Personal Academic Tutoring (Viable Systems Model view)

Many institutions are pushing ahead with learning analytics and in so doing are identifying different use cases. In this example, the development of a Personal Academic Tutoring dashboard that uses the digital footprint of students across the university systems as a proxy for engagement. From a technical perspective, once data is accessible (held in a data warehouse for example) it becomes a relatively straightforward proposition to produce different presentations or visualisations for whatever purpose is identified.

In this Viable Systems Model (VSM, Stafford Beer) inspired diagram I have tried to capture the high level relationships between the key processes, organisational structures and their relationship to the external environment (pink).

Central to the VSM is the concept of variety management as achieved through amplification and attenuation between the manger and the managed. I think that the part of the system within the dotted line is relatively healthy in this respect, however elsewhere the flow of information and instructions are unidirectional which does not provide for a balanced and thus healthy system.

The relationship between students and their tutors is by far and away the most important contributor to an engaged student, and great carer needs taking to ensure that it is cultivated in a thoughtful way, and not transformed into a ‘policing’ activity. As institutions come under increasing external pressures (financial and reputational), their priorities around progression rates and destinations of students become sharpened. However, pushing targets down from the top without adequate feedback loops risks incurring unexpected consequences.



Pedagogical Patterns: Associate Fellow of the HEA

The ‘father’ of Pattern Languages is the architect Christopher Alexander. In the 1970’s he became concerned about the way in which the design process of living spaces had changed from one whereby those who live and use the buildings, streets, parks, etc. were primarily responsible for their design to one dominated by architects, town planners, and other professionals. He developed the idea of a structured template where:

Each pattern describes a problem which occurs over and over again in our environment, and then describes the core of the solution to that problem, in such a way that you can use this solution a million times over, without ever doing it the same way twice. (Alexander et al., 1977)

For Alexander, the process of writing patterns democratises decision making about buildings and spaces as it also communicates ideas clearly to non professionals about a design thereby allowing wider society to input int the decision making process.

These ideas have inspired the development of Pedagogical Patterns, although in this context there is little evidence of the aims of those capturing patterns to have learners as a part of the conversation.

The pattern below is a response to demand to develop an online module that can be mapped against the UK Professional Standards Framework (UKPSF) for Higher education.

a. Archetypal example of the pattern: an inquiry based approach to improving personal work practices and organisational performance.

b. Pattern context: this pattern fits within a larger collection of patterns around supporting online learning and in particular work focussed learning using inquiry based methods.

c. Essence of the problem: how to support academics in partner institutions around the world achieve Recognised Tutor Status which equates to Associate Fellow of the HEA.

d. Body of the problem: in order to assure the quality of teaching on franchised and accredited programmes, the host Higher Education Institution needs to have confidence that the teaching and resulting learner experience is comparable to that experienced by students on home delivered programmes. This applies to multiple different contexts and needs of academics, and is essentially about delivering sustainable CPD opportunities.

e. The solution: use inquiry based approaches where students find out about their own work context, identify opportunities and issues and devise individual plans to bring about improvements. To absorb the high variety of students and their work contexts, use portfolio assessment and learning outcomes & assessment criteria that are capability focussed rather than subject or discipline. As much as possible, design activities where students interact with and support each other sharing their ideas and approaches reducing the demand on the tutor. This approach is theoretical underpinned by the concept of variety as explain in the Viable Systems Model (Stafford Beer, 1985).

f. Diagram solution: the solution below is supported through a VLE with a specific learning design.


Handling Disruptive Innovations in HE : Lessons from Two Contrasting Case Studies

For a long time we have been thinking about why our curriculum innovations in higher education institutions (HEI) take off or not, and this is our attempt at an explanation; ‘Handling Disruptive Innovations in HE : Lessons from Two Contrasting Case Studies‘.

We examined our experiences in two different HEI of implementing the same curriculum innovation of the work-focussed model of learning, one successfully and the other, more recent, far less so. In brief, the work-focussed model is: an undergraduate degree; has curriculum focus determined by the student’s inquiry focus; uses action research as teaching/learning approach; is support through online communities of inquiry; and has academic tutors in the role of facilitators.

Clayton Christensen theory of disruptive innovation was used as an analytical framework, and we conclude that there was strong evidence for the proposition that institutions “have strong inbuilt filters that weed out any innovation proposals that do not directly enhance the current products or services they offer to their existing markets.”  In our first successful incarnation of the work-focussed model, we operated from a semi-autonomous sub-unit and has such had a high degree of flexibility and control over our business processes and functions (marketing, technology used, teaching practices, etc.), whilst in the second case these were far more geared towards institutional norms and we found that these severely hampered the development of the new provision as the existing products win the resource battle and seek to maintain established ways of working.

The take away lesson is that for curriculum innovations to be successful, institutions need to “put in place the appropriate structural and governance arrangements that will enable them to flourish rather than get killed off.”

In response to Chrissi’s 3 plus one #blimage challenge…

My choice from the 4 images offered and my thoughts around the question “What do your eyes and/or mind see? How do you connect with one of these pictures?”
14924253780_47eedc4faf_zI heard on the radio this morning that this weekend will be the busiest for channel ports of the year.  When I look at this picture I see nothing profound, but I do feel a strong sense of wanting to be on that warm beach in the warm sun doing nothing but messing around in the sea and the sand with my family.  With some imagination I can see the red chord and parasol as a flying stunt kite, something that we love to do when there is a strong enough breeze blowing. This is a quiet sea, but of course that can change quickly and there is nothing like dancing in the waves of a rough sea when they are smashing onto the beach – even the North Sea off the coast of Scarborough is fine with a 4mm wetsuit! I have a friend who swears by the value of the Learning on the Beach unconference.  I haven’t been to an unconference, but the next time I hear about one on a beach like this I think I might try it out!

Reflections on day 1 of Flex

Although I have had a twitter account since April 2007, I have still only tweeted just over 100 times! One day into the FOS course and, although I only added half a dozen tweets, I feel that I have improved my understanding of twitter significantly.

The focus of yesterday on was digital literacy and identity and I managed to read a good number of the resources in preparation for the evenings TewwtChat #FOSchat which I accessed through TweetDeck mostly.

Undertaking activity 1, which was about reflecting on my current practices and what could help students and colleagues, I was left with a feeling of unease that we are, once again, overcomplicating higher education by adding a further ‘wish list’ of what higher education should be doing.

In principle, I am convinced and have been for years that to be effective in most work contexts it is essential to proficient with digital technologies and the uses to which they can be put.  However, the myriad of frameworks  show how we have managed to create a new industry out of something, and my fear is that we exclude the non specialists from this conversation, thereby reducing the likelihood of bringing about meaningful change for our students.

Reflecting upon my experience of the approach of using Twitter, I am not sure that I learned a great deal about the subject of digital literacy and identity.  However, I did have a good time practicing my digital literacy skills, becoming far more familiar with twitter.  Maybe this evening when I can focus less on the process, I will be able to think more about the topic at hand.


LEGO Serious Play


I have just finished a 3 part, 3 hour LEGO SeriousPlay course run by my colleague Chrissi Nerantzi. This is what the LEGO people say:

“The idea of LEGO® SERIOUS PLAY® originated in 1996 when the two professors Johan Roos and Bart Victor at IMD in Switzerland and LEGO Group CEO and owner Kjeld Kirk Kristiansen were exploring alternative strategic planning tools and systems. They developed an understanding about the value of employees and the concept of evolving, adaptive strategy that included using LEGO elements as three-dimensional models of business issues and challenges, which later became known as LEGO® SERIOUS PLAY®.”

What we did (briefly)…

The sessions format was for an initial discussion around resources provided (the homework) and then most of our time spent using LEGO bricks to build models and discuss them as a group.  The applications for this technique that we experienced were as a reflective tool (from personal to focussed on an external issue) and also as a tool for creativity and ideas generation.

18500504013_66262552a1_nTypically, we, the LEGO players, built models from different perspectives, and then explained ourindividual models to the group (6 in total) at which point the strength of metaphors becomes apparent as an important vehicle for conceptualising and exploring issues.  This was sometimes taken a step further by requiring players to then combine their models resulting in a higher level of abstraction about the particular issue or topic at hand.

For example, one task required us to: 1. build three models that show, a) how do other people see us professionally, b) how do we see ourselves professionally, C) what would be like to become professionally?  We were then asked to place a green block on which of the models was most important to us and then explain ourselves in turn to the group.  A discussion then followed with the aim of creating a combined model that represented how we saw the attributes of an effective academic.

What I learned (tentatively)…

  • when there is a high degree of trust in the group, a high degree of disclosure about personal feelings can be quickly arrived at
  • when questions address topics that an individual has though extensively about previously, there is a temptation to explain a position rather than develop new thinking
  • to be effective the play activities need locating in a wider process that captures ideas and insights and moves on to use or implementation.  Depending on the purpose, just being creative in the moment doesn’t feel valuable enough!
  • the poorer the ‘quality of model’ the greater the use of metaphor and the need for imagination by all, this may be an advantage
  • as players become more practiced there is a greater need for more thoughtful structuring of activities and asking of questions.  If this ins’t the case, the sessions run the risk of being superficial
  • there is a fine line between enthusiastic participant and disengaged outcast, this requires skilled facilitation and awareness by all participants of the risk posed by dominating conversations – listening skills are very important
  • participants need to be clear about why they are playing with LEGO, what is the purpose behind it


In my mind, there is a connection between these workshops and the kinds of learning we see in early years in schools around Continuous Provision in that they are based on the principle of structured and purposeful play.  I am also reminded of the work of Ultralab where we used the loosely defined concept of delightful learning as a benchmark evaluative term to apply to our projects and activities, and Richard Millwood’s analysis of the work of John Heron on delight is particularly useful as a framework for thinking about approaches such as LEGO play.

What I plan to do next…

I enjoyed my time on the course and can see that there are applications in my own work.  I will sign up for the next series of workshops that explores this and other approaches to play in learning further, and use these experiences towards a negotiated learning module (FLEX – LEGO play) using the conceptual framework developed by Millwood, based on the work of Heron.

Congratulations to Dr. Fox

roz thesis coverA recommended read for any action researchers out there and those interested in communities and regeneration “Transformative Community Engagement for Sustainable Regeneration.

Selections from the abstract:

…The aim of this research is to provide a critical examination of community engagement through the development of practice and strategy of a UK housing association to deliver neighbourhood regeneration in a deprived neighbourhood in North West England.

…An action research approach using interlinked inquiry streams was undertaken with residents, senior managers and practitioners. The findings were used to develop community engagement strategy, articulate a model of engagement practice and enable the residents’ lived experience and views on service providers to be heard.

…The first contribution is the adaptation of Andrews and Turner’s (2006) Consumerist and Participatory Framework for the analysis of community engagement in a housing association context.

…The second contribution to knowledge is the creation of a model of transformative community engagement practice, based on an extended definition of neighbourhood sustainability, the literature review and research findings.

…Findings can be transferred to other housing providers or agencies looking to engage residents to achieve sustainable outcomes that will improve their lives and local neighbourhoods.