Planting spring bulbs in concrete

TulipsI’ve just finished ‘digital education: strategy and policy’, the last compulsory course in my MSc in digital education. (Next up: the dissertation, eeeek.)

One metaphor from the early weeks of the course stayed with me throughout the semester: the idea of institutions forming their strategy for digital education by ‘letting 1000 flowers bloom’ (Meredith and Newton 2003, p. 50).

Now this might sound laughably naïve in such austere and authoritarian times, but the idea goes something like this: that strategies for e-learning can emerge from a dialogue between individual teaching practice and institutional policy, rather than flowing down from strategy-makers at the top of an organisation. At the heart of this process are individual teachers experimenting with digital technologies in their subject area; around them, the institution creates systems of support, feedback and development that translate small-scale experiments into strategies.

Why should we form strategies in this way? Well for one thing, the academic ivory tower and the management awayday have terrible track records when it comes to devising strategies that can be implemented in digital education. And secondly, if innovation in teaching and learning isn’t led by university teachers then consultants, technology firms and so-called edu-businesses will soon move in to fill the vacuum. (If you’re wondering why that might not be a good thing, Audrey Watters and Martin Weller‘s blogs are good places to start.)

Easier said than done, obviously. The processes around strategy-making will be radically different (and keenly negotiated) from context to context, but we could begin by asking ourselves some questions. How are teachers trained, managed and incentivised at my institution? Have we asked our students what they want and need, or are we telling them? What (human and financial) resources have we devoted to nurturing experimentation and translating this into strategy? And does our academic leadership welcome and actively role-model innovation?

Answering these questions requires us to re-examine some of our most dearly held assumptions about teaching and learning online. Unfortunately, in many cases the underpinning culture and ideology of an institution  is simply not up for debate. And you can’t expect 1000 flowers to bloom if you’re planting spring bulbs in concrete.


Clegg S. (2011) ‘The context and emergence of strategic thinking’, in S. Clegg et al. (eds), Strategy: Theory and Practice. Los Angeles, CA: Sage, pp. 3–44.

Hannon J. (2011) ‘Incommensurate practices: sociomaterial entanglements of learning technology implementation’, Journal of Computer Assisted Learning, 29, pp. 168178.

Meredith S. and Newton B. (2003), ‘Models of elearning: technology promise vs learner needs literature review’, International Journal Management Education, 3 (3), pp. 43–56. DOI: 10.3794/ijme.33.73

Singh G. and Hardaker G. (2014) ‘Barriers and enablers to adoption and diffusion of elearning’, Education and Training, 56 (2/3), pp. 105–121.



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