Reviewing the ed tech angst


Audrey Watters’ understandable withdrawal from the ed tech sphere has prompted some musings, and I like a good navel gaze, so I thought I’d join in. Audrey sums it up rather bleakly:

I have to put this decade-long project to rest so that I can move on to something that doesn’t consume me in its awfulness and make me dwell in doom

Jim Groom bemoans the selling out by many in the field, stating:

There are a lot of edtechs, in the true sense of that word for me, that have willingly resisted the lure of exchanging cachet for cashFolks who continue to good work, edtechs that I deeply respect who reside far from the maddening crowd of the financials of firms that have little to no interest in the transformative power of augmenting teaching and learning

But he is still hopeful for the field and maintains enthusiasm for it. Tom Woodward (following an excellent lion punching metaphor) also finds room for hope:

I look for things that change my mind about what can be done. Those things, regardless of the source, keep aggregating to change how I think and what I try to do. The source (person, company, college) isn’t all that relevant to me. I don’t even care (much) any more if I’m creating any degree of change beyond the limited sphere of people I interact with directly. I’ll take what I can get.

Anne-Marie Scott probably speaks for a lot of people in the sector, when she writes of exhaustion and disillusionment:

 The techno-bullshittery never ceases, and the lack of respect for learning and teaching expertise and for human scale initiatives is unrelenting.

I have sympathy with all these views, and I’ve been thinking about them quite a bit while walking the dogs. I’m not sure there’s any meaningful synthesis here, more just snippets that have occurred to me.

The ed tech industry is different to the ed tech community of practitioners. Of course, there is considerable overlap, but I couldn’t do what Audrey has done for so long and spend time immersed in that venture capital, “how can we monetise this?”, bullshitty, tech-bro world without having burnt out long before she did. But that’s not what I experience when I got to conferences like OER22, ALT-C, OEGlobal, etc. Here I meet practitioners who care about students, are enthusiastic in finding ways to use technology creatively, passionate about social justice, and suspicious of bullshit. The ed tech industry is probably what happens when any sector meets hyper-aggressive capitalism – it’s never pretty. There is probably a big difference in Big Pharma, and the community of tertiary education chemistry lectures, for instance.

I liked their early stuff. In an earlier post, Jim comments that “Seeing the next generation of edtechs come into their own has been the unexpected joy of playing the long-game”. I think there is a danger in his later post I linked to above of being a bit like grumpy old music fans who preferred a band before they sold out. I agree about the new generation of ed tech practitioners coming through – and I think those of us who’ve been around shouldn’t bemoan the state of current ed tech too much, when these people are shaping it to their own ends. I have no evidence for this, but my experience suggests a lot of new ed tech people are driven by values, such as social justice, rather than an interest in the tech itself. In the early days of e-learning the possibilities of the internet were exciting because they could challenge convention, so they offered new ways to realise things such as widening participation. Now, I suspect, it is more the case that the technologies are taken for granted, but rather the focus is on implementing aspects of social justice. That’s a subtle distinction (which I’m not sure I’ve articulated very well). But the rambling point I’m trying to make is, a new generation of ed tech practitioners are here and they may approach it differently than the old hands, and I am very much all for that.

Ed tech eats its young. Back in the early days of the internet we used to say internet years were like dog years, it moved 7 times as fast. That was all techno-zealotry to scare people into making change (any change!) now. But there may be some truth in the rapid (and rapidly repeating) nature of ed tech that burns people out. I mean, if it’s 1 calendar year = 7 ed tech years, then I’ve been in the field for about 190 years. So, yeah, a bit tired.

It’s all a bit shit everywhere. I really have no idea if ed tech people are feeling more drained than everyone else. You’ve probably noticed, there has been A LOT going on over the past 5 years or so. Just living in a chaotic, catastrophic Tory governed UK is exhausting, not to mention pandemics, wars, the US situation, etc. So we’re all feeling it and sometimes the effect of *all this stuff* is difficult to extract from your immediate context.

We know we’re unloveable. The pandemic was of course draining and frightening for everybody. But for many in ed tech it was also a time of manic workloads. They were suddenly called upon to keep the whole education show on the road. And largely, they managed to do that, often putting in stupid hours, sacrificing holidays and abandoning their own research and interests. And then when it was all over, there was a big parade to thank them. Well, no. They were chastised in the media for online education being on a par with stealing from the charity box outside a sweet shop. And many found that post-pandemic their views were not respected, but instead met with a ‘thanks, but now we’ve seen how important it is, we’re going to put a proper executive in charge’ approach (not at the OU I should hasten to add, just things I’ve picked up anecdotally). That kind of stuff can get a person down.

From this rather dour view I think we can draw some positives though:

  • There are people engaging with ed tech who use it for the best intentions.
  • It’s firmly placed in higher ed to achieve real change in many of the areas we care about (pedagogy, widening participation, diversity, etc).
  • There’s a solid basis of theory, application, and experience to draw upon.
  • There is still fun to be had (probably)

Anyway, I’m still here, although I think that enthusiastic engagement with any new tech has faded. I mainly do it for the metaphors now. And thanks to Audrey for her amazing work over the past decade or so. I hope the next phase is as productive, but brings more joy.

[UPDATE: Because he’s always ahead of the curve, Alan Levine had combined pretty much exactly the same posts over on his blog before I did this, and of course, made a better job of it.]

The tricky questions for assessment to answer

Getting ready for the exams vibe shift

Assessment as we know it (Jim) is facing, or about to face, something of a perfect storm of crisis. Here are some of the factors bearing down on it.

Post pandemic shift to online – during the pandemic most HEIs shifted to online exams. These come in different formats: standard exam essays with anything from 24 hours to 3 weeks to complete; timed ‘real time’ exams over three hours or so; proctored online exams; multiple choice and other automatic assessment.

It turns out that students prefer this form of exam, and many HEIs have decided to stick with it going forward. In some research conducted at the OU, comparing the online versus the previous face to face exams, nearly all the indicators are positive: more students complete the exams, they are closer to their continual assessment scores (but not outrageously high), EDI participation is improved, etc. So the question then arises, why would you want to return to traditional exams, giving the damage they cause and the student preference? A week to complete essays using the internet and library resources is much more realistic a task than sitting in a sealed room and writing with a pen (for chrissakes).

So on the one hand there is this understandable push to largely do away with conventional face to face exams. But this brings the issue of cheating and plagiarism even more to the forefront. The exam has been viewed as the final check against this (even if it’s pretty bad at everything else). The essay format is in a plagiarism arms race with sites such as CourseHero and Chegg – it’s a race HEIs can’t win. We can also add to this the increasing ability of AI to generate pretty good essays, that are largely plagiarism detection proof (as highlighted by Mike Sharples in this Twitter thread:

What we have then is an increasing desire for online exams meeting an increasingly sophisticated market for plagiarism and cheating. It’s difficult to see how the conventional exam can survive this. The answer for some will be to revert back to face to face exams (be prepared for a lot of this in the popular press and from halfwit politicians), or horribly intrusive proctored online exams.

Assessment is one of the core functions of the higher education offering. It shapes a lot of what we do as HEIs. So any significant change to it has a big knock on effect. But the solution to this coming assessment crisis will have to be to change the nature of assessment. As Dave Cormier points out, the other solutions all make things more difficult for the student.

There are some who advocate for the removal of all assessment, or at least of grades, and I can see their argument but I don’t think it will get traction across the sector (which is not to say it’s not worth exploring). There are of course whole books and conferences on different forms of assessment, but it’s probably not as difficult as we think to move away from the default essay or exam (although in some disciplines the exam does make more sense). Some examples include:

  • e-portfolios – constructed from tasks over a course, and with a synoptic piece binding them together.
  • Project based – many of our OU courses have long moved away from an exam and use some form of project.
  • Group projects – with clearly defined roles
  • Focus on ill-structured problems with no right answer
  • Focus on process and reflection

None of these methods is plagiarism-proof if someone really wants to cheat, but then neither is the traditional exam. Most students don’t want to cheat (this seems to be news to some people), but some feel forced to when we make the system too difficult to negotiate or not flexible enough (and some do just want to cheat it has to be said, but a real minority). The system has to contain enough deterrent to prevent this, but also enough engagement to not want to do it in the first place. We tend to focus more on that deterrent part. What a lot of the methods above have in common is that through negotiation around questions and interaction over time an educator gets to know a student and can usually tell when their assessment is authentic.

Most institutions and academics are already engaging in this shift, but the effect of the online pivot accelerates the need for this change. And hey, it may be one of those good changes.

Good online learning – affordances and the online shift

This is the concluding post in my mini-series of Good Online Learning. I looked at groupwork, asynchronous delivery, learning design, assessment and resources. I could have covered many more topics – accessibility, pedagogy, new technologies, community, etc., but let’s stick with these five as a good basis to start considering developing online courses.

Essentially I’ve been saying the same thing in each post, which is “consider what you can do differently online rather than just replicating f2f”. A few years ago we used to talk a lot about “affordances“. This came from the psychology work of Gibson, but found more popularity from the design application of Donald Norman. It is a term that can generate lots of argument, but in our context we can take it to mean something like “the behaviour that a technology suggests or more readily lends itself to”. It doesn’t bear up to much detailed investigation, but as a loose concept it can be quite useful (if a bit behaviourist).

In our loose, sloppy sense we can think of online education in each of our examples as having some things it is good at, and some it is less good at, as having some form of educational affordances. For instance, asynchronous discussion is good at detailed dissection and analysis of a document, but not very good compared with synchronous tools for decision making.

So, for each of the five elements I’ve covered, we can think of a scale when creating an online course. At one end there is what we can think of as the “face to face equivalent, but online”. At the other end is what we might term “designed for fully online”. For example, in assessment we might have “online proctored exam” as the face to face equivalent and something like “co-created open resource” at the other end. You can imagine examples of the others also (eg learning design might have “plan lecture series” – “multi-disciplinary design team”). The actual examples at each end of this spectrum will depend on your context.

This is not to suggest that one end is necessarily better than the other, but in any one online course you might consider them sliders and have a different range for each. For example, you might want to have largely asynchronous delivery, a face to face group element, a light touch individual learning design approach, with an eportfolio and a set of pre-recorded lectures accompanying and open textbook.

I’ve mocked up the model (see Interactive Version) just as a way of thinking below (yes I am still learning how to use Canva).

So if you’re considering developing an online or hybrid course, one way to start might be to do the following:

  • Start with these five elements – consider what is at the end of each spectrum in your context. Think of the affordances of online delivery in each case.
  • Do any research into elements and examples of good practice.
  • For each element determine what is feasible, ie how far along you want to shift each slider.
  • Consider if there are other elements beyond these five that it would be meaningful in your context.

Anyway, I hope this series has been helpful, and if not, it’s been useful for me as an antidote to the “online learning is inherently evil” narrative that is coming to dominate in popular media.

[UPDATE – Tom Woodward made a lovely interactive version of the sliders]

Good online learning – resources

When it comes to online learning one of the real advantages is embedding a range of resources in the environment students are engaged in. This is distinct from the lecturer using some videos in their presentation or providing a range of resources in the reading list. It gives an opportunity to interact with and experience a range of different media, opinions and voices as you are learning.

This is not to absent the educator – a course is more than just a bunch of resources. But rather it allows the educator to concentrate on the areas where they add value such as explanation, support, discussion. Since the days of learning objects we have been arguing that there really is little point in every maths lecturer teaching calculus (or pick a similar well understood subject). And we have since developed OER repositories, and seen some success with open textbooks, particularly in North America.

But the tendency is still to create content from scratch, and I would argue that this is driven in main by the lecture focused model of higher ed. Creating your own lectures is what it means to be a lecturer, so if we use the lecture as the base model for online education, we transfer across the same mentality.

The online pivot may change some of this (or it may reinforce it). OpenLearn, the OU’s OER site, saw almost a doubling in traffic during the pandemic. This may be mostly individual learners, but there will be some educators in that 24 million also, hoping to learn from or reuse content. Many HEIs are now caught in something of an economic bind – they are deeply rooted in the face to face model, but know that in the long term they need to develop a robust hybrid model. These operate on different economic models, and so bridging the gap between the present and the desired future is tricky to negotiate. The original economic argument for learning objects, shared content, reuse and adaptation may come in to play here as a means of achieving this shift.

But even ignoring the bigger picture, and the various OER arguments, creating an online course allows educators to embed videos, podcasts, blogs, and interactive tools creating a richer environment. There is an argument around cognitive load for not overdoing this, but also one around engagement for not repeating the same approach. So, with this opportunity at hand, why replicate the limitations of the lecture model?

10 years since the Year of the MOOC

Ah, 2012, Brexit and Trump were but ill-conceived jokes, and we were all bopping along to Carly Rae Jepsen on our way to see Skyfall. And MOOCs, they were everywhere. Suddenly online learning was hot news, and the New York Times declared it “the Year of the MOOC”. Heady days.

So, a decade on, after all those promises, that hype, investment, huge learner enrolments, and endless thought pieces, where are we with MOOCs? It’s a good question, and one my colleagues Katy Jordan and Fereshte Goshtasbpour have gone some way to answering in a special collection of JIME.

They have republished 25 articles from the JIME archives, spanning the entire period. This in itself is interesting, to resurface and repackage content with a more historical perspective. But what is really valuable I think is the editorial they have written to accompany these articles, which analyses some of the trends. I recommend you read it all, but here are some key snippets:

“Pappano’s article was published in the fourth quarter of 2012 (November), just before levels of interest in MOOCs in news articles reached its peak, which followed in the first quarter of 2013. Over the next two years, interest levels fell at a steady rate

” While the early news articles reflected an obsession with metrics and scale – a fascination with the sheer numbers of students signing up – those early figures are completely dwarfed by the numbers of users now associated with the major platforms.

They identify 11 major themes in the JIME MOOC papers:

These are grouped into four major clusters:  situating MOOCs; MOOCs and languages; learning design and roles; and accessibility and inclusion.

They conclude on a fairly positive note, saying:

the recent focus on the use of MOOCs to facilitate social inclusion and promote social justice, it seems that one way that these courses will continue to support education is to help equity and equality be it in addressing the needs of learners with disability, widening access and participation, giving marginalised group such as refugees access to education and the opportunity to develop their skills to help their independence and voice.

Someone suggested to me that repackaging old articles is not what a proper journal should do. Which means I want to do it all the more, I mean what’s the point in having a small scale in-house journal if you can’t use it for innovation? But actually, I think it’s exactly what we should do with journals, particularly in ed tech, where there is a tendency to forget our recent history. in my Metaphors book there is a chapter on the Digital Mudlark, where I make the claim that educational technologists are like mudlarks coming in after a large tide (like the Year of the MOOC) has passed and salvaging interesting artefacts. The analysis and collection by Katy and Fereshte is an excellent example of this practice.

Good online learning – assessment

One of the potentially positive aspects of the online pivot has been the manner in which it has forced educators and institutions to at least consider whether the face to face exams is the only method of assessment. Even quite conventional universities have decided that online exams (eg giving students a set time period to complete essays which can range from a few hours to a few weeks) is going to be the default mode from now on.

In less imaginative forms this has has taken the form of remote proctored exams, with AI or remote proctoring replacing the exam invigilator. This is problematic in a number of ways I won’t go into here. It’s also missing an opportunity to rethink what assessment is and how we do it (although I have sympathy when professional bodies demand it for accreditation). Replacing the 3 hour timed exam with the longer time period to complete an essay, that allows for online research is a more realistic task approximating to what a student might have to do in ‘real life’. Although it does raise the spectre of plagiarism, and with time and access students swarm to places like Course Hero (which is in no way an essay ponzi scheme, no sir).

This creates drivers for people to rethink assessment – the face to face exam is unpopular now that its alternative has been tried, and the standard essay based exam is subject to cheating when access is allowed. There are huge disciplinary differences here, and sometimes I think advocates for radical assessment overall (or complete removal) come from a liberal arts perspective and are not always appreciative of the different assessment requirements of say, maths or physics where definite right and wrong answers exist.

But for now, let’s consider some of the alternatives once you move beyond the traditional in-person exam. If students are studying completely online, and remote from a campus, then assessment arguably becomes more important. At the Open University, our tutors (Associate Lecturers) spend a good deal of time giving very detailed feedback on assignments, as these form the main point of contact often. Without the regular interaction students find assessment feedback essential to know if they are on track.

In a similar vein, use of automated assessment, while it can seem pedagogically unsatisfactory (the game of trying to come up with wrong answers for multiple choice can have you questioning your life choices), they fulfil an important ‘checking progress’ function.

More significantly, if students are learning in an online environment then it naturally lends itself to more ‘internet native’ forms of assessment. Here are some examples:

None of these are an answer for every topic, and they are not without their own issues and concerns. But they do demonstrate how the shift to online can open up other avenues for assessment. In higher ed, the exam, like the lecture, has become such a default model in higher education that we don’t often question why it was devised that way in the first place. The answer is in part because it fulfilled a number of logistical constraints. Online learning removes many of those constraints, so why wouldn’t we take the opportunity to reconsider?

Good online learning – learning design

From the Historic Construction Kit

Following my (kinda) series on tips for good online learning

Learning design is one of those terms that you instinctively have a feel for what it means, but for which there can be a wide variety of definitions. For some it is synonymous with instructional design (which I think is more of a North American term). Obviously, as academics we like to debate the definition endlessly, but let’s keep it simple for now. From a lot of the work that JISC led in the 00s, a common definition is:

“the practice of planning, sequencing and managing learning activities, usually using ICT-based tools to support both design and delivery.”

I wrote previously about the history of learning design at the OU, where it has been a prominent approach. This chapter from Lockyer, Agostinho and Bennett gives a good overview of the field I think. There are lots of different ways to think about and implement learning design. The OU’s excellent LD team has some very useful resources based around our approach. Grainne Conole has written extensively about LD, with her 7Cs model being influential. Mikkel Godsk has developed the concept of “efficient learning design” which emphasises how LD can be used to make technology innovations more sustainable and not the ‘one hit wonders’ we often see, allied to one specific educator. There has been a recent move to link learning analytics and learning design, with data helping to inform design decisions. Buus and Georgsen detail how LD can be used to help transition face to face teaching to online.

And so on – there is a lot of LD to choose from out there. Sometimes it can feel like that whatever your educational problem is, then learning design is the answer. Let’s not over-promise for it, but for me the key point about learning design is that it is an intentional design process. The actual learning design model you choose is probably not that important, as long as you choose one.

At this point, many educators will be snorting “what do you think we’ve been doing all this time, just showing up and ad-libbing? Of course we design learning!” While there is of course, some truth in this, the distinction in adopting a specific learning design approach is to consider the what and the how of teaching. The how is often predetermined – a conventional campus based lecture course will have X lectures, Y seminars and maybe Z lab sessions. This wasn’t restricted to face to face education either, at the OU when I joined it was quite common to think of a course in terms of the stuff it was constituted from – printed units, summer schools, home lab kits.

What learning design attempts to do is throw a pause in the implementation, where an educator can consider questions such as: “if I want to teach topic X, what is the best method to do so?”; “I have had a lot of activity type Y, maybe I should vary this?”; “what is the workload of these different approaches on students?”; “what can I do with this new technology that I couldn’t do before?”.

Many educators undertake that sort of analysis instinctively anyway, without the need for a prescribed framework. Adopting an LD approach across an institution has the benefits of legitimising that analysis and also standardising it. By doing the latter, practice then also becomes shareable.

So, while learning design isn’t only applied to online education, the familiarity of the lecture based model means that people tend to operate with an innate LD model that is never made explicit. The transition to online learning requires that these design choices are surfaced, but more importantly it provides an opportunity to rethink how a course can be delivered. The adoption of a specified learning design approach can therefore be seen as both a requisite for online learning and also a benefit.

Good online learning – asynchronicity

Following on from the last post about group work, I’m continuing my series (2 posts constitutes a series, right?) on trying to counter the negative views of online learning by highlighting positive aspects. In this post I want to look at an element that is, in my view, often overlooked – the ability to structure learning that is asynchronous in delivery but retains aspects of interactivity, collaboration and community.

Much of face to face learning is based around the often unquestioned assumption of synchronous delivery. A student has to be present at a set time for a lecture, seminar, lab session, or exam. Traditional distance learning (largely print based) started from an assumption of asynchronous study (with some synchronous events such as tutorials and summer schools). This has then followed through into the design of early online education. The online pivot in contrast was largely defined by the need to replicate the synchronous model online.

It is interesting (to me anyway) that we used to talk of Asynchronous Learning Networks (ALNs), and a lot of early elearning literature was focused on the asynchronous nature of online learning. This was partly a product of the limitations of the technology (you couldn’t do reliable video chat back in 1998), but also speaks to some of that early desire to rethink what education would look like online. The advent of reliable video streaming has meant people have become lazy and just shifted existing practice online.

It might not be overstating things to say that asynchronous vs synchronous is a more significant consideration than face to face vs online. And this gets to one of the issues with the criticisms of online learning, the lecture deficit model, which is simply attempting to replicate the synchronous model. Before we look at blending the two (which is probably optimal), let’s consider how asynchronous online education is realised.

It makes use of extensive (if not exclusively) online material – VLE content, videos, blogs, podcasts, etc, often creating a rich mix of media and sources. It will use text based forum discussions, which may be split into different levels – for example ones for whole cohort discussion, tutor groups, specific group work projects, etc. Blogs, wikis, and other tools can be used for co-creation and commenting.

None of that is rocket science of course, but it does require a higher degree of intentional learning design than the conventional lecture series. See for example, the considerations around group work I mentioned in the last post. But asynchronous delivery offers a number of distinct advantages over the synchronous model, for instance:

  • Increased student flexibility – not being required to be present at exact times allows greater flexibility for students, which becomes increasingly important as more of the student body are working, caring or have other commitments. Even the use of lecture capture which allows a degree of asynchronous study is valued by students for improving note taking, independence and self-pacing.
  • Greater student control – related to the above, asynchronous study allows students to spend as long or as little as they need on certain subjects.
  • Time to interact – asynchronous discussion gives students time to construct and research answers, making interaction more productive for many.
  • Increased curriculum flexibility – one of the limiting factors in multidisciplinary study is the tyranny of the timetable. This is under-appreciated I feel. We can’t combine many combinations of subjects because the logistics of creating timetables for lectures becomes exponentially complex. Asynchronous study does not have this limitation, so for instance on our Open degree, students can combine over 250 different modules to create their own degree. You can’t do that with synchronous based study.

I am over-simplifying things here to make a point – it is not really asynchronous vs synchronous. In reality it is usually a blend – lots of on campus education is asynchronous already, for instance reading lists, lecture capture, VLE content. And a lot of asynchronous online content has synchronous (or semi-synchronous) elements, for example online tutorials, guest speakers, assessment.

This is all sensible design and making the best use of each medium. The point here is rather that online learning offers a greater opportunity to implement effective asynchronous learning, and that has a number of advantages. So we shouldn’t just replicate the synchronous model online and disregard those opportunities.

Good online learning – group work

Like many of you I’ve been getting rather exasperated by the “online = bad, face to face = good” narrative that seems to have arisen post-pandemic (Tim Fawns has a good thread on this by the way). So I thought I’d try a series on some of the ways in which online learning can be done effectively. I mean, I know it won’t make any difference, but shouting into the void can be therapeutic. They’ll be a mix of research and my own experience.

First up, every student’s favourite way of working – group work! Going right back to the early days of e-learning, group work has always been a hot topic. Diana Laurillard’s conversational framework was influential in helping structure online learning, and Gilly Salmon’s 5 stage e-moderating model was used by many to structure online group work. There are many other models also – you can go rhizomatic, connectivist, communities of practice, and so on. In some respects, I don’t think it matters too much which one you choose (as long as it’s not one predicated on digital natives or hole in wall). The point is to use a well established model to help you construct online interaction in a way that is different from face to face. So when I hear people say things like “we don’t know what works online” I do wonder what it is they actually want to meet their needs.

Some basic things to say about online group work first of all:

  1. Synchronous vs asynchronous makes a big difference, so not all ‘online’ is the same
  2. It takes muuuuuuuuch longer to realise, especially if you are operating asynchronously. Activities you might have scheduled for an afternoon can take 3 weeks online by the time negotiation happens, people disappear, you wait for responses, etc.
  3. Like nearly all online learning, it requires careful design, detailed instructions and guidance. More so than face to face where you can modify things on the fly.
  4. Some of the social glue necessary for groups to work well may be missing online (Salmon’s model establishes the importance of this). This highlights the value of intentionally establishing social connections early on in an online course, as it will reap benefits later.
  5. Operating in the online medium at the start means group activities based around co-creation of media, finding resources, commenting, etc are readily achieved. Students are in that space already.
  6. Asynchronous can provide flexibility and reassurance for many students who struggle in face to face groups.
  7. Retention in online courses is generally a bit lower than face to face. Group work presents a sometimes stressful component of any course, and thus can act as a risk area, where students may decide to drop out. It needs careful design, support and handling to prevent it becoming the ‘skid patch’ on an icy road.
  8. Students hate it about as much as they hate face to face group projects, but also kind of appreciate it afterwards.

This is not intended as an in-depth review of online group work literature. It is not a topic short of research. But my take-aways would be that it is completely achievable, and will give all the same benefits you would gain from face to face group work, therefore it should be implemented for the same reasons. It does require more thought, design and time to get right than face to face group work. Simply translating group activities you did in a seminar to online is not going to work. It can create stress for students, but then so does face to face group work (introverts will feel this), but these may be different ones, so the type of support required may vary.

In general though, do it, but design carefully. I’ll end with this quote from Curtis and Lawson, who researched online collaboration back in 2001. It could have been written as advice to people in 2022, and pretty much sums up what I’ve said:

there is evidence that successful collaboration as described in face-to-face situations is possible in online learning environments. The medium does influence the interactions that are possible and that student familiarity with the medium and the ease of use of the interface are
important factors. Instruction for students in the use of the software and better preparation for the challenges of collaborative learning, especially negotiation and other group skills, are likely to produce a more effective learning system.

Universities interpret change as harm… but that’s probably ok

We were discussing the new Open University strategy recently, one strand of which calls for innovation in teaching. This has been a constant thread in nearly all strategies that I can recall in my 27 odd years at the OU. And, to be fair, it is something the OU and colleagues have largely delivered on. However, based on my own experience and that of nearly all colleagues I speak to, the university (and it would seem, all universities), often acts to counter and thwart such innovation. From delivering all online courses in 1999, to establishing the VLE in 2004, to introducing Learning Design, to trying to establish microcredentials more recently, the university seems to operate a rather split personality approach. At a senior level it promotes and encourages these initiatives, but at a more day to day, governance and operational level it often actively works against them, providing blockages, delays and endless compromises, that feel as though they seek to undermine the initiative.

To rehash John Gilmore’s First law of the internet trinity, that “The Net interprets censorship as damage and routes around it”, it feels like “the university interprets change as harm and seeks to eradicate it.” When you are trying to implement change it can feel like the organisation is actively folding around it, making progress difficult and seeking to limit its impact. This is found in much of the culture and practicalities of realising change. It is also because education is a precious thing that needs to be treated carefully, that involves people. It’s not a new washing machine. There is a general risk adverse culture, that arises from this appropriate caution.

The OU is by no means unique in this – my experience in talking to colleagues at other universities is that it is a feature, not a bug of introducing change in higher ed. This is one of the reasons why people who come to higher ed from elsewhere often bemoan its ability to change. However, while it feels like that, I think that is a misunderstanding of how universities function.

Universities operate on a longer time frame than many businesses. While businesses may desire to be around for decades, they often aren’t. Universities operate on long time scales and promote stability, not rapid changes to immediate concerns. It would be inappropriate for a university to behave like a start up (those that do, don’t last very long). So this isn’t just curmudgeonliness in resisting change, it is part of the character of what it means to be a university.

Making Change

But it is necessary to implement some change, right? Maybe the metaphor of damage can help here. We live happily with many things such as viruses that could cause harm after all. So one way to implement change is to do it slowly, so it doesn’t cause the adverse reaction. This is the point Rebecca Galley makes in implementing learning design across the OU over a decade – institutional change takes time. By giving it the appropriate time, the university acclimatises to it and accommodates.

Another corollary of the metaphor might be that it is best to convince the university that this is not harm – organisms don’t reject viruses that look familiar to them, or animals don’t respond aggressively to things in their environment they don’t interpret as a threat. So, change is best couched in terms that are meaningful and recognisable to those within the organisation. When the OU was going through its crisis, this could be characterised as an excess of change that created an appropriate rejection by the University. Part of the problem was the change was often couched in terms that were antagonistic to existing practice and values. Whenever I sit on boards that are implementing changes my one piece of sage advice is to communicate in terms that are meaningful to educators.

Another aspect might be to reduce the threshold for what is interpreted as harm, to try to prevent the excessive reaction every time. This might arise through greater flexibility and autonomy, to reduce some of that risk averse culture. I’ve found this often arises by using outsourced staff for areas such as finance or legal advice. They do not have any particular buy in or knowledge of the context, so saying no is the safest option. Making administrators more involved and part of a team, and giving them more freedom to be creative can alleviate many of the barriers. Academics often moan unfairly about administrators, they become a convenient scape goat, but I have been fortunate enough to work with great administrators throughout my career, and when they get creative it is a thing of beauty. We need to establish a culture that promotes this.


So, in summary, universities often react to change in the way an organism might react to harm and seek to limit it. This is not however, necessarily a negative thing, given the nature of universities and the roles we want them to perform in society. They’re not WeWork for chrissakes. If we accept this, then there are ways of approaching necessary change then that are more likely to be effective and productive for everyone involved.