Friday, 20 July 2012

Viable systems approach to managing diversity

We are considering how to manage complexity in course structure at the moment, this prompted retrospection on past work and analysis of our current course structure. The process of evaluation and improvement is undertaken regularly by staff and draws on student review of their learning experience. This comes from analysis through conversation on module discussion boards and feedback via the University formal module review forms. Tutors combine this data with personal reflective analysis of their own experience and collaborative discussion with the teaching team to devise steady improvement. The cyclical implementation of these processes places action inquiry at the heart of the course evolution.

The Ultraversity project developed to identify and explore a new approach to learning design that was based, in part on cybernetic principles, in particular Beer's (1985) Viable System Model (VSM). The initial analysis of the variety and complexity of commonly used approaches to course design in 2003 lead to what has become a time tested viable system. Some of the key components are:
  1. Learning that is process rather than topic driven, this places strategies for research and professional development at the heart of the course so allowing significant personalisation and the application of the principles to a wide range of work contexts. This maximised the diversity of workplaces one course would be relevant to and consequently the potential range of students that might be attracted to it.
  2. Minimising the number of modules by placing variety / flexibility within one fixed set of modules rather than achieving it via students selecting from a bank of modules. This required negotiation of study focus between student and tutor to ensure personalisation of study was appropriate to meet the learning outcomes of any one module. This is achieved via module specific ILPs or research proposals. 
  3. Maximising the one-to-many aspect of the tutor voice by developing a dialogic approach to learning in collaborative online communities of practitioner inquirers. This evolved from the traditional distance learning model where a tutor would speak separately, but less frequently, to each individual and so often end up repeating the same message many times.
  4. Reducing complexity within module resources by breaking down the activities into a range of smaller patches that accumulate over the semester to create a cohesive assessment product.
  5. Self assessment of meta-learning through a retrospective analytical commentary.
  6. Assessment by online media rich portfolios amplifies the potential for students to express themselves creatively by using a range of digital literacies. 
The resulting work-focused approach was validated in 2003 and continues to be current almost a decade later. The approach has proved to be effective for many students who come from a wide range of workplaces. These include, but are not restricted to: teaching assistants, university administrators, librarians, nurses, parents, logistics managers, charity workers, ICT coordinators, Bursars, small business managers, mentors, trainers, sports coaches and many more. The process driven nature of the course enables this diverse set of learners to learn together in a collaborative online community of practitioner inquirers.

To organise and deliver such a course, staff needed to:

Have an interdisciplinary background and be prepared to to widen their knowledge base.
Be confident in replacing tutoring of subject knowledge with facilitation of process driven learning.
Support students in an asynchronous online environment rather than through real-time campus based sessions.
Provide facilitation of reflective and action based inquiry activities.
Be adept at negotiating personalised learning foci with students.
Support students via modelling good practice in using a range of digital literacies.
Be prepared to assess media rich e-portfolios.
Contribute to collaborative team teaching.
A tutor to staff ratio of 1:25 on each module would give the opportunity for high quality teaching and feedback.

In 2005 the VSM process was applied to further evolve our pedagogy as student review had mentioned initial feelings of overload in relation to course resources for some modules. The solution to attenuating complexity was in the form of telling the story of a learning journey and was expressed as an interactive map. This reduction of variety assisted with initial conceptualisation of tasks. As students click on each stage on the map they follow the progress of an avatar and read concise text relating to each activity, the augmentation via more expansive audio story clips amplifies the subsequent understanding.

Fig 1. Screenshot of an interactive learning journey hosted in the Anglia VLE.
One student’s reaction to this approach conveyed a sense of excitement rather than overload:
“ exciting is this!!!
The climb begins.
Good luck one and all”

Another student reflected the journey metaphor in her assignment and implied a change in motivation:
 “I was ready to hang up my walking boots [after the previous module] but I pulled them on, tightened the laces and began the climb. I soon found myself at the first plateau and learning activity...I thoroughly enjoyed this module and I hope it is reflected in my work. I really liked the mountain and loved the climb as much as the descent!!!”

Although this solution was not entirely audio based it was the concept of storytelling that led to the conceptualisation of the journey and the audio clips that provided amplification and a cognitive bridge to the more detailed course resources. The example above was also designed to model to students how they could take creative approaches to telling the story of their journey through the module. Students submit work that evidences their ability to communicate using a range of digital literacies including: creative video, animations, play scripts, poetry, newspaper or magazine style reports, audio podcasts, PowerPoint presentations and much more.

Beer, S., 1985. Diagnosing The System for Organisations. John Wiley, London and New York, NY.

Bradshaw, P., Powell, S. and Terrell, I. 2005. Developing engagement in online community of inquiry: lessons for higher education. Innovations in Education and Teaching International, Vol. 42 No. 3, pp. 205-15.

Chapman, C. and Ramondt, L. 2005. Strong community—deep learning: Exploring the link. Innovations in Education and Teaching International, 42(3), pp217–230.
Millwood, R., Powell, S. and Tindal, I. 2008a. Personalised learning and the Ultraversity experience. Interactive Learning Environments, Vol. 16 No. 1, pp. 63-81.

Millwood, R., Powell, S. and Tindal, I. 2008b. Developing technology-enhanced, work-focused learning – a pattern language approach. Proceedings for TSSOL 2008, Technology Support for Self-Organised Learners. Austria. pp. 84-105.

Robin, B. 2006. The Educational Uses of Digital Storytelling. In: C. Crawford et al. (Eds.), Proceedings of Society for Information Technology & Teacher Education International Conference 2006 (pp. 709-716). Chesapeake.