Two questions that Tony raised – do institutions need to change and does this change need to come from within or from outside – in his recent talk in Change11, obviously need answering. Tony makes the case for a formal planned process for adoption and use of learning technologies in the institution. He makes the important point that technology has been used to create infrastructure, administrative application, enhanced (not improved) use of technology in the classroom, low online learning options and the preponderance of LMS based points of view.

He makes an important point – that the institutional leaders must be aligned, planned and strategic in terms of how they go about really leveraging digital technology and new pedagogies for the future. Structurally, both roles for the institution and a clear decision-making process must be in place – in short, a system of governance must be established. The role of course design is also extremely important. What happens is that costs in effect go up when introducing an online component because the face to face instructor time is not going down.

Which is really what most people would say when faced with the challenge of change. The standard response is a structured one – usually top down and systematic, backed by consultants (internal or external experts). This approach presupposes many different things:

  1. Firstly, it assumes that the approach is scalable in terms of numbers. It is not. The sheer amount of intellectual resource and skill, investment, management time and development effort required does not by definition scale. Therefore the strategy of structure imposes constraints on the poor and helps make the rich richer. We don’t have enough skills to manage large scales.
  2. Secondly, it assumes that such deterministic structures can help organizations gear up for the future and achieve goals such as cost reduction, higher retention and improvement in academic outcomes. In effect, it perpetuates the myth of structure being an effective solution for an acknowledged complex and chaotic system.
  3. Thirdly, it kind of assumes that usage of digital technology will primarily drive these outcomes (though Tony has far more elements in the how). This is just one part of the picture. When people realize that the basic capabilities to bring about change do not exist in a majority of our institutions (which is also one prime reason for the lack of or difficulties in implementation of these structures), that is when real change will occur, in my opinion. For long, our focus on technology as the critical agent of change has been misplaced especially for entire countries who cannot hope to reach the technological sophistication of a developed country. I have asked the same question of connectivism itself – what would happen to it if the technology aspect was simply removed or absent.
  4. Fourthly, it also perpetuates the absence of an important voice – that of the student. For long I have bemoaned the fact that academic institutions advertise brand, history, alumni, amount of space, high paying placements and other such things to attract/influence students. Very rarely would one see a student being marketed the course design process, or even exposing the student to that choice. When students don’t make the choice of an institution based on the strength of its design of the learning experience, something is seriously amiss. It is an assumption that students make on the basis of other factors. Students are assumed to be transient entities with no entrenched interests in furthering the quality of the institution itself.
  5. Fifthly, the approach runs the danger of being a model of choice for institutions nationally or globally, without a true understanding of local contexts and constraints. It is a case of structure without the content, in this case.
  6. Very explicitly, this assumes that the machinations of corporate consulting can be directly applied to an academic institution. I do have specific issues with there being a university COO or CEO, the main being that we, by default, are then tuned to thinking of a university to be run in a corporate fashion.

Tony says an important thing about ways to control costs. He says one of the ways is to transfer work to the students. I am not sure what that really means. If it means students using mobile devices to collect data or conduct interviews, how is it a transfer of work? If it means that teachers can use technology to cut down time spent on monitoring these activities, it is still not transferring work. Institutions do not give up the power to grade students even if they allow students to self-organize or collaborate on activities.

The second way is to use OER. While there is much hype about the OER phenomenon, how many open courses can really be used effectively (and I have raised this question before) by a teacher for her class? A senior university leader once told me that the content being produced by the premier institutes in India (the IITs – Indian Institutes of Technology) were of a quality not suited (read: too complex) for students to really understand outside the IIT-context. While writing on Can eLearning really scale?, I asked similar questions. While selecting pedagogies and instructional design methods, what is the danger of resurrecting what obviously has not worked so far in online learning? I see many examples of institutions taking a course online, but is there a way to measure how good that really is? And Tony makes a point for scale, when talks about the Socratic myth.

By focusing on pre-service training, Tony has hit an extremely important nerve center. I have a basic objection to the notion of pre-service, but that notwithstanding, I have made two points in the past. One, that our teachers usually go in without a clear understanding of what teaching really is (particularly at the HE level) with the focus being on academic achievement. Two, that even where there is a formal education degree, the same system is responsible for teaching teachers to think differently – our teachers are a product of the same system that they need to overturn or substantially reform (a point that Tony himself made). Such are the travails of this kind of structure. Tony also make an important case for training of educational administrators, equipping them with the necessary skills to make necessary decisions.

So the ultimate questions are (for this MOOCWeek):

  • Can universities or colleges change from within, or do we need new institutions for 21st century learning?
  • What would reformed or new universities/colleges look like?

Stephen asked a telling question – how would it work for MOOCs – something outside the context of the institution. Tony responded with the user choice of wanting accreditation – an alternative could be ePortfolios and employers educated to understand the value of these ePortfolios. Which strikes really at the heart of the entire debate on assessment/accreditation/competency that started with CCK. Stephen pressed on by asking if formal degrees could be awarded by institutions on the basis of MOOC experience. But isn’t asking the same structure to validate a MOOC a little strange in the first place?

I think, these are wonderful questions to be thought about today. There may not be a single answer (in fact, there won’t be a one size fits all solution), but we should focus a lot of thinking here. My belief is that we are near an inflection point, not there yet. So, thanks to Tony, for a real interesting presentation and discussion!