Thursday 5 July 2018

Seven Problems of Pointing to the Future of Education (with our hands tied behind our back) and Seven suggestions for addressing it

The theme of "research connectedness" is common in today's universities. It's a well-intentioned attempt to say "University isn't school". Unfortunately, due to a combination of factors including marketisation, modularisation and learning outcomes, university has become increasingly like school in recent years. "Research connectedness" attempts to remedy the trend by introducing more inquiry-based learning and personalised curricula. All of this stuff is good, and it's something which I have been involved with for a long time. It's also at the heart of what I'm doing at the Far Eastern Federal University in Russia on "Global Scientific Dialogue". But I can't help thinking that we're still missing the point with all these new initiatives. There are (at least) seven problems:

Problem 1: Universities see the curriculum as their product. However, the product of learning is the student's understanding which is arrived at through conversation. The university sells courses and certificates; it does not sell "the potential for arriving at an understanding".

Problem 2: Learning outcomes do not measure student understanding of a subject. They establish the validity of a student's claim to meet a set of criteria written by a teacher (or a module author). What it really measures is the student's understanding of the assessment process.

Problem 3: Learning outcomes codify the expectations of teachers with regard to the way that student performance will be assessed in a subject. By definition, they demand that the teacher knows what they are doing. In research, it is often the case that nobody quite knows what they are doing (Einstein: "If we knew what we were doing, we wouldn't call it research!")

Problem 4: Modules are aggregates of learning outcomes; that is, sets of expectations. Students study many modules, and have to negotiate many different sets of expectations from many different teachers. There is no space for how different teachers' understandings and expectations differ, whether there is coherence, or how incoherence might lead to fundamental problems in the student's understanding.

Problem 5: Inevitably, the only way to cope is to behave strategically. "How do I pass?" becomes more important than "What do I understand?". Suppressing "What do I understand?" in some cases may lead to mental breakdown.

Problem 6: An inquiry-based module from the perspective of strategic learners appears to be the worst of all possible worlds: "basically, they don't teach you anything, and you have to find your own way". Since even inquiry-based modules will have learning outcomes, a strategic approach may work, but result in very dissatisfactory learning experiences ("I didn't learn anything!")

Problem 7: Students are customers in an education market. Whilst learning outcomes codify teacher expectations, learner expectations are increasingly codified by the financial transaction they have with the university, and "student satisfaction" becomes a weapon that can be used against teachers to force them to align their expectations with the learners'.

What can we do?  Here are seven suggestions:

1. The product of the university must be student understanding. Certificates, modules and timetables are epiphenomena.

2. Understanding is produced by conversation. The fundamental function of the university is to find ways of best coordinating rich conversations between students and staff.

3. The curriculum is an outmoded means of coordinating conversation. It is a rigid inflexible object in a fast-changing, uncertain world. The means of coordinating conversation needs to become a much more flexible technology (indeed, this is where investment in technology should be placed, not in VLEs or e-Portfolio, which merely uphold the ailing curriculum)

4. Traditional assessment relies on experts, which necessitates hierarchy within the institution. This hierarchy can be transformed into a "heterarchy" - a flat structure of peer-based coordination. Technologies like Adaptive Comparative Judgement, machine learning and other tools for collaboration and judgement-making can be of great significance here.

5. Transformation of institutional hierarchy can produce far greater flexibility in the way that learners engage with the institution. The "long transactions" of assessment (i.e. the 14 week period "I've done my assessment, you give me a mark") can be broken-up into tiny chunks, students can genuinely roll-on, roll-off courses, and new funding models including educational subscription and assessment services explored.

6. The university needs to investigate and understand its real environment (it is not a market - it is society!). The environment is uncertain, and the best way to understand uncertainty is through making exploratory interventions in society from which the university can learn how to coordinate itself. Generosity towards society should be a strategic mission: free courses, learning opportunities, community engagement should be done for the purpose not of "selling courses", but for the strategic seeking of future viability.

7. To put student understanding at the heart of what the university is, is also to place shared scientific inquiry as the underpinning guide. The scientific discourse is hampered by ancient practices of publication and status which ill-suit an inherently uncertain science. The university should free itself from this, and embrace the rich panoply of technology we have at our disposal for encouraging scientists to communicate their uncertainty about science in an open and dialogic way.

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