Leadership Outside the Hierarchy

This is the fouth year I’ve been invited to participate in the CSU Think Piece project. The idea here is to put forward a brief presentation on the challenges and opportunities of learning and teaching at CSU to help stimulate an ongoing and open dialogue. This years theme is “Leadership for Innovation in Learning and Teaching”.

If you would prefer to watch and listen the presentation is available on Youtube.

Leadership Outside the Hierarchy

My Name is Tim Klapdor – the Online Learning Technology Leader in uImagine. In this think piece I wanted to explore the notion of leadership and hierarchy in the increasingly complex environment that is education.

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One of my long standing beliefs is that the human default for organisation is the hierarchy. It’s simplicity enables us to quickly organise a group of people in order to achieve a set task.

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And while default may just be, as Homer Simpson suggests, the two sweetest words in the English dictionary – I tend to question their value.

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The most obvious reason is that people rarely move beyond the default. For most of us the default isn’t the starting point, but the end. They are used as a shortcut – assuming for a fact that someone with more skills has looked at all the issues and made decisions on our behalf.

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While initially an organisational structure may have been adaptive, over time hierarchy becomes an embedded part of the culture. It becomes the default lens for seeing all problems and the default way in which they are the addressed. When all you have is a hammer, everything becomes a nail.

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When it comes to defaults we need to start questioning the consequence of them:

  • What it is they entrench?
  • What do they avoid?
  • What do they hide?
  • What do they improve?
  • What do they enhance?
  • What to they leave behind?

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And more importantly WHO?

  • Who do they entrench?
  • Who do they avoid?
  • Who do they hide?
  • Who do they improve?
  • Who do they enhance?
  • Who to they leave behind?

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When it comes to current concept of leadership and the language around it, the default is to think about it in terms of hierarchy. In particular – leaders and followers – which immediately embeds a power dynamic based on Us & Them.

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This seems at odds with the kinds of organisations we want and of what we ultimately want to be a part of. But Hierarchy tends to distills roles into these kinds of binaries which may work well in simple organisations but tend to stretch and break the larger an organisation gets.

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The reality is that Hierarchies and the kind of leadership they promote won’t help us move into the future. One result of hierarchical organisations is that they divorce people from power. Rather than empower people, they seek to confine it to just a few and use the hierarchy itself as the mechanism to maintain and support this function. This kind of leadership has limited use and really only work well for small, simple problems – something that education is increasingly not.

So it begs the question:

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If we think about the kind of environment our organisation operates in – most would say that it’s pretty complex. There are a variety of connected, dynamic, interdependent and interactive factors at play – financial, social, personal and political systems that we intersect with at both individual and organisational levels.

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One way to make sense of this complexity is to use something like the Cynefin framework.

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Developed by Dave Snowden the framework is a tool to facilitate Sense-Making. Where we can plug in different situations into the framework to consider the kinds of approaches and characteristics that work in each of the domains.

You can find an excellent explanation of the Cynefin Framework from Dave himself on you tube

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In order to understand hierarchies and leadership in today’s climate I think we need to focus on the Complex domain. That what worked previously doesn’t work any more because the environment that we’re operating has changed significantly.

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Education is no long simple or even complicated because it now operates at a global and local level of interplay with various markets, governments, communities and individuals (both students and teachers). You throw in a couple of decades of computing and rapidly changing communications technology and we have a system that no longer knows what is best practice. It’s difficult to even define what is good practice.

Complexity challenges simple wisdom:

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“The definition of insanity is doing the same thing twice and expecting a different result”

In a complex environment, doing the same thing twice will give a different result.

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“You can’t fix what you can’t measure”

You can intervene in a complex environment, even if you can’t measure it reliably.

Complexity also challenges existing measures and metrics and often finds them inadequate. Problems often have many contributing factors, often far beyond an organisations control, be they social, political or cultural. But rather than admitting defeat, complexity challenges us to find ways to intervene rather than fix or solve a solution entirely. That small changes can have big effects. And we see it when providing support to a student at a particularly difficult time results in them completing their degree goes on to ultimately changing their, and their whole family’s, lives.

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In the Complex domain even beginning to understand the problem requires experimentation. The final solution is only apparent once discovered and in hindsight it might seem obvious, but it was not apparent at the outset. No matter how much time you spend in analysis, it is not possible to identify the risks or accurately predict the solution or effort required to solve the problem. Complexity requires us to focus on emergent solutions.

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Associate Provost for Digital Learning a Middlebury College, Amy Collier uses the phrase Not-Yetness to describe what is happening in Distance and Online Education. To quote her:

In our context, emergence is allowing new ideas, new methodologies, new findings, new ways of learning, new ways of doing, and new synergies to emerge and to have those things continue to feed back into more emergence. Emergence is a good thing. For us, not-yetness is the space that allows for emergence. Not-yetness is not satisfying every condition, not fully understanding something, not check-listing everything, not tidying everything, not trying to solve every problem…but creating space for emergence to take us to new and unpredictable places, to help us better understand the problems we are trying to solve.

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Emergence is not only key to solving problems, but to discovering and defining them too. Emergence is the practice required in the complex domain and it looks and feels a lot like learning and research – two things that universities are more than capable of. It may seem counter intuitive but emergence is about loosening control and providing space for iteration and adaption. Of being willing to take risks and for risk to be part of the equation, rather than something that has to be eliminated. It is the realisation that to affect change it has to be in numerous small and in many different ways.

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A single silver bullet that will fix everything will never happen in a Complex environment.


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The way we currently do things doesn’t really allow for emergence and it certainly doesn’t support iterative development. These two things are key aspects of innovation. The silos and bottlenecks that hierarchy creates impedes innovation at Every. Step. Of. The. Way.

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One way is to rethink the concept of leadership and to uncouple it from the hierarchical structure. Leadership should be something that we can build and develop outside the hierarchy. To model a different kind of leadership, one that doesn’t rely on the concept of leaders and followers.

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Leadership is taking the responsibility to create an environment that facilitates a transition between states.

This is the definition I came up with during the Graduate Certificate in University Leadership and Management. It’s an attempt to define the role of a Connected Leader.

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Instead of authority there’s responsibility. Instead of control there is autonomy through a focus on environment. And instead of change (which is now the rule rather than the exception) I’ve tried to define a process that is more holistic and captures the journey as much as the destination.

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Another way to to change is to shift the focus from the vertical elements in the hierarchy and to develop of horizontal structures – teams that compliment, collaborate & share across divisions, schools and faculties. To augment the hierarchy and reduce the silo issues teams that span the silos that a hierarchy creates work together in a more holistic way. These teams share and create knowledge that span the organisation rather than it being concentrated.

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Another way would be to invest in areas that create diversity within the organisation. This would be a process of investing in innovations outside the normal “business functions” of the organisation and in areas that the organisation relies on for support. Technology is an obvious one, investing in the development new systems that support the delivery of our online courses. There are other areas like professional development that would allow use to develop and test new and innovative practices, course designs and methodologies

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Perhaps the best way to encourage Emergence is to provide greater autonomy. To allow individuals to explore within their unique circumstances. The work we’ve been doing in uImagine embodies some of these ideas. The Online Learning Model provides a language and a way of thinking about teaching and learning that allows individuals to adopt an adapt practices to suit their needs without being prescriptive. It’s elements provide a way of thinking about and conducting teaching and learning in the online space that is based in research and evidence. It is a way of allowing staff across the organisation to participate in the conversation and explain the vision for what our online course can be.

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Another method is to to connect the knowledge that exists across the organisation. Our next project, the Online Learning Exchange, seeks to support the autonomy of the individual by providing access to exemplars of practice. It will hopefully become a tool that provides individuals with the information they need to make changes to their subjects and practices, and in turn share those with the CSU community. The vision for the Learning Exchange is that it will become a resource for sharing – connecting knowledge across the institution by operating outside of faculty and school structures. It will become a place for not only finding exemplars of practice – but contributing to them too.

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Perhaps we don’t need to dispense with the hierarchy totally – it provides a stable scaffold from which the organisation can run. But perhaps we can create spaces in and around it in which we can work. Through which innovation and change can emerge through a culture that accepts the notion of not-yetness.

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Complexity by Mark Skipper


License: CC-BY-NC 4.0 @TimKlapdor


A Journey to discover what is Indie Ed-tech

What a weekend I’ve just had! What a week! What a fortnight! I met some amazing people at SXSW and on top of that I’ve just spent the last couple of days in the company of some of the most amazing and talented people in the world of technology, education and all the various ways they intersect. People often say “never meet your heroes” to soften the impact in case they might disappoint – but what’s the reverse? What if they blow you away? What if meeting them actually confirms that their humanity is actually far more engaging than their work that drew you in? That they are rich and complex people that extend beyond their work? What if their work is just a facade and behind that are people who are kind, funny, sweet and complex? I wasn’t really prepared for that and I’m still kind of in awe. In awe to spend time in their company, but to discuss and work with them – astounding!

Adam and Alan have put together a couple of excellent posts on what happened at the Indie EdTech Data Summit so I won’t rehash that. I do however just want to say thanks to Kristen Eshleman and the team at Davidson College who were amazing hosts and I was glad I got to spend a couple of extra days in their neck of the woods. Erin and Ben from Known ran an incredible design journey that everyone contributed to and resulted in something meaningful. Audrey and Kin who’s presentation kicked everything off and really got us thinking right away about why we were there and what we could do about it.

But what is Indie Ed-Tech, and what the hell is the Personal API?

The answer to that is why we were all gathered together. There was something about the unknown, the undefined and the mysterious that intrigued enough people to make it worth getting together. It’s a topic area that is very much in the realm of the Not-Yetness and the protean. Over the course of the weekend it was something that started to take shape and form, emerging from the mist and the clouds as something solid. I’ve been dwelling on this the last couple of days – trying to make sense of the experience and the ideas, emotions and themes that came out of working together. Students and teachers and technologists and creatives and designers and writers and thinkers. All coming together and sharing. So here’s some of my initial impressions – please take them and riff of them, or take them apart and redo them!

Indie Ed-tech is infrastructure that supports scholarly agency and autonomy.

If it came down to a one sentence description – that would be it. So let’s unpack it a bit:

  • Infrastructure – I think what we would all like is for technology to become less visible, and to do that we have to bury it. To make it infra – under the ground – doesn’t deny it exists, but it relegates it to being part of the process, but not the process itself.
  • Scholarly – One of the best things I heard over the weekend was the case that we need to remove the teacher/student divide. Embracing the concept that education is based on a community of scholars allows change to occur in the power dynamics. It also removes an Us vs Them binary that tends to limit the discussion and vision around learning.
  • Agency – What the students involved in the workshop made pretty clear is that they have very little agency in their education (and this is in the liberal arts!). In fact I’ve heard many teachers communicate the same problem. Agency is missing and the centralised systems that currently dominate the [Pop Edu[(https://timklapdor.wordpress.com/2016/03/16/sxsw-pop-edu/) market don’t address this, in fact they tend to make it worse.
  • Autonomy – Another failure of current technologies is that there is little autonomy. There is a singular way to do things, a single system and single prescription that all students and staff have to adhere too. Greater autonomy increases investment into learning and improves engagement.

The agreed on example of Indie Ed-tech is Domain Of Ones Own because its been replicated across multiple institutions with considerable success thanks to the work of Jim Groom and Tim Owens at Reclaim Hosting. It exemplifies the statement above but also qualifies it – that success is based on change, there is a need to adopt the Indie mindset.

I came out of the weekend feeling that Indie represents an alternative vision for how technology might operate in education. The Indie mindset challenges and changes the existing power distribution and dynamics that are often at the heart of the issues we face. It emphasises networked rather than centralised practices and the relationships built through collaboration and cooperation. It empower users by allowing for greater choice, diversity and individual representation and expression. Indie is truly a game changer.

The Personal API

I’m still getting my head around the concept of the Personal API but having got to hear Kin Lane speak on a couple of occasions I can report that he has certainly earns the title of API Evangelist. One thing that Kin raised was the idea of an API First approach to design and it’s radically changed the way I think about design and development. Having experienced the failure of the Waterfall approach to project management and Agile (in my mind) not being quite the solution, centralising the design process around the API might be a way of developing front and backend designs simultaneously and collaboratively.

But what is the Personal API?

My initial musing about the Personal API (P-API) are in this provocation and boil down to:

  • a way to claim sovereignty over our own identity online
  • a first step towards independence
  • a way to create distributed systems
  • it provides a system for choice
  • it could create an enhanced form filler
  • improves transactional behaviours online
  • allows users to assign a death to data
  • backend for creating of my own operating system
  • fix the problems of the web
  • mechanism for us to make decisions about the web
  • it will be foundational to the “next web”
  • it needs to be accessible

So do they hold up? In many ways yes – but I was wrong to focus on the P-API being the product or the solution. The strength of the P-API is in the process and what it allows when you go through the effort of setting it up. I also came to appreciate the fact that the P-API is not the same thing as a Domain of Ones Own. That you can have a P-API but utilise existing systems and services, that PAPI and DOOO are not synonyms – they are and can be distinct entities.

The web is often described as “small pieces loosely connected”, but the P-API changes that. What’s possible with the P-API is the creation of small pieces deeply connected. Small pieces that can be swapped and changed to suit the individual, the technology available and the required outcome. In that sense the P-API can be seen as a backbone to Indie Ed-tech because of it’s influence on agency and autonomy. While none of the projects the groups designed would require the P-API to function they would all be greatly enhanced by it’s use because its the medium for connections. I came away thinking that what APIs in general represent are the cement that the web needs, and it’s for that reason they are vitally important. APIs will be the cement through which we can build something new and better from the web.

I’m going to finish up here – mainly because the airport I’m in is not really conducive to writing at all, but also because there’s plenty more to think about and say. This is really a rough dump of ideas – the most coherent any way – so a work in progress.

SXSWedu: The Obvious Innovation

My revelation or insight from one day at SXSWEDU:

What’s needed in education is better dissemination of good practice.

Based on the sessions I attended yesterday and the level they were pitched at that’s the only conclusion I can come to. But it supports my experience. At my own institution little is articulated by faculty staff about what good teaching practice is, what it looks like and how to do it. There is a disconnect from the practice required to do well and the profession itself.

Don’t get me wrong – there are many, many staff out there who don’t fit this generalisation. I’ve worked with them, listened to them speak and share, but they are not the majority.

Good practice in education seems to be nebulous – no one really knows what it is, what it looks like or how to describe it. They might be able to recognise it – but articulate it? No. That’s a big problem and may be why the education system seems to be in a quagmire at the moment and unable to truly move forward. If we can’t articulate what good practices are, then how can we move forward? How can we fight the colonisation from Silicon Valley? How can we petition against funding cuts and student debts? What are we fighting for?

I went to a session with members of the University Innovation Alliance which was interesting. What struck me though is their description of their work: Innovate – Scale – Diffuse. Nothing wrong with that at all, but given the climate my mind started to wonder – is that the right order of things?

If I was to make a change it would be to concentrate on the Diffusion of good practice first. Get it out there, get people discussing it, give people a vocabulary and shared language and provide rich examples that allow people to learn, share, adopt and adapt.

Then focus on scaling up. Once people know what it is you want them to do, they can get on with it. Show them how, provide them with the incentives, policy and structures to support their work. Scaling up what you know is easy, scaling up to early will only highlight issues and introduce an element of risk.

Finally, Innovate on top of a solid foundation. Innovating first leads to obvious issues and only entrenches the “pockets of innovation” that is the heart of our current problems. Get good practice embedded – diffused across teaching staff and scaled across the organisation – and then innovation becomes easier. Improve first, not fail first. The fact is that there’s 100 or so years of research and practice to draw on – we can do this without a whole lot of effort. I’m not advocating for a single form of good practice – far from it – education needs diversity and best practice should suit the organisation and student cohorts.

This Diffuse – Scale – Innovate pattern seems to match quite nicely with the work that I’m actually involved in at Charles Sturt University. We’ve developed a strategy and articulated a model that suits our institution. We’re working on the initial pilots to help us articulate and illustrate that model and we’re planning our scale up now. Once we’re there then we have a real solid foundation to innovate on and around.

There’s a lot of work to do – but the in the search for the newest shiniest innovation, we’ve forgotten the most obvious.

Contribution to 2016: Civitas

The start of the year sees a flurry of posts full of predictions and promises. Last year I thought that rather than do that I would post what I planned on contributing to, and I want to do that again this year.

Last years contributions went a bit like this:

  • Distributed systems – went well resulting in a lot of thinking and a number of posts and presentations and my big ideas – MYOS.
  • Customising WordPress – didn’t pan out at all. The projects I thought would relate to this didn’t really follow this path – instead I learnt Jekyll 🙂
  • Design Patterns – while I haven’t dealt with this publicly I have been working on this quite a bit in the last month or so… stay tuned.
  • Netpro – unfortunately this didn’t get up either. It’s something I’d like to come back to and might do so this year.

So a mixture of successes and failures – and to be honest that’s good because I learnt a lot from last year, met some amazing people, had some great conversations and found my ideas resonated with people around the world. A pretty good year on that front.

I also did some unexpected things and one of those was helping lead a session at the Wagga Hack4Good event. This was an event that came out of the local council and government agencies with the idea of exploring some of the social problems we have in our community and the possibilities to resolve them with technology. I was part of some of the organising with a slap together crew of interested, rather than experienced, people who were all willing to get something up and running. What exactly that was may not have been apparent in the beginning- but what emerged out of the event for me was a need for the community, and the council, to start engaging with technology.

The session I led started as a quick presentation about design – in particular user interface and user experience design. It then evolved into an ideas session, discussion and then trying to refine that down into something singular to “hack” with about 30 people in the room. We had a couple of technical guys from the uni on hand to build something – so much of the session was about outlining something for them to go away and build, but the majority of people that were attending weren’t technical at all. They were interested in the opportunity and not short of ideas, but they did lack the digital literacy and skills to really engage beyond those initial ideas.

Throughout the year I also took part in the People’s Panel initiative from the local council. It was a way that planners and the council could get feedback on plans and initiatives being undertaken. I took part because it was online and I wanted to participate in some kind of civic duty. At the end of the year they invited people to come and meet face-to-face and discuss the councils strategic planning. It was a great session with lots of interesting discussion but again it became abundantly clear that technology could provide some real improvements to current practice and solutions to some of the problems but there was a lack of ability to think about this, let alone push for it.

What I was left with was a feeling that there is a huge gulf between “social” or “public” and “technology” at the moment. That in many ways there really hasn’t been much innovation recently in “social technology” – stuff that makes connecting, collaborating and cooperating better, easier and more productive. Things may have improved for individuals – but getting groups together often means resorting to older technologies, and my personal bug bear – ones that aren’t mobile friendly. It seems that the only innovation that occurred in this space happened fairly early with wikis and blogs and then it all just got swallowed up social media. There’s a massive gap in the social and public spaces online that isn’t being addressed despite the proliferation of devices and access to the internet. I wrote and presented about the exploitation and enslavement that’s occurring under the guise of “social media” and even presented an alternative in MYOS because we need an better solution. But while MYOS may address an individuals needs, what about a community? What kind of solutions are out there for communities to engage with?

So that’s what I’m planning to contribute to 2016 – public and social spaces in technology. I’ve even found a word that summarises quite nicely a number of ideas I’ve had – Civitas.

Civitas is the body of united citizens and is the mixture of rights and responsibilities that create a public and social community. Civitas embodies the the qualities that generate a sense of identity, commonality and cultural relevance in the public real.

What I’d like to do this year is work on how we can embed technology into our civitas and civitas into our technology. I think there’s a real opportunity in this space – for ideas and solutions. I also want to branch out beyond education. I have a full workload planned for this year and to be honest EdTech and a singular form of technology is doing my head in. I think there’s technology that’s suitable across multiple context – so if this works at a community level it would work the same at a class, course or degree program to. Also I think there’s the possibility to be more radical and innovative without the constraints of the educational system.

My first step is to map out a couple of ideas I’ve already had:

  • To campaign for a community roll out of a domain-of-ones own program. This is kind of foundational for developing digital skills around the community and something that provides the infrastructure to move forward.
  • We came up with an interesting idea at the Hackathon for a community events app, but one that had some additional features. I’d like to push that further if possible and maybe flesh out some of the functionality we discussed on the day.
  • Developing up an app idea Civi. This is basically an App to enhance and provide democratic functions. It’s an idea I had a while ago and something I’d like to flesh out and share with you good people!

So that’s the big thing for this year. It’s singular but pretty board. It encompasses some serious ideas and thinking, some technology hacking, maybe some training, speaking and perhaps more important selling. I need to get out there an engage with people. I made a positive impact on a few people at the hackathon and so I’m keen to leverage those connections to get something up and running. I’m hoping there’s an audience open and willing to participate, as well as someone willing to put there money where there mouth is!

There’s also plenty of work to be done in this our second year of u!magine in online learning, a house to rebuild and my awesome family to hang out with and hopefully have some great adventures. 2016 is going to be good!

Innovation and the Novelty Factory

My ears and eyes seem to have been bombarded by one word so often over the last couple of weeks that I’m now developing something akin to shell shock. A nervous tick here, a Tourette-esque outburst there, a cringe and a cry, a bewildered look in my eyes and a wanton desire to disconnect and float away.


Over hyped and over used the mere mention of innovation makes me wince.

You see

“You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”

What scares me about this trend is that now innovation is being talked about in government policy, institutional strategies and every goddamn mission statement known to man – and yet, I don’t think there is any understanding about what innovation is: what it really means, what it entails or the implications of adopting it actually are.

Horace Dediu posits a taxonomy which I think is extremely useful to help discern innovation and reduces some confusion:

Novelty: Something new
Creation: Something new and valuable
Invention: Something new, having potential value through utility
Innovation: Something new and uniquely useful

Using that model we can see that a lot of what people declare as “innovative” should be re-graded as simple novelty, and what people want in their mission statements isn’t innovation but creation. Innovation is not for everyone. It is not something that everyone should aspire to or need to achieve. In fact the pursuit of innovation often means that quality, sustainability and longevity are put at risk.

Innovation is a lot harder and more difficult to achieve because it is essentially change. And the reality is that most people don’t want to do that.

People want the same, but better. Faster and cheaper, but not different.

Change is hard. It’s disruptive and scary. Innovation isn’t additive, it’s subtractive – you have to lose or destroy something in order to attain it. It’s not the same but better, it’s different and better. It requires the embrace of something new, different and foreign.

Innovation is not something everyone should be striving for, and the reality is that they’re actually not. They use the label of “innovation” but if you listen to the pundits in government, technology and finance sectors what they actually want is Novelty. They want something that generates “new” at scale and from very little real investment or effort. What they crave is the Novelty Factory where you can package something differently, appify it, give it a new spin, change the colour and produce it at scale, but never actually do anything different. The reason for this is that novelty has the potential for massive profits, simply because who doesn’t like new? It’s engrained in our psyche to be curious and that’s exploited ruthlessly through an array of psychological manipulations that drive the cravings of a consumerist economy.

You’ll hear plenty about “disruption” but how much of that is actual innovation? How much is actually changing? Isn’t it just the same as before? Isn’t it just like the other thing? Isn’t it simile rather than metaphor? If we actually think about it, it’s distraction rather than disruption.

People don’t want to invest in innovation because change is really hard. It’s complex, expensive and risky and more often than not takes time – years if not decades. It requires behaviours and mindsets to adapt to entirely different concepts, inputs and environments. It requires people to leave behind what they did, what they built reputations on, what they trust and tacitly know, and replace it with something strange. Innovation is about trust and relationships more than anything else. It’s about building, shaping and learning not just coming up with ideas.

What most people want is novelty – simple, cheap, dumb and easy to sell. You can invest in that. You can profit from that.

Silicon Valley isn’t the hub of innovation – it’s a perfect model of the Novelty Factory churning out vast quantities of “new”, but affecting little real change. Sure there are innovators operating there, but they simply share the space rather than dominate it.

Real innovation requires change, not from the product but the audience, user or consumer. That’s where the complexity lies – it’s not about coming up with something new, its about convincing people to change. To let go of traditions and to trade in status, comfort and power from the old model to embrace something new and different. It’s for this reason that true innovation is exceedingly rare. There are plenty of new things we do, but how many require real change? How many were really just the same, but better? How many were subtractive and forced you to give away, give up and destroy?

Innovation is not as pervasive as we think, nor should it be as widespread as we’re led to believe.

I think there’s a need for a more nuanced approach to innovation, invention, creation and novelty. The distinctions are important and there’s a growing need to articulate the difference, to accept it and to choose what it is they need. If we want governments and institutions to embrace innovation we need to really understand what that means and what’s at risk. Maybe when we think about it novelty is enough, or that creativity is more important. Maybe that’s the real innovation.

*Image used https://flic.kr/p/4jCHgj

The Disruption Machine

The idea of innovation is the idea of progress stripped of the aspirations of the Enlightenment, scrubbed clean of the horrors of the twentieth century, and relieved of its critics. Disruptive innovation goes further, holding out the hope of salvation against the very damnation it describes: disrupt, and you will be saved.

  • Jill Lepore

This critique of Clayton Christensen’s work is fantastic! Not only does it discuss some of the many, many flaws in the theory of Disruptive Innovation, I think it contextualises it really well as merely part of our current crop of mythology that we employ to explain nature – rise/fall, birth/death and the changes in between. I think this sums the whole thing up perfectly:

Disruptive innovation is a theory about why businesses fail. It’s not more than that. It doesn’t explain change. It’s not a law of nature. It’s an artifact of history, an idea, forged in time; it’s the manufacture of a moment of upsetting and edgy uncertainty. Transfixed by change, it’s blind to continuity. It makes a very poor prophet.

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.

A final word on MOOCs & EdTech for 2013

After a big year and some recent revelations about MOOCs I think that Michael Feldstein sums it all up perfectly in this post – Don’t Cry for Me, Argentina

He unpacks the year in MOOCs and then discusses some of the reasons why things have failed. I found this passage particularly insightful and resonates with my views on the situation.

Silicon Valley can’t disrupt education because, for the most part, education is not a product category. “Education” is the term we apply to a loosely defined and poorly differentiated set of public and private goods (where “goods” is meant in the broadest sense, and not just something you can put into your Amazon shopping cart). Consider the fact that John Adams included the right to an education in the constitution for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. The shallow lesson to be learned from this is that education is something so integral to the idea of democracy that it never will and never should be treated exclusively as a product to be sold on the private markets. The deeper lesson is that the idea of education—its value, even its very definition—is inextricably tangled up in deeper cultural notions and values that will be impossible to tease out with A/B testing and other engineering tools. This is why education systems in different countries are so different from each other. “Oh yes,” you may reply, “Of course I’m aware that education in India and China are very different from how it is here.” But I’m not talking about India and China. I’m talking about Germany. I’m talking about Italy. I’m talking about the UK. All these countries have educational systems that are very substantially different from the U.S., and different from each other as well. These are often not differences that a product team can get around through “localization.” They are fundamental differences that require substantially different solutions. There is no “education.” There are only educations.

He then moves on to EdTech and I love in this quote so much:

If you want to help improve education as an entrepreneur, then start with that nugget of wisdom. Start by assuming that you don’t yet understand the problem, and that educators and students know more about the problems that need solving than you do. Use your skills to help them illuminate and elucidate the problems that they are trying to solve, and then work on your solution—not to “education”, but to a specific educational problem for specific actual humans. This is not to say that you can’t have a big impact. Education is in desperate need of help to untangle the mess of needs, goals, approaches, and institutional structures so that we can do a better job of helping more people. There are big challenges. But note the plural. There is not one hard problem. This a complex of many intertwined and poorly defined hard problems. Improving education isn’t like designing a better way to order a taxi, or building a better smart phone, or even inventing a self-driving car. It’s harder than any of those, because it is far messier than any of those. This makes it an incredibly gratifying space to work in as long as you don’t do so out of a fantasy that you and your entrepreneur peers are the heroes who are going to “save” it, after which you will be greeted as liberators. That way lies madness. And failure.

Looking forward to 2014, as this is my last day in the office, THIS is the space I want to work in. I want to focus on the “problems” in education and how technology can help solve them. After some fantastic discussions at Ascilite I’m even more aware that there are plenty, enough to keep a whole industry occupied, paid, fed and watered. But it is focussing on the problems not the solutions that is the way to move ourselves as a collective forward. It also opens up opportunities for collaboration – as many of the problems we faced are shared, and therefore deserve shared solutions.

I had a great discussion with our new Pro Vice Chancellor yesterday about some of the plans for the future. There was discussion around the assertions about what “innovation” and “disruption” actually are – I’m coming to the point where they are labels that can only be applied post-hoc to the processes of experimentation, problem solving, mashups, new ideas, old research and new ways to apply theory to practice.

If we want to innovate then we have to concentrate on the problems – the gaps, the cracks, the spaces in between – because that’s where the exciting change can occur. That’s where you find eager and keen participants, problems that really need to be addressed and where investment options are available. It’s also where you’ll find the opportunity and problems that demand creativity and engagement. It’s where good work comes from.

At the end of next year I’d like to look back at a year of good work. Not easy or even entirely enjoyable, in fact if it lacks challenge I wouldn’t even class it as good, but stuff that matters, that has impact and that can be labelled post-hoc innovative and disruptive!

I do plan on writing a couple more posts this year – wrapping up what’s been happening and a bit ideating around whats coming for 2014. But as it’s coming up to Christmas break and I have Daddy duties beckoning I might not get around to posting anything – best intentions and all that! So if I don’t get a chance have a great holiday and new year! Remember to make the most of the opportunity and time to spend with your family and friends – not on the shitty bits of plastic we waste so much money on!

UPDATE – I should add this post from Martin Weller if we are trying to do a comprehensive wrap up of EdTech! Probably been the most shared sentiment in my travels and twitter timeline!

Reading List #10

Another week has gone by, this one without me being sick – so that’s good. Some more great work to share – so Enjoy!


The Inferno of Independence

by @fchimero

This post from Frank Chimero achieves the Awesome category this week and it got a lot of publicity this week – because it really is that good. If you haven’t already read it – go now, come back to the list when you’re done!

Finished? OK good.

The idea that “INDEPENDENCE IS LONELY” is something that I would say I share with Frank. When I read his blog I had that same gut reaction and immediate sense of being given words to something I have always felt he felt. I am not an independent artist but I feel a an affinity to work independently – but I struggle with the burden and deep-seated need for stability and a level of predictability. I have surrendered real independence for jobs with a level of autonomy – which doesn’t always do me any favours, particularly when my mind needs to wander. I am creative and so to seek our independence I have found that often that requires me to work by myself instead of for myself. Enough about me though – but this piece really connected and resonated with me!

Frank’s article has some really profound things to say. My favourites include:

I think words are abstractions, and abstractions become expressions that frame our understanding of our experiences, expectations, culture—everything. Language is an interface, and if an interface can mould behaviour and perception, than language does that to your life.

This sums up why I get caught up on words and phrases so often!

I have the ability to think in systems and can be incisive and empathetic by understanding how things fit together.

Again, this is how I feel about where my talent lies – not necessarily in the doing of things themselves – but in how they fit together.

I also loved the unpacking of the internet-culture mythology around agility and the failing, particularly this:

Oddly, only successful people say failure is necessary, because anyone who has truly failed in a meaningful, unrecoverable way would advise you to stay away from that shit at all costs.

But this is perhaps more important:

contemporary digital culture has co-opted the language of revolution and magic without the muscle, ethics, conviction, or imagination of either.


Why innovation needs its own language

by @ovoinnovation

Picks up on one of my problems with the term innovation – that it’s become a subjective term that it means whatever the speaker/writer/listener believes it to. I support the call to change the language. I think this perfectly sums up the challenges language must address:

  1. Lack of shared meaning
  2. Lack of systemic context
  3. No clear linkage to strategy or goals
  4. Ideas no longer hold their original meanings or the culture rejects their meaning
  5. Language limits or narrows discussion or thinking rather than encouraging and broadening it
  6. Words become filler or placeholders, not meant to encourage thinking or action


The merchants of average

by @ThisIsSethsBlog

The masses are average. And by definition, we have a surplus of average.
Don’t be different just to be different. Be different to be better.

I think Godin has a knack for aphorisms and this is a good one! It reflects my struggle and why I feel the need to go against the grain – not for its own sake, but to simply do and be better.

Barriers to Knowledge Work

by @hjarche

This post is particularly important from Harold Jarche as it provides some insight into the barriers that organisations and businesses have in place when it comes to knowledge work. It’s how I would describe my role – and I can say that I have experienced every single one of these barriers at some stage. In fact I think in general we still are – and mainly because I don’t think they really understand what Knowledge Work is.

A visual introduction to my perspectives on work & learning

This is Harold’s alternative to business card and it’s a really nice idea. In terms of placing it in the Work section it was this line:

A job is not the same as meaningful work. Labour is replaceable, talent is not.

Something that I think too many organisations and businesses just don’t understand.

Stop Asking For Permission to Change

by @bharrisonp

I have to say that I fall into this trap too often. That the everything else is to blame for all of my woes – rather than my ability to overcome my own beliefs. Really like this too:

sustained, meaningful change requires a collective buy-in, and buy in is a by-product of both autonomy and connection.

Thrust Work vs. Drag Work

by @herbertlui

I have to say that work at the moment is too heavily weighted by drag tasks.

“Thrust tasks” create high intrinsic value and move our creativity and career forward, whereas “drag tasks” create low intrinsic value and can slow us down.


Learning in the Wild West of ‘Open’

by @onlinelearningI

Really nice post on the concept of open learning and this description is perfect –

Learning in the open is non-linear, unpredictable and without guard rails that education institutions or companies create to structure learning in traditional settings.

Glad to say that I’ve started to really get into the recommendations – reflect and blog consistently as well as sharing and engaging with others via a social media. I can attest that the benefit is that you get more out than what you put in!

MOOCs Need to Go Back to Their Roots

by @mburnamfink

There is nothing ground breaking here, but it is a simple un-glossy critique of MOOCs (which is quite refreshing). I have to agree with this statement in particular (but wonder deeply why this wasn’t actually done as part of the requirements gathering stage):

Rather than pouring effort into making thousands of glossy but ultimately stagnant hypertextbook “classes,” MOOC developers should be designing platforms that work for traditional scholarly fields and the new skills of the global economy.

Pyne: A pain for education in Australia

by madelinebevs

Christopher Pyne – the new Minister for Education – is looking to shape education here in Australia by being more “hands on”. This includes becoming the arbiter of curriculum and assessment. This post is great and I can’t agree more with this accurate summation of education policy around the world –

Apparently, if you want the authority on education in Australia you go to the lawyers, not the teachers, because a law degree makes one better qualified to make significant decisions on education in Australia than an executive of experienced, well-qualified, educators.

User Experience

What Clayton Christensen Got Wrong

by @monkbent

Ben Thompson’s post on What Clayton Christensen Got Wrong is a really excellent critique of the low-end disruption theory – so much so it got me to write something of my own! It’s a thoughtful and insightful unpacking of the idea, concepts and motivations to spell out why it’s essentially wrong.

Computers are too difficult and people are computer illiterate

by @fakebaldur

Great post about the need to not accept the binary we are often presented with and how –

storytelling is often too effective a tool for presenting ideas and ‘facts’, trumping data, statistics, and research.

Turning Paper Cuts Into Magical Moments

by @dmolsen

Dave tweeted a link to this older blog post this week. I’ve been advocating an approach to organisational technology that highlights the need to become more seamless – so pain points, like papercuts, are really important markers in the user experience. The advice here is really empowering – to reimagine these not as things that need to be removed or exorcised – but reframed and recreated as magical moments.


Planning for Content Beyond the Web

by @dmolsen

Another great post from Dave Olsen calling us to starting thinking and building beyond what’s here and now. This isn’t some futurist idealism – but simple practicality! If you’ve been involved in the web for more than a year you know how quickly things can change so it’s time we accept that as the norm. Being future friendly is really about making our lives easier in the long run, because we all know the future will be different from now. This is really what’s been driving my work on TADPOLE – and why I feel it’s so important and worth the effort – to be future friendly.

Decentering Syndication or, a Push Away from RSS

by @jimgroom

I am really getting into the idea of increasing the hub/spoke architecture of the web. Rather than just single nodes it provides the ability for people, content, connections and conversations to become multi-platform and multi-faceted. This post shows how WordPress can be used to create hubs and spokes. Thinking beyond what is here I think there’s some great potential here for creating multiple hubs – for example one for each student and teacher – which in turn feeds into a central hub for a course or subject … discussed in the comments too.

The User is Drunk

from @squareweave

Simple and effective way of explaining the how and why of developing user-friendly stuff.


PS: Thanks to @marksmithers for a lot of great links this week!


Reading List #9

So I tried my very best this week to keep up the Reading List as a weekly project. It was a lot easier given that I spent most of the week laid up sick!


OK so I’ve created a new category of awesome just for Yiibu just for this list. These are fantastic self contained presentations from the Yiibu team of Stephanie and Brian Rieger.

Beyond Progressive Enhancement

I saw Stephanie Rieger present at the Breaking Development conference I attended in 2010 and I’ve been a huge fan of hers and Brian’s work ever since. Each presentation offers insight – which I honestly feel is in short supply in the whole tech sector – rather than just spewing data. This presentation while specifically about progressive enhancement and the role of the web does have significant relevance to education – as I think that we are facing many of the same issues. For example what we do is not about

web vs apps, print vs digital, or bricks + mortar vs online… it’s about leveraging technology to build relationships and enable conversations

Its words like that demonstrate another dimension of understanding that’s just not apparent in much of the tech press (or the educational for that matter). In this presentation we can get glimpses of the future which is important because

shifting culture can be hard, but the first step is to understand what’s possible, and why embracing it might be better than what we’re doing today

This sums up what I believe educational technologist have to start doing – to help develop understanding. This is why I love the work of Audrey Watters so much because she offers the same kind of insight – past the PR and the press release and tries to tackle what the issues really are. In this vein I want this to become the edtech mantra:

technologies aren’t solutions, they’re simply tools that help us tell stories… our job is to tear down the walls, build bridges, and fill the gaps between the people, spaces and devices that surround us

Designing for diversity – how to stop worrying and embrace the Android revolution

So the second presentation from Yiibu delves deep into the world of Android. Now to be honest I’ve been a little scared of Android for a variety of reasons (practically speaking the fragmentation alone is just a pain in the arse) but after going through this presentation I can honestly say I am not afraid. In fact I’ve experienced an about face and would actually say that I’m excited by it.

I think Android has been framed in my mind as Google’s answer to Apple’s iOS – a duality, a ying and yang kind of thing. However I think thats a very Western way of thinking – in terms of competition and market share – when what should be made clear is that really Android represents opportunity. The adoption of Android in the East demonstrates the versatility, creativity and abundant permeability that an open platform allows. Seeing the diversity of devices now available on the Android platform from dual SIM phones in Indonesia, to dual screen e-ink devices in Russia and crowd-sourced platform modifications in China you get the taste of the diverse and vibrant environment that Android has created. Interestingly I now don’t consider Android a Google thing at all now – the East has liberated and co-opted it into its own entity and thats what’s actually really exciting!


Seven Steps to Build Your Experimental Capability

I really like Tim’s blog and he curates some great content. This one takes a look at a few points from Scott Berkun’s book The Year Without Pants (which is on my reading list). In this we explore the experimentation techniques used at Automattic, the company behind WordPress.

  1. Pick a problem – rather than of a cool idea let a problem drive the work
  2. Write a launch announcement and a support page – create a compellingly & simple explanation
  3. Consider what data will tell you it works – what does success looks like?
  4. Get to work – get stuck in and build it!
  5. Launch – but never launch with everything in place
  6. Learn – learning is what distinguishes experiments from mistakes.
  7. Repeat – It’s always a loop, not a line.

Change comes in cycles & Innovation in waves

OK I’m plugging my own work – but given how much this reading list has influenced me I figured it was appropriate. It’s a bit of a collection of ideas about innovation as I’m still on a mission to really determine what innovation actually is and what it looks like. The post is my first attempt at defining what innovation is to me. It might not align with the common cultural usage of the term – but as I articulate in the post I think thats where I’m having issues.


Improv and Content Strategy

Who’d have thunk it – content strategy and web design have something in common with improv comedy? I support it’s more to do with process but this is a great outline of how we should work (regardless of the field) day to day. I really love the three main points:

  1. Say Yes (The Rule of Agreement)
  2. Say “Yes, and …”
  3. Make Statements

Basically build, contribute and work with people – yes simple but often we don’t carry through. Worth noting that good advice is universal:

A good improv actor advocates for the audience through listening and collaboration with colleagues


The Ontology of the Web (Or, Why I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Learning Standards)

Doug Belshaw put together this post to discuss his process of coming to terms with the idea and concept of standards. I hadn’t read through Clay Shirky’s ‘Ontology is Overrated’ but the quotes that Doug has pulled into his article really are fantastic. I think my knowledge and understanding of standards is inherently different given my background in design and web – but I had come across the negative connotations before in the education sector. I think standards are an interesting space and why I felt I needed to comment:

My favourite analogy to explain my view of standards is that of the paintbrush, oils and canvas – the standards used in painting. They do not stymie creativity or whitewash the individual – they simply provide a context in which art can be formed. They are the tools and implements to exchange ideas and challenge practice. They provide a constraint, an edge to work against that challenges the creativity, skill and mastery of those involved. I hope thats what learning standards do too!

The Dictatorship of Data

I’ve been trying to write a post about some of my concerns and issues with the current interest in Big Data and Learning Analytics. This article does more than I ever could and exemplifies the problems with terrifying examples. At the heart of my problem is that we are relying on numbers to speak truth, but they are far more fallible than we could possibly think. This stems from my recent read of Gleick’s The Information and the discussion around numbers, math and data and the abstraction inherent in this process. When we start employing these methods to guide, influence and even control education alarm bells start to ring. The simple fact is that:

The underlying data can be of poor quality. It can be biased. It can be misanalyzed or used misleadingly. And even more damning, data can fail to capture what it purports to quantify.

Fundamentally I question this key point – the need quantify. This has become the driving force in government as well as the entire private and public sectors. Yet no one seems willing to question why we need to quantify in the first place. Gone are ideals and just doing it because it’s the right thing to do or a simplistic sense of duty. No we need to quantify it, put a number on it and then its OK. When we start to see the need to quantify everything we lose creativity, actual insight and talent. Instead we get, as ex-Google employee Douglas Bowman described, organisations that

Reduce each decision to a simple logic problem. That data eventually becomes a crutch for every decision, paralyzing the company.

Overcoming The Tech Trap: Why the Future of Business Is Relevance

Despite a focus and language based in the business world there is a lot that educational organisations can learn from. The idea of the tech trap is quite consistent with a lot of educational technology, so to the blind faith and religious further that come with it. This idea of Generation C (although I wouldn’t say its an age category) is a nice way of demonstrating changing cultural markers:

As customers and employees become part of Generation C (C = connected), they way they discover, share, and interact changes the dynamic in how they relate to businesses and organizations that they value.

I also really liked the idea that “insight and prescription materializes when you distinguish between trends and opportunity to achieve those goals”. I am starting to see (at least in the people I am following and reading) a massive upswing in insight because there is disengagement from the current range of trends, and it’s because they don’t address the issues, problems and goals of education.

(I’ve articulate some of these points in my most popular post The EdTech Revolution – According to Pearson

John Hattie – Visible Learning

This is a great video from John Hattie discussing some of the ideas of making learning visible. It was posted on our Yammer network and tied into another conversation I was having on there. The idea of creating a more visible sense of learning and teaching process and practices is one of the missing features in most institutions, software and technology at the moment. There are huge knowledge gaps in each of the relationships involved in education – teacher, student, institution, administration, support, IT, educational designer, etc – of what is known and what should be.

Feedback is often the missing ingredient but I think that there is something else more important – wayfaring. The more complex our software, system, taxonomies and organisations become the more important the ability to way-fare becomes. Individuals often lack the resources to orient and navigate themselves – and feedback is an important component of this, but not the only one.

Despite the call to be more self-directed & learner centred we rarely equip students (and staff!) with the means to navigate themselves. In my mind it is the same misconception that drives the myth of the digital native – they just inherently know about technology, they don’t need to learn it. We need to provide staff and students with better maps, compasses and signage not just better ways to ask for directions. This ties back into Hattie’s video quite nicely and he provides some practical components to teaching practice – but I think we need to start the same process in the technology we use too.

What is the Tin Can API?

I have some new work that I’ll be doing over the next few months exploring EdTech Support for Assessment & Moderation that coincides with the implementation of CSU’s new assessment policy. Part of this work is to explore the potential for new technologies and how they can align and create new opportunities in the assessment space.

While we have only just kicked off I am really interested in the TinCan API. The basic premise is that the API can provide simple experience statements structured on the premise of “Noun, verb, object”. The potential here is almost limitless – and not something entirely confined to education, where there could be some really interesting things done. It also has the ability to tie in to our criterion based assessment but also to other kinds of credentialling – like open badges! Fingers crossed I’ll get to do some more work in this space but this whole site has been really helpful in getting my head around the key concepts.

Flipped Classroom – A Student Perspective

I love getting a different perspective on things – so this students perspective on the flipped classroom was great. Still have to ask – why is this not standard operating process? Why isn’t there more of this kind of articulate student response? Too much reliance on survey data me thinks.

Polysynchronous Learning: A Model For Student Interaction and Engagement

A presentation from CSU colleague Barney Delgarno this is a really interesting theoretical framework of our online/offline & digital/analogue lives. It’s a great segue into my last article…

The End of the Offline World as We Know It?

I really enjoyed the concept that there isn’t a clear distinction between on and offline or what’s digital and analogue. That our reality is an amalgamation of the two:

This idea that we are trading the offline for the online, though it dominates how we think of the digital and the physical, is myopic. It fails to capture the plain fact that our lived reality is the result of the constant interpenetration of the online and offline.

Just for fun

I love this stuff – Magenta – and why it’s not a colour!