Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Out from under the umbrellas

"...When the processes of formal training and assessment separate, institutionalised learning will be in crisis..."

Stephen Downes in a conversation with TANZ CEOs in Christchurch, September 21.

A scenario to help explain:
  • In the interests of quality assurance, builders in New Zealand are soon to be required to hold a certificate, however there is a shortage of builders in many areas of NZ.
  • To fast track certification and to ensure numbers of builders continue to be available, training organisations and builders associations will set up Recognition of Prior Learning and some training opportunities where needed.
  • If done well, the RPL process will become a fast track, cheaper option for certification. It is likely that smaller organisations will set up and sustain themselves solely on the provision of assessment for RPL, while others will focus on specific, just in time training.
  • This will create more options for people requiring certification and or training.
  • Industry will welcome shorter and/or more flexible training and certification opportunities, preferring work place training and assessment that is customised to their needs.
  • Secondary schools will start to align curriculum with these smaller providers and student income subsidies may begin to recognise these arrangements and extend their support to include study with these agencies.
  • Training and education institutions, heavy with a wide variety of both viable and non viable courses, and no longer enjoying exclusive recognition from student income subsidies, start to struggle under their inefficient size and processes.
  • Here is were the crisis begins...

I'm not too sure how sound or desirable such a scenario is, but there is plenty of evidence to say this is well under way already. It is basically a huge decentralisation of training and education.

The best response in my view is for the institutions themselves to decentralise in some way, and what follows is how I think that can best occur.

It just so happens that the long held and increasingly popular apprenticeship model is quite complimentary to this need to decentralise. Complimentary to the apprenticeship model is networked learning. On the one hand is an efficient, demonstrate and practice, mentor learning structure, while on the other is the enablement of an independent, informed and networked learner. Let me paint a picture:

Imagine if your institution allowed for more individualism. Your answer might be something like, "...Otago Polytechnic works for me..." rather than ".. I work for Otago Polytechnic.." A place where the brand, the infrastructure, the management and hiearchy, and the assets were in some way answerable or subsumed to the individuals who work from the organisation as a base.

The individual teacher would be out from under the umbrella of the organisation as a whole, and made more responsible for their own actions - or lack there of - while the organisation and its hiearchy is set up to support the development of that individualism in its teachers. Teachers would be expected (but not required) to establish and maintain a presence, a portfolio so to speak, always up to date - up to the second, with the work they are doing, their research, their ideas and thinking, their experiments, their teaching, and their communications with professional networks. A blog could be one way, but I didn't say that... individuals from around the world can attached to the organisation by way of endorsement from the organisation for their work. They would have the opportunity to benefit from its support in negotiable terms. While the organisation benefits from a more flexible, individually responsible, diverse work force.

The important point is that the organisation becomes far less centralised and less identifiable en-mass or as a whole. It is more clearly identified by the individuals that grow from its base. It is made up of many individuals with explicit directions, expertise, interests etc, while the organisation is geared to support those individuals with professional development, admin, promotions, development funding and the like.

One more scenario:
  • Roy is a lecturer in cooking within a training institution called Tekotago.
  • Much needed mature and focused cooking students are taking advantage of alternative training and assessment options, leaving only the less mature and less focused students in his classes who need the others
  • This trend is undermining the quality of the Roy's training and affecting his motivation.
  • Roy, along with around 30% of the institution's lecturers has decided to develop a public profile as a cooking expert and teacher and help the Institution to decentralise.
  • He is given ownership of his intellectual property, independence from the organisational hiearchy, support in terms of admin, pay, infrastructure, development budget and the like, but is now more responsible for the quality of his over all work.
  • Roy is less restricted by the organisation, and is able to work independently, proactively and responsively to the training needs and trends of his potential students.
  • He is identified as Roy the Cooking teacher endorsed by Tekotago rather than simply a teacher at Tekotago
  • He remains with the organisation for the support in admin, more secure income, professional development opportunities, and access to development funds, but he is free to become totally independent should he choose.
Of course the questions flap in the wind... what is to become of the teacher who prefers the shelter of the organisation... they way I see it, both can exist - for now.

UPDATE: Part 2 of this post, What would it be like to be the rain?

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Anonymous said...

Did I see the word "portfolio" slipped in there somewhere? ;-) How do you think your vision could apply to the K-12 sector?

Leigh Blackall said...

Hmmm, hadn't considered that at all. I think it could begin to apply in highschool... when interests in vocation begins to be encouraged.

Loganlea State high has a model that could apply.

Anonymous said...

I like the way you are exploring the other ladder Leigh

Downes mimics E.M. Forster

As long as learning is connected with earning, as long as certain jobs can only be reached through exams, so long must we take this examination system seriously. If another ladder to employment was contrived, much so-called education would disappear, and no one would be a penny the stupider.

- Illich's dechooling sense of what "lifelong learning" might be has been totally betrayed its use today to support the plethora of institutionalised "pay to learn" tertiary qualification/certification experiences we offer today.

Leigh Blackall said...

Am I bordering on betraying Illich myself? I don't think so - though it could be so in the interpretation... the way I see it, the notion of life long learning, as is banded around these days - is poorly articulated and so can easily be reused in the context of deschooled thought.. So I reckon.

Anonymous said...


This is a very interesting scenario and made me think of my own experiences as a grad student. My thesis supervisor is a very accomplished and highly motivated educator - someone who continues to inspire me to keep writing and learning every time we meet. We do meet on a regular basis to discuss my progress. We also exchange e-mails about upcoming conferences, writing proposals, and anything else that needs to be discussed by a thesis supervisor and her graduate student. We often meet at her house because it is just more convenient for both of us (no parking costs and less traffic). As a result, I spend very little time at the university. In fact, over the course of the past academic year, I was there only twice.

As I read your entry, I was reminded of the fact that I pay thousands of dollars every year to "attend" the university and yet find very little value in spending my time inside its walls. What I do value immensely is the ability to meet with my thesis supervisor whenever we want/need to and to build a professional relationship that benefits both of us - my thesis is, after all, a learning experience for both of us.

So, the question is, do I really need the university itself? What I'm really interested in is building professional relationships with researchers and educators who can help me achieve my goals. One could argue that the university promotes that by helping grad students find the right people and engage in work they love. On the other hand, many of us would be just as successful in finding these people using Technorati or Google. That, of course, would work only if they came out from under the umbrella and began to establish their own points of presence online.

Of course, I still need the university to issue that diploma at the end of this process. However, it is my thesis supervisor - her support, encouragement, and advice - that I will take with me as I enter the next phase of my life and not the name of the university itself (although many places and people still place more emphasis on where the thesis/degree was granted as opposed to under whose guidance it was completed).

Needless to say, I think these umbrellas are often limiting. Now, I'm really interested in how this applies to K-12.

Leigh Blackall said...

Yikes! Now the institutions really DO have a reason for stopping there employees from stepping out into the open.. its the perception that the institution is not needed!...

This is why the admin of these institutions also need to come out. So we know exactly what it is that makes an institution tick, and why/what we need - or not.

Good grief it would be a shake up.

Basically I think you said it all with, "One could argue that the university promotes that by helping grad students find the right people and engage in work they love." There's a lot to this than first meets the eye.

There will be a lot of people who do not want to, can't and shouldn't come out. They may need the protection of the university. So I tend to think we need the institutions so we can preserve many aspects of knowlege. Ancient Greek perhaps, most of the humanities and social sciences, things that are arguably not going to survive (or be significantly weekened) if we made individuals fend for themselves.

So, we need both. Did I say that!

As for K12. Also both. Taking a web presence, and a cool Ask Ninja styled alter ego one at that, is so much easier for the already creative teacher. So, on the one hand they have the school and classroom that suites some of the kids, then they have the alter ego that helps some of the others. Perhaps a kid has just been suspended... they are sent to the library for the rest of the day, and the librarian puts them at a computer and show's them Mr G dressed as a Ninja, Mr G dresses as a fur trapper, Mr G as Big Bird etc :)

Suddenly, learning about ancient egypt is funny, if still bewilderingly stupid for a 14 year old to be thining about.