The Paces of Change

The landscape of education is constantly transforming. Will we be flexible enough, agile enough, to keep up? Will we have the right resources and support in place, at the right time? How can we leverage this moment of opportunity to leap forward?

The narratives surrounding transformative innovation require many people and systems to evolve, harmoniously, together. To smooth transitions and achieve meaningful and intentional transformation, we must first understand each of the interdependent moving pieces of this puzzle. A brief examination of the complex temporal landscape surrounding transformation of educational systems is presented here, beginning with a discussion of distinct stakeholders and systems.

Who is “we”?

We begin with this question because flexibility and readiness, change and value are all reckoned differently by different stakeholders. University facilities are periodically updated, but at any given moment the physical infrastructure of an institution is composed of pieces—buildings, power and data infrastructure, classroom equipment, and support personnel—which have been in place for varied periods of time. A single classroom may be located in a physical building dating to 1940, furnished with desks and chairs dating to 1993, equipped with whiteboards and lectern from 2002, and updated to include a projector, screen, and data ports in 2008. To successfully implement the latest tool or practice, one must evaluate how good a fit it is for university facilities – and there may be a great deal of variation in readiness across a single institution. If implementation takes time— say a year from the initial evaluation for fit to classroom use—then there is a chance that the state of relevant facilities will change in that time, rendering the evaluation outdated.

Educators begin their careers as novices, students, apprentices, and junior faculty. They learn about teaching strategy in the context of a particular theoretical and cultural moment: the state-of-the-art in theories of learning and the science of evidence-based teaching, available technologies and effective disciplinary practices. By the time they are experienced instructors with well-developed courses, there are new technologies, new theories, new cultural trends to contend with.

Educational technologies are not developed instantaneously, either: from ideation to realization to testing to implementation at scale, the development of an educational tool or technology takes place along a timeline, and in the context of one set of conditions. Someone has an idea; she works with designers, developers, coders, engineers, or perhaps just on her own to build a description, or a prototype. This is a new idea, and the innovator imagines a use case for it which one hopes is a good fit for at least some kinds of institutional infrastructure, theories of learning, policy environments, and capabilities of educators. The innovator then must work with other people—and teams of people— who have specific skillsets which are particularly of-the-moment: web development, programming languages, solving engineering challenges, pedagogical development, and other diverse bodies of expertise which must be brought to bear in order to realize the tool first dreamed by our innovator. If this process of development takes one year, that is a month fixed in time. It is a moment when certain programming environments, engineering challenges, pedagogical priorities, institutional facilities, cultural tropes, faculty training, and policy environments may give the illusion of stability. But all of these are in flux.

When we speak of evidence-based educational tools or practices, we expect that implementing these innovations will produce better outcomes. That, after all, is what the evidence says! This evidence was built by testing the tool or practice in a use case mired in specificity. This tool produces better outcomes in this place, at this time, with educators informed about these theories of learning, using the tool towards these ends, compatible with these institutional policies and practices. Without a doubt, some or all of these contextual factors will change in time. This state change may result in a poor fit for any given intervention, regardless of how effective the intervention was proven in its development and test phases. With the passage of time, greater state changes result is more challenges to good fit. Tools and practices will require considered, constant updating or maintenance in order to maintain their effectiveness. After some period of time has passed, states will sometimes have changed so significantly that a practice or technology effectively maintained will have no resemblance to its original form.

Infrastructure, cutting-edge research, the professional development of educators, the nature of administration, relevant policy, innovative technology, and more each evolve on distinct timeframes. The wheels of progress constantly turn, but are not synchronized. To navigate these disparate temporal landscapes, we must first abandon the dream of reconciling or aligning them. An anthropological approach contributes a great deal to our understanding of the many ways that different individuals and organizations might experience the same phenomena, and the many paces of change. Policymakers will benefit from a discussion of perspective-taking, temporal targeting, and flexible goal-setting.

Written by Lauren Herckis, Anthropologist Specialising in Faculty Culture and the Use of Technology at Carnegie Mellon University, USA. Published in the Book of Abstracts for OEB Global 2017 by ICWE II GmbH, ISBN 978-3-941055-47-6. Order the print version here.

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