I was pointed to this link at the excellent #webteachingday by one of the speakers who runs a commercial web design company. The speaker currently runs an annual three day training event set up to support (a few) University students with this extra curricular course. Overall, the course sounds and looks good. However first and foremost they are a design company and for-profit and the course itself is very limited in numbers (10). The link he pointed to is a blog post by Paul Boag whom I think is great — check out his podcast as an example. I have already recommended his Digital Adaptation book around my University, however with all of this in mind I was still very sceptical when approaching his post; when I hear of someone/anyone from the industry criticising Universities I know they normally do not fully grasp or understand the real nitty gritty workings of a University.
Change is needed
Firstly let me set out my position. I totally agree Universities need to change and that there are ‘storms’ of change coming. For a while I have been expecting a University to close its door for good and for be the start of a domino effect. I am sure It will still come. I also think there are too many “Universities” and that there is a need for a new and tiered system of education. Those who know me understand I have strong opinions on what a University should be and that it is much more than training and vocational skills. Within Design Education there are a number of BA courses that I suggest fall into the category of training and there is place for them but that's not what I call a University. I talk about that stuff and more on my design edutech podcast inkubator.
One point within the blog post suggests all Universities underestimate the importance of digital technologies. I don’t agree, specifically for my University. I only have to look at the digital education we are involved in to know we “get it” from the educational point of view and try to embed this. My University’s 2015 enhancement theme is ‘Technology Enhanced Learning’ and we have some very progressive staff who understand digital.
However Paul has are some valid points and although prefaced with the “worked with 30 HEI’s” he does make a number of huge assumptions around the types of change that all Universities or even Russell Group Universities are supposedly not under taking around digital. Only last week I was arguing to outlaw the term digital within our communication design curriculum! I suggest the word digital is in fact slowing design innovation specifically in web design, but that’s an aside.
Going back to the post, there are some salient points around not buying in off the shelf digital/tech solutions (which I have certainly seen) and to actually invest in digitally literate staff, with which I totally agree. I have seen a host of systems designed to support academics that are truly laughable and the fixes deployed tend to be off the shelf systems, poor and expensive upgrades or more IT ‘support’. None of these actually step back and look for a designed solution that is fit for purpose. Our University was long promised systems that would reduce the need for “traditional” administrative support (aka document creating, process creating, PA’s) and we are still waiting… even though the staff have long gone.
The Land that User Experience forgot
It is a fact we need some decent user experience (UX), user flow and developer/ design people investment that could really help fix and enhance processes. I am constantly lamenting the need for administrative staffing to be able to just build and make Macros (yes old tech I know !). Small changes like this would revolutionise a number of processes. A few years ago I built one for our team to remove a lot of copy and pasting that was totally unnecessary, giving them back days of time, literally. However something like a wholesale move from say Microsoft Office to Google Docs due to it being ‘better’ would be a privacy disaster and so sometimes we have to work within boundaries. Paul Boag’s post feels on the attack suggesting Universities consider digital a luxury. This is not what I see at all. Sure there is investment in buildings and facilities but Universities must provide blended learning and Art & Design Education specifically needs studios and machines and stuff to make things, yes even app and web designers, need to think and make in spaces with stuff. (Paul Boag knows this). See my really rough/new slidedeck on the emerging Hybrid Designer.
There is also an attack on University committees and slow structures but these are in place for good reason and yes some do slow down progress but when you are dealing with change that can involved 20,000 people you have to have robust change mechanisms, although even with these committees I have still seen stuff get through to the live system (staff and students) with no user testing ! So I agree some Lean UX and other methodologies would really help but I see many staff trying stuff out like Slack, Yammer and more, without any need to go via committees. What they may need help with is then speaking to the right people to move it forward outside of silos but once again I see this happening: this is where the grass roots stuff can still work within Academia and I think the suggestion that Universities are top heavy can be a little misunderstanding as well. Again, I am fortunate to have seen numerous grass routes initiatives such as Lynda.com grow from 10 staff at Winchester School of Art to be free for 20,000 staff and students over the last few years, thanks to grass roots initiatives and good data. I’ve have also seen others like a decent equipment and loans system get blocked for all the wrong reasons. (disclaimer : both started on my desk)
Comparing Universities to retail shops is a really bad illustration. Napster and Apple etc. “took out” retail for sure but that is a totally different model, the model surrounding the downfall of music is connected to the distribution of recorded music. Higher education is not really just the ‘distribution’ of knowledge. There is no way that online educational resources will topple Education in the same way as Napster/Apple did. They can and should supplement it, I’m confident of that.
The further suggestion on becoming like Silicon Valley are again badly placed. I could not think of a worse proposition and although students and outsiders often refer to students as customers, again this is a massive mistake and is ruining higher education. Now I am a proponent of Communities of Practice and so the relationship is nothing like a customer and sales person, it is not a one way transaction. Sure Silicon Valley may come in and take over and that’s happening already; they are all over Edutech like monsters and of course there maybe some places for that but this as an overall idea is a terrible commercialisation or privatisation of education and a horrendous misunderstanding of what education is about and what education is for. For further depth look up Audrey Watters and Steve Wheeler.
I am however still pleased his post has started a debate within my School (department) already but I do feel what he has posted is supportive. It has the hallmarks of profit motive and again his Higher Education pack is all about buying in Silicon Valley or tech city gurus to fix things, this will likely only end in problems unless the co-operation is perhaps a little more ind.ie, I am confident this is not Paul Boag’s motives but it maybe read that way.
Universities have to change. However they are very much “oil tankers” and will take a while to adapt and cannot be as agile as some people expect and perhaps nor should they be. However specifically from a teaching perspective, my University has some people in smaller boats trying stuff out and reporting back. I would agree that Administrative processes need a massive overhaul, timetables, feedback and planning could so easily be fixed with systems that require little training and there are some fundamental mistakes still being made in this regard. IT Support and HR certainly feel very digitally backwards to me!
I think however the post could do the opposite of what Paul Boag wants and could turn Vice Chancellors and Senior Management off. Yes I agree with offering advice, slides, videos and discounted services to help with the user experience and design thinking (many of us already know this is good) is a way to support forward momentum and I appreciate Paul Boag has been doing this. I just think the post misses the mark and is not considered enough. Perhaps it was designed for a reaction but if people just share this up the tree in their organisation I suspect they may be seen as naive.
However I call on Vice Chancellors, Senior Management and my Colleagues take on the good bits of advice and don't dismiss Paul Boag’s post due too some misplaced comments.
Adam Procter is a Senior Teaching Fellow interested in the fields of Hybrid Design*, Internet of Things, Games Design and connected cool stuff at Winchester School of Art.
*a new definition I am working on.