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Open Learning Analytics or Architectures for Open Curricula?

February 12th, 2012 by Graham Attwell

George Siemen’s latest post, based on his talk at TEDxEdmonton, makes for interesting reading.

George says:

Classrooms were a wonderful technological invention. They enabled learning to scale so that education was not only the domain of society’s elites. Classrooms made it (economically) possible to educate all citizens. And it is a model that worked quite well.

(Un)fortunately things change. Technological advancement, coupled with rapid growth of information, global connectedness, and new opportunities for people to self-organized without a mediating organization, reveals the fatal flaw of classrooms: slow-developing knowledge can be captured and rendered as curriculum, then be taught, and then be assessed. Things breakdown when knowledge growth is explosive. Rapidly developing knowledge and context requires equally adaptive knowledge institutions. Today’s educational institutions serve a context that no longer exists and its (the institution’s) legacy is restricting innovation.

George calls for the development of an open learning analytics architecture based on the idea that: “Knowing how schools and universities are spinning the dials and levers of content and learning – an activity that ripples decades into the future – is an ethical and more imperative for educators, parents, and students.”

I am not opposed to what he is saying, although I note Frances Bell’s comment about privacy of personal data. But I am unsure that such an architecture really would improve teaching and learning – and especially learning.

As George himself notes, the driving force behind the changes in teaching and learning that we are seeing today is the access afforded by new technology to learning outside the institution. Such access has largely rendered irrelevant the old distinctions between formal, non formal and informal learning. OK – there is still an issue in that accreditation is largely controlled by institutions who naturally place much emphasis on learning which takes place within their (controlled and sanctioned) domain. yet even this is being challenged by developments such as Mozilla’s Open Badges project.

Educational technology has played only a limited role in extending learning. In reality we have provided access to educational technology to those already within the system. But the adoption of social and business software for learning – as recognised in the idea of the Personal Learning Environment – and the similar adaption of these technologies for teaching and learning through Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) – have moved us beyond the practice of merely replicating traditional classroom architectures and processes in technology.

However there remain a series of problematic issues. Perhaps foremost is the failure to develop open curricula – or, better put, to rethink the role of curricula for self-organized learning.

For better or worse, curricula traditionally played a role in scaffolding learning – guiding learners through a series of activities to develop skills and knowledge. These activities were graded, building on previously acquired knowledge in developing a personal knowledge base which could link constituent parts, determining how the parts relate to one another and to an overall structure or purpose.

As Peter Pappas points out in his blog on ‘A Taxonomy of Reflection’, this in turn allows the development of what Bloom calls ‘Higher Order Reflection’ – enabling learners to combine or reorganize elements into a new pattern or structure.

Vygostsky recognised the importance of a ‘More Knowledgeable Other’ in supporting reflection in learning through a Zone of Peripheral Development. Such an idea is reflected in the development of Personal Learning Networks, often utilising social software.

Yet the curricula issue remains – and especially the issue of how we combine and reorganise elements of learning into new patterns and structure without the support of formal curricula. This is the more so since traditional subject boundaries are breaking down. Present technology support for this process is very limited. Traditional hierarchical folder structures have been supplemented by keywords and with some effort learners may be able to develop their own taxonomies based on metadata. But the process remains difficult.

So – if we are to go down the path of developing new open architectures – my priority would be for an open architecture of curricula. Such a curricula would play a dual role in supporting self organised learning for individuals but also at the same time supporting emergent rhizomatic curricula at a social level.


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