Wednesday 27 April 2011

Towards Scenario-driven education?

The majority of my time is currently taken up with a large-scale European project called iTEC ( iTEC is interesting in a number of ways, but not least because it proposes to organise education in partner schools around 'scenarios' rather than curriculum topics, and to provide technologies which pertain to those scenarios which will support teachers and learners in realising scenarios.

A scenario-driven approach has become more feasible in recent years because it has become possible to reproduce similar toolkits in a variety of environments which can support the necessary activities which make up a scenario. In curriculum-driven schooling, what was easiest to-hand in the school environment, and what was easiest to reproduce amongst a variety of schools was the curriculum. Teachers specialised in training colleges, schools equipped themselves with textbooks, and inspection regimes could audit whether the curriculum was being 'delivered'. Increasingly, technology is becoming to-hand in schools and universities, and as this happens, instead of organising education around the 'to-handness' of the curriculum, we can think of organising education around the to-handness of tools.

The problem with the curriculum-based organisation of education is that much of the education that is foisted on learners ill-fits their individual needs. Scenario-based education puts the needs of individual learners at the forefront, proposing activities and contexts where differentiated activities within authentic contexts can take place amongst varied groups of learners. In effect, a scenario is a detailed consideration of a lot of 'what if?' questions dealing not just with individual learning activities, but also economic and social trends, opportunities afforded by technology, etc. By taking this approach, issues of assessment and accreditation become more personalised and flexible as learners and teachers immerse themselves in the various activities of the scenario. The tool-focus of the scenarios means that collecting evidence for assessment can be tightly integrated into the performance of the various activities that take place, rather than be an add-on to learning activity.

iTEC aims for flexibility in the provision of tools for the realisation of scenarios. Some tools will work better in different contexts, and different tools may be equally good for the same job. This presents the possibility that individual learners might bring their own tools to their learning. In this way, a scenario might be realisable through personal technology and personal learning environments. However, the scenario approach is not directly related to the Personal Learning Environment. Instead it belongs to thinking about the coordination of education and curriculum design. But because of its tool-focus and the ability of different tools to do the same job, scenarios in the form of 'tool-kits' and 'activities' can be standardised whilst their implementation can be personalised. This is a challenge that other approaches to curriculum design have been unable to achieve.  IMS Learning Design, for example, sought to standardise patterns of activities, but the implementation of a learning design insisted on the use of particular technologies and gave teachers and learners little flexibility in the coordination of activities.

But what of knowledge in all this? Scenario-based education is grounded in work on 'situated cognition'. Within any situation, people 'perform' their knowledge. The advantage of the scenario for teachers is that there is nothing in a scenario which ties the teacher down to particular types of 'knowledge performance'; at the same time, it leads teachers away from didactic knowledge performances, so however they do convey their knowledge, it is unlikely to be from the front of the class.

But there's another problem. Using scenarios to organise education may replace the 'curriculum' as the organising principle with 'tools' or 'technical settings'. However, the curriculum is merely a body of knowledge whose reproduction requires a particular capacity alone (even textbooks can be dispensed with). Tools, on the other hand, require capacity, but often they also require a license, or at least an agreement with a technology provider. This, I think, is a problem, and much as I'm drawn to the sense of a scenario-driven pedagogy, moving the education system in the direction of tools raises new questions about the risks of engaging with technology. But maybe that is the crucial knowledge for us all in the 21st century.

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