Tag: education

education & learning

Much Ado About MOOC

Leading? Learning? Both? Neither?

It’s fair to imagine that one of the 2013 ‘words of the year‘ will be MOOC (which is not really a word, but an acronym that stands for Massive Open Online Course). It seems that everywhere you look in the higher education and professional development space we are seeing MOOC’s talked about and debated.

HBR editor Eric Hellwig, writing for the HBR blog, reported on a recent panel on MOOC’s held at the recent World Economic Forum in Davos with leaders like Bill Gates, Peter Thiel and Larry Summers. His report reflects the exuberance of the MOOC and the techno-deterministic spirit of much of the discourse on these tools:

The advent of massively open online classes (MOOCs) is the single most important technological development of the millennium so far. I say this for two main reasons. First, for the enormously transformative impact MOOCs can have on literally billions of people in the world. Second, for the equally disruptive effect MOOCs will inevitably have on the global education industry.

One of the panelists was Stanford professor Daphne Coller, the co-founder of Coursera, one of the largest MOOC providers offering more than 200 courses to millions of students worldwide. Coller has convinced top faculty at leading universities to provide high quality digital courses through Coursera for free and the result has surprised her.

We’re at 2.4 million students now. The biggest lesson I’ve learned on this is I underestimated the amount of impact this would have around the world. I really didn’t envision this scale and this impact this quickly.

Disrupting Education

Of these panelists, Peter Thiel may be the most controversial. He has spoken at length about the need to revamp education and sees technology and platforms like Facebook as a means to do it. (It’s worth noting that Theil was also an early investor in Facebook). He points to the multiple roles that education plays well beyond learning and suggests that when we go beyond that goal we start creating false economies of value within higher education:

You have to ask yourself, ‘What is the nature of education as a good?’ Ideally you want it to be learning. But it also functions as insurance. Parents will pay a lot of money for insurance against cracks in our society. Education as insurance has something to be said because it connects to the economy. You know computer science, you can get a job. But education also functions as a tournament. You do well if you go to a top school but for everyone else the diploma is a dunce hat in disguise. People need to understand what they’re trying to do? Is it insurance? A tournament? Learning?

Among Thiel’s biggest concerns is with the current educational system’s ability to support the kind of innovative thinking needed to make technological and scientific breakthroughs. So steadfast is he in the belief that some of the best minds are rotting in traditional classrooms that he founded the Thiel Fellowship, a scholarship fund to support promising young entrepreneurs in dropping out of school to pursue their ambitions of making social impact.

Thiel is disrupting education by taking learning away from the educational institutions charged with providing it. MOOC providers are seeking to develop a business model that puts them in the drivers seat of education and learning, drawing potential revenues away from traditional educational institutions. This will no doubt add to the pressures that universities and colleges are already facing as they rationalize ever more of what they do.

Education For All, Learning For Whom?

Free online learning of the calibre provided by Stanford University, Caltech, Harvard University, University of Toronto, MIT, and the Santa Fe Institute  for anyone, anywhere sounds like a dream come true.

In some ways it is. In others, it’s an illusion.

This comes back to the metrics we use in evaluating the impact of education and asking what its point is in the first place. What do we mean by learning and are we serious about it?

It’s been suggested that less than 10 per cent of those enrolled in a MOOC complete it. And of this 10 per cent, it isn’t clear what they learn, how well they learn it, and what kind of application (if any) that content is made to issues away from the course. Online courses with video tutorials, self-organized learning and largely uni-directional teaching bring together the best of former teaching methods like instructional TV, self-help, and classroom lectures.

The problem is that this ‘best’ isn’t particularly effective. A 2000 meta-analysis of distance instructional methods found:

There does not appear to be a difference in achievement between distance and traditional learners. Of the ten instructional features that were analyzed, only three had an impact on student achievement. These three features were type of interaction available during a broadcast, type of course, and type of remote site. There was an insufficient number of studies to ascertain whether or not the education level of the distance learners effected their achievement in the course (Machtmes & Asher, 2000).

While this review was done before widespread Internet use, the methods included reflected the same list above with one- or two-way audio and video. The studies were also done on programs that were designed for credit, not voluntary non-credit courses. Research on motivation will show that optional programs are far less likely to engender behavioural shifts than those that are mandated.

So who then is benefitting from MOOC’s? We don’t yet know, but it is likely those with time to attend to the content, high levels of intrinsic motivation (< PDF), the technological tools to succeed, and the environment that is ready to support integration of content into practice. That’s a tall order.

We are in the early days of MOOC’s and its too soon to tell how successful they will be. However, theoretically there is relatively little reason to expect that they will produce the kind of results worthy of hyperbole — at east not with those already accustomed to alternatives. To offer a MOOC from a world-class university to a learner somewhere in the world where education is but a distant dream achieves a great deal. But to transfer MOOC’s to replace more interactive and engaging methods — usually face-to-face — and expect great learning is a bit implausible.

Yet, with what we are offering now to students in the form of large classes, disconnected curricula, and didactic instruction MOOC’s offer an attractive option. What it loses is the experience of learning that is not packaged in a class. This means a change to campus life, the informal and serendipitous learning that comes from being in the same physical space interacting with each other, and may seriously limit the use of thinking and creative tools that design thinking and applied creativity demand. (for a detailed look at MOOC’s and the modern university check out Nathan Harden’s essay in the American Interest).

There is much ado about MOOC’s, but is this a Shakespearian tragedy in the making for learners?

Photo credit: iStockPhoto used under license.

education & learning

The Quality Metric in Education

Image

What goes on the pedestal of learning?

What is quality when we speak of learning? In this third post in series on education and evaluation metrics the issue of quality is within graduate and professional education is explored with more questions than answers about the very nature of learning itself.

But what does learning really mean and do we set the system up to adequately assess whether people do it or not and whether that has any positive impact on what they do in their practice.

What do you mean when you say learning?

The late psychologist Seymour Sarason asked the above question with the aim of provoking discussion and reflection on the nature and possible outcomes of educational reform. Far from being glib, Sarason felt this question exposed the slippery nature of the concept of learning as used in the context of educational programming and policy. It’s a worthwhile question when considering the value of university and professional education programming. What do we mean when we say learners are learning?

The answer to this question exposes the assumptions behind the efforts to provide quality educational experiences to those we call learners. To be a learner one must learn…something.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines learning this way:

learning |ˈlərniNG|

noun

the acquisition of knowledge or skills through experience, practice, or study, or by being taught: these children experienced difficulties in learning | [ as modifier ] : an important learning process.

• knowledge acquired in this way: I liked to parade my learning in front of my sisters.

ORIGIN Old English leornung (see learn,-ing1) .

This might sufficiently answer Dr Sarason except there is no sense of what the content is or whether that content is appropriate, sufficient, timely or well-supported with evidence (research or practice-based); the quality of learning.

Knowledge translation professionals know that learning through evidence is not achieved through a one-size-fits-all approach and that the match between what professionals need and what is available is rarely clean and simple (if it was, there would be little need for KT). The very premise of knowledge translation is that content itself is not enough and that sometimes it requires another process to help people learn from it. This content is also about what Larry Green argues: practice-based evidence is needed to get better evidence-based practice.

How do we know when learning is the answer (and what are the questions)?

If our metric of success in education is that those who engage in educational programming learn, how do we know whether what they have learned is of good quality? How do we know what is learned is sufficient or appropriately timed? Who determines what is appropriate and how is that tested? These are all questions pertaining to learning and the answers to them depend greatly on context. Yet, if context matters then the next question might be: what is the scope of this context and how are its parameters set?

Some might choose academic discipline as the boundary condition. To take learning itself as an example, how might we know if learning is a psychology problem or a sociology problem (or something else)? If it is a problem for the field of psychology, when does it become educational psychology, cognitive psychology, community psychology or one of the other subdisciplines looking at the brain, behaviour, or social organization? Successful learning through all of these lenses means something very different across conditions.

Yet, consider the last time you completed some form of assessment on your learning. Did you get asked about the context in which that learning took place? When you were asked questions about what you learned on your post-learning assessment:

  • Did it take into account the learning context of delivery, reception, use, and possible ways to scaffold knowledge to other things?
  • Did your learner evaluation form ask how you intended to use the material taught? Did you have an answer for that and might that answer change over time?
  • Did it ask if your experience of the learning event matched what the teachers and organized expected you to gain and did you know what that really was?
  • Did you know at the time of completing the evaluation whether what you were exposed to was relevant to the problems you needed to solve or would need to solve in the future?
  • Did you get asked if you were interested in the material presented and did that even matter?
  • Was there an assumption that the material you were exposed to could only be thought of in one way and did you know what that way was prior to the experience? If you didn’t think of the material in the way that the instructors intended did you just prove that the first of these two questions is problematic?

Years of work in post-secondary teaching and continuing professional education suggests to me that your answer to these questions was most likely “no”, except the very last one.

These many questions are not posed to antagonize educators (or “learners”, too) for there are no single or right answers to any of them. Rather, these are intended to extend Seymour Sarason’s question to the present day and put in the context of graduate and professional education at a time when both areas are being rethought and rationalized.

Learning to innovate (and being wrong)

A problem with the way much of our graduate and professional education is set up is that it presumes to have the answers to what learning is and seeks to deliver the content that fills a gap in knowledge within a very narrow interpretation. This is based on an assumption that what was relevant in the past is both still appropriate now and will be in the future unless we are speaking of a history lesson. However, innovation and discovery — and indeed learning itself — is based on failure, discomfort and not knowing the answers as much as building on what has come before us. There is no doubt that a certain base level of knowledge is required to do most professional and scientific work and that building a core is important, but it is far from sufficient.

The learning systems we’ve created for ourselves are based on a factory model of education, not for addressing complexity or dynamic systems like we find in most social worlds. We do not have a complex adaptive learning system in place, one that supports innovation (and the failures that produce new learning) because:

If you’re not prepared to be wrong, you’ll never come up with anything original. – Sir Ken Robinson, TED Talk 2006

The above quote comes from education advocate Sir Ken Robinson in a humorous and poignant TED talk delivered in 2006 and then built on further in a second talk in 2010. Robinson lays bare the assumptions behind much of our educational system and how it is structured. He also exposes the problem we face in advancing innovation (my choice of term) because we have designed a system that actively seeks to discourage wide swaths of learning that could support it, particularly with the arts.

Robinson points to the conditions of interdisciplinary learning and creativity that emerge when we free ourselves of the factory model of learning that much of our education is set up, “producing” educated people. If we are assessing learning and we go outside of our traditional disciplines how can we assess whether what we teach is “learned” if we have no standard to compare it to? Therein lies the rub with the current models and metrics.

If we are to innovate and create the evidence to support it we need to be wrong. That means creating educational experiences that allow students to be wrong and have that be right. If that is the case, then it means building an education system that draws on the past, but also creates possibilities for new knowledge and learning anchored in experimentation and transcends disciplines when necessary. It also means asking questions about what it means to learn and what quality means in the context of this experimental learning process.

If education is to transform itself and base that transformation on any form of evidence then getting the right metrics to evaluate these changes is imperative and quality of education might just need to be one of them.

Image: Shutterstock

education & learningevaluationinnovationscience & technologysystems thinking

The Knowledge Metric in Education

EducationHead

Higher education is asking itself some big questions and making substantive changes to the way it sees itself and produces value for society. Education is increasingly being rationalized, which calls into question the metrics that are being used to judge how resources should be allocated. In a previous post, I looked at the jobs metric. Now, it’s time to look at the knowledge metric.

Just the facts

Education writer and teacher Will Richardson‘s TED Book Why School is a provocative read for those connected to teaching or just interested in schooling. While it focuses largely on grade school, the issues are the same for universities and colleges particularly as the primary and secondary students of today are tomorrow’s graduate and professional learners. Richardson questions the role of the school as institution in its current form suggesting that if the status quo — one characterized an information delivery warehouse — is maintained there is little need for schools to exist at all. Yet, if the education within schools is focused on asking better questions and learning when to apply knowledge, not just what knowledge to apply, there is hope.

The current trend in school reform is towards Common Core Standards, which emphasizes specific forms of knowledge, ‘facts’ and asks that students be able to recall such content when required. Under this model, the role of the teacher is one of content manager and facilitator rather than guide or mentor and students are prepped for the tests of their knowledge (memory) rather than be asked to demonstrate its application to anything outside of the test.  It is this model that many proponents of online education embrace, because the Internet is a fabulous content delivery system and education can be literally programmed and delivered to students directly without the ‘noise’ that teachers introduce to the signal. Under this model, educational content can be delivered cheaply and widely to support uniform intended effects among learners.

Richardson argues for reforming schools to something closer to the alternative model that was advanced by educational reformer and philosopher John Dewey. Richardson writes:

“In this version of reform, schools and classrooms are seen as nodes in a much larger learning network that expands far beyond local walls. Students are encouraged to connect with others, and to collaborate and create with them on a global scale. It’s not “do your own work,” so much as “do work with others, and make it work that matters.” To paraphrase Tony Wagner, assessments focus less on what students know, and more on what they can do with what they know. And, as Dewey espoused, school is “real life,” not simply a place to take courses, earn grades, amass credits, and compete against others for recognition. There lies the tension.

This second path is simply not as easy to quantify as the first. Developing creativity, persistence, and the skills for patient problem solving, B.S.-detecting, and collaborating may now be more important than knowing the key dates and battles of the Civil War (after all, those answers are just a few taps on our phones away), but they’re all much more difficult to assign a score to. I’m not saying that a foundation of content knowledge isn’t still important. To communicate, function, and reason in the world, students need effective reading and writing skills, as well as a solid foundation in math, science, history, and more. But I’m convinced we must revise the overreaching coursework requirements we place on students — requirements created at a time of scarcity, by the way. And we desperately need to revisit the thinking we’ve developed around assessment that, as Harvard researcher Justin Reich says, “optimizes the measurable at the risk of neglecting the immeasurable.””

Facts vs Problems

The knowledge metric is flawed because it assumes that content solves problems. It also presumes that the curriculum teaches the right knowledge for the right problems and that those problems can be known in advance. Let’s look at these.

One need only look to cigarette smoking as an example of how knowledge alone doesn’t always solve or prevent problems. One would be hard pressed to find anyone over the age of five who doesn’t know that sticking a lit tube of anything in their mouth and sucking on it isn’t at least somewhat unhealthy (and most know it is very unhealthy). An individual’s knowledge of smoking’s effects on physical health may not be complete, but it is often sufficient to inform the decision to quit or not start the unhealthy habit. And yet, citizens in highly educated countries like the United States, Canada and the U.K. smoke more than 1000 cigarettes per year per capita (and over 2700 per capita in places like Russia). These are not countries lacking in information on tobacco and health.

Using students’ ability to recall content makes the presumption that what is contained in a curriculum is what they need to know when they leave their program of study (at least as a start). While it may be somewhat true for students in the humanities and languages, it becomes highly problematic for those in dynamic fields or emergent areas of practice, which is becoming more normal than rare. There is no doubt that a corpus of key concepts, skills and ‘facts’ is useful, but the manner in which this knowledge can and may be applied is changing dramatically. For example, social media has upended communications in ways that very few health professionals are trained for. Journalists are particularly aware of the role that Twitter and related tools have had on their profession.

It also presumes that the content itself is relatively static. Certainly, curriculum renewal is something that most learning institutions engage in, but the primacy of content itself as the driver of education also assumes that the foundation for that knowledge is solid and can be applied today in the manner it was applied yesterday. In dynamic conditions, that isn’t often true. Further, the relevance of knowledge is framed by the problems to which that knowledge is applied. Genetic information, for example, can be incredibly useful when framed against tests that have high confidence, predictability and value to people, yet without such a context it is largely useless to those non-scientists who have it.

Areas of social innovation — which are expanding dramatically in number and scope — illustrate the problem of changing context well. This is a field characterized by problems, problem solving and novelty (which is what innovation is all about). Standard approaches don’t apply easily or at all when we are faced with high levels of novelty. Thinking and re-thinking the problem frame, knowing what to find, where to find it, and the skills to integrate relevant knowledge together is something that is not captured in the knowledge metric. Yet, it is those skills that will lead innovation. Knowledge translation professionals know this and so do knowledge brokers.

Are we designing our educational programming to advance on the kind of design issues of problem framing, finding and solving that our world is facing? Or are we simply taking content that can be obtained through books, the Internet and other materials, repackaging it and creating expensive warehouses of information that take learners out of the world and out of context in the process?

I don’t suggest that universities and continuing education programs stop delivering content, but if knowledge is the metric by which they are judging their success then it behooves educational administrators and funders to justify why they can do it better than other tools. What made sense when content was a rare commodity makes little today when it is overflowing in abundance for little or no cost. Universities and post-graduate training programs have an opportunity to re-imagine education and have the tools to do it in a way that makes learning more powerful and relevant for the 21st century should they choose to change their metrics of success.

Designing education

How might we take the enormous talent trust that exists among university faculty (and their students) who co-locate (physically, virtually or in some combination) in a school and develop the skills to not only address problems of today, but prepare everyone for possible challenges in the future?

How might we integrate what we know, identify the knowledge we need, and create systems to take advantage of the talent and creativity of individuals to make universities, colleges, and post-professional training venues for innovation and inspiration rather than just content delivery vehicles?

What kind of metrics do we need to evaluate this kind of education should we choose to develop it?

These are questions whose answers might yield more learning than those focused on what knowledge students have when they graduate.

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Image source: Shutterstock.

design thinkingeducation & learningevaluationinnovation

The Job Market Metric In Education

UniversityDoors

Post-secondary and continuing education is continuing to be rationalized in ways that are transforming the very foundation of the enterprise. Funding is a major driver of change in this field: how much is available, when it flows, where it comes from, what is funded, and who gets the funding are questions on the minds of those running the academy.

At the centre of the focus of this funding issue is the job market. Training qualified professionals for the job market in various forms has been one of the roles a university has played for more than a century. Now that role has become central.

Let’s consider what that means and what it could do in shaping the various possible futures of the university. This second in a series looking at the post-secondary and continuing education focuses on the metrics of jobs.

“What are all these people going do?”

The employability of graduates is now the holy grail of education industry statistics. Earlier this year I was sitting on the stage at an academic convocation with a senior colleague staring out at a sea of soon-to-be-graduates when he leaned over and asked the question quoted above. Staring at a sea of masters and doctoral graduates numbered in the hundreds and knowing that this ceremony was held twice per year, the question stuck and remains without an answer.

Maybe there were enough jobs for that cohort, but this process gets repeated twice each year at universities around the world and each year that I’ve been a professor those numbers (of graduates) seem to go up. Some of our programs in the health sciences are admitting three times the number of students than they were just ten years ago. There is much demand for education (as judged by departmental applications), but are there jobs demanding this kind of education in its current form?

Yes, the Baby Boom is moving into an age of retirement and increasing needs for health services, but do we need to graduate 80+ Physical or Occupational Therapists to meet this need this year? Do we need a few dozen more epidemiologists or health promotion specialists to add to the pool? How about psychologists or social workers: how many of those do we need? The answer from my colleagues in these fields is: We don’t know.

Chasing the Wind

Jobs are a red herring. It’s one thing to have a job, but is it the job that you trained for? (And is having that job even a reasonable goal?) Being employed is not the same as building a career. What if you were trained perfectly for a job that no longer existed? Imagine a Blacksmith in the 20th century or a Bloodletter. These questions are not asked, nor is much asked about quality of education relative to the pressures of recruitment, cost-cutting and educational rationalization. Most of us don’t know what quality education is in real terms because we are measuring it (if we are measuring anything at all besides jobs) by standards set for the jobs of the past, not the future (or even the present?).

“Skate where the puck is going, not where it’s been.” – Wayne Gretzky

Jobs are living things and very few in 2013 will resemble what they did even 10 years ago. The citizens of the developing world are entering this rapidly changing job market ready for change (See also McKinsey Global Institute report on future of work in advanced economies) because they don’t have the old ways to rely on. They are primed for change and if professional education is to meet the needs of a changing world, it needs to change too. It means getting serious about learning.

If education is rationalizing itself to focus more on jobs, then it also needs to get serious about clarifying what jobs mean, defining what ‘success’ looks like for a graduate, and whether those jobs are designed for where the proverbial puck is now or for where it is going.

Disruptive Learning / Disturbed Education

“The Only Thing That Is Constant Is Change -” ― Heraclitus

I’ve pointed out that learners have an uneasy relationship with learning principally because it means disrupting things. This is a topic I’ll  be covering in greater depth in a future post, but if one considers how our social, economic, and environmental systems are changing it is not unreasonable to call this the age of disruption .

Change in complex systems is often logarithmic, not linear. It may be massively punctuated like a Lévy Flight or it could be closer to a random walk. In environments with a change coefficient that is large the level of attention must be more fine-grained than 5-year reviews. It requires developmental evaluation methods and learning organizations, not just conventional approaches to generating and assessing feedback. It requires mindful attention and contemplative inquiry to guide a regular reflective practice if one is to pay attention to the subtleties in change that could have enormous impact.

For example, if journalists and news media waited every five years to assess the state of their profession, they would have missed out on Twitter and come late to blogging, two of their (now) powerful sources of competition and tools of the trade. Some have waited, which is why they are no longer around. Metrics for journalism education today might consider the amount of exposure and proficiency in social media use, digital photography, use of handheld tools for communication, and real-time reporting skills. Metrics of the past might focus on newspapers and radio broadcasting. Which mindset, skillset and toolset would you rather be trained in today?

Questions for educators, learners (and evaluators):

Whether health sciences, journalism, human services or any field, what might some questions be that can help determine the role of job training in professional education? Here are five starters:

1. What is the state of your profession right now and are you training people for existing in this state? Are you preparing people for the next evolution?

2. Where is your field of practice going? What are the possible futures for your profession in the next 5, 10, and 20 years? Will it still exist? Are you a blacksmith looking for more horses in the automobile age or Steve Jobs waiting to attract people to a new graphical user interface?

3. Is your mindset, skillset or toolset in need of re-consideration? Does it still do the job you’ve hired it to do?

4. What do people need that your skills can help with? What unfilled needs and expectations are there in the world that your mindset, skillset and toolset could solve?

5. What would happen if your field of practice disappeared? How else could you apply what you know to making the contribution you wish to make and earn a living? What other skills, tools and ways of thinking would you need to adapt?

Design thinking can greatly help shape the way that one conceives of a problem, works through possible options, and develops prototypes to address the needs of the present and the future. Foresight methods help lay additional context for design and systems thinking by providing ways to anticipate possible futures for any given field. Lastly, knowing what the state of things are now and how they got to where they are now can help determine the path dependencies that education may have fallen into.

We can’t change what we don’t see and better foresight, hindsight and present sight is critical to better ensuring that education outcomes are not imagined, but based on something that can actually improve learning.

education & learning

Rationalized Education and The Futures of the University

Hallowed Halls, Empty Promises?

Hallowed Halls, Empty Promises?

Next to the church, the university may be the most enduring formal institution in our society. And like nearly every institution from banking to manufacturing to healthcare and even the church, the university is facing a major disruption from social and technological change.

The church’s (simplified)  purpose is to provide a place of worship, communion and education on matters of faith and spiritual guidance.

The university is a place for preparing people to be better citizens, scientists or scholars, and professionals and to advance understanding of our world and universe.

Just as many question how well the church is realizing its purpose, so too are many questioning the university and how it is faring in its mission and purpose.

CENSEmaking returns to a discussion started last year with a requiem for the dream of a university no longer experienced by someone who aspired to serve within it. Following my advice to new scholars and attempts to peel back the curtain to show more about what university looks like for those outside it, it seems appropriate to revisit that discussion to explore the state of post-secondary education as another year passes.

This is the first in a series of upcoming posts looking at the future(s) of learning and professional education.

Rationalizing Education

Universities are rethinking things in a big way led by changes to the way they are funded. Quoting from a recent article in the Globe and Mail on the state of funding for Canadian universities:

Midsize Canadian universities are starting a new kind of cost-cutting exercise as they face the prospect of prolonged austerity and sustained pressure to show their graduates are succeeding.

Administrators have tended to slash budgets equally across the board, leaving it up to each dean and department to set targets inside their faculties. Now, Canadian schools are importing a movement from the United States in which economic hardship is viewed as an opportunity to refocus scarce dollars on faculties that deliver.

If we are to parse through this language, one will see it that points to a new way of evaluating the impact of the university and how it makes decisions about what to invest in:

“Instead of making decisions based on internal political factors or you-scratch-my-back-I’ll-scratch-yours, or whatever else has gone on in the past, it’s time for us to shift to a culture of evidence,” said Robert C. Dickeson, the U.S. consultant at the heart of the crusade against across-the-board cuts.

Ah, evidence. This powerful concept is the bedrock of science , has transformed the way medicine is practiced and is now being applied to the ‘business’ of education. In Canada, universities are now seeking data about its product to inform its strategic decisions. Some universities are doing more of this than others in applying some form of evidence to their policy and strategy to deal with current funding challenges:

The University of Guelph has gone furthest. Facing a $32-million shortfall over the next four years, Guelph’s leaders hired Dr. Dickeson for help after an invitation to a workshop he runs landed in provost Maureen Mancuso’s inbox. He was on hand at a Guelph University town-hall meeting in late November where president Alastair Summerlee laid out the challenge: rising costs, flat government funding and capped tuition, combined with a shortage of space to keep boosting enrolment.

“People outside of our institutions are full of a rhetoric around ‘do we produce quality, a quality product?’” Dr. Summerlee told a crowd of about 300. “These things make a case for actually trying to prioritize what we’re doing. … We need to act now.”

The plan is Darwinian. Each of the university’s nearly 600 programs and services, from undergraduate biology to the parking office, has to complete a “program information report” answering 10 criteria, to be reviewed and ranked by a task force of faculty, staff and students.

Embedded in the middle of this quote is the line: ‘do we produce quality, a quality product?

I have been involved in academic governance and policy making for 20 years first as a student representative at the undergraduate and graduate level and later as a full-time faculty member. The timing of my post-secondary life coincided with the last major shift in educational funding and rationalization that began in the early 1990’s with the first introduction of student fees and the start of philanthropic named sponsorship in Canadian universities. Prior to this time, students tuition was all they paid to access services and get an eduction and buildings, faculties and facilities were named based on criteria that was not tied to specific donations.

Despite all of this, quality was rarely a term used explicitly to shape strategy.

Money Matters and Defining Quality

I have never — not once — witnessed a major decision made on the basis of educational quality when juxtaposed against financial concerns. I’ve been a student, trainee or faculty member at five different universities and a visiting or guest lecturer or examiner at many more institutions worldwide and never have I seen quality of education trump fiscal or logistical issues on matters of great significance. Sure, there are small decisions to include particular content into a course or program or invite/disinvite a particular speaker based on perceptions of quality , but no program I’ve known chose, for example, to limit recruitment or enrolment because there were not enough resources to give a quality experience to students.

So if universities are now being judged on quality, what does this mean in practice?

Is quality about jobs? If so, then are they the jobs that students want, the ones they get (which may not be the same thing), the ones that students are trained for, or the ones that the market produces?

Is quality about what gets taught, what gets learned, or what gets applied? If it is some combination, then in what measure?

Is quality about what the market asks for or what the world’s citizens and its ecosystem (including plants, animals and oceans) demand?

Is quality about training people for jobs and roles that have traditionally existed, exist now, or may emerge in the future?

Is quality about the canon, questioning the canon, or re-discovering or creating new canons? Or all of them?

These are some of the questions worth asking if we wish to understand what the futures of the university might be and whether any of those possible futures mean not existing at all. Stay tuned.

Photo University by martybell from Deviant Art.

design thinkingsystems sciencesystems thinking

Design Thinking: Thinkers, Science and Practice

The Thinker, Auguste Rodin

If to think and be aware of those thoughts (to think about thinking) is a defining feature of what it means to be human, why is it such a challenge to think about types of thinking? An answer to that question might help explain why design thinking is so difficult to translate into action and scholarship and why it continues to be the recipient of intense criticism and boosterism.

The other day a colleague reminded me of an essay on the demise of design thinking that I commented on in an earlier post. The post by William Storage adds further to the growing list of critiques of design thinking and ends this way:

In short, Design Thinking is hopelessly contaminated. There’s too much sleaze in the field. Let’s bury it and get back to basics like good design. Everyone already knows that solution-focus is as essential as problem-focus. Stop arguing the point. If good design doesn’t convince the world that design should be fully integrated into business and society, another over-caffeinated Design Thinking book isn’t likely to do so either.

Storage is right to argue that another book will not convince people of the merits of design or design thinking (which is different), but I can’t imagine it is just because of its merits. There appears to be something that troubles people with picking up metacognitive concepts.

Thinking about (Design) Thinking

Metacogntion is thinking about thinking and concepts like design thinking and systems thinking are, at their most basic, about the thought processes involved in contemplating systems or design. What commentators like Storage and Bruce Nussbaum are railing against is how this more sophisticated concept of design thinking (design metacognition if you will) has over time become synonymous at best, but a wholesale replacement at worst with a set of tools and creativity exercises.

Here we see the gap between the methods and their methodology.

Systems thinking, having had a few decades jump on design thinking seems to be faring better in that its common use is treated more as a metacognitive exercise than just a method, but only slightly. Why does adding thinking to something make it so difficult to communicate?

There is a reductionist push towards making thinking — design thinking, systems thinking, critical thinkingvisual thinking — into a discussion of methods and tools. The concern, not unfounded, is that concepts like design thinking are pitched as a set of very simple techniques to provoke innovation while being stripped of its genuine innovation potential and reflective capacity, ironically removing the “thinking” part of the approach.  These tools are manifest expressions of thinking and facilitators of it, but they are not thinking on its own.

The business and evidence of thinking

Maybe this is our fault for not putting ‘thinking’ into the development of these concepts from the start. For example, the field of design suffers greatly from a lack of scholarship and theory around its methods and approaches. Designers are a practical bunch and seek to create and build things over theorizing and submitting their own processes to research. There are notable exceptions to this of course, but overall it is safe to say given design’s pervasiveness in our world that we know relatively little about it.

Systems thinking (as it applies to human systems) is in a different position, almost an opposite position. Whereas design thinking has come from a long history of practice with little formal research supporting it, systems thinking has emerged largely from academia and has far less empirical support for its applications to social affairs.

Another issue is economic. The drive for innovation-led market advantages in many fields is pushing anything to support such activity — something design thinking can do — into high demand. Markets abhor vacuums so they get filled and early markets favour the swift and bold, not necessarily quality. As my doctoral advisor once told me when I was hesitating on publishing my research: “people remember the first, not necessarily the best“.

Thus, we have entire business enterprises founded on teaching people design thinking without much depth in the processes they use or intellectual foundations to support their work. They are out there in spades and contributing to the reasoned distrust, frustration, and dislike of design thinking by many who could be its biggest advocates.  Whether that’s hopeless or not remains to be seen.

Where to?

So what is to be done? One option, that taken by Bruce Nussbaum, is to consider design thinking a failed experiment and seek alternative terms and concepts that capture the essence of what it does to improve innovative thinking, but in a manner that is less distorted. The challenge here is that, even if a new term does supplant design thinking, what is to prevent that concept from being co-opted and distorted as well with the same innovation-related market drivers in place?

Some argue that by formalizing design thinking into accredited programs, designations, certificates or degrees can assure quality just as we’ve started to see creep into the field of evaluation,. This presumes that have an empirically supported or widely agreed definition of what design thinking is and what are its core competencies. It also presumes we have the faculty with these skills and in positions to train people using methods tested to produce specific outcomes. Neither of these is true at present. This is the equivalent of suggesting that artists must have art degrees. Some artists do, but many do not and there is little to distinguish the difference in the quality of the work between them.

A third option, the more complicated one and the most flexible, is to consciously build a community of practice around design thinking aimed at improving the scholarship, research and communications about design thinking to enable the wider world to learn about it, debate it, and apply it. This is already starting to form through such venues as the Design Thinking LinkedIn group and the Design Thinking Network. To that end, we could see a tremendous opportunity for professional organizations such as DMI and AIGA to contribute to this by opening themselves up to the wider community in the focus of their events and training options. By increasing commitment from those doing design and design thinking to education and contemplative inquiry into their craft, we are naturally developing a field of practice that forms an attractor basin for better thinking and action.

Some further suggestions to support this point:

  • Follow what psychology did after the American Psychological Association President George Miller suggested they “give away psychology” to the world. Psychology was once an elitist, opaque field of therapy and science and now is widely taught, incorporated into nearly every human-centred discipline, and is founded on a strong scientific and practice base. Democratize design thinking.
  • Enlist creative professionals from fields like environmental studies, public health, social work, and education into the design thinking fold beyond traditional design disciplines. Get those living the spirit of Herb Simon who are trying to actively change current conditions into preferred ones — the social innovators, the public servants, the entrepreneurs of every stripe — to contribute their stories and insights on design thinking and get those into the public sphere for debate and dialogue.
  • Fund and support more research programs beyond examples of my own modestly-supported Design Foundations project, which has sought to study design thinking by interviewing those experts that do it and the literature on its practice across disciplines. And rather than proclaim design thinking’s success and power, prove it and document it.
  • Evaluate the programs that teach it, the processes used and determine what works, under what context, and document what happened along the way so we can learn more and be better at advocating for the power of design than simply proclaiming its worth.

Let’s contemplate more, study more, and reflect more about design thinking and maybe we’ll become better design thinkers.

What are your thoughts? Comment below.

behaviour changeeducation & learninghealth promotioninnovationpublic health

How Serious Are We About Learning?

How Serious Are We About Learning?

When journalist and book author Daniel Pink tweeted the above image the other day it provoked thinking about what real learning means and what it takes to achieve it. We produce enormous amounts of knowledge, yet struggle to put it into use, but we also teach much and learn little because the systems we’ve designed for education and experience don’t match our expressed interest and rhetoric around learning. 

In my graduate course on behaviour change I would ask students on the first day why they were taking the class in the first place. Aside from the few students for whom the course was required everyone else was doing it by choice because there were many others to choose from. So why would they choose this one?

The answers would vary, but inevitably I’d hear over and again that students love learning and wanted to understand more about behaviour change, because they were interested in change and some would even say they were good at it and wanted to help others do it.

These are all well-meaning and said in a spirit that I think was honest and true. Except the reality is that it is likely a big, huge lie and one that we all share in its telling.

I would counter with two things:

  1. Loving the idea of learning something new is different than actually seeking out learning opportunities and that most of us love the former, but are not so enthused about the latter;
  2. The only people who regularly welcome change are babies with soiled diapers.

To illustrate the first point I simply ask people to consider the last conference they went to where there were options on what sessions to attend. How many of the sessions did they attend that featured content that confirmed or gently extended what they already knew versus content that was new? If you’re a health promoter doing community engagement work, sessions on Bayesian modelling for epidemics might offer far more learning than a session on working with diversity in communities (particularly if that is what you already do). Even more, how often do people go to sessions from people they know or have already seen speak? Chances are, many.

One could argue that there are subtleties that a conference presentation might offer on a familiar topic that are worth attending and while I would say that has merit, most learning that has impact is uncomfortable at some level. It extends our thinking, challenges our beliefs, or re-arranges our worldview — in ways small and large.

Wanting knowledge and living learning

Many people will say “I love change”, but that is usually in the context that everyone else is changing, not them. When I was the boss and said “things must change” it was very different than when my staff or my boss would say “things must change“. As a behaviour change educator and intervener, I need to be mindful of my own ironies and resistance to change. So should we all.

The same thing goes for knowledge. Academics are famous for ending studies with “more research is needed”. We never seem to have enough knowledge. There are two problems with this idea.

The first is that, in dynamic and evolving environments, we will never have  perfect knowledge that fits like a glove, because the contexts are always novel. This isn’t to say that evidence isn’t useful, but ‘good enough’ knowledge might be a more reasonable demand than ‘best evidence’ in many of the situations where complexity is high and so is change. That’s why data gathering techniques like developmental evaluation aren’t attractive to those who need certainty.

But there is another problem with the knowledge quest and that is one of integration. In our efforts to seek more knowledge, are we integrating what we are learning from what we already have? Are we savouring the data we collect, the articles we read, the Tweets and blogs that get forwarded are way?

We quest for more, but should we quest for better?

A newly published paper synthesized research on event horizons on memory and found that shifts in activities around an event — boundaries — can prompt forgetting and recall. We remember transitions between activities, but they also prompt forgetting depending on the mindfulness associated with the act. When we are deluging ourselves with more data, more media, more everything, we are increasing the potential remember rate, but due to the volume of content, I would surmise that we are increasing the forget rate much more. Simply reflect on your high school or undergraduate education and ask yourself if you remember more than you forgot about what you learned.

We are so busy with our search for new knowledge that we interrupt opportunities to learn from what we have.

Serious learning means non-doing

Returning to the tweet from Dan Pink, it’s worthwhile considering what it means to learn and the systems we have in place to facilitate learning. The tweet links to a discussion of how German companies give their employees five days of off-site continuing education each year. This concept of Bildungsurlaub is a leave designed to allow employees to stretch their thinking and integrate something new. Not only is off-site learning important, but the time associated with integrating material is critical.

A read of the literature on innovation and research shows consistently how time off, quiet time, slow time and down time all contribute to discovery. Robert Scott Root-Bernstein’s brilliant Discovering, Jonah Lehrer’s Imagine, or Steven Johnson’s Where Good Ideas Come From are all books that dive deep into creative production and show that great discoveries and innovations come from having time (with limits) to integrate material to learn. Freedom to create, explore and sit and mindfully reflect are all united concepts in the pursuit of good learning. Not everything requires this, but big concepts and bold ideas do from mathematics to science to social science and philosophy.

Yet, at an organizational and systems level, where is the support for this? Even university faculty (the tenured ones at least) who have generous vacations and sabbaticals are finding themselves crunched for time between the fight for one of the ever-fewer grants, increasing numbers of students and teaching demands, and the added push to ensure knowledge is translated. The image of faculty sitting and reading and thinking is truly an imagination. Most of my colleagues in academia do little of this, because they are out of time.

In the corporate and non-profit world this is worse. Every hour and day is to be accounted for. The idea of sending people off to learn and to think seems anathema to productivity, yet research shows incredible powers associated with taking a break and doing less and not more.

Getting serious about learning

To illustrate the scope of the problem, the University of Toronto holds one of the finest academic library systems in the world and has over 11.5 million books and 5.7 million microform materials. It is one university (of many) in one city. Add in the local Toronto public library system, the network of universities and other libraries it is connected to, local and global bookstores and all the content freely available online that is not part of this system and I challenge anyone working in social innovation or public health to say with conviction that there is a lack of knowledge out there on any important topic. Yes, we don’t know it all, but we don’t do nearly enough with what we do know because there is so much.

We will not read it all nor can we hope to synthesize it all, but we can do much with what we have. Just looking at my own personal library of physical books (not including all I have in the digital realm between books and papers) it’s easy to see that I have more than enough knowledge to tackle most of what I am facing in my work. Most of us do. But do we have the wisdom to use it? Do we have the systems — organizations and personal — that allow us to take the time and soak this in, share our ideas with others, and be mindful of the world around us enough to learn, not just consume?

When we spend as much time creating those spaces, places and systems, then we can answer “yes” to the question of whether we’re serious about learning.

Enough knowledge here?