This has come up in several contexts for me lately. The construct we’ve been working on and calling ‘the Overlay’ has it’s roots in Wilson’s ideas. The key notion in Wilson’s work is that the environment is built for LEARNING and not for EDUCATION.
The problem I’m having with Blackboard and its ilk are that they are learner management systems and not, as you might think, learning management systems. As a learner, I gotta tell you flat out, I don’t want to be managed.
Now the crux of this problem lies on the need for an institution to maintain its financial infrastructure. It needs to know who’s supposed to pay and who’s supposed to get paid. It needs to know how many students are enrolled in each class and what teacher is leading the fight against ignorance — or at least which one to pay for it. The institution needs to certify that the student has paid his or her debt to society by putting in enough seat time (Charlie Hoban has a new rant on College and Prison). The institution needs to keep the records of good behavior for years as graduates (and even non-graduates) are prone to pop up asking for a transcript copy at the drop of a hat. The Badlands between administration and learning would be Education.
And in case you missed this in my earlier posts, learning is only very loosely connected to education. Learning is something people do everyday whether they are involved in an institution of education or not. Learning may not involve a professional teacher. It may have nothing to do with cash tuition. A person might learn something by reading a book, the funny paper, or the fortune cookie insert. Sidestepping the obvious “well somebody wrote that stuff so that must be the teacher” argument it seems to me that we’ve spent a lot of time thinking about how to use the communications technologies associated with the Internet to assist teaching, but darn little time thinking about how it might assist learning.
As a learner, what do I need?
- I need access to learning materials.
This could be music, text, pictures, video … almost any medium that can be digitized and transfered over the net.
- I need an organization tool
Something needs to help me collect, collate, and index this mass-o-crap in a manner that suits me.
- I need a publication space
Some where I need to write whatever it is I’m thinking about. Or maybe a graphics archive. Or a music storage space. Or some combination. Whatever it is that I use to express my understanding — or reach it — needs to be a space that I can publish in.
- I need persistant storage
The internet is transient. While it may be improper for me to make direct copies of some materials, those materials that DO belong to me need to be stored securely. And I need a way to keep track of the links to the things I can’t copy.
- I need communications
Regardless of how well connected I am to content, learning — real, serious learning of the kind that results in degrees, advancement, and finding a good mate — requires communications with other people.
Where and how do the current templated learner management solutions break down?
The obvious is publication space. The only people who can see what I post in my templated course solution are those people who are in the same templated course. While this MIGHT be appropriate for some risky practice kinds of thinking work, it robs the student of peer review in a wider sense. Publication space is not the answer to all educational situations, but it seems to me like it should be a key component. Even if a student elects to make that space private, they should retain access to it for as long as they want — not lose it at the end of the semester when the course goes away.
Which brings up the second problem, that of persistent storage. When the course template becomes unavailable, all the student’s artifacts and progress are now lost to him. Opportunities for reflection and reference are completely shut off. Regardless of whether the publication space above is public publication space, when the artifacts are taken away, the student has no context left.
Templated courses do a good job of making those content related materials available. A well thought out templated class is really not much more than making content related materials available.
Because the communications facilities are woefully inadequate. Yes, I can send an email to somebody who is in my class — even to everybody who is in my class, including teacher, peers, teaching assistants, etc. But I can’t send an email to the student in a related class who is not in my class. And I can’t see when I might be sharing the space synchronously with another student. In a classroom setting I see other students, other faculty, administrators, even the custodial staff as I make my way into and out of the buildings. I interact with students in the library who are not in my program — who may not even be in my college. I have the definite sense with every movement I make, with every activity I undertake, that I am a part of a social endeavor that is being shared by hundreds — even thousands — of other people. No wonder students find distance education is isolating. You sit ‘em in solitary and only give them access to the other inmates and the jailor.
Last is an organizational tool. How can I arrange the materials in my templated class in any kind of meaningful way? I can’t. The only one who can organize the educational space is the teacher. In many cases, I’m forbidden from downloading my materials. Even those I can download may be limited. The organization is whatever I can figure out to do with on my own machine, or in my own space. This does not seem conducive to the learning experience, although I can see where it is wonderful for those in charge of administering the education.
No. I think Scott Wilson is right. The important decisions in distance education over the next few months will be about creating environments to assist learning. The interesting challenges will be enabling environments that don’t negate the necessary administrative requirements of Education while still enabling students with little or no technical expertise to have flexible, responsive, permanent access to their own educational materials. Ironically, there’s nothing inherent in the templated learner management systems that would preclude the creation of a social and organizational wrapper around the package.
Of course, with an independant, socially structured learning environment under learner control, the need for the templated packages would become moot.
Ok. Back to work …