The Future of Learning and Assessment. #35 #cong16

By Frank Walsh.

As educators around the world grapple with the myriad of changes brought about by the morphing of society as we know it – what will become of teaching?

Defined as “to impart knowledge of or skill in; give instruction in”, formal education still relies on teachers to maintain the quality of education within a rigid structure, but is this structure changing, and if so how is it changing? Can an education system that has remained fundamentally unaltered for centuries be flexible enough to cater for hybrid opportunities, or radically changed and improved outcomes for those traditionally on the receiving end of the teacher’s wisdom? Is there a necessity to evaluate everything in terms of quantifiable outcomes, and what are the implications for the learner, either through the formal system or a new alternative? Should we shift the focus from teaching to learning? Will we have to change the focus to learning and alternative measurement systems for the acquisiton of knowledge?

Learning is defined as;

  1. Knowledge acquired by systematic study in any field of scholarly application. 
  2. The act or process of acquiring knowledge or skill. 
  3. Psychology. the modification of behaviour through practice, training, or experience.

Whilst formal education has led to standardised testing, a statement that is frequently mentioned about this is “that’s fine for a standardised student”. But, what about the non-standard students? How should they “fit” within our system? Indeed, why should they have to fit within our system? Bell curves are fine – for bells. Why should bell curves dictate patterns of results? 

Leaving aside the notion of teaching – should we be examining the future of learning and assessment? Is the formalised concept and structure of scaffolded education due for a change? Should we move to Education 2.0?

There’s a long held belief that prison breeds criminality. Prisoners that enter our formal “correctional” system for the first time are believed, through the sharing of knowledge to leave prison as “Master Criminals”. What does this suggest? Ironically, it suggests that the public has attached (mistakenly or otherwise) a formal educational qualification “Master” to an informal, unsystematic method of study – the common approach of sharing information. There are no formal classes, no tutorials, no slideshows, no lectures and certainly no examinations, but learning has taken place and we now have “master criminals”.

30+ years ago Encyclopedia Britannica was the fountain of knowledge, it was a respository of facts and figures and supplemented by the local or college library, it brought forward the most up-to-date knowledge on a wide range of topics. As we prepare for 2017, the world of information sourcing and selection has changed dramatically. People bow before the power of major search engines and the ability to answer any question typed into that little search box in the centre of your screen.

Add to this the supplementary information available through other providers such as on-line video channels and accessibility to learning becomes available in a much broader context. Throw in MOOCs for good measure and a pathway to learning has been greatly accelerated for those on the end of a high-speed broadband connection. It’s now possible to sit down in your home with a guitar and become an accomplished musician in a short-period of time, if you put in the work necessary. It’s possible to develop artistic skills in the use of acrylic paints without ever leaving your house. You can become a member of a social media site, sharing tips with other learners, learning from their mistakes and helping others overcome challenges that you have faced. Bloggers have become journalists and celebrity television shows have bred a new range of television presenters.

There are naturally gifted performers in the artistic and creative spaces that have developed their natural talents and abilites through years of experiential learning: Traditional musicians that can “make an instrument talk”; actors that can take you to a place in your imagination that has been beyond your reach without their help and culinary creatives that can make a dish taste like an angel crying on your tongue. Yet, there may have been no formal, systematic education structure to their learning and acquision of knowledge. Is that a bad thing?

In Ireland, you generally can’t get to college unless you have a Leaving Certificate. You can’t do a Master’s Degree until you have an undergraduate and generally, you can’t attempt a Doctorate until you’ve a Masters under your belt. There’s a formal pathway, I would suggest, sometimes protected by the system, and there may be very good reasons for that. Perhaps, some of those reasons might not be so good?

Learning, by virtue of new technologies is changing. There have been, for many years, individuals who are far beyond Doctoral level abilities in their chosen field that have not been formally recognised for their talents because they are outside the formal, structured system of education as we have accepted it to date. There have also been individuals well qualified academically, but are perceived as not having hands to wipe various body parts. 

I noticed a quotation recently; “The primary aim of education is not to enable students to do well in school, but to help them do well in the lives they lead outside of school”; in the race to secure high-tech multi-nationals to our country and provide much-needed employment, have schools become production units for formalised assessment and the world of work? If so, what happens to the renegades, the non-standard students, those who have the potential to improve and accelerate their learning through a new, informal system of learning?

Additionally, is there a mis-alignment between what formalised education produces and the skills required to live and work in our modern society? In an age where people may suffer from nomophobia, is there the potential for the development of soft-skills that formalised education may be missing out on? A recent report by the Expert Group on Future Skills Needs (EGFSN) was covered by The Journal, picking up on an article by Paul O’ Donoghue and posted to Fora with a caption “Big pharma companies are crying out for people who can talk” – a very simplistic yet striking headline. The World Economic Forum also recently published an article “What skills do employers value most in graduates?”. The list of skills provides some interesting points for both consideration and discussion, particularly in light of the learning and assessment of soft skills.

Concomitantly, there appears to be a shift in the recruitment practices of the high-tech multi-nationals. Whilst some were keen to offer careers to graduates, others realised it was too late at that point and use a work-placement / internship as an opportunity to recruit future employees, before they graduate. Will it get to the point where high-tech companies will recruit directly from Leaving Certificate results? Has this happened already? Will we see a technical change, almost to the point where high-tech industry run their own in-house apprecticeships? Will we return to the Vocational Education Act 1930?

3.—For the purposes of this Act the expression “continuation education” means education to continue and supplement education provided in elementary schools and includes general and practical training in preparation for employment in trades, manufactures, agriculture, commerce, and other industrial pursuits, and also general and practical training for improvement of young persons in the early stages of such employment.

Education as we know it is morphing, for a myriad of reasons. Perhaps a large element is interlinked with changes in technology, positive and perhaps in some cases not so positive. But, technology changes much quicker than national curricula can adapt, technology changes much quicker than a course committee can ratify a new undergraduate or masters programme, technology could possible be defined as having an accelerated rate of change based on a radioactive half-life, twice the change in half the time. Can formalised education adapt to such a rate of change?

Technology is changing the requirements of learning and assessment. It is also providing an opportuntiy for self-directed learning that previously was unavailable to the masses.

Perhaps we need to analyse and understand the move from pedagogy to andragogy and on to heutagogy? Perhaps technology is blurring the lines between the three, particularly for students making a transition from 2nd to 3rd level? Perhaps soft-skills and talents developed outside the formal education system which are difficult to assess, quantify and validate will somehow become the requirements of employers looking for individuals that can think outside the preverbial box.

As educators, do we need to stop safeguarding the world of academia for purists, and acknowledge that people have a hugely diverse range of abilities and skills (some of which can be hard, if not impossible to measure)? Do we need to examine and respond to how technological advances are shaping a change in learning and assessment? Have we the combined mental fortitude to take on a radical change in our perspectives to allow for new forms of diverse learning outcomes and their assessment? As educators, do we have a right not to do otherwise?

“All this technology is making us antisocial”.


© Eoin Kennedy 2017 eoin at congregation dot ie