Posted by: Gillian | January 21, 2011

Personalising part-time adult learning

Whether at work or in a college/university, adults are often engaged in part-time learning.  In my case, I’m taking two courses, one on connective learning ( CCK11) and one on learning analytics ( LAK11) while simultaneously facilitating international course design and doing some teaching.  Whatever you are learning or doing, however, the question remains the same: how do I make it work for me?  For decades, professional educators have talked about scaffolded learning and learning pathways both of which, when carefully designed, mean it is hard to get lost and you should end up learning whatever your particular course designer requires.  Most teachers have experienced someone sitting in the first class saying, “What do I do to pass?” yet is this really what is needed either for employability in 2011 and beyond or for personal satisfaction?

In the workplace, compliance training is by nature extremely structured and usually well-scaffolded but there  is still a huge amount of workplace learning that must be done by the employee either just-in-time for existing processes or in research mode as the company adapts to new situations.  Learning in the workplace is usually messy.  Information comes in from all over the place: from colleagues, from managers, from journals and wikis, from your friends in the pub or football team, from tv – and you sift it to see what is useful, make sense of it and apply it.  Most people will admit they even get a sense of pride out of solving something in this way ‘on their own’ – albeit with the input of many others. Companies and, at a different level, nations and society as a whole, also benefit from the innovations, refining processes and developing new products. Today’s society needs not only the know-how and know-what but the know-where.  That is the ‘where to find answers’.

Back in the classroom, this resourcefulness has historically been given scant attention by many educational systems. (In the process of writing this blog, I was pointed to an old post by George Siemens on the topic.) This can be both useful (you can get the course ‘over and done with’) and very frustrating as you mentally shriek at the provided content: “But it doesn’t work when….!”  Prescribed systems simultaneously provide  reassurance that you are doing the right thing and limit the field of rightness. So, how do you cope if you want to bring all your experience to the learning-table?  How do you, as a learner, keep track of it all? Where do you store everything? And why aren’t qualifications courses more flexible?

Starting with the practical issues of coping with storing and making sense of all your various sources of knowledge, universities and workplaces, of course, provide all sorts of methods of storing your learning (eportfolios, project reports, wikis, paper files from communities of practice, meeting notes, etc) but if you leave or move on, that repository of knowledge will almost certainly be closed to you. Add to that the fact that computers change, fail and get lost or stolen. In the past I’ve tried storing information in Excel spreadsheets and Access databases.  I’ve tried representing links in assorted mindmaps.  Quite apart from the time taken to assemble these memory banks, they were inconvenient because they were never in the same place as me whenever I really needed them. So, current tools are web-based and work with a variety of machines and software configurations. My bookmarks used to be stored in Delicious but as it is expected that this will be closed down, I’ve moved to Diigo – which I’ve discovered I prefer for its simplicity of use.  Source files (graphics, photos, presentations, videos) are lodged in various web spaces.  No, I cannot remember where everything is – and I have yet to meet anyone who can.  Fortunately, the semantic web is coming to the rescue.  A consistent tagging system – ok, relatively consistent – is essential but it has never been enough to cope with the volume of information coming from all corners.  Thanks to LAK11, I’ve recently found the free opensource visualised understanding environment, VUE, from Tufts that is a combination of mindmap and ‘store’ for associated resources wherever they may be – so there’s no more clicking through databases of similarly titled documents to find the right one. Order beckons at last?

That question of order is one of the key reasons why formal learning providers have such difficulty in providing personalised learning at all levels except the very highest (e.g. advanced doctorates).  The entire qualification system is predicated upon measuring that someone has mastered a certain body of knowledge and that the institution can demonstrate this to regulating authorities and society at large. Submission of portfolios for accreditation of prior experience and learning ( APEL ) has been one method of trying to address this but, as anyone who has tried it knows, this is not a soft option and, for the assessing insitution, it is not cheap and it is often difficult unequivocally to prove equivalence.

A further difficulty for institutions is that they are rewarded by states, accrediting bodies, league tables and ultimately by enrolments for completion rates.  Not just the numbers who start and eventually finish but the rate of completion which is necessitated by the prevailing fee system where the longer you take, the more it costs.

A third, perhaps the largest, obstacle to personalised learning is that it requires learners and teachers to have skillsets that current education systems rarely encourage.  Learners need to be prepared to be in charge of their own learning agenda and for those who may have been brought up in the era of prescribed competence-based assessment, that is a very real step-change. Montessori and Rudolf Steiner schools that provide an environment within which children are encouraged to explore come closer to personalised learning but that is at a level that is much easier for the teacher/facilitator to anticipate. Learners need also to have the skills to sift inputs, discarding (or backburnering) the irrelevant and shuffling the old and new chunks of knowledge into meaningful new orders. This can be highly disorienting at first  as Stephen Downes admits in his successful connective learning course and learners need to have the confidence to try things out.  Educators, also, need new skills.  Adults engaged in connective learning can come at topics from myriad angles and import ideas from disciplines or experiences quite unknown to the course leader; a fact that certainly has the potential to scare teachers used to more didactic methods and that may be much more time-consuming for them to handle.

This is an unfolding topic but one that will not go away.


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