Tertiary 3 point Oh

Yesterday I attended the Tertiary 3.0: Exploring Local Innovation in Higher Education event that was part of Sydney’s Vivid Festival. I enjoyed the day and the format of the sessions but after the event I didn’t feel the buzz I was expecting.

It has nothing to do with the speakers or what was said – it was high quality, interesting and engaging. I think the problem I have is what wasn’t said.

The people who work in education are, as you should expect, extremely intelligent. The speakers at Vivid had great ideas and shared many great things. What tends to happen at these events is that when the discussion starts to go beyond the theoretical into mainstream implementation it gets hung up on “the system”. The conversation starts to revolve around the problems faced and when it does it’s like the air that gives life to ideas gets sucked out of the room. Great things blossom and then quickly fade away.

What I came away with are some fantastic and amazing examples of creative and inventive thinking and practice – but they’re most often small scale and local solutions. They are that person and their work but they could be real innovations if they were adopted more broadly – but what happens is that we just spent an hour discussing why they won’t. Because “the system”.

Here’s the thing – You can’t call it an innovation until people have adopted it. Think about it. If you had created the iPod and it was only you and maybe your family who ever used it you’re not an innovator, you’re an inventor. You can only adopt the innovation tag once it’s in use and it’s changed the usage pattern beyond return. Changed usage patterns is also the differentiation between innovation and fad. A fad might get wide scale adoption but it lacks staying power and sees usage patterns revert back to their previous state. An innovation changes the usage patter so much there’s simply no way back. iPods changed music consumption so much there was no way back so the physical media was simply discarded, both the discs and the medium to play them.

What I was hoping from a provocative title like Tertiary 3.0 (even though I’m not sure what 2.0 means) was that the ideas would look past the constraints of “the system” or that it would actively engage with changing them. I really wanted to explore what’s on the other side.

The problem for me though is all this is retrospective. At the time I didn’t think or feel like this. I was in the moment and caught up with what I was there, not what wasn’t. In hindsight I wished I’d asked some questions that could have taken us down that road. Thinking now I should have asked something like

Are Universities too anchored and constrained by the ideology and notion of degrees and qualification rather than learning?


Is the big silo we need to break down the concept that learning is contained within the provision of a degree?

In the first session the argument was made that universities are obsessed with campuses being the organising model for everything. I’ve actually voiced this sentiment before and it would have been great to explore this kind of thinking with the fantastic presenters. It would have been great to put the components of “the system” on the table to debate – with budgets, academic culture, responsibilities, legislation, qualifications, learning structures etc.

Maybe we need to focus on innovation in “the system” rather than having it stomp on our potential to change and improve.

I want to thank all the speakers and presenters on the day and the organisers too. I got a lot out of the sessions and was personally challenged by some of the things I saw and heard. So this isn’t a critique of the day or anything anyone said as it’s more of a challenge to myself to rethink where my effort is going and how change can be achieved. It’s a reminder not to go down the rabbit hole of debating “the system” – if anything it’s to work on ways, to quote NWA, “fuck the police” and subvert the system 🙂 because this is where innovation lies.

PS – I purposely haven’t defined “the system” beyond a list of things like budgets, academic culture, responsibilities, legislation, qualifications, learning structures etc. because it’s amorphous and varies greatly. I think leaving it open allows it to be defined subjectively, but I’d be happy to have a discussion about that if people feel the need.


One thought on “Tertiary 3 point Oh

  1. Tim
    Very nicely put.
    I think there are at least a few issues here of importance; I’ll focus first on the challenge of constructing and executing a useful conference session.
    I often find myself frustrated by conference sessions. They appear to have such great potential as forums for discussing the extremely important and difficult challenges we share, but rarely deliver. They can “go wrong” in many ways; my particular pet peeve is when they involve regurgitation of safe and vague sentiments — “we need to be more student centric” or “it’s not about the technology”. (As a conference speaker, I’ve made more than my share of mistakes.)
    I think part of the problem is simply logistical. It’s difficult for conference organizers to put all of the pieces of the event together: speakers, duration, how narrow/broad a topic, degree and type of audience participation, setting, etc. When we throw all of these together — some of which are unknown until the event occurs — it’s hard to predict what will come of it. I suppose that’s part of the power of live events, but it’s also what makes them so regularly disappoint.
    You write: “It would have been great to put the components of “the system” on the table to debate – with budgets, academic culture, responsibilities, legislation, qualifications, learning structures etc.”
    I think this is exactly what’s needed. Spot on. But I can think of two immediate logistical challenges: Such an event would appeal to a relatively small number of people and organizers are always under pressure to maximize the size of the audience. Second, such an event would require a great moderator that truly knows the field of study — which is a rare breed. Great moderators are rarely specialist in the field – they have to work across disciplines. (I think the moderator did a good job at the event in question.)
    By no means am I suggesting that it can’t be done. In fact, I’m speaking with an event organizer next week about how they might overcome some of these challenges — your notes will inform that conversation.

    With respect to the need to provide solutions to the “system” challenges . . .
    Again, I agree with your assessment. But I also feel that there is still remarkably little common knowledge about these system challenges — not enough people recognize their importance, and until the challenges are understood, there’s little hope of people constructing solutions for them. Case in point: people talk about MOOCs and online education as interchangeable. This reflects a complete disregard for the role business models and other system-type concerns.
    Another example: I mentioned in one of my two talks at Vivid Sydney that some of the things we’d like to do with technology in higher education are simply incompatible with how the institution is set up. I used social media as an example. (Social media is bottom-up, open-ended, leaderless, etc; higher education is exactly the opposite, blah, blah.) This is a system issue, as I see it. But my impression is that we are at a point in which most education professionals haven’t considered how system/organizational issues like this can impact pedagogical concerns.
    So, it’s a timing issue of a sort. First, we need to understand the system issues, and then we can start to deal with them.
    But, hey, I could be wrong.

    Keith Hampson PhD
    Managing Director, Client Innovations
    Acrobatiq (A Carnegie Mellon University Venture)

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