Digital badges and the purpose of education

We have now come to the end of the sixth topic – Recognition – in Stephen Downes’ E-Learning 3.0 MOOC.  For me, this has been the least satisfying of the course topics so far. I have been trying to work out why this is so, and think it must be because I have somehow failed to ‘recognise’ what it is all about ;-). At some level, which I am finding it difficult to identify (I am hoping that writing this post will help), I have not been able to align my own knowledge and understanding with this week’s course content. This has been somewhat demotivating.

I started off on the wrong foot. When I saw the topic ‘Recognition’ I thought we would be digging into how knowledge is distributed across a network and how we identify or see this as knowledge. I thought this might lead to further discussion about how we learn across a distributed network. And, yes, on one level the topic was about this, but it was much more about ‘giving’ (or collecting) recognition for knowledge, skills, abilities and behaviours and keeping track of this through the award of badges.

It took me until the end of last week to realise that the topic wasn’t really about assessment or learning, but ultimately about how to automate the issuing of records of achievement in the form of badges. This is what Stephen worked on for most of the week; he has shared his learning on how to do this on his Half an Hour blog. See the Badge API and Setting Up Badges. He is rightly pleased with this outcome. A job well done. He could award himself a badge 🙂

Meanwhile the rest of us were exploring how to create a badge in Badgr or similar sites, with greater or lesser degrees of success. See the end of this post for links to participants’ posts. A very useful post was shared by Random Access, who, it turns out, has extensive experience of working on Open Badges with the Scottish Social Services Council. I liked the video explanation of Open Badges shared in that post, which I’ll include here, and the emphasis on authentic learning experiences and reflecting on learning. It’s worth watching the video and reading the whole post.

Stephen also emphasised authentic tasks in his summary for this week. He hopes that these will be designed by humans to balance the possibility of biased algorithms. I think this is one of the things that has been troubling me. It has all felt a bit detached from the learner – a mechanism for determining at scale ‘what counts as success’ and how we measure that success.

As well as badges, Stephen discussed competencies and competency frameworks. He writes in his summary for this week Badges, certificates and awards are recognition entities. So are endorsements, references, and plaudits. I have said in the past that the recognition entity of the future will be a job offer.’ This of course has implications for the purpose of education. I really hope that there is more to education than collecting a personal backpack of badges to prove to employers that we are who we say we are, and that it is more than an encounter with robots or algorithms (Gert Biesta talks about this in his video talk about The Beautiful Risk of Education – with thanks to @mark_mcguire for sharing this in the #el30 twitter stream).

Stephen shares the draft writing of his weekly summaries in a Google Doc, which is a great example of open practice and the summaries are so very helpful This week he wrote:

The traditional educational model is based on tests and assignments, grades, degrees and professional certifications. But with xAPI activity data we can begin tracking things like which resources a person read, who they spoke to, and what questions they asked – anything.

This concerned me – so I commented:

Is this what we really want? How can we avoid living in a ‘Big Brother’ /panopticon world?

Laura Ritchie replied:

In reply to Jenny – to me this is more about the possibilities of a more broad understanding and acceptance of evidence rather than a surveillance model. I doubt Stephen is suggesting ‘spying’ on students or tracking/mapping, but that instead it could be something they catalogue as part of ‘evidence’ for some task/concept.

I doubt it too, but that’s not to say that this couldn’t happen. In fact, unless the purpose of education remains really clearly thought through and all these developments are clearly underpinned by clarity of purpose, then I think it would be easy to slip into practices which might be detrimental to learning.

Biesta sees the purpose of education as going beyond student-centred education. He sees it as learning what it means to live together in the world. Ronald Barnett hopes that the student will develop a sustained will to learn. (Barnett, T., 2007, A Will to Learn. Being a Student in an Age of Uncertainty. Open University Press ). Etienne Wenger discusses in depth, in his book, Communities of Practice. Learning, Meaning and Identity, issues related to how learning changes who we are. These are just three of many authors, not to mention philosophers, who have questioned the meaning and purpose of education.

Stephen believes that’ new decentralized network technologies will enable individuals to manage their own credentials’ ( see this week’s summary). In his final paragraph he writes:

These developments represent a signal change in the deployment of both learning analytics and artificial intelligence in education in the years to come. Today, such systems focus on process, and centrally and institutionally designed, and benefit teachers and employers far more than they do individual learners. Indeed,  the only people not benefiting are the learners themselves, with their own data. And that’s what can and must change.

Having reached the end of this post I realise that I do understand that if teaching and learning are to happen at scale across a distributed network, so that there is the potential for anyone anywhere to have access to an education, and learners can be in more control of their learning,  then we need new systems to recognise and validate this education. I suppose my concern is whether these new systems can or will encourage the type of purpose for education so eloquently discussed in such depth by authors such as Biesta, Wenger and Barnett, and whether learners will ‘recognise’ that there is more to education than being awarded a badge, a certificate or even a PhD.

Update: 05-12-18

In addition to the comprehensive comment from Stephen below, in which he responds to this post, he has also now posted this video, in which he explains his thinking with respect to this topic – Recognition – and why he thinks it important.

References to Participants Blog Posts

Davey Maloney – http://daveymoloney.com/el30/el30-recognition-task/

Roland Legrand – https://learningwithmoocs.com/uncategorized/el30-task-congratulations-you-earned-a-badge/

Frank Polster – http://frankpolster.com/blog/elearn30/elearn-3-0-week-6-recognition-task/

Kevin Hodgson – http://dogtrax.edublogs.org/2018/11/30/when-you-give-yourself-a-badge/

Lou – https://learningreflections.wordpress.com/2018/12/01/week-6-recognition-task-create-a-badge/

Random Access – https://randomaccesslearning.wordpress.com/2018/12/01/recognition-assessment-realising-the-potential-of-open-badges/

Laura Ritchie – https://www.lauraritchie.com/2018/12/01/connected-learner-badge/

Matthias Melcher – https://x28newblog.wordpress.com/2018/11/29/el30-week-6-automated-assessments/

Matisse: life-long researcher

Source of video: http://www.artfund.org/news/2014/04/16/video-henri-matisse-at-tate-modern

The live streaming of the Tate Modern exhibition of 120 of Henri Matisse’s cut-outs, created during the last 10 years of his life when he was at his most frail, did not disappoint. The streamed exhibition was an exuberance of colour, dance and music, with explanations of how the exhibition was mounted and insights into Matisse’s latter years.

I found myself thinking of Matisse as a researcher. Perhaps all artists are researchers. His life was devoted to exploration and discovery.  He looked to nature, music and dance in his life-long exploration into how to express himself.  It is interesting that some of the quotes attributed to him can be thought of in relation to an approach to research. For example:

To look at something as though we had never seen it before requires great courage.

An artist must never be a prisoner. Prisoner? An artist should never be a prisoner of himself, prisoner of style, prisoner of reputation, prisoner of success, etc.

The artist must summon all his energy, his sincerity, and the greatest modesty in order to shatter the old clichés that come so easily to hand while working (Henri Matisse)

But Matisse did not take a scientific approach to his work or start with a question. Rather questions emerged through immersion in his work. He recognised the complexity of the real-world. If we think of his work as ‘research’, then he took an approach similar to that which Stephen Downes discussed in his recent presentation – Digital Research Methodologies Redux – which I reported on in a recent post.

Of course as Peter Checkland has explained, a scientific approach to research has served us well for centuries and will continue to do so. In his work on systems thinking, Checkland writes about the 3 Rs of hard sciences – reductionism, repeatability and refutation.

‘We may define that method [the method of science] in terms of three characteristics: reductionism, repeatability and refutation. By means of it a continuously refined account of the universe is built up. This account is a successful guide of many kinds of action.’  (Checkland, 1999, p.13).

But, he then goes on to say that it is not a successful guide for all kinds of action and particularly not for the study of living and social systems and their ‘real-world’ problems. This is the point also made by Stephen Downes in his recent presentation.

In a similar vein, Ronald Barnett writes of the necessity for students to  ‘live with uncertainty’ and ‘to come to a state of self-criticality’ ,  explaining that ‘…..this criticality is achieved in the context of the spirit of research’. He goes on to say:

‘Such a spirit – the spirit of research – supplies a tentativeness not just to the student’s enquiries, but also to her profferings, her claims and her actions.’ (Barnett, 2007, p.127)

Matisse, Checkland, Barnett and Downes all seem to have a similar world-view, one where life is full of uncertainty and complexity. As Checkland has been heard to say many times …..

‘Let the situation talk to you’.

…. don’t try and pre-empt the situation by framing questions in advance. Immerse yourself in the situation and open yourself up to uncertainty and emergence. And

Iterate, understand the situation, enhance your understanding, visualize, act on it, and iterate again.

There isn’t a problem situation. There is just a situation, a context, a system, and we’re improving it continuously. (Checkland quoted in IASummit Conference Library)

What I learn from this is that a researcher who strives to do all this and keep an ‘open’ mind, in every sense of the word ‘open’, needs courage, as Matisse so insightfully recognised.

I also learn that research is not a one-off project. It is a life-long endeavour of inquiry, exploration and discovery. It is a way of life.

References

Barnett, R. (2007). A Will to Learn. Being a Student in an Age of Uncertainty. Open University Press.

Checkland, P. (1999). Systems Thinking, Systems Practice. John Wiley & Sons.

Further links

Hilary Spurling. 29th March 2014. The Guardian. Henri Matisse: Drawing with scissors

The Tate Blog: http://www.tate.org.uk/context-comment/blogs

Jon-Ross Le Haye. 4th Ocobter 2013. Cut and paste: Designing the Matisse poster

 

 

Rhizomatic Learning – A Pedagogy of Risk

Leap-of-Faith
(Source of image: http://jobangel.blog.hu/2013/07/29/kinek_a_kockazata_a_jutalekos_munka)

On Twitter Nick Kearney asked “Are we reaching an understanding of what ‘rhizomatic’ praxis might involve?”

I’m not sure. I think we probably still need a clearer view of what happens or can happen, in terms of learning, in the open space for learning that will be created by taking a rhizomatic approach.

An open learning environment of the type we have experienced in #rhizo14 (Dave Cormier’s open online course on rhizomatic learning),  is associated with ambiguity and uncertainty and puts learners in a liminal space – an in-between-space – between mastery and troublesome knowledge. This is a space of potential risk.

In #rhizo14 the creation of open space has been an integral part of the course design. There has been space to engage and interact in locations of our own choice (Facebook, Google+, Twitter, Blogs, Diigo, Google Hangout), space to follow our own lines of enquiry and space to experience the ideas being tested, such as unpicking the meaning of open sharing, remixing and repurposing information, embracing uncertainty, questioning the authority of knowledge and books, learning in a community, and creating our own curriculum.

Some #rhizo14 participants have given a lot of thought to what it means to learn in open spaces. In the video she created for the Week 3 topic – Embracing Uncertainty, Helen Blunden showed us the physical spaces that she works in, more open than in the past, and shared with us what uncertainty means in her workspace. Keith Hamon has written two blog posts (here and here) about the relationship between structure and space in rhizomatic learning, suggesting that space does not mean lack of structure or boundaries, and that space offers possibilities and structure offers potential. On Matthias Melcher’s blog, Vanessa Vaile posted a link to an article which suggested to her that edges and visual complexity aid navigation in open spaces.  Matthias himself, whilst not writing specifically about space, has discussed rules and patterns in rhizomatic learning,  which seem to me to be related to space. And Mariana Funes in a long post that covers a lot of ground, has some interesting things to say about what ‘safe’ space might look like in an online environment.

Mention of safety in relation to online space raises for me the link between space and risk.  With space comes risk and with risk comes ethical responsibility. I would suggest that the more open the space, the greater the risk for both learner and ‘teacher’, and the greater the ethical responsibilities of all participants, but particularly the ‘teacher’.

Ronald Barnett in his book ‘A Will to Learn: Being a Student in an Age of Uncertainty’,  includes a chapter near the end of the book on ‘Space and Risk’.  He acknowledges the ‘virtue of space’ as being freedom, but with this freedom comes a number of risks. He recognises that a common response to these risks in an educational setting is to close down the space, rationalising this as being in the students’ best interests – but as he points out ‘No risk, no space’ – and space is needed if the students/learners are going to become ‘authentically themselves’.

So what are the risks? Barnett sees a number of them.

In relation to curriculum the spaces needed are ‘intellectual space’ and ‘practical space’. We have had both these in #rhizo14. They are associated, respectively, with

  • ‘epistemological risk’ – by following their own lines of enquiry, creating their own curriculum, students may end up with a ‘warped perspective’ or ‘skewed understanding’
  • and ‘practical risk’ – the students may not have the practical skills  to cope with the open curriculum environment – skills such as self-organisation – or the student might be over-dependent on the skills they have and not learn new skills

In relation to pedagogy, we need a ‘space-for-being’ and the risk here is ‘ontological’. A risk to the learner’s ‘being’, i.e. a risk to their identity. This risk is ever present. It is more than a practical consideration. As Barnett says (p.146):

… the tutor has all the time to make judgements about how and when to intervene, to bring individuals on, to divert them into new paths of becoming, to give yet other individuals a new sense of themselves and yet others an understanding that their use of their space is not taking them forward as it should. There is an ethics of educational space, which has surely not been excavated.

… No matter how careful a teacher is, a word, a gesture, may be injurious to a student’s being.

Ontological risk is the greatest risk when opening up learning spaces for both the teacher and the learner. As Barnett also says (p.150) – ‘Space is necessary, but it has to be a controlled space’.

But what do we mean by control and how much control is too much?  In CCK08 (Connectivism and Connective Knowledge MOOC) the space became, at times, very risky for some learners. Following the MOOC a number of us discussed this at length and some of us came to the conclusion that:

Most important of all, negative constraints must be put in place and communicated to the participants.  Secondly, the instructors or facilitators must dampen negative emergence and amplify positive emergence. (Source of quote: IRRODL)

The difficulty is that open spaces attract a diversity of learners. What is a negatively risky space to one will be a positively challenging space to another.  But whichever way you look at it, risk is a factor of open learning spaces.

So to return to Nick Kearney’s question: Are we reaching an understanding of what “rhizomatic’ praxis might involve?

Well, I think I have some understanding of the uncertainty of the learning process, the need to constantly question and challenge assumptions, and the need for space in which to do this. But I think much more understanding is needed of the complexity of the learning process and the risks that learners and ‘teachers’ are subject to when adopting a rhizomatic approach to learning and course/open space design.

 

Thoughts about community as curriculum in #rhizo14

richard-giblett-mycelium2Source of image- http://www.galeriedusseldorf.com.au/GDArtists/Giblett/RG2005/source/mycelium.html (Richard Giblett)

The idea of community as curriculum is not new. Etienne Wenger wrote about it in his 1998 book on communities of practice – and since no ideas are truly original, his thinking was probably influenced by prior writers -but nevertheless his book is the most thumbed on my bookshelf and in 1998 he wrote that education is:

‘… about balancing the production of reificative material with the design of forms of participation that provide entry into a practice and let the practice itself be its own curriculum… (p.265)

He has grounded the idea of ‘community as curriculum’ in the practice of the community, but he has also stated very clearly what he means by community and what he means by curriculum.

There is clear evidence from communities of practice that the practice itself is its own curriculum. The strongest community that I am a member of is CPsquare – the community of practice about communities of practice. This has been going for many years and has a strong group of core members who welcome peripheral participants and support them in their learning trajectory. It is a semi-open community – full access is through paid membership.

I am also a now peripheral, but originally a founding, member of the ELESIG community  – a community for people interested in researching learners’ experiences of e-learning. This also has a strong core group and is an open community. This community does not yet have the depth of shared history that CPsquare does, but time will tell and it is already developing a substantial shared repertoire.

So community as curriculum is not problematic for me. I have seen it in my communities and it is evident in #rhizo14.  I blogged about it early on in the course – The Community is the Curriculum in rhizo14 

BUT

#rhizo14 is a course  – a learning community rather than a community of practice? As Sylvia Currie (responsible for the SCoPE community  – another community I am connected to)  pointed out on my blog (in a comment), and I have also heard Etienne say, it doesn’t really matter what you call it, so long as the basic principles for a community and curriculum are in place.

I am, as yet, unconvinced that this can happen in ‘a course’.

What I am finding interesting to follow through in my mind, is whether it is possible to have a ‘course’ about something like rhizomatic learning/thinking without contradicting the very premise on which it stands. I have heard Stephen Downes also talk about problems with the word ‘course’ in relation to cMOOCs.

For me the most interesting curriculum topic that has arisen in the #rhizo14 ‘community’ (and I still question whether this ‘course’ qualifies as a community – but I think only time will tell) is the topography of the learning environment.

In particular I am interested in the notion of ‘ learning spaces’.  Keith Hamon wrote a wonderful post on this relating it to a soccer game and field, and it relates very closely to work I have been doing with my colleague Roy Williams about the effect of the relationship between structure and openness in learning environments.

So today, I have spent some time reading around this idea of what ‘space’ means to a learner and the constraint that the idea of ‘community’ and ‘course’, if they are not carefully cultivated, might put on a learner in relation to their space for learning.

I think Ron Barnett in his book ‘A Will to Learn: Being a Student in an Age of Uncertainty‘  has summed it up for me when he writes about the tension between singularity and universality. This tension is not, I think,  problematic in a network.  It might be a bit more problematic in a community, but I think it is very likely to be problematic in a course.

On p.148 Barnett writes:

‘There is here a key spatial tension: to let learn, to let go, implies singularity. By this I mean that the student is to be permitted to become what she wishes, to pursue her own intellectual inclinations, to identify sets of skills that she wishes to acquire to come into her own voice. However, the teacher in higher education has a kind of tacit ethical code of ensuring that that student comes to live in keeping with the standards of her intellectual and practical fields. The student is going to be judged by those standards, in any event, but standards of this kind imply universality.’

Whilst this quote obviously applies in a situation where a student is studying for credit or some sort of certificate, I think it also says a lot about the role and power of the ‘teacher’, ‘convener’ of any course – and how that power, knowingly or unknowingly, can constrain the learner’s space.

Barnett also writes on p.148 ‘The teacher’s presence may serve perniciously to reduce the students’ space’.

This for me explains why community, course and curriculum are an uneasy fit.

Further quotes from Barnett’s book that I think are relevant to #rhizo14 are:

p.148 ‘Given spaces in which to explore and to develop, students will become differentiated from each other’.

Singularity is a necessary outcome of space’.

This raises for me the tension between the pressure of community, course and curriculum and the learner’s desire/need to find their own space, their own voice in relation to their own learning.

And p.149 Barnett writes:

Giving space to students, therefore, brings into play ethical dilemmas, as the singularity-universal tension itself becomes necessarily apparent.’

And so I come full circle to the question of ethics in a course, curriculum and community, which I wrote about in the very first week of #rhizo14 – Rhizomatic Learning and Ethics