A place to log ideas and thoughts

George Veletsianos, PhD

Category: flexible learning

Speculative fiction in edtech and digital learning research

Speculative fiction

I am increasingly drawn to the writing of speculative fiction as a way to study, imagine, and critique the future of education. Jen Ross (who, incidentally and fortuitously, is developing an Education Futures pathway, and would love your feedback) recently argued for engaging speculative methods in digital education research, and that work has been very helpful.

While some may discount these approaches and view them as a far-cry from “serious” scholarship and “real science,” Plowman argues that “narrative isn’t just a shaping device: it helps us think, remember, communicate, and make sense of ourselves and the world…The role of narrative is not therefore simply aesthetic, it is central to our cognition from earliest childhood.” Importantly, many fields already engage storytelling and narrative for both pedagogical and knowledge-discovery purposes. For instance,

  • one of the most popular books in instructional design is the ID CaseBook which presents numerous case studies of individuals engaging with typical instructional design problems and issues
  • here’s a bit of work done on using story completion methods in qualitative research
  • and some work in sociological fiction, including some speculative fiction

But, what would speculative fiction concerned with the future of education or some aspect of digital learning look like? Here’s just a few examples:

What are your thoughts the use of fiction for scholarship? Have you read any other fiction set in the near-future that deals with education?

Strategies for addressing the Canadian post-secondary sector crisis

I was on a flight from Toronto to Vancouver on Saturday morning, and spent some of my time thinking about the strategies that Tony Bates believes may be helpful in addressing the coming crisis in Canadian post-secondary education.

I share Tony’s qualms concerning the future of higher education in Canada. In this post, I am going to share some thoughts in response to one question that he raised: What other suggestions would you have for making our institutions more relevant for a digital age?

People sitting on grass having a conversation
People sitting – by Ben Duchac on Unsplash

Before I go further, I should clarify two points:

I agree with Tony that we need radical curricular reform and compulsory training for every faculty member on how to teach. I also agree that we need new digital universities, which incidentally says nothing about the appetite for and/or challenges of such an endeavour. I imagine that Tony calls for new digital universities because a blank canvas offers space room for new/different ideas than revisiting henceforth established practices. While the BC government is exploring such a feat with the expansion of post-secondary opportunities on Vancouver Island’s West shore, these opportunities aren’t bountiful. So, within the existing system, what may be some strategies for current universities beyond the ones that Tony proposes?

1. A team-based approach to every course. A team-based approach invites the knowledge and expertise of multiple groups of people to the design and development of a course. For instance, this might involve every single course employing the services of an instructional designer in a meaningful way. To truly involve an instructional designer, as opposed to merely asking for input that may or may not be taken up, we need to restructure course design, development, and evaluation practices. At a fundamental level, this requires involving faculty, instructional designers, learning scientists, evaluation consultants, and media professionals in what is typically a solo approach.

What problem does this address? Improving teaching and learning. This proposal works in conjunction with Tony’s recommendation to provide compulsory training in digital learning. Such training will be invaluable in the act of teaching and facilitation, and will be helpful in having conversations with a team of professionals about course design, but we need to do more.

2. An education that is flexible to the needs of society. Our institutions are often grounded on structures that invite students to fit neatly within a template that we’ve created (e.g., courses start in September) or make drastic changes to their lives in order to fit that template (e.g., moving to a different city).

How much flexibility is there in typical degree programs? How many courses are electives? In how many courses do students select from a menu of assignments, assessments, or outcomes? This is not to satisfy mere preferences but to provide education that is responsive to needs and and realities that people face – people who have multiple and competing responsibilities.

I’ll use the practice of flexible admissions here to illustrate. Imagine someone who ended their undergraduate studies ten years ago in order to care for a family member. Or someone who holds a diploma and has been working in their chosen profession for the last 15 years. Or, someone who holds multiple diplomas and has 3 years of work experience. Now imagine these three individuals desiring further learning through an undergraduate or graduate degree. Institutions that are relevant to the needs of society should be able to offer paths to credentials that not only recognize prior coursework, but value prior experiences, learning, and knowledge. We know that universities do not have a monopoly on learning and knowledge and that a classroom of people from diverse backgrounds may provide an enriching learning experience for all. Why then exclude learners who may not have followed a typical path to learning? Flexible admissions policies address this issue by providing alternative paths to education. While some universities in Canada do this (including Royal Roads University, UOIT, and Athabasca University), flexible admissions that recognize prior learning, competence, effort, and accomplishments are not the norm.

What problem does this address? Life is complicated and many people follow non-linear paths to education either by choice or due to forces outside of their control. A relevant higher education institution is inclusionary, and flexibility is one approach to eradicating exclusionary and limiting practices.

This area requires caution: There might be a tendency here to eliminate student barriers without concomitantly providing supports that will enable students to succeed. One form of flexibility for example may be a self-designed, self-paced, and self-guided program of study that imagines students as individualistic and autonomous individuals who succeed without institutional and societal support.

3. Rapid engagement. Imagine that your institution wishes to launch a new program, perhaps an MA degree on Indigenous Knowledge or Educational Entrepreneurship or Critical Animal Studies or FinTech or Climate Emergency or any sort of programming that is new to your institution. Is it possible to go from concept to launch in matter of a few months? Probably not at present, but that’s what we should be striving for. To do so we need to eliminate bureaucracies that impede innovation both at the institutional level, but also at the provincial level (where programs are approved). This is not to say that institutions should strive to chase the next high-enrolling program or to abandon the deep critical work that universities do, but to say that innovation is a staple – a characteristic even – of universities, and we should strive to reduce the barriers facing it. Removing such barriers may also do something else: it might enable academia to set the stage for discussion rather than respond to a discussion.

What problem does this address? Slow responsiveness to changing societal needs and barriers to innovation.

There’s little in the notes above regarding research, commitment to research, affordability, social justice, and so on, which are issues that I believe are also at the core of this conversation. Over to you: What are your thoughts, recommendations, and suggestions on this topic?

In education, what can be made more flexible?

Even though flexibility and flexible learning most usually focus on enabling learners some degree of control and freedom over the location, time, and pace of their online studies (hence the terms “anytime anyplace” learning), flexibility may be applied to a wide range of pedagogical and institutional practices. Here’s some examples:

  • Flexible assessments (e.g., providing learners with “a menu” of assessment options to select from. Dr. Joan Hughes for instance allows students to complete a proportion of pre-determined set of badges in her course. This could also apply to assignment deliverables, wherein some students, for example, may produce essays while others may create videos)
  • Flexible admissions (e.g., providing multiple admission paths. For instance, at Royal Roads University students who do not hold an undergraduate degree may apply for admission under a flexible path that asks them to demonstrate how prior coursework and experience has prepared them for graduate study)
  • Flexible “attendance” (e.g., providing learners to attend class based on their emerging needs. Dr. Valerie Irvine for instance calls this multi-access learning; a situation where a face-to-face classroom is set up in a way that allows learners to choose whether they can attend in f2f or online mode, and to make that decision as needs arise/change).
  • Flexible pacing, not only with respect to activities pertaining to a course, but also with respect to program pacing (e.g., start-end dates).
  • Flexible exit pathways. While flexible admissions refers to an entry pathway, exit pathways refer to how learners choose to finalize their program (e.g., thesis vs. coursework vs. work-integrated learning project options).
  • Flexible coursework options. This is the option where students have some control about the courses they enroll in. Imagining this on a continuum, on the one end students have no option of electives and at the other end students create their own unique interdisciplinary degrees. Typically, students have electives that they select, though that option could be made more flexible through, for example, allowing learners to choose electives from institutions/organizations other than their own.
  • Flexible course duration and flexible course credits. At the typical institution, courses last for X weeks and are worth Y credits (e.g., semester-long and 3-credits, or some variation of the 3-credit system including 1-credit, 6-credits and so on). Flexibility could be applied to this form of structure as well, with course duration and credit dependent on learning needs vis-a-vis a predetermined calendar/schedule. One could imagine for example a 2-credit course, or a 1.5-credit course within a university that typically offers 3-credit courses.

While there’s benefits to flexibility, such as empowering learners through greater agency, I am not arguing for flexibility to embedded in all of these forms. There’s philosophical questions to explore. And practical concerns that need to be overcome: Student information systems for example, might prevent the creation of fractional-credit courses, as I’m certain many of of you know.

What are some other ways that institutions, courses, learning design practices, and education more broadly can be made more flexible?


UniversityNow, National University, and “precision education”

 

“Precision education” has attracted attention as an instantiation of personalized learning, but my interest in it lies in its (a) perspective of flexibility, and (b) it’s adoption of medical thinking/terminology vis-a-vis education research that critiques such models.

 

The purchase is part of National University’s push to try new forms of online education. Last year it announced a new higher-education model it calls “precision education,” though officials say that this project was separate. Both projects involve breaking the college curriculum down into small modules and letting students complete them at their own pace.

[…]

Students pay the flat $8,500 a year for tuition, but they can work through the material at their own pace. “Some people will take four years to get a four-year degree, some people will take three years, some people will take five years,” Cunningham said. “Our goal is to build a library of digital content broken down into its smallest possible components.”

https://www.edsurge.com/news/2018-07-09-nonprofit-university-buys-for-profit-college-for-its-tech-platform

 

The idea is to replace one-size-fits-all lectures with a range of mix-and-match educational materials, so delivering a course can be done the way a doctor might consider different treatment options for different patients.

Officials are calling the approach “precision education,” a nod to the practice of “precision medicine” that is gaining popularity for cancer treatments and other ailments. And today National University, which specializes in serving nontraditional students, announced that it will spend $20 million over the next three years converting dozens of general-education courses to a precision model.

https://www.edsurge.com/news/2017-07-19-precision-education-hopes-to-apply-big-data-to-lift-diverse-student-groups

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