Hidden values

Joshua Kim at Inside Higher Ed feels that those of us who write about ed tech should mind our manners a bit.  I want to like this argument a whole lot more than I do.  The appeal to collegiality and respect is a winner, and I do agree that right at this moment it could be painful to be watching the global ticker feed on online learning if that’s your line of work, especially if you’re still at the startup stage.

But the way his advice positions us as supplicants to the goodwill of LMS vendors has made even clearer that there’s a mile-wide gap between the parties in this potential partnership. He’s also missed a key point about current negative sentiment: we’re not necessarily cranky at specific LMS vendors, although sometimes we are, so much as at a general and often thoughtless enthusiasm for automated workflow that is not paying sufficient attention to how higher education actually works. Unless we can bridge this somehow, the prospect that the student experience will be transformed in good ways will remain very weak.

Kim is reacting, I think, to the intensifying confrontation between stakeholders in the technologisation of higher learning (university leaders looking for cheap alternatives to buildings, LMS vendors in the current land grab for market share, edupunks wanting to break the whole thing apart) and university teachers who feel that online learning threatens something vital that must be defended with increasing stridency:

A good teacher can also lead group activities that are both educational and interesting, not to mention virtually impossible to do online. When my wife was in college, she used to cook dishes from every country she studied in her world history courses and bring them into class. When I first heard David McCullough speak, I specifically remember him talking about how important it is to learn to read aloud. Just try doing that online!

I hope it’s clear to More or Less Bunk and his many supporters that I’m with them at the barricades when it comes to defending labour conditions against further deterioration, and preserving the standards and principles of good teaching. I just can’t get out a placard for these kinds of particularities, for the simple reason that for every excellent learning experience based on cooking, I’ve seen one based on the sharing of, say, an digital map of childhood memories that students located in different places have built together online. I’ve seen students light up at the sight of a published academic whose work they know arriving in their classroom, but I’ve also seen the exact same effect when that person joins them in an online chat from the other side of the world.

And while we wrestle over these told-you-so details, our students aren’t better off. In fact we may be leading many to feel that they need to adopt similarly emphatic positions.  So I’ve heard students tell me over and over without any direct personal experience what online learning is like, why we do it (cost reduction or work avoidance), and above all how impersonal it is and not like real communication—after which they go straight back to their online social lives.

So I’m relieved and impressed by three simultaneous calls for us to redirect our focus away from the technology and back onto what we do.  The first is from Tenured Radical herself, in the post mentioned yesterday, who writes:

Let’s think about whether the university actually saves money by going on-line, and under what conditions teaching and administrative staff cannot actually be replaced or reduced through technology.  In fact, in addition to the investment in hardware and technical staff, might shifting higher education to on-line platforms actually mean a greater re-investment in full-time, well-paid, highly educated labor, rather than the reverse, which is what many critics of higher education claim?

This is exactly the point that George Siemens is also making in an excellent discussion of the search for a new value proposition that will make higher education worth the debt:

Content is easily duplicated and has no value. What is valuable, however, is that which can’t be duplicated without additional input costs: personal feedback and assessment, contextualized and personalized navigation through complex topics, encouragement, questioning by a faculty member to promote deeper thinking, and a context and infrastructure of learning. Basically: human input costs make education valuable. We can’t duplicate personal interaction without spending more money. We can scale content, but we can’t scale encouragement. We can improve lecturing through peer teaching, but we can’t scale the timely interventions and nudges by faculty that influence deeper learning.

Sandy Baum and Michael McPherson in the Chronicle of Higher Ed are similarly interested in returning to a focus on what it is that skilful teachers do, as a counter to the rising panic about how they do it.

The trick is to figure out where the human beings on the faculty and staff can do the most good, and use that scarce resource well. At the same time, invest in developing high-quality interactive online teaching tools, and then use them on a large enough scale to defray the substantial development costs. This implies sharing the same or very similar materials across a range of institutions (much like textbooks), which will require overcoming difficult “not invented here” and related governance problems.

What all these three suggest to me is that if we’re going to start behaving like leaders, not followers, in the higher education field then we’re going to have to back ourselves, as Australian sports commentators like to say. This means being much clearer on the non-negotiable values expressed in the systems and solutions we design, and the ways in which we create opportunities for learning by combining all the resources available to us that we think will help us do this well, from cooking to mashups.

And it means, I think, allowing diversity itself to be one of those values. Some of us don’t mind online grading rubrics but others really do work more effectively using a red pen while sitting under a tree. Some teachers are skilled at leading writing-intensive interactions between students online, and others make the bricks and mortar classroom a place of unforgettable learning. None of us wants to force the style that works for one, on everyone.

So, an update to my never ending memo to the leadership: we’re all happiest when the diversity of our approaches matches the unanimity of our commitment to the same overall goals.  This means we need to tread very, very carefully when rolling out big, unifying systems, or devising grand institutional narratives in our IT strategic planning or standards. The value proposition in terms of what human teachers bring to learning must always be that we play best when we play to our strengths, irrespective of the tools we play with.



Tenured Radical is asking the question that should be required reading for every CIO, CTO, LMS suitor, and higher ed tech commentator: if computers are such a blessing to higher ed, how come their use is actively extending the working lives of their users to such a damaging degree? The series of events she describes will have elicited low moans of sympathy from all of us working in writing-intensive courses online: an innovative learning task set up to use a system well, driven by good teaching principles and student-centredness and all the rest of it, all going swimmingly until, with a clunk:

Students suddenly became unable to upload the papers that they were expected to share with each other for the following day.  Since I became aware of the issue around 6 P.M., when the earliest finishers started trying to deposit their work,  I ended up spending an evening on it that I would otherwise have spent preparing the class itself (of course, given that it was long after working hours, I would have preferred catching up with Boardwalk Empire, reading a novel or staring glassily into space.) No technophobe, I opened up the settings to see what was wrong, and there went the rest of the night, with a quick break to warm up something from Trader Joe’s.  At one point, I found myself displaying the platform on three separate browsers to compare the settings that had worked to the settings that hadn’t, creating exact parallels between the settings on each browser, and testing each (as if I were a student) to see if what we were dealing with was a browser rather than a software issue.

You need to read the whole post to find out what went wrong and how it was eventually fixed, but the point that can’t be hammered home stridently enough is that this experience is … so … routine.

Something I think many university leaders find hard to grasp as they’re searching for the magical online cloud that will save them from the infrastructure costs of more buildings and services, is that clouds seem easier and quicker to establish, but they really don’t stay still for long.  That’s what makes the metaphor so effective: these clouds are moving.  Software is constantly being upgraded, and systems are constantly being patched.  Each tiny fix and patch risks causing one part of the overall structure to fall out of love with another, a situation made far more acute by the fact that higher education institutions can’t for one second guarantee browser compatibility among their thousands of users.  Meanwhile, security, storage and disaster recovery are exceptionally volatile areas of institutional risk: people who are bothering to spend their time engaged in malicious hacking aren’t going to wait for everyone to catch up calmly. It’s a jungle out there.

All this means that what looks like a stable system at the interface, both for your CEO and your average user, is in fact just how things are patched up today.  Most of the situations like the one Tenured Radical describes result from one of these tiny background fixes that has a butterfly effect somewhere else in the ecosystem. And this is so often discovered only late at night, on weekends, when students work intensively and academics really should be advised not to try to use this time to catch up on a little online reading or class preparation because this is exactly how we get caught over and over with the emails of panic about assignments that won’t upload, systems that lock out or freeze, or content that won’t download or open.

The realisation that this level of failure is so routine has added to my thinking yesterday about the lack of real competitive energy in the higher education technology market.  The leaden nature of contract timing means, frankly, that vendors have become used to being able to disappoint us.  We’re locked in and they know it.  So again, the significance of the recent wins that Phil Hill has tracked in the emerging LMS vendor market isn’t the size of the institution or the number of users, even though these are truly impressive: it’s the length of the contract, and the time it will take for that institution and its users to come back on the market. Until then, the vendor is more or less safe from the consequences of poor design, and incomplete or stalled development.

Sadly, the real cost of this is swiftly transferred onto the higher education institution trying to manage its own customer relations. Our IT departments are flat out with the running repairs, and not all of this is done in normal office hours, as the systems teams try to find the time of the week when they can take the whole thing down safely for a few hours. In too many cases, this is at 6am on a Sunday morning, but even with this effort and cost, they still can’t save the tech-friendly student-centred academic who’s up late on Sunday night trying to figure out and communicate Plan B to her frantic students.

Momentarily I’ve forgotten why it is that we have all become so used to this, and so accepting of it.  If the bricks and mortar showed a similar pattern of instability, I’m not sure we’d go back into the building on Monday, would we?

Competitive advantage?

It’s not really my business, but it seems to me that the promise that competition delivers consumer benefits is in the “If I had a dollar for every time … ” category of overuse. Mostly this proposition seems to be based on the assumption that if I’m selling lemonade next to someone else selling lemonade, we’re going to compete for the lemonade market either by offering superior or cheaper lemonade, and either way, the passing parade gets a better deal on a hot day just because there are two of us.

But I’m not so convinced that this argument scales up when the cup of lemonade is a campus LMS, as Phil Hill suggests on Michael Feldstein’s blog:

However these battles shape up, higher education clients are going to be the richer for having true competition fueled by new investment – the Silicon Valley mentality, even if the geographic locations are not in Silicon Valley.*

The problem is that the virtues of competition imagined here are limited by the extent to which ‘higher education clients’ can match the volatility of innovation and investment conditions with some nimble contractual skipping of their own.

But this isn’t how it works. Typically, the commitment to a campus LMS is a hefty one, not only because of the way contracts are drawn up, but because higher education clients are complex institutions, with the maneuverability of container ships.  Once the ink has dried on the contract, that client is essentially off the market for a long time.

There are two reasons for this, beyond the standard contract length. First, the whole process is really time-consuming and higher education clients do actually have a few other things to do with their time. Selecting an LMS thoroughly takes months.  It’s not a coin-toss decision (although by about halfway through the process everyone wishes it was). Rolling it out properly, rewriting the rules of internal business ownership and risk management, designing and implementing staff training, transitioning and remodelling content — all this takes months.  This is even before the first student user has appeared in the new system. Longer term curriculum change to take advantage of the new things that the system will do takes months.  And all these months can’t happen simultaneously, so we’re starting to talk in terms of years.

Secondly, most traditional higher ed. clients are still in transition to the conceptual rethinking that eLearning represents, especially in terms of the potential for open education to turn the whole lemonade business on its head.  So while there are really visionary calls for a “revelatory politics” of the way that open education might crack open the fundamentals of higher education business planning, not to mention pedagogy, there’s no sign that university leaders want the business model cracked open all that much.  They’re still hoping online will solve the bricks and mortar problems as quietly and uncontroversially as possible.

And in practice, this means that they’re looking for single, campus-wide solutions locked in for several years to create the impression that online learning represents stability, durability and consistency with the traditional vision of higher education.

So while I agree strongly that the new elements to the LMS market that Michael Feldstein and Phil Hill are tracking are going to be crucial, I think their analysis is a little optimistic about the turning circles of the typical higher education client.  We move really slowly, and we’re very risk averse, especially where our own market sensitivities are concerned.  And there is simply too much friction and fear in the higher education community about online anything at the moment for institutions to behave impulsively in ways that might risk their student satisfaction ratings, not to mention a mass walk-out by their staff.

So the thing that needs to change if higher education is going to take advantage of the kinds of developments that the new cashed up, cloud-seeking LMS vendor culture can offer, is higher education.  We’re going to need to become much more open to the idea of diverse solutions being in different stages of evaluation and use across the institution simultaneously. We’re going to have to incorporate multiple social media streams into the way we plan, research and teach, which will mean asking the marketing department to learn to share.  And we’re going to have to stop saying that the generation that hops from Facebook to YouTube and Twitter can’t work across multiple systems at once.

And I think if we want a revelatory politics of higher education—which we do—rather than simply a series of uncomfortable revelations about the business plans of major publishers, we’re going to need to start acting as leaders in this field, not simply as clients.

* My apologies to both Michael and Phil, an early version of this had the post credited to Michael