Thursday, 15 January 2009

Primary education

I had an interesting conversation with a colleague about the optimum group size for seminars and tutorials yesterday. My colleague is a long standing and very experienced tutor, and he has often talked to me about his theories about the perfect number of students in a group, based on his observations of past successful and unsuccessful learning situations. His magic number is 7, and the absolute no-no is 8. So close, but in his view, so very different.

An article in last week's New Scientist magazine about the ideal size for a committee caught my eye, as it reported that computer simulations had identified committees with 8 members as the absolutely, definitely worse group size ever. I pointed my colleague to this article, and we started speculating about why this might apply to tutorial groups. One of the characteristics of 8 is that it can be divided up in many ways. If you are a member of a group of 8, we mused, then you may subconsciously think of yourself as in either in one group, in one half of two sub-groups, as one partner in one of 4 pairs, or as an individual. In a group of 7, you are either a member of one group, or an individual. The more times you can evenly divide a group up, we decided, the more difficult it is for the members to cope with the mental multiple membership issue. So, the ultimate group size should always be a prime number. I suggested that we should test this theory out, but my colleague said that we would need to set up deliberately bad group sizes in order to know for sure, and that would be unethical. "Fortunately, we're artists and not scientists, so we can just do what we feel is right." I half-joked.

2, 3, 5, 7, 11, 13, 17, 19, 23, 29, 31

Monday, 12 January 2009

The future of education. If it can pay the mortgage.

Graham Attwell predicts that "2009 will be the year of Open Education. Seminars, workshops, lectures, courses - all available on line and for free."

I really like the idea of free, open education. I've had several conversations about this over the last few years, but the time feels right now. As ever, to say that I've even half-thought this through would be a massive exaggeration, but that's never stopped me blogging in the past...

So, free education. No fees. How could that be possible?

Well, if it was online distance education, then the overheads would be low. No buildings to pay for. No heating bills. No security guards or cleaners to pay.

The software could all be web based services, so no costs to the provider there. We could take advantage of free services like Flickr and Twitter and Second Life.

If the educational experience was primarily based on the mediation of knowledge by expert tutors, then the only cost would be for their wages. I'll come back to this.

What about accreditation? I often hear that students only study to get marks so that they can get a degree. Students that care more about learning for its own sake, and don't give a damn about marks and qualifications, might be attracted to the idea of open education. Personally, I want to help students that love learning more than validation. It would also remove the inefficiencies that summative assessment and its subsequent iterations of inspection and quality assurance result in.

What about assessment? Hang on, didn't I just blow that one out of the water in that last paragraph? Well, I have a problem with summative assessment, but I think formative assessment is fantastic. The regular and precise assessment of where someone is, where they want or need to be, and what can or should be done to get there is the key to efficient learning, in my humble opinion. In an open education system, there need be no limit to just how far this process could take a student. No top limit imposed by the level of a qualification.

Would open education need technical support? Savvy students can solve technical problems, but point of need support can oil learning very effectively. Maybe e-technicians would be as useful as academic guides. Maybe peer support could fulfill this role.

Without accreditation, inspections and physical overheads, then what management structure would be needed to support this open educational structure? Well, ideally, very little. Maybe education could be primarily about tutors and students.

So the only significant costs are the wages of the tutor. It would be nice to think that quality academic staff would work for free, but I get very well paid by the old fashioned education system, thank you very much. Why would I work for free? I'd consider a wage cut that equalled the money I would save by not traveling on a train to Leeds twice a week and paying hotel bills. So who pays my wages? This is where my thinking gets even fuzzier, and possibly more controversial.

Maybe HEFCE pays wages directly to me, bypassing all of the layers of top-slicing middlemen. They're going to want to know that their money isn't wasted though, which would probably fire up the whole inspection/quality beast again and spoil all the fun.

Perhaps the students could pay fees, but they might want a qualification for their money, powering up the crushing machinery of accreditation.

Maybe a philanthropic institution or individual might grant no-strings-attached funding, as long as their name is plastered all over everything.

Similarly, maybe a commercial sponsor might provide the dosh, insisting on the strategic placing of their logos and applying corporate branding to everything. The PR opportunites might make it worth their while. Open education - sponsored by Coca Cola - refreshing learning worldwide!

Maybe the whole thing is funded by advertising. It seems to work for Google, although the current economic climate demonstrates how volatile this might be as a funding stream. I want to know how much I'm going to earn next year.

Maybe there's another way.

Oh, I don't know. I'm just blabbering as usual. It's how I entertain myself.

Saturday, 10 January 2009

Bigger. Better. More.

I thought I better spill some of the ideas I had whilst in London this week before they dissolve.

I took part in a one day Eduserv workshop on digital identities on Thurday, which used the design patterns format currently being explored by the PLANET project and others. This involved taking stories previously submitted by participants and working in small groups to distil patterns that might be of use to others. I've listened to various presentations about patterns before, but I could never get the image of knitting and wallpaper out of my head. It was only by going through the process of using this design patterns approach that I started to appreciate what it was all about. I still don't quite fully get it. The ultimate aim seems to be to produce a clear output - a solution to a problem within a particular context - so that others can take that and make use of it. This sets off a few warning bells for me, as it seems to suggest that it's about making written rules that others should follow, and I instinctively rebel against rules. The important thing about the process for me was the process, not the output. This process involved working with Andrew Eglinton's story about gauging his followers on Twitter, comparing it to Shirley William's Facebook story, discussing lots of aspects of identity in relation to these stories with Andrew, Shirley, Graham Hibbert, Mark Childes and Ed Barker, and pinning down our thoughts in the pattern template. The result was the identification of 'Digital Identity Panic' when previously disconnected personal social networks collide.

The value for me was the shared learning experience, with all the complex elements of socialisation, face to face communication, confidence building, bonding and fun. The thing we wrote down at the end of the session was of little value or interest in comparison to the experience of creating it, and I doubt it will be of much value to anyone else who wasn't there at the time. Does this matter? I sometimes find the obligation to measure and justify everything with cold, hard words in this strange new research world that I increasingly live in, a teensy bit depressing and possibly deeply wrong.

This leads me onto day 2 of my London jaunt, which was a major day of Open Habitat mopping up, ready for final report writing. Dave White's excellent new research assistant, Alison, interviewed me and Graham about the whole thing, from before Emerge to now. It was really good to have the opportunity to rabbit on for several hours about all of the things that I feel passionate about in relation to learning. It's all so crystal clear in the context of an interview. During the interview, I really felt it all - why we are spending all this time and effort doing this research. All of the subtleties and complexities and connection between the bigger picture and the minute details spilt out all over the place. It became evident during the interview that we moved beyond piloting half way through the project, and the thing we have been calling the second pilot is actually the embedding and implementation of the research - stage four of the UIDM. The second phase saw mass Open Sim inductions with 125 first year students, and the running of an assessed project within an existing module.

The original aim of the Open Habitat project, collaborative learning, was thoroughly tested through the use of the excellent 10 principles that Steve and Marga derived from our last London workshop. This was the bit that still remained the 'research' bit in the second pilot. This was the thing that was structured, purposeful, on-message but uncertain. As I argued with Steve Warburton when he joined us in the afternoon, collaboration is not the most important part of what we have done with Open Habitat, and it is certainly not the most successful element, but it is what we set out to test, and it is what we are best able to demonstrate our testing of. The really important but less measurable stuff like students getting better at learning more rapidly, being happier, gaining confident, enjoying a higher level of personal support and becoming more creative, are the bits that we needed no evidence of in order to proceed to implementation.

Our discussion about collaboration in London has provoked more thoughts. I think that there are two main reasons that collaborative learning didn't work out as I'd hoped in Open Habitat. The first is the nature of the students. Artist generally don't like to collaborate directly with other artists. They might put on a group exhibition, but the wouldn't share a canvas. Designers like to collaborate with everyone except other designers. They'll work with a printer and a client, but they get would find it hard to agree on the best typeface with a peer. (yes, i know this is an easily disputed generalisation, but for the sake of argument..). There is a saying that we often hear in our department - "You can't design by committee". Open source challenges that, and despite the frustrations that I have experienced trying to make collaboration work during Open Habitat, I still believe that there is potential to crack this nut. One of the reason that open source works is that it has a potentially huge worldwide community of collaborators, a fertile environment (sourceforge or whatever) to support collaboration, self-motivated participants, and lots of decentralised time to spend on the job. How well would a 3 week open source pilot work with 10 new programmers? What I'm trying to say is that the restrictions imposed by the need to measure the research - two 3 week pilots with 10 students at a time - destroyed any chance of it succeeding at the level that I would want it to. It forced us to impose a level of control through induction and briefs that denied the rhizomic swellings that I still dream of witnessing.

What we need to do now if we want to help this dream become a reality is open the doors and enable hundreds of students to access their own virtual world with no control whatsoever imposed on them. One massive blank canvas with enough room and time for hundreds of students to learn what they want with whoever they want, gently teased along by skilled tutors inquiring about each individual's learning. I probably won't get funding for this, but I don't care. BRING ON THE OPENSIM!