In my first post as a visitor to Michael’s blog I quoted Michael Fullan as encapsulating the motivations behind my research. I’m going to repeat that quote again as this post is going to focus on change:

“The answer to large-scale reform is not to try to emulate the characteristics of the minority who are getting somewhere under present conditions � Rather, we must change existing conditions so that it is normal and possible for a majority of people to move forward” (Fullan 2001, page 268)

This is a vision of the role of change as empowerment – an absolutely positive idea that surprisingly is not widely held. Change, particularly in the context of higher education, is regarded as a threat to our very existence and identities as scholars. The joke has been made that only 64 organisations have remained unchanged over the past four hundred years, two of these were churches, the rest universities [*].

There are fundamental biological reasons why we resist change. Change generates stress and too much stress has significantly harmful consequences to humans. When you look at the evolution of life, ecosystems that have little change tend to have the richest diversity of organisms, each one superbly adapted to its particular niche – much like academics one might say.

The problem faced by organisms that are very specialised for a particular niche is that nothing lasts forever. Environmental change, either natural or human-influenced, inevitably changes that comfortable niche and organisms must either adapt or die. Those organisms that are able to retain some flexibility in their requirements are more likely to find a suitable niche in the changed environment, those that are inflexible die.

This need for organisations to be responsive to change has been recognised for many years and is a staple of the business restructuring and reengineering gurus and their endless books. Universities seem to have ignored much of this, safe and secure in their roles as researchers and teachers. University restructuring has tended to be an unpleasant necessity forced upon us by changing student interests in particular disciplines or wider economic trends, and our responses have been limited to the barest minimum needed. The idea that universities might engage in systematic change proactively to become more resilient is very unpopular and tends to be the province of specialist institutions such as the Open University in the UK and the University of Phoenix in the US.

The resistence to change is not unexpected. Rogers discussed many of the drivers for the adoption of change in his book “The Diffusion of Innovations“. In one of his examples he discussed the challenge of getting african tribes to use clean water from a tap rather than polluted stream water. The change was resisted until women of high status in the tribe adopted it – until then excuses such as “it tastes wrong” were used or clean water was used in special cases such as washing for prayer.

Changing university education to reflect the opportunities provided by technology seems very similar. The high status universities are secure in their highly evolved and comfortable niches, while less successful ones look on and try to emulate them. Where technology is used, its kept for special cases such as distance or open provision, and there is a vast complacency around the effectiveness of traditional face to face teaching.

However, this complacence is misplaced. Ray Kurzweil makes a very compelling argument about the likely rapid pace of technological change that we will face over the next twenty years in his book “The Singularity is Near.” The pace of development and adoption of new technologies that will affect universities, teachers and students is going to continue to increase. Mobile, ubiquitous and powerful communication devices are going to fundamentally change how people access information – just consider how much the WWW has changed information access in just the last ten years.

One complacent response has been the concept of the Digital Native or Millenial student. The idea that new technologies have a generational impact is a hold over from the pace of change in the last century when changes happened slowly enough that you could adapt over a lifetime. If Ray Kurzweil is right, I really belive he is, we can expect to experience several lifetimes of technological change over our working careers this century.

The challenge this rapid environmental change poses was noted by Jorge Klor de Alva some time ago:

“societies everywhere expect from higher education institutions the provision of an education that can permit them to flourish in the changing global economic landscape. Those institutions that can continually change, keeping up with the needs of the transforming economy they serve, will survive. Those that cannot or will not change will become irrelevant, will condemn misled masses to second-class economic status or poverty, and will ultimately die, probably at the hands of those they chose to delude by serving up an education for a nonexistent world.”

So, the question I have been asking myself is, how can I assist my institution, and others, in understanding and responding to change? Maturity models like the eMM have been shown to assist organisations that want answers to questions like:

  • Is the organisation successful at learning from past mistakes?
  • Is it clear that the organisation is spending limited resources effectively?
  • Does everyone agree which problems within the organisation are the highest priorities?
  • Does the organisation have a clear picture of how it will improve its processes?

The eMM was designed as a tool for change with these questions in mind. In particular there are two parts of the model that embrace change. First, while the process set is designed to be stable, it does evolve and the current version is significantly improved over the original. Within those processes however, there are detailed practice lists provided to assess capability on each dimension. These practices can evolve rapidly as the quality of our evidence improves or as the eMM is applied in different contexts and responds to the needs of different cultures and environments.

The assessment of capability can also change and evolve as well. The use of the terms fully, largely and partially adequate to describe capability, rather than detailed and deterministic metrics means that eMM assessments can change over time. Evidence that supports a fully adequate capability assessment today, may well only support a partially adequate assessment in the future as technology and knowledge change. Institutions that are complacent in their current niche may well see their capability assessments erode unless they actively engage in understanding how technology and pedagogy are changing and react accordingly.

As it now stands, we think the eMM is a useful tool for supporting senior managers wanting to engage in changing their institutions ability to sustain effective e-learning for students. But, I think we can do more.

Colleagues at Manchester introduced me to a while ago to a concept from MIT known as the Matrix of Change. This got me thinking about ways in which the eMM can help drive change by acting as a tool for visualising the impact of potential future changes. Many of the practices listed within the dimensions of individual eMM processes are shared by more than one process, suggesting that addressing capability in one area will flow onto improvements in other processes.

For example, the practice “A researched evidence base of e-learning projects and initiatives undertaken within or relevant to the local context is maintained for use by staff engaged in e-learning design and (re)development” appears in ten eMM processes ranging from Learning, through Development, Support and Organisation.

If we can show how improving the practices of one process can flow through to improvements in all the other processes that are linked then I think we will have a powerful tool for strategic and operational planning – a tool for change rather than merely an assessment of the past, and just perhaps something that might help us better understand the future:

“If you want truly to understand something, try to change it.”

Kurt Lewin

Cheers from downunder,


PS: If you know where the original text of the speech or book this joke came from please let me know, I’ve lost the citation details…

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4 Responses to Change

  1. It’s one thing to say this: “we must change existing conditions so that it is normal and possible for a majority of people to move forward.”

    And something very different to say this: “how can I assist my institution, and others, in understanding and responding to change?”

    Empowering the organization is not the same as empowering the individuals within that organization, and indeed, the two from time to time work at cross-purposes.

    This is why (to address what I see as a major challenge for Michael’s new company) I have never interacted with Oracle.

    Nothing Oracle produces helps me as an individual. It does empower my employer, but not in any way that helps me, and sometimes in ways that hinder me.

    From my perspective there are two approaches to effecting the widespread use of some software:

    - scalability – the software can get bigger
    - networking – instances of the software can talk to each ofther

    The problem with scalability, in my mind is:

    - the software gets unnecessarily complex, as it must incorporate features for a wider base of users
    - the software gets more expensive

    Scalable, enterprise-level software is beyon the reach of the individual, because it is too expensive and too complex. By its very nature, then, it empowers the enterprise, but it disempowers the individual.

  2. I don’t have the skills to run my own mail server, but the fact that my employer (or Google, or Yahoo!) does empowers me. For that matter, I couldn’t run my own domain server either, but since I spend half my waking hours on the internet, I am eternally grateful that somebody can. I probably could run my own web server, but I wouldn’t. So the fact that I can go to a third party and have them provide support for my blog is also empowering to me, even though I give up some measure of control.

    I also think it’s important to recognize that eMM covers vastly broader territory than my own announcement. Stephen is talking about things like faculty development, curriculum design, and just about every support element that goes into widespread diffusion of e-Learning at a university at high quality levels.

  3. I also think it’s important to recognize that eMM covers vastly broader territory than my own announcement.

    Of course. But I would say, I have said, similar things about things like faculty development, curriculum design, and just about every support element.

    If you can’t run your own email server (a proposition I sincerely doubt), then that’s a strike against email, and probably why younger web uses have migrated elsewhere. Same with other web applications.

  4. Dr. Stephen J. Marshall says:

    If you can’t run your own email server (a proposition I sincerely doubt), then that’s a strike against email,

    I can, but expecting every member of faculty and student to do so is impractical and fundamentally unsustainable. I agree that a small majority of early adopters can implement any technology they need – I don’t believe that you can build a sustainable education system on that basis. I’m more interested (as Fullen says) in providing the mechanism for empowering students to learn and academics to assist this by teaching – none of which requires them to have the individual skills or infrastructure to provide all of the technology needed – that’s the role of the institution.

    Taking (Stephens) point to the final conclusion we wouldn’t have institutions at all – empowered information users would generate their own education independently. The reality is that most of our students need help in learning effectively and employers want someone to certify that students are minimally competent in particular disciplines.

    The view that all users can (and want to) maintain their own technology infrastructure is flawed I believe – it also weakens the concept of the PLE – most people want technology to be invisible, but that requires someone who is prepared to do that for them. We can’t sustain a high quality education system on banner ads (at least anywhere in the world where the Internet is not free…)

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