Information and Information Abundance

Landfrey was a bugler in the Light Brigade at the Battle of Balaklava, October 25, 1854, of the Crimean War. On August 2, 1890 he made a recording of a call for a calvary charge. The call Landfrey plays is the same call that led the charge of the light brigade in 1854. He made the recording with a trumpet that was used at the Battle of Waterloo, June 18, 1815, at the end of the Napoleonic Wars. Here is the recording.

This is information. It is now available to everyone in the world who has an internet connected device that is able to play a MP3 audio file. This is information abundance. What role does information play in education in a world of information abundance?

I read blog after blog about the coming educational revolution – and I believe that it is and will happen, but where does information fit?

Models are sketched out, tried, adjusted, tried again. Most of the digitisation in education has involved what we do already (poorly in most cases) simply being digitised and moved online. I read about the preparation of materials (read: information) for students to engage in during their online learning experience. I read about motivation through gamification. I read about carefully planning for the learning experience. I read about all of the things that I have been doing all these years when I stand up in front of my students and tell them what I want them to regurgitate (with a little bit more) at some time in the future. Is this all we have come to? Is this the best we can do?

What does education mean in a world of information abundance? What does learning entail in a world where learning has come to mean memorising information?

I see others in HE talk about the value of learning critical thinking skills, and then spend all their time espousing information – while providing a single opportunity (maybe two if there is an essay and exam) to demonstrate critical thing wrapped around the information they have espoused. HE educators want clear evidence of evaluative thinking – in a single go. While focussing on content, they want skills learned – and then are disappointed when it doesn’t happen.

So, what role does information play in a world of learning where information is ubiquitous?

I don’t think I’m done with this one yet, but need time to think this through.


Academic Accreditation

What is it?

Accreditation wears a number of faces. To a student, it is a job. To an institution, it is its validity. To an academic, it is protection. To an employer, it is a standard. To a government, it is control.

According to Wikipedia, it is the system by which “programs are evaluated by an external body to determine if applicable standards are met.”

At an official level, this means that paperwork and systems are in order. It means that someone wearing the quality assurance label puts together reams of paperwork that gets sent off to a number of members of an accreditation panel for scrutiny, often followed by a series of interviews with different stakeholders (usually faculty, students and administrators – although I have been involved in one where a manager from a service provider was involved) to ask about the quality of the programme.

But, is that what accreditation really is? Isn’t accreditation the right to confer an award? The official recognition that a student has accomplished the requirements of a programme? Doesn’t the power of accreditation, certification, and official recognition really lie with the academics who assess the work of the students? Isn’t that what it really comes down to?

I am empowered by my University to assess the work of students, and provide a grade that corresponds with a certain standard recognised by the institution.

Doesn’t it seem curious that my assessment is final within my institution, but meaningless outside it? Without the official stamp of approval of the institution, I am not recognised as competent for assessing the work of others.

I am still the same person. My judgment is still the same. I can provide the same level of support and feedback. I can write the same comments. I can provide the same (within the acceptable amount of variation tat exists in the system) grade for the work. But, outside of the institutional recognition structure, it is meaningless.

I have been reading about Mozilla’s Open Badge system, and one thing bothers me. It is still a recognition system that relies on the institution recognising the achievements. In the digital age we are a part of, with information abundance becoming ubiquitous, why do we need to have recognised assessments as the way to earn recognition? Why can’t we begin to recognise individuals and their individual expertise as the final authority in a badging system?

Here is my ideal system for providing recognition.

I went with my son to Subway the other day, and when he purchased his sandwich (actually, I bought it for him), he scanned his phone in front of some gadget that registered his loyalty points to his account somewhere so he can get a free sandwich someday. I thought it was pretty cool. I also wondered why we don’t recognise achievement that way?

Why can’t I have my expertise registered somewhere, and when I read or see something that I think is worth recognition, I can award a grade, or a star, or a badge. A badge that carries with it my credentials. Credentials that mean that in my area of expertise, I can award a gold star to something I think is really great, a silver star for something that is pretty good, a bronze star for something that’s alright, and a copper star for something that is ok.

I can award as many stars as I want to anything I see, but my credentials are what provide the worth of the star. If I award a gold star for a history essay (not something I am an expert in), the effect is on my credentials (I’m awarding points for something that I have no right evaluating at that level). I can give a copper star, which says I liked it, but doesn’t carry a great deal of weight for the badging. I can award copper stars for anything I like (a good plumbing job, a great performance by my favourite pop star etc.), but, in order to protect my credentials, I would only award bronze, silver or gold stars in the area that I have authority.

The receiver of stars could have a report generated by the central authority that records our stars, and have that sent to potential employers as a credential that demonstrates what they have achieved. The stars could be weighted by their level and by the credentials of the giver to output a report that provided a real reflection of what a person has done.

In addition, I might want to study in a new field. In order to obtain meaningful stars for my credentials, I would look into the field, and find those individuals who have the credentials that I want attached to my name. Anything that I produce for evaluation, I can submit to an individual for them to look at and award a star based on their expertise. As an expert, I would clearly indicate how much I charge for an evaluation, and how long it will be for the students to receive their recognition. If the student wants feedback on how they can improve on their work, I can provide that as well – for an additional fee.

That is essentially what I do now, only without the individualised service. In this digital age, do we need the intermediaries that we have which don’t really recognise our (or our students’) individuality? Can’t we do this on our own?

Teaching Approaches

From my perspective, there are two fundamental approaches to teaching and learning: didactic approaches and constructivist approaches.

In a gross oversimplification of the two, didactic approaches emphasise the teacher as being an expert who is responsible for the teaching process, and the aim of the teacher is to ensure that the learner meets some pre-defined learning objectives. Constructivist approaches emphasise a hands-on, exploratory, student centred learning environment where the teacher is in place to guide the learning process toward some pre-defined learning objective. Although few teachers are either entirely one or the other, a teacher’s approach to teaching reveals their leanings. I think that the two approaches to teaching and learning are both necessary, for different types of subject matter, and, in an age of information abundance, assessment and accreditation takes on different meanings with each.

If we take basic reading and arithmetic skills (not exactly HE material for most students), a direct, didactic approach is important. The students need to know the basics before they even know what to explore. However, once the basic skills are in place, learning by applying those skills is important, and so the constructivist approach becomes increasingly important. The assessment and accreditation of basic skills is not the same as the assessment and accreditation of either the application of basic skills or higher order thinking skills.

If there is a correct answer, assessment and the accreditation that follows is a straightforward process. However, if there are a number of ways that an answer can be obtained, a number of possible outcomes to a problem, or if higher order thinking skills need to be evaluated, assessment and accreditation are far more complicated.

This is a potential problem for learning in a world of information abundance. If straightforward skills or knowledge are required (computing, mathematics, foundation classes in most areas), machine marking and MOOCs provide a potential solution that can deliver easily measurable and quantifiable outcomes from assessment methods that can be accredited with no problem.

However, if what is desired involves higher order thinking (critical evaluation, synthesis of knowledge), or if there are multiple solutions to a problem, the outcomes are not easily assessed or accredited. For this reason, I have difficulty understanding how this kind of learning is going to overcome the institutional resistance to new ways of teaching and learning that are emerging today.