Friday 23 August 2013

From Learning Outcomes to Personal Corpus tools

I wonder what future historians will make of our current ideas about education. I wouldn't be surprised if they pay particular attention to our obsession with 'learning outcomes'. It is this rather ill-grounded innovation which has dominated the educational landscape in most institutions,  underpinning regimes of quality, consistency, management, and assessment. Indeed, without learning outcomes, it is hard to see that the current phase of massification of education (and the concomitant commodification) could have taken place. Massification requires coordinating principles, and the learning outcomes provides the principle.

The idea that 'learning' (which is a contested concept) can have a measurable outcome (which is also contested) doesn't stand up to close scrutiny. Deep down, it's a bit of a ruse. It provides a way of dealing with the complexity of education - particularly personalised education - such that a variety of practices of learners can be measured and meaningful assessment reached. It is because of this embrace of variety of practice, and variety of assessment, whilst appearing to maintain objectivity, that learning outcomes have been placed at the centre of the massification/commodification process. Whilst the drivers might have been pedagogical and well-intentioned, the implications are commercial.

Is it time to rethink? The massification of education has gone hand in hand with the growth of an imperious education industry. The meeting of outcomes becomes the prison that hooks learners into programmes all over the world, whilst not infrequently, students actually meeting outcomes appears to do them little good. Furthermore, for staff, the coordination of quality regimes around learning outcomes has become the dominant discourse in institutions whose purpose had previously been to pursue truth; now they pursue managerial diktats revolving around assessment regimes, and validation procedures.

The business of learning outcomes is related to the issue of 'aboutness'. It is the process of saying that what a student can do is 'about' something, codified by outcome criteria. In today's education, defending the 'aboutness' of a student's competency is usually the domain of the teacher, and typcially, since the teacher will have a vested interest in getting the student through their assessment, there is a strong temptation to say "yes, I think this is evidence of ..." even if it's a bit a stretch to say it.

This encourages a mentality with individuals summing up their knowledge with a tick-list of achievements, verified by assessment, but often not demonstrable outside the educational setting. Learning Outcomes have led teachers and learners to believe that 'aboutness' of education is what matters: having found the 'evidence', the ticked box indicates that the thing that the box is about has been acquired.

Understanding the topic of learning is important. To this extent aboutness matters. But only to the point that understanding the topic is generative of stories and actions within the individual that others can coordinate around and agree that the learner's actions are indeed 'about' the same topic. Asserting the aboutness is not the point. The point is to demonstrate fluent patterns of behaviour which others can judge for themselves. Moreover, it is for each individual to find ways in which they can find their own stories and relate their stories to particular topics. The path of learning should be a path of growing personal confidence and freedom.

The problem  with Learning Outcomes is that their emphasis on the aboutness of learning, and their concern for making defensible statements backed up with 'evidence', is that the performative and personal coherence of individual learning is not developed. (There's an excellent piece on 'evidence-based policy' here - and I would echo many of the criticisms with regard to education) Often, the rigidity of ticking boxes leads to a kind of educational alienation (see where learners and teachers find themselves in inauthentic activities, underpinned by fear of failure to comply with institutional requirements. Under these conditions, confidence is the first victim - which is a real scandal!

How do we get out of this? We need a way in which learners can discover what is within them, and teachers can guide and develop them in ways that relate to learner's interests. Technology can help. The corpus analytical tools that are now so developed can be used by individuals to explore the totality of what they write. These are tools for asking powerful questions: what does a learner write about? who else writes about that? how do those others express their ideas? what have they learnt? where did they learn it from? what are they interested in but never write about? why don't they write about it? and so on...Can corpus analytics show a gradual tuning-in to established discourses and social networks? I think there is a possibility. And the way the tuning happens, the stages it goes through, are a learning journey. Is it too much to state that even in medicine (which is the classic counter-example in inquiry-based learning), there can be a process of tuning into discourses - which can only occur through practical experience?

The other advantage of a corpus-oriented approach is that within institutions themselves, management becomes oriented not around assessment points, tick-boxes, etc, but learning progress measured in terms of 'fit' with established discourses. Even the discourses within the institution itself can be analysed, so that the learning journeys of students and the learning processes within the institution become more closely harmonised. In this way, Universities might listen more attentively to their students and embrace the learning of everyone within a broad social ecology. 

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