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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.




Imposing Assumptions on Learning

I came across this today in a story about a new book on What Ever Happened to the Faculty? Drift and Decision in Higher Education by Mary Burgen. While I'll admit up front that I haven't read the book yet, the following quote triggered my thinking: "But the hype for distance ed ignores the essential social contract involved in the teaching/learning exchange as enacted in live settings. Most cultures have viewed such an exchange as a sacred, communal duty — one that involves socialization as well as the intake of information." (

I studied my Graduate Certificate in Strategic Foresight at Swinburne University of Technology totally on-line, and then did my Graduate Diploma year in a traditional classroom. I was so disappointed with the quality of my experience in the second year that I complained often to the lecturers about the comparison with my first year experience online. I do not think I have ever had such an intense, productive learning experience as I had in that one year course. The quote above suggests that the only 'good' learning is face to face, and I have to say after my experience that this view is outmoded.

The social interaction we students had in our online course was structured and managed by our course convenor who is one of the most inspirational teachers I have ever had. She challenged me to be intellectually strong and to test myself and my ideas, and she worked hard to develop a learning community that was so strong that it endures today, two years after that part of the course finished.

The argument that we will need to maintain face to face learning into the future needs to be tested against the changing communication and learning styles of our children today. MSN and similar online communications keep our children in touch with each other just as I might have used the telephone when I was a teenager. Children today learn about group work and task achievement through their MMORPG (massive multiplayer online role playing games). They learn about tolerance of diversity and difference through these games as well as they interact with people from all over the world. Why is this sort of experience less of a learning experience than what they learn in classrooms at school during the day?

Learning is such a personal thing that blanket quotes like the one from Burgen's book are probably dangerous. It is the assumption thing again - just because one assumes that learning can only be well done in a face to face setting doesn't mean that it will always be so. A good lecturer can inspire and generate good learning in any environment. It is time that we stopped imposing our assumptions on the learning environment, and learned how to be a bit more open to different learning styles and preferences. Maybe the faculty of today need stop focusing on how they have been cut out of management decision making, and instead focus on how they can engage with learners of the future?