This article is more than 4 years old

New IT systems and the rising complexity of education

In specifying new technology, are we losing sight of the problems we are trying to solve? Mark Johnson takes us back to fundamentals.
This article is more than 4 years old

Mark Johnson is a Senior Business Partner in the Department for Strategic Change at the University of Liverpool.

In universities the world over managers will be readying themselves, as there is surely a need for some new institutional IT system.

A new VLE? A Customer Relationship Management (CRM) system? Perhaps a new Student Record System? The list goes on. As managers roll up their sleeves and contemplate the challenge of system migration, technical difficulties, and potential resistance, we should also take a moment to contemplate what technology is doing to universities – and how we are dealing with its effects.

Similarity and complexity

Universities everywhere – in their management structures, their division of labour, their use of technology, their external representations of themselves, and their offer to students – are fundamentally similar. Yet to those who work in them, each institution is a new puzzle. Few have a coherent synoptic grasp of the relations between the operations of their institution in teaching and administration, the ever-burgeoning range of technological infrastructure that keeps everything ticking along, and their relations with their wider environments. Universities have become incredibly complex in similar ways everywhere. How has this complexity arisen, and how do we deal with it?

Unmanaged institutional complexity can be dangerous. Outside education, the NHS has prioritised the analysis of complexity in hospitals as a key target in their efforts to improve patient safety, arguing for:

a ‘whole systems approach’ to safety, driven by aligned data, established communications channels, patient involvement, continuous improvement and strong clinical governance.”

Universities are not dangerous in the same way as hospitals can be, but they are no less complex – and these complexities breed many of the problems that we see in universities today. Where is the comparable urgency to address complexity in education that we see in health?

The environment, inside

A shared feature of universities and hospitals is that neither can keep their environment outside: they operate in environments which they themselves contribute to. A hospital which discharges patients who still require treatment will create complexity later on. A university whose students drop out of courses will cause political effects that threaten its reputation and viability.

A shared feature of the environment in which all institutions now operate, and to which they must adapt, is technology. Technological innovations are usually presented (by those who sell them) as solutions to complex problems. Yet, as systems theorist Gregory Bateson observed long ago, technologies solve problems caused by other technologies, usually introducing new problems of their own. He argued in an address to the Regents of the University of California in 1978:

Innovations become irreversibly adopted into the on-going system without being tested for long-time viability; and necessary changes are resisted by the core of conservative individuals without any assurance that these particular changes are the ones to resist.” (Gregory Bateson, “Time is Out of Joint,” in Mind and Nature: A Necessary Unity)

Yet we seem to be on a never-ending treadmill towards new technologies and more complexity. In the space of little over 20 years, we have moved from simple interventions to encourage teachers to use the internet in their teaching, to the emergence of multiple systems within a single institution run by corporations whose ambitions may be to colonise education.

Has technology saved us? From what?

But there’s something odd about this. Ask yourself “were it not for this technology, how would we have coped before?”. Almost all technology provides a new option for doing something that could be achieved by other means (albeit perhaps less “efficiently”). Increases in the number of options available for doing something means that choosing the right option becomes harder.

When each VLE, CRM, e-portfolio, or student record system does pretty much the same thing, how are we to decide? After much deliberation and argument, an institution might mandate the use of system x, and then be challenged with the additional complexity of trying to address those aspects of functionality now requiring system z to address. Technical complexities introduce human complexities, as Bateson pointed out: we must now worry about not only the technologies that conservative individuals resist, but also the technologies that ambitious individuals promote.

And this is not to mention the affordances of new tools like “learning analytics” or machine learning. They too provide more options for doing things we could do before – and the complexity of choosing how to do anything, and managing the consequences, increases yet again.

The complexification of education in technology’s wake is not inevitable. Technology is an environmental phenomenon to which the university can orient itself in virtuous way, reorganising itself to make most effective use of the tools at its disposal. The pathological path is to see technology as a way of reinforcing the ancient structures and practices of the academy.

Policy and technology

As the environment increases in complexity, institutions seek policies or technologies that attenuate the environment: reactionaries will say, “Put your phones and social media away!” Environmental threats are ‘neutralised’ by building ever-stronger barriers to keep the noise out. The result however, is restricted technological functionality within the institution which in turn creates frustration among students and staff and the drive for more innovation to address it. Ironically, in seeking to attenuate complexity, institutions create the conditions for its increase.

The path of “effective organisation” looks deeper at the essence of what education is really about and the ways in which individuals manage complexity and uncertainty. One of the pioneers of educational technology, Gordon Pask, saw that the essence of educational activity was “conversation”. He would point out that the word “conversation” came from Latin “con-versare” – to “turn together”. Conversation, in Pask’s view, is a dance that allows the coordination of uncertainty between individuals and the emergence of shared understanding.

“Effective organisation” means organising for conversation. Not just conversations between teachers and learners, or learners and their peers. But conversations between managers and teachers, accountants and technologists, strategists, researchers and ministers. In a complex world where each individual has their own experience of an ever-changing information environment, this is a pedagogical, social and technical challenge.

It means rethinking the institution as a place where coherence can be brought to the vast panoply of experiences, skills and accomplishments that characterise the lives of the young. It means rethinking the codification of success in learning to allow personal journeys to be supported by institutions and recognised by employers over a lifetime. And perhaps most importantly, it means rethinking institutional organisation itself in a way where universities once more become societal organs of memory, thought and inquiry.

So, is it time for a new VLE or HR system? What do we really need to talk about? Where is the dance of conversation in our universities?

One response to “New IT systems and the rising complexity of education

  1. Thought provoking. It puts me in mind of some of the discussions we were having at last year’s conversational leadership weekend run by John Hovell and David Gurteen. If you don’t know them then you should check them out. David is running a knowledge cafe at the end of Feb in London on the future of the university.

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