The Metaverse explained for university leaders: challenges for universities ahead (3/4)

Press coverage of recent cryptocurrency disruptions and the significant staff reductions at Twitter and Meta is giving pause for thought amongst investors and futurists, as well as university leaders considering the future of the Metaverse.

The fact that you may feel like you cannot keep up with the news is understandable. The collapse of the cryptocurrency platform FTX, the apparent meltdown underway at Twitter and the 11-year sentence handed down to Elizabeth Holmes for the Thanos fraud do all have something in common. The digital world is sufficiently obscured from the majority of people, sometimes deliberately, and the ‘trust train’ may have now hit to buffers, reminiscent of the end of the dot-com boom.

So what of the metaverse? I did not mean to imply that it is a fanciful dream that will never have an impact on higher education,  but I have reservations.  I received some negative feedback for comparing 3D Cinema and VR technology adoption curves. I stand by my contention that such technology developments need to take more account of user expectations, as well as their user experience. Demographic patterns play a huge part in any technological innovation. The challenge for most Universities is to decide whether they are best to invest in low-tech entry materials and approaches to build a foundation for future ‘metaverse’ technologies or to join a narrow range of institutions that are innovating around these emergent technologies.

If you are looking to review institutional strategies in the light of challenges and opportunities presented by the Metaverse, please feel free to get in touch with spa@sijen.com

The obstacles for entry are less technical than they are learning design and delivery related. Clearly having sufficient finance in place is an obstacle for some, but even for those that have the cash to spend, knowing where to invest is crucial.

The technologies already exist for building VR immersive experiences, and some a free to try out (Unity.com), and the headsets and accessories are in theory available within reach of those on a medium or high income, although with the current cost of living crisis one might anticipate that Meta’s sales expectations for its latest headset to fall short. But creating a test suite, a development platform to create VR immersive environments, requires a greater degree of investment.

If I was a betting man (and I am not), I would agree with those who believe that Zuckerberg is willing to sacrifice the social platforms (Facebook, Instagram), with their declining demographic, in favour of speculative investment in the future. The future for him is the Metaverse. However, there is no clear evolutionary path for the Metaverse. That includes the challenges mentioned previously, those of wearable technologies, computer power to sustain them, the privacy legislative framework, and the broader legal implications. There are billions around the world without internet access, millions without reliable broadband, and millions who do not have the disposable income, time, or inclination, to while away hours as a virtual avatar. It might be ‘cool’, but is it really worth the time and effort?

Legal frameworks are struggling to keep up with the rapid technological changes society faces. The European Union is possibly the most active in seeking to impose guardrails around digital technologies. Some of these are privately welcomed by the big technology companies, who lend some of their legal minds in pursuit of meaningful legislation, while other legal restrictions are resisted. Profit still comes first after all.

Esports, a growing share of the online gaming space, certainly benefits from advances in hyper-real 3D immersive technologies. A business paying to advertise inside these game spaces, whether the hoardings around a virtual pitch or track, or branding on virtual apparel, makes sense. Whether this gaming trend will fruitfully spill over into academia, I am doubtful.

What should universities do?

There are things universities should do, in my view, to ensure they are ready to react (if I’m wrong) and VR technologies become more integrated into the learning experience of a wider group of students.

They should have both a Student Charter and an Information Technology Policy that are both reviewed annually. Things move that fast. And all students and staff should be asked to reassert their commitment each year. The executive summary for both of these documents serves to enhance the digital literacy of the entire learning community.

Privacy and ‘netiquette’ are concepts that are intertwined in the experience of staff and students. I can use abusive language, within limits, and ALL CAPS to insult people on Twitter and face little in the way of challenge. If I was to stand in London’s Leicester Square and do the same thing, say exactly the same thing hurling abuse at a passerby, it would not be too long before a couple of Police officers would turn up and move me on. Failure to comply would likely result in arrest and being charged with disturbing the peace. Imagine that scenario now within a virtual world. Who is the Police? What penalties would I face, if any? The behavioural norms we associate with the real-world fall apart in the digital sphere. That is already true today given the vile abuse faced by female academics in particular.

Is your institutional policy framework designed to cope with this scenario?

A student group, registered with your Student Union, organises a virtual event, hosted on a third-party application ( ZOOM for example) using a license owned by the controversial speaker themselves. The event requires registration but this is also done by the speaker themselves, and the event is advertised without any explicit endorsement from the student group themselves through it is heavily advertised verbally and using paper flyers around campus. During the event, some students mount a protest, disrupting the event. The event attracts huge criticism and excepts of the ZOOM meeting go viral on TikTok and Telegram, with some of the student’s name and affiliations being attributed. The mainstream press seize on the event as an example of both the ‘no-platform’ policy position you hold and the ‘woke, liberal elite’ attitudes in evidence.

My advice to a recent University client was that they should run ‘war games’ scenarios with senior student leaders and Heads of Department around exactly these kinds of scenarios. Because the challenges institutions face are less about being overrun by technological developments than it is one of uncontrollable user scenarios.

And explore AR in the short term. That’s for the final blog in this short series.

If you are looking to review institutional strategies in the light of challenges and opportunities presented by the Metaverse, please feel free to get in touch with spa@sijen.com

Image credit: generated using DALL-E

Metaverse explained for University Leaders: What is currently possible within the Metaverse? 2/4

I am not selling anything here. That should be self-evident given that my answer to the question “what is currently possible within the Metaverse?” is, not much. I could even suggest nothing, because ‘it’ doesn’t exist yet, certainly in the form it aspires to. What we have instead are partial experiences, glimpses into the promise of what the future holds. In part one of this four-part blog, I explored the definitions of what the Metaverse might be. We don’t have it yet.

Recent press (including this from the NYT), in part the reason for the delay in issuing this second of four short articles, have highlighted how deeply unpopular the concept of an immersive working environment in the Metaverse actually may prove to be. Meta’s own Horizon platform, the immersive environment that is the company’s manifestation of the Metaverse, is proving unpopular even amongst its own employees. Essentially, the Metaverse still remains largely the domain of ‘video games’. There is a serious risk of over-inflating the promise of a virtual reality workspace. Just as 3D films have repeated the cycle of innovation, technology breakthrough, costly implementation, partial deployment, and customer non-engagement, so it looks like the Metaverse risks repeating this trajectory.

If you are looking to review institutional strategies in the light of challenges and opportunities presented by the Metaverse, please feel free to get in touch with spa@sijen.com

Nonetheless, we should discuss what is currently accessible for educators. There are a range of AR and VR visualisations that aid learning. These include 3D visualisations of the human body for medical purposes, and of engineering and architectural designs that aid a deeper understanding of structure. The challenge for academics is to confront themselves with the question of whether learning gained through these 3D renditions adds enough value to warrant associated costs. If you were a medical science student before these visualisations were available, are you likely to have learned anything new from these 3D renditions? Are these 3D images necessarily enhanced by viewing them using VR headsets? It might be a ‘nice to have’, but does it warrant the not insignificant investment in staff training and equipment?

What is currently available in the commercial world,  notably in disaster response and security contexts, are a series of hyper-real representations of real-world scenes, as opposed to fantasy worlds, in which skills can be perfected. The most obvious in the public consciousness would be flight simulators on which pilots learn to master new aircraft. Surgeons have also benefited for some years from the VR renditions of difficult procedures that can be rehearsed before opening up a patient. Touching on a humanities field, but still with a foot firmly in the technical realm, the restoration team working on the Notre Dame in Paris collaborates within a VR version of the fire-gutted cathedral, discussing and experimenting with approaches before tackling the real thing. 

There is no doubt that the human brain is clever. Having a 3D visualisation of an object or a scene, displayed on a flat screen, satisfies most cognitive engagements. Is immersion in virtual reality either helpful or necessary?

Graphic design and game design students would undoubtedly benefit from practice suites to be able to design 3D models and game interactives. Saving individual students the cost of investing in the kit that is likely to be constantly upgraded as IT equipment manufacturers attempt to recoup their investments.  However, unless there is a distinct visualisation requirement,  asked of by current or emergent practice within the profession to which university programmes are aligned to, I would suggest there is no need to invest heavily in developing the in-house capacity to create VR experiences. It remains cheaper, not cheap, but cheaper, to employ either a third party, or your own student designers, to create experiences. 

What is less certain is the role that AR will play in the Metaverse. That’s for next time.

If you are looking to review institutional strategies in the light of challenges and opportunities presented by the Metaverse, please feel free to get in touch with spa@sijen.com

Metaverse explained for University Leaders:
 A simple guide to the immersive future (1/4)

University Leaders will doubtless come away from the latest round of late summer conferences with ideas about how to seize some real estate in Metaverse. With some caveats, I would suggest it is worthwhile that Universities start thinking now about how to harness the potential.


If you are looking to review institutional strategies in light of the challenges and opportunities presented by the Metaverse, please feel free to get in touch.


In four separate postings I want to outline:

  1. What the Metaverse is and is not.
  2. What is currently possible within the Metaverse
  3. Where are the challenges for universities in journeying into the Metaverse
  4. The opportunities likely to emerge over the next few years within the Metaverse.

What the Metaverse is and is not.

It is not yet here. The Metaverse is conceived as a series of intertwined digital experiences, from the presentation of personalised content based on physical proximity to the fully immersive virtual reality experience. The Metaverse is not a single ‘place’, it is rather an experience. It is envisaged as being an experience in which you, the individual, spend time between the virtual world and your flesh-and-blood existence.

Definitions are as varied as they are numerous as the label ‘Metaverse’ has some commercial cachet. Existing technologies, immersive gaming and virtual worlds have adopted the label of Metaverse. Even some commercial teleconferencing companies have chosen to use the label to describe their all-walls solutions.

Whilst several technologies play a part in building the Metaverse, including headsets, graphics platforms, blockchain encryption and so on, these individual technologies do not in themselves represent the Metaverse (Gillis, 2022). They are all pieces. They are yet to come together as a complete pattern. We are some years away from sufficiently integrated experiences that would warrant the label of Metaverse. The two experiences underpinned by this array of technologies are Augmented Reality (AR) and Virtual Reality (VR), both covered by the term Extended Reality (XR). AR could be defined as overlaying elements of digital representations on top of what we experience in the real world. AR is largely synonymous with Multiple Realities (MR). VR could be defined as the creation of immersive alternate reality. Big Think has a more detailed series of definitions (see here)

Definitions

Most commercial definitions of the Metaverse emphasise the connectivity between different digital experiences. They recognise already that no one wants to have to create multiple digital selves to participate in different experiences. How commercial realities will affect this aspiration is uncertain. Anyone who has signed up for multiple streaming services, Netflix, Amazon Prime, Apple TV, etc, will tell you, it can be frustrating.

My working definition for Vice-Chancellors of the Metaverse is:

A series of experiences of augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR), grouped under the banner of extended reality (XR) facilitated by technologies (headsets, touch-sensitive haptic clothing, etc). Participation in the Metaverse allows individuals to create a digital version of themselves (digital-twin) and immerse themselves ‘inside’ the internet, as a representation of the digital world.

A shorter version is:

Metaverse is the intertwining of increasingly immersive digital spaces, experienced through XR technologies by you as your digital twin.

Implications

What this will look like in practice is open to question. At one extreme, a favourite film plot for the dystopia, individuals will spend most of their time ‘plugged in’ to a virtual ‘Matrix’, experiencing less and less human contact. More positive perceptions suggest a reality where working at home does not mean you cannot participate in person at a stand-up. Simply pop on the virtual reality headset and hyper-real representations of your team members appear in the space chosen for the meeting. Wearing a touch-sensitive technology suit (a haptic suit) would mean you can shake the hands of a new member and feel the pressure of their handshake. In its most utopian representation, it could be equated to the holodeck from the Star Trek franchise, a fully immersive hyper-real experience.

It is worth remembering that the concept of the Metaverse is not a new one. It has been around for at least 30 years. The term Metaverse is frequently attributed Neal Stephenson, in his 1992 cyberpunk novel Snow Crash (1992). Star Trek’s own holodeck television representation began in 1988. Its conceptualisation within education was explored in 1995 when John Tiffin and Lalita Rajasingham described virtual learning experiences that were fully immersive in their work In Search of the Virtual Class (1995). An inspiring read, all the more so because it is now 26 years old.

The challenge for university leadership is to know whether to invest and get ahead of the wave, uncertain as to the regulatory frameworks that are likely to be imposed, lack of clarity about the implications for personal privacy, and doubt as to which of the big players will set the technological standards that will allow for interoperability.

In summary

The Metaverse IS coming, will be complex, untidy, multispeed, digitally divisive, and fragmented in its realisation and implementation. The Metaverse IS NOT a product or service you can buy for your students.

Next time: What is currently possible within the Metaverse


If you are looking to review institutional strategies in light of the challenges and opportunities presented by the Metaverse, please feel free to get in touch.


Gillis, M. (2022, August). Emerging Technologies Ushering the Life Sciences Industry into the Metaverse, according to Accenture Report [August 2022]. Newsroom Accenture. https://newsroom.accenture.com/news/emerging-technologies-ushering-the-life-sciences-industry-into-the-metaverse-according-to-accenture-report.htm
Stephenson, N. (1992). Snow crash (Reissued). Penguin Books.
Tiffin, J., & Rajasingham, L. (1995). In search of the virtual class: Education in an information society. Routledge.

The threat to the integrity of educational assessments is not from ‘essay mills’ but from Artificial Intelligence (AI)

The threat to the integrity of educational assessments is no longer from ‘essay mills’ and contract cheating but from Artificial Intelligence (AI).

It is not so long ago that academics complained that essay mills, ‘contract cheating’ services, and commercial companies piecing together ‘bespoke’ answers to standard essay questions, were undermining the integration of higher education’s assessment processes. The outputs of these less than ethically justifiable endeavours tried to cheat the plagiarism detection software (such as Turnitin and Urkund) that so many institutions have come to rely on. This reliance, in part the result of the increase in the student-tutor ratio, the use of adjunct markers and poor assessment design, worked for a while. It no longer works particularly well.


If you are interested in reviewing your programme or institutional assessment strategy and approaches please get in touch. This consultancy service can be done remotely. Contact me


Many institutions sighed with relief when governments began outlawing these commercial operations (in April 2022 the UK passed the ‘Skills and Post-16 Education Act 2022’ following NZ and Australian examples) and went back to the business-as-usual. For the less enlightened this meant a return to setting generic questions, decontextualised, knowledge recitation essay tasks. Some have learnt to at least require a degree of contextualisation of their students’ work, introduced internal self-justification and self-referencing, requiring ‘both sides’ arguments rather than declared positions, and applied the ‘could this already have been written’ test in advance. Banning essay mills, or ‘contract cheating’, is necessary, but it is not enough to secure the integrity of assessment regimes.

Why students plagiarise is worthy of its own post, but suffice it to say it varies greatly depending on the student. A very capable student may simply be terrible at time management and fear running out of time or feel the assessment is unworthy of them. Another student may be fearful of their ability to express complex arguments and in pursuit of the best possible grade, plagiarise. Some may simply have not learnt to cite and reference, or to appreciate that rewording someone else’s thoughts without attributing them also constitutes plagiarism. And there is that category of students whose cultural reference point, deference to ‘the words of the master’, make plagiarism conceptually difficult for them to understand.

I remember receiving my most blatant example of plagiarism and academic malpractice back in 2006. A student submitted a piece of work that included 600 words copied wholesale from Wikipedia, complete with internal bookmarks and hyperlinks. I suspect the majority of students are now sufficiently digitally literate not to make that mistake, but how many are also now in a position to do what the essay mills used to do for them, stitch together, paraphrase and redraft existing material using freely available AI text generation tools.

As we encourage our students to search the web for sources, how easy is it for them now to access some of the easily accessible, and often free, online tools? These tools include https://app.inferkit.com/demo which allows you to enter a few sentences and then generate longer texts on the basis of that origin. You can enter merely a title, of at least five words, or a series of sentences into https://smodin.io/writer and have it generate a short essay, free of references. Professional writing tools aimed at marketers, such as https://ai-writer.com, would cost a subscriber to be effective but would allow students to generate passable work. This last tool actually tells you the sources from which its abstractions have been drawn, including academic journals.

You might find it enlightening to take something you have published and put it through one of these tools and evaluate the output.

It is insufficient to ask the student to generate their own question, or even to ask the student to contextualise their own work. Some of the emergent AI tools can take account of the context. There is a need to move away from the majority of long-form text assessments. With the exception of those disciplines where writing more than a thousand words at once is justifiable (journalism, policy studies, and some humanities subjects), there is a need to make assessments as close to real-world experience as possible. It needs to be evidently the product of an individual.

Paraphrasing is a skill. A valuable one in a world where most professions do not lack pure information. The issue is to evaluate the quality of that information and then be able to reduce it to a workable volume.

I’ve worked recently with an institution reviewing its postgraduate politics curriculum. I suggested that rather than try and stop students from ‘cheating’ by paraphrasing learned texts, they should encourage the students to learn what they need to do to enhance the output of these AI tools. Using one of these tools to paraphrase, and essentially re-write, a WHO report for health policy makers made it more readable, it also left out certain details that would be essential for effective policy responses. Knowing how to read the original, use a paraphrasing tool, and being able to explore the deficiencies of its output and correct them, was a useful skill for these students.

We cannot stop the encroachment of these kinds of AI text manipulation tools in higher education, but we can make their contemporary use more meaningful to the student.


If you are interested in reviewing your programme or institutional assessment strategy and approaches please get in touch. This consultancy service can be done remotely. Contact me.


Image was generated by DALL-e



Evaluation, Assessment and Feedback (Guidance to Educators)

Transcript

Welcome all. Please feel free to share this video if you think it would be of interest to your colleagues.

I want to talk today about some of the terminological differences that we have across the English language teaching world, particularly the terms, evaluation, assessment, and feedback. In North America, the word evaluation is very often used to describe the way we measure students’ performance. In United Kingdom, in Australia and New Zealand, we generally use the term assessment. So evaluation has a different meaning in parts of English-speaking world than it does in North America. Likewise, Assessment and evaluation are sometimes used more as synonyms in the North American context. And you need to be aware of that when you read literature, if you read any of the journals, you will find that sometimes those terms are used differently to perhaps your context. So, it’s worth being aware of that.

There’s also a distinction between evaluation and feedback, which is more conceptual rather than definitional. Which is that feedback is always what we give to the student. We should always be focusing on the feedback that’s given to students on their learning and evaluation in the UK, Canada, Canada, to some extent, but certainly in Australia and New Zealand, is used to describe what they tell us about our own performances tutors, or about the course or the institution. So, they provide evaluative comment, and we provide them with feedback.

I think it’s important that we try and stick to that use of language. If only because students need to value feedback in everything they do, and it’s much easier to label things as feedback for the benefit of your students if you’re consistent in the language that you use. So, feedback is given to students. Evaluation is provided by students, and evaluation in North America is sometimes synonymous with assessment. I hope that’s of interest.

Please feel free to like, share, and follow.

Be well.

Guidance for Educators: Avoiding Burnout

Transcript:

Welcome all. Please feel free to share this video with colleagues if you think they’d find it of interest.

Want to talk today about burnout. Being a teacher, being a lecturer, being an academic, very often leads to periods of intense pressure, and very often we see colleagues burning out. They leave the profession.

They literally just find the ongoing pressure too much to bear, and I think it’s really important that we support each other, but we also have to preserve ourselves and avoid exhaustion. We do that by setting boundaries. You need to learn to say no. You need to learn that your responsibilities have a limit.

Sometimes we find ourselves wanting to, take on all of the pressures, all of the responsibilities that our students expect the entire institution to provide for them, and it’s important that we make time for relationships, for relaxation, for recreation. 

Education is a team game or a theatrical piece. It’s not a single performance. It’s not a solo game, nor are you actually a solo performer. You’re not a stand-up comedian standing alone on your stage. It’s a team effort. So if you do feel yourself under oppression. If you feel overly stressed, turn to a colleague and ask them for support. If those colleagues aren’t available for you to lean on, then you need to learn to escalate because it’s not your responsibility to run the entire college or the entire university or to run the entire school sector.

You need to be able to escalate your own stress just in order to avoid burnout. So if you feel the pressure lean on a colleague, if there’s no colleague to lead on, escalate.

Be well.

Guidance to Educators: Developing professional relationships

Transcript:

Welcome all, please feel free to share this video with colleagues if you think they would find it of interest. 

Let’s talk today about building professional relationships. Teaching can be quite a lonely experience. Depends a little bit on the organization that you teach in. You might be teaching in a very isolated part of the world, or you might be teaching a very specialist discipline. You might be the only person teaching that particular subject in your school, even in your area. 

And having good connections with other practitioners that understand you, understand your context, definitely do serve to lower the level of anxiety that you might feel. There’s evidence to suggest that well- connected educators do suffer less anxiety.

So reaching out now is much easier. There are any number of digital platforms that you can engage with and connect with other people. And in doing so you benefit not just that level of human connectivity, but you’re also using them as a source of new ideas, new sources, new perspectives. 

It’s very important if you do get involved in any of these platforms that you do become a contributor, as well as a consumer. That’s not just because that’s fair. It’s just, it’s also that echoing your voice is really important, using your voice to mirror the practice of others is part of the process of building those relationships.

Even if it’s just to go back to someone who’s posted something, you found a value to just say “I’ve used what you suggested. It worked very well for me” or it didn’t and I made this adjustment, and I did it this way. Having that level of feedback is really important. 

So, I’m on a number of different platforms. I’m on LinkedIn. I’m on Twitter. I’m on Instagram. I’m on Tik Tok. I’m on YouTube and I’ve got my own website, but I think the two that everyone needs to start with are Twitter and LinkedIn. Build a profile on LinkedIn, doesn’t have to be expansive, but at least something that gives people a sense of who you are as a person.

And then Twitter is a great way of just picking up ideas, sources, perspectives, re-tweeting things that you think are of interest, identifying things more widely, and posting them and share that community experience. You’d be surprised how quickly it does build and giving you a solid network to lean on will undoubtedly reduce your anxiety. 

So you might want to try some of those platforms for yourself. See how it goes. 

Let me know. Be well.

Guidance for Educators: From Simplicity to Complexity

Transcript:

Welcome all. Please feel free to share this with any of your colleagues who you think might benefit from it. Let’s talk today about complexity and simplicity. So, I think you can save yourself an enormous amount of time by carefully planning a session based on the complexity or simplicity of the argument that you’re trying to convey to your students.

It’s really important that we don’t stress the content of what we’re delivering. Rather the interrelationships of what it is we’re talking about or teaching about. Whether that’s a conceptual relationship, it might be a timeline. It might be a cause and effect, relationship, whatever the relationship is, whatever conceptually encapsulates the knowledge that’s being shared.

So, if you plan your lesson, it’ll depend a little bit on the nature of the discipline and the level which you’re teaching. But I think generally it’s quite a good idea to outline the complex picture as briefly as possible as a target that students are going to aim for, but rather than then try and make that your starting point and try and explore that you basically want to go right back to the beginning to the most simple building blocks of that complexity and build your way forward.

I think the reason to do that is it’s very easy sometimes to make assumptions that students have had the same life experiences you, or that they actually have the same linguistic ability, terminologies. That they understand the jargon, and there’s a real danger that you can trip over yourself.

If you start from a complex try and go to simple, you need to basically start with simple and build up. It’s really important to make sure that if you do think there is discipline jargon to be shared, that has to be unpicked and built into the session,  put up definitions alongside any jargon that you’re using.

So, I think it’s really important just to situate the complexity of the topic in their, in the student’s, landscape of learning, not in your own. And it’s very often, the case is that we almost, it’s not about showing off, but sometimes we literally just kind of feel that we need to start with what we’re most comfortable with, which is sometimes a very advanced level of knowledge.

So, it’s really important to just plan out your session in advance. I use a mind map to do that. I usually have a map sometimes on paper, sometimes using a bit of software that allows me. Map out the journey from simplicity to complexity. And when I do that, I can share that with my students as well.

You might want to try that, see how it goes. Please share like, and follow be well.

 

Why I am not a social-constructivist

I have never believed in social-constructivism. At least not the way the educational anthropologists’ definition of the phenomena has been distorted and contorted into current practice. Social-constructivists justifiably argue that knowledge is often constructed through social interaction. Further, they state that the social and cultural context in which that learning occurs is significant. I just don’t believe that it necessarily requires in-person encounters. And I don’t think it applies to all forms of learning and disciplines.

Atharva Tulsi at Unsplash

The fetishism of ‘group-work’, which has continued to grow since the 1980s on the back of skimming the literature about social constructivism, and further enabled through digital tools in developed economies, has been applied to nearly all disciplines and all levels. This simply doesn’t make sense. Socialisation matters for children in K-12 as they learn diverse social skills through subject-based curriculum; at least in theory. Group-work, applied to much of the University curriculum has been poorly conceived. Rich courseware should provide a  transparent socio-cultural context for its learning. It rarely does. Unless the intention is to refine and extend the processes of socialisation for University students, students can, and should, be empowered to mediate the knowledge through their own socio-cultural reality.

When I read, listen, or watch something I am engaged in learning from another human being. Often this learning is asynchronous, sometimes time-displaced to an extreme degree, but there is still evidence of a voice. How well crafted the learning is, will depend on the coherent nature of that voice, but there is always a voice. At the Open University in the early 2000s Course Teams worked hard to ensure that no matter how many course authors might contribute to a course, there was a consistent ‘voice’. I just don’t believe that it is appropriate to assume that an individual’s learning is enhanced somehow by having ‘horizontal’ conversations with others who are at the same level of learning as themselves. I agree that one can learn from others. That is not the same as saying one necessarily learns with peers.

Personally, I believe we should be designing learning experiences, and courseware, that the individual student can deploy in their own context. If learners ‘want’ to learn with others, with whānua (family/community) or colleagues, they can do so. We may want to encourage them to mobilise people around their own learning, and to build networks to support their learning journey. This would be a truer representation of their lifelong learning experience going forward.

I don’t believe we should force students to ‘come and learn with us‘. To do so is to perpetuate an arcane model of learning that reinforces notions of power and privilege. It’s a model of learning that centralises access to knowledge, and maintains the notion of gatekeepers to learning. We should empower and enable learners through our courseware, not enslave them through it.

Photo by Atharva Tulsi on Unsplash

 

A new national vocational learning strategy. What could a Te Pūkenga Ako Strategy look like?

Te Pūkenga (https://tepūkenga.ac.nz), the centralised vocational tertiary organisation in New Zealand created in the last two years, represents an exciting opportunity to create a new way of conceiving of the learner experience.

A learning experience based on learner choice, learner contexts and personalised journeys.

 

Close up fingers holding map pinDuring a recent joint ODLAA webinar,  Dr Som Naidu  provocatively suggested there were no institutions truly embracing the concept of true flexibility for learners. As President of FLANZ, I think about this all the time. What is the possibility that Te Pūkenga can do something unique?

To design and support learning across all vocational disciplines is a challenge. Some learning must be experienced, witnessed in person, and evidenced through demonstration. While much of this traditionally conceived of as in-person learning can in fact be asynchronous, captured on video and dialogue facilitated alongside, some learning requires tactile demonstration and immediate feedback. There may be some learning can be ‘single-mode’, experience, just on-campus with nothing to take home or reflect on away from the campus, although I struggle to imagine what disciplines fall into that category. Some learning might be done entirely outside of a social context, with no interaction with others, other than the authoritative voice incorporated into a text.

Current models of learning are increasingly less satisfying to contemporary generations who navigate across dynamic and fluid knowledge platforms and devices as part of their daily lives.

There is no shortage of ‘content’. Most learning is infused across a learner’s life, thoughts invading their waking hours and possibly their dreams. Designing learning journeys that are adaptable to each individual’s context is challenging for those organisations who traditionally operate on manufacturing paradigms. This is true whether the model was the individual academic as solo artisan or the large design team following an industrial process. At best, both create an imagined ‘best scenario’, an optimal pathway, at worse they generate a single restricted route through their courseware. Their conception of ‘the right way to learn’.

However, just as the world of broadcasting has changed dramatically in the last 30 years from one-way communication to a world of multiple diverse channels, citizen journalism, and expert blogging (and vlogging), so finally vocational education, at least in New Zealand, has an opportunity to change the way it creates, shares and supports learners.

There is less need for the single authoritative voice and instead there is a clear need for learners to develop autonomous learning practices, judgement and discernment, the ability to evaluate the quality and usefulness of any learning artefact.

Learning should be co-created with learners, never delivered to them as a finished product. A good place for Te Pūkenga to start would be to ask, “how do I deliver the learning experience to the learner in their own context”. That doesn’t mean turning everything into Distance Learning. Rather, it requires curriculum, programme and course designers to think about the learners’ context and design learning (materials and support) that allow them to create their own personalised, or differentiated, learning pathway.

This means Te Pūkenga might be wise to focus on establishing solid programme and course designs and navigational aids rather than on learning content. I advocate a designing around situated learning principles and then curating a range of existing learning materials, drawn from individual practitioners, professional bodies and educational providers. Te Pūkenga could choose to structure its ako strategy as being as open as possible. Encouraging learners, given a map with key milestones (assessments) and  access to curated artefacts alongside that map. Generating original learning resources then becomes only necessary when there are identifiable gaps.

Learning artefacts from which Te Pūkenga constructs its pathways should also be created as Open Educational Resources (OER). This is because the development of these learning opportunities have already been funded off the back of individual taxation and it is immoral to ask individuals to pay for them twice. There is also a strong argument for learners to be enabled to update resources, to rcontextualise them, make them suitabe for their social and cultural context, and for the next generation of learners that follow them, subject to the same quality assurance processes.

These OER learning resources require a quality framework, based on peer review, and a suitable taxonomy to ensure individual artefacts are recoverable and reusable. Learning designers who commission OER, or identify existing OER, need to do so within strict guidelines. We cannot just assume that everyone’s PowerPoints are useful out of context, but the ideal situation would be to establish key concepts and supply learners with alternatives, from visual, auditory and written interpretations and explanations. These artefacts also clearly need a curated content management system, such as one based on OpenEQUELLA.

As with any strategy, it needs to differentiate between learners’ capabilities. At lower levels of the national qualifications framework where students may require more structure, pathways may be more limited. Limited but not restricted. The system clearly needs progression built in. The focus remains on empowering the learner to take ownership of their learner journey. Part of Te Pūkenga’s stated goal is to empower learners to become competent and confident digital citizens and lifelong learners. We don’t do that by giving them a neat little bundle of a course with all the answers included. At higher levels of learning, degree level and above, part of being a contemporary learner is being able to discern the validity of sources and interrogate them.

I also conceive this system of curated OER, sitting alongside the ‘course map’, a customised version of the Mahara ePortfolio with a range of support ‘plugins’ being available. Centralised OER resources, a single course map, with minimal milestones (beyond formal assessment), and options for different levels of in-person or virtual, synchronous or asynchronous, support should be part of the strategy. Across the entire national vocational space, Te Pūkenga should then focus on supporting individuals, their whānau (community), and/or professional context where appropriate.

Empowering learners to construct their own journey has to be the foundational principle.

As Dr Som Naidu suggested, to create such an institution requires a mind shift among current leadership. In Te Pūkenga that means everyone who works within any of its subsidiary organisations needs to let go of how things are currently constructed. It requires national quality assurance agencies, in this case NZQA, to think differently. It requires educational vision and leadership, and a seismic shift in the educational paradigm. It represents a revolution in practice, not an evolution.

 

This blog also appears on LinkedIn 15 November 2021
Photo by GeoJango Maps on Unsplash

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