Hey, got any grapes?

Although I’ve talked about the follies of demand-driven education before (here and here), I’ve yet to approach it from the point of view of professional learning or professional development. Which seems rather an oversight, really, given my current line of work.

We (meaning a central learning & teaching division) are currently undergoing a review process, and one of the things that arose out of the report was the need to realign ourselves as a ‘service’ division to service staff professional development needs more fully. Now, I have no problem with the idea that our job is to serve and assist teaching staff – where we run into problems is when we start considering which stakeholder (ie us or them) is going to be driving this process.

It’s not particularly often you find an apt metaphor in an irritating viral video, but today is one of those days and I’m only going to apologise a little bit for what I’m about to do*.

httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MtN1YnoL46Q

Let’s take ‘us’ (and while anyone in central learning & teaching centres will recognise this quite explicitly anyone in any line of edu will be able to extrapolate) as the lemonade vendor. We spend a lot of time designing and making lemonade. We think the lemonade is pretty awesome, and feel reasonably justified in this since we try and stay on top of bleeding-edge practice and know what current really innovative practice is starting to look like. We go out to sell the lemonade to people because we’re thinking it could do some cool things to reinvent student learning.

So we set up our stand, but the first customer comes along and asks if we’ve got any grapes. Grapes? Huh? Oh well. Even if they think they want some grapes we’re selling lemonade so we try and convince them that lemonade is a really good option and they should have that instead. No dice.

The next day the customer is back, still looking for grapes. It’s a bit annoying really, because we clearly sell lemonade. Lemonade that is awesome. We know this because we’ve even taken our lemonade to conferences and a bunch of people have gotten really excited  about it and have been asking for our recipe. But this guy still wants grapes.

A few more repeats of this and we start to get really annoyed (I won’t lie, I have wanted to glue the odd person to a tree). Eventually we get so irritated we give in and go and buy some grapes especially for the customer since they want grapes so badly.

Which is fine – until the customer goes to, say, a keynote or reads something in Campus Review about how awesome lemonade is and how lemonade is the future of education. And we’re standing there with our box of grapes while the customer is asking us for lemonade.

Now that I’ve done the metaphor to death, it’s fairly clear that there are some significant issues with both models. From one end, if ‘we’ are designing professional development programs (based on things like research), we run the risk of selling something that nobody wants to buy (and thus the perception that we aren’t actually selling anything at all). But if we are designing PD based on market demand – on what ‘they’ want (based on things like practicality and perceived need) – we run the risk of never innovating or changing at all (until somebody catches a buzzword in the media).

How do we resolve it? Obviously some kind of synergy is desirable so we’re working together in an organic process. Yet this always sticks in the back of my mind:

If you’re not familiar with the episode, Homer’s long-lost half-brother runs a car company and enlists Homer to design a car that the people will want, based on features the ‘average American’ wishes they had in a car. Which of course is a giant flop and ruins the company because it does none of the things an effective car should do.

How do we embrace expertise and innovative practice while still balancing the ability to fill perceived need? As in all aspects of edu I don’t think there is value in resorting to a completely demand-driven model – and yet, we lose all our value if all we do is doggedly stand here and sell lemonade.

Thoughts?

*If you really can’t cope with the duck video, this paper is essentially making the same argument.

12 Replies to “Hey, got any grapes?”

  1. Hi Sarah, fabulous blog post. I liked the duck song. Going to be singing all day long and annoying those around me. Got me thinking, too. What about… giving grapes but it’s actually only grape skin and on the inside is the lemonade? Also, the leaders could make a policy, a push, some funding for innovation to promote grapes-that-are-really-lemonade-you-fools.
    🙂
    Shannon

    1. “Leaders could make a policy” – are you sure you work in higher education? 😉

      I do like the trojan grape idea though – didn’t occur to me at the time but some of the response actions we drafted for the review looked a bit like that. Remains to be seen whether it’s effective – watch this space.

  2. I totally sympathise here. It’s a real impasse in many regards.

    Having worked in a central L&T unit (much like the one you describe) for 7 years prior moving to faculty role 3 years ago, I’d hoped that my understanding of the bigger picture would help bridge the gaps with local staff. Unfortunately all it’s done is reveal how complex the situation really is, and how many variables there really are.

    There are of course the folks who say things like “I’ve taught this way for xx years and it works just fine thanks very much,” but the bigger problems lay with the practical aspects like balancing teaching and research, exploding course sizes, a lack of recognition for the scholarship of teaching, the increasing casualisation of staff etc.

    I run into many teachers who would like to do more to innovate but just can’t based on pure pragmatics. One example are casual lecturers, who don’t get paid to attend training, or develop online courses; it’s all about face to face time for them. Frequently they’re also brought in right at start of session, which eliminates the possibility of planning anything ahead of time.

    So it strikes me that the key to all this is to resolve the real pragmatic issues that staff face, so they’re freed up to think more creatively. There’s also the matter of cultural change to contend with as well, which is another matter entirely.

    Having said that, resolving all this that depends on university executives, HR, and people like that. It’s not the role or responsibility of the central L&T unit, despite the fact it significantly impacts on their mission.

    Perhaps this is one reason MOOCs are starting to come up in conversation so much. Executives are starting to see them as a threat to the university’s potential student body and reacting to that from a business perspective rather than a L&T one. This irks me to no end to be honest, but it may end up being the topic that finally forces the discussion on “why we’re not being more innovative,” and “what needs to happen to improve our profile.”

    1. You’re right, of course, and it frustrates me no end that the real issues at hand are the ones I have no control over (tempted to shout most days ‘just hand over the university and I’ll show you how to fix it’…!). I suppose my question about finding balance should really be qualified with ‘within the restrictions we’ve got’.

      Interesting take re: MOOCs. I tend to take a ‘ur doin it rong’ view when it comes to the ‘quick, implement buzzword’ approach but if it does end up forcing a few hands then it could be a good thing even if the original intentions were misguided.

  3. Sarah, great description of one of the core problems facing universities. Have been there and felt that.

    I don’t known anything about the structure of your institution, but in my experience the “demand-driven approach” mostly arises when there is a strong sense of power in the faculties and a weakness in the chancellor of the institution. When the chancellory is strong/in charge, there tends to be an assumption that the lemonade makers are correct.

    I feel it’s a symptom of the typical managerial science, supposedly rational response. i.e. given A or B, you have to choose 1. Rather than understanding you actually need to do both. It’s not “either or”, it’s “both and”.

    Actually, the trouble is that someone thinks they know the answer. Either it’s a faculty Dean who knows what the answer is. Hence central units need to be demand driven i.e. do what I want them to do.

    Or, if it’s the PVC/DVC/VC who knows what the answer is. You get lemonade sellers. i.e. we’ll do what I want them to do.

    I think this is a point the paper you linked to makes. It sounds very interesting.

    1. Re: your second paragraph I did tactfully attempt to leave out political history and structural issues :).

      And yes, agree that the issue is when people think they know the answer. I know I’m guilty of this from time to time, thinking ‘if only they’d just realise’, so it was a helpful post to write from my own point of view as well.

      The paper is an interesting one, not least of which reasons is that it’s written by my dad. He works in an unrelated discipline and it had never occurred to me to actually read any of his work (plus, he’s my dad – who wants to know about parents’ boring jobs, right?). In a very roundabout series of events involving @effectsofNAPLAN last night I ended up looking through his list of pubs and came across the paper. Kind of highlights to me the folly of assuming the only experts on edu innovation are actually located in education.

  4. Excellent post Sarah and I love a good analogy. I suspect that what will happen is that the expert makers of good lemonade may well tell their customers where to get off and go and work on new, cool and groovey lemonade start ups where they can enjoy a mtutually beneficial relationship with a whole new group of ‘customers’. I’m surprised it hasn’t happened already to be honest.

    1. I think the only thing standing in the way of that currently is that groovy lemonade startups carry an element of risk that is not really compatible with things like ‘paying the mortgage’. Otherwise I think you could very well be correct :).

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