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The Values Argument for Educational Development in Higher Education

This summarises a paper I will be giving for the Oxford Brookes University, School of Education Research series this semester.

As well as providing locations of learning and teaching, higher education is an important focus of much political debate. Aldridge has set out the terms of the debate here (Aldridge 2014).

The pressing educational debates of the moment tend not, in fact, to be debates about the most effective way to achieve a particular outcome (although they are often portrayed that way), so much as debates between competing understandings of what we are trying to achieve through the educational endeavour.

In educational improvement initiatives in higher education, as an educational developer, I find myself facing a conundrum. Why, when I believe I know what good learning is and, arguably, how to create curricula, courses and events which are designed for good learning, do I continue to experience ambiguity and anxiety in myself, colleagues and society about not only individual roles, institutions and curricula but the purpose of higher education?

The paper sets out to problematise an underpinning framework for good educational development practice and offers places where the evidence might test (prove?) these underpinnings.

I suggest it may be a human universal that we come with ‘frameworks’ (Popper 1996): call them contexts or identities and communities as you will; we come with a need to be useful, even if only to ourselves. And, we co-construct our frameworks, our contexts, our ‘learning environments’: in both physical and abstract spaces with other people.

The conclusions I reach are that means and ends cannot be uncoupled; that the coupling of means and ends must be through the question of purpose; and that purpose is value laden. Therefore the values argument must remain in the light and proxy arguments, illuminated.


The full paper cites and is synthesised from the following

Aldridge, David. 2014. “What Is Education For?” Zu Den Sachen.

Bakhtin, Mikhail. 1981. The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays. Translated by Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist. Austin, Texas: University of Texas Press.

Bauman, Zygmunt. 2002. Society under Siege. Cambridge: Polity.

Bhabha, Homi. 2004. The Location of Culture. Routledge Classics. Abingdon: Routledge.

Chickering, A., and Zelda Gamson. 1987. “The Seven Principles for Good Practice in Undergraduate Education.” American Association for HE Bulletin, no. March 1987 (and frequently reprinted): 3–7.

Dewey. 1916. Democracy and Education: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Education. New York: Macmillan.

Draper, S. W. (2011, January 25). Peer Assisted Learning. Retrieved May 9, 2012, from

Engeström, Yrjö. 2001. “Expansive Learning at Work: Toward an Activity Theoretical Reconceptualization.” Journal of Education and Work 14 (1): 133–56.

Fairclough, Norman. 2001. Language and Power, Second Edition. Vol. 2. Harlow: Pearson.

Foucault, Michel. 1984. “Of Other Spaces, Heterotopias.” accessed 13/04/2014

Francis, Richard, and John Raftery. 2005. “Blended Learning Landscapes.”Brookes Electronic Journal of Learning and Teaching (BeJLT) 1 (3). accessed 13/04/2014

Francis, Richard, and George Roberts. 2014. “Where Is the New Blended Learning? Whispering Corners of the Forum.” Brookes Electronic Journal of Learning and Teaching (BeJLT) 6 (1).

Guasch, Tresa. 2014. “Unravelling the Feedback Process on Collaborative Writing in Online Learning Environments.” In Giving Feedback to Writers Online. International and Virtual Conference. Oxford: Oxford Brookes University.

Kolb, D. (1984). Experiential Learning: experience as the source of learning and development. New Jersey: Prentice-Hall.

Laurillard, D. (2002). Rethinking University Teaching, 2nd edition. London: Routledge Falmer.

Levitas, Ruth. 1999. “Defining and Measuring Social Exclusion: A Critical Overview of Current Proposals.” Radical Statistics 71.

Marshall, George. 2014. “Breaking News: North Korea Poisoning Atmosphere to Destroy American Weather.” Climate Change Denial. accessed 06/10/2014

Messy Reality. 2014. “I Represent a Dangerous Element That’s Growing in Society: Glasgow Emcee Darren ‘Loki’ McGarvey Talks about the Referendum, Recovery and the Making of a Soon-to-Be Era Defining Album.” Messy Reality. Accessed October 6.

Meyer, Jan, and Ray Land. 2003. “Threshold Concepts and Troublesome Knowledge: Linkages to Ways of Thinking and Practising within the Disciplines”. Edinburgh: Universities of Edinburgh, Coventry and Durham. ETLreport4.pdf accessed from accessed 13/04/2014

Mezirow, Jack, 1997. “Transformative Learning: Theory to Practice.” New Directions for Adult & Continuing Education, no. 74: 5.

Morrison, Marlene. 2014. “Educational Administration, Ethnography and Education Research: Countering Methodological Stagnation. Provocative Tales from an Ethnographer.” In EdD Colloquium, 28 June. Oxford: Oxford Brookes University.

Popper, Karl. 1996. The Myth of the Framework: In Defence of Science and Rationality. London: Routledge.

Roberts, George. 2014. “Something of a Synthesis.” rWorld2. Accessed October 6. .

Schön, D. A. (1983). The reflective practitioner: how professionals think in action. London: Temple Smith.

Sharpe, Rhona, Greg Benfield, George Roberts, and Richard Francis. 2006. “The Undergraduate Experience of Blended E-Learning: A Review of    UK Literature and Practice”. Higher Education Academy. accessed 13/04/2014

Stuart-Buttle, Ros. 2014. “Online Journal Writing , Reflective Dialogue & Professional Learning.” In Giving Feedback to Writers Online. International and Virtual Conference. Oxford: Oxford Brookes University.

Wenger, Etienne. 1998. Communities of Practice: Learning, Meaning and Identity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Vygotsky, Lev. 1962. Thinking and Speaking (first Published as Thought and Language). Edited by Eugenia Hanfmann and Gertrude Vakar. Lev Vygotsky Archive transcribed by Andy Blunden. Cambridge MA: MIT Press.





Jisc is very different – or is it?

So says Martyn Harrow, CEO of Jisc. It appears to all be about power now: power to deliver solutions, power to realise vision, power to make the UK the leading … whatever. The world is even more extraordinary than it has ever been extraordinary because of its connectedness, which is enabled by our extraordinary digital stuff which can make us extraordinarily competitive in a world where we cannot afford to be less than extraordinary. No pressure, then! Who? What? Messianic, techno-optimism is becoming ever more shrill.

Big data: if you haz data you can do a lot of things with that data. Power to hurt or power to heal. But more teachers and smaller classes can do more than more data. The centre needs to relax. A benificent centre may minimise harm, but other centralising urges hide behind the benificent exterior. If you continue to measure and compete no matter how hard you try only 25% will be in the top quartile.

Resilience: Or, the dog ate my homework?

On Wednesday my laptop failed. I was teaching all afternoon and couldn’t do anything about it. Yesterday afternoon, Thursday, under warranty, following diagnosis by Brookes Help Desk and, Apple Support, it was delivered to Western Computer in Oxford for repair. Estimated time 10 working days.
I need a temporary replacement machine. I work across three campuses. I have a meeting today off site at 1115 another at 1200-1300.. I then have a Skype call booked 1400-1500.
However, I am told that the laptop loan desk is only open from 1100-1300.
There are work ’rounds until Monday. I am using a library Chromebook now. I have an iPad, but it doesn’t work with Moodle forums. Is this good enough? I really do not know. Maybe it is? However, there are people expecting stuff from me today, and a broken computer feels like the dog ate my homework.
Would it be different if I were based at a stationary desk? Would it be different if I used a Windows laptop? In 7 years this is the first time a MacBook Pro has failed on me. I feel beyond the Pale.

Assault on the Hill. I’ll y a des cons dans le monde, bien sur!

I was assaulted on Harcourt Hill this morning by a runner wearing cycling lycra because I choose to ride my bike up the pavement on that hill. I was nearly at the top, out of breath and hot. Buses and cars take the hill at speed and the bumps and margins of the road are really bad for cycling. I rarely ride on undesignated pavements, but that is one where, because I have to go slow and the tarmac is so poor, that I choose to do so. There are hardly ever any pedestrians.  When, this guy, 30 – 40 years old (?), fit, black cycling leggings, black top and a cycling-style black hat with a small striped red, white and green logo, who was running in the road (!) saw me, came up onto the pavement ran at me and pushed me physically into the hedge. His hands were on me. He was shouting: “Move! Get off the pavement, d***head!”.
I realise that it is, in the end, his problem. But, I am rattled, angry, and hurt – emotionally – that a cyclist  should be such a poor citizen.
Anyone spot that guy? Watch out.
You are that guy? Chill out.

Drop ins: MOOCs and the price of learning

As an undergraduate in the US in the early 1970s, it was not uncommon for there to be people in our classes “auditing” the course. (Auditing in the sense, “listening”, i.e. attending but not enrolled.) While auditing was supposed to be governed by regulations there were a range of practices from entirely informal dropping in, to what amounted to full participation in all but the exam. There were supposed to be fees payable for auditing but as far as I could tell actual practice was to go under the radar and simply ask the prof (lecturer) if she or he minded. Mostly they didn’t. This practice was so wide spread there was even a national network TV comedy drama about it: “Hank”; “He’ll get his degree/ His Phi Beta key/ And get ’em all for free!/ That’s Hank!”. Being an American comedy drama, Hank also ends up marrying the Dean’s daughter, . The point is that a college degree was expensive, but access to the knowledge was free to those with the gumption to drop in. I audited Latin at the local state university before coming to Oxford to study historical and comparative linguistics. As far as I could tell the Classics Department was delighted to have someone interested come to classes.

MOOCs remind me of this practice of dropping in under the radar.

But times have changed a lot. Everyone teaching in higher education has a much less certain tenure, and that tenure depends to some extent on bums on seats in your class. If there are uncounted heads that doesn’t help your job security. But, on the other hand, the Internet makes learning so much more accessible.

MOOCs invert the ratios of enrolled participants to drop-ins. In FSLT12 this was the cause of some tension. Were the enrolled participants the “real” participants?

We will have to work this year to make sure that on the one hand, people who have paid for an accredited course feel that they have got their money’s worth, but equally on the other not to devalue the drop-in seekers after open knowledge.

Facing the Avalanche

The change or die message can be read as a warning – or a threat: a reply to the recent report published by the IPPR:
Barber, M., Donnelly, K., & Rizvi, S. (2013). An avalanche is coming: Higher education and the revolution ahead. IPPR.

Without a “home ground” the inter institutional disciplinary practitioner could no longer practice; without a “field” there can be no stars. There will be other models, variations and hybrids. Change may be more evolutionary than cataclysmic. Or there could be a different cataclysm. The “lower tier” full-service university will continue to perform a useful civic, cultural and educational function. This will be the “home ground” for most academics.

Universities are, the authors of this provocative report imply, an inconvenient bundle of services. It would appear that few universities do very many things in their bundles of services very well. Therefore, for many reasons, these bundles are going to be “unbundled”. Unbundling is the new Business Process Review (BPR), compulsory competitive tendering, outsourcing.

The authors present what they call “unbundling” as inevitable, but they represent organisations (and types of organisation: educational service providers, consultancy firms and and globalised elite universities) that stand to gain from such unbundling. All three authors currently work for Pearson. The lead author, Barbour is Pearson’s chief education adviser, Barbour and Donnelly previously worked for McKinsey. I am surprised this is published under the aegis of IPPR.  Next note that Barber went to Oxford, Donnelly, Duke ( whence Cathy Davidson), and Rizvi went to Yale: three very elite institutions. As an aside, the Report emphasises the importance of the STEM disciplines and economic inconsequence of the liberal arts, humanities and social sciences but the authors respectively read History, Economics and International Studies.

I am not making simply an ad hominem argument. It is a critical imperative to ask of anyone positing the inevitable, whether they stand to gain from the asserted inevitable outcome. If the answer is yes, it doesn’t mean they are necessarily wrong, but there may be other possible outcomes.

The Report is written from a stance that does not appear to question the entitlement of those who would take profit from the unbundling of educational endeavours or the consolidation of the curriculum around an elite, principally US, neoliberal model. It declares the student consumer as king and suggests this way is the only way. They assert that public funding for education must reduce and be replaced by private funding, but this is not inevitable, it is a political position – admittedly dominant, but an ideology, not a force of nature. Similarly presenting “change” as the new normal benefits those who sell services helping to manage change. It is in most consultancy firms interest to present the world as an unstable place, and even to create some of that instability (Andersen and Enron maybe took it a bit too far). Throughout the Report the models of success – heroes if you will – along with the aforementioned consultancy firms, elite universities and companies like Pearson, are venture capitalists, investment banks and derivatives traders, and those who start the kind of business that can enrich those institutions. Universities are urged to emulate or partner with such institutions or be destroyed. The change or die message can be read as a warning – or a threat.

Teachers and researchers are barely mentioned, except for a few big stars. Discipline communities are only mentioned in so far as they transcend or transgress individual institutional boundaries. But far from being an argument for the irrelevance of the individual institution, I suggest that without a “home ground” the inter institutional disciplinary practitioner could no longer practice.

And of course the number of first class honours has doubled in the past decade (p 15). The number of students in University has doubled. This is just bad science, or intentionally misleading rhetoric. Follow the citations? The authors here cite the Daily Mail (!), that well-known source of reliable data.  There may be grade inflation but the number of first class honours degrees is not a signal, unless you take an elitist view that only elite universities should award first class honours and all those students at new universities getting first class honours do not deserve them.

But, they may be right that not all universities are viable. They often refer to second and third tier institutions that will be swept away or unbundled.

The expansion of the University sector in the UK rested on two ideological fallacies. The first was a typical Tory move to take educational institutions -the polytechnics – out of local authority governance with an assertion that they were being “set free”, and then controlling them ever more tightly by central government. The second was to call them universities. This was seized on by Labour, which saw having a degree as being a signal as well as a means of upward social mobility and possibly also earnings. Having a degree correlates with higher lifelong earnings, but it is not necessarily causal. The Thiel fellowships and quote from the President of S. Korea (p 13) illustrate this. If you want real money and a big job, drop out; Bill Gates, Richard Branson, Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg are the poster boys for this campaign. Similarly going to Uni rather than Poly had more social cachet. Hey presto! You all go to university now. But, without the endowments and research funding, which is still concentrated in the old universities, the new universities were  going to struggle to achieve prestige status. There is a much bigger argument that could be entered into about the role of universities in both fomenting and managing dissent. Successive governments have been trying to stifle dissent in all parts of the education sector. They can barely cope with 20 elite universities. They certainly do not want to have to deal with 140 “real” universities, which are vibrant, troublesome hot pots of challenging ideas. I think this Report could be read as an attempt to reel in the wider sector, concentrate “power” in the elite institutions and shut down any activity in the lower tiers other than the production of a usefully compliant workforce at a profit for private enterprises.

The five models are interesting (p 55ff). Clearly the elite will survive – or most of them will. I expect that each of the other models will have many concrete examples. But I also expect there will be other models, variations and hybrids. Change may be more evolutionary than cataclysmic. Or there could be a different cataclysm. The “second tier” full-service metropolitan university, I suggest, will continue to perform a useful civic, cultural and educational function. This will be the “home ground” for most discipline-based academics. Their job will not be simply facilitating the delivery of MOOCs prepared by the elite. To run with a metaphor, there couldn’t be a Premiership without the Championship or even division 4 and non-league leagues. The major leagues need the minor league “farm system”. If nations or regions or cities or societies allow their home universities to die, I suggest that the “academy” will wither and the world will be a much poorer place. Without fertile ground tilled by those many academics chipping away at the face of knowledge there won’t be the stars. Or… are they arguing there is no room in the academy for anyone not attached to one of the elite?

The essay also almost completely ignores other components of the tertiary or post-compulsory sector. The term “continuing education” is not found. Foundation degrees are not mentioned. FE colleges are absent from the argument. There is only one mention of a community college and this is of one which has partnered with a trade association.

Open Courseware History

Alistair Creelman draws our attention to this chart from He says:

What is amazing is that although the present OCW movement dates back to 2001 so few university teachers and leaders I meet have even heard of it. This is not a future vision or a possible scenario, this is happening now. Most of it has already happened. It’s time to step out of our academic cocoons and see the opportunities.

This is one question that the OCSLD First Steps into learning and teaching in higher education mooc will be addressing.

The State of OpenCourseWare
Via: Online College Courses Blog