“After Sustainability” – education for noble savages

I came across John Foster’s blog post, introducing his recent book “After Sustainability”, first through resilience.org. Lancaster University being where he teaches, and near where I live, we met up for a rich conversation, and he kindly lent me a copy of the book. Very interesting reading it is, too! So here I am writing a kind of review, for the Cetis blog, because I do think that the kind of thinking he is championing has implications for educational technology. I add more of my views towards the end. The message of the book’s nicely chosen title should be clear enough. The idea of “sustainability” has, in many parts of society, taken over the mainstream from ideas of growth and development. It’s easy to criticise the idea of limitless growth, so there have always been its critics. This book focuses criticism around the word “progress”, which I see as neatly ambivalent between growth and development: could it even be too ambivalent to base a clear argument on? Could there still be development, of our consciousness at least, even while in material terms we head for “degrowth”? I remember an excellent history teacher at school pointing out that popular culture has swung, over centuries, between, on the one hand, looking back to a “golden age” which we might strive to work back towards, and on the other hand, something more like “we’ve never had it so good”, and presumably, with more “progress”, it will get better and better. I wonder whether (as I guess my teacher believed) the truth might be more ambivalent than that. Perhaps, with one pair of spectacles, one may see progress; but with another, at the same time, decline and fall. T. S. Eliot seems to be saying something very similar, in his “Four Quartets”. And again, compare the long history of the idea of the “noble savage”. The main thrust of the book’s argument is well made and well received. It does seem clear that many people are clinging on to implausible optimism in the face of the mounting evidence of climate change: change at a level that will lead to severe, if not catastrophic consequences. Foster is asking us to acknowledge that: to stop the denial, and shift our hopes across to something deeper and more realistic. To explore this territory, he probes the philosophical foundations of why it is so hard to look behind the self, into the darkness. Even the concept of “resilience”, which is so well represented in the vanguard of environmental thinking these days, is really quite problematic. If one prepares in detail to be resilient to one kind of predicted shock, the risk is that one may be even less well prepared for other unexpected shocks. Can we imagine a good, general purpose, cybernetic resilience, perhaps, even in the face of what happened to Beer’s experiments with Allende in Chile? Foster puts more of his personal view in the third and final part of the book, corresponding to his use of the term “retrieval”. (This is where the book extract in his blog post is taken from.) “Retrieval […] means learning from environmental tragedy to recognise the essential human wholeness that contemporary progressive civilisation denies and thwarts.” It is both a practical and philosophical task. I won’t go into the philosophical side here, though it seems to make sense within the philosophical tradition. And I’m a little uncomfortable with the term “retrieval”, which to most people in IT will conjure up “information retrieval” — surely not the intended connotation! I would personally prefer simply “recovery”, which I take in Eliot’s sense: “There is only the fight to recover what has been lost / And found and lost again and again: and now, under conditions / That seem unpropitious.” (That was around 1940.) But the main point of contact with educational technology, to me, comes along with Foster’s pointing to the constructs: predictable ↔ unpredictable; and planned ↔ wild. Indeed, in Chapter 8, “Towards a toolkit”, the book has a section headed “Education in transition: knowledge for its own sake, or for the sake of retrieval?” He is pointing out that it is all very well training people in the kinds of skills that are likely to be useful in a “transition” economy, but also that we need wider, more general “education that empowers us to make sense of some things as intrinsically valuable, and so to create for ourselves any ends we have.” So we see here a different take on the debates in my two areas of specialism: e-portfolios, and skills and competence. If e-portfolios are merely glorified electronic CVs, showing incumbent employers the things that they have said they want, then they are surely doing us a disservice. But the other, strong trend in e-portfolio practice is rather the opposite, towards reflection — towards critical thinking, not towards conformity to past predictions. And in the areas of defining needed skills and competence, I see a parallel debate going on. It is relatively easy to take what is past and current practice, and to analyse the skills and competence needed to perform in those current roles in current contexts. A narrow portfolio based on a reductionist approach to skills is, according to the view I share, going nowhere fast. But, despite the challenge of grasping, let alone doing something better, I believe it is perfectly possible to conceive of a structure of higher level skills that should indeed be the basis of any transition — to retrieval, recovery, or however you want to put your vision of what realistic hope there may be in our very uncertain future. I think I take a rather different tack to Foster here. Where he is talking about “wildness”, about what comes across to me as more “tribal”, intuitive loyalties perhaps based on place, I would rather emphasise the necessary skills in living and working with each other as equals. I think this is more of a different “take” than a real disagreement. There are many of these skills, and among them a set to do with finding consensus, that are equally in place in the standardization community where I have been working for several years now. To my mind, tribal loyalties can be fickle and conflicted, and while they are held together by instinctive bonds of kinship, they are more prone to loss of trust when hierarchical forms of control lead to large inequalities of power, and opposing interests, reminiscent of class interests. What I look for includes education for collaboration, for consensus, for peer governance, for the resilience gained through using everyone’s intelligence together. The richness and variety available from properly peer-to-peer processes is, it seems to me, much more likely to be able to cope with the unexpected. Even the darkness within ourselves is less dark to others, if we can trust them in a spirit of mutual respect. Foster uses the interesting term “existential resilience”, and that relates in me to what develops over time with other people, through trusting relationships that allow vulnerability. It takes an exceptional individual to have that existential resilience alone. One of the ways we can back up discussion of, and education about, personal resilience is to appeal to theories such as George Kelly’s Personal Construct Theory. To quote a useful current piece from Wikipedia:
Transitional periods in a person’s life occur when he or she encounters a situation that changes his or her naive theory (or system of construction) of the way the world is ordered. They can create anxiety, hostility, and/or guilt and can also be opportunities to change one’s constructs and the way one views the world.
Vulnerability could be a useful term to indicate the mental state of someone who is going beyond anxiety, hostility and guilt to change their personal construct system to cope better with a changed world. This again looks close to Rob Hopkins’ working definition of resilience from 2011 in transitionculture.org:
“The capacity of an individual, community or system to adapt in order to sustain an acceptable level of function, structure, and identity”
So, today I’ll conclude by putting the “Cetis” question again, how can we use technology to support, enable, enhance, facilitate (etc.) education that has enduring relevance after sustainability? I hope I’ve given some leads above as to the ground from which answers might be explored.

How do I go about doing InLOC?

It’s been three years now since the European expert team started work on InLOC, working out a good model for representing structures and frameworks of learning outcomes, skill and competence. As can be expected of forward-looking, provisional work, there has not yet been much take-up, but it’s all in place, and more timely now than ever. Then yesterday I received a most welcome call from a training company involved in one particular sector, who are interested in using the principles of InLOC to help their LMS map course and module information to qualification frameworks. Yes! I enthusiastically replied.  

What is there to learn about standardization?

Cetis (the Centre for Educational Technology, Interoperability and Standards) and the IEC (Institute for Educational Cybernetics) are full of rich knowledge and experience in several overlapping topics. While the IEC has much expertise in learning technologies, it is Cetis in particular where there is a body of knowledge and experience of all kinds of standardization organisations and processes, as well as approaches to interoperability that are not necessarily based on formal standardization. We have an impressive international profile in the field of learning technology standards.  

Open : data : co-op

A very interesting event in Manchester on Monday (2014-10-20) called “Open : Data : Cooperation” was focused around the idea of “building a data cooperative”. The central idea was the cooperative management of personal information. Related ideas have been going round for a long time. In 1999 I first came across a formulation of the idea of managing personal informaton in the book called “Net Worth“. Ten years ago I started talking about personal information brokerage with John Harrison, who has devoted years to this cause. In 2008, Michel Bauwens was writing about “The business case for a User Data Commons“. mains very attractive and worth working on. Collaboratively, of course!

E-portfolios and badges for the common good

I learned several things at the e-portfolio and identity conference (ePIC) 2014 that I attended 9th and 10th July.

1. People agree it’s political

The response to my presentation (What will we need to learn and have evidence for? on Slideshare) reassured me that many of the excellent people at the conference shared something like my sense that the world of learning, education, e-portfolios and open badges is more political now than it has ever been in the past history of this conference. It is not simply well-meaning educators helping “their” learners to a richer, more fulfilling education, learning and life (a great aim though that remains). It is, to me, increasingly about what kind of society we want.

Why, when and how should we use frameworks of skill and competence?

When we understand how frameworks could be used for badges, it becomes clearer that we need to distinguish between different kinds of ability, and that we need tools to manage and manipulate such open frameworks of abilities. InLOC gives a model, and formats, on which such tools can be based.

I’ll be presenting this material at the Crossover Edinburgh conference, 2014-06-05, though my conference presentation will be much more interactive and open, and without much of this detail below.

What is CEN TC 353 becoming?

The CEN TC 353 was set up (about seven years ago) as the European Standardization Technical Committee (“TC”) responsible for “ICT for Learning Education and Training” (LET). At the end of the meeting I will be describing below, we recognised that the title has led some people to think it is a committee for standardising e-learning technology, which is far from the truth. I would describe its business as being, effectively, the standardization of the representation of information about LET, so that it can be used in (any kind of) ICT systems. We want the ICT systems we use for LET to be interoperable, and we want to avoid the problems that come from vendors all defining their own ways of storing and handling information, thus making it hard to migrate to alternative systems. Perhaps the clearest evidence of where TC 353 works comes from the two recent European Standards to our name. EN 15981, “EuroLMAI”, is about information about learner results from any kind of learning, specifically including the Diploma Supplement, and the UK HEAR, that document any higher education achievements. EN 15982, “MLO” (Metadata for Learning Opportunities) is the European equivalent of the UK’s XCRI, “eXchanging Course-Related Information”, mainly about the information used to advertise courses, which can be of any kind. Neither of these are linked to the mode of learning, technology enhanced or not; and indeed we have no EN standards about e-learning as such. So that’s straight, then, I trust …

At this CEN TC 353 meeting on 2014-04-08 there were delegates from the National Bodies of: Finland; France (2); Germany; Greece; Norway; Sweden (2); UK (me); and the TC 353 secretary. That’s not very many for an active CEN TC. Many of the people there have been working with CETIS people, including me, for several years. You could see us as the dedicated, committed few.

The main substance of the day’s discussion was about two proposed new work items (“NWIs”), one from France, one from Sweden, and the issues coming out of that. I attended the meeting as the sole delegate (with the high-sounding designation, “head of delegation”) from BSI, with a steer from colleagues that neither proposal was ready for acceptance. That, at least, was agreed by the meeting. But something much more significant appeared to happen, which seemed to me like a subtle shift in the identity of TC 353. This is entirely appropriate, given that the CEN Workshop on Learning Technologies (WS-LT), which was the older, less formal body, is now acccepted as defunct — this is because CEN are maintaining their hard line on process and IPR, which makes running an open CEN workshop effectively impossible.

No technical standardization committee that I know of is designed to manage pre-standardization activities. Floating new ideas, research, project work, comparing national initiatives, etc., need to be done before a proposal reaches a committee of this kind, because TC work, whether in CEN, or in our related ISO JTC1 SC36, tends to be revision of documents that are presented to the committee. It’s very difficult and time consuming to construct a standard from a shaky foundation, simply by requesting formal input and votes from national member bodies. And when a small team is set up to work under the constraints of a bygone era of confidentiality, in some cases it has proved insurmountably difficult to reach a good consensus.

Tore Hoel, a long-time champion of the WS-LT, admitted that it is now effectively defunct. I sadly agree, while appreciating all the good work it has done. So TC 353 has to explore a new role in the absence of what was its own Workshop, which used to do the background work and to suggest the areas of work that needed attention. Tore has recently blogged what he thinks should be the essential characteristics of a future platform for European open standards work, and I very much agree with him. He uses the Open Stand principles as a key reference.

So what could this new role be? The TC members are well connected in our field, and while they do not themselves do much IT systems implementation, they know those people, and are generally in touch with their views. The TC members also have a good overview of how the matters of interest to TC 353 relate to neighbouring issues and stakeholders. We believe that the TC is, collectively, in quite a good position to judge when it is worth working towards a new European Standard, which is after all their raison d’etre. We can’t see any other body that could perform this role as well, in this specific area.

As we were in France, the famous verse of Rouget de Lisle, the “Marseillaise” came to my mind. “Aux armes, citoyens, Formez vos bataillons!” the TC could be saying. What I really like, on reflection, about this aspect of the French national anthem is that it isn’t urging citizens to join some pre-arranged (e.g. royal) battalions, but to create their own. Similarly, the TC could say, effectively, “now is the time to act — do it in your own ways, in your own organisations, whatever they are — but please bring the results together for us to formalise when they are ready.”

For me, this approach could change the whole scene. Instead of risking being an obstacle to progress, the CEN TC 353 could add legitimacy and coherence to the call for pre-standardization activity in chosen areas. It would be up to the individuals listening (us wearing different hats) to take up that challenge in whatever ways we believe are best. Let’s look at the two proposals from that perspective.

AFNOR, the French standards body, was suggesting working towards a European Standard (EN) with the title “Metadata for Learning Opportunities part 2 : Detailed Description of Training and Grading (face to face, distance or blended learning and MOOCs): Framework and Methodology”. The point is to extend MLO (EN 15982), including perhaps some of those characteristics of courses (learning opportunities), perhaps drawn from the Norwegian CDM or its French derivative, that didn’t make it into the initial version of MLO for advertising. There have from time to time in the UK been related conversations about the bits of the wider vision for XCRI that didn’t make it into XCRI-CAP (“Course Advertising Profile”). But they didn’t make it probably for some good reason — maybe either there wasn’t agreement about what they should be, or there wasn’t any pressing need, or there weren’t enough implementations of them to form the basis for effective consensus.

Responding to this, I can imagine BSI and CETIS colleagues in the UK seriously insisting, first, that implemention should go hand in hand with specification. We need to be propertly motivated by practical use cases, and we need to test ideas out in implementation before agreeing to standardize them. I could imagine other European colleagues insisting that the ideas should be accepted by all the relevant EC DGs before they have a chance of success in official circles. And so on — we can all do what we are best at, and bring those together. And perhaps also we need to collaborate between national bodies at this stage. It would make sense, and perhaps bring greater commitment from the national bodies and other agencies, if they were directly involved, rather than simply sending people to remote-feeling committees of standards organisations. In this case, it would be up to the French, whose Ministry of Education seems to be wanting something like this, to arrange to consult with others, to put together an implemented proposal that has a good chance of achieving European consensus.

We agreed that it was a good idea for the French proposal to use the “MOOC” label to gain interest and motivation, while the work would in no way be limited to MOOCs. And it’s important to get on board both some MOOC providers, and related though different, some of the agencies who aggregate information about MOOCs (etc.) and offer information about them through portals so that people can find appropriate ones. The additional new metadata would of course be designed to make that search more effective, in that more of the things that people ask about will be modelled explicitly.

So, let’s move on to the Swedish proposal. This was presented under the title “Linked and Open Data for Learning and Education”, based on their national project “Linked and Open Data in Schools” (LODIS). We agreed that it isn’t really on for a National Body simply to propose a national output for European agreement, without giving evidence on why it would be helpful. In the past, the Workshop would have been a fair place to bring this kind of raw idea, and we could have all pitched in with anything relevant. But under our new arrangements, we need the Swedes themselves to lead some cross-European collaboration to fill in the motivation, and do the necessary research and comparison.

There are additional questions also relevant to both proposals. How will they relate to the big international and American players? For example, are we going to get schema.org to take these ideas on, in the fullness of time? How so? Does it matter? (I’m inclined to think it does matter.)

I hope the essentials of the new approach are apparent in both cases. The principle is that TC 353 acts as a mediator and referee, saying “OK” to the idea that some area might be ripe for further work, and encouraging people to get on with it. I would, however, suggest that three vital conditions should apply, for this approach to be effective as well as generally acceptable.

  1. The principal stakeholders have to arrange the work themselves, with enough trans-national collaboration to be reasonably sure that the product will gain the European consensus needed in the context of CEN.
  2. The majority of the drafting and testing work is done clearly before a formal process is started in CEN. In our sector, it is vital that the essential ideas are free and open, so we want a openly licenced document to be presented to the TC as a starting point, as close as can be to the envisioned finishing point. CEN will still add value through the formal process and formal recognition, but the essential input will still be openly and freely licenced for others to work with in whatever way they see fit.
  3. The TC must assert the right to stop and revoke the CEN work item, if it turns out that it is not filling a genuine European need. There is room for improvement here over the past practice of the TC and the WS-LT. It is vital to our reputation and credibility, and to the ongoing quality of our output, that we are happy with rejecting work that it not of the right quality for CEN. Only in this way can CEN stakeholders have the confidence in a process that allows self-organising groups to do all the spadework, prior to and separate from formal CEN process and oversight.

At the meeting we also heard that the ballot on the TC 353 marketing website was positive. (Disclosure: I am a member of the TC 353 “Communications Board” who advised on the content.) Hopefully, a consequence of this will be that we are able to use the TC 353 website both to flag areas for which TC 353 believes there is potential for new work, and to link to the pre-standardization work that is done in those areas that have been encouraged by the TC, wherever that work is done. We hope that this will all help significantly towards our aim of effectively open standardization work, even where the final resulting EN standards remain as documents with a price tag.

I see the main resolutions made at the meeting as enacting this new role. TC 353 is encouraging proposers of new work to go ahead and develop mature open documentation, and clear standardization proposals, in whatever European collaborations they see fit, and bring them to a future TC meeting. I’d say that promises a new chapter in the work of the TC, which we should welcome, and we should play our part in helping it to work effectively for the common good.

The growing need for open frameworks of learning outcomes

(A contribution to Open Education Week — see note at end.)

What is the need?

Imagine what could happen if we had a really good sets of usable open learning outcomes, across academic subjects, occupations and professions. It would be easy to express and then trace the relationships between any learning outcomes. To start with, it would be easy to find out which higher-level learning outcomes are composed, in a general consensus view, of which lower-level outcomes.

Some examples … In academic study, for example around a more complex topic from calculus, perhaps it would be made clear what other mathematics needs to be mastered first (see this recent example which lists, but does not structure). In management, it would be made clear, for instance, what needs to be mastered in order to be able to advise on intellectual property rights. In medicine, to pluck another example out of the air, it would be clarified what the necessary components of competent dementia care are. Imagine this is all done, and each learning outcome or competence definition, at each level, is given a clear and unambiguous identifier. Further, imagine all these identifiers are in HTTP IRI/URI/URL format, as is envisaged for Linked Data and the Semantic Web. Imagine that putting in the URL into your browser leads you straight to results giving information about that learning outcome. And in time it would become possible to trace not just what is composed of what, but other relationships between outcomes: equivalence, similarity, origin, etc.

Learning about learning about …

I was recently reading a short piece from Peter Honey (of learning styles fame)
in a CIPD blog post in which he writes, saving the most important item for last in his list:

Learning to learn – the ultimate life-skill

You can turn learning in on itself and use your learning skills to help you learn how to become an increasingly effective learner. Learning to learn is the key to enhancing all the above.