Monthly Archives: January 2007

Staff Development for Change Management

Universities are “knowledge construction sites” in two ways, (a) they construct and create new knowledge, but they are also (b) construction sites in terms of their own inner and outer structures. In my experience, universities are notoriously inhomogenous in their organisational development which leaves the architectural plan somewhere between the construction of a housing estate, a collection of cottages, and a skycraper (not to mention the castle in the air).

Staff development plays a key role in organisational development and designing the future of universities. Implementation of new learning technologies, concepts, and business processes has to be understood as the promotion and institutionalisation of a collective know-how and knowledge base that defines the business. The introduction of new tools alone is not enough. This all depends on how well developed the base is. It is, therefore, worth reflecting on how universities can become better learning organisations.

The deficit I detect lies in the different treatment and expectations of learning as opposed to learning – or rather – between facilitating the learning of students and facilitating the learning of staff. The former has received much attention over the past couple of years, whereas the latter looks like being left behind despite the increasing realisation of its importance. Should we really separate them?

One of the differences I see is that learning for students is characterised by a stable design and clear expectations. Staff development appears to be more often a fall-out of other processes (educational policies, pedagogic trends, word of mouth, societal developments) than planned management of change.


Lifelong Competence Development

I attended the TENCompetence workshop in Manchester last week and it was a pleasant and stimulating experience with high calibre key notes. TENCompetence is a big 10m euro project that attempts to develop a technical infrastructure for lifelong competence development.

The project is about to produce a “personal competence manager” application, which at first glance looks interesting. If I understood correctly it will connect to semantic resources (learning provisions) that would provide learning opportunities on your chosen subject and at the right level, e.g. lessons to play the guitar. It is nice that the tool will be able to import and export using the IMS LD specification.

However, one observation I had about this approach is that developers often don’t realise how much we get stuck in a project culture and that this – as I see it – is a contradiction to life-long. The tool, as so many other activities in business and HE these days, implies (a) a project management approach to developing skills and competences (e.g. define clear manageable outcomes, completion criteria, etc.), and (b) that there’ll be a starting and a completion point. The sore point here is that with competences it’s the same as with knowledge, you never can have enough of it, and it deteriorates as soon as you stop learning – whence we require lifelong as opposed to project-oriented learning!

The other issue with projects is that they usually do not link horizontally to other activities, so they are isolated which more often than not makes them an artificial and disconnected load. This works for some things like yoga or piano classes, but less well for others like communication, team working, or literacy skills.

At what point am I able to say: I am competent in Icelandic rather than I have studied Icelandic? Projects like tick-off tasks, but is this real life and lifelong?

Defining e-Portfolios

I know. We’ve been there before. But we are still there: at getting to terms with the scope and definition of e-portfolios. This post follows an interesting discussion on the CETIS mailing list.

Are e-portfolios process or are they technical specs or services? Peter Rhees-Jones even suggested e-portfolios are the PLE (Personal Learning Environment) we are all seeking. Alan Paull, quite rightly I believe, expressed his concerns about definitions. Some things are simply hard to pin down, and even harder to get common agreement on. This is the inherent danger of controlled vocabularies – they only work for machines.

As a linguist it is quite fascinating to see connotations and semantics within a specialist field change so rapidly, while at the same time some experts try to establish their views as generic baseline definition. All they really need to do is look at the dictionary and realise that the more commonly used a word is the longer the entry of possible meanings. Take “work”, “love”, “culture”. We’ve given up on defining them!

What is in my view important for human communication in the field is developing a common understanding, not a definition. We know what we talk about when we say “university”, “higher education”, and even “course”. It is communication by approximation. Sadly, even this level we haven’t reached yet with e-portfolios.

The general hype that broke out around e-portfolios led to a series of over-enthusiastic attempts to pack Web 2.0 into this concept by simply attaching some obscure “learning” label to otherwise nice social activities. It’s the result of a creative e-learning community getting carried away with the opportunities and potentials. However, I find it less than helpful for real life handling. Why can’t e-portfolios not just be what it says on the tin?

Digital Ego

The extent of self-control over e-portfolios and digital identities is a complex issue. Many people argue that control over one’s self-portrait on the web should be entirely in the owner’s hands, not managed by HEIs, Google, et al. In this vein, Serge Ravet also expressed the view that “we want to choose the [digital] masks we want to wear”.

It’s a fact of life that our identities are never solely controlled by ourselves, neither in the real world nor digitally. My health record is with the NHS authorities and insurance companies; my driving record, age, and sex with my car insurance; and I can only guess the amount of information held by my bank, the mortgage company, Interpol, passport agency, army, tax office, etc.

However, if we just for a moment leave aside the biased word “control”, then these external views on my “self” (as opposed to my self-published “ego”) are equally if not more important to my identity then my own when it comes to social currency, identity validation and the building of trust regarding my persona. This makes it entirely undesireable to self-control all aspects of the digital me.

Being able to have self-portraits validated by external views, formally and informally, is important also for self analysis and learning about how others see me. Personally, I find it more interesting what others write about myself than what I present in self-reflection. In many ways external views mirror the information we present to specifically this data audience (e.g. via tax forms, or via SEO to Google). The added value lies in that the information is undergoing verification/evaluation processes of some sort applied by the provider. It is these processes that add currency (for better or worse).

Then, as Serge says, there is the matter of personal choice. Using “masks” to slip into a different persona is a choice one may take. In the digital world this is rather easier than in the real world. SecondLife is a good example of being able to mask your identity and explore other views on the world.

In conclusion, I see the ideal identity concept in the fair balance between control of data and choice. If choice and self-determination is the preferred option (as it would be to me) then controlled data can be regarded as a means to validate that choice. It can come in the guise of authorities, communities, customers or verifiable artifacts.