Tag Archives: Higher Education

The [insert force of nature here] is nigh: Rethinking the future of Higher Education with Complexity Theory

Despite the individual themes that have marketed each HE conference I have attended recently, all the keynotes seem to be addressing the same issue: how will educators respond to the influence of technology that is challenging/threatening the landscape of HE in the 21st Century?

At the Higher Education Academy’s Annual Conference (July 3-4 2013, University of Warwick), the keynote, Chief Education Strategist at the publisher Pearson, Sir Michael Barber, gripped the 400+ audience with the title of his speech: ‘An Avalanche is Coming’. This report, headed up by Barber, aims to challenge the current complacency of educators’ responses to the changes that are occurring globally: shifting power and (developing) global leadership in Asia, climate change, economic uncertainty, the higher cost of a ‘university degree’ but lower perceived value, and, most importantly for HE, how technology is ‘weakening’ the walls of the traditional university through the introduction of competition from alternative education opportunities.

The influence of technology and globalisation on economic sectors began decades ago, and now it is time for the education sector to feel the force. Others in education have likened this pressure to a landslide or a tornado. Whatever dramatic force of nature metaphor we use, the idea behind it is that while the landscape of HE may still appear smooth and solid on the surface, underneath little changes are occurring. Momentum has been steadily gathering and when, not if, this movement comes crashing in, ‘standing still is not an option’ because, if we do, ‘an avalanche of change will sweep the system away’[1].  Boom. The landscape of HE will be forever altered.

So how to react? Barber argues that instead of viewing this technological onslaught as a threat, those involved in HE need to positively anticipate this change. In fact, the opportunities for British education are much greater if universities mobilise partnerships in government, education, industry and society. Leadership and innovation need to be at the heart of universities’ mission in order to best harness the power of globalisation and technology and tackle the huge issues facing the next generations. A radical and urgent transformation is needed in HE to realise these capacities, but anxiety, complacency and perhaps fear are presenting themselves as barriers to this call to ‘ponder anew’ HE’s role in contemporary society.

After a recent introductory lecture on complexity theory in education, I thought Barber’s words resonated with some of the ideas current researchers interested in complexity theory and education are discussing. Furthermore, some writers have used complexity theory and the thermodynamic models of Ilya Prigogine to conceptualise revolutions and, indeed, the subheading in Barber’s report refers to this – ‘Higher Education and the Revolution Ahead’. So I thought it’d be fun to have a play with some of Brent Davis, Dennis Sumara and Rebecca Luce-Kapler’s[2] work on education and complex worlds. I start with a disclaimer that as I have only read a few articles about complexity theory, in this blog post I am merely skipping about and making daisy chains in the foothills of this theory and would love to hear from others who are more committed and have bought the OS map to use their work in more depth.

So complexity theory is a way of investigating and considering a phenomenon that is resistant to, or unhelpfully seen as, a reductionistic analysis. Complexity theory begins with distinguishing between a complicated system and one that is complex. A complicated system would consider the behaviour of things, such as washing machines and cars, as linear, rational objects that are the predictable sum of their parts. This mechanical, reductionist way of thinking, with cause and effect at the heart of it, has often been adopted in Western science to understand how most phenomena work and behave.

Complex systems, on the other hand, are NOT reducible to the sum of their parts. For example, the human body and weather systems are complex systems:

The human body arises from, but is something more than, the interactions of a heart, a brain, and other organs. These organs in turn, are comprised of and supersede collections of living cells and neurons. And so on. (Davis et al, 2000, p. 55). 

These systems are reacting to dynamic, nonlinear interactions from other parts that are unpredictable and, quite likely, invisible.

I want to take this perspective and use it to problematise current understandings of HE institutions, such as universities. Let’s say that universities are seen as complicated systems: it could be argued they are management-orientated and highly regulated, bureaucratic institutions. Their focus on skills-based conceptions of learning commodifies knowledge, champions the individual leaner and positions learning as a result of deliberate planning. They are (trying to be) predictable and rational.

Instead, if we were to envisage universities for the next generation as complex adaptive systems – or, in fact, complex learning systems – we can begin to locate universities in an ecology of interdependent, unfolding events. A complex learning system is one:

where learning is understood as a process through which a unity becomes capable of more flexible, more creative activity that enables the unity to maintain its fit to its ever evolving context. (Davis and Sumara, 2006, p. 92)[3]

In line with complexity theory then, such a system is characterised by its ability to adapt itself to changing circumstances: the emergence of endless possibilities, continual uncertainty and disordering dynamics can enable a system to transform. It is only through this disorder that a healthy system can function – disturbances are always needed if there is going to be learning. So the disturbance by partnerships, by competition, by the Internet and by developments in Asia can be envisioned as positive disturbances that have the ability to transform the systems of HE. Therefore, instead of complicated systems that can run down, complex learning systems can defy entropy and spontaneously generate order.

I think I may now be playing with laws of thermodynamics that are far beyond my understanding but what is most important here, I think, is this idea of uncertainty. We don’t – we can’t – know what technology advances will hold for the education sector. The rapid innovation of technology has, at its essence, this element of the unknown and the unpredictable and, with it, an interdependent (unknown) influence on educational practices. So, if we can think of ways to keep open these tensions and disturbances, to encourage educators to attune to emerging ideas and possible actions, and to work positively in uncertainty, then we can seize Barber’s challenge, rather than remain complacent.

Surely then, this is a healthier way to conceptualise the future of HE. However, I’m sure that in our neoliberal era of accountability, the idea of a self-organising system seems just too radical. This would present more of a challenge than one would possibly like to imagine. But it’s nice to mess about and make those daisy chains!

[1] Cited from the Preface and Executive Summary of Michael Barber, Katelyn Donnelly, Saad Rizvi (2013). An Avalanche Is Coming Higher education and the revolution ahead. Institute for Public Policy Research.

[2] Davis, B., Sumara, D., and Luce-Kapler, R., 2000. Engaging minds: Learning and teaching in a complex world. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc., London.

[3] Davis, B., and Sumara, D., 2006. Complexity and education: Inquiries into learning, teaching, and research. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Mawah, NJ.


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What’s trending in Higher Education ethnography?

I have just returned from an international gathering of HE researchers who convened in Prague to present and discuss their latest ethnographic works (Ethnographies of Higher Education conference, May 22-25, 2013 – jointly organised by Centre for Higher Education Studies, Prague, Institute of Sociology of Academy of Sciences of CR and University of Pardubice). Jimmy was in his element in Prague – apparently 40% of the Czech population are dog owners: more than in France, and less posh.

ImageOver the few days, a couple of themes kept popping up that I thought would be interesting to share.

Firstly, a few topics that are currently being studied using ethnographic approaches:

–       How do universities manage interdisciplinarity in research activity? What does it mean to be an interdisciplinary researcher, and what qualities should we be supporting in our colleagues if we are truly aspiring to be interdisciplinary? (John Taylor: Liverpool University)

–       How do we promote a culture of entrepreneurship in university courses? What works and what doesn’t when trying to encourage creativity and innovation in everyday practice, not just for economic gain? (Sarah Robinson: Aarhus University)

–       How do we understand everyday student life in a post-conflict society? (Katrine Scott: Lund University)

–       What does cheating mean now in HE – who is cheating who in academia? What role does the teacher play in encouraging cheating? (Petr Pabian: University of Pardubice) 

The opportunities and challenges of conducting ethnographic research using virtual worlds

A number of studies used Facebook as a ‘site’ to conduct an ethnographic study. The information added and stored on this social media tool could provide a wealth of data for researchers interested in understanding student experiences, for example, in LGBT communities, or in first year student groups. Interestingly, UK researchers experienced more success with gaining ethical consent from ethical boards than colleagues in the US. But how is an ethnographic study actually conducted if participant observation is mediated through a computer? Discussions centred around insider/outsider issues: most researchers use Facebook in their private lives so how did they consider issues of sharing their profiles and intimate lives with participants? What levels of access should both parties be granted? Do you combine virtual communication with face-to-face interviews? Eve Stirling at Sheffield University gave a very compelling account about how such research could work.

What can be classified as an ethnographic study in HE?

To be honest, I was surprised at the number of talks that claimed to be of an ethnographic nature but were, in fact, designed as qualitative studies using interviews and focus groups. Because HE researchers often lecture, advise, and consult students in HE settings alongside their research endeavours, I felt that they justified this association with students as an immersion into the field they were studying, and then this was enough contact to claim a prolonged period of time as a critical observer. However, I felt this was not doing ethnographic methodology justice and was surprised at how people in the audience did not seem to contest this claim. Maybe at the next conference I’ll have enough confidence to stand on my soapbox and share this opinion and not just write about it in my blog!


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The Tentative Academic

Welcome to my blog!

A brief introduction – I am a full-time PhD student in the School of Education at the University of Stirling, working within the research network Professional Education, Practice and Learning. That’s what my business card says anyway. But before I get into any more of ‘how I got to where I am today and why’ spiel, I feel I have to confess that I’m having some identity issues.  Even though I would situate my job title firmly in the academic arena, I would call myself a ‘tentative academic’.  This is grounded in the feeling that I’m not quite sure what an ‘academic’ is anymore. I have always been put off by the idea of joining what I (along with many others, I’m sure) view as a solitary, ego-based and quite lonely profession. When an offer to do a PhD came about at Stirling on the back of completing my MRes in Education, I expressed my concerns to my potential supervisor. She waved away these stereotypical images promising an interactive, dynamic and exhilirating experience. Hmm… Nevertheless, she is an incredibly energetic and convincing speaker so I decided to suspend my preconceptions, and became a phd candidate in 2011. No regrets yet. But what does it mean to be an ‘academic’?

One of our first graduate training workshops explored the learning process – On being a PhD Student. On the first morning, Sarah Goldsworthy, the facilitator, asked those in the room to raise their hands if they thought they were an academic. Not one person put their hand up. When do you become an ‘academic’, she asked? When you publish your first paper, first book, hold your first lecture, supervise your first student? Nope, apparently we were academics now.  No one looked convinced. And one and a half years into my research project, I’m still not sure when I can confidently claim this title. I have come to the conclusion that, thanks to today’s international and technological academic networks, a PhD is very much a creative process; a three or four year ‘job’ that can be shaped in so many ways.

Holding fast to the ‘learning’ status of the PhD this past 18 months, I’ve been happy to hang out in the banlieues of academia. I don’t mind it out of the headlights, sitting on a park bench with Jimmy and watching what’s going on, figuring out when and what bits of the hustle and bustle I’d like to get up and join. This freedom to observe has afforded me the realisation that it’s okay to play with the boundaries of academia. With the rapid increase and innovation of technology and social media being created for and by PhD students and academics, you can operate in a personalised ‘world’, choosing the medium you feel comfortable with and attuning your work and outputs to where your natural strengths lie and still expect a successful career (economic climate pending). For example, I love networking, working in groups, conferences and meeting to share ideas face to face. Writing concise, yet dense and theoretically profound paragraphs within a strict word count and hiding behind it, not so much. On the technological front, communicating through Facebook groups, emails and texts are like drinking water; I’m sitting comfortably amongst the digital natives, albeit I’m a late bloomer. But twitter, blogs, webinairs; I’m out of my comfort zone. Who wants to hear my opinions, rants, half-baked ideas, apart form my long suffering PhD buddies? What would I say in a blog that could be earth-shatteringly original? After all, am I not just adding to what the comedian Chris Ramsey calls offer-mation, to the pile of ‘not very interesting personal information that we haven’t asked for’?

If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em…

This last year a couple of things swam into my conscious that made me realise it was sink or swim with social media, especially if I ever become inclined to break free of this academic ‘tentativeness’. Firstly, my supervisor asked me to register with Twitter and tweet during an international conference that our research network, ProPEL was hosting at Stirling. After much agonising about how to best use my 140 characters, I finally clicked that it didn’t matter particularly what you were saying, it was the virtual presence you were creating with your hashtags and your snippets of that day’s proceedings that were breaking through the physical walls of the conference rooms, inviting colleagues in Australia to feel part of our community in real time. Next realisation: I was asked for my ‘blog address’ on a recent conference application form as nonchalantly as they requested my postal address and phone number. I left that pointedly blank. Then my PhD colleagues started to create blogs (for example, the eloquent and thought-provoking Knowledge is Porridge by Daniel Sage), our supervisors pointed us to ‘professional’ and trending PhD blogs for helpful thesis writing tips (for example, Patter and The Thesis Whisperer), and friends were creating blogs post-PhD to kick-start their careers (Positive Performance headed up by Dr Anna Serlachius). For these reasons, coupled with a vague 2013 New Year’s resolution that I need to be less self-conscious about my writing and just ‘get it out there’, I am slowly starting to concede to the value of blogging.

So, turning my back on Mr Ramsey’s warning of offering unsolicited ponderings to the public, I present to you ‘the office dog’ – a blog positing my reflections on research in Higher Education,professional practice, workplace learning, practice-based knowing, sociomaterial discussions, assessment and feedback issues, and my musings about what it is to be a PhD student in today’s world. Even if reading this gives you momentary respite from trying to figure out the intricacies of capitalising your references in RefWorks, I’ll feel like creating this blog has been worth it….

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