Imagine There’s No Courses

Or seminars.

Or workshops.

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.


8 thoughts on “Imagine There’s No Courses”

  1. Pingback: Dave’s Whiteboard » Blog Archive » Beyond courses

  2. Dave–I share the reservations about professional organizations as accrediting authorities, and yet this is familiar ground for so many of them and an area in which the good ones *should* be able to able to add considerable value (and I don’t begrudge them a revenue stream if they do it well).

    Kudos for the Faulkner quote. I feel like I should come up with some sort of prize for literary references on Mission to Learn! –Jeff

  3. Gibson may be right, but so was Faulkner: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

    I like the parallel between distributed content and distributed conversations. I’m less sanguine about the evaluation/assessment pieces of the puzzle; while there can be wisdom in crowds, we’ve got plenty of evidence for their madness as well.

    To me, though, the main point is that education and learning are moving away from the classroom regardless of what institutions and organizations might prefer.

    In the short term, I’m not optimistic about, say, professional organizations serving as accrediting authorities. The best interpretation I can make is that ISPI’s CPT and ASTD’s CPLP (which is not just a certification but a trademarked one) is that they’re among early-stage efforts.

    (A less kind interpretation is seeing the certification process as a revenue stream for the certifiers.)

  4. Brynn–Thanks for much for dropping by and commenting – I think the learner you describe, armed with Michele’s portfolio approach, is the wave of the future. And as William Gibson has put it, “…the future is already here. It’s just not very evenly distributed.” (Yet!) –Jeff

  5. Pingback: Akma » Quiet Stromateis

  6. Brynn Grumstrup Slate

    I love this discussion because it really shows the potential for each person to build their own knowledge and contribute to the lifelong education of others. These new kinds of learners are self-motivated and ready to dig up wisdom in a variety of sources instead of passively receiving information from institutions. When we read about a new concept, reflect on how it applies to our own lives, share our thoughts with others (through discussion, blogging, etc.), and then turn those ideas into real world actions, we are truly learning.

  7. Michele–Yes, definitely. Thanks for adding that point. It also fits well with the continuing medical education reference above, as there is a lot of focus on portfolios in CME-oriented organizations right now and attempts to develop a standard for managing them. –Jeff

  8. Jeff, this is where I think having a digital portfolio could be so critical. If people begin getting into the habit of interacting with the informal learning they encounter–reading an article, experimenting with what they learned and then blogging about it or using it to create some kind of work product, etc.–then there’s a built-in way to assess things. I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about personal learning tools lately and I’ve begun to believe that having an online portfolio, even in the form of having your blog, will be an important component if we’re going to find some way for people to be able to demonstrate competence. Good post!

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