6.0. Summary of Reflections and Conclusions

Dr. Stephen Powell PhD: Innovating the development of Work Focussed Learning in higher education

Section 6 header

6.1 Section Summary

I now reflect upon and synthesise the previous sections based on the past ten years of seeking to innovate curriculum developments within higher education (HE).  This is used to establish my claim for a PhD on, “Innovating the development of Work Focussed Learning in higher education“.  In particular, this work has had as its core the idea that work can form the basis for learning which can then be accredited by Higher Education and this idea also applies to the creation of this PhD submission as it is based upon my own professional practice of radical curriculum innovation in HE.  I have sought to articulate the significance of my work drawing upon a range of theories and concepts outlined in section 2.2.  In this concluding section, in particular, undertaking an analysis of my experience through the lens of Disruptive Innovation (Bower and Christensen 1995), explained in section 2.2.4.  This concept has been useful in helping me to understand how the similar pedagogical approaches of the Ultraversity and IDIBL Projects have met with different outcomes in their different contexts and why organisations can find it difficult to foster radical innovation.

6.2 Introduction

Over the decade covered by this claim, the nature of the research issues I have considered has changed significantly.  Initially, my interest was around the pedagogy of online learning and then the development of Work Focussed Learning.  Although this remains my primary motivation, I am forced to address the question, systemic change in complex systems – why is it so hard?  This is because of the conundrum I face when seeking to understand my practice is why the curriculum model, used successfully in the Ultraversity project at Anglia Ruskin University, proved difficult to implement when reincarnated as the IDIBL and Coeducate projects.  These are two quite different contexts, and as such it might be expected that the outcomes would not be exactly the same, however there is I believe much to be learned from the different experiences.

My analysis and reflection, using the theory of disruptive innovation, leads me to conclude that there are systemic issues that prevent radical innovation in HE that must be tackled for radical curriculum innovations to be successful, and I illustrate what these might be.

To recap, my contributions to knowledge include:

  1. Chapter 3, a conceptual development of working practices that delivered the model of Work Focussed Learning;
  2. Chapter 4, a strategic mechanism to bring about cross institutional adoption of the model of Work Focussed Learning;
  3. Chapter 4, a cybernetic analysis of the pedagogy of the model of Work Focussed Learning in delivering a personalised curriculum;
  4. Chapter 5, analysis of institutional barriers to adoption of the model of Work Focussed Learning; and
  5. in this concluding Chapter 6, analysis of the challenges faced by radical curriculum innovation in higher education.

6.2.1 UK Contemporary Higher Education Context

Blackmore and Kandiko (2012, 4-6) argue that the higher education system is globalising at a rapid rate with increasing competition nationally and internationally for students, although the exact impact of this will be institution specific.  In addition, they identify the desire by politicians to marketise HE through approaches like the development of league tables and requiring institutions to make available data for Key Information Sets for each undergraduate programme to give the consumers information about features such as contact hours and employability statistics.  Further competition is also being promoted through allowing new entrants to the HE system that offer different models of public and private universities (Willets 2011).  These factors are contributing to a new context for HEIs in which potentially disruptive innovations are likely to arise, posing a threat to existing models and demanding an appropriate response.

6.3 Application of Theory of Disruptive Innovation

Reflecting on my experience over the three projects that form the basis of my PhD claim, the insight that I identify is that the Ultraversity project operated outside of the constraints of the rest of the university working as a semi-autonomous sub group.  The IDIBL Framework was by contrast, specifically designed to work within the existing university mechanisms.  The contrast between Ultraversity and IDIBL illustrates just how different the model of Work Focussed Learning is from normal university teaching.

Reflecting on this further, Table 1 identifies the key functions developed and operated, grouped by business model elements (thesis section 2.2.4.4) and how they differed in the case of Ultraversity and the IDIBL/Coeducate experience.  The ones highlighted are further explained.

Function Business Model Element Ultraversity Project (2003-7) IDIBL / Coeducate projects (2007-12)
Marketing Value Proposition Carried out by project team, targeted to appeal to individual students in specific employment contexts; teaching assistants in schools mailed nationally; and health workers Consultation with university marketing department, advice offered by marketing department to the project on development of marketing materials, direct mailing to a few employers by project team, significant engagement with professional bodies, but no clear university message
Student support Value proposition Notable peer support in large online community supplemented by project team Limited peer and project team support with smaller numbers involved
Pedagogical approach Value proposition Work Focussed Learning Work Focussed Learning.
(1) Pricing Profit formula Proposed and accepted lower than normal – defended by the project in terms of detailed accountancy to achieve project sustainability Proposal to lower fees not accepted, despite lower costs and need to reach unserved students –university norms maintained
(2) Productivity model for teaching staff Processes and profit formula Newly designed on a student-centred basis to fit open and distance learning conditions, derived from sustainable business model Struggling to meet departmental norms for staff, normally timetable-centred and also to fit open & distance learning conditions
Virtual learning environment and assessment e-Portfolio system Process Designed for purpose, drawing on a range of online tools, fluid and agile to respond to developing needs including assessment feedback, tracking & reflection on progress, and contact information Mainstream university VLE, limited scope for development, design decreed for all university online offerings, developments ongoing
Quality assurance procedures Processes Normal validation, course committee, assessment and progression boards with external examiners. Adaptation of quality processes to reflect online nature of course; committees held virtually via Skype or conference call Normal validation, course committee, assessment and progression boards with external examiners
Model of teaching practice Processes Team teaching aligned with student numbers based productivity model Team teaching and personal tutors aligned with University contact time based productivity model
Management & Organisation Processes Shared leadership, mainly flat structure, fluid teams, participative decision-making University hierarchy within departmental silos
(3) Teaching staff Resource and process Dedicated team with little experience of working in Higher Education, but extensive experience as school teachers and working online Staff of current HE teachers and Graduate Teaching Associates, but with experience of action research

            Table 12.  Business Model Analysis of Key Functions of Taught Programmes

In both the Ultraversity and IDIBL/Coeducate projects the aim was to develop the model of Work Focussed Learning for new groups of learners who don’t currently access higher education for the reasons given in Section 4.4.

As indicated by the table above, there are significant differences between the ways in which the different projects addressed key functions and organisation of taught programmes.  The approaches developed for IDIBL/Coeducate can be seen as a compromise to the original Ultraversity model developed, but even so, when taken as a whole, are significantly different when compared to the typical organisation and working practices that support taught provision.  Thinking in terms of Disruptive Innovations, many of the functions can be identified could act as filter points that result in a rejection of the innovation of IDIBL and Coeducate but in the case of Ultraversity the project was hosted by an autonomous unit in operational terms similar to an “independent organisation” (Bower and Christensen 1995, 52). To amplify this point, three key filters applied by a university on radical innovations include:

  1. the pricing of IDIBL courses that fail to take account of the reduced resource requirements (cost) of wholly online delivery unlike the Ultraversity experience, Section 3.3 (p3);
  2. productivity model for staff that is based on simplistic measures such as timetabled sessions doesn’t fit with online, asynchronous teaching approaches; and
  3. teaching staff’s conservatism in beliefs and values around pedagogical issues.  The belief that exams are more reliable and that quality for undergraduate courses is best assured through delivery of good subject content is challenged by the Work-focussed Model’s requirement for learning facilitators assuring quality through a rigorous process.

Taken together, these arguments suggest that there is a strong case for this being an example of a disruptive innovation.   The same basic approach having success in one context, but making limited progress in another.  This being dependent on existing members of staff already ‘in tune’ with its way of working and willing to accept the challenge, Section 5.8.3.  In terms of the Disruptive Innovation theory explained in Section 2, these are very similar new market disruptions both using the same learning model, attractive to new, unserved customers. This is shown in Figure 9, offering lower performance that may be attractive to some customers.

Figure 9 - Disruptive Innovation copy

Figure 9. Ultraversity as a Disruptive Innovation

Applying concepts of the Viable Systems Model [P27; P32] lends further weight to argument about a separate business unit being responsible for innovations that create a new purpose within an organisation and in doing so add complexity to the characteristics or identity of that organisation.  Hoverstadt (2008, 247-262) explains the difficulty that many organisation face when they no longer have a clear relationship between their purpose and identity.  In adding a new purpose, it is likely that people within the organisation will develop relationships with a different set of stakeholders in trying to meet their needs.  A two way process or ‘structural coupling’ exists whereby the external environment and the individuals within an organisation are continually reforming and re-forming their identity, changing and shaping each other over time.  In itself this is important, if structural couplings break down then an organisation will fail to respond and adapt to its environment and customer needs.  It is possible that in seeking to meet the needs of different stakeholders or customers, conflict within an organisation will develop as different identities establish themselves and compete for resources and seek to influence organisational decision making:

The easiest way for an organisation to respond to multiple purposes is through heterogeneity.  Different parts of the organization are used to address different needs for different groups (ibid., 256).

When considering the US Higher Education System, Christensen et al., (2011) are sceptical that existing publicly funded universities will be able to take on board disruptive innovations, as they are used to only delivering sustaining innovations to their existing business model.  For them, the action needs to be taken at a higher level:

Policymakers must first address higher-education budget constraints by helping low-cost disruptive universities—public and private—gain market share by eliminating barriers and partnering with them to grow enrolments and capability. These partnerships should foster new models of higher education in autonomous business units separate from the existing institutions (ibid., 42).

In the UK context, we are starting to see this kind of action being taken with the changes to funding of teaching in higher education from September 2012, as the government seeks to ease the entry for new private providers and generally introduce more competition into the market (DBIS 2011, 46-53).

6.4 Conclusions

The validity of the hypothesis ‘work can form the basis for learning, which can then be accredited by Higher Education’ has been demonstrated by the work I have undertaken.  This is important to me because I believe that can empower individuals in their work, provide them with academic qualifications and also support the improvement of their work place.

During the lifetime of the Ultraversity project, I worked with two other institutions to adopt the model of Work Focussed Learning for their purposes and in different contexts.  The Centre For Media Practice at Bournemouth University used the model for the creation of a Masters programme in Creative Media Practice [P10] and, with a colleague, I carried out consultancy work with them to develop their approach and validation documents.  The second institution was in Hamilton, New Zealand with Te Wānanga o Aotearoa or ‘Māori University’.  There the online aspects of the model were translated to develop a Bachelor’s degree in Early Childhood as the basic proposition of learning through conversation in online communities fitted well with the Maori approach philosophy of learning [P5].  In both cases, the attraction was to reach learners who would find it difficult to take advantage of current face-to-face offerings, and it gives me confidence that the model of Work Focussed Learning can be generalised beyond the specific instance of Ultraversity.  This was also the case to a limited extent with the IDIBL Framework in that it was of interest to different audiences as an approach to curriculum development [P26].

However, the challenges in making these ideas work are significant as the approaches required confront head-on the deeply entrenched workings of HEIs.

The disruptive innovation analysis has been a valuable one in helping me to make sense of my own experience of curriculum innovation in Higher Education.

In my original theory of change around the IDIBL Framework I had given far too much weight to institutional designs to develop employer funded degrees and what were, for me, rational arguments about the value of the IDIBL Framework to the institution, lecturers and potential students.  However, individuals make their own decisions about the value or not of a particular course of action based on a life-time of experience, and there was no guarantee that Ultraversity pattern would be repeated.  In the case of Ultraversity, colleagues had little experience of working in HEI and consequently, when presented with a course of action, tended to behave as directed until they developed the confidence and experience to increasingly take responsibility.

Perhaps better results for IDIBL could have been achieved through seeking to understand the previous history of the teaching and learning regimes and the individuals within them to develop experiences that have a positive reinforcing experience on a greater numbers of colleagues for the changes that I desired.  As it was, those who chose to notice the IDIBL Framework were relatively few in number and their achievements, although significant, were blunted.

6.5 Future Directions

Arguably, in the UK context, the current economic climate and resultant impact on higher education funding will make it increasingly difficult for many individuals to access a traditional university education.  I believe that it follows that there is a strong moral and business case for the development of new pedagogical approaches that make it possible for a wider section of the population to participate in, and benefit from a higher education.  This belief follows from the philosophical position I outlined in my prologue.

For this to happen on a large scale, I believe that new forms of institutions need to be created that are designed from the outset with effective organisational structures, business processes and working practices.  The concepts explained by Stafford Beer in the Viable Systems Model, amongst others, in his book Diagnosing the System (1985), offer practitioners, who wish to build such institutions, a way forward.  Beer sees effective organisational design as a starting point; this is the foundation upon which other managerial aspects can be built.

I arrive at this conclusion because my experience indicates that it is possible to develop and successfully run courses based on new pedagogical models.  However, when trying to modify existing institutions the established working practices, assessment and quality assurance mechanisms, attitudes and values, and existing business processes mitigate against innovative developments: the significant challenge is to not let these get in the way of effective learning.

It is possible to envisage an institution, taking some of the lessons and ideas identified in my thesis, that is designed in such a way as to maintain rigorous quality assurance mechanisms, but at the same time is agile enough to support new curriculum approaches and supporting business models.  Much of this will be made possible by the effective deployment of technology and the design of adaptive systems and processes.

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