Thursday 3 March 2016

Why does education still operate in 'batch mode'?

Technologies have transformed business practices by enabling instant on-demand processing and production, streamlined workflows and detailed tracking of transactions. Much of this has been achieved because computers are very good at managing and coordinating individual transactions efficiently. So here's an obvious question: Why does education still operate in 'batch mode'?

We process our learners en-mass through lectures, timetables, assignments and examinations. Learners produce all their work at once, and teachers make judgements about it at a single point, struggling to manage piles of marking and trying to give meaningful feedback. What do our learning technologies do? They reinforce this batch-processing model by offering facilities to attempt to manage the huge number of documents which are produced in the educational process (think of the VLE or e-Portfolio), but in the end doing it so that all these documents can be submitted for assessment en mass at the appointed time.

Why are our e-learning systems batch-processing systems? Why can't we use computers more sensibly to support a way of working in education which tracks educational interactions individually as they occur - educational transactions?

One of the fascinating features of the current Block Chain discussion is the fact that Block Chain is a technology for storing transactions in a distributed, open and transparent way. What would a transaction processing approach to education look like?

An educational interaction is some kind of engagement between a teacher and a learner which is mediated by some entity which they can both see - like a document. A simple document might be a single question "How do I...?", or it might be a link to a web page, or a photo or a video on YouTube. In response to such a document, a teacher will make a response which is also likely to be a document. In summative assessment, this document will be a judgement about the learner's document - how much better or worse it is than other similar documents (and consequently a mark will be given). In both cases, a document may itself declare a set of relationships to other people or concepts. A judgement by the teacher of the learner is a measure of the disparity between the learner's relationship to other people and concepts and the teacher's own.

In traditional education, the most important relationships for a learner are to their peers. In the batch-mode of education, these relationships are reinforced by putting everyone into a class together and processing them together. In the 'transactional' mode, peers are organised according to their own sets of relationships to concepts and other people. Where strong relationships are formed, then there will be exchanges of documents (usually in the form of online conversation) between peers, where the network of connections gradually expands.

In any form of education, the key moment is when a learner will assert a new idea which is either original or one that the teacher hasn't heard of. Under these circumstances, the teacher might not be able to say very much about the learner's ideas: they may even dismiss it. But if the learner's idea is a good one, then other networks will reinforce it, leading eventually to a reappraisal of existing networks and judgements. Utterances by a learner which cause structural adjustments to existing judgement relationships are important moments of learning. The causing of a structural adjustment can be a trigger for accreditation perhaps... but it is the moment when the apprentice becomes the master: which, I think, is what it is all about in the end.

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