Privacy? What about self-disclosure?

When we talk about privacy, we are often talking about the right to privacy. That is something like the right to limit or constrain disclosure of information relating to oneself. I’ve often been puzzled by the concept of privacy, and I think that it helps to think first about self-disclosure.

Self-disclosure is something that we would probably all like to control. There’s a lot of literature on self-disclosure in many settings, and it is clearly recognised as important in several ways. I like the concept of self-disclosure, because it is a positive concept, in contrast to the rather negative idea of privacy. Privacy is, as its name suggests, a “privative” concept. Though definitions vary greatly, one common factor is that definitions of privacy tend to be in terms of the absence of something undesirable, rather than directly as the presence of something valuable.

Before I go on, let me explain my particular interest in privacy and self-disclosure – though everyone potentially has a strong legitimate interest in them. Privacy is a key aspect of e-portfolio technology. People are only happy with writing down reflections on personal matters, including personal development, if they can be assured that the information will only be shared with people they want it to be shared with. It is easy to understand this in terms of mistakes, for example. To learn from one’s mistakes, one needs to be aware of them, and it may help to be able to discuss mistakes with other trusted people. But we often naturally have a sense of shame about mistakes, and unless understanding and compassion can be assured, we reasonably worry that the knowledge of our mistakes may negatively influence other people’s perception of our value as people. So it is vital that e-portfolio technology allows us to record reflections on such sensitive matters privately, and share them only with carefully selected people, if anyone at all.

This central concept for e-portfolios, reflection, links straight back to self-disclosure and self-understanding, and indeed identity. Developing ourselves, our identity, qualities and values as well as our knowledge and skill, depends in part on reflection giving us a realistic appreciation of where we are now, and who we are now.

Let me make the perhaps obvious point that most of us want to be accepted and valued as we are, and ideally understood positively; and that this can even be a precondition of our personal growth and development. Privacy, being a negative concept, doesn’t directly help with that. What is vital to acceptance and understanding is appropriate self-disclosure, with the right people, at the right time and in the right context. Even in a world where there was no privacy, this would still be a challenge. How would we gain the attention of people we trust, to notice what we are, what we do, what we mean, and to help us make sense of that?

In our society, commercial interests see, in more and more detail, some selected aspects of what we do. Our information browsing behaviour is noted by Google, and helps to shape what we get in reply to our searches, as well as the adverts that are served up. On Amazon, our shopping behaviour is pooled, enabling us to be told what others in our position might have bought or looked at. The result of this kind of information gathering is that we are “understood”, but only superficially, in the dimensions that relate to what we might pay for. If this helps in our development, it is only in superficial ways. That is a problem.

A more sinister aspect is where much of the energy in the privacy discussion is used up. The patterns of our information search, added to the records of who we communicate with, and perhaps key words in the content of our communications, alert those in power to the possibility that we may pose a threat to the status quo, or to those who have a vested interest in maintaining that power. We have noticed the trend of growing inequality in our society over the last half century.

But, in focusing on these, albeit genuine and worrying issues, what is lost from focus is the rich subtlety of active self-disclosure. It is as if we are so worried by information about ourselves falling into undesirable hands that we forget about the value of knowledge of ourselves being shared with, and entrusted to, those who can really validate us, and who can help us to understand who we are and where we might want to go.

So, I say, let’s turn the spotlight instead onto how technology can help make self-disclosure not only easier, but directed to the right people. This could start along the lines of finding trustable people, and verifying their trustworthiness. Rather than these trustable people being establishment authorities, how about finding peers, or peer groups, where mutual trust can develop? Given a suitable peer group, it is easy to envisage tools helping with an ordered process of mutual self-disclosure, and increasing trust. Yes, privacy comes into this, because an ordered process of self-disclosure will avoid untimely and inappropriate disclosures. But what do we mean by appropriate? Beyond reciprocity, which is pretty much universally acknowledged as an essential part in friendship and other good relationships, I’d say that what is appropriate is a matter for negotiation, rather than assumption. So, there is a role for tools to help in the negotiation of what is appropriate. Tools could help expose assumptions, so that they can be questioned and laid open to change.

Let’s make and use tools like this to retake control, or perhaps take control for the first time, of the rules and processes of self-disclosure, so that we can genuinely improve mutual recognition, acceptance and understanding, and provide a more powerful and fertile ground for personal and collective development.

Even-handed peer-to-peer self-disclosure will be a stimulus to move towards more sharing, equality, co-operation, collaboration, and a better society.

What is my work?

Is there a good term for my specialist area of work for CETIS? I’ve been trying out “technology for learner support”, but that doesn’t fully seem to fit the bill. If I try to explain, reflecting on 10 years (as of this month) involvement with CETIS, might readers be able to help me?

Back in 2002, CETIS (through the CRA) had a small team working with “LIPSIG”, the CETIS special interest group involved with Learner Information (the “LI” of “LIPSIG”). Except that “learner information” wasn’t a particularly good title. It was also about the technology (soon to be labelled “e-portfolio”) that gathered and managed certain kinds of information related to learners, including their learning, their skills – abilities – competence, their development, and their plans. It was therefore also about PDP — Personal Development Planning — and PDP was known even then by its published definition “a structured and supported process undertaken by an individual to reflect upon their own learning, performance and/or achievement and to plan for their personal, educational and career development”.

There’s that root word, support (appearing as “supported”), and PDP is clearly about an “individual” in the learner role. Portfolio tools were, and still are, thought of as supporting people: in their learning; with the knowledge and skills they may attain, and evidence of these through their performance; their development as people, including their learning and work roles.

If you search the web now for “learner support”, you may get many results about funding — OK, that is financial support. Narrowing the search down to “technology for learner support”, the JISC RSC site mentions enabling “learners to be supported with their own particular learning issues”, and this doesn’t obviously imply support for everyone, but rather for those people with “issues”.

As web search is not much help, let’s take a step back, and try to see this area in a wider perspective. Over my 10 years involvement with CETIS, I have gradually come to see CETIS work as being in three overlapping areas. I see educational (or learning) technology, and related interoperability standards, as being aimed at:

  • institutions, to help them manage teaching, learning, and other processes;
  • providers of learning resources, to help those resources be stored, indexed, and found when appropriate;
  • individual learners;
  • perhaps there should be a branch aimed at employers, but that doesn’t seem to have been salient in CETIS work up to now.

Relatively speaking, there have always seemed to be plenty of resources to back up CETIS work in the first two areas, perhaps because we are dealing with powerful organisations and large amounts of money. But, rather than get involved in those two areas, I have always been drawn to the third — to the learner — and I don’t think it’s difficult to understand why. When I was a teacher for a short while, I was interested not in educational adminstration or writing textbooks, but in helping individuals learn, grow and develop. Similar themes pervade my long term interests in psychology, psychotherapy, counselling; my PhD was about cognitive science; my university teaching was about human-computer interaction — all to do with understanding and supporting individuals, and much of it involving the use of technology.

The question is, what does CETIS do — what can anyone do — for individual learners, either with the technology, or with the interoperability standards that allow ICT systems to work together?

The CETIS starting point may have been about “learner information”, but who benefits from this information? Instead of focusing on learners’ needs, it is all too easy for institutions to understand “learner information” as information than enables institutions to manage and control the learners. Happily though, the group of e-portfolio systems developers frequenting what became the “Portfolio” SIG (including Pebble, CIEPD and others) were keen to emphasise control by learners, and when they came together over the initiative that became Leap2A, nearly six years ago, the focus on supporting learners and learning was clear.

So at least then CETIS had a clear line of work in the area of e-portfolio tools and related interoperability standards. That technology is aimed at supporting personal, and increasingly professional, development. Partly, this can be by supporting learners taking responsibility for tracking the outcomes of their own learning. Several generic skills or competences support their development as people, as well as their roles as professionals or learners. But also, the fact that learners enter information about their own learning and development on the portfolio (or whatever) system means that the information can easily be made available to mentors, peers, or whoever else may want to support them. This means that support from people is easier to arrange, and better informed, thus likely to be more effective. Thus, the technology supports learners and learning indirectly, as well as directly.

That’s one thing that the phrase “technology for learner support” may miss — support for the processes of other people supporting the learner.

Picking up my personal path … building on my involvement in PDP and portfolio technology, it became clear that current representations of information about skills and competence were not as effective as they could be in supporting, for instance, the transition from education to work. So it was, that I found myself involved in the area that is currently the main focus of my work, both for CETIS, and also on my own account, through the InLOC project. This relates to learners rather indirectly: InLOC is enabling the communication and reuse of definitions and descriptions of learning outcomes and competence information, and particularly structures of sets of such definitions — which have up to now escaped an effective and well-adopted standard representation. Providing this will mean that it will be much easier for educators and employers to refer to the same definitions; and that should make a big positive difference to learners being able to prepare themselves effectively for the demands of their chosen work; or perhaps enable them to choose courses that will lead to the kind of work they want. Easier, clearer and more accurate descriptions of abilities surely must support all processes relating to people acquiring and evidencing abilities, and making use of related evidence towards their jobs, their well-being, and maybe the well-being of others.

My most recent interests are evidenced in my last two blog posts — Critical friendship pointer and Follower guidance: concept and rationale — where I have been starting to grapple with yet more complex issues. People benefit from appropriate guidance, but it is unlikely there will ever be the resources to provide this guidance from “experts” to everyone — if that is even what we really wanted.

I see these issues also as part of the broad concern with helping people learn, grow and develop. To provide full support without information technology only looks possible in a society that is stable — where roles are fixed and everyone knows their place, and the place of others they relate to. In such a traditionalist society, anyone and everyone can play their part maintaining the “social order” — but, sadly, such a fixed social order does not allow people to strike out in their own new ways. In any case, that is not our modern (and “modernist”) society.

I’ve just been reading Herman Hesse’s “Journey to the East” — a short, allegorical work. (It has been reproduced online.) Interestingly, it describes symbolically the kind of processes that people might have to go through in the course of their journey to personal enlightenment. The description is in no way realistic. Any “League” such as Hesse described, dedicated to supporting people on their journey, or quest, would practically be able to support only very few at most. Hesse had no personal information technology.

Robert K. Greenleaf was inspired by Hesse’s book to develop his ideas on “Servant Leadership“. His book of that name was put together in 1977, still before the widespread use of personal information techology, and the recognition of its potential. This idea of servant leadership is also very clearly about supporting people on their journey; supporting their development, personally and professionally. What information would be relevant to this?

Providing technology to support peer-to-peer human processes seems a very promising approach to allowing everyone to find their own, unique and personal way. What I wrote about follower guidance is related to this end: to describe ways by which we can offer each other helpful mutual support to guide our personal journeys, in work as well as learning and potentially other areas of life. Is there a short name for this? How can technology support it?

My involvement with Unlike Minds reminds me that there is a more important, wider concept than personal learning, which needs supporting. We should be aspiring even more to support personal well-being. And one way of doing this is through supporting individuals with information relevant to the decisions they make that affect their personal well-being. This can easily be seen to include: what options there are; ideas on how to make decisions; what the consequences of those decision may be. It is an area which has been more than touched on under the heading “Information, Advice and Guidance”.

I mentioned the developmental models of William G Perry and Robert Kegan back in my post earlier this year on academic humility. An understanding of these aspects of personal development is an essential part of what I have come to see as needed. How can we support people’s movement through Perry’s “positions”, or Kegan’s “orders of consciousness”? Recognising where people are in this, developmental, dimension is vital to informing effective support in so many ways.

My professional interest, where I have a very particular contribution, is around the representation of the information connected with all these areas. That’s what we try to deal with for interoperability and standardisation. So what do we have here? A quick attempt at a round-up…

  • Information about people (learners).
  • Information about what they have learned (learning outcomes, knowledge, skill, competence).
  • Information that learners find useful for their learning and development.
  • Information about many subtler aspects of personal development.
  • Information relevant to people’s well-being, including
    • information about possible choices and their likely outcomes
    • information about individual decision-making styles and capabilities
    • and, as this is highly context-dependent, information about contexts as well.
  • Information about other people who could help them
    • information supporting how to find and relate to those people
    • information supporting those relationships and the support processes
    • and in particular, the kind of information that would promote a trusting and trusted relationship — to do with personal values.

I have the strong sense that this all should be related. But the field as a whole doesn’t seem have a name. I am clear that it is not just the same as the other two areas (in my mind at least) of CETIS work:

  • information of direct relevance to institutions
  • information of direct relevance to content providers.

Of course my own area of interest is also relevant to those other players. Personal well-being is vital to the “student experience”, and thus to student retention, as well as to success in learning. That is of great interest to institutions. Knowing about individuals is of great value to those wanting to sell all kinds of services to to them, but particularly services to do with learning and resources supporting learning.

But now I ask people to think: where there is an overlap between information that the learner has an interest in, and information about learners of interest to institutions and content providers, surely the information should be under the control of the individual, not of those organisations?

What is the sum of this information?

Can we name that information and reclaim it?

Again, can people help me name this field, so my area of work can be better understood and recognised?

If you can, you earn 10 years worth of thanks…

Follower guidance: concept and rationale

The idea that I am calling “follower guidance” is about how to relate with chosen others to promote good work, well being, personal growth and development, in an essentially peer-to-peer manner — it’s an alternative to “mentoring”.

Detailing this vision will prepare the ground for thinking about technology to support the relationships and the learning that results from them, which will fill the space left when traditional control hierarchies no longer work well.

The motivation for the idea

Where do people get their direction from? What or who guides someone, and how? How do people find their way, in life, in education, in a work career, etc.? How do people find a way to live a good and worthwhile life, with satisfying, fulfilling work and relationships? All big questions, addressed, as circumstances allow, by others involved in those people’s education, in their personal and professional development, in advice and guidance, coaching and mentoring; as well as by their family and friends.

In my previous post I set out some related challenges. Since then, I was reminded of these kinds of question by a blog post I saw via Venessa Miemis.

To put possible answers in context: in traditionalist societies I would expect people’s life paths to have relatively few options, and the task of orientation and navigation therefore to be relatively straightforward. People know their allotted place in society, and if they are happy with that, fine. But the appropriate place for this attitude is progressively shrinking back into the childhood years, as the world has ever more variety — and ever less certainty — available to adults. Experts often have more options to hand than their own internal decision making can easily process. Perhaps I can illustrate this from my own situation.

Take CETIS, where I currently have a 0.6 FTE contract. It’s a brilliant place to work, within the University of Bolton’s IEC, with so many people who seem somehow to combine expertise and generosity with passion for their own interesting areas or work. It has never felt like a hierarchical workplace, and staff there are expected to be largely self-determining as well as self-motivated. While some CETIS people work closely together, I do so less, because other staff at Bolton are not so interested in the learner-centred side of learning technology and interoperability. Working largely by myself, it is not so easy to decide on priorities for my own effort, and it would be hard for anyone else to give an informed opinion on where I would best devote my time. Happily, the norm is for things to work out, with what I sense as priorities being accepted by others as worthwhile. But what if … ? It’s not the norm in CETIS culture for anyone to be told that they must stop doing what they think is most worthwhile and instead do something less appealing.

Or take Unlike Minds (“UM”), with whom I am currently investigating collaboration, both for myself and for CETIS. UM is a “capability network” — essentially a non-hierarchical grouping of people with fascinatingly rich and diverse backgrounds and approaches, but similarities of situation and motivation. Here, the starting point is that everyone is assumed to be independent and professional (though some, like me, have some employment). It is a challenge to arrange for very busy independent associates to spend significant amounts of their own time “following” the work of other UMs. But if they did so, they might well be able to contribute to filling any orientation deficit of others, as they would in turn be helped if they wanted. I would expect that the more colleagues know about each other’s work, the more they can help focus motivation; the richer will be the collective UM culture; and the more effective UM will become as a capability network.

I mention just these two, because I have personal knowledge, but surely this must apply to so many new-style organisations and networks that shun being governed ultimately by the necessity to maximise profit. Often no one is in a position to direct work from “the top”, either because the management simply don’t have the deep specialist knowledge to work out what people should be doing, or because there is no governance that provides a “top” at all. The risk in all of these cases is of a lack of coordination and coherence. There is also a risk that individuals perform below their potential, because they are not getting enough informed and trusted feedback on their current activities. How many independent workers these days, no matter how supposedly expert, really have the knowledge to ensure even their own optimum decisions? Very few indeed, I guess, if for no other reason that there is too much relevant available knowledge to be on top of it all.

Then there is the danger of over-independent experts falling into the trap of false guru-hood. Without proper feedback, where followers gather largely in admiration, a talented person may have the illusion of being more correct than he or she really is. Conversely, without dedicated and trusted feedback, the highly talented who lack confidence can easily undervalue what they have to offer. The starting point of my previous post was the observation that people are not reliable judges of their own abilities or personality, and the mistakes can be made in either direction.

That is my broad-brush picture of the motivation, the rationale, or the requirement. So how can we address these needs?

The essence of follower guidance

I will refer to the person who is followed, and who receives the guidance, as the “mover”; the other person I will call the “follower guide”. Here are some suggestions about how such a system could work, and they all seem to me to fit together.

  • Follower guidance is not hierarchical. The norm is for everyone to play both roles: mover and guide. Otherwise the numbers don’t add up.
  • Each mover has more than one follower guide. In my own experience, it is much more persuasive to have two or three people tell you something than one alone. The optimal number for a balance between effort and quality (in each situation and for each person) may vary, but I think three might be about right in many cases. The follower guidance idea differs from co-counselling.
  • The mentor role is different. There is a role for someone like a mentor, but in a follower guidance culture they would not be delivering the guidance, but rather trying to arrange the best matching of movers with follower guides.
  • Arrangements are by mutual agreement. It is essential that the mover and follower guide both want to play their roles with each other. Reluctant participants are unlikely to work. Good matches may be helped through mentoring.
  • Follower guides start by following. Central to the idea is that follower guides know the movers well, at least in the area which they are following. Guidance suggestions will then be well-informed and more likely to be well received, growing trust.
  • Follower guides may select areas to follow. The mover needs to spell out the areas of work or life that may be followed; but follower guides cannot be expected to be interested in all of someone’s life and work — nor can a mover be expected to trust people equally in different areas.
  • Follower guides offer questions, suggestions and feedback naturally. Dialogue may be invited through questions or personal suggestions, whenever it seems best. Movers may or may not accept suggestions or address questions; but they are more likely to respond to ideas that come from more than one follower guide.
  • The medium of dialogue needs to be chosen. Positive reinforcement is naturally given openly, e.g. as a comment on a blog post, or a tweet. The media for questions and critical feedback needs to be judged more carefully, to maintain trust. This is one way in which follower guidance may differ from simple following.
  • Follower guides are committed. Movers should be able to rely on their follower guides for feedback and opinion when they need it. That means the follower guides have to stay up to date with the mover’s actions or outputs. This is only likely if they have a genuine interest in the area of the mover’s work they are following. This also will help build trust.
  • Time spent should not be burdensome. If following comes from genuine interest, the time spent should be a natural part of the follower guide’s work. In any case, one can follow quite a lot in, say, half an hour a week. If guidance is natural, spontaneous and gentle, it may be delivered very briefly.
  • Follower guides should not all be older or wiser. This may be appropriate for mentors, but there is value in ideas from all quarters, as recognised in the idea of 360° feedback. Anyway the numbers would not work out.
  • Values fit needs care. Trust will be more easily established the better the values fit. The more secure and confident a mover is, the more they may be able to benefit from feedback from follower guides outside their value set.
  • Trust needs to be built up over time and maintained. Mentoring may help people to trust and to be trustworthy. If trust is nevertheless lost, it is unlikely that a follower guidance relationship would continue.
  • The follower guidance practices should be followed and guided. How could this best be done? Perhaps a question for the cyberneticians?

What do you think about the importance of each one of these points? I’d like to know. And could you imagine practising either side of this kind of relationship? Who with? What would come easily, what would you enjoy, and what would be challenging?

Where does this take us?

This concept is too large to be easily digested at one sitting. I hope I have given enough motivation and outline of the general idea that readers get the sense of what I am trying to get at. I’ve outlined above the way I could see it working, but there is so much more detail to work out. Depending on the response to this post, I will take the ideas forward here or elsewhere.

I do think that this kind of envisioning plays a useful part in the life of CETIS and the IEC. Colleagues are most welcome to criticise the ideas, and link them up to other research. If there already is related practice somewhere, that would be good to know. If people see what I am getting at, they can offer alternative solutions to the challenges addressed. Then, we might think about the kinds of (learning or educational) technology that might support such practices, and the information that might be managed and communicated. We might be able to see links with existing technologies and practices.

In the terms of Robert Kegan, I’m pointing towards a challenge of “modern” life, not, as Kegan focuses more on, in the transition between traditionalist and modern, but rather a challenge inherent in the individualistic nature of current modernism. As Brian said (in Monty Python’s “Life of Brian”) “You’ve all got to work it out for yourselves.” “Don’t let anyone tell you what to do!” This advice can help people grow to a maturity of individualism, but can also hold people back from further growth, through what Kegan calls “deconstructive postmodernism” towards
“reconstructive postmodernism”.

Most significant to me would be the attempt to implement a system such as this that I could participate in myself. This would include my trusted follower guides coming back to me with comments on this post, of course … At the time of writing, thanks to Neil and Alan for commenting on the preceding post, and I very much appreciate those kinds of comment.

Academic humility

Another conversation with Mark Johnson yesterday got me thinking seriously about what the role of humility and of confidence is in the academic community. If there is a literature on this, I don’t know it, so my remarks here are appropriately tentative. But the issue is of surprising importance to personal development, so perhaps worth the risk of some speculation.

Back when I was doing my PhD (gulp) years ago, I suppose I must have recognised, probably only just in time, the importance of this for a PhD candidate to turn into a fully-fledged member of the academic community. To cut a long story short, I would now say that it should be a requirement of any PhD viva for any candidate who is in line to pass to be thrown a few questions outside of their area of research. I fear I don’t recall which such questions were asked of me, but perhaps they could have been about more mainstream psychology, for example.

There seems to me to be a range of acceptable answers to questions outside one’s area of expertise. The simplest is something like “I’m sorry, I don’t know.” PhD candidates are not meant to be masters of general knowledge. While this answer would be problematic if the question is to do with the candidate’s central thesis, when off topic it is not only allowed, but just about necessary. Or it could be, “I haven’t read enough of the literature to know the answer there, so I’d rather not speculate.” Or, at a pinch, “Well, I don’t know this literature well, but I’d guess that …”. Certainly not just an unqualified unfounded opinion in a PhD viva.

This isn’t really the flavour of the month, though, is it? The world seems to be fuller than ever of people willing to tout their own conjectures, or worse, prejudices, as facts. People in all walks of life seem to be called upon to be confident in their own views, so it is hard to find good role models for appropriate academic or intellectual humility. There was Socrates, of course, but that was rather a long time ago for people with little sense of history.

Why should this matter? One thing pointed out by Mark was the interests of future students of this potential member of the academic community. To help students reach their own full intellectual maturity, it is rarely a good thing to lay down “the truth” and expect students to lap it up. Do this, perhaps, for younger school pupils, if they still need a basic set of working views to start with, and provided that the same line is taken by all other teachers in the establishment. But after that, teachers, lecturers, mentors, coaches, need to provide good and timely questions – another thing Socrates excelled at.

Perhaps undergraduates do need to absorb a corpus of existing established belief on a topic, but they also need a clear awareness of the boundaries of existing knowledge. Focusing on what one does know is less likely to help than focusing on what people dispute.

This takes me back so strongly to the work of William G Perry, Robert Kegan, and Darren Cambridge. There is a hard challenge here when one comes to the stage of PhD study – the academic apprenticeship. On the one hand, as Kegan points out, a graduate needs to come to their own conclusions, not just accept one single authority in a discipline. As Darren Cambridge points out, many subjects have “essentially contestable” concepts there to be studied, and portfolio practice allows the learners to argue for their position; to marshal evidence for it; to be a co-creator of meaning in their part of the academic world. This is the place, perhaps, for confidence, because if one is not confident of one’s own intellectual position, who else will take it seriously? Who will count it as a material contribution to the academic world? As I recall it, this corresponds at least roughly to Kegan’s “4th Order” thinking.

Kegan’s 5th (and final) Order is rather more elusive. I can’t summarise such a subtle concept here quickly – go read “In Over Our Heads” etc. But what Kegan calls the 5th Order to me is to do with being aware of all the orders; being able to adjust one’s response to fit the person with whom one is conversing. This is what teachers should be aiming at, it seems to me. They should be well-developed, intellectually and ethically, in themselves, but also aware of the needs of those who are not so well-developed, and able to speak to their condition. And this feels like a deeper and even more wholesome kind of humility than the humility of knowing the boundaries of one’s specialist area of study. It includes the position that all one’s specialist knowledge is useless and inappropriate in some contexts. It includes the idea that to question every tradition in a post-modernist way is not the right thing to do for people who have not yet even established their own way.

This can be confusing, which I suppose is why it requires unusual maturity. To those at earlier stages, one may need mainly to be a knowledgeable and reliable authority. To those at later stages, one needs first to leave room for advanced learners to develop their own ideas and positions, and then to model comfort with being uncertain, to prepare the way for the learner to be achieve the same true mastery.

I turn back to T.S. Eliot, East Coker:

“The only wisdom we can hope to acquire
Is the wisdom of humility: humility is endless.”

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.

Book finally available

My book, “Electronic Portfolios: Personal information, personal development and personal values” has recently been published, and is eventually available on Amazon UK etc. (or .fr or .de or .com)

The publishers have it in their catalogue.

I was very surprised by the high list price, which I have had no influence over. I would publish it for no more than half that price. Perhaps the publishers aren’t expecting all that many sales? But I hope that doesn’t stop people ordering it for their libraries. It is relevant to many different people, and the principles should be valid for a few years, so I’d say it’s worth having in any library where there are educators using e-portfolios, or developers developing them.

ePortfolio 2008

Since going to the annual European Eifel “ePortfolio” conferences is a firm habit of mine (in fact, I have been to every single annual one so far) it seems like a good time to take stock of the e-portfolio world. All credit to Serge and Maureen and their team, they have kept the event as being the best “finger on the pulse” in this field. This year was, as last, in Maastricht. It extended to just 3 rather than 4 days, and there were apparently some hundred fewer people overall. Nevertheless, others as well as I felt that there was an even better overall feel this year. At the excellent social dinner boat trip, I was reflecting, where else can one move so quickly from discussing deeply human issues like personal development, with people who care very insightfully about people, to talking technically about the relative merits of the languages and representations used for implementation of tools and systems, with people who are highly technically competent? It makes sense for this account to take both of those tracks.

Taking the easy one first, then…  We didn’t have a “plugfest” this year, which was in some ways odd: the last three years (since Cambridge, 2005) we have had some attempt at interoperability trials, even though no one was really ready for them. (People did remarkably well, considering.) But this year, when in the PIOP work with LEAP2A we really have started something that is going to work, there were no trials, just presentations. Actually I think that it is much better for being less “hyped”. By next year we should have something really solid to present and demonstrate. I presented our work at two sessions, and in both it was well received.

Not everyone likes XML schema specifications – Sampo Kellomäki enlightened me about some of the gross failings around XML – but luckily, those who aren’t so keen on XML or Atom seemed to appreciate the other side of LEAP 2.0 – the side of RDF and the Semantic Web connections, and the RDFa ideas I first understood in my work for ioNW2. It was good to have something for everyone with a technical interest.

What was disappointing was to understand more closely just what has been happening in the Netherlands. Someone must have made the decision a couple of years ago to follow “the international standard” of IMS ePortfolio, not taking account of the fact that it had not been properly tested in use. That’s how the IMS used to work (though no longer):  get a spec out there quickly, get someone to implement it, and then improve towards something workable based on feedback. But though there were “implementations” of IMS eP, there was no real test of interoperability or portability. Various people we know and work with had tried it, even up to last year’s conference, so we knew many of the problems. Anyway, in the Netherlands, they have been struggling to adapt and profile that difficult spec, and despite the large amount of public funding put in to the project (too much?), most of the couple of dozen national partners have only implemented a subset even of their own limited profile. And IMS eP is not being used as an internal representation by anyone.

Fortunately, Synergetics, who have been involved in the Dutch work (despite being Belgian) have also joined our forthcoming round of PIOP work, and talk towards the end of the conference was that LEAP2A will be added to the Dutch interoperability framework. I do hope this goes through – we will support it as much as we are able. Synergetics also play a leading role in the impressive TAS3 project, so we can expect that as time goes on pathways will emerge to add security architecture to our interoperability approach. But now on to the much more humanly interesting discussions.

I had the good luck to bump into Darren Cambridge (as usual, a keynote speaker) on the evening before the conference, and we talked over some of the ideas I’ve been developing, which at the moment I label as “personal integrity reflection across contexts”. Now that needs writing about separately, but in essence it involves a way of thinking about how to promote real growth, development and change in people’s lives. We also talked about this with Samantha Slade of Percolab – Darren analysed Samantha’s e-portfolio for his forthcoming book (which will be more erudite and better written than mine!).

These discussions were the peak, but elsewhere throughout the conference I got the feeling that the time is now perhaps right to move forward more publicly with discussing values in relation to e-portfolios. Parts of my vision were expressed in Anna’s and my paper two years ago in the Oxford conference – “Ethical portfolios: supporting identities and values.” In essence, it goes like this: portfolio practice can help to develop people’s values, and their understanding of their own values; with that understanding, they can choose occupations which lead to satisfaction and fulfillment; representing those values in machine-readable form may lead to much more potent matching within the labour market – another tool towards “flexicurity”(a term introduced to me 10 minutes ago by Theo Mensen). The new expression of insight is that development of personal values, and understanding them, is supported by some kinds of reflection, and not others. The term I am trying out to point towards the most useful and powerful kind of reflection is that “personal integrity reflection across contexts”. I hope the ideas can be taken forward and presented in more depth next year.

At the conference there was also a focus on “Learning Regions” (the subject of Theo’s call), which I wasn’t able to attend much of. My view of regional initiatives has been somewhat jaded by peripheral involvement years ago with regional development agencies that seemed to have just one agenda item: inward investment. But the vision at the conference was much broader and humane. My input is quite limited. Firstly, to get anything distinctive for a region going, there needs to be a common language for the distinctive concerns (and groups of concerns) for a region. If this is done machine-readably (e.g. RDF) then there is the hope for cross linkage, not just in the labour market but beyond. Again, as in my ioNW2 work, this could well be based on clear and unambiguous URIs being set up for each concept, and possibly this could be extended to having some kind of ontology in the background. Then there is the question of two-way matching, already trialled in a small way by the Dutch public employment service (CWI).

This leads to an opportunity for me to round up. There is so much that could be contributed to by e-portfolio practice and tools; and the sense of this conference was that indeed, things are set to move forward. But it still depends on matters which are not fully and generally understood. There is this issue of representing skills/competences/abilities which will not go away until dealt with satisfactorily (beyond TENCompetence), and alongside that, the issue of assessment of those in a way which makes sense to employers (and of which the results can be machine processed). That “hard” assessment needs to be reconciled with the more humane e-portfolio based assessment, which I think everyone agrees is already very good to get a feel for those last few short-listable candidates. Portfolio tools still have a way to go until they are relevant for search and automatic matching.

But my opinion is that progress here, and elsewhere, can definitely be made.

ePortfolios, identity etc. Newcastle 2008-02-28

When we saw the initial announcement, it looked like a good thing to go to, as it overlaps areas of keen interest. So Helen, Scott and I had written the paper – Social portfolios supporting professional identity – and Helen and I went along to the one-day conference in Newcastle organised by Medev. It was a good day.

Why, then, have I been hesitating to write a blog entry about it? The usual good lot of people were there, including a pleasing number of those I didn’t know. The proceedings were printed admirably. The food, the arrangements, were all very good. Even our paper went down well (OK, actually it was the presentation, not the paper, which had some, what shall we say, interesting content). There was some very stimulating discussion around that.

And I’m sure it was very interesting and useful to many. But to me, the interest and use was in the networking, which one can’t really blog about so easily, as it is much more personal. The presentations were all worthy, but perhaps one may be forgiven for not remembering much that stood out as being different from the many other portfolio conferences that some of us have been to.

More on the nomenclature of identity/personality

Back on 26th July I wrote about this issue. I was at the time sticking out for using the term “identity” to refer to that complex of personal qualities and attributes associated with particular contexts, groups of people, roles, etc., and having strong implications for personal values.

I’ve recently changed my mind, and reflected that in my LEAP 2.0 work. (Translators of) Jung used the term “persona”, just like Nicole Harris. I had some problems with that. One of them is that “persona” is too close to the very frequently used term “person”. But what about the term “personality”?

Personality has plenty of common language meaning. Comparing the relevant Wikipedia entries for identity and personality, I’d say that personality as a term has a lot going for it. Though I wouldn’t want to base terminology on pathology, “multiple personality disorder” does seem to display the right kind of exaggeration of what I’m trying to get at, while the terms “multiple identity” and “multiple personality” seem to be used together quite often in the same context.

Development is a very important concept for me. “Identity development” seems to be used in a sense which implies one identity per human being (leaving aside the pathologies above). “Personality development” lives less with psychology and more with life coaching – not very far, I suspect, from the “personal development” that is better known to us.

But I like the greater scope for plurality in “personality development”. It sounds, to me, more like something that can be put on at will. It leaves nicely open the options, firstly to accept or cultivate several personalities suited to different situations, and secondly to work towards an integrated personality. The very fact that people talk and write about “well-integrated personality” or “fully integrated personality” implies that one can have something that is not fully integrated. If it is not integrated, there must be disparate parts.

I also particularly like the connection with personality inventories and such like. Whereas the assumption seems to be that we have just one “personality”, I think this is an idealisation. More likely, one’s responses to several personality inventory questions would be affected by the situation of the test, or the situation in which one is asked to imagine oneself when taking such a test.