The following scenarios all describe events in which people learn online, or in a blended learning environment:
- A student reads a chapter in an Anthroplogy course via MIT's Open Courseware;
- A self-directed learner reads and reviews the background materials for an Open Course;
- An aspiring organizer reviews how to run a Massively Open Online Course;
- A veteran employee passes an assessment as part of their company's ongoing education/professional development;
- A person working remotely in the field for a NGO completes a training course that brings them up to speed on new research around culturally sensitive family planning;
- A student enrolled in an online course hands in a paper;
- A teacher reads a blog post about math and physics, and participates in the discussion;
- A teacher attends an Edcamp and blogs and shares their notes from the event on their blog;
- An educational technologist writes about the different ways that textbooks can evolve, and how that could help shape how people use them to learn;
- Etcetera, etcetera, etcetera.
Learning is part of all of the interactions described above. Yet, some of these interactions won't fit into the systems that claim to manage learning, and/or the systems that assess the worth of that learning.
In very general terms, the current crop of learning management systems are designed to reduce a complex process down to a series of manageable steps. This reduction makes it more difficult to account for informal learning alongside more traditional learning. But, as more learning occurs in informal ways or in informal settings, the shortcomings of how learning is "managed" gets in the way of people learning.
A. Learning as Conversation
If we look at learning as a series of conversations, one way of looking at a simple type of learning activity is:
A person did this thing in this place.
This is analogous to a something like twitter, an annotated bibliography or list of works consulted, or a person telling a story.
B. A Conversation, with Metadata
We can add more detail to the conversation to make things more clear:
A person did this thing in this place about this topic.
The addition of metadata (aka tags, keywords, etc) makes this more like a blog post, a forum post, or a reblogging platform like Tumblr or Posterous. This could also be thought of as a single piece in a working (or in-progress) portfolio.
C. A Conversation, with Metadata, and Reflection
Predictably, more detail changes the nature of the conversation:
A person did this thing in this place about this topic and learned these things.
The addition of a reflective component (some thoughts/context about what the initial conversation means over time) adds a level of analysis that is critical for self-directed learning, or as part of peer-supported assessment. The addition of reflection also converts the information to something that resembles a page in a presentation portfolio.
D. All of the Above, Situated in a School
Grades aren't essential for learning, but they have their uses:
A person did this thing in this place about this topic and learned these things for this course and earned this score.
E. The Components
- Person: First name, Last name, Email, Password, UserID
- This Thing: Title, Description (a combination of any of: excerpt, original text)
- This Place: a url and/or geolocation data
- This Topic: Keywords/Tags/Folksonomy
- Learned: an analysis/reflection/notes about the event
- This Course: a course name; only needed if the learning is part of a formal learning experience (aka school)
- This Score: grade information, ranging from a letter grade to a percent to X earned points out of Y possible points.
F. Next Steps
Current learning management systems pay a lot of attention to pieces of traditional schooling that may or may not be relevant to all types of learning. By focusing on a system that only stored key elements of the interactions that comprise learning, we'd free ourselves up show learning in ways that actually reflect how the learning occurred.
If the core system just focused on interactions, learners would be free to learn as they best saw fit. This lightweight structure would work equally well for a learner working in a MOOC, a learner writing a series of self-directed research studies, to a learner in a traditional setting.
The data stored in this system could be exposed to external systems so that different types of assessment could take place, as needed, but these assessments could live independent of the core system.
If we pare back what people consider an LMS to a core set of data points, people could learn as they wanted, and that learning could be contextualized and assessed as needed. We need to remove the systems that interfere with our learning.