A new (for me) understanding of standardization

When engaging deeply in any standardization project, as I have with the InLOC project, one is likely to get new insights into what standardization is, or should be. I tried to encapsulate this in a tweet yesterday, saying “Standardization, properly, should be the process of formulation and formalisation of the terms of collective commitment”.

Then @crispinweston replied “Commitment to whom and why? In the market, fellow standardisers are competitors.” I continued, with the slight frustration at the brevity of the tweet format, “standards are ideally agreed between mutually recognising group who negotiate their common interest in commitment”. But when Crispin went on “What role do you give to the people expected to make the collective commitment in drafting the terms of that commitment?” I knew it was time to revert from micro-blogging to macro-blogging, so to speak.

Crispin casts me in the position of definer of roles — I disclaim that. I am trying, rather, firstly to observe and generalise from my observations about what standardization is, when it is done successfully, whether or not people use or think of the term “standardization”, and secondly, to intuit a good and plausible way forward, perhaps to help grow a consensus about what standardization ought to be, within the standardization community itself.

One of the challenges of the InLOC project was that the project team started from more or less carte blanche. Where there is a lot of existing practice, standardization can (in theory at least) look at existing practice, and attempt to promote standardization on the best aspects of it, knowing that people do it already, and that they might welcome (for various reasons) a way to do it in just one way, rather than many. But in the case of InLOC, and any other “anticipatory” standard, people aren’t doing closely related things already. What they are doing is publishing many documents about the knowledge, skills, competence, or abilities (or “competencies”) that people need for particular roles, typically in jobs, but sometimes as learners outside of employment. However, existing practice says very little about how these should be structured, and interrelated, in general.

So, following this “anticipatory” path, you get to the place where you have the specification, but not the adoption. How do you then get the adoption? It can only be if you have been either lucky, in that you’ve formulated a need that people naturally come to see, or that you are persuasive, in that you persuade people successfully that it is what they really (really) want.

The way of following, rather than anticipating, practice certainly does look the easier, less troubled, surer path. Following in that way, there will be a “community” of some sort. Crispin identifies “fellow standardisers” as “competitors” in the market. “Coopetition” is a now rather old neologism that comes to mind. So let me try to answer the spirit at least of Crispin’s question — not the letter, as I am seeing myself here as more of an ethnographer than a social engineer.

I envisage many possible kinds of community coming together to formulate the terms of their collective commitments, and there may be many roles within those communities. I can’t personally imagine standard roles. I can imagine the community led by authority, imposing a standard requirement, perhaps legally, for regulation. I can imagine a community where any innovator comes up with a new idea for agreeing some way of doing things, and that serves to focus a group of people keen to promote the emerging standard.

I can imagine situations where an informal “norm” is not explicitly formulated at all, and is “enforced” purely by social peer pressure. And I can imagine situations where the standard is formulated by a representative body of appointees or delegates.

The point is that I can see the common thread linking all kinds of these practices, across the spectrum of formality–informality. And my view is that perhaps we can learn from reflecting on the common points across the spectrum. Take an everyday example: the rules of the road. These are both formal and informal; and enforced both by traffic authorities (e.g. police) and by peer pressure (often mediated by lights and/or horn!)

When there is a large majority of a community in support of norms, social pressure will usually be adequate, in the majority of situations. Formal regulation may be unnecessary. Regulation is often needed where there is less of a complete natural consensus about the desirability of a norm.

Formalisation of a norm or standard is, to me, a mixed blessing. It happens — indeed it must happen at some stage if there is to be clear and fair legal regulation. But the formalisation of a standard takes away the natural flexibility of a community’s response both to changing circumstances in general, and to unexpected situations or exceptions.

Time for more comment? You would be welcome.

The pragmatics of InLOC competence logic

(21st in my logic of competence series.)

Putting together a good interoperability specification is hard, and especially so for competence. I’ve tried to work into InLOC as many of the considerations in this Logic of Competence series as I could, but these are all limited by the scope of a pragmatically plausible goal. My hypothesis is that it’s not possible to have a spec that is at the same time both technically simple and flexible, and intuitively understandable to domain practitioners.

Here I’ll write now about why I believe that, and later follow on to finalise on the pragmatics of the logic of competence as represented by InLOC.

Doing a specification like InLOC gives one an opportunity to attract all kinds of criticism from people, much of it constructive. No attempts to do such a spec in the past have been great successes, and one wonders why that is. Some of the criticism I have heard has helped me to formulate the hypothesis above, and I’ll try to explain my reasoning here.

Turn the hypothesis on its head. What would make it possible to have a spec that is technically simple, and at the same time intuitively understandable to domain practitioners? Fairly obviously, there would have to be a close correspondence between the objects of the domain of expertise, and the constructs of the specification.

For each reader, there may appear to be a simple solution. Skills, competences, learning outcomes, etc., have this structure — don’t they? — and so one just has to reproduce that structure in the information model to get a workable interoperability spec that is intuitively understandable to people — well, like me. Well, “not”, as people now say as a one-word sentence.

Actually, there is great diversity in the ways people conceive of and structure learning outcomes, competences and the like. Some structures have different levels of the same competence, others do not. Some competences are defined in a binary fashion, that allows one to say “yes” or “no” to whether people have that competence; other competences are defined in a way that allows people to be ranked in order of that competence. Some competence structures are quite vague, with what look like a few labels that give an indication of the kinds of quality that someone is looking for, without defining what exactly those labels mean. Some structures — particularly level frameworks like the EQF — are deliberately defined in generic terms that can apply across a wide range of areas of knowledge and skill. And so on.

This should really be no surprise, because it is clear from many people’s work (e.g. my PhD thesis) that different people simplify complex structures in their own different ways, to suit their own purposes, and in line with their own backgrounds and assumptions. There is, simply, no way in which all these different approaches to defining and structuring competence can be represented in a way that will make intuitive sense to everyone.

What one can do is to provide a relatively simple abstract representation that can cover all kinds of existing structures. This is just what InLOC is aiming to do, but up to now we haven’t been quite clear enough about that. To get to something that is intuitive for domain practitioners, one needs to rely on tools being built that reflect, in the user interface, the language and assumptions of that particular group of practitioners. The focus for the “direct” use of the spec then clearly shifts onto developers. What, I suggest, developers need is a specification adapted to their needs — to build those interfaces for domain practitioners. The main requirements of this seem to me to be that the spec:

  1. gives enough structure so that developers can map any competence structure into that format;
  2. does not have any unnecessary complexity;
  3. gives a readily readable format, debuggable by developers (not domain practitioners).

So when you look at the draft InLOC CWAs, or even better if you come to the InLOC dissemination event in Brussels on 16th April, you know what to expect, and you know the aims against which to evaluate InLOC. InLOC offers no magic wand to bring together incompatible views of diverse learning outcome and competence structures. But it does offer a relatively simple technical solution, that allows developers who have little understanding of competence domains to develop tools that really do match the intuitions of various domain practitioners.

Three InLOC drafts for CEN Workshop Agreements are currently out for public comment — links from the InLOC home page — please do comment if you possibly can, and please consider coming to our dissemination event in Brussels, April 16th.

Future Learners, new Opportunities and Technology

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

InLOC: the reason for lack of posts

InLOC has been taking up more and more of my non-CETIS time, and along with other pressures, I have not got round to posting here for two whole months. Here are my good intentions…

First, I will try to tweet more, particularly with the hashtag #InLOC, which fortunately no one outside the InLOC projects seems to have used. If readers have anything relevant to say which touches InLOC concerns, please feel free to use that hashtag. I started this just a few days ago, as you can see with a Twitter search, about a newly published European document called “Rethinking education: investing in skills for better socio-economic outcomes“, which among other things takes forward the argument that we need “more focus on ‘learning outcomes’ – the knowledge, skills and competences that students acquire”. This is just the kind the boost we need to take InLOC into mainstream awareness. This is what I tweeted…

Via @philbarker New EC strategy “Rethinking Education” http://europa.eu/rapid/press-release_IP-12-1233_en.htm … < – useful for #InLOC

I am very industriously working at present with the InLOC team to get drafts of our deliverables ready in good time — we are tasked to draft three CWAs: “CEN Workshop Agreements”. As part of this, I will try to work in reading the Rethinking Education strategy, and to refer to any key arguments as part of the InLOC deliverables.

I have also been meaning to continue the “logic of competence” series, now started over two years ago, and bring readers up to date with the latest conclusions of InLOC.

Well, good intentions perhaps, but I hope that the act of writing this down publicly will help galvanise my efforts to produce the goods! I would also be most grateful for any prompts from anyone who follows this part of my work, and who would like to know more.

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.

Critical friendship pointer

I picked up a tweet yesterday via Paul Chippendale from an HBR blog called “You Are (Probably) Wrong About You” by Heidi Grant Halvorson. This seems to me a useful tying together of several important things: (e-)portfolios, reflection, critical friendship, and how to run P2P organisations. She writes:

Who knows you best? Well, the research suggests that they do — other people’s assessment of your personality predicts your behavior, on average, better than your assessment does.
[...]
In his fascinating book Strangers to Ourselves, psychologist Timothy Wilson summarizes decades of research [...] showing us just how much of what we do during every moment of every day [...] is happening below our conscious awareness. Some of it we can notice if we engage in a little self-reflection, but much of it we simply cannot — it’s not directly accessible to us at all.

This might remind us first of the perennial problem of e-portfolios and reflection. People tend to reflect only in their own way in their own time, and this is not necessarily helpful for their personal development. It is not easy for practitioners to persuade people to use e-portfolio tools to reflect in a fruitful way. And when it comes to putting together a presentation of one’s abilities and qualities using an e-portfolio tool, the result is therefore not always realistic.

Often what is more effective is a personal one-to-one approach, where the person in the helping role might be called a mentor, a coach, a personal tutor, or something else. But here we run into the problem of the moment: resources. In many related fields, resource is being taken away from personal contact, with learners left to fend for themselves, given only a website to browse.

If only … we could create an effective peer-to-peer mentoring service. This approach has certainly been explored in many places, not least in Bolton, but I do not have personal experience of this, nor do I currently know of authoritative reviews of what is seen as genuinely effective. One might expect pitfalls of schemes under that name to include a formulaic approach; a lack of genuine insight into the “mentee”; and a reliance on older-to-younger mentoring, rather than a more strictly peer-to-peer approach. In Bolton it would appear to be still a minority practice, and the support is clearly given by more advanced to less advanced students. In this kind of setting, what is the chance of a peer mentor helping to correct someone’s misconceptions about their own abilities?

The term “critical friend” seems to me to address some of these potential deficiencies with peer mentors. If the people in question really are friends, if they know each other well and trust each other, surely there is more of a possibility of bringing up and challenging personal misconceptions, given the mutual desire and a supportive culture. The Wikipedia article provides helpful background. There are many other useful sources of ideas about this idea, also known as “critical colleague”, “critical companion” or “learning partner”, all pointing in the same general direction. The idea has taken root, even if it is not yet a well-known commonplace.

The critical friend concept is certainly inspiring, but how many people have colleagues who are both willing and well-positioned to act in this role? In my experience, friends seldom see the range of professional behaviour that one would want constructive critique of, and colleagues seem rather more able to offer positive suggestions in some areas than in others. The challenge seems partly in bringing such practice into the mainstream, where it does not seem odd, or too upsetting to a culture too weak for anything more strenuous than laissez-faire.

What I believe we need is more practiced and reported experimentation along the lines of benefiting from what colleagues are prepared naturally to do, not expecting everyone to have counselling skills, or a sufficient rapport with each other to be the person … well … that we would like them to be! And in any case there are potential problems with small closed groups of people, whether pairs or slightly larger, all commenting on each other’s performance. It could easily lead to a kind of “groupthink”.

My guess is that there is a robust peer-to-peer solution waiting to be more widely acknowledged, tested, and incorporated into work cultures. I have provisionally thought of it as “follower guidance“, but I will save writing more on that to later, and hope that people may comment in the meantime on how would you address the challenges of people mis-assessing their own abilities and qualities. Really, we need to have a culture that promotes good self-knowledge, not only to help personal and professional development, but also to serve as the bedrock of an effective P2P culture.

p.s. I have now written more on the follower guidance idea.

Developing a new approach to competence representation

InLOC is a European project organised to come up with a good way of communicating structures or frameworks of competence, learning outcomes etc. We’ve now produced our interim reports for consultation: the Information Model and the Guidelines. We welcome feedback from everyone, to ensure this becomes genuinely useful and not just another academic exercise.

The reason I’ve not written any blog posts for a few weeks is that so much of my energy has been going into InLOC, and for good reason. It has been a really exciting time working with the team to develop a better approach to representing these things. Many of us have been pushing in this direction for years, without ever quite getting there. Several projects have been nearby, including, last year, InteropAbility (JISC page; project wiki) and eCOTOOL (project web site; my Competence Model page) — I’ve blogged about these before, and we have built on ideas from both of them, as well as from several other sources: you may be surprised at the range and variety of “stakeholders” in this area that we have assembled within InLOC. Doing the thinking for the Logic of Competence series was of course useful background, but nor did it quite get there.

What I want to announce now is that we are looking for the widest possible feedback as further input to the project. It’s all too easy for people like us, familiar with interoperability specifications, simply to cook up a new one. It is far more of a challenge, as well as hugely more worthwhile and satisfying, to create something genuinely useful, which people will actually use. We have been looking at other groups’ work for several months now, and discussing the rich, varied, and sometimes confusing ideas going around the community. Now we have made our own initial synthesis, and handed in the “interim” draft agreements, it is an excellent time to carry forward the wide and deep consultation process. We want to discuss with people whether our InLOC format will work for them; whether they can adopt, use or recommend it (or whatever their role is to do with specifications; or, what improvements need to be made so that they are most likely to take it on for real.

By the end of November we are planning to have completed this intense consultation, and we hope to end up with the desired genuinely useful results.

There are several features of this model which may be innovative (or seem so until someone points out somewhere they have been done before!)

  1. Relationships aren’t just direct as in RDF — there is a separate class to contain the relationship information. This allows extra information, including a number, vital for defining levels.
  2. We distinguish the normal simple properties, with literal objects, which are treated as integral parts of whatever it is (including: identifier, title, description, dates, etc.) from what could be called “compound properties”. Compound properties, that have more than one part to their range, are a little like relationships, and we give them a special property class, allowing labels, and a number (like in relationships).
  3. We have arranged for the logical structure, including the relationships and compound properties, to be largely independent of the representation structure. This allows several variant approaches to structuring, including tree structures, flat structures, or Atom-like structures.

The outcome is something that is slightly reminiscent both of Atom itself, and of Topic Maps. Both are not so like RDF, which uses the simplest possible building blocks, but resulting in the need for harder-to-grasp constructs like blank nodes. The fact of being hard to grasp leads to people trying different ways of doing things, and possibly losing interoperability on the way. Both Atom and Topic Maps, in contrast, add a little more general purpose structure, which does make quite a lot of intuitive sense in both cases, and they have been used widely, apparently with little troublesome divergence.

Are we therefore, in InLOC, trying to feel our way towards a general-purpose way of representing substantial hierarchical structures of independently existing units, in a way that makes more intuitive sense that elementary approaches to representing hierarchies? General taxonomies are simply trying to represent the relationships between concepts, whereas in InLOC we are dealing with a field where, for many years, people have recognised that the structure is an important entity in its own right — so much so that it has seemed hard to treat the components of existing structures (or “frameworks”) as independent and reusable.

So, see what you think, and please tell me, or one of the team, what you do honestly think. And let’s discuss it. The relevant links are also available straight from the InLOC wiki home page. And if you are responsible for creating or maintaining structures of intended learning outcomes, skills, competences, competencies, etc., then you are more than welcome to try out our new approach, that we hope combines ease of understanding with the power to express just what you want to express in your “framework”, and that you will be persuaded to use it “for real”, perhaps when we have made the improvements that you need.

We envisage a future when many ICT tools can use the same structures of learning outcomes and competences, saving effort, opening up interoperability, and greatly increasing the possibilities for services to build on top of each other. But you probably don’t need reminding of the value of those goals. We’re just trying to help along the way.