For Change’s Sake

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“Not another new system to learn?”  Learning to use a new piece of software is often seen as a time consuming, de-motivating overhead and yet with upgrades, improvements and  new opportunities migration is often forced on us whether we like it or not. Institutions faced with a new set of technical demands as well as training requirements are very careful about even minor upgrades to essential software like email or the office suit.  Yet adaptability is probably a skill we all ought to acquire… and perhaps other good can come of such enforced change?

Twice recently I’ve heard of institutions changing their virtual learning environment (VLE). That’s not unusual itself: a year ago it seemed that every other institution I came across was in the midst of a VLE review.  For the reasons outlined above, these tended to be very careful and thorough comparisons of the available options related to practice of the teachers and students using them. Besides cost (a major factor I’m sure) a different system needed to demonstrate greater utility and usability to outweigh the upheaval of change.  But in both of these recent cases, which I heard of independently from one another, there was a recognition that both VLEs, the old and the new (in this case Blackboard and Moodle) had their benefits and disadvantages and the change wasn’t for the purpose of adopting a better system, it was to switch to a different one. For change’s sake.

There were a couple of arguments for this notion of trying to force innovation through disruption that I found quite compelling

  • Changing creates all sorts of training opportunities.  It gives learning technologists the chance to get out there and talk about learning, as well as the technology, and to leverage the change in the tech to look at curriculum and activity design more widely.
  • Not changing fixes associations, the tasks educators use the VLE for become identified with the tools they use for them, as the technology becomes embedded so do the constraints.  A way of doing something becomes the way of doing something, as the conceptual model underpinning the environments design begins to define the educational activities it supports.  Making a change – experiencing a different system with a different set of affordances – helps to give definition to the distinction between the purpose the VLE is being used for, and the way it is realised.

The focus here is on developing the instructors and course and curriculum designers rather than students, and it is interesting thinking about this in terms of VLEs because the impact is amplified by their institutional significance, but points have wider applicability.

Although I was surprised and curious about this argument, there are a few questions that trouble me. Does disruption always produce innovation? Is it really necessary to change the VLE in order to start a conversation about education and learning? Are there better ways of motivating exploring new technology? Is a more explicit focus on the pedagogy underpinning the use of the VLE likely to be more productive than exposure to different tools? But the major question being asked here – questioning the assumed value of familiarity and continuity – is an important one. Are we sometimes guilty of overstating the case for avoiding radical change?

Author: Simon Wood

E-learning officer, lapsed mathematician, Doctor Who fan and garden railway builder. See for more...

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