Change in higher education: Working with mess and uncertainty

Photo credit: Pixabay, geralt, CC0

In this post, Professor Velda McCune, Deputy Director at the Institute for Academic Development, explains how embracing mess, uncertainty and complexity in our educational processes can lead to transformative learning in higher education…

As you might expect from an educational developer who researches teaching and learning in higher education, I’m really interested in how change processes play out. I was thinking about this again recently when I attended an event on Developing Pedagogical Expertise Across Institutions on the 27th of September at Imperial College, London. Professor Carol Evans gave a thought-provoking presentation about ‘Scaling up Research-informed Integrated Assessment Practices’. As part of this talk, Carol reminded us that successful education change often goes wrong the first time. I would add to this that course and programme designs that have worked well with one cohort of students might well need to be adapted for the particular diversity of the next cohort.

Carol also noted that some of the things we really hope students will do – like co-owning education processes – are not necessarily what new students will want initially. All of this means that it’s really important that we support our colleagues who are engaged in educational change to keep experimenting with their practices. Teaching teams need lots of time to collaborate with their students to make sense of what the students are being asked to do in their learning and how that can play out in positive ways. Carol also spoke about the importance of educational development and change processes being owned by the subject area and supported by recognition and reward processes. I agree very much with these sentiments.

Related to all of this, I’ve recently been re-reading an excellent book chapter by Jen Ross and Amy Collier entitled, ‘Complexity, Mess, and Not-Yetness Teaching Online with Emerging Technologies’. Jen and Amy emphasise the value of embracing mess and complexity in working with emerging technologies in education. I would argue that this could equally apply to seemingly more traditional higher education. The chapter reminded me that there is an inevitable ‘not-yetness’ in the kinds of transformative learning that I hope for in higher education, and that this uncertainty should be welcomed. I agree with Jen and Amy that trying to force an artificial tidiness on learning in this uncertain and complex world is a mistake. I think this reinforces the message that we need to support our colleagues through the not-yetness of their developing teaching practices, and challenge the risk-averse perspectives that may be driven by student surveys and related rankings.

While valuing openess to the unexpected, I still think it’s important to bear in mind that some forms of structure and mess-reduction can be really useful for students. Embracing ‘not-yetness’ should not mean that our students experience chaos or an ‘anything goes’ approach. Learners who are in transition don’t want to be searching in different places in each virtual learning environment for the guidance and resources they need because flexibility has been used as an excuse for disorganisation. Likewise, the clear policies we have about accessible and inclusive learning are there for good reason. So, for me, the ideal is well thought through educational processes that are:

  • Underpinned by the rich literature on higher education;
  • Co-designed with students;
  • Structured enough to scaffold diverse students’ learning;
  • Yet still open to the unexpected and emergent nature of learning in the 21st Century.

Velda McCune

Professor Velda McCune is the Deputy Director at the Institute for Academic Development and Head of the Learning and Teaching Team. The team provide University-wide professional development opportunities for all colleagues involved in teaching and supporting learning. The team also guide students in their development as learners. Velda’s research focuses on learners and teachers in higher education.

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