Institutional courage for personalised learning?

Bradford college are involved in an interesting JISC sponsored project starting last year involving using ELGG and Moodle to set up a social network.

SpaCE-FD Project Website The proposal also seeks to establish a more seamless link between students, College tutors, and work-based mentors (WBMs), and to open up opportunities for greater collaboration in learning.

I was immediately impressed by the fact that the project aims and approach but also by the fact that it has a website with a blog. I'm planning to investigate the project more but a closer looked revealed that there is only one substantive Blog post at the moment, entitled 'Cannot trust students' (there are some more but those are just testing Live Writer):

Bruce Stafford :Cannot Trust Students: Blog Hi All, We have been informed by Tim, that the Bradford College's net policy regarding collaborative sites is restrictive for operational reasons. If students were given the right to create communities, it is felt that there would be a plethora of such, which could lead to server capacity problems. So we create our communities, and we invite the student into a community which corresponds to their study modules. Those students involved in a single community, could then communicate with each other within that community. Meanwhile, the Moodle site remains the main repository, from which the student downloads the course and module details, along with any learning materials on that subject.

The passage in bold reminded me of how often innovative technological efforts run into restrictive institutional policies from a different age. It is inconceivable that students could create so many groups that it would overwhelm the server! An Elgg group is just a few database entries so the worst thing that could happen is that students would upload large files that can be restricted in other ways. But even if that were the case, I would imagine that the college should be thrilled and run out to buy more servers with a song in their heart! Students have become engaged in the social aspects of their learning and they want to participate. What could be better? You cannot put a price on that!

There are several deeper questions here?

  • Can schools whose first instinct is a close flow of information down and protect privacy effectively support a social space where inappropriate happenings are inevitable? Are institutions willing to reduce their risk-avoidance strategies and deal with the consequences? I've been in a number of meetings that have descended into listings of nightmare scenarios of what could happen describing things that almost never happen. But are a few offensive postings enough to prevent the freedom of expression to a whole cohort of students?(*) But what of those inoffensive postings that are strange and non-learning related or extremely (even unjustifiably) critical of the institution itself? Again, listening to the learners' voice is not always pretty and doesn't always conform to our ideal scenarios of happy self-actualising learners. But aren't we responsible to them and to ourselves to hear what is being said even if we don't like it? All of this requires courage!
  • Should traditional IT departments maintain infrastructure and support innovation. These groups are generally understaffed and mis-qualified so their first instinct is to close things down with corporate closed-source technologies so that an external vendor is responsible for any outages and users have no scope to experiment with things and even break them. This goes against the Open Source agile development ethos of 'fail fast, fail cheap, fail often'. Experimentation and growth in technology requires failure along the way. But admitting failure at the end of a three-year project with massive investment into licences is much more difficult than after a few months of experimenting with a free and open-source platform! But institutional leadership often has to rely on the advice of the very people (IT managers) who it's tryign to supervise. So opening up policies may not be easy. Particularly since often IT departments have to justifiably rein in overenthusiastic managers. How do we provice a safe and creative space for experimentation in this context?

(*) Note: These issues of societal trust can have far reaching consequences for the community. I have one amusing and one less amusing example.

1. When I first came to the UK in 1992 from the then Czechoslovakia, I was shocked that even the dingiest public toilet had toilet paper in it. In Czechoslovakia (and many other countries) there was never any toilet paper even in rather fancy restaurants. If you asked the proprietor, they would respond. People would steal it! And it's true, some people would probably occasionally steal it. But it's worth it for the good of the society to have to replace the occasional roll of toilet paper rather than not to have any available. Collective guilt doesn't work. Now, you will find toilet paper in most Czech toilets and nobody worries about it being stolen, too much! But I still come across signs saying 'Due to some of you/other customers behavior, we are denying something to everyone'. I've only seen signs like these in the UK on few occasions (the two I recall are the Ipswich public library and the Norwich Forum). Human nature is simply accepted as part of the deal (even if we don't like it).

2. If you look at the stats Royal Mail and the Czech Post lose about the same amount of post. And subjectively, I'd estimate that there are about the same number of complaints about the service in the media and in public discourse. However, I can order anything by post in the UK and have had packages left on doorsteps and with neighbours, which would be impossible in the Czech Republic. For me, to order something online in Prague meant that it would most likely be delivered while I was away so I'd have to trek to the post office depot to pick my package up. So it would be just as easy to go to a shop to buy most things. Only because post deliveries cannot be left with neighbors. So people don't shop online as much. And services like LoveFilm (or the US Netflix) are almost impossible because companies feel like they cannot trust their customers to post the DVDs and the Post Office to deliver them without using registered mail. This has serious consequences for the Czech online economy! And all it is a matter of trust and willingness to deal with instances of violation of policies or gaming the system when they arise rather than preventing any conceivable problem ahead of time!

This doesn't mean that possible abuses should not be taken into account when designing online systems. Only that we shouldn't let our decisionmaking and innovation be stifled by excessive risk avoidance. Particularly since risk avoidance behavior is often a sign of reluctance to engage in the project itself!