What makes for good policy? Thoughts in relation to BC’s digital learning strategy draft

I’ve been spending quite a bit of time thinking about the digital learning strategy that my home province of BC is considering, as well as talking with various people about it. I’ll be sending my thoughts to the ministry shortly, but haven’t yet decided whether I’ll post them here. What I do want to share though, in case others find it helpful, is the framework that I used in making sense of the strategy and what it might achieve. In other words, in thinking about the content of the policy, I had to answer for myself the question: What are the hallmarks of a good policy? And in turn, I had to answer for myself what “good” means. While this isn’t a typical post for this blog, it’s one that interests me because (a) Royal Roads University offers an MA in Higher Education Administration and Leadership, and (b) i think about policymaking in my grant-seeking efforts.

To help me think through the content of the policy, I considered the degree to which the policy is

  • Inclusive. This strategy should address the needs and concerns of very many groups of people, and every institution in the province. Typically this is conceived in terms of institutional size, focus, location, etc, and, in Canada in particular, in terms of our relationships with Indigenous peoples. However, because of this strategy’s focus on digital learning, it also ought to address both the needs and concerns of predominantly in-person institutions as well as the needs and concerns of predominantly online/hybrid institutions. If the policy is about a particular kind of institution, then it should explicitly focus on, and define, that kind of institution.
  • Informed by evidence. This strategy needs to be informed by the literature on digital learning (duh), but also by the literature on how innovations are supported, sustained, and scaled; as well as by broader literature around sustainability, equity and inclusion, etc etc.
  • Descriptive. The strategy ought to describe macro-level actions, efforts, outcomes, etc rather than prescribe micro-level efforts in order to support the diversity, as well as the opportunity to innovate, in the sector. There’s a bit of a tension here between  descriptiveness and prescriptiveness, and it seems to be that it’s a bit of an art form to find the right balance.
  • Supportive. In inviting the sector to engage in various valued activities, the strategy should explicitly state how the provincial government is going to support the sector in its efforts. In other words, the policy ought to not only state the responsibilities of higher education institutions, but should also highlight the responsibilities of the Ministry and the ways in which it will support higher education institutions (e.g., in terms of resources, fora to provide opportunities for collaboration, funding for institutions to attend fora, etc, etc).
  • Aspirational. The strategy ought to identify its North Star, the thing that not only invites diverse groups to collaborate, but also to agree and strive toward.
  • Contemplative of unintended consequences. The policy ought to consider not just what it might achieve, but what it might unintentionally produce. This is a difficult one because it’s as much about what is in the strategy as it is about what is not in the strategy. To use a university policy example to make this concrete: While a policy which requires open educational resources is laudable in encouraging access etc etc, one of its unintended consequences might be that the course curriculum will be made available to everyone – including groups which use such content to harass and disproportionately target faculty who teach topics they disagree with.

There are other issues here to consider, such as the degree to which a policy includes outcomes which can be evaluated according to fair and explicit criteria, but those are perhaps “general good policy” criteria rather than this-specific-policy criteria. Plus, this post is too long already.

Over to you: What would you add to this list? The comments section is open.

July 31 update: Dr. Chuck Hodges alerted to a forthcoming chapter on National Educational Technology Plans that is relevant.

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6 Comments

  1. Sanjaya Mishra

    At Commonwealth of Learning, I support governments and educational institutions in the Commonwealth countries develop apppropriate policies for technology-enabled learning that are grounded on relevance, feasibility and available resources. While inclusivity, gender-responsiveness, and increasing access to educational opportunities are normative principles, policies must be backed up with evidence and supported with funding to implement. Policy must also focus on capacity building and use of affordable technologies. A strong monitoring and evaluation plan or a measurable implementation plan must accompany the policy to help assess development and make course correction, when needed.

  2. Mark Brown

    The strategy development process is a crucial element to helping to make choices explicit, building collective ownership and to giving ALL stakeholders a voice, including learners

  3. Amy Z

    Not sure if this analogy is relevant to digital learning strategy but…I think a lot about the K to 12 curriculum that was introduced in BC a few years ago. I have two different perspectives: As an educator myself, I was teaching environmental educators in the MA environmental education program, and I was struck by how enthusiastic these progressive educators were about the new curriculum, which was more about problem based learning, gave teachers more creative freedom etc. I thought: What did the Ministry do right, what was their process like, to create a curriculum that appealed to so many teachers on the ground?

    But, as a mom, my perspective was a bit different. It takes a certain kind of teacher to do these newer pedagogies well, and too often I worried that my kids were getting lost in the transition, they weren’t getting the old way of learning, but they weren’t really getting a good version of the new way either. So to your points…..the new curriculum was aspirational. That is good.I would want that. But what does it mean to be “supportive”? I think there was PD to help teachers transition. I don’t think lack of support was the issue. But I wonder if truly transitioning to new ways requires more holistic ways of thinking about support. Also, how do transitions not further entrench inequalities? Most newer ways of teaching are also more time consuming. I have no doubt innovations are beautifully executed and lead to better education in well funded schools, but as a mom I question whether kids in some of the public schools where teachers are already struggling with time management, getting a worse education than before? I also wonder whether with policy change, admission criteria to teacher-ed programs need to change. Is it the same kind of people who do one type of teaching well, versus another? Even in a Utopian world with perfect professional development for teachers, do all teachers have infinite capacity and motivation to do things new ways?

    Concretely, I think attending fora probably isn’t enough. I think there needs to be acknowledgement that many new pedagogies are more time consuming for educators, since they better recognize the differences between individual students & don’t mandate lockstep approaches. So to truly execute on educational innovations, “support” could mean having teachers carry 80% of the teaching load they did in the past.

    • Thank you for these extensive and thoughtful comments, Amy. Really good point on the inequities in schools that may be widened or further entrenched, especially as we know from the literature on the integration of computers and the internet in US schools that the haves often integrate them in unique and pedagogically powerful ways, while the have nots use them in ways consistent with poor pedagogical approaches. I’d think that something similar would apply to the introduction of new pedagogical approaches.

      When I was thinking of support here I was thinking of it in systemic levels, from the perspective of the ministry but also from the perspective of the institutions, and i think you’re absolutely right in that “support” isn’t only about providing additional funding. For example, when asking a faculty member to adopt a new set of pedagogical practices, and especially when the faculty member holds a precarious position, the institution must a mindset that allows iterative improvements and failing safely, which identifying what structures are necessary to support not just the faculty member but students as well. A typical example in the distance education literature was the establishment of call centres for students to receive immediate help when needed, independent of the course they were enrolled in.

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