edtech,  identity,  OU

IET, the OU and identity

We had cake!

This week we held a celebration to mark 50 years of the Institute of Educational Technology, and also to say goodbye to a colleague who has been immensely influential for me and IET, namely Patrick McAndrew. I’m going to work both of these together into a post about institutional memory, history and greek mythology.

First up, some history of IET. I’ve blogged this before, but in being asked to do a short presentation (see below), I reflected on how educational technology was not some after thought or something that grew out of interest after a few years. It was embedded and deemed essential to the OU from the outset. The recommendation of the consultants who advised on the establishment of an Applied Educational Sciences Unit in 1969 stated that “emphasis was laid upon creating a staff that incorporated not only academic personnel distinguished in their respective disciplines, but also staff with special skills in all the methods of educational technology.” Bear in mind this is not ed tech as we know it now, but paper, assessment, TV, summer schools.

What this highlights is how central educational technology is, and was, to the OU’s operation. Appreciating the significance of people who might now carry titles such as instructional designer, learning technologist, learning designer or educational technologist and placing them on an equal footing to academics was as revolutionary as anything else the OU did. Here is my presentation:

(brief) history of IET from Martin Weller

Now, a brief complaint – I joined IET from the Technology Faculty in 2002. Since then we have been reviewed five times, been put in with different units, had our name toyed with, our priorities changed. The initial aim for IET was very clear. The approval to make the applied educational science unit permanent as IET in 1970, stated that it would:

“A group of educational technologists has been established within the University to assist in setting up, refining and extending the unusual instructional system to be employed. The instructional resources at our disposal (written texts, radio, television, study centres, regional tutorials, summer schools, etc.) should be developed in due course to have the following characteristics:

They will all have been extensively tested and validated on representative samples of students and volunteers.

They will make provision for individual differences, by permitting some choice of route and rate towards the course objectives.

They will utilise the various media and supporting services to best advantage.

They will demand participation from the student, and will provide him with frequent assessments of his progress.

They will provide the Course Teams with continuous diagnostic feedback as a basis for remedial guidance, revision and recycling.

Not only is that a reasonably clear list of objectives, it would also be a pretty good set of actions for the Institute now. IET has (I think) an excellent reputation externally, and some of the best ed tech researchers in the country with expertise in learning analytics, AI, mobile learning, assessment and open education. But these continual reviews and restructuring play with that at their peril. They are also enormously time-consuming and distracting.

Amateur philosophy time!

Which brings me on to Patrick’s departure. Under the previous VC there was a voluntary severance scheme introduced. So toxic had the environment become under that regime that many people have availed themselves of it, even though things have now improved. So many of my colleagues and friends have left over the past 6 months that I wonder if I will be the only left sometimes – we are witnessing the equivalent of a Thanos finger snap on campus.

There is a thought experiment about identity that you probably know, namely the Ship of Theseus. Upon returning from his labours, the ship of Theseus is kept in the harbour as a monument, but it must also be kept sea-ready. So over the years, planks are replaced, until eventually no original planks remain. Is it still the same ship is the question? According to Aristotle it is, because its form and purpose remain the same. If, as the planks were replaced they had reshaped it into a tower, then it wouldn’t be. The rate of change may also be significant, because it happens gradually there is no definite point where it ceases to be the old ship and becomes the new.

The same is true of organisations (yes, people as planks). The OU of 2019 is still identified as the same organisation because its purpose and approach have remained the same, even if actual buildings and most personnel have changed. But also, there has been continuity in staff over this time. The radical removal of many key staff in one stage is not catastrophic, but it worries at that notion of identity.

This is not to set change and constancy in competition. Both are essential (the ship would have rotted and fallen into the harbour if those planks were not replaced), but we often fetishise change and downgrade constancy. I acknowledge that simply having been here a long time is not sufficient in itself, us old timers need to be contributing too – I’m not suggesting the OU pays me for sitting in a rocking chair and occasionally barking out acronyms of long forgotten projects (although I am game for this if they are willing). But at the meeting this week it was clear how much we haven’t recorded of things we’ve tried, what worked, how to get things done, etc.

My takeaway I guess is firstly be wary of the type of wholesale change culture that was undertaken by our previous VC, which caused so many people to feel that leaving was an option. You toy with the devotion people have to an institution at your peril, because once they give themselves permission to think about leaving, it becomes inevitable. Secondly, to recognise value in what you have, because as I concluded in my talk, if we didn’t have an IET we’d now be spending a lot of money to establish one. Lastly, don’t be dismissive if you’re the newbie, I was the young guy thrusting for change when I started but, someday you’ll meet your rocking chair…



  • Tim O'Shea

    As a past plank I really like the reference to the Ship of Theseus. IET continues to make great contributions to the OU and the evolving fields of Educational Technology/Technologically Enhanced Learning/Computer Assisted Learning. Bit soon for Martin to be contemplating his rocking chair!

  • Alan Levine

    Not of any relevance to the Greek ship analogy but the history and references to what was edtech in the early 1970s reminds me of my fathers cousin David. He got a PhD in Educational Psychology in the early 1970s. When he talked about his research it was all wrapped up in the education technology of 16mm film. I remained impressed though that this work, like what I read of the early IET, was not rooted in technology, but education. Can ed tech be reclaimed from tech to ed?

  • Magnus Ramage

    I’m really sad about the way IET has been messed around organisationally in recent years – one of the jewels of the OU. Thank you for your history.

    I like the Ship of Theseus analogy. When I joined the Technology Faculty in 2000 (not long after you, I think?) there were still plenty of people around who had been there more or less since the beginning of the university, and for whom the sense of constant innovation and experimentation was absolutely in their bones. As they gradually left I worried whether they’d take the spirit of the university with them. It’s still there, but I think we can only preserve it through incremental change – one plank at a time. Change is good, but it needs to preserve the core identity of the institution. (There are many systems models of organisational change which say just that.)

    • mweller

      Hi Magnus, yes, I think there is definitely a lot to be gained from bringing in new people, as they often find new ways of doing things that you become blind to when you’ve been somewhere a long time. But the cultural values take time to appreciate and develop and so, as you point out, you want to do incremental change in order to allow for this.

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