‘what features do you think Moodle should have?’. Because I’m a bit of an under-the-desk punk (in a nice, legit kind of way), I already operate within my own ‘environment’, of which Moodle is only a part. If it doesn’t do what I’m after I go find something else to fiddle with. To me there’s little point in changing Moodle or adding features to it when it’s just another part of the kit and if it’s not filling a need I’ll just grab another tool. But – I’m not a standard use case. I pay for my own web hosting and taught myself enough web dev skills to be able to install and admin stuff on it. I also know enough to be able to talk to IT guys and make rational cases for what I want to do, and when faced with a new system I’m happy to fiddle on my own until I know what it does and how I could use it to do cool stuff. Those last two sentences in no way describe your average academic, or even your non-average academic.

This is why I have reservations about jumping in and talking about a post-LMS collection of systems or environments that people can cobble together at will. It’s what I’ve thought would be ideal for years and it’s what is working for me right now. And in an ideal world, this would be the case. But. What do you do when your primary users consists of people who are largely not willing to approach new systems without training, who don’t have learning design as their primary directive, who are churned through casual contracts at astonishing rates that in no way correlate to required unit review procedures, and when your primary market (students) demand consistency and homogeneity across learning experiences? I don’t think the one-size-fits-all LMS is the answer but if you start building in choice and freedom something has to give in terms of how universities are currently structured and cultured. But then again – this is only an issue if we assume the centralised university model we currently have will still exist. If the harbingers of doom turn out to be right and the likes of Coursera et al *do* happen to disrupt universities out of business (chortle) then we’re dealing with an entirely different beast.

So at this point I have done an excellent job of not answering the question, which is what my vision of a post-LMS world might be. The upshot is, I don’t know. I don’t think a centralised management model, whether monosystemic or ‘environment’, is the answer, but it might have to be if ‘current university model’ is still the question. I think as long as universities stand in their current form we won’t have a post-LMS world – even if we do move to a more flexible environment model there will still be a focus on systems and management out of necessity. A post-university world, however – that’s the interesting question. I still don’t have an answer but I think it’s a better question to be asking.