Future Learners, new Opportunities and Technology

The wider CETIS community has often appreciated meeting up, with others sharing the same “special interests”, in “SIG” meetings. That kind of meeting took place, including old “Portfolio” SIG participants, on 11th Dec in Nottingham, and many interesting points came up.

The people who came to the meeting would not all use the label “portfolio”. We billed the meeting as exploring issues from the viewpoint of the learner, so neither institutions, nor providers of learning resources, were the focus. The e-portfolio community has indeed had the learner at the centre of thinking, but this meeting had many ideas that were not specifically “portfolio”.

Indeed, the main attraction of the day was Doug Belshaw talking, and leading a workshop, on the Mozilla Open Badges concept and technology. Badges are not in themselves portfolios, though they do seem to fit well into the same “ecosystem”, which perhaps may come gradually to supplant the current system of the established educational institutions monopolising the award of degrees, with those being necessary for many jobs. And Doug converted people! Several attendees who had not previously been convinced of the value of badges now saw the light. That can only be good.

For those with doubts, Doug also announced that the Mozilla team had agreed to introduce a couple more pieces of metadata into the Open Badges specification. That is definitely worth looking at closely, to see if we can use that extra information to fill gaps that have been perceived. One of these new metadata elements looks like it will naturally link to a definition of skill, competence, or similar, in the style of InLOC, which of course I think is an excellent idea!

The “lightning talks” model worked well, with 10 speakers given only 5 minutes each to speak. The presentations remain listed on the meeting web page, with a link to the slides. Topics included:

  • board games
  • peer assessment
  • students producing content
  • placement and employability

My own contribution was an outline argument of the case that InLOC is positioned to unlock a chain of events, via the vital link of employers taking non-institutional credentials seriously, towards “reinvigorating the e-portfolio landscape”.

So learner-focused learning technology community is alive and well, and doing many good things.

In parallel with the badges workshop, a small group including me talked over more subtle issues. For me, a key point is the need to think through the bigger picture of how badges may be used in practice. How will we differentiate between the likely plethora of badges that will be created and displayed? How will employers, for example, distinguish the ones that are both relevant to their interests, and issued by reputable people or bodies? Looking at the same question another way, what does it take to be the issuer of badges that are genuinely useful, and that will really help the labour market move on? Employers are no more going to wade through scores of badges than they currently wade through the less vital sections of an e-portfolio.

We could see a possible key idea here as “badging the badgers”. If we think through what is needed to be responsible for issuing badges that are really useful, we could turn that into a badge. And a very significant badge it would be, too!

The local arrangements were ably looked after by the Nottingham CIePD group, which seems to be the most active and highly-regarded current such group in UK HE. Ever since, under Angela Smallwood, Nottingham pioneered the ePARs system, they have consistently been in the forefront of developments in this area of learning technology. I hope that they, as well as other groups, will be able to continue work in this area, and continue to act as focal points for the learner-centric learning technology community.

The future of Leap2A?

We’ve done a great job with Leap2A in terms of providing a workable starting point for interoperability of e-portfolio systems and portability of learner-ownable information, but what are the next steps we (and JISC) should be taking? That’s what we need to think about.

The role of CETIS was only to co-ordinate this work. The ones to take the real credit are the vendors and developers of e-portfolio and related systems, who worked well together to make the decisions on how Leap2A should be, representing all the information that is seen as sharable between actual e-portfolio tools, allowing it to be communicated between different systems.

The current limitations come from the lack of coherent practice in personal and professional development, indeed in all the areas that e-portfolio and related tools are used for. Where some institutions support activities that are simply different from those supported by a different institution, there is no magic wand that can be waved over the information related to one activity that can turn it into a form that supports a fundamentally different one. We need coherent practice. Not identical practice, by any means, but practice where it is as clear as possible what the building blocks of stored lifelong learning information are.

What we really need is for real users — learners — to be taking information between systems that they use or have used. We need to have motivating stories of how this opens up new possibilities; how it enables lifelong personal and professional development in ways that haven’t been open before. When learners start needing the interoperability, it will naturally be time to start looking again, and developing Leap2A to respond to the actual needs. We’ve broken the deadlock by providing a good initial basis, but now the baton passes to real practice, to take advantage of what we have created.

What will help this? Does it need convergence, not on individual development practice necessarily, but on the concepts behind it? Does it need tools to be better – and if so, what tools? Does it need changes in the ways institutions support PDP? In November, we held a meeting co-located with the annual residential seminar of the CRA, as a body that has a long history of collaboration with CETIS in this area.

And how do we provide for the future of Leap2A more generally? Is it time to form a governing group of software developers who have implemented Leap2A? Is there any funding, or are there any initiatives, that can keep Leap2A fresh and increasingly relevant?

Please consider sharing your views, and contributing to the future of Leap2A.

E-portfolios and identity: more!

The one annual e-portfolio (and identity) conference that I attend reliably was this year co-sponsored by CRA, on top of the principal EIfEL — London, 11th to 13th July. Though it wasn’t a big gathering, I felt it was somehow a notch up from last time.

Perhaps this was because it was just a little more grounded in practice, and this could have been the influence of the CRA. Largely gone were speculations about identity management and architecture, but in was more of the idea of identity as something that was to be developed personally.

We heard from three real recent students, who have used their portfolio systems for their own benefit. Presumably they developed their identity? That’s not a representative sample, and of course these are the converted, not the rank and file dissatisfied or apathetic. A message that surprisingly came from them was that e-portfolio use should be compulsory, at least at some point during the student’s studies. That’s worth reflecting on.

And as well as some well-known faces (Helen, Shane, et al.) there were those, less familiar in these settings, of our critical-friendly Mark Stiles, and later Donald Clark (who had caused slight consternation by his provocative blog post, finding fault with the portfolio concept, and was invited to speak as a result). Interestingly, I didn’t think Donald’s presentation worked as well as his blog (it was based on the same material). In a blog, you can be deliberately provocative, let the objections come, and then gracefully give way to good counter-arguments. But in the conference there wasn’t time to do this, so people may have gone away thinking that he really held these ideas, which would be a pity. Next year we should be more creative about the way of handling that kind of contribution. Mark’s piece — may I call it a friendly Jeremiad? I do have a soft spot for Jeremiah! — seemed to go down much better. We don’t want learners themselves to be commodified, but we can engage with Mark through thinking of plausible ways of avoiding that fate.

Mark also offered some useful evidence for my view that learners’ interests are being systematically overlooked, and that people are aware of this. Just let your eye off the ball of learner-centricity for a moment, and — whoops! — your learner focus is sneakily transformed into a concern of the institution that wants to know all kinds of things about learners — probably not what the learners wanted at all. There is great depth and complexity of the challenge to be truly learner-focused or learner-centred.

One of the most interesting presentations was by Kristin Norris of IUPUI, looking at what the Americans call “civic identity” and “civic-mindedness”. This looks like a laudibly ambitious programme for helping students to become responsible citizens, and seems related to our ethical portfolios paper of 2006 as well as the personal values part of my book.

Kristin knows about Perry and Kegan, so I was slightly surprised that I couldn’t detect any signs in the IUPUI programme of diagnosis of the developmental stage of individual students. I would have thought that what you do on a programme to develop students ethically should depend on the stage they have already arrived at. I’ll follow up on this with her.

So, something was being pointed to from many directions. It’s around the idea that we need richer models of the learner, the student, the person. And in particular, we need better models of learner motivation, so that we can really get under their (and our own) skins, so that the e-portfolio (or whatever) tools are things that they (and we) really want to use.

Intrinsic motivation to use portfolio tools remains largely unsolved. We are faced again and again with the feedback that students don’t want to know about “personal development” or “portfolios” (unless they are creatives who know about these anyway) or even less “reflection”! Yes, there are certainly some (counterexemplifying Donald Clark’s over-generalisation) who want to reflect. Perhaps they are similar to those who spontaneously write diaries — some of the most organised among us. But not many.

This all brings up many questions that I would like to follow up, in no particular order.

  • How are we, then, to motivate learners (i.e. people) to engage in activities that we recognise as involving reflection or leading to personal development?
  • Could we put more effort into deepening and enriching the model we have of each of our learners?
  • Might some “graduate attributes” be about this kind of personal and ethical development?
  • Are we suffering from a kind of conspiracy of the social web, kidding people that they are actually integrated, when they are not?
  • Can we use portfolio-like tools to promote growth towards personal integrity?
  • “Go out and live!” we could say. “But as you do it, record things. Reflect on your feelings as well as your actions. Then, later, when you ‘come up for air’, you will have something really useful to reflect on.” But how on earth can we motivate that?
  • Should we be training young people to reflect as a habit, like personal hygiene habits?
  • Is critical friendship a possible motivator?

I’m left with the feeling that there’s something really exciting waiting to be grasped here, and the ePIC conference has it all going for itself to grasp that opportunity. I wonder if, next year, we could

  • keep it as ePIC — e-portfolios and identity — a good combination
  • keep close involvement of the CRA and others interested in personal development
  • put more focus on the practice of personal-social identity development
  • discuss the tools that really support the development of personal social identity
  • talk about theories and architectures that support the tools and the development?

Overhauling universities

Timely article from the BBC, “Universities need radical overhaul, says David Willetts” (2010-06-10) might provoke a positive response from people like us in CETIS, Bolton’s IEC, and the Centre for Recording Achievement (CRA). The BBC indicates that Willetts thinks universities faced “tough times” and needed to find cheaper and more flexible ways to teach. To which I’d add, more relevant and effective, perhaps?

What inefficiencies might be identified in higher education at present? For now, here are just a few first ideas, along with the kind of responses that CETIS, IEC or CRA could contribute to (though not in any order of impact, significance, importance, or difficulty, all of which need consideration).

1. Cost of producing learning materials and resources.
Response: greater use of open educational resources — see the CETIS OER topic.

2. Cost of staff.
Response: make greater use of peer support and assessment, perhaps starting with IEC’s IDIBL approach.

3. Irrelevance to employment and the economy.
Response: at the behest of learners themselves (see below) make more learning work-based, again like IDIBL, and let HEIs focus on Employer Engagement, as in the HE5P project undertaken by the CRA for HEFCE.

4. High student drop-out.
Response: ensure that students know what they want, are well motivated, know what they can do already, and have supportive PDP processes in place. Again, the CRA specialise in PDP and e-portfolio tools, and I have a particular interest in e-portfolio tools that are well-adapted to help good practice. This relates to ethical development that I have written about before. To counter the interminable arguments about the ideal aims of higher education, let properly-prepared learners choose. If they want employment-centric education, let them have it, not some poor ineffective attempt at such. If they want liberal arts with no requirement for consequent employment, again, let them have it. It’s not ultimately up to you or I or anyone to preach about what education should be for. And, surely, good preparation and real choice of objective should lead to more commitment?

5. Ineffective technology
OK, but several tools won’t perform as required to enable these efficiency gains. VLEs in silos, which you can’t extract information from, are a case in point. But the kind of cross-linking, enabling technology that CETIS people work on is surely well-placed. Look at Wookie, for example, allowing different applications to exist as widgets within web pages. Or look at the mobile technology work, brought together in a meeting about which many people twittered… For a full vision of an overhauled university, we would probably need to do more along the e-admin line, which isn’t perhaps appealing at first sight, but could make so much difference to the institutional overheads.

6. Lack of interoperability
Last but not least (in relevance to CETIS) we could list the inefficiencies due to lack of interoperability within the technology. For tasks that have to be done, this leads to inefficiencies such as rekeying; for tasks that are still very valuable but not absolutely necessary (such as many portfolio tasks) this probably leads to good things not being done at all, and consequent ineffectiveness. Not only to CETIS contribute very significantly to interoperability initiatives, as our name suggests, but we are maintaining a forward-looking discussion about the future of interoperability.

As I hinted at the beginning, the people I work with know about these things. It might be both very impressive, and very helpful to the likes of David Willetts, to bring these points together in a coherent vision of a university aimed at learner-centered effectiveness as well as efficiency.