Monthly Archives: May 2016

Thoughts on: Change Thinking, Change Practices (LTSN Generic Centre, 2003)

I’ve been thinking that a core theme of my research – looking at how to support TELT practices in Higher Education – is Continuity and Change. This is a tiny bit tongue in cheek, referencing a deliberately meaningless slogan used initially in the HBO series Veep but later briefly embraced by the Australian Government.

It seems useful because it sums thing up fairly well; initiating change to new TELT practices where necessary but also supporting (and incrementally evolving) existing practices when they are already effective.

The Learning and Teaching Support Network (LTSN) Generic Centre – which no longer appears to exist but may have become something else – created a wonderfully thoughtful guide to implementing change in Higher Education in 2003 called “Change Thinking, Change Practices“.

I’ve been poring over this for the better part of a week because it is absolutely packed with insights both from theory (drawing heavily on Social Practice Theory) and a number of case studies. It up-ended a few of my own long-held ideas about implementing change (the need to win hearts and minds before getting started for one) and I think it’s well worth investing the time to read through if you are involved in or considering change in your institution.

Change in a higher ed institution can come from the top-down (a.k.a centre-periphery – the executive), bottom-up (teachers) or middle-out (departments, education support teams). These different sources of change become very important because they reflect different philosophical approaches to change. As with most things, I’d suggest that an approach drawing from all three is most valuable.

The paper identifies five common views of change that feed into these.

  1. Technical/Rational – the top level identifies a need for change, makes a policy and a plan and the plan is enacted precisely
  2. Resource allocation – Change needs resourcing and once this is provided, change will just occur
  3. Diffusionist: Epidemiological – Change is driven by experts and early adopters that can successfully communicate the value of the change and inspire uptake
  4. Kai Zen or continuous quality improvement – changes is driven incrementally from the bottom (practioners) working in communities of practice to identify needs in their area
  5. Models using complexity – sponsors (otherwise undefined) of change create the conditions needed for change to flourish by providing resources and knowledge.

Unsurprisingly perhaps, none of these views make me entirely happy, with my pesky view that educational ecosystems of institutions are messy and we need to take a holistic approach to working with them. Fortunately this seems to be the position taken by the guide.

Rather than summarise the whole thing, I’ll explore the themes that emerged in determining conditions for success.


The change that is initially identified and planned for is rarely the change that you’ll end up with. This is generally a good thing because it means that as more people have become involved in the process, they have taken some ownership of it and better informed it. Having the flexibility to allow change to take its own course can generate wider acceptance.

The guide repeatedly comes back to the idea of viewing change as a process (‘changing’) rather than an outcome (‘CHANGE’)

“The innovation was ‘fuzzy’ enough to appeal to a variety of interests and points of view, even competing ones” (p.24)

Contextual awareness and understanding

This brings us neatly to the vital importance of understanding the local needs, history and practices of the place where the change is to be implemented. The guide stresses that incremental change at a departmental level has higher rates of success and provides a number of valuable case studies in support of this.

There’s a relatable but entirely frustrating contradiction about implementing change in a localised context; while change proposals with a solid backing of evidence and knowledge is more widely valued, there is simultaneously a resistance to external influences.

…colleagues will often balk at change unless it was ‘invented here’; they’ll discount foreign innovations. NIH (not invented here) breaks change forces (P.33)

I’ve already seen this on a number of occasions in my time in Higher Education when I’d get excited about something that I’d seen being done elsewhere that seemed particularly relevant to our needs only to have it met with the most disinterested of mehs. This often surprised me coming from people that I would assume to be open to knowledge and all good ideas but that downplays the tribal/parochial nature of these kinds of organisations.

This in turn led me to a side-thought, is it harder to drive change in an institution that is perceived to be (and considers itself) at the top of the heap? When your branding and culture pushes the idea of being an elite institution does this simultaneously facilitate NIH thinking in addition to diminishing the perceived urgency of change?


A lot of factors come to bear on practitioner willingness to engage with new practices. The extent to which they have been involved in formulating the change is clearly a significant part, as is their understanding of its benefits. These intrinsic motivators provide deeper engagement with change but take longer. Extrinsic motivators, whether they be direct inducements (more time or resources) or policy directives will get results more quickly but at a shallower level.

I’ve long believed that it is vital to win hearts and minds before embarking on change processes but this guide makes a compelling case that “there is a lot of value in using tools and expertise to change practices: beliefs can follow” (P.21)

This makes sense to me on the level that giving people a lived experience of a change in practice can give them a deeper understanding of it.

Capacity / support

Whatever changes are proposed, it is essential that practitioners have the capacity to enact them. (Evidently this isn’t as obvious as it sounds). Change that builds on existing practice (scaffolded, essentially) thus becomes far more likely to succeed than entirely new practices.

A combination of training, Community of Practice support and the involvement of local support experts – such as education designers and technologists – is essential either way.

Resources / tools

The other facet that seems obvious is the need for adequate resourcing for the project. Particularly tools that are fit for purpose. This guide speaks at length about working with lecturers in the planning phase to collaboratively design and build tools (e.g. a new form of rubric) that can be used in practice to implement the changes.

This has the added benefit of creating more relevant and robust tools that incorporate local, contextual needs.


“Don’t assume that the way you think of an innovation is the way it will be understood on the ground” (p.19)

Language can also be loaded – “for many academic staff, the word ‘quality’ itself had come to symbolise additional administrative burdens which detracted from rather than enhanced their core work” (p.25)

HE institutions are fueled by words – using them well can mean the difference between failure and success. (No pressure)

Accountability mechanisms

A key element in successfully implementing a change process is remembering that it is more about the act of changing, so in some ways it never entirely ends. Putting a rigorous evaluation process into place that is clear about what is to be measured and how makes a massive difference.

There is a lot of other invaluable tips and strategies to effective change processes in this guide that are informed by theory and evidence from case studies. It expands greatly on the phases of implementation, considering them as pre-adoption (gather requirements), adoption (gaining support) and implementation. I compare this with the Ako Aotearoa model described by Akelma (2012) of initiation (arguably pre-adoption/adoption), implementation and institutionalisation.

If you have any involvement whatsoever with change in your HE institution, you need to read this paper



Thoughts on: Two guides from Ako Aotearoa on education projects and researching learners

It was always my intention that researching in the area that I work in would help me to shape my professional practice (and it is) but I’ve been surprised lately at how much things are flowing in the other direction. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what is needed to make an educational project successful and how we know that learners have actually benefitted.

This is partially coming from the big picture work that I’m doing with my peers at the university looking at what we’re doing and why and partially from my own college, which has recently launched a Teaching and Learning Eminence Committee/project to look into what we’re doing with teaching and learning. I wasn’t initially invited onto the committee, (it’s all academics), which speaks to some of the ideas that have been emerging in some of my recent posts (the academic/professional divide) as well as the fact that I need to work on raising the profile of my team* and understanding of our* capacity and activities in the college.

Anyway, while trawling through the tweetstream of the recent (and alas final) OLT – Office of Learning and Teaching – conference at #OLTConf2016, I came across a couple of guides published recently by Ako Aotearoa, the New Zealand National Centre for Tertiary Teaching Excellence, that fit the bill perfectly.


One focusses on running effective projects in teaching and learning in tertiary education, it’s kind of project managementy, which isn’t always the most exciting area for me but it offers a comprehensive and particularly thoughtful overview of what we need to do to take an idea (which should always be driven by enhancing learning) through three key phases identified by Fullan (2007 – as cited in Akelma et al, 2011) in the process of driving educational change – initiation, implementation and institutionalisation. The guide – Creating sustainable change to improve outcomes for tertiary learners  is freely available on the Ako Aotearoa website, which is nice.

I took pages and pages of notes and my mind wandered off into other thoughts about immediate and longer term things to do at work and in my research but the key themes running through the guide were treating change as a process rather than an event, being realistic, working collectively, being honest and communicating well. It breaks down each phases into a number of steps (informed by case studies) and prompts the reader with many pertinent questions to ask of themselves and the project along the way.

The focus of the guide is very much on innovation and change – I’m still thinking about what we do with the practices that are currently working well and how we can integrate the new with the old.

The second guide – A Tertiary practitioners guide to collecting evidence of learner benefit – drills down into useful research methodologies for ensuring that our projects and teaching practices are actually serving the learners’ needs. Again, these are informed by helpful case studies and showcase the many places and ways that we can collect data from and about our students throughout the teaching period and beyond.

It did make me wonder whether the research mindset of academics might conventionally be drawn from their discipline. Coming from an organisation with an education and social science orientation, one might expect an emphasis on the qualitative (and there are a lot of surveys suggested – which I wonder about as I have a feeling that students might be a little over-surveyed already) but the guide actually encourages a mixture of methodologies and makes a number of suggestions for merging data, as well as deciding how much is enough.

Definitely some great work from our colleagues across the ditch and well worth checking out.

(* The team is me – but one day…)

Defending University ICT teams

There has been a minor flurry of activity in the local edublogosphere (it’s a word) with three widely applauded posts from Martin Weller, Mark Smithers and David Jones about the problems with university ICT teams. (I guess more precisely it is the problems with university ICT policies and practices but tomato/tomato)

And look, to be honest these are probably some things that I’ve said myself on many occasions and I know I have heard them from my Ed Tech colleagues just as often. My main problem with the posts is that I think that significant parts of the arguments come very much from the perspective of the academic in an ideal world and dismiss the day to day practicalities of the organisation.

Martin and Mark both approach the issues through the prism of the following seven complaints.

  • Security is used rather the same way Governments use terrorism – as a means of controlling things and removing freedoms
  • Increasingly academics have no control over their machines, and cannot install or trial new software
  • Even basic tasks are often highly frustrating and time consuming
  • Support has been centralised so there is no local advice or help
  • Senior IT managers have been brought in from other sectors with little understanding of the university culture
  • Increasingly academics are circumventing official systems to buy their own machines, or host their own services, often in their own time and at their own expense
  • There is little room for experimenting with tools beyond the VLE

Right off the bat I noticed that the first two and the final two are variations on a theme – ‘I, as an academic, can’t do whatever I want, whenever I want within the university ICT system’. 

Ok, sure, it’s not that simple and they make some particularly valid and important points about the drive for innovation, the need to be able to try something and fail (particularly in the pursuit of knowledge) and breakdowns in organisational communication. Martin stresses that “it is about how universities have created the environment where academics and IT are now in a rather dysfunctional relationship”.

Mark expand on the points raised by Martin and offers a few concrete examples of policies and practices that cause frustration and David goes on to introduce a little bit of theory that supports the value of individualised solutions in innovation.

I absolutely agree that a service provision unit such as an ICT team should do as much as possible to meet the needs of its users. A few questions leap to mind at this point:

  • Who are the users?
  • How do they prioritise the competing needs of users?
  • How do we untangle needs vs wants?
  • Who pays for it?
  • Who supports it?
  • What other factors constrain the I.T. teams?

Universities exist for research and education – so academics are clearly at the heart of the purpose of the institution. All three writers acknowledge that there are legitimate security concerns that must be addressed but there seems to be a disconnect between the things that impact the university and those that impact the lecturer. It’s someone else’s problem.

In my role as a education technologist, I sit at the intersection of all of these groups and I have seen two specific issues in the last year that are very much the lecturer’s problem when it comes to implementing new technologies. One relates to the risk of privacy breaches of student data (which can be as minimal as their email address), particularly when using online services hosted overseas. Under Australian law, for every breach, the person that signed up for the service directly – often the lecturer – is liable for a $300,000+ fine and the university is up for $1m+. For each breach. (So 100 students = $30m fine for the lecturer alone)

The second issue falls under competition and consumer law – third line forcing. In a nutshell, a service provider (the university) can’t mandate the use of services provided by a third party. In English, if you put a link to a Pearson quiz into the LMS and make it 20% of the grade, you’re breaking the law. Allowing students an alternative makes this acceptable and this is why we can’t make any textbook mandatory – just highly highly recommended.

These are important not just for the financial and reputational well-being of the university and the academic but for the rights of the students. It’s not sexy but its important.

As a former senior manager of a university IT team, I was a little surprised that Mark downplayed these kinds of things – although I guess they are more legalistic, even though the relate directly to tech. (Also, different countries, different laws etc etc)

To cover some of the other questions briefly:

I’ve had a few academics come to me to help them implement projects tied to specific tools that sales reps have gotten them excited about. Because sales reps are approaching academics more and more and they aren’t always the most reliable people for identifying whether their product meets the academics T&L needs. So the first thing that I do is rewind the conversation to the desired teaching and learning outcomes and then review the best options. Academics are human and are just as susceptible to the charms of a sales rep as anyone else. Sometimes the Ed Techs and ICT teams have the bigger picture perspective needed.

University and College/Faculty ICT teams don’t just sit around waiting to say no to people. There’s ongoing support to manage and scheduled projects/upgrades to implement. This is all tightly budgeted for and these people are generally always working on something. So when a new projects come up, time and money has to be found to support them. Even then, it’s rarely just a matter of installing a piece of software and moving on – how does it play with the rest of the system? Does it need to connect to other parts of the system?, does it require other things (e.g. a particular version of Java) to work?, if the uni system is updated and the software isn’t, will it collapse (and vice versa)?, what if some part of it isn’t working – who is responsible for trying to fix that? More confident academics might feel competent enough to take that responsibility on but many more will just assume that this is the role of the ICT team. Who trains the students in how to use it – what if they have problems and need support? None of these things necessarily need to be a barrier to implementing something new but I feel that they have been downplayed or ignored in the other posts.

The last thing that I want to do is to paint a picture that nothing new can or should be done and I think there are a number of areas where there is common ground.

The needs of teaching and learning, academics and students should be a high priority in university organisational culture and reflected in ICT team activity wherever possible.

The needs and responsibilities of the organisations should be better understood and appreciated by academics and students.

More effective communication and greater transparency of systems and processes will help both of these things. User Experience needs to be a bigger part of the design too.

We work in a holistic, learning ecosystem where everything is connected and we can be far more effective by using these connections and the expertise that we all possess, both academic and professional staff.

Innovation is a key part of developing knowledge and failure is an unavoidable consequence sometimes. We should still strive to reduce the risk of failure wherever we can though by drawing on the collective knowledge available.

New processes should be explored for supporting innovation so that the best potential tools and pedagogical approaches can be used and risks minimised. They should be evidence based as far as possible but have the flexibility to allow for trail blazers. The potential impact of new tools and pedagogical approaches (in terms of transferablility, contribution to scholarship?) has to be a factor. A “beyond-the-pilot” mindframe is also needed for these kinds of projects, so that after successful testing there can be a clear pathway and resourcing for a move into a wider, production environment.

Flexibility is important in terms of what environments and tools are available for teaching and learning (and research – see even here I must admit that this has barely been on my radar) but there needs to be agreement and acceptance of what can and can’t be supported.

None of this is particularly “sexy” – it doesn’t lead to big flashy announceables or bragging rights at high level conferences and dinners but I think it is important for us all to work together more effectively and with greater understanding. There are always going to be all kinds of personalities in our organisations and some will be less helpful than others for no good reason but I still have to believe that the vast majority of us work in tertiary education because we believe in it.