Friday 4 March 2016

Personal Learning Environments 2.0: The other side of the (Bit)Coin

We all have personal tools for learning. We all have mobile phones, tablets, and many of us use Twitter, Facebook and blogging platforms to keep abreast of and contribute to domains of knowledge which interest us. Our engagement with these tools amounts to many small transactions which occur between us and online platforms. Typically these transactions are recorded by the providers of social software platforms, who aggregate this information, analyse it, sell it, and use it to try and sell us things.

The PLE argued that the coming of personal technologies meant that learners should take control of their learning, and use their own tools rather than institutional tools. The PLE has remained something of a pipe-dream in terms of real education, and in many ways institutional provision has become more centralised and controlling: this, despite the fact that many learners also use their personal tools to amplify and enrich institutional learning processes. Fundamentally, the institution is still in control.

The reason why this is the case is TRUST. Institutions are trusted to certify learning in ways which Facebook and Twitter are not. Institutions uphold the trust placed in them by guarding various arcane and inefficient practices in education, including the treatment of learners in 'batch processes' (see yesterday's post), the obfuscation of assignments and assessment requirements for the award of certificates, the tyranny of the timetable, module pre-requisites, and so on. By obscuring what they do, and wrapping themselves up in even-more-obscure 'quality management' procedures, institutions uphold their status as 'trusted' certifiers of learning, and with it, social status. Yet, beyond their certification processes, there is little opportunity to inspect the transactions which led to any certificate.

I was accused of 'credentialism' yesterday in my post about Block Chain, and so whilst I think it is important to understand what new transaction-based technologies like Block chain might deliver for us, it is also important to understand the nature of certification, and mechanisms of trust which go alongside them.

Thorstein Veblen, over 100 years ago, argued that education was a kind of plaything of the 'leisure classes' (his term for the bourgeoisie) to enable them to impress upon each other how much cleverer they were. In other words, Veblen saw status as the essential driver behind education within universities.

Status depends on trust. If we didn't trust the authority of the institution conferring degrees, then we wouldn't trust the degrees. In Searle's social ontology - which I've found really useful - the status of an institution and the status of a degree certificate are the result of a particular kind of speech act called a "status function" made by an entity (like an institution) with sufficient 'deontic power' (Searle's word for 'authority') to make the declaration in such a way that it is generally upheld by the community for whom it is intended. Monarchs, presidents, armies, hospitals, schools, churches, human rights and families are all the result of this kind of status declaration.

Banks are interesting. They are central in upholding the trust which supports the operation of a currency: "I promise to pay the bearer". More interesting still is that this is precisely what's been undermined (!) by BitCoin. There is no central authority to "pay the bearer". All there is is a transparent, distributed, peer-to-peer ledger. It is the ledger of transactions which becomes the object of trust.

This, to me, is the missing jigsaw piece of personal learning - a reason for heralding the PLE2.0. If all the transactions which we engage in online are recorded in some way in a "ledger" - without compromising security or privacy - then the ledger forms a living record of capability, competency, social capital, intellectual power, practical ability and so on: why trust an institution's arcane certification when a personal learning "ledger" (or whatever you want to call it) can do a better and more trustworthy job of it?

Of course, this is not to say anything about 'learning'. I believe that we said too much about learning when we first looked at the PLE. There are very few defensible statements that anyone can make about learning: we simply don't know what it is - all we can do is speculate. Moreover, bad institutional managers will want to jump on to a definition of 'learning' in order to bully their staff and make themselves look like educational Messiahs. All we can say is that learning occurs within constraints which are material and tangible in a shared lifeworld: textbooks, teachers, timetables, certificates, etc, etc. Many of these constraints exist due to trust relationships.

Block Chain is a disruption among the constraints within which humans organise themselves in their learning. It is the other side of the 'coin' of personal learning where we already have personal tools for learning, but now we also have a de-institutionalised trust mechanism. It seems important.

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