Thursday, 19 November 2009

Four questions about learners' needs and expectations

Ahead of my keynote with Rhona at the JISC e-learning conference, here are four questions I think are relevant to addressing learners' needs and expectations - and thinking about why needs and expectations might not be the same.

What capabilities will today's learners need in 2020? (Which of these capabilities have 'digital' aspects and what do they look like?)

What do learners arriving at HE and FE need to make the best of their learning experience? (What do they need if they are to make the best use of technologies to support their learning?)

What experience will learners get from HE and FE that they can't get from other kinds of learning (especially informal, technology-enabled learning)?

What do learners want or expect from HE and FE that present challenges to the existing practices of institutions (especially around technology)?

Saturday, 14 November 2009

why talk about texts?

This was blogged in response to Robin Goodfellow's post on the Literacies in the Digital University site and I hope can also be read there. I agree with Andy that new technologies bring forward new ways of expressing academic ideas – and maybe we need to use terms like critical, reflexive, evidence-based, rhetorical etc to describe what is valued about academic ideas, and/or acknowledge that traditions of how ideas are valued and validated can change as in the oral-to-written PhD. I think it will be in discipline and micro-discipline communities that new practices emerge, become visible, and come to be valued, i.e. become part of a social practice and historical tradition. I do also agree with Robin, though, that use of the term 'affordance' is not always helpful – again my personal preference would be to focus on knowledge practice. Ong, I think, talks about writing as both a technology and a practice. In this vein, 'text' is also a slippery term - it is used to mean both specifically written or printed communications (communications using a particular technology), and communication of many kinds viewed through a particular analytical lens (hence 'multimedia text').

To get back to the practices, the 2007 British Library report into the information behaviour of school-age researchers has this on p.46: 'About 40% of UK schools found content in the learning directory by using a Search engine image search... Further about half of US (47%) and EU universities (47%) accessed the learning directory using a Search engine image search.' This is not young people in their personal, social practice but engaged in formal learning contexts. And actually if you have some idea what you are looking for, selecting from images (even images of text) can be faster and more accurate.

There is absolutely no doubt that academic practices are changing - in fact text and what we can do with it is probably changing faster than other modes are being adopted - for me the question is how we reframe in the new knowledge media landscape what is valuable about academic modes of communication.

Thursday, 12 November 2009

Design distance

This is an idea that came to me during a recent meeting with Cluster C of the JISC Curriculum Design programme. I have been reviewing their baseline reports and we were discussing both how design/teaching 'roles' may be changing, and how design for learning takes place at several interrelated levels of the curriculum. I came up with the term 'design distance' to describe the distance that design decisions are being taken from the real learning and teaching process. Learners and teachers responding to the situation as it arises are very close, while those engaged in planning programmes with a 3-4 year lead-in time and no expectation of actually teaching them are very distant.

Technology – and learning design in fact – has tended to be used to increase the distance, or at least deal with an increased distance, e.g. through asynchronous, anytime learning, through segregating design from delivery as a separate instructional role, etc. But there are a few indications from the CD programme that it could be used to telescope the distance in various ways, e.g. using course tools such as Mahara to represent a curriculum to students and to the course validation committee, or using visualisations in a LD system to help designers step into the shoes of learners, or other means of supporting dialogue with learners about their learning, before they are actually engaged in it.

Dimensions of design distance would have to include time, space and role. 'Good' design acknowledges the distance, leaving unspecified those issues that are better determined at closer range. i.e. leaving room for teacher and learner improvisation. Learning design approaches can help by representing what needs to be decided at what level, to retain design effectiveness and efficiency, while leaving other decisions open (guided in various ways?) to those closer to the point of learning. Distance from the learner brings in the issue of how the designers involve and respect those who inherit their design decisions.

It feels like a useful idea - better than 'learner-centred' which has become almost meaningless, and anyway implies that designers are doing well if they *think* what they do is relevant to learners... It can be both subjective and (reasonably) objective as a description of design practice. But I'm wondering if there are any pragmatic implications? Curricula need to be designed at the lowest possible distance from learning if they are to be maximally relevant and responsive. There may problems with too great a separation of roles - design teams who are not invested and implicated in the actual delivery process – as for example the OU has begun to recognise by involving associate tutors in the design process. Engaging stakeholders in design is one way to reduce design distance, and creating flexible designs to be 'completed' closer to the point of learning is another. Must think further about this...

Tuesday, 10 November 2009

Learners' needs and expectations

Working on a keynote for the JISC Online Conference I've been reflecting on the assumption that learners' needs and expectations are closely related (theme one, question: can institutions meet the challenges posed by learners' needs and expectations?).

The keynote offers a chance to respond to the government's HE review, Higher Ambitions, a key theme of which is that learners should be treated more like customers and consumers of education (Richard Hall has already blogged brilliantly about the fact that the model here is big business, not social enterprise).

A consumer model sees learners' needs and expectations as one and the same thing. Find out what learners want – or what employers want from learners, but that's another story – and deliver it. But learning isn't like that. Learning in the higher sense, understood as self-reflection, self-actualisation, self-transformation etc means that an individual's needs may be met by challenging her expectations, and that both needs and expectations change if deep learning is taking place. Yes we need to respond to learners' long-term goals and short-term plans, which is what bring them to education in the first place, but we are failing if we let them define the limit of learners' ambitions.

We're also, actually, limiting society's ambitions. There was once a Thatcherite ambition to transform our economy into a financial services economy, because there were short-term gains to be made by liberalising the financial markets ahead of our European competitors. It looks a bit short-sighted today. What Universities are for in the C21st has to have a longer and more critical perspective, more collective ambition, than what governments think they are for on today's policy agenda.

There seems to be a consensus that formal post-school education has been too driven by the 'supply side'. (This is an argument that just doesn't make sense to 'selecting' universities, btw - they have been offering much the same for decades, or centuries, and are still turning 'customers' away - but still...). Let's agree that HE needs to make its offering more relevant to the C21st. If we accept at face value Mandelson's definition of the role of HE as 'competition plus civilisation', it's clear that everybody has a stake in defining what universities 'need' to offer, and in ensuring that they go on to meet our collective 'expectations', since what is at stake is on what terms we compete, and how we imagine our civilisation. Neither next year's undergraduates, nor this year's major graduate employers, can be allowed to define something so important on their own, though they may be the stakeholders with the sharpest stakes.

So while acknowledging the need to become more relevant, many people have been expressing discomfort with the customer model of defining relevance. What do we have to offer instead? First I think we have to widen the debate from what individual learners need and expect. Particularly in a downturn, individual needs are never going to be a good indicator of the wider social good - just in time, just for me is no basis on which to define a civilisation. But second, I think we need to express individual needs and expectations in a developmental way. Learners need to feel secure – to have aspects of their expectation satisfied – only so that they can be challenged and changed, so that they can encounter new ways of thinking and practising and being in the world. Learning isn't something added on to us, let alone something we can purchase – learning is transformation. The wider debate must be about what kinds of transformation are worth devoting our professional lives to support.

Tuesday, 3 November 2009

Open everything

Putting together a workshop proposal for the Open Educational Resources (10) conference in Cambridge next March, based on work I'm doing with Allison Littlejohn and Lou McGill in support of the JISC OER programme (our synthesis and evaluation wiki is here).

I've ended up thinking about the different ways that I've heard 'open' being used around content specifically (leaving aside open source and 'open technology' at this point), and about which I think we need to know more (scare quotes alert!)

'Openness' as a feature of communities/organisations: What features of educational communities and institutions could be described as 'open', or precursors to full participation in 'open content' sharing?

Openness' as a feature of content: What features of content allow it to be fully shared and reused in other contexts? Are these features enhancing of or inimical to specific pedagogical values (e.g. those which are strongly situated or context-based)? What are the implications for quality processes?

'Openness' as a value in education: What impact is 'open pedagogy' having, above and beyond issues of content, and how should we understand and promote this idea?

'Openness' as a feature of certain technology-based services (typically public/third-party): Are web 2.0 solutions to content hosting over-riding the demand for deposit of content in 'open' repositories?

Since first writing this post I've also been reflecting on the links - not nearly strong enough yet IMO - between open content and open access to research materials. In the US a new Compact for Open Access Equity, signed by 5 leading HEIs, commits them in effect to supporting open access publishing by their own staff, on both economic and scholarly grounds. What would leadership of this kind look like in relation to educational (T&L) content?

Friday, 23 October 2009

Rethinking Learning for a Digital Age

How Routledge do love these hubristic titles (not the editors' choice, I should mention). It has been a busy last two weeks, and Rhona has worked heroically to get the manuscript off on time. More modestly than the title suggests, we're hoping people will be interested in a new collection with more of a focus on learners' experiences and less on the design and pedagogy. Rhona's blog entry has the chapter list: our thanks to all the wonderful authors involved.

Digital literacies - LiT meets TEL?

Just been reading Robin Goodfellow's post about the seminar last Friday at the University of Edinburgh on Literacy in the Digital University. He makes some good points about the clash of the 'literacies in learning' and the 'technologies in learning' frameworks, and I'm always in favour of surfacing these tensions. We spend far too much time in e-learning trying to pretend it doesn't matter whether we're hardened instrumentalists or dyed in the wool social theorists, and it won't do.

However, I'm not sure ANY of the presentations I heard at the event, with the possible exception of (some bits of) Chris Jones' summing up (blog it Chris!), fitted the charge that we 'simply utilised the term 'literacies' as a descriptor for different kinds of technical practices'. Personally I avoided the term 'literacy' as much as possible in that company, recognising that it has already been comprehensively theorised and to some extent therefore claimed by academics working in a very particular domain. I prefer to talk about knowledge practices, i.e the expression of some presumed personal capacities, preferences and habits in particular situations (I'm interested in the practices and situations, I'm not at all sure how one goes about accessing or even very usefully defining the personal capacities otherwise). By knowledge practice I do not at all mean 'signing up to follow someone's tweets' as a single action in a particular technology-enabled space, but I probably do mean the bundle of actions I perform using twitter and the meanings they have for me, and for others involved.

One problem may be that just as the literacy people are making certain assumptions about 'their' frameworks being widely shared, we too are making certain assumptions about 'our' technology being widely used. For example, putting a twitterstream live behind a speaker is for me so 'normal' that I didn't even stop to think that there might be sensibilities to consider. For any given f2f event of that kind I expect there to be an accompanying 'event' taking place on twitter (not a 'representation' of the 'real' event but another, parallel event). This 'other' is not even necessarily less interesting or engaging than the first (see on the great keynote/harshtag debate - and twestivals, tweetmeets and flashmobs are examples of an originary twitter event breaking out into the 'real'). And bringing the two events into closer proximity through projection has evolved (I now realise) as a means of dealing with several social issues, e.g. exclusion (people not tweeting can at least take part vicariously in that event), respect (tweeting cannot take place behind anyone's back), interaction (questions can be taken from 'the floor' on a much broader basis), equality (people lacking the confidence to speak in public can tweet in public) etc etc.

I should mention that as a fairly regular presenter using Elluminate and twitter streams I don't find it difficult to speak, monitor a room, and monitor a stream of text at the same time. That is clearly something I have learned to do, but I don't think it's nearly as interesting as what the participants are doing - that is what changes the meaning of the situation. It also, for me, changes the meaning for *everybody* in the room, including those not tweeting.

I was frustrated in Edinburgh (for reasons not at all the fault of the University or our lovely hosts) that I couldn't get online to twitter, and so could not involve the many people outside of the physical situation who I knew were interested in it. In fact, to confess my own technology predelictions, I didn't feel properly 'there' as a result. Had I been tweeting I would not have been failing to engage properly in 'the real': on the contrary, I find tweeting an event for others at least as reflective as writing notes, with the added advantage of bringing other people's reactions and ideas into the live event.

Before we have appropriated a technology to a personal and social practice, the technology itself seems to be the point (this is Robin's perspective). To the outsider, whether by choice or exclusion, the technology IS the practice. I guess writing and print demanded exactly the same focus on the technologies at one time - those bastards have PENS. To the insider, the technology is only visible when it becomes a problem (can't get online). The social practices that Robin found objectionable did need surfacing and exploring and negotiating, but to suggest that they were 'simply' technical practices, and that the technical was hijacking the social, is an equally one-sided perspective.