TRANSCRIPT: Tales of Teaching Online ep. 51: Making innovation sustainable (feat. Chie Adachi and Prof Margaret Bearman)
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Intro: Digital, student-centred, creative, innovation, imagination, initiative, stories that matter.
Chie Adachi: I’m Chie Adachi and this is Tales of Teaching Online brought to you by Deakin Learning Futures. Hello everyone and welcome to Tales of Teaching Online podcast. Today, I’m joined by Professor Margaret Bearman from CRADLE our Centre for Research in Assessment and Digital Learning at Deakin University. And she’s a worldly renowned researcher in higher ed, clinical education and has published extensively in this field. Her research interests include assessment and feedback, digital education, and social materiality. And recently she’s been thinking about the issue of sustainability in teaching and learning innovation, which I think is a really interesting and hot topic within the higher education sector. So I’m super excited to be able to talk to her about this topic today. Thank you for coming in, Margaret. Welcome.
Margaret: Thank you, Chie, delighted to be here.
Chie: So I think anyone doing higher education research would have come across your work, Margaret, and know who you are. But for those who haven’t yet, Could we start by getting a sense of who you are as a researcher and as a person. Tell us a little bit about yourself please.
Margaret: Sure, I have a very eclectic career in higher education. I’ve dabbled in just about everything, but I started off my base degrees in computer science. Then I worked in health informatics and became very interested in education. Particularly this was pre-World Wide Web. So doing things on CDs and for those people who remember the multimedia, multimedia push prior to the web. So around that time and the out of there, I built my interest in education, did a PhD in simulation, virtual patients in medical education and from that interest have ended up where I am now at CRADLE at Deakin.
Chie: Brilliant. And so you come with a wealth of experience and expertise in thinking about everything to do with higher education research, but particularly in medical education and digital education. And now you’ve been thinking about the issue of sustainability. I think in your latest research, which I think is a really contentious topic too given the climate of higher education sector, and so I’m curious to know how this idea came about as a focus of your research. And so what’s the story there?
Margaret: Well, it’s interesting because I was listening to myself talk about my career and I thought of couple of things. One was that I learnt some very hard lessons about sustainability very early on, one of the first jobs I did was to work on developing some materials around HIV/AIDS. This was in the early nineties and before the just before the the early medications were developed. In a very short space of time these materials, which we had really laboured over, became very dated very quickly. And then of course, running out of multimedia and into the rise of the web as we know it. For those who have a, remember, Netscape Navigator, AltaVista, things that have come and gone in the digital space. So I think sustainability, if you work with the technology, is always an interesting issue. Everything always needs updating, upgrading, its always for one of a better word moving forward. The other way that I came to this was actually empirically. So one of the things that I do here at Deakin is I have two roles, in essence, have a role to be part of a research centre and to do research and to work on phenomena of broad research interests. And the other role that I have is to be an independent voice, really respect to some of Deakin’s Strategic Learning and Teaching initiatives. And that involves sometimes collecting data, sometimes working with people in one of the big pieces of work I’ve been doing for the last four or five years has been tracking a series of learning and teaching innovations. And then the last round of investigation that we did about what was working about those and how staff were feeling about them and this was in the middle of the pandemic. This issue came up about how they might be sustained. How they might be sustained beyond, if you think of a project beyond the lifespan of the project. Then when you couple that back with a general idea of sustainability in digital education, thinking about sustainability of educational practices generally. And third piece of my interests, which comes from medicine, which is how we sustain changes to practice. I think we’ve ended up something in something really interesting. And just very briefly on that last point one of the things you know, I know this is more but this is in health care, this is in higher education, it’s in just about everything. That people tend to continue doing the ways that they’ve always continued to be doing things and they’re really good things about that and really challenging things about that. That we often bring in new innovations, you see it really starkly in health care. A new way of doing things that is measurably better is introduced. Then over time, it reverts to how things have always done. And sometimes people use this short shorthand, ‘the way things are done around here.’ To describe that sort of reversion, we go back to the way things are done around here. I don’t always see that it’s been problematic, but it’s an absolute tendency. So those are some of the threads that bring me to this issue, sustainability.
Chie: Beautiful. So you arrived at this idea from different angles I can see. I see a tension here too. And you touched on the idea of innovation to which is virtually mentioned in every university strategic documents. Innovation and then how they are innovating their research in learning and teaching. And that idea often is at tension with the idea of sustainability I feel as though. So what’s the aim of this project that you’re doing as research in and what sort of problems that are you trying to address through this project?
Margaret: The aim of this research is really to look at these projects that are sustained over time because it’s really interesting in this area of sustaining learning and teaching innovation, there’s not that much empirical research. And the problem that we’re looking for is simply this. How, do we usefully sustain innovations and changes? And I put in the word usefully, because I think the sustainable innovation is an oxymoron. If you want it to be innovative, and innovative by itself is about change and changing and being different. If you sustain it, then it stops being in that space. So there’s this real tension here. But what we have is we have a series of innovations that have come from centrally devised programs and projects. And we wanted to see what sustain them across a number of key areas. So we’re looking at really, I think three things, sustainability of materials and resources. But you put all this work into developing artifacts, ways of doing things. We look at sustainability, to teaching practice. And I think in some ways it’s a really interesting area for me. And it’s a really longstanding one in higher education. Lots and lots of programs to change teacher for one of word behaviour or teacher practice. And yet confusing threads about the impact that all that effort has. Something about sustaining sustainability there. And then the third area is about how to sustain things almost from a resource perspective or structurally, how do you, how do you ensure things resonate on? I think, I think within this, the problem remains about are we conceptualising sustainability? Is it an ecological system? So everything shifts and moves and maintains. Is it something that resonates and adapts over time? And then practically, how do we do it in practice? How do we ensure that if we invest all this money into a project, into teacher development, into change, how do we ensure that just doesn’t come and go? Turn on the taps for three years, turn off the taps and everything just dissipates and we can all think in higher education of projects we’ve been involved with. The one that I spoke about with HIV all those years ago, that it had a lot of resonance and it takes time, it came and went. And also within that, we need to ask, is that right? So are we simply also not embracing the fact that things don’t last forever and how do we plan for that? Is this something that we’re going to say we’ll have a ten-year trajectory, a one-year trajectory. What are we thinking about in terms of the lifespan of a project? I think in higher education, or particularly in Australia but as far as I can see universally the way that funding models work, we work on relatively short-term cycles. We don’t think the long game. So I guess the big picture problem is about the long game here in higher education learning and teaching. How do we conceptualise and move towards a longer game?
Chie: And that’s a really good segue to kind of something that I wanted to highlight here, which is a contextual matter that happened, which is the pandemic and the disruption that brought with it that was felt across the globe. And so through such a pandemic and crisis mode, people, as far as I could see, started to generate their own innovation and started doing new things because they have to adjust. But that was the really intense couple of years and it’s still having this impact. And I liked how you find the confusing impacts and the measurable things that we need to be able to see. Is this something that you can kind of explore on here, elaborate on here in terms of that contextual things that matters that can happen outside of our control, but that have real impact on the way that the projects are framed for the university and thinking about this long game, long-term gain also?
Margaret: Yeah, and I think of one the confusing things about long games is to really use the economic term, vulnerable to external shocks and I think the pandemic was definitely an external shock. And I think it’s a really, really interesting piece. So you see multiple things happening. You see people in the switch to emergency remote teaching continue on doing what they’ve always done. You see things and I think this is a bit of publication on that. Certainly some of the discussion I’ve had with educators is some things have fundamentally shifted, especially this switch to assessment online. I mean, that’s my area of been a little bit involved in it, but some pushes as well. And I think one of the big questions about sustainability, we see a lot of baby steps. Do those baby steps add up to a big step? I think sometimes they do. And there’s no question if you’re involved in technology, that technology changes many things. What I think might be interesting about the pandemic is it does afford, as a case study to see there’s definitely change. But sometimes it’s very confusing and appropriately, so I don’t think it’s something we’ll ever be anything but confusing to try and work out what changes are significant and what changes aren’t. There are a lot of little things going on. So clearly we can do things more efficiently. We do things via Zoom. Our ways of working have foundationally changed. This, I think is no question and we all feel the impact in our lives. And within that, I sometimes wonder if we think enough about some of the big and this is just me mulling here, I haven’t really until you really asked this question. I don’t know. I don’t know whether there’s a key insight, but I think what the pandemic raises is questions. I don’t think it proposes any answers. I think the insights that we have an opportunity to examine and problematise rather than to understand yet what that might be. I think we are living as is every generation a hugely time of technology, technological change. While I say that in a while things are moving very rapidly, I’d also in my sort of thinking the long game. I mean, I don’t know about your grandparents Chie, but my grandparents because you’re younger than I am. But at least one of my grandparents grew up a house without, well was born in a house without electricity. She described the floors. So the shift in her lifespan, technologically speaking, was enormous. And we all live in these massive time. So I don’t want to, I don’t want to characterise this as I think some things are speeding up. But I also want to think about the changes in her life and the changes since I was born, in some ways my changes are less so it’s not like we’re not reliving through these types of immense change. But what I think is different here is that we’re doing it. We understand it as it’s happening. Now. We have the time and the space and the position in higher education to really thoughtfully examine the world as it’s happening. And you see many publications on the pandemic. So I do think the opportunity that’s afforded to us by this is not even so much the great external shock, but the opportunity to problematise, to examine, and to see how it unfolds. And I think, because I do think the digital like other technological changes, it’s taken us in massively different directions in our lives. And I think the post digital is really important because it’s not some future that’s coming. The future is now. And I think it really is important to remember that it’s not the bright new future of technology. It’s the present of technology that’s important to examine.
Chie: Beautiful. I still remember my grandma talking about this black phone in the house, the one that you dial. And that was the only communication technology that she had in the countryside of Japan. And that was one way to communicate with us. And this is only like early eighties.
Margaret: I remember living in Melbourne, Australia with the first share house I moved to, no second share house was in a really odd area and we actually had dial the operator in the nineties to get an interstate line In the nineties, to get connected. Crazy.
Chie: How much revelations and innovations that we’ve seen just in terms of technology. But you started to talk about this idea as well, about resources. And that’s kind of where I wanted to just quickly pick up on. Because in light of COVID, in light of this radical change that we’ve seen in the recent years in our lives. We’re all tired. We are hearing the fatigue, especially teaching teams are feeling. Sustainability really brings hope in us challenging and problematising this way of working for the innovation of learning and teaching. And yet people are tired and fatigued. How do we reconcile this space and the discussion comes in every time.
Margaret: Workload models from people from Deakin.
Chie: Yes. Thank you. And workload allocation model. That’s right. It’s like the elephant in the room. And so through this research that you’re doing and thinking about, is this something that we can say about this conundrum that we have?
Margaret: Well, I think it’s really interesting because it depends whose perspective you take. In centralised learning and teaching teams, what you have is what you can control and you can’t control workload allocation that belongs outside. So you have to look at ways that live with whatever is there and that’s part of the key of sustainability I think. So you can’t avoid it. You have to meet those conversations head on. I think the thing is, is that you need to think about what value is and sometimes sparking excitement is enough. But people have lives and families and other work pressures and they’re often need to do their research. And the pandemic, if nothing else has made us all very tired. So I think that just needs to be taken into account. But I think there’s another conversation. And I think that’s a bigger conversation. That innovation costs change costs and the broader system of higher education funding as they are around the world, and for all Covid has brought many shocks, but I think it’s fair to say around the world, the economic shock is extreme. It’s only going to get worse. It’s only going to get worse. And I think that if I had my druthers and please forgive me anyone in management, I think we should be stripping out the small steps in the bureaucracy, the take-up far too much time that are wasting. I think that we spend too much effort trying to tightly manage things and I think the research I’m doing on sustainability suggests that you really need to give people a looseness and a voice. I mean, you could say this about teaching as well. The more you regulate, the more problems you run into in terms of time-consuming. And regulations are very broad brush, look, it’s very important. But it means everyone has to take out time to do things that aren’t necessarily valuable to them. And I don’t think we consider some of the costs of that. And so I think it’s about making sure that things we ask people to do are mutually beneficial. And also the main frankly, there’s a lot of talk about wellbeing and care and looking after our students. We have to look after ourselves too.
Chie: It’s like that saying, is it in English that you put your own oxygen mask first before you can save and help others. Can either repeat what you just said, that it was beautiful. The things that we’re asking people to do are mutually beneficial and we need to ensure that that what happens in learning and teaching practice too, which is a beautiful message. Thank you, Margaret. So I’ve come to the end of my questions that I had and I’m just wondering if you had any last thoughts in terms of what you like our listeners to know in around this research that you’re doing with sustainability idea.
Margaret: I think that the key thing for me is with this sort of research, and I’m really attracted to this sort of research is there aren’t easy answers. So sustainability is not going to be something that you’ll be able to tick off as when reasons I like assessment research as well too, is it’s actually really challenging to make assessments that develop people that serve all their purposes. It’s, it’s, it’s tricky and the trickiness is a good thing. We don’t want things that are simple in higher ed. So I guess it’s just to embrace the complexity and not expect there to be easy solutions, but possibly delightful processes. So I guess my final, final thoughts.
Chie: Just terrific. And the way that you’d just talking about this with a smile on, it just says a lot about the way you conduct yourself in these challenging topics, but really purposeful research as well, Margaret, and we always learn so much from your work. And just the way you hold this tensions really beautifully between the challenging and thoughtful mess of this research. So on behalf of everyone who’s listening to this and loving this conversation, I thank you for all the work that you’re doing, Margaret. And I think you’d just about to go to the UK for further research, collaboration work as well. I’m so glad that we got to catch you before you went. And thank you so much for coming in and taking the time with us today, Margaret.
Margaret: My pleasure, and I look forward to seeing you soon.
Chie: You too. Thank you, Margaret.