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New Zealand’s collective student debt is approaching NZ$10 billion!!

Lets take a look at the cost of living for a student in Dunedin per week and get an idea of how crappy this situation is.

Weekly cost of living

Rent = $100 p/w

Energy, Internet and telephone = $75 p/w

Health = $20 p/w

Food = $100 p/w

Car = $80 p/w

Furnishings = $20 p/w

Clothing = $20 p/w

Social = $50 p/w

3 trips home per year = $30 p/w

Savings = $50 p/w

Stationary, computing and text books = $30 p/w

Student fees = $50 p/w + 40 hours p/w

TOTAL COST OF LIVING PER WEEK = $625 per week

Weekly income

Student allowance (if eligible) = $150 p/w

20 hours casual work @ $12 minimum per hour (resulting in a 60 hour week when combined with study time) = $240 p/w

TOTAL INCOME PER WEEK = $390 p/w (Gross!)

Weekly short fall of $235 per week. Totaling $12220 annually!!

So, let’s drop the car and savings… weekly short fall now = $105. Totaling $5460 short fall annually.

I guess we could keep chipping away at some of those weekly expenses.. who needs a social life, or trips home (or away), or health… and I guess they could work harder than 60 hours per week, or sacrifice some of that study time to work more, or find a job during the semester breaks to pay back some of that short fall (provided your landlord, food market, and all the others can stomach giving you credit until then. What about student fees? Let’s take a look at that…

Looking at student fee in relation to cost of course

A 3 year course at $12000.. what is the cost of running a course for 16 people per year? (Class sizes are one of the big reasons you would study at a Polytechnic btw.. imagine 350 people or more in a class, I struggle to see the value in university fees..)

Teacher @ $60 p/hr x 20 hrs p/w x 40 weeks = $48000 per year

Classroom and amenities = $4000 p/y

Internet and 16 computers = $32000 p/y

Other specialist learning resource fittings = $6000 p/y

Administration = $4000 p/y

Library = $6000 p/y

SUBTOTAL ANNUAL COURSE COSTS = $100 000

Less Government subsidy of around 70 – 80% = $30 000

Divided between 16 students = $1875 That’s less than half their fee!
(that subsidy figure needs checking.. it is really had to find)

Now, if we consider that in the breakdown of weekly student living costs – included in that is a computer and Internet. That might suggest that we could scale back our provision of such things (ignoring for now the fact that most students probably choose to forgo that cost in their struggle to survive here) and reduce the cost of the course considerably further (especially if I am out with that subsidy and course cost estimate).

But students would still be being forced into debt.

So what could we do in the way of free learning, fee education to afford more flexibility – save another $40 per week? And what could we do with other Government grant money to provide computers and Internet at affordable prices for students – save another $50 p/w? And what could we do with Open Educational Resources to reduce text books and library costs – save another $20 p/w? And what could we do with distance education so as to offer options for avoiding Dunedin costs of living – save another $100 p/w?

I don’t think we are thinking hard enough on what we can be doing to help address this serious social problem affecting the quality of learning in NZ. We have students who have little choice but to study and work 60 hour weeks, racking up and worrying about debt, and/or reducing their standard of living well below what I would call acceptable. I dare anyone to take a tour of rental properties in Dunedin.

Dave over at Massage Therapy has been thinking about some of my ideas on flexible learning development and mixing them up with his own. His post reminded me that I need to update the flexible learning in New Zealand series. This post relates directly to the ideas that Dave is stewing, although I will use another subject area (Horticulture) to describe the design as it is with teh Horticulture Department that we are going to test out this model.
Short courses open to community

My first encounter with the Horticulture Department at the Otago Polytech was through a number of short, weekend courses they run. The first one I went to was Chainsaw Maintenance. There I learnt how to check, clean and sharpen a chainsaw. Maintaining and operating a chainsaw has been one of those things I have wanted to be confident in for a long time. It was a great one day course! I learnt a lot about it actually, and feel 100% more confident with a chainsaw. I video recorded as much as I could of the demonstrations on the day, because one thing I did notice that was missing from the course, was any availability of follow up information to support the course. This was a one day event. That was it – no more, no less.

At the chainsaw maintenance day I found out about another short weekend course being offered by the Horticulture Department up at the Botanical Gardens nursery. Propagation. Sunshine and I have been developing an interest in gardening, and we thought propagation would have a few tips and local know how to help us. We were right! It was a great day and we not only learned a lot about plant propagation, local plant species and horticulture generally, but we maintain a confidence and motivation around our garden to this day. It is amazing what one day around the right people can do.

At the propagation day I met Kim, the Horticulture lecturer who organises the short courses. I got to chatting to her about them and found out about a whole bunch more of these stand alone short courses. Things from eatable local seaweeds, to dry stone wall building and therapy gardening… I said to her, “you must score a few full-time students into Horticulture doing this?” to which she agreed and showed me a list of names of people who started out on weekend courses and gradually became fully fledged horticulturalists.

A few weekends later I was spending another $50 and learning how to build a dry stone wall out of local rock. Great fun it was too!

Online lead in and follow up

The biggest thing that was missing from the weekend short courses was the availability of information in the lead up to the course, and afterwards. When we arrived on the day, the usual photocopied handouts were passed out, and on we went with learning how to do. I dunno where those handouts are now.. in the garden as mulch I’d say.. they were very limited resources from memory.

What I wanted was for that info to be available to me before the course and afterwards. After signing up for the courses I was motivated then and there and could have used a little outlet of demo videos and reading to keep my psyched. After the course I was fully psyched! That’s when I wanted more. More things to look at, more local knowledge, things to go on with. I guess they could send out the handouts, but that’d be pretty daggy and it would not solve the limited nature of the resources. As I said before, I video recorded the demonstrations on the day (go back and check those links). Someone could no doubt do a more professional job than I and make them available also.

Watching the videos of the workshop that went before would be a good way to prepare for a course. It doesn’t have to be video either. Pictures would do, audio might work, a course blog would be cool, a course wiki would be even better! The point is that the resources that support the face to face session are available before and after the course. Designed right, they could lead me into the next level of the course, or into a number of related fields, feeding my curiosity for the field of horticulture, and seeing me arrive at more and more short courses.

Is there any reason why these short courses can’t be credited towards something? It should be done in such a way so as I didn’t even know it was happening, so after doing a number of short courses I get a little notice saying, “congratulations Leigh! You are 1/3 of the way to becoming a level 3 Horticulturalist 🙂 – background record keeping and admin, someone keeping track of what I do and always ready to respond to me with guidence on the next thing I should do. Maybe something as advanced as Amazon does with their book recomendations – recomending another book to me as I buy this one (does anyone else get weirded out by how good those recomendations usually are?)

More widely available

Ok, so the person who has some how found out about these short courses is sorted. Each course has a good body of dynamic and interesting online content to support it, and it is designed in such a way so as to directly support the face to face workshops and lead into other courses and suggested pathways for further learning. But with these resources being openly online and available on a number of popular platforms from YouTube to Flickr, and even TradeMe if I can come up with an idea to make that work!?.. So now we have a different sort of person interacting with our courses. Most likely they are people just browsing Net, ships passing in the night, clicking the next video, or searching for something specific that our piece of content only partly helps with. Every now and then it might be a person who thinks they have scored what they have been looking for all along and will download every piece of info you have made available. Online is like that, its all good, if your rock wall video gets 150-1000 views in a couple of months, that’s a pretty good feeling isn’t it?

But there are other environments where people use learning resources with apparently more focus and with potentially more benefit to the Horticulture Department. They are Community Learning Centres, High Schools, other initiatives that might be wanting to teach horticulture in some way – prisons, rehabilitation programs, job skill programs etc etc. By making the content available both online AND in print and portable media formats for use in such centres, the materials may attract more participation in the short courses, and perhaps even enrolments in the Horticulture Programmes.

Imagine it.. you have dropped into a Community Learning Centre. You’re browsing the shelves of self paced learning materials and you spot Chainsaw Maintenance. You remember that on the weekend you will be helping your dad drop a few dead trees for fire wood and think, maybe this has something in it for me. You pull the box from the shelf and to your surprise, written on the cover is:

Successful completion of this unit results in a discount in hire rates for chainsaws at the following hire places..

that’s right! the Horticulture Department has struck a tasty deal with the local hire places. The hire places see benefits in attracting people who have completed courses offered by the Polytech as it reassures them that the customers know what they are doing, and that their hire equipment will last a little longer as a result. They even go so far as to recomend their staff and customers to the courses!

So now, you are even more interested in looking through the resources. You sit down and go through a number of short and fun exercises and after about 20 minutes you come to a notice that says:

Stop! You now have to see the centre facilitator and book yourself into a short course in: Workshop One – Chainsaw maintainance: Cleaning air filters, sharpening chains, checking operations.

Your suspision is raised, the hairs on the back of your neck rise up as you remember Mrs Lines from year 9. You can smell the chalk and wooden rulers. You’re not sure if its worth committing to something that sounds like the school you left years ago, but you see a link on the notice that says:

hey! watch a few videos from the last workshop.

You click the link and see a huge range of videos from shots of the free lunch that was put on, to a number of recordings of the demos.

Whether or not this person takes the step and signs up for a one day workshop is anyone’s guess. The fact that completion would result in a discount at the hire place may be one motivation, maybe being able to help dad a bit better is a motivation, who knows. The main thing is that it should be as easy as possible to enter into a short course, that it is non committal, and that once involved – all activities logically lead onto more activities and that someone is keeping score. Its about the educational institution building a relationship with someone who for many understandable reasons may have a dim view of formal learning. Its about maintaining that relationship not just in terms of enrolment timetables and a student number, but more where the whole person is catered for and looked after.

That’s all for now. I’m off to the shops to grab a DVD and a pizza for Sunshine and get back to our Sunday night together.

Part 3 of a running post on flexible learning in New Zealand.

Why am I so fixated on flexible learning these days? Well, its partly my job I have to say. Otago Polytechnic has a strategic direction towards flexible learning which in a nut shell is about offering better services to existing students more efficiently AND reaching potential students we don’t already reach. The cynical would interpret that as save money now, and make more money soon. Its easy to see that part, but there’s more to it of course, and it creates an opportunity for us to do our job better.

I help facilitate a course for teachers at the ‘tech called Designing for Flexible Learning Practice which is another reason I fixate on flexible learning from time to time. Because the course has not set face to face meetings (though we do meet from time to time) we ask that all the participants communicate about the course and the subject information online. We do this through individual blogs and an email list.

Getting a recent group up and running with blogs has been a slow go. Some don’t see the need for it, some are technically challenged, and some just don’t have the time (which means they probably don’t have time for a course full stop). Some participants seemed to have taken to blogging ok, and this post focuses on one blog post by the Dangerous Dave – who I think has a natural blog writing style.

In a recent exercise where we all will respond to another DFLP participant’s blog post, Dave is using a post by Sheryll to voice reservations about flexible learning as he sees it at the moment.

After describing the nature of self paced learning and Dave’s own experience with it, he said:

Not a pleasurable way to learn, but learn I did since my income depended on it. I am not sure if the young students today would be that committed since a vast majority live for the day and not worry much about the future.

Obviously this is a big generalisation, but I guess its fare enough and based on his on experience with the types of students his courses attract. (I think Dave teaches electrical engineering from memory). Dave goes on to picture a scenario where his usual students respond to the challenges of flexible and self paced learning:

We are starting to talk about the ‘acquisition and participation’ models now how getting the students more involved with the participation concept will enhance their learning but the need for someone to facilitate the direction of the learning will still be required.

Enter the participatory culture?

I still play a key part to the students learning in my course and I know that it is very much of the acquisition model, but don’t forget, we are providing a service that industry dictates. If these graduates of ours come out of study with a qualification, industry expects that they are capable of performing that duty with minimum training required.

So Dave is grappling with the freedom, time and the general expectation of his job. I’m pretty sure that if He keeps exposing himself to ideas and new developments in media, his student’s culture, and the expectations of some of the more innovative sectors of his industry group, he will gradually find that balance. But I want to do is offer a broader scope and reasoning to flexible learning then the self directed, correspondence style learning he is commenting on from Sheryll’s post. Dave may already be thinking about a broader scope to flexible learning, but I’ll still use his post as an opportunity to talk about them…

I keep an eye on the blog of the Otago Polytechnic Student Association President – Richard Mitchell. Lately he has been writing some compelling stuff about student debt. “Students are the only class of people [in New Zealand] who have to borrow money to pay rent and buy food..’

A significant number of students in New Zealand take subsidies to study. They get NZ$150 per week – but on loan! They have to pay that back, some even pay 6.8% interest on that loan! Another number get a subsidy that they don’t have to pay back – they are means tested against their parent’s income. New Zealand’s student debt is woeful by international comparisons – it is little wonder the country struggles to hold its population from bleeding out to Australia.

What does this have to do with flexible learning? A lot! If I was in that situation, the last thing I’d need is a course that required me to attend classes every working day – all day. In fact, I wouldn’t want to attend classes at all under those conditions. But if I wanted to improve my long term employment opportunities, the most I could afford would be 1 or 2 days in class time at the most!

The award wage for unskilled labour in NZ is $12 per hour. Rent is around $250 – $300 per week for a 3 bedroom home ($100 for one person), a car (which you sadly must have in Dunedin) averages out at about $100 per week, food for one is about $100 per week, and Internet and telephone is about $25 per week. So using those basic figures, a single person needs at least $325 per week. At $12 per hour, that’s around 30 hours per week if you’re having to pay tax! Then there’s your annual student fees, your social life, saving for christmas and family visits… so to have a reasonable life that is not plagued with depression and poor health, you probably need to be working 40hours a week on the award rate of $12 per hour.

So here’s a very compelling reason we need flexible learning options in our courses. Perhaps the students Dave talks about aren’t having to pay their way so much and don’t appreciate the purpose for being there as much as others might. Perhaps only the priveleged go into study in New Zealand, and perhaps that is why Dave feels he can’t rely on his students motivations to learn.. but now its me who is generalising.

With the opportunity to attend short workshops at a wide variety of hours, to start and finish a course of study at flexible times, to pay fees at more opportune times, to have streamlined opportunities for assessment of prior learning, and to have workplace learning opportunities for those lucky enough to already have a job in the sector they hope to advance in… would be just a few ways to reach potential students we are not currently reaching.

I help facilitate a course called, Designing for Flexible Learning Practice. It is a subject within the over all teaching qualification we run called Graduate Certificate in Tertiary Learning and Teaching. We recently started our second running of the DFLP course, and this time with a course blog, course wiki, participant blogs and an email list as the primary platforms for information and communication.

This week the participants have been asked to read up on Flexible Learning and post to their blogs a summary of our thoughts and ideas on it relating to our subject areas. For those of us needing more structure, my colleague sent out printed versions of the 1st Chapter from the book, Flexible Learning in a Digital World as a base level reader to the subject. Following are my loose notes on the reading…

Sadly, the chapter is nowhere to be seen online. So I’ve scanned it and loaded it here for reference.

I think I’ll use that absence of an online version of the reader to start my response. I’m currently sitting in a house in the suburb of Taylor’s Lakes, North of Melbourne Australia. I forgot to bring my printed version of the article so could not read it and respond as the other participants are doing. I searched the Internet high and low, but had to resign myself to a 2 hour return journey into the city to run around the libraries in the hope that I would find a copy and be allowed to photocopy the chapter. My first stop was the State Library of Victoria which had almost thousands of articles on Flexible Learning, but nothing by the authors Collis and Moonen. Hmm a question mark hangs over this reading already! Why wouldn’t the State Library of Victoria have a copy of this book?… but the lady at the desk was helpful and used her special login to another catalogue and was able to locate an available copy in the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology’s Library.. ahh we’re back on track, that library was just next door too.

I found the book’s call number on the RMIT’s library catalogue, but when I arrived at the shelf it wasn’t there. The catalogue said it was available, but it certainly wasn’t in the place it should have been. Luckily my partner Sunshine was with me, and her eyes spotted it on the shelf next door, completely the wrong section. Happy to have the book at last, I approached the desk to ask if I could copy the first chapter. No, I wasn’t allowed to scan it because I didn’t have an RMIT username, but I was allowed to photocopy it at a charge.

So, nearly 5 hours later I am home and ready to read it. I have scanned it to PDF and loaded it to my blog (if that’s a breech of copyright for educational purposes, please don’t fine me, just let me know and I’ll take it down)… so so far, has this been a good experience of flexible learning? I’d say not. And especially when I read the one important line in the reading on page 10,

“Flexible learning is a movement away from a situation in which key decisions about learning dimensions are made in advance by the instructor or institution, towards a situation where the learner has a range of options from which to choose with respect to these key dimensions.”

and those key dimensions, according to Collis and Moonen are:

  1. Flexibility related to time
  2. Flexibility related to content
  3. Flexibility related to entry requirements
  4. Flexibility related to instructional approach and resources
  5. Flexibility related to delivery and logistics

P10

Apart from the lack of accessibility to this reading, I also have concerns about its age – 2001. Pretty short time in terms of paper back publishing, but a long time in terms of Internet publishing… so I wonder how relevant this article could be. Certainly their list of dimensions of flexible learning seems to corner their conceptual framework into learning that is offered by way of Institution and accreditation processes, and would seem not to account for recent developments in social media, informal learning and networked learning and other similar models for contemporary ideas of socially constructed learning.

But a read of the book’s only review in Amazon.com, and the strong recommendation from my colleague tells me that I should put aside these initial concerns and give it a go. So here goes… 20 pages of reading a photocopied, none cut and paste-able text. (I’m such a winger aye!)

The initial thrust of the article is that flexible learning is not just about distance. It seems to come from the author’s experience with teacher training in the field where a common misconception that their learners have is that flexible learning is distance learning with a new name. The chapter goes to great length to try and explain the scope of flexible learning through the first 5 pages without giving a single scenario or example. Where it took 5 pages to speek generally about the features of flexible learning – I think a couple of rich scenarios would have helped me focus more on the generalities of this article.

So why did they do this? On page 2 they state their position quite early on by quoting a fella by the name of Van den Brande back in 1993 ‘There must be more flexibility to meet the needs of the learner, through the adaptibility to different learner needs, learning patterns and settings, and media combinations’. And to approach this statement, the article feels that it is necessary to ask, what is flexible learning first off. I think it is strange to want to ask this question in response to Van den Brande’s statement. I dunno what the context of Brande’s statement was, but it would seem to me that the first question to ask would be why? Why do we need flexible learning?

So, feeling lucky, I threw that question into Google: “Why do we need flexible learning”

Only 2 results and one of them was a casual blog post by me!! Very disconcerting, so to widen the net I removed the quotation marks: why do we need flexible learning and from that I can see the main online proponent for the concept of flexible learning is the Australian Flexible Learning Framework. So I asked the AFLF: why do we need flexible learning resulting in no straight answer and 9 out of 10 of the results being documents in strangely the most inflexible word processor formats!

So it seems to me that there is no easily accessible straight answer to this obvious question? This idea of flexible learning is beginning to take on water…

But surely governments wouldn’t allow public servants to spend millions of dollars on a concept that doesn’t have a straight, voter-friendly answer to what it is…! Even though I am quite distracted by my unanswered question, maybe I better stop asking and focus on the task at hand – reading and responding to this article…

Putting flexibility into practice: opportunities…

Straight away the concept of flexible learning made operational (p13 paragraph 5) stands out at me, as this is what we are continually juggling in the facilitation of this DFLP course. Expressing curriculum ideas in terms that can be turned into manageable options for other participants. In past experience, it would seem that anymore than 1 option becomes an unmanageable thing for the participants in DFLP. We are all busy, mostly full time workers of mature age with many external commitments. This means that most of us would prefer a simple directive on what to do and by when, rather than manageable options of what to do and by when. Especially when the ultimate measure of learning and subsequent accreditation is based on stated outcomes and/or standard units of competency! So once again I find myself back at the unavoidable question of why we need flexible learning…

From p14:

Lessons 1. Be specific! We need to define our terms and express our goals in a measurable form or else progress will be difficult to steer and success difficult to claim.

I don’t mean to be argumentative, but it seems to me that this statement is more applicable to the concerns of an educational organisation, than for an individual learner. Mainly because specific terms, goals and measurables might just as easily limit an individual than it might make their progress and success easy to quantify.

From the perspective of the learner
And it is in the paragraph on p15 that this conflict of interest is articulated in a quote of someone named Fleming in 1993,

Modular structures, credit accumulation schemes, independent learning and so on, can create a supermarket system in which students wander freely, picking up this course or that, having as little contact with lecturers as supermarket shoppers have with anything resembling the friendly village grocer. These changes may empower learners.

I’m not sure I like the analogy in that, but I agree with the sentiment of empowering learners, but as the authors point out, such empowerment can confuse learners… “not all students want to make their own choices or be responsible for the quality of their choices.” p15 para 2 (isn’t it amazing how this discussion always ends up sounding like an early 20th Century political battle between fascists and democrats).

From the perspective of the educational institution
Ah, this article knows the institutional barriers to flexible learning very well. Nuff said

Now I’m up to p17 and the title is Who wants flexible learning? I have a feeling that my niggling question may get partly answered here…

“Students in the normal intake routes, directly from secondary school and resident at or near the physical campus, are being joined by increasingly diverse cohorts. These cohorts are diverse in age, educational backgrounds, experiences, distances in which they live from campus and even cultures and native languages” (Langlois 1997) p17 para 2.

Sounds good, gobal village kinda stuff, but sadly I am not yet seeing this in my own teaching work. I would love to start seeing it more, where the subjects I am asked to facilitate, such as this DFLP course, get attended by people other than employees of the Polytech, and people from more diverse cultural and language backgrounds. Its early days for DFLP though, and we are certainly trying to get the course into that arena, so we’ll see. But I think Langlois’ call is a good one. If it isn’t happening already, then we might add it as an objective for development, as there’s no doubt that having global awareness like this is a useful thing in all subject areas, not to mention society as a whole, so making it possible in our developments will help to make it a reality.
OK, I’ve read ahead quite a bit now. Am getting tired and Sunshine wants to take an afternoon walk (I knew 20 pages was going to kill me off) . I’ve skipped to the conclusion and can detect very little extra in concepts that I might have missed by skimming the final pages. The chapter sums up by saying flexible learning is a complex thing. Well yes, I guess it is, but personally I don’t find that very helpful. I already know it is complex, what I want to know is how to make it simple. So I guess I’m going to adopt that as a bit of a role – attempting to simplify these things that are made almost too complicated.

In New Zealand there is a National Digital Strategy which involves educating the public in the use of computers and digital formats amongst other things. Here at Otago Polytechnic we meet that challenge with what I think is a good and simple approach. We have set up satellite computer rooms in regional locations around Otago in which members of the public can come in, grab a work book, sit down and self pace through the activities. The workbooks are written to different levels, so you can start super easy and work your way up. Every venue has a facilitator who can help with any of the things a person is doing through the workbook. This programme is called Computing for Free and is available at any of the Community Learning Centres marked with a Q4U.

I think this relates very directly to the developing concept of free learning, fee education. Thanks for the comments and suggestions by the way. At the Computing for Free programmes, anyone can walk in off the street and indicate that they would like to ‘learn computers’. The facilitator gets their name and details and sits them down with what ever level and topic they think suites that person. They get them started and periodically check back with them to see how they are going.

Inevitably a relationship forms between the person off the street and the facilitator. Sometime the person off the street doesn’t come back for a while, other times they hang out for a period of days. The facilitator nurtures that person into an educational setting, getting them comfortable with structured learning, helping them develop independent learning skills, and building confidence with the idea of assessment. Eventually the person off the street might feel ready to go for a qualification in computing – or maybe they are just happy with having know how.. the facilitators I have spoken to say – “its all good”.

Just sitting in these spaces (as I am now) has a great vibe about it. It could be better – lounges, coffee, headphones, a great free music collection, stuff to make it cool, but its fine as it is now. Its doing it job, which is reaching out to people in the community and offering non threatening opportunities to learn important stuff.

Now, picture gym. You know, those torture chambers of weights, cables and sweat towels. Somehow, the business of gyms succeeds in making those weird environments less threatening, and even community spirited. Self conscious, over weight, anti social people can be turned around in a matter of weeks in these places. Now think of your learning environment and think of it more like a gym. Try it on, see how it feels. Not one of those seedy gstringed, steroid gyms, but a contemporary and professional gym with qualified trainers, physiotherapists and doctors.

What would the equivalent of this be in an educational setting? I think it is something like the Q4U but with a little more cool added. People can come in to a small venue that is ALL about learning. No huge admin building towering over everything, no massive campus, just a smallish shop front or what ever is a good location for people. Hell! buy up that corner store milk bar that Woolworths shut down 15 years ago. There, right in the middle of everyone. Offer as many courses as there is interest. All of them available as much as possible through self paced workbooks, and where there is practical hands on needed, that can be arranged – see below.

Now, find facilitators. Not teachers. Teachers come later. These facilitators are people who have done the courses and can help the next person. They are the primary point of contact and everything runs through them. They are friendly and helpful people who can remember the level that the people off the street are at. They are like the trainers in our learning gym. The physiotherapists are the career advisers and the like – they sit in offices near by and can be seen when advice and mentoring is needed. They can help create specialised programmes to suit the particular needs of the individual. Then we have the doctors. They are our teachers. The often not-so-friendly face of impatient expert. They are seen when a specialised programme or need for practical experience has arisen. The self paced learner is scheduled in to meet with the doctor, often along with other learners for purposes of efficiency, and they go to see the doctor/teacher for expert know how. Then it’s back the physiotherapist and facilitators to continue with self paced work – only this time slightly tweaked by the doctor – who has added activities to suit the need – such as critical thinking exercises, special skills practices and the like. So, there it is, part 2 in what might become a series of silly ideas for flexible learning in New Zealand.

Just about every training and education organisation I have worked for is going through what I would call an identity crisis. All of them are investing heavily in a concept known as Flexible Learning. But what is Flexible Learning?? Put “what is flexible learning” or “why do we need flexible learning” into Google or in the search bar of any of the big names that show up in Google and see if you can get a straight answer. I sure didn’t, which sends a pretty clear message to me.. crisis. Inevitably, there are as many interpretations to Flexible Learning as there are people affected by it. I’ll just add to the noise and see if I can’t help to get an answer into Google.

Often, models for Flexible Learning are far more complex than they need to be. Often it is eLearning that makes them this way. I think the Q4U programme is an example or a remarkably simple yet very effective implementation of flexible learning.

I’ve articulated this idea quite a few times around my place of work, but am yet to find any takers willing to try it out. I’ve had some local and rather limited criticisms and reality checks, mostly pointing to external auditing bodies who may technically have a problem with the idea, but nothing strong enough to deter my thinking/delusion that its a good idea. So I’d like to know, especially from the kiwis, if something like this is being done anywhere else, or if you think I’m totally out of my tree and should go back to Australia?

The idea:

Relating to the scenario in What would it be like to be the rain, and especially Learning for Free, Education for Cost – where a person has the opportunity to attend class activities, and complete assessment tasks for free, but to gain certification – must pay a fee. And thinking only in terms of adult or tertiary education here…

The idea is made up of 4 parts.

1. Make ALL learning environments, resources, and assessment activities for a course freely available, openly, without restrictions such as fees and log ins. This obviously creates havoc for many courses, not least the question of how to sustain it financially (which is dealt with in part 4) but more notably is the issue of quality of the resources to be made openly available, especially the copyright clearances of the content to be used. This open and free access can pretty much rule out almost all courses we offer, as the protection of the passwords and fee paid classrooms ensures few people see, therefore few people question quality or copy. So free and open is a good pressure in my view.

2. Break the course down into as small as practical units of study. Make the study of these as asynchronous as possible. Make the units as scalable to as many paths of study as possible. The smaller the course, the easier it is to offer it more repetitively. The more asynchronous it can be, the more flexible the learning of it can be. The more scalable it is, the more value it can have in other areas of study. A person could choose to do the unit in one hit or over several instances and from different contextual view points. Clearly I am still holding onto the old reusable learning object idea here – but less about software, more about learning design.

3. Allow free access to the course. Free access to the learning resources, participation in class activities, communication with teachers and students, and submission of assessment tasks for feedback – all without charge.

4. Keep records of the students who complete assessment tasks including any feedback given, but only award accreditation to those who have paid the fee. Because good records are kept, recognition of prior learning later in a student’s life is streamlined. You can encourage students to apply for scholarship grants or employer sponsorship and the like and having the assurance of a pass based on the free participation will assist in confidence to pay the fee. Accreditation is only awarded when a fee is paid. Students can’t get formal transcripts of their study until a fee (perhaps a smaller fee if only for transcripts) to avoid students learning through you, but taking their transcripts elsewhere for accreditation.

Basically, it is the freeware model with a bit of lock-in marketing. The flexibility it enables a learner means that people can opt in to study (full or part time) without committing to up front fees, or inflexible time tables and course durations. Up front fee paying students stand to benefit from wider participation with others – think youtube or wikipedia scale… and everyone understands that it is the accreditation that the fees pay for, not the learning. The learning is enhanced by wider participation (depending on how well it is managed) so ‘the more the merrier’

A few days ago I posted an idea called out from under the umbrellas, of why and how educational institutions should decentralise

Tonight is an idea of how formal teaching and learning, assessment and accreditation might occur in that decentralised educational context.

I was reading Artichoke’s latest post, Nobody owns it, everybody can use it and anybody can improve it that motivated me to stop reading and start typing. However typical of the feeling after reading any Artichoke posts I’m left astounded at how much Arti can fit into a single sentence, let alone a post chock full of quotes, references and links! and bewildered on what I might say when it seems as though it has all been said.

But it is that sentence that Arti uses as the over all theme to her post that rang bells for me most. It reminded me of the Linux ads IBM is running on Youtube – but more importantly how amazingly possible, if not already true the statement is.

I dunno why really, but it makes me want to imagine what would it be like to be the rain…

If you’ve read my post about decentralised education, out from under the umbrellas, then the title of this post may soon make more sense.

So, we have teachers with strong Internet presence. They point to, discuss, demonstrate, collate prolific amounts of information about their subject/s. They model the best practice possible, and lead by example. They share all that they know, and actively seek out what they don’t, they are endorsed, supported and promoted by the institution/s they use as a base… in doing all this their Internet presence is strong, as it needs to be for this:

We have people all around the world, using the worlds biggest and most successful training provider (Google + wikipedia + youtube, etc) to access information and wherever possible communication, around what it is they are wanting and needing to learn. With a strong and established Internet presence our brave new teachers get found.

It is here I start to think about ways to try and match institutional learning pathways to this informal and self paced learning method through Google et al.

Let’s start by reminding ourselves how Ask Ninja explains podcasting:

I hope you managed to watch that movie. Basically Ninja describes the world of the person seeking ideas, entertainment, information and the like online. That person wanders the landscape of search results, random links and posts, surfing… they happen across a single piece of content that grabs their attention (be it because of the entertainment value like Ninja, or because of its perceived value in answering a question or problem, or both..)

The challenge for teachers I think, is how to develop a web presence in such a way that this person will want to come back, subscribe, or otherwise tune in to what you are doing.

For example, if I was exploring an interest in lets say…architecture, and happened across something you (a teacher of it) had pegged – a quick video demonstrating how I might go about measuring my house and using Google sketch up to draw my dream renovation… I could be made interested by this. Now that I’m interested, things that would draw my interest further would be if at the end, or attached to the video somewhere was some advise on what my next steps could be and how what I just learned relates to what I could learn more of.

Those suggested next steps would draw me into more of your work – micropedagogical dumps as Brent says, bite sized chunks of things that would make me want to stay or come back. Things that would maintain my interest would be more of those seemingly random content feeds relating to architecture, and ending in next steps and suggested relationships to various life contexts… more video demos, short audio recorded interviews with practitioners (5 – 10 minutes) from NZ, India, South Africa, Brazil, China… a nicely designed text for print that inspires me to think differently about architecture and its importance in web design… recordings of your 10 – 15 minute lectures (goodbye 1 – 2 hour lectures)…

Along the way I have come to realise that you are a lecturer in architecture. My eyebrows lift at this realisation and I instinctively compare you to my past experiences with teachers.. “man! this person is onto it!” I’d think. I’d start to become more impressed by your passion for the subject as I see that you post a new thing every second day or so. I become even more impressed when I come to learn that some of what you post refers to your students work! I follow the links into your students, and see how they blog about their work with you. I am allowed to see the conversations and authentic learning that you are facilitating with these people and I start to relate myself into the experience. No enrollment fee, password and login profile to block me there… I start to see that becoming a qualified architect may be a possibility for me, achievable in my spare time after work.

So I make contact with you. A few days later you reply. Not with an enrolment form and an 0800 number, but with get-to-know-ME questions. Genuine, personal. I reply with questions about your work, you reply with answers and pointers to other work. You ask me if I’d like to join a web conference with your class! I bork and get shy, you say, “no worries – just listen in if you like” and give me the time and link. I do listen in, and see that the group you are communicating with are people just like me, and once again I think how possible it might be for me to study to become an architect. I go away for a while and see what else I can find, but inevitably I keep falling back to your blog, looking for more of that initial experience.

Weeks later you send me an email with an assignment attached. You explain that you thought I’d be interested in having a go at it, and if I wanted to I could send it in when I finished it. No mention of a fee. I’m surprised by this, even a little suspicious, but on reading the assignment I am curious.

I few weeks later I build up the courage to send you my attempt at the assignment. A few days go by and you respond with an impressive amount of feedback, written not with a teacher voice,but with progressive discourse as Konrad calls it. As an equal – respectful, sensitive, and personal. You then point me to your own attempt at the same assignment and I find it amidst many others who have attempted the assignment in the past, some only days before me. I even comment in on some of them, and get responses asking to see mine. You ask me if you can put my assignment up with the others…

This goes on for sometime. The teacher has to manage quite a bit of online social activity around their subject area, but avoids forming groups or classes, always treats people as individuals, respectful of each individuals capacity and time frames. The teacher is basically nurturing people into a relationship with them and their work as teachers in the field. Teachers as equals, as participants in their own courses, participants in a network.

Let’s review that. Individual teachers have strong, networked, Internet presence. Their presence is built on the basis of micro content. The potential student is looking at this world of information networked communication. They draw focus on a particular element of content and find that it is networked into a chain of content. At any point, opportunities to communicate around that information is available. When the communication starts, so does the relationship, and the prolonged learning. I think this is starting to look like Stephen’s picture of an alternative state education system posted October 6th.

but who pays?

Well, it’s for free!! But some may choose to pay. Eventually many people will come to a point in their learning this way where they either need to be accredited or want to be. Some want recognition for their work, others legally require it to do further work. When they are at that point is when they (their employer, government or scholarship) pay. When the time for accreditation is agreed on (in other words when the teacher and the student agree that both are ready) the student enrolls and pays a fee, and the teacher introduces a team of independent assessors and everyone goes through the work that has been done. All the assignments, communications if need be, readings that were read and considered, portfolio, work experience, interviews, all of it is looked at to make an assessment for qualification.

It is at this point where payment is made, the learning was free. Education costs, learning is for free.

So there it is, what I think it might be like to BE the rain.

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“…When the processes of formal training and assessment separate, institutionalised learning will be in crisis…”

Stephen Downes in a conversation with TANZ CEOs in Christchurch, September 21.

A scenario to help explain:

  • In the interests of quality assurance, builders in New Zealand are soon to be required to hold a certificate, however there is a shortage of builders in many areas of NZ.
  • To fast track certification and to ensure numbers of builders continue to be available, training organisations and builders associations will set up Recognition of Prior Learning and some training opportunities where needed.
  • If done well, the RPL process will become a fast track, cheaper option for certification. It is likely that smaller organisations will set up and sustain themselves solely on the provision of assessment for RPL, while others will focus on specific, just in time training.
  • This will create more options for people requiring certification and or training.
  • Industry will welcome shorter and/or more flexible training and certification opportunities, preferring work place training and assessment that is customised to their needs.
  • Secondary schools will start to align curriculum with these smaller providers and student income subsidies may begin to recognise these arrangements and extend their support to include study with these agencies.
  • Training and education institutions, heavy with a wide variety of both viable and non viable courses, and no longer enjoying exclusive recognition from student income subsidies, start to struggle under their inefficient size and processes.
  • Here is were the crisis begins…

I’m not too sure how sound or desirable such a scenario is, but there is plenty of evidence to say this is well under way already. It is basically a huge decentralisation of training and education.

The best response in my view is for the institutions themselves to decentralise in some way, and what follows is how I think that can best occur.

It just so happens that the long held and increasingly popular apprenticeship model is quite complimentary to this need to decentralise. Complimentary to the apprenticeship model is networked learning. On the one hand is an efficient, demonstrate and practice, mentor learning structure, while on the other is the enablement of an independent, informed and networked learner. Let me paint a picture:

Imagine if your institution allowed for more individualism. Your answer might be something like, “…Otago Polytechnic works for me…” rather than “.. I work for Otago Polytechnic..” A place where the brand, the infrastructure, the management and hiearchy, and the assets were in some way answerable or subsumed to the individuals who work from the organisation as a base.

The individual teacher would be out from under the umbrella of the organisation as a whole, and made more responsible for their own actions – or lack there of – while the organisation and its hiearchy is set up to support the development of that individualism in its teachers. Teachers would be expected (but not required) to establish and maintain a presence, a portfolio so to speak, always up to date – up to the second, with the work they are doing, their research, their ideas and thinking, their experiments, their teaching, and their communications with professional networks. A blog could be one way, but I didn’t say that… individuals from around the world can attached to the organisation by way of endorsement from the organisation for their work. They would have the opportunity to benefit from its support in negotiable terms. While the organisation benefits from a more flexible, individually responsible, diverse work force.

The important point is that the organisation becomes far less centralised and less identifiable en-mass or as a whole. It is more clearly identified by the individuals that grow from its base. It is made up of many individuals with explicit directions, expertise, interests etc, while the organisation is geared to support those individuals with professional development, admin, promotions, development funding and the like.

One more scenario:

  • Roy is a lecturer in cooking within a training institution called Tekotago.
  • Much needed mature and focused cooking students are taking advantage of alternative training and assessment options, leaving only the less mature and less focused students in his classes who need the others
  • This trend is undermining the quality of the Tony’s training and affecting his motivation.
  • Tony, along with around 30% of the institution’s lecturers has decided to develop a public profile as a cooking expert and teacher and help the Institution to decentralise.
  • He is given ownership of his intellectual property, independence from the organisational hiearchy, support in terms of admin, pay, infrastructure, development budget and the like, but is now more responsible for the quality of his over all work.
  • Tony is less restricted by the organisation, and is able to work independently, proactively and responsively to the training needs and trends of his potential students.
  • He is identified as Roy the Cooking teacher endorsed by Tekotago rather than simply a teacher at Tekotago
  • He remains with the organisation for the support in admin, more secure income, professional development opportunities, and access to development funds, but he is free to become totally independent should he choose.

Of course the questions flap in the wind… what is to become of the teacher who prefers the shelter of the organisation… they way I see it, both can exist – for now.


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