Many moons ago I was contacted by JISC to speak at one of their events, but when I provided the usual biography and picture, they got back to me saying I couldn’t speak as I, “was not affiliated to an educational institution”. I pointed out to the hapless girl on the phone that it was THEY who had asked me to speak. So much for engagement with the outside world. It would seem that not much has changed.
No surprise this year then, when friend of mine found himself in a similar Kafkaesque position with JISC. They had asked him to speak on mobile learning (he really is an expert here) but when he submitted his abstract they hastily arranged an ‘Elluminate’ meeting, where of a group of 7 JISCers (overstaffed I’d suggest?) began to unashamedly edit the talk. They literally outlined what they wanted him to say. His response: “To which I replied ‘fuck off’” was natural. He explained that he was very busy and wouldn’t become a proxy for their views, and offered to ‘univite’ himself from the conference. They relented and let him speak.
The point of these stories is not to say that JISC is wholly and utterly useless. It’s not. In fact, it has many good people and strengths. It is, however, at times inward looking and sometimes institutionally blinkered, especially on innovation. First, it’s just too big and amorphous. There’s been an army of JISC bods around at conferences over the last few years. Many are pretty good and knowledgeable. Fair enough, as I applaud efforts to get some innovation in FE (which is normally ignored) and HE. Problem is, I don’t see enough innovation in HE and FE. It’s not that JISC isn’t trying to be innovative; it’s just that the model is wrong. They have several things going against them. As one senior FE person said to me last week, “FE and HE don’t innovate because they ’ve never had to”. But it’s really about a fundamentally flawed approach to innovation and cultural change.
JISC and innovation
Look up JISC on Google, and it says JISC - Inspiring Innovation. But does it? The website still has David Lammy as the Minister for Higher education, and there's a feeling that its insularity is a problem. The name's a bit of a giveaway as it has its roots, not in educational innovation but IT; Joint Information Systems Committee.
JISC can’t be the major innovator, as much of the major innovation in FE and HE has come from the outside. The technology is the domain of the private sector, OER is largely driven by Foundations and pedagogy is still, well stuck in the ‘lecture’ driven rut. They mention the word ‘pedagogy’ a lot, then default back to lectures. Try questioning the ‘lecture’ - I did and got crucified at ALT, but when the talk was released on YouTube it attracted lots of positive attention (lesson learnt – get out more).
Large scale institutional change in FE and HE, such as the OU, Learndirect, University of Phoenix, MIT and other innovative organisations, have often come from external sources of inspiration, whether it’s politicians, smart public servants or entrepreneurs. I’m not saying innovation is solely in the domain of the private sector, but it’s certainly not natural territory in the public sector. We need both.
Some JISC innovation projects have to be seen to be believed. Well, maybe not even seen. Take the “Blind interactive simulation cricket user training”. Surely this is proof enough of the second and third rate ‘faux’ research in this area. The project objective is to “create a bespoke digital interactive practice and coaching space for Blind Cricket”. This is ‘donkeypedia’ territory.
People, not processes, innovate
You can look at innovation in technology and education in two ways:
1. Diffusion (nudges, gradualism, lots of small projects, pilots etc.)
2. Disruption (big thinking, strategic change)
I fear that the first has been the model for far too long and has failed in so many ways. Colleges and universities have failed to climb the e-maturity path, share little in terms of best practice and tend to default to traditional, embedded norms.
The second, disruption, is possible, I think, because the political climate wants cost savings. There is the real possibility of reshaping education with increased use of the OU and OER model. This is all about SCALABILITY, whether it’s recorded lectures, online content, alternatives to lectures, a fourth semester, reduced capital expenditure and OER. SCALABILITY is the key term for me, which is why I object so much to the 'it's not about the technology' line. It's the technology that gives us pedagogic scalability. That's what makes Google, Wikipedia, iTUNES U, Youtube, Facebook and OER resources work. We have seen how the OU and Learndirect have positioned themselves as effective and scalable solutions in everything from basic skills to PhDs, yet few in JISC would have the slightest idea of how this is done in a real delivery organisation like Learndirect, as they don’t engage with many outside of FE and HE.
JISC, and others, by definition, can never lead, or even discuss, radical innovation. They are reduced to ‘nudges and pilots’ which fail because there’s no real subsequent sharing and adoption of best practice. There’s no shortage of good of ideas, just a shortage of will and impact. I had a lecture from someone at BIS last week who talked about this very problem. There are lots of ideas but little changes, as dissemination and adoption is weak. He rolled out the usual ‘stimulate, incubate, adopt’ model, forgetting the simple fact that processes don’t innovate, PEOPLE innovate.
What to do?
OK, the times they are a changin’. Has the pressure to innovate arrived? I think so. We have to get the cost side of education down through scalable solutions. That is the realpolitik for the next decade or more. That means radical innovation around scalable solutions, and not some fatuous debate about how many kids on free school meals get into Oxford.
Note, that I’m not saying that JISC should not exist, just that it should be realistic about its role as it is straightjacketed in terms of innovation. There’s a real need for IT support and advice, but not an army of people who inadvertently reinforce the status quo. Grant money can only be claimed by existing FE and HE institutions, and that limits innovation to internal sources. This actually stops innovation. We need to bring together, Foundations, companies, entrepreneurs, politicians, civil servants, FE leaders and HE leaders to tackle the crisis. In many ways I saw an attempt at this at the WISE Summit in Qatar. But trying to do this through JISC is, I fear, ‘doomed to succeed’.
This review started September last year and is due to deliver Spring 2011. To be honest, the membership of the review group may determine the outcome as it lacks any genione outide voices. Reviews such as this need to have the credibility of objectivity, so I hope they really do show such objectivity, and get over the hurdle of being 'on the inside', the very problem I've highlighted.