It’s easy if you try.
At least, for you, a reader of this blog, it may be easy. Chances are good that, if you are here, you are already accustomed to learning from a wide variety of resources and media distributed across the Web. You see that this type of learning can be be equally as valuable as the learning that takes place within a structured, organized classroom environment.
You recognize that learning and education are not the same thing.
But what about the society in which you live and the organizations and institutions that have a stake in your learning? Where do they derive value from your unstructured, informal learning activities?
A significant portion of the value that society, organizations, and institutions derive from traditional, course-oriented education, argues Siemens, is the recognition and accreditation it facilitates. Much of the value of a degree from MIT, for example, is based on the fact that MIT is a recognized brand, its faculty are acknowledged experts in their fields, and students who receive degrees from MIT go through a well-defined, structured process to do so.
The sum total of these pieces is that we collectively place a certain amount of trust in a degree from Harvard and it thereby acquires socio-economic value. It becomes what is referred to as a job market signal.
In the world of informal learning that has proliferated on the Web, however, value is harder to assess, at least from the societal, organizational, and institutional perspectives. What value, for instance, do we assign the knowledge someone may have gained by going through all of the online materials from a computer science degree at MIT rather than through the actual degree program?
Or, how do we gauge the level of learning an individual who has blogged, read blogs, listened to podcasts, and watched videos on a particular topic has achieved?
George Siemens has suggested two possibilities: reputation points and referral systems.
The first involves individuals gaining reputation points over time based upon their participation in learning conversations and activities. The process, as I understand it, would be similar to how sellers on eBay or reviewers on Amazon build reputation, though Siemens points out that we would need to know the identity and credentials of the person assigning reputation points in order for the value of points to be fully assessed. Reputation, in other words, should not be arbitrary.
Siemens made this observation many years ago. Since then, we have seen the emergence of digital badges.
Siemens second point has more to do with drawing connections between learning content and activities using a process similar to the recommendation system at Amazon, i.e., “The person who bought ‘x’ also bought ‘y.'” In the world of learning, this process might translate to “The person who read this, also read this” or “The person who studied this thinker also studied this thinker.” I’m not entirely certain I follow Siemens line of thinking here, but I believe the point is to ensure a certain quality, consistency, and intensity of learning in a particular subject area over time.
A third possibility, it seems to me, is good old-fashioned assessment and certification. A fourth, not unrelated, may simply amount to something like “testifying.” These two models are common, for instance, in continuing medical education. A medical professional might read a journal article, for instance (already sounds a bit like Siemen’s world without courses) and then take an assessment to verify that an acceptable level of knowledge has been achieved.
In other instances, a professional may simply attest to having read an article or to having attended a certain number of sessions at a conference. It’s not all that difficult to see similar approaches coming into play for purposes of validating and accrediting learning activities that happen outside of traditional course environments.
The key challenge in all of this is how to pull all of the pieces together in a cohesive way. How do we get to a point where, as Siemens puts it,
we have some degree of comfort when we dialogue with someone who’s stated they’ve received their degree from Global Online Distributed University as evidence by these thousand learners who’ve assigned reputation points and as a result of having gone through “x” number of sources of learning materials, podcasts, videos or whatever else.
I’ll leave addressing this challenge in higher education to others, but it seems to me that innovative professional and trade associations as well as other learning businesses are already very well positioned to address the issue in the world of professional development. They will, I suppose, need to work to get the appropriate accrediting authorities to come along for the ride (as in this example), but I suspect there are viable models in which that may not even be necessary.
A learning business with a strong enough brand within its particular niche may possess sufficient authority to play a valuable validation role on its own. Embracing Learning 2.0 approaches and the role of the digital curator, previously discussed here on Mission to Learn, innovative learning businesses can both help facilitate new paths to learning and knowledge development and also validate that learning through a combination of the approaches discussed above.
This won’t happen over night, of course. Most learning businesses will stick with the established model of structured courses, seminars, and workshops for a long time to come. But I think the innovative ones will understand the “early glimpses of a very different future” articulated by Siemens.
You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one. I welcome your thoughts.