There is a collective open blogging project in the learning technology professional network in the UK. I would like to contribute my thoughts on change and transformation. I’ve written this quickly, without links and proofreading and I may revise it.

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Change and Transformation

We are at a point on the UK HE sector maturity curve where there is a groundswell of predictions that we’re about to be disrupted. FE probably went through this pain a decade ago, so this is a more HE specific post. I work in a Russell Group University so this probably reflects that too. I can’t claim to speak in universals. But for what it’s worth, here are my reflections on what change and transformation feel like.

I am in a position of power in my institution, at the intersect of IT and academic development. I have the authority to initiate workstreams and projects. I participate in professional networks and try to keep myself briefed on new approaches.

I could write you a lovely vision piece on what a HE education should look like in 2030 and the role that technology could play.

But that’s not my job. My job is to understand where we are now (A) and to derive from institutional priorities where we are aiming to be (B). The hardest thing is not describing the destination but working out how to get from A to B.

How to get there requires delicate footwork between the solutions supply side and the requirements demand side. IT has to be robust, so we should value caution, and we should consider sustainability and scale. Academic practice development is personal and needs to be nurtured, that needs space and time and fresh air.

Sometimes innovation is not transferred or scaled because we have grown orchids in greenhouses. The orchid can’t be replanted. I accept the need for orchids but we can’t grow fields of orchids. Boutique practices, for highly motivated and skilled staff, with small cohorts of students who are highly engaged in their learning: go for it. For many academics that is not possible. They have big groups, reluctant learners, and little time for developing their own skills. They are the early and late majority, and they need and our help more than the orchid growers.

I have to decide what my team’s priorities should be, and how we should respond to emerging practices:

  • Watching brief
  • Stay neutral
  • Intervene if we think it’s an unhelpful approach
  • Endorse and amplify if we think it’s a good approach
  • Encourage cost/benefit analysis
  • Try not to be defensive about the limitations of our own tools
  • Provide hands-on support
  • Support replication of practices by describing and promoting
  • Scope technical provision to better support practices
  • ….

These are just some of the tactical decisions we make every week. Some academics might think we’re slow to respond, or slow to provide the technology they want, but we’re trying to weigh all this up.

This all sounds quite defensive and defeatist.

But actually we have made huge progress this way at my institution. We’ve gone from no central VLE to a trusted shared platform in under seven years. That might sound like a long time but it’s been organic, recognising each department has its own trajectory. We’ve gone from DIY, high overhead policy-less lecture recording to a central service in the same timeframe. It’s slower for being opt-in but I think it’s better that way. We have students onside and I think my team is seen as helpers rather than police.

One of the lessons I’ve learnt is that supplying projects/strategies/solutions ahead of need is a frustrating and pointless task. Here are a range of lessons learnt, with weird analogies thrown in for free:

  • There’s the Dead Bird problem. Our open educational resource repository withered because there wasn’t enough demand. It’s not enough to want to supply it, there has to be demand.
  • The shiny output problem: some projects can have a very strong pull from a senior champion who wants something to happen but is hoping if we build it, the rest of the university will come. They don’t come.
  • The sustainability problem: I have been a metaphorical midwife to babies I had believed would be raised by others, then have been left holding the baby.

In other words, change is hard. It isn’t just thinking up future states but getting there. Often on choppy seas, with makeshift boats.

And more: often we need a flotilla of boats, a loose coalition of learning technologists, staff developers, systems managers, academic skills advisors, administrators and quality managers. “Head east!” We have different style of boats and different types of crews, and different reasons for our voyages. Travelling together slows some of us down, but also creates a tailwind for others. I did warn you about dodgy metaphors.

Transformation

It sounds so shiny and hard and clean. It sounds metal and futuristic. But real transformation has an organic feel: real roots and dirty soil, the sweat from hard work. It’s messy.

Digital transformation isn’t an end point, it’s a process. It is challenging conversations and difficult decisions and change in parts of the organisation that have been ignored. It’s listening to the naysayer and learning what hasn’t worked before and why. It isn’t assuming that something is missing because no one thought of it: it is finding out why something is missing.

I’m working on accessibility strategy at the moment and it’s messy, it’s a long to do list and no dedicated resource. Yet there are lots us trying to make progress. It’s fertile ground that needs watering with attention. When we come out of the map-making and plan-writing fog it will seem obvious looking back, why we did what we did.

I have to have faith in that, I’ve entered into the messiness so many times in my career, and I’ve come out the other side with progress.

In summary …

Change and transformation are hard, and messy, and organic. Sometimes it’s only looking back that you can appreciate what you achieved.

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