Monday, November 14, 2005

Formal or informal?

Once upon a time, some very clever person decided that courses of learning should be modularised. That way, people could cherry pick which parts of the course they wanted to undertake and which to omit.

This system meant that existing knowledge could be taken into account for the first time when conducting a TNA. In fact, it was simply a matter of taking the credit transfer concept in practice at universities, and breaking it down into smaller pieces.

Then, along came the world wide web, placing into the hands of Joe Average the power to access information on an ad hoc basis. Nowadays, when Joe needs to know anything - from the lyrics to his favourite song to the principles and practice of cardiac surgery - he doesn't automatically sign himself up for a course. He goes to his any search engine and types in a few key words. Within seconds, the search engine lists for him sites containing those key words - possibly running into the millions. Reading through the extracts in the list, he chooses a few likely candidates. Then he flits from site to site, scanning the information available until he finds one that addresses what it is he wants to know today.

Along the way, Joe might stumble upon a few items that catch his interest and he may well follow links to learn more. In this way, he builds up a collection of scraps of knowledge that may or may not be related to the original topic of interest.

After a few months of doing this, Joe decides that what he really wants to do is become a cardiologist himself. However, he knows full well (he's not stupid, our Joe!) that no-one in their right minds is going to let him realise his ambition, unless he can produce a piece of paper that proves that he has attained certain learning objectives. Joe is halfway through med school, so he has some credits towards his goal, but the university cannot quantify his informal learning and he receives no recognition for his efforts.

Thus we discover the conflict between formal and informal learning.

In pursuit of his particular interest in interventional cardiac catheterisation, Joe has not only read up on the theory as published on the web, he has also read extensive reports on various blogs, he has listened to several podcasts and, on three occasions, has observed an expert in the field at work via a video link. Why is it assumed that what Joe learns through his own efforts and determination has less value than what he learns as he struggles to stay awake through Prof Snodgrass's dry and dusty lecture? Because the university can't ascertain that Joe's informal voyage of discovery has covered the learning objectives of the material as laid out within the curriculum. Consequently, in order to gain this credit, Joe must produce evidence that he has attended at least 80% of the lectures on the subject in order to be permitted to sit the exam. The fact that he has slept through them is entirely beside the point.

I have experienced first hand the frustration that comes with this lack of recognition for learning I have acquired of my own volition.

So how do we address this divide? I know that people like Jay Cross are very pro informal learning and I have great respect for their views. However, the proof of the pudding for me would surely come when a child of mine needed cardiac surgery. Would I be happy to entrust his life to the hands of someone who didn't have all the boxes ticked by some accredited organisation? Fuhgeddit. Perhaps I am simply a product of my educational environment, but I reckon there are still some things that have to be assessed by an impartial, skilled person/body.

So where do we draw the line? I'm still pondering that, but for now - for me - it has to be on the far side of skills that involve taking a person's life (or livelihood, come to that) into one's hands.

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