Beginning of term

Shamanic meso-american woman playing the earth as a computer keyboardSystems or people? We can model learning in order to develop ways for our machines to acquire, store, process and apply data: information gathered from the world around. Although I put it as a vague question of preference at the start of this essay, it has many ramifications. Are people not just quite complex systems? And is complexity simply a diversion? Is it not a more simple question? Where are the boundaries and limits?

I ask this at the beginning of term because this is hurricane season for university administration people and systems in general, and has been in particular for my university at this moment. We are building a new student record system. Well, we are acquiring, localising and implementing a student record system consisting of many new – and large – components. And, it is the system we use to manage relationships.

Which means, for the moment at least, we need to manage relationships in a different way: through people not systems. Or at least we have – for the moment – to act as though people are different to systems. Or, maybe that systems are people?

One thing we do know about people is that they feel things when they are under stress. They feel things like anger, anxiety and fear. Can I repeat that, please, using “I-statements”? I feel angry, anxious and fearful when I am under stress. While I want to be careful about projecting those feelings onto colleagues, I also want to attend to others with empathy for the possibility that they might also be angry, anxious and fearful.

Backpacks, badges and epistemology: an interesting conversation that leads to happily ever after

Grant (2014) asks in the title to her book about digital badges, “What Counts as Learning?” This succinctly expresses the question of higher education and explains the continuing interest in badges, and in learning technologies in general. The fact this is less explored, gives me an opportunity to explore both learning technology and epistemology.

I have developed a new MA Education course module, “Philosophy and policy of higher education”. In this 20 credit level 7 module the question: “What counts as learning?” will be explored. That is the seductive game higher education plays: a chance at determining or being among the determiners of meaning – what counts as learning – for a generation or so. To extend the “play” metaphor to a stage on which higher education acts, higher education as an institution and its practitioners as individuals seek to occupy the limen, the space on the edge between consensual suspension of belief in order to “live the dream”, and the world as it is, explained. More critically for those in the game it poses the question about one’s own underpinnings, one own “will to power”, or academic identity or even life.

Badges are something like brand propositions and to some extent depend on other similar propositions. Like many brand propositions their link to truth is explicitly unattested. The badge can only serve as a conversation starter. Like travel badges on a backpack seen on an overnight Eurail while sleeping in the vestibule: “So when did you go to Sweden?” Most universities have a t-shirt and sports kit with a name and often a crest or logo. Some might serve the question: “Were you at Malmo?” To which an answer might be “No, it is a good hoodie.” But could also be, “Yes, for ice-hockey in 2009.”

Possibly the internet will work like the cold vestibule of a Eurail under an ex army coat, and when we see badges on a site we may start that interesting conversation that leads to happily ever after: life, love, career, changing the world? Or same as it ever was. That conversation about changing the world? Because as it is now, the foundations of meaning sometimes appear both unsound and cruel, not just one or the other.

References

Grant, Sheryl. 2014. What Counts as Learning: Open Badges for New Opportunities. Kindle. Irvine, CA: Digital Media and Learning Research Hub. http://dmlhub.net/publications/what-counts-learning/.

Badges: Learning Gain or Just a Game, and what’s wrong with that?

Badges are Digital image files with text metadata stating criteria for which the badge has been earned. Badges are (presently) self-certified by Learner or Earner and  Self-certified by Provider or Issuer. Below are resources for a short session I ran for the Technology Experimentation Group (TEG). Continue reading “Badges: Learning Gain or Just a Game, and what’s wrong with that?”

Teaching conference #fslt15

Reflecting mid-week in the fifth and last week of First Steps into Learning and Teaching in Higher Education (FSLT). In four one-hour webinars, two on Monday and two on Tuesday, I have seen and participated in 12 Virtual Conference presentations by participants in week 5 of this open online course. And, for the first time I can remember, I let out rock-and-roll whoops. Not something often said about teaching conferences. In part this was because I can take credit for some of this course design and it didn’t totally break down; in part it was because the platform has just about stood up; in part because the level of digital capability of the participants has for many broken through the novelty barrier. But mostly because these were among the 12 best presentations I have seen and participated in. Well argued, evidenced, structured, illustrated and in scope for time (not over the “wordcount”).

Continue reading “Teaching conference #fslt15”

Analytics are not relationships

Just read Niall Sclater’s literature review for JISC: Code of practice for learning analytics: A literature review of the ethical and legal issues. The report asks a lot of important questions. And it mentions, albeit in passing in the “Rationale” section, what for me is the key issue: “Greater trust and a better relationship with the people you collect information about.”

But that word “relationship” masks the hard human issue about education and learning that no amount of data will resolve. Ultimately “authentic” relationship is between embodied (or formerly embodied, in the case of dead writers) individual humans. I don’t want to get all Bakhtinian about it, but while analytics may help ask questions, they will not provide the solutions.

A problem we uncover when surveying students (either “failing” students, or students on “failing” courses) is that they do not feel that their teachers know them or care about them. I do not think these students will be impressed if the response is to fix the broken relationship with an algorithm.

At best analytics can help start a conversation. People have to be willing to take the conversation on. That is: people, not institutions. Analytics may help pinpoint areas where hard work needs to be done, but are not likely to make that work any easier.

Management wants “the” answer to achieving particular mandated targets in order to protect or augment resources (or consolidate and preserve “power”). People (learners and teachers) are not trusted to do this “consistently” (as if they ever could!). So it is hoped that algorithms will: a) discover the right answer and then b) enforce a solution in line with targets and outcomes (which shift with the political wind).

We must not let loss of trust be simply collateral damage.

Other important contributions to the discussion

#Design 4 Learning 2014

Semi live , late blogging from the Design for Learning Conference, 27 November 2014, The Open University, Milton Keynes.

Dr Tessa Eysink, University of Twente, Keynote “Learner performance in inquiry learning environments”

Work in progress comparing Inquiry learning with expository instruction. The research was focused on the design and use of small Learning Objects in Psychology: 60 of them. The topic “Classical conditioning”, “used world-wide” was chosen for the trial. The underlying issue to be addressed was that learners find it hard to generate hypotheses interpret data, collect data, and so on. Therefore, learning must be supported.

What other processes are there? Tessa outlined four approaches all of which were purported to improve learning. (Some do. Some don’t.) All appeared very cognitivist in their underlying epistemology.

  • Inquiry Learning
  • Hypermedia Learning
  • Observational Learning
  • Exploratory Learning

The trial models were all implemented in the same VLE and “Only the instructional method differed.” This, to me is questionable. The implementations all looked the same at arm’s length, though each was described as a separate environment. Learners were described as of high, middle and low ability. This categorisation was presented as unproblematic. The “High ability” learner was the norm. The other two differed in degree to which they resiled from the norm.

“Inquiry Learning” was “Problem-based Learning” “Hypermedia Learning” was expository or didactic, content-led learning: read all about it, where “reading” may be replaced by consume hypermedia. “Observational learning” was, in essence, apprenticeship or knowledge engineering. Learning comes from observing (or watching a video of…) an expert and emulating or decoding the practice. “Exploratory learning” appeared little different from Inquiry learning. PBL without the problem; self-directed hypermedia learning (?).

A few lessons were presented.

  • In the trials Inquiry learning was the most effective and efficient. No surprises, there. While I agree with the lesson, nevertheless it was annoying to see the exposition of a foregone conclusion.
  • Generating the subject matter by the students (Learner-led curriculum) leads to learning gain. This was interesting, but if supported by evidence, I did not notice it.
  • It appeared that the trials were focussed on providing tailored instruction for high ability learners: opens the way to complex, abstract assignments. But questions inclusivity?
  • Modelling practice is a helpful adjunct to PBL. But this session modelled expository practice, not inquiry learning.

At the end of the conference, key contributors were asked for three things: a hunch, a wish, and a prediction. My hunch, wish and prediction:

  • Hunch: what is needed to design instruction is not so much research (leading to the formulation of a grand narrative)  but sensitive observation in the the learning context (petits receipts): in the classroom, action learning, etc
  • Wish: educators would learn that everyone is equally remarkable, wonderful and wise to the ways  of their world.
  • Prediction: Performance monitoring dashboards will not improve learning.

Something of a synthesis

I attended and wrote about four professional development events this week.

And I gave a keynote at the Solstice Conference at Edge Hill University on 5 June 2014. Slides are here.

In this post I begin to instrumentalise my synthesis of critical educational development points, which I suggest are underpinned by and support the themes (possibly threshold concepts)  that emerged from the events above. [You might like to watch this video by Doug ward on Synthesis as a threshold concept.]

There is strong empirical evidence for the benefits of dialogic: epistemic and suggestive feedback. Deliberative reflection arises from and is a skill for distributed collaboration. Peer writing, co-authoring towards shared understanding, is participatory, dialogic, epistemic and may be suggestive. Through interior dialogue and the essentially dialogic nature of literacies  we have dialogue with the past: teachers, writers, memories, culture. Curricula, too, are participatory, evaluative, dialogic, social and self-determined. The convener, participants and curriculum are in tension in an environment of ambiguity, concern, community, power and politics. Methodologically, critical ethnographies provide the essential richer picture and learning needs stewardship.

The framework looks like this:

Framework

Dialogue is at the heart. There are three axes running through dialogue:

  1. experience and activity
  2. participation and outcomes
  3. reflection and community.

And there are 12 further triads, each with dialogue at their apex:

  1. experience and reflection
  2. reflection and outcomes
  3. outcomes and activity
  4. activity and community
  5. community and participation
  6. participation and experience
  7. experience and outcomes
  8. reflection and activity
  9. outcomes and community
  10. activity and participation
  11. community and experience
  12. participation and reflection.

In each section that follows, I state the principle and then pose the questions, mostly in a “How do you …” style; “Have you considered …?”

Learning is active

Learning is active, an aggregation of multiple individual and unique actions and interactions of people with knowledge, tools and contexts. How do you:

  • incorporate activity into any learning design?
  • decide what activity is useful?
  • engage “micro” activity patterns (e.g. 20 minute cycles) with wider (session, course, life-course) activity patterns?
  • select appropriate tools?
  • use frameworks (approaches, templates, learning plans, etc.) to support activity design and implementation?

Learning is dialogic

Learning is dialogic: individuals share, negotiate, discuss and contend with texts (multimedia), self and others (peers, hierarchies). How do you:

  • facilitate conversation and collaboration with and between students (student-tutor and student-student contact) face-to-face or at distance; one-to-one and in groups?
  • develop academic discourse (multimedia/multimodal, writing/producing) and give feedback for learning in all modes?
  • encourage interior dialogue?

People are different

People are different (diverse identities) in many ways: demographically (age, sex, national origin, etc), as well as culturally and epistemologically (education tradition, world view, doer/reflector, multiple intelligence, multiliteracy, learning preferences, etc). How do you accommodate learner and learning diversity?

  • Demographic (legal, language, social, accessible)?
  • Epistemological (orientation to knowledge and learning)?
  • Identity and community?
  • Goal orientation?

Learning is experiential

Learning is experiential, it draws on everyone’s experience. How do you incorporate:

  • Work-based learning?
  • Life-wide learning?
  • Transitions?

Learning is reflective

Learning is reflective. Reflection happens in cycles (dialogue with self and others): student life-cycles, action learning cycles, assessment and feedback cycles. How do you:

  • Incorporate reflection, individually and in groups (professional, academic, ad hoc)?
  • Help students have a voice for their experience and outcomes?
  • Acquire peer and colleague contribution and feedback?
  • Include practice and theory?

Learning takes place in communities

Learning takes place in communities or groups of people (institutions, disciplines), settings (classrooms, work-places, online, etc) have community development aspects where there are roles (teacher, student, admin), and rules (tacit and explicit). How do you:

  • involve prior learners, disciplinary colleagues and trans-disciplinarity in programmes of study?
  • Incorporate wider notions of identity and citizenship, and shared (or examined) values?
  • Include core texts and narratives of the community of inquiry?
  • Develop role-based competencies?

Learning is participatory

Learning is participatory: Everyone is learning. How do you:

  • Encourage differential participation: peripheral, core, guest, “lurker”?
  • Acknowledge your own and your students’ memory, feelings and opinions?
  • Ensure authenticity to learners points of origin, disciplinary knowledge base, and practice as it is in the field?

Learning is outcomes-led

Learning is outcomes-led. There are curricula (No curriculum is a curriculum.) Many curricula are underpinned by wider professional and regulatory frameworks codified in law and customary practice. Outcomes are assessed and evaluated, often by other agencies. There may, of course be many “unintended outcomes”, many of which may well be beneficial, though not necessarily expressed in the curriculum. How do you:

  • Refer to benchmarks and standards; codes of practice?
  • Assess your learners?
  • Engage learners with criteria?
  • Develop communities of assessment practice?