Thursday 28 April 2016

Redesigning Educational Technology from the Person Up

I've just seen a series of posts about Institutional VLEs giving access to previous modules that students have studied. Many institutions do this (although few allow access after a student has left), but it is a bit of a technological headache: 'courses' are rolled-forward to create new instances which are populated by new students, where the old instances (with all the previous students' work in them) are maintained too. It's a headache because the 'course' and its associated "cohort" has become a monolithic chunk in the VLE as they are in institutions. The individual person doesn't care very much about courses except that it contains particular units of assessment which they have to pass, and that they have to remember that course x was where they put that really cool forum post which they like to refer back to from time to time. But there are so many courses and so many assessments - and apart from differences in teacher and content, they are not that different from one another.

If a person wants access to a previous module, it is likely they either want access to their previous transactions in their education, or they might want access to the transactions of the teacher - particular content which was uploaded as part of a module. This is, after all, much how we use social media today - reposting, retweeting, commenting and so on. The social media giants store our transaction records and it is these which we search. Any Gmail user knows how powerful it is when every transaction over many years is stored and becomes searchable. Of course, the downside is that Google, Facebook and Twitter mine our data - more on that in a minute.

Why do we have courses anyway? And why has educational technology adopted the course metaphor? There's no reason why it should be like this apart from the fact that institutions have always done education like this: the issue is historical - it is because educational technology grew up around the face-to-face institution. But if we take the learner's transactions with teachers and peers as the building block rather than courses, things start to look different. First of all, learners don't all have to begin at the same time: this is one of the biggest constraints bearing on education.

A person's engagement with education begins long before they enrol on a course. Course enrolment is a transaction end-point of a process which begins with the person trying to decide on which direction to take their life. The educational journey starts in conversation, not lectures.

Early discussions are incredibly important and they happen on a one-to-one basis, not just with teachers but with family and peers. The transactions and flow from these discussions shape everything that comes next. Indeed, the idea of self-determination is probably incorrect: there is a kind of conversational alignment which produces a direction. In education, there has never been too much time spent thinking about these "what do you want?" discussions: apart from being complex and individualised, they simply aren't what educational institutions are about. Educational institutions say to a person "You want this!" and try to make products which can lure them in.

Why doesn't our learning technology start here? Why doesn't it start with the person's search? Why haven't we got tools to support this engagement? Why don't those tools then allow for the gradual emergence of an idea of a path of study? The simple answer is, this is not what our educational institutions are about. Up to this point, our attempts to change institutions with technology have ended up with institutions reinforcing their practices. Something more radical is required. I think we have to the tools to do this. We just need to refocus back onto the person. (And perhaps we should talk less about learners and more about persons!)

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