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Higher Education


A personal online learning story

It was a sad day for me yesterday. I decided to withdraw from a professional doctorate in higher education after about 8 weeks. I started a tradtional PhD a while ago, but withdrew from that because of a whole range of factors, best left to the past. So, I was excited to finally make the decision to enrol in an online professional doctorate. Apart from the academic content, I wanted to reflect on what it was like to be a student in an online program as I was studying online. I knew I'd be reflecting on the course content, and I also wanted to reflect on those reflections.  I started a blog to record those reflections, and to post what I was doing on the course.

I like online learning - my first experience was the first year of the Masters in Strategic Foresight at Swinburne University of Technology. Facilitated by Jenny Gidley, this was my  most intense learning experience ever, and it changed my life in a number of ways. I decided to divert my career from university management (where I'd spent the previous 28 years working my way up the ladder) to the futures/foresight field, and started planning for that. I realised the value of my voice in the online discussions and conversation (I loved the conversations), and started to realise I might no longer be afflicted by the imposter syndrome! I learned how to really reflect on my assumptions that underpinned my worldview, and as I said to someone at the time, "I know I think differently now, but I can't tell you how..." I didn't meet any of these people until the end of the year, yet I did feel like I knew them all as friends, and some of us are still in touch.

Fast forward about 7 years later and my current enrolment. Since this was a doctoral program, I had high expectations for the conversation and intellectual debate. I knew I had some coursework to do before getting on to the thesis, and that I would be working with a learning team.  That was all good. And the people involved in running this program are fantastic. I've only been doing the program for about 8 weeks. Now, why would I want to withdraw?

  • The conversation takes place on Blackboard (just like the Swinburne course). We post a response to a question, and then have to make 3-5 responses to the postings from our fellow students. There are guidelines for making the responses, down to suggested phrasing. Make more than 5 responses though, and you might be seen as dominating the discussion (as I found out).
  • You have to reference the set readings in your response as a way of proving that you have read the material - even if you don't want to use that reading in your response.
  • When I suggested we might use social media as a way for our learning team to work together in real time, we were told to be careful since all the tools we needed were provided on Blackboard, which is true, but...
  • I guess I should have twigged when I read one of the early reference materials about research sources which said, more or less, that unless it was google scholar, electronic sources were a bit dubious and that Wikipedia has no value at all, as it's terribly subjective;
  • Working in groups is just not my favourite way of learning, and this applies to online and face-to-face contexts.

A core element of this program is reflecting and writing a learning log. I have learned the difference between reflexive and reflective which seem to often be used interchangeably in the literature. Being reflexive, I realise now, is about taking a kind of third person view on my first person writing, and thinking that reminded me of this exact process that we used in the Integral Futures subject at Swinburne. While I was doing a lot of reflection on these issues in my learning log - that is, describing them and how I was reacting to them - I realised this week that I also needed to be reflexive about them. Why was I reacting to these issues as strongly as I was? What was going on in there in my consciousness that was causing me such grief? This has been uncomfortable and my brain has hurt this week - a lot. I've realised there's a few issues here for me. One is trust. The other is structure. And finally conversation.

Trust surely underpins the learning relationship between teacher and student, particularly at doctoral level? Trusting that people have read the material and absorbed it. Trusting that if people make 1 response one week, they will probably make 5 the next week. Trusting them to take responsibility for their learning, and to support them in that process, not police them. And, why can't we operate outside the confines of Blackboard? What is there to fear with that? I asked for some help to sort through all this on the Twitter #phdchat, a group of doctoral students who share their learning experiences - it's a really active chat and immediately I had two offers of help. We've been in touch via email, and some of my issues have been clarified through that interaction.

Structure is an interesting thing, isn't it? I chose this course because it was online and structured, and I knew I needed structure if I was going to work on it consistently while running my own business. The program is structured around action research principles I am told, which means the group work is core, which is fine. Any learning environment needs a structure, but it's how the learning is facilitated in that structure that makes the difference. The facilitator is key - and the ones I have worked with on my current course are great, obviously know their stuff and operate at a high level intellectually. But they too have to work within the structure, and spend probably too much time maintaining that structure. I was told that the course is what is is, and I need to work out how to adapt to the structure and the rules - which was interesting, because I think it might be the first time I've ever been told that; I'm usually the one trying to make others work within the structure we have. And, I now realise, I don't like the rules so I won't adapt.

Conversation happens in lots of way - in a classroom and online, in formal and informal settings, but it needs to happen and it needs to flow. My benchmark for conversation stems from working with Joe Voros at Swinburne - we had flowing conversation, and when he left to be an academic, I realised that's what I missed most - his brain :)  and those occasions when we would just talk about the future and foresight and how to engage Swinburne staff. Working so rigidly to a one post, 3-5 discussion responses, learning team work, and nothing else is constraining in terms of the conversation, and doesn't really allow my synapses to fire. It's those wonderful open ended conversations on a topic that seem to go all over the place that energise me, not the 3-5 responses approach.

Taken alone, this course is a good one. For me though, it seems to be underpinned by a traditional 'control' approach to learning and a 'sage on stage' delivery. Even though they say the learning emerges from the group, the learning is constrained by particular topics delivered in a particular way. No deviation allowed (particularly in using Turnitin and APA style!).   This, as Stuart Lee * says is because learning management systems like Blackboard tend to be "controlled, managed, restricted and channeled", and that delivery choices have a lot to do with the pedagogical practices of the university. I do recognise this, but I also know now, it's not how I want to learn.

My Swinburne experience felt open and collaborative and trusting, with intense conversation.  We could suggest things and ways of working together that weren't on the original plan. I realise now I felt like I was collaborating and helping to shape my learning experience. I never felt like I was being controlled even though there was structure - I knew how I had to participate and by when, and due dates to submit work.  In my current course, I felt controlled, with no opportunity to shape my learning process, and two years of this process simply terrified me. I realise now my expectations for the course were probably wrong. Maybe I'm wrong in using the Swinburne experience as my online learning benchmark because maybe it just can't be repeated?  Maybe it's just the wrong course for me. Maybe I'm just being totally unreasonable.

What this experience has taught me, however, is that online programs need to treat doctoral students as partners in the learning process (see Tapscott and Williams* on collaborative learning), that delivery structures shouldn't be viewed as fixed, but able to be shaped depending on the particular cohort, and that meaningful conversation can't be structured, it needs to flow. The degree to which a university is willing to embrace the uncertainty that comes from an 'open' learning management system, and allowing learners into the learning and delivery process, drive decisions around these issues, and ultimately, of course, these sorts of decisions depend on the way people in the university think about learning and how it should be delivered. But that's a topic for another post.

See also Steve Wheeler's post on Conversation as Curriulum:


*Lee, S. (2008). The gates are shut.  In  Iiyoshi, T. & Vijay Kumar, M.S., Opening up education: The collective advancement of education through open technology, open content, and open knowledge (pp. 47-59).Cambridge, MA, MIT Press.
Tapscott, D., & Williams, A.D. Innovating the 21st century learner: It's time. (2010). Educause Review, 45(1), 16-19.
(I did learn a new skill - citing using APA style!)



Four Trends Driving Higher Education Futures

This post is the first of a series of five on higher education futures. It’s based on the presentation I made to the Tertiary Education Management Conference in Melbourne in October, 2010, which I’ve embedded at the end of this post. What will our higher education institutions and the work they do ‘look’ like in the future?  The world changes quickly, in ways that we can’t really imagine today, and our strategy must be designed to be futures ready – to be ready for many possible futures. So, what can we do today to shape that future and be ready for it?

To think in a meaningful way about the future of higher education, though, we must first activate our foresight capacity. Unless we activate that capacity, all our planning about the future will be based on what we know about the past and the present, which is well…dangerous, given the amount of change we see and feel all around us.In our societies and organisations today, we tend to work within existing paradigms and tweak them to make them better and more efficient.  Think quality improvement and benchmarking. If the future is going to be nothing like today, then the current paradigm won’t be good enough.  We need to start building a new paradigm today, one that takes the uncertainty of the future, and uses it to understand what our options are.

There are no future facts however, and so in our data driven organisations today, seemingly obsessed with benchmarking, quantitative analysis and data driven decision making at the expense of all else, the future is not worth spending time on because we can’t quantify it. Particularly since all we have are images and ideas about the future, underpinned by our assumptions about how we think the world works now, and will work into the future. And images aren’t real, are they? Images we hold about the future don’t shape our actions today, do they?

The first step in coming to understand four trends shaping the future of higher education, is to challenge your assumptions about what’s possible and how you think your organisation will operate into the future. It  won’t be business as usual and it won’t look anything like today. We need to surface and share our images of the future to start a strategic conversation about what is possible, and what is unlikely.

Spending time today exploring the shape and form of the future is important if we want to avoid looking like this – when all our best laid plans based on today’s paradigm fall apart when they collide with the future.

There are many possible futures for higher education but no one can predict the future, except by luck.  No one. But we can understand the shape of possible futures, and this activity – thinking about alternative futures – needs to be a pre-requisite for strategy development – right now!

There are many drivers of change out there affecting the future higher education, and you are all living the impact of these every day in your work:

  • globalisation,
  • demographics,
  • technology,
  • the need to green,
  • knowledge economy,
  • consumer trends, and
  • work.

We’ll explore four major trends emerging from these drivers in the next posts:

customising & personalising technology that enables
openness and collaboration ways of working

In the meantime, you can view the entire presentation now, and I’d welcome your feedback about this important topic for anyone working in higher education today, so comment away!

View more presentations from Maree Conway.





Why declining international student numbers may not be a bad thing

I read the latest report on declining international student numbers  in The Australian this week. Institutions and groups are responding by saying that new government visa regulations "threaten to disrail the industry".  The assumption here is that the industry is a given and must be protected, mainly because it is an income earner for institutions - and given declining government funding over time, the institutions need that income. All true, but the assumptions underpinning the existence of the industry need to be tested now. When decisions were being made about strategy to attract international students to Australia in the late 1980s and early 1990s, I wonder if anyone asked what would happen if the government changed its regulations surrounding the entry of those students to Australia over time?  I remember listening to a manager talk about his first trip overseas to recruit and marvelling at the opportunity to make easy money for the institution, and that we needed to exploit this quickly for as much as we could get. I remember saying to a Deputy Vice-Chancellor in a different institution in the late 1990s when projections of long term international student numbers were published, 'what if they are wrong?' - and being greeted with a look of such disbelief and a comment along the lines of that was unlikely to happen, and we'd deal with it if it eventuated.

As it turned out, the projections were wrong and institutions are now dealing with the implications of their faith in those numbers to the exclusion of other possible system changes.  Like all projections, a linear extrapolation of one system variable based on today's circumstances, even when adjusted for what we know might change, are usually always doomed. The impact of what we know might change is insignificant when compared to the impact of what we don't know we don't know.  And it's what we don't know that will always "derail industries".

Betting the farm on the assumption that the Australian government wouldn't change visa regulations in a way that would harm the international student industry was both short sighted and akin to burying your head in the sand. This decline wasn't an unknown, it wasn't a black swan; it was a real possibility that was ignored by institutional policy makers over the years because they needed the money, and they assumed the government wouldn't do anything to harm that income stream. While one can't really blame them given the difficult funding circumstances in which they were operating, it may be time to move on now.

So, what might be done?  Instead of spending time and energy trying to get the government to change its mind, the decline in student numbers can be viewed as an opportunity to re-think the industry, and take a different approach that might be more robust and less dependent on government regulation. Rather than protecting turf, how might the industry be adapted and developed to respond to declining numbers? Rather than trying to maintain the status quo in the face of changing government regulations, how can policy makers work collaboratively to develop a new paradigm for international students in Australia? Most importantly, how can the industry be re-designed to be less dependent on growth into the future? None of the alternatives are simple or easy, so much so it seems that fighting the government to change their visa regulations is probably seen as an easier task.  That's because fighting the government doesn't require you to change the way you think, or to challenge the assumptions that inform that thinking, no matter how tenuous that thinking is becoming. It's always easier to protect current investment rather than develop new options.

These comments are, of course, easy to make in hindsight. It's easy to say that institutions should have seen this coming, and that if there was no challenging of assumptions when the industry emerged, it's probably an outcome that was inevitable. We know that the value of using a strategic foresight approach to strategy development is only really clear in hindsight. And in the face of the need to earn money in the short term, spending time thinking about what might happen in the long term is usually viewed by institutions and strategy makers see it as a waste of time - because if you can't quantify an return on investment in thinking about the future, then it's not a valuable activity. But, one can only reflect on whether, if some time had been spent on asking 'what if' questions a decade or so ago, the outcome might have been different. I think it might have have been - at least in terms of degrees of possible impact.

If you make strategic decisions without doing some serious  thinking about possible and plausible future operating environments and what might change over the long term, before you bet the farm on a strategy like continuing growth in international student numbers, then you'll end up looking like this when the future hits you in the face unawares. It's a look that's easily avoided if you integrate strategic foresight approaches into your strategy development and implementation. If you choose not to think seriously about the future in your strategy context today, then you do get the outcome you deserve.



Leadership in Academic and Administrative Roles

I have just been to the Association of University Administrators Conference at the University of Warwick where there was much discussion about changing academic and administrative roles in universities and higher education.  The discussion about terminology for administrators is continuing, largely based at the conference about professionalism and the need to change the phrase used to describe those staff who don't have roles that are primarily about teaching or research. 'Professional staff' seems to be gaining acceptance in Australia, and I heard the term 'professional services staff' often at the conference. Right now, however, the term 'non-academic' is most often used in formal structures and systems by government and institutions. And, despite the efforts of many, governments, institutions and those who think administrators should be seen and not heard have resisted calls for change, largely by ignoring them.  I think the momentum is building so they may not be able to ignore the call for change for much longer. As I left the Conference, I picked up Engage, the magazine from the UK Leadership Foundation, and read an article by Tom Kennie, Academic Leadership: dimensions and dynamics.  It's a good article, highlighting six key dimensions of academic leadership:

  • credibility - personal, peer, positional, political,
  • curiosity - challenge, creativity,
  • collegiality - team, discipline, academic unit, profession, institution,
  • capabilities - horizon scanning, sense-making, performing, connecting, celebrating,
  • character - integrity, resilience, distinctiveness, and
  • confidence - inner, outer.

I like the model, but as I was reading about it, I wondered why this is a model of ACADEMIC leadership?  Why not a model of university leadership?  Would a model of leadership developed by professional administrative staff look any different?  I think not.

Getting our brains to recognise that leading the university into the future will require the talents of all staff to be tapped, no matter what their background, is probably one of the biggest challenges in the sector today.  Alongside how to deal with declining funding, increasing globalisation and the impact of technology on universities, we need to be thinking strategically about how to shift our mental models about how universities are managed and led.

The historical and now clearly out-dated view that only an academic staff member can manage and lead a university is holding these institutions back. We must stop trying to define academic and administrative leadership in different ways, and open our minds to the idea of a leadership model that applies to all staff.  And, we need to get beyond the corporate managerialist hold on the thinking of some people about how universities are governed and led (see this article in the latest issue of  Times Higher Education which has fallen prey to the 'administrator as evil' myth) if we are to be able to build a new paradigm of university leadership that will sustain these institutions into the future.



Higher Education Futures: are we ready for the challenge?

There is much written about how learning will need to be delivered into the future - that online delivery will move to a new level and that the way we develop and run courses will move from a content driven to a facilitation driven approach, and that the role of academic staff will change accordingly. I've been doing some work on how universities in particular are managed today, and the shifting nature of the relationship between academic and administrative/professional staff - it's clear to me from this research (submitted for publication) that we have to change the way we perceive how universities need to be managed, if we are to start to shape the new paradigm we are going to need if universities are to continue to be relevant learning organisations in the future.

Add that all together with conversations I have had lately with people 'on the ground' in universities who talk about silos, hierarchies, ineffective communication, ego driven decision making, and of course, lack of resources. I still see and hear people trying to hang on to the idea of a university that is no longer relevant, rather than pushing the boundaries of their comfort zones to see what's possible.

While, of course, not everyone who works in or manages or leads a university has a mindset stuck in old paradigms, there is still a disconnect between what we know about the possible and likely impacts of global trends and drivers of change on higher education and how we structure and run our universities.

Below are just a few trends that are starting to exert their influence today, and which we need to be thinking about how to respond to now, instead of just talking about them.

Re-learning your Career An increasing focus on re-training and re-skilling of existing workers and more generally, mature age learners (eg career changers, semi-retired folks). This trend is being driven by an increasing competition for talent and the increasingly mobile global workforce.  People just don't stay with organisations as long as they used to, competition for good staff is increasing, and retaining and training the people already on staff is big business, and will probably get even bigger. Changing Workplace and Job Design The need to design jobs and workplaces to suit new generations of workers - not only GenY who are entering the workforce, now, but subsequent generations as well.  This trend is being driven by the apparent different values held by GenY, particularly around liveability, work/life balance and concern about environmental impact. Industry reports that there is increasing demand for working hours and employees are looking for organisations that take social responsibility seriously.

Students as Designers of their Student Experience This trend is all about students designing/customising their student experience - what they learn, how they learn it, when and where they choose to learn. It's being driven by consumer trends and an increasingly strongly view of education as a commodity that, like all other 'products' and services, can and should be tailored and customised to suit user needs. This will require nimble organisations to be able to respond to the needs of particular student segments in a timely way. Industry reports on the need to provide flexible delivery options for training, and the growth in workplace training, the ability to be able to move in and out and up and down qualification frameworks and an ever increasing focus on student needs and service standards.

Co-Creation of Content Web 2.0 or social media technologies have facilitated the ability of users to create their own web content; increasingly companies are co-creating products with consumers, and the logical extension of this is that students will become co-creators of their curriculum.  The trend is being driven by the expectation that users will be involved in their learning decisions - no only about which course to choose but which content matters to them. Institutions will need to provide information and support about career development in particular industries, related knowledge and skills and how students can design a course that provides these requirements. Industry reports that they need to be able to tailor curriculum needs to their needs by co-creating that curriculum with universities.

If we can't change the way we think about how universities need to be run and managed, we don't have much change of being able to respond to these sort of trends in a proactive way.  Albert Einstein's often cited comment that we can't solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them' remains true, particularly because what seems reasonable today will probably not be reasonable in to the future. I'm not sure that the higher education sector isn't still stuck in the rhetoric of change, and won't move beyond that until mindsets about what a university is and what it does start to shift to take account of what's really happening beyond the university walls.