Learning about learning about …

I was recently reading a short piece from Peter Honey (of learning styles fame)
in a CIPD blog post in which he writes, saving the most important item for last in his list:

Learning to learn – the ultimate life-skill

You can turn learning in on itself and use your learning skills to help you learn how to become an increasingly effective learner. Learning to learn is the key to enhancing all the above.

It’s all excellent stuff, and very central to the consideration of learning technology, particularly that dedicated to supporting reflection.

Then I started thinking further (sorry, just can’t help it…)

If learning to learn is the ultimate life skill, then surely the best that educators can do is to help people learn to learn.

But learning to learn is not altogether straightforward. There are many pitfalls that interfere with effective learning, and which may not respond to pure unaided will-power or effort. Thus, to help people learn to learn, we (as educators) have to know about those pitfalls, those obstacles, those hazards that stand in the way of learning generally, and we have to be able somehow at least to guide the learners we want to help around those hazards.

There are two approaches we could take here. First, we could try to diagnose what our learners are trying to learn, what is preventing them, and maybe give them the knowledge they are lacking. That’s a bit like a physician prescribing some cure — not just medicine, perhaps, but a cure that involves a change of behaviour. Or it’s a bit like seeing people hungry, and feeding them — hungry for knowledge, perhaps? If we’re talking about knowledge here, of course, there is a next stage: helping people to find the knowledge that they need, rather than giving it to them directly. I put that in the same category, as it is not so very different.

There is a second, qualitatively different approach. We could help our learners learn about their own learning. We could guide them — and this is a highly reflective task — to diagnose their own obstables to learning. This is not simply not knowing where to look for what they want to know, it is about knowing more about themselves, and what it may be within them that interferes with their learning processes — their will to learn, their resolve (Peter Honey’s article starts with New Year’s resolutions) or, even, their blind spots. To pursue the analogy, that is like a physician giving people the tools to maintain their own health, or, proverbially, rather than giving a person a fish, teaching them to fish.

Taking this further starts to relate closely in my mind to Kelly’s Personal Construct Psychology; and also perhaps to Kuhn’s ideas about the “Structure of Scientific Revolutions”. Within a particular world view, one’s learning is limited by that world view. When the boundaries of that learning are being pushed, it is time to abandon the old skin and take up a new and more expansive one; or just a different one, more suited to the learning that one wants. But it is hard — painful even (Kelly recognised that clearly) and the scientific establishment resists revolutions.

In the literature and on the web, there is the concept called “triple loop learning”, and though this doesn’t seem to be quite the same, it would appear to be going in the same direction, even if not as far.

What, then, is our task as would-be educators; guides; coaches; mentors? Can we get beyond the practices analogous to Freudian psychoanalyis, which are all too prone to set up a dependency? How can we set our learners truly free?

This may sound strange, but I would say we (as educators, etc.) need to study, and learn about, learning about learning. We need to understand not just about particular obstacles to learning, and how to get around those; but also about how people learn about their own inner obstacles, and how they can successfully grow around them.

As part of this learning, we do indeed need to understand how, in any given situation, a person’s world view is likely to relate to what they can learn in that situation; but further, we need to understand how it might be possible to help people recognise that in themselves. You think not? You think that we just have to let people be, to find their own way? It may be, indeed, that there is nothing effective that we are wise enough to know how to do, for a particular person, in a particular situation. And, naturally, it may be that even if we offer some deep insight, that we know someone is ready to receive, they may choose not to receive it. That is always a possibility that we must indeed respect.

And there cannot be a magic formula, a infallible practice, a sure method, a way of forcibly imbuing people with that deep wisdom. Of course there isn’t — we know that. But at least we can strive in our own ways to live with the attitude of doing whatever we can, firstly, not to stand in the way of whatever light may dawn on others, but also, if we are entrusted with the opportunity, to channel or reflect some of that light in a direction that we hope might bear fruit.

Again, it is not hard to connect this to systems thinking and cybernetics. Beyond the law of requisite variety — something about controlling systems needing to be at least as complex as the systems they are controlling — the corresponding principle is practically commonplace: to help people learn something, we have to have learned more than we expect them to learn. In this case, to help people learn about their own learning, we have to have learned about learning about learning.

People are all complex. It is sadly common to fail to take into account the richness and complexity of the people we have dealings with. To understand the issues and challenges people might have with learning about their own learning, we have to really stretch ourselves, to attend to the Other, to listen and to hear acutely enough with all our senses, to understand enough about them, where they come from, where they are, to have an idea about what may either stand in the way, or enable, their learning about their learning. Maybe love is the best motivator. But we also need to learn.

Right then, back on the CETIS earth (which is now that elegant blue-grey place…) I just have to ask, how can technology help? E-portfolio technology has over the years taken a few small steps towards supporting reflection, and indeed communication between learners, and between learners and tutors, mentors, educators. I think there is something we can do, but what it is, I am not so sure…

Learning about learning about learning — let’s talk about it!

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.

Badges – another take

Badges can be seen as recognisable tokens of status or achievement. But tokens don’t work in a vacuum, they depend on other things to make them work. Perhaps looking at these may help us understand how they might be used, both for portfolios and elsewhere.

Rowin wrote a useful post a few weeks ago, and the topic has retained a buzz. Taking this forward, I’d like to discuss specifically the aspects of badges — and indeed any other certificate — relevant both to portfolio tools and to competence definitions. Because the focus here is on badges, I’ll use the term “badge” occasionally to include what is normally thought of as a certificate.

A badge, by being worn, expresses a claim to something. Some real badges may express the proposition that the wearer is a member of some organisation or club. Anyone can wear an “old school tie”, but how does one judge the truth of the claim to belong to a particular alumni group? Much upset can be caused by the misleading wearing of medals, in the same way as badges.

Badges could often do with a clarification of what is being claimed. (That would be a “better than reality” feature.) Is my wearing a medal a statement that I have been awarded it, or it is just in honour of the dead relative that earned it? Did I earn this badge on my own, was I helped towards it, or am I just wearing it because it looks “cool”? An electronic badge, e.g. on a profile or e-portfolio, can easily link to an explicit claim page including a statement of who was awarded this badge, and when, beyond information about what the badge is awarded for. These days, a physical badge could have a QR code so that people can scan it and be taken to the same claim page.

If the claim is, for example, simply to “be” a particular way, or to adhere to some opinion, or perhaps to support some team (in each case where the natural evidence is just what the wearer says), then probably no more is needed. But most badges, at least those worn with pride, represent something more than that the wearer self-certifies something. Usually, they represent something like a status awarded by some other authority than the wearer, and to be worth wearing, they show something that the wearer has, but might not have had, which is of some significance to the intended observers.

If a badge represents a valued status, then clearly badges may be worn misleadingly. To counter that, there will need to be some system of verification, through which an observer can check on the validity of the implied claim to that status. Fortunately, this is much easier to arrange with an electronic badge than a physical one. Physical badges really need some kind of regulatory social system around them, often largely informal, that deters people from wearing misleading badges. If there is no such social system, we are less in the territory of badges, and more of certificates, where the issues are relatively well known.

When do you wear physical badges? When I do it is usually a conference, visitor or staff badge. Smart badges can be “swiped” in some way, and that could, for instance, lead to a web page on the authority’s web site with a photo of the person. That would be a pretty good quick check that would be difficult to fake effectively. “Swiping” can these days be magnetic, RFID, or QR code.

My suggestion for electronic badges is that the token badge links directly to a claim page. The claim page ideally holds the relevant information in a form that is both machine processable and human readable. But, as a portfolio is typically under the control of the individual, more portfolio pages cannot easily provide any official confirmation. The way to do this within a user-controlled portfolio would be with some kind of electronic signature. But probably much more effective in the long term is for the portfolio claim page to refer to other information held by the awarding authority. This page can either be public or restricted, and could hold varying amounts of information about the person as well as the badge claim.

Here are some first ideas of information that could relate to a badge (or indeed any certificate):

  • what is claimed (competence, membership, permission, values, etc.);
  • identity of the person claiming;
  • what authority is responsible for validating the claim and awarding;
  • when and on what grounds the award was made;
  • how and when any assessment process was done;
  • assurance that the qualifying performance was not by someone else.

But that’s only a quick attempt. A much slower attempt would be helpful.

It’s important to be able to separate out these components. The “what is claimed” part is very closely related to learning outcome and competence definitions, the subject of the InLOC work. All the assessment and validation information is separable, and the information models (along with any interoperability specifications) should be created separately.

Competence and values can be defined independently of any organisation — they attach just to an individual. This is different from membership, permission, and the like, that are essentially tied to systems and organisations, and not as such transferable.

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?

What’s in a standard name?

“Confusion” and “names” go together rather too easily. How might we take forward the representation of names in specifications and standards?

In June I noticed some RS3G work on defining person metadata, which I took an interest in, having grappled with this for Leap2A. Then last month I discovered somewhat to my surprise that I was a co-author of the rather oddly titled “Conformance Guidelines – The Path to a pan-European Asset (final draft) By example of the natural person” from SEMIC, the Semantic Interoperability Centre Europe. This document also deals with the representation of names, though differently.

In subsequent discussion, I have been drawn in to the peculiarities of Spanish surnames (they officially must have exactly two) and how other naming systems in the world are sometimes radically different from the EU passport convention of just “surname” and “given names”, echoed by UK birth certificates, driving licences, etc. Wikipedia has an article on Arabic names, for example. One thing is clear: it is not easy, and it matters to people how their name is rendered.

The RS3G idea refers to CETIS’s HEAR work, which in turn was based on some fields from MIAP (now the Learning Records Service) Common Data Definitions. However, CDDs look like they have been quietly superseded, and what looks like the current GovTalk version of name schemas is now at the Cabinet Office site. In particular, CDDs dealt with name order by having a boolean field to show if the family name was first, to cope with e.g. some Chinese practice. This does not seem to be in the GovTalk version, and indeed doesn’t seem to have caught on more widely either. Instead, people seem to be relying on a full name field to represent the ordering of the structured name fields. Strangely, GovTalk keeps titles and suffixes with their own separate fields, rather as they are in vCard.

Most people seem to agree these days that one or more full name fields are useful, giving the name as complete as someone wants it. This full name is not necessarily a full legal name. It may have parts at the beginning or end, e.g. titles or qualifiers, and these may or may not have legal standing. Thinking of the Arabic example, it may have a full rendition of a name that will not fit in to the patterns familiar to us. It may or may not be unique.

For use in the UK or the EU, there is likely to be one field for given names or forenames, and one field for family name or surname. Obviously, this tallies with usage in birth certificates, driving licences, passports and other official documents. This may suffice where it is the official legal name is all that is required, but it leaves many questions unanswered, and for a fuller picture we need to go beyond the common ground.

The reality looks to me more like this. In our dealings with different people and different bodies, we typically have identifiers, unique to that body or to those people, and we also have names that we are known as (by people) in those contexts. These may or may not overlap, and I suspect that it is the overlap which often causes problems.

My own case is a very common case in point. When asked to give my “name”, I will usually say “Simon” or “Simon Grant” if it might appear likely that there is another Simon in the context. However, I have learned not to put my name on airline reservation forms like this, as I get questioned. They want my official name, to tie in with my passport, where my Given Names field is “Andrew Simon”. The airline is interested, not in what I am called by my friends, but in my official identity, so they can check against the passport, which in turn can be checked against police records, etc. But it’s curious, isn’t it – I could probably pass my ticket on to anyone called Andrew Grant and they would be able to fly with it, but not anyone with a different name. Perhaps they should really ask for my passport number, though that is not as easy to check at a glance. At least some people get it right: on-line purchase forms ask for my name “as on the card”, which is clear, and in other contexts the practice of context-specific names is well-established: I think of stage names, noms-de-plume, and other professional names.

The most reasonable view seems to me that every name field in a specification or standard should be at least have an explanation of the context for that name, and be adequate for representing appropriate name information for everyone whose data is to be transferred using that spec or standard. If a standard or specification deals with transferring information about people who are all likely to have EU passports, it is reasonable to specify “Surname” and “Given names” as two fields, as on a passport. If the use cases of a different spec all involve Spanish citizens, then it is reasonable to have two fields, one for the first surname and another for the second surname. It would not, however, be reasonable for such a spec to have those fields as mandatory if it was going to be used for information about people of Arabic birth.

This discussion underlines my reservations about vCard and related specs, and is vital to setting an agenda for reviving the discussions about future specifications for names.

In Leap2A, what we have done is roughly to follow MIAP’s Common Data Definitions, as mentioned above. At least that gives the option of noting whether a name is a legal name or a preferred name. But, while it may suffice for the time being, it does not look good in the long term, and I hope that whenever Leap2A next changes, in a couple of years perhaps, we will move on to something more universal.

Achievement information documents, e.g. degree certificates and transcripts, also need names. We are just finalising the draft of the EuroLMAI (European Learner Mobility Achievement Information) European Standard, which should be highly influential on technical solutions adopted for the UK HEAR (Higher Education Achievement Report). I would like to see a better approach to names for these standards. What?

Given that the scope of EuroLMAI is Europe (perhaps the EU and a little beyond) it does seem reasonable to have one field for given names and one for surname, or pair of surnames in the Spanish case, as on the standard passport or other official identity documents. But what is most important after that? Two things seem to me to be vital. First, and most important, the name by which the student appears or appeared in the institutional student records. Is this always the same as the “official” legal name? If you print out a certificate for someone of Arab birth, what is more appropriate for the name printed on the certificate? I would have thought, a name as complete as the learner wants it to be. This would point towards a full name, like the UK govtalk Person Requested Name, as long as this was agreed with the student.

The second thing that might well be useful, though less important, would be the name that the student was actually known by to teaching staff and to peers. This would be closer to the “nickname” concept in other specifications. This would be particularly useful if it was not the same as the official name(s), when seeking feedback from staff and from peers, or when following up to check things after graduation.

So perhaps a wider range of potentially useful name information could be represented in four fields. Leaving any of these out from a specification or standard seems to me to risk being unable adequately to cover the use cases of this kind of achievement document.

  1. Official (passport) Given names
  2. Official (passport) Surname(s)
  3. Full formatted name as shown on certificates
  4. Personal name known by in face-to-face interactions

These can only be represented by vCard with a strain. Surname is OK, but a single field of all given names seems different from a vcard “Given”. Full formatted name could be vCard’s “FN”, though vCard’s FN is presumably meant for the main name on a “business” card, which might well not be the same. Is the personal name indicated above the same as vCard’s “NICKNAME” or not? I don’t know. Unfortunately, there is only slightly less strain fitting these into the UK GovTalk fields.

Where do we go from here? Call me “confused”…

Addendum, 2010-08-31

By happy coincidence, Paul Heald of Sigma Systems distributed a very interesting document yesterday to various people including Scott Wilson and other colleagues. It is called “Student Identity Defined: A Comparison of the Data Elements of Four Higher-Education Standards” revised August 30th 2010. It does indeed suggest that the discussion is ready to be taken forward to another level. And I find it is helping, gradually, to relieve my confusion.

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.

Anti-social software

Social software is good for learning if, and only if, the society of learners is, or can be persuaded to be, positive towards learning. But what if you’re a teenager in a peer group in which learning is uncool? Perhaps we need software that expressly excludes the peer group?

I was at a meeting in Birkbeck, London, November 18th, called “Workshop on Personalised Technologies for Lifelong Learning”, which included outcomes (I missed) from the MyPlan project – generally to do with e-portfolio systems, lifelong learning, etc. In the general discussion, “Next Generation Environments for Lifelong Learning”, it was Andrew Ravenscroft (who manages the fascinating InterLoc) who came out with the phrase “antisocial software”, but I thought is was so apt, even though a bit extreme, that it needs popularising.

There’s enough of a serious point there to be well worth thinking about carefully. The general assumption that social software is a potential positive force for learning (among those keen on social software) needs challenging, not because is isn’t often true, but because it isn’t true always. Rather, you have to start by thinking about what the social group norms and values are. It has been said that in some school environments, achievement is a serious handicap to social success in the peer group. Surely, in these environments, it is not a good idea to use social software for learning, in the sense of doing learning in a group which involves all the peer group by default.

Instead, learning ideally needs to be done out of the view of the peer group, or in a setting where the peer group social norms and values do not apply. One way of doing this for traditional classroom learning is to introduce strong behaviour rules that are very different from behaviour outside the classroom. This approach would be the one proposed by various “old school” teachers, and there are books which I remember from teacher training days where these approaches are promulgated. Another way of doing this, which could also now be thought of as traditional, is through a more personalised approach, where learners work on their own worksheets. But for e-learning in these environments, what is needed is to separate the learning experience from the social group, not link it.

Of course, learning software that works that way would not really be “antisocial”, and this for two reasons. Firstly, one could have social software with varying degrees of privacy. Learners could use the more openly social facilities with the peer group, and private ones with teachers. Indeed, learners actually interested in learning might benefit from support in their interactions in the peer group. Secondly, social software with these capabilities could help learners find those other minority individuals who also want to learn, and smaller groups could be formed, outside the view of the majority.

A wider point relates to other things of interest to me, particularly about the multiplicity of personality. Teenagers in particular have different “personas”, or whatever you want to call this phenomenon of behaving in different ways in different contexts, and being embarrassed if behaviour displaying the values from one context slips through into the other. E-portfolio tools, as I will be describing in my book, could be used to help young learners to recognise the differences between the different contexts they find themselves in, and to adapt their personality differently in those different contexts.

To end with a much wider-reaching question, could we use anti-social software, not only in schools, to subvert social norms which do not value learning, but also perhaps as an aid to subversion in an organisation where the peer culture has turned against really effective work, or a country being ruled by a force which is fundamentally against democratic and accountable government?

Forum overkill

You’ve probably noticed for quite a while that many of us now apply considerable caution at being invited to join a new list, a new forum, a new network, a new way of interacting, or anything similar. Not surprising, I agree. But until now I didn’t have a good formulation of why. I’ve just read a message from a colleague, bemoaning – well that would be too strong a word, but you can guess what I mean and he meant – the lack of activity on a forum that he set up for us a while back. Even when it was being set up, as well as wishing him well, I had a sneaking feeling that there were already too many.

If you know my ideas at all, you will probably know that I’ve been developing ideas on multiplicity of personality/persona/whatever-you-like-to-call-it. Particularly the idea that a set of values attaches to a particular context of value, and in each one of these we usually manage to achieve one or more clear roles, a certain consistency of behaviour, and of personal values. This is the sort of context like “family”, “work”, “club”, except that each person has their own, probably different, list of the value contexts which they distinguish.

And you may have read about another related key idea for the future: that portfolio-like tools could well help us both recognise and manage the information and values relevant to these contexts, contributing to a process of ethical development, to the benefit of individuals and society.

But you are less likely to know about my PhD work, which was more about the cognitive contexts of complex tasks. We can manage a complex task by dividing it up into a set of contexts, in each of which we have a certain appropriate set of rules for action (small-scale behaviour), prompted and fed by a corresponding set of information that is relevant to those rule.

If we think back to the very old days before the Web, when Usenet News seemed to be mainly for technical folk, it was apparent that one newsgroup seemed appropriate for each distinct and separate topic; or maybe task. It was when life on the Net became a little more complex and less easily separable, that I started to think that it would be nicer if we could have fewer newsgroups, but more choices to filter within them. That kind of system still hasn’t become widespread – or at least not that I can tell. I’m still expected to join many different lists, many of which overlap.

Or at least, it has come to pass in a strange way: through blogs. A blog is no longer written in a particular group, but available to anyone, who then filter it: usually only on the person of the writer, but sometimes on the tags which are associated with each post. And I’ll stick with the idea that it is strange, because when writing a blog, I feel disconnected; I cannot be sure of who the audience is. Thus, I am not sure of the values that I want to display or put forward. Perhaps blogs only really work for people with complete integrity?

I’m going around this the long way, but I feel the need for the circuit. If we want to be comfortable with a non-universal value set, we need the security of a known group, where values can be observed, sensed, and acted on. Where those who don’t share the values stand out, and preferably get out. But on the other hand, we want to separate discussions where the topic is of interest to different sets of people.

So, please, someone out there who is writing code, here is a request for the kind of forum where I can join with other people who share my values in a large group, but where everyone only gets to see posts on the topics that interest them.

And I’m still going to be reluctant to join new forums of any kind.