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Literacies, Part Three – Literacies and Beyond

David Baume, PhD, SFSEDA, SFHEA

Fellow, University of London Centre for Distance Education

This is part of a series.

Higher levels of literacy

There is something I don’t like about literacy, literacies. Literacy sounds – well, a bit low-level for higher education.

I am not against literacy! I am delighted when children in the primary schools of which I am a governor show how they can read, write, listen, talk, select and use information, make sense, solve problems using reasoning and numbers …

But surely higher education should mean, should require, more than such (vital and to be celebrated) basics? Something – higher?

What would make literacies higher level, more degree-worthy? Perhaps:

  • The upper three levels of Bloom (Bloom, Kratwohl and Masia, 1974) – analysis, evaluation and synthesis?
  • The upper levels of Biggs SOLO taxonomy (Biggs, n.d.) – the abilities to bring together, synthesize, maybe compare and contrast, and then go beyond, increasing quantities of information and numbers of concepts?

Or, as QAA suggests (QAA, 2008, Part A,  4.15), abilities to:

  • … devise and sustain arguments, and/or to solve problems, using ideas and techniques, some of which are at the forefront of a discipline
  • … critically evaluate arguments, assumptions, abstract concepts and data (that may be incomplete)
  • … make judgements, and to frame appropriate questions to achieve a solution – or identify a range of solutions – to a problem
  • … communicate information, ideas, problems and solutions to both specialist and non-specialist audiences. and
  • An appreciation of the uncertainty, ambiguity and limits of knowledge.

There are lots of ideas here about where level in capabilities, literacies, lies. Key ideas may be that higher levels lie in:

  • Complexity (of capabilities);
  • The ability to communicate accurately, clearly and effectively;
  • Taking an active approach;
  • Taking a critical approach;
  • Explaining, justifying, reviewing, improving, going beyond; and
  • Explaining how and why ‘beyond’ is actually ‘beyond’, and not simply different, or more of the same, or just painted green.

Beyond literacies

I like the idea of literacies, capabilities, as goals for education, for learning.

But I don’t think capabilities alone are enough.

What’ s missing?

I suggest, at least three things.

1          Values and principles

Alongside literacies / capabilities, surely values and principles are also essential parts of academic, disciplinary, professional, practice and identity?

The ‘know, do, be’ hierarchy described in Post One on Literacies helps us here. Values and principles need not figure much in knowing, except as propositional knowledge; knowing what the values and principles are. Values and principles can be more prominent in what we do – they can inform what we do, and also how and why we do what we do. Indeed, if they don’t inform what we do and how we do it, they remain dead propositional knowledge. But values and principles are, surely, an inextricable part of our academic, professional, disciplinary, indeed our personal, identity?

Values and principles have long figured in professional qualifications for those who teach in higher education. (SEDA, n.d.) (Advance-he.ac.uk, n.d.).

Values and principles in professional standards

The story of the origin of values and principles in professional standards for those who teach in higher education is not well known. The story may illustrate the rather abstract account of values and principles given above.

The core capabilities for teaching in higher education can perhaps be summarised as Plan; Teach and support learning; Assess and give feedback; Review the effectiveness of what we do; and Develop, continue to develop, as a teacher.

The account became more complex. I still like this simple version.

But where was equality of opportunity in this? Where was scholarship? Where was the collaboration that is an essential feature of effective teaching?

We tried adding these as capabilities – Practice equality of opportunity. Practice in a scholarly way. Collaborate.

But there was a problem. Equality of opportunity, scholarship, collaboration are different kinds of things than plan, teach, etc. You can’t meaningfully do them in isolation. You have to plan, teach etc. in ways that assure quality of opportunity. You have to be scholarly about planning, teaching, assessing and giving feedback, etc.

(Knowledge came into the standards later. I’m still not sure that knowledge helps in professional standards. Of course teachers need to know things, about education as well as about what they teach. But knowledge easily separates off from practice. Part of the argument of this whole series of posts on literacies is that knowledge lives in action (action here includes thinking ). Alone, static, knowledge can die.)

We weren’t sure whether equality of opportunity, scholarship, etc. were principles or values – we settled on values. But, crucially, they weren’t part of the same list as plan, teach etc. There were a second dimension.

We had to convert the original list of capabilities to a table. If plan, teach etc., were the rows of the table, then equality of opportunity , scholarship, etc were the columns. They had to permeate each of the rows, each of the capabilities. Plan, teach etc, are what you do.  Equality of opportunity, scholarship etc. talk about how you do them.

Just as knowledge without action can be dead, so actions without values or principles can be – well, value-less, unprincipled. And thereby incomplete.

2          Embedded capabilities

Let’s stay with doing and being. It is rarely enough to be able to do things. If the things are important enough, we also need to do them, as essential and continuing parts of our practice, indeed of our identity.

Literacies, capabilities, learning outcomes, are things that we can do. But, when we shift from doing to being, then they become things that we always do. They become, in a deliberate double negative, things that we cannot not do.

Capabilities have, on this account, now become things that we must do – again, critically, reflectively, embodying our values and principles, embedded in our practice.

3          Fluency

When we exercise these capabilities often enough; when they become part of our practice and of our identity; we become fluent in their practice, exhibiting a certain grace.

Fluency feels a good quality; as long as we remain critical and reflective about what we do and how we do it. We need to get beyond unconscious competence, and get to what I have called reflective competence (Businessballs.com, 2004).

Conclusion

With the addition of values and principles; a commitment to embed these in our practice; and at least the aspiration to a certain fluency; we can render the idea of literacies more appropriate as an organising principle for teaching and learning higher education.

Next time – Locating and teaching literacies

References

Biggs, J. (n.d.). SOLO Taxonomy. [online] John Biggs. Available at: https://www.johnbiggs.com.au/academic/solo-taxonomy/  [Accessed 17 Nov. 2019].

Bloom, B., Kratwohl, D. and Masia, B. (1974). Taxonomy of educational objectives. 1st ed. New York: David McKay.

Businessballs.com. (2004). Conscious Competence Model – BusinessBalls.com. [online] Available at: https://www.businessballs.com/self-awareness/conscious-competence-learning-model/  [Accessed 17 Nov. 2019]. Search on Baume

QAA. (2008). The framework for higher education qualifications in England, Wales and Northern Ireland August 2008. [online] Available at: http://www.qaa.ac.uk/en/Publications/Documents/Framework-Higher-Education-Qualifications-08.pdf  [Accessed 29 Apr. 2017].

SEDA. (n.d.). Further guidance on the seda values for members. [online] Available at: https://www.seda.ac.uk/further-guidance-seda-values  [Accessed 17 Nov. 2019].

Literacies, Part One – The Changing Meanings of Literacy

Literacies, Part One

New meanings of ‘literacy’

The meaning of ‘literacy’ seems to have expanded, while I wasn’t looking.

It used to mean something like ‘being able to read and write, maybe also listen and speak’. Now literacy (sometimes, literacies) caries a much broader meaning, something like ‘being competent or capable’, at – pretty much anything.

So we have several (often overlapping) literacies – digital literacy, information literacy, library literacy, cultural literacy, academic literacies, research literacy, even numerical literacy – numeracy, surely? And perhaps others to come. Employability can be recast as careers literacy.

This isn’t a moan about the changing meanings of words. It isn’t a moan at all. It’s a reflection on a change, a change that goes off in several interesting directions. Let’s try to follow some of these, here and in subsequent posts.

Literacies considered as capabilities

Literacies, whatever else they are, are capabilities. They are things that people can do. People who are, in these various senses, literate, can – read, write, listen, speak, be academic, manage information, work with numbers, plan and manage a career …

I like this. I find it productive to consider learning as the gaining, the development, of capabilities.  (You will see a predilection for verbs over nouns throughout this article. Not to the exclusion of nouns. But, as a metaphor, sentences generally need both a noun and a verb, and some indication of how they relate.)

Knowledge

Of course I also value the acquisition of knowledge. People – I – enjoy learning new things, and knowing things. But my inclination always is to value what people – again, I – can do with and to knowledge, rather than simply the possession and recall of knowledge. Higher-level capabilities build on, test, analyse, draw connections between, and show the need for, items of knowledge.

To emphasize: I am not against knowledge, against knowing. The more knowledge we in some sense have; or can readily access, or know of the existence of, or can reasonably surmise the existence of; then the more connections, relationships, we can suggest and make and test among these items of knowledge. (This previous sentence is intended to suggest a technology-aided increasingly porous boundary between what we know in our heads and what is increasingly readily accessible to us.)

And the number of these connections rises exponentially in relation to the number of nodes, in this case the number of pieces of information. This is an individual version of the network effect.

But knowledge, knowing, become increasingly problematic, certainly until we are clear about the status of what we know. And we often are not clear about this, certainly not explicit about the status of our knowledge, not always readily able to say how confident or provisional we are in our knowing, and why. And even when we are currently clear about the status of our knowledge, of our knowing, then some knowledge still becomes wrong and /or irrelevant, more and more rapidly. New knowledge is being created at an increasing rate, faster than we can know it. And old knowledge is becoming wrong or redundant faster than we can forget it.

Anyway, there is more to a satisfying and productive life than being good at answering quiz questions, fun though that can be. (See the extract from the LSE Magazine ca. 1968 below. I’m the one on the left. Summary: we won. Notice the epically sexist 1968 prizes. Men drink. Women need help to remember who they are. Amazing.)

 Knowing involves finding or making, and then testing and explaining and using, shapes, patterns, structures, out of bits, bricks, facts.

BBC Third Degree Quiz contestants, 1968

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Knowing, doing, being

A useful hierarchy of goals for learning starts with knowing – knowing physics, social science, literature, any discipline.

It progresses to doing – again, doing physics, social science, literature, any discipline.

At the top of this hierarchy may lie being – being a physicist, a social scientist, a writer or critic or scholar of literature, any disciplinary or professional identity. Not excluding our many other identities, personal, political, and as citizens of the world.

I do not offer this as a developmental sequence. I have reservations about developmental sequences, particularly if they are used to plan education. There is no necessary, let alone automatic, progression from knowing to doing to being. But the hierarchy may usefully describe extents or qualities of engagement with a discipline. I value being over (just) doing, and knowing, and doing over (just) knowing. Although of course I recognise that a piece of knowledge can prompt a question, an action, and even offer a glimpse of an identity.

This whole series of posts will suggest a shift in our balance of attention away from just knowledge and towards action and then identity. Not a rejection of knowledge; rather an increased caution about it, and, again, putting knowledge in its place.

Conclusion, for now

So: I like literacies because they shift attention from just knowing, and towards doing, and potentially towards being.

 

Next time – Knowing and Action

Literacies, Part Two – Knowledge and Action

David Baume, PhD, SFSEDA, SFHEA

Fellow, University of London Centre for Distance Education

This follows Literacies, Part One.

Knowing and action

Building on Part One, we may be able to use the idea of literacies to reconceptualize – I would suggest, to recover – the idea of a discipline.

What do I mean by this? What got lost? What needs recovering?

Disciplines are often described, conceptualized, treated, as areas of knowledge.

Which might partly be fine.

Except that, somehow, in our course design and teaching and then in our assessment; and with no malign intent, but just in the way of things; knowledge is often gently reduced to declarative knowledge, to propositional knowledge, to content, to stuff.

We may reinforce this view of knowledge when we write knowledge down, when we lecture, above when we use unseen closed-book written examinations. Such examinations, whatever else we may intend them to assess, inevitably also assess knowledge. And, often, not much more. A recent examiner report (the Chatham House Rule applies here) spoke of the need, to obtain a good degree, for a student to actually address the question. A lower class of degree could be obtained by writing down some things that were relevant to the topic of the question. Really?  A degree?

“But”, you may protest, “in my examinations, I do not just test students’ knowledge. I also test students‘ abilities to apply, to critique, to compare and contrast, and to do other sophisticated high-level things with, and to, and about, knowledge.”

I am glad to hear this. But I imagine that you also prepare students for examinations? So, in their examinations, are they really doing these high-level things? Or are they, to some extent at least, recalling, and hopefully at least slightly modifying, answers they have previously read or constructed? Only you and they can know. (The QA system probably does not know. This is a hole at the heart of our assessment processes.)

There can also be snobbery at play here.  This snobbery prefers knowing over doing. Knowing is sometimes felt to be, is sometimes treated as, rarefied, exalted, a thing of fine minds and clean hands. Doing, by contrast – well, “horny-handed sons and daughters of toil” exemplifies a view of those who (merely) do.

Here is a true story about relations between knowing and doing. The event happen some 15 years ago. It has influenced me considerably, as I shall explain:

I went to see my GP. I described my symptoms. He paused, and then said “I am sorry, I’m just back from two weeks of holiday, and my brain seems to have emptied itself completely. Do you mind if I look this up?”

We had a good relationship, and he knew I worked in education. So what I said, as reported immediately below, was not intended or heard as rude.

“Hm. Let me think. Would I rather you guessed, possibly guessed wrong, and failed to cure me, or even made things worse? Or would I prefer you to look it up?”

He correctly took my questions as encouragement to look the symptoms up.  He used what he looked up – no doubt alongside his fast-returning memory – to prescribe a course of treatment. It worked.

In this short encounter with my GP, I discovered that I value what we may call expertise – the ability to do – of course the ability to do critically, intelligently, responsively, and in a knowledge-informed way, in whatever reputable place that knowledge is found – over knowledge alone.  I still take this view. And well beyond medicine.

What follows? Among other things, this advice:

  • Look it up.
  • Encourage your students to look it up.

Why?

  • You may have misremembered it. They may have misremembered it.
  • And some of the ‘its’ will have changed, some will have become wrong, some will have become irrelevant, some will have been superseded.

And looking it up gets easier by the month. And safe, as long as we constantly apply and hone our critical faculties.

This is how the real world works. Neither the use of closed-book unseen examinations, nor a snobbish, possibly class-based, preference of knowledge to action, should drag us into over-valuing knowledge.

A former colleague had previously served in the Army. He worked with artillery shells, fuses and the like. In his examinations, if he was seen to take any critical action without reference to the manual, he would immediately fail the examination. Not everything we and our students do can have explosive consequences. But surely some of what we and our students do matters? Surely it often makes sense to check?

Recovering disciplines as fields of practice – putting knowledge in its place

By ‘recovering the idea of a discipline’, I here mean conceptualizing and treating the discipline as a field of practice, and also as an identity – as something that  I do, perhaps even something that I am – well beyond, although still embracing, something that I know. Not rejecting the knowledge that is an important element of any discipline. Rather, putting that knowledge in its place; as a tool or object for critical and creative thought and action. rather than as the summit of aspiration.

Nothing of value is lost, I suggest, when we move away from considering disciplines as (just) bodies of knowledge, and instead / additionally consider them as fields of practice, and then as identities.

And much is gained.

How does that work?

It works as students both use and critique their advancing knowledge. Indeed, students learn knowledge, and much more besides, as they do the discipline; as they define and refine and tackle questions and problems; as they, critically and analytically, start to adopt and explore and test their forming disciplinary or professional identity.

Knowledge achieves much of its significance in action. Learning to do and learning to be, as developmental and critical functions, are at once more challenging and more rewarding than just learning content, learning stuff. I also addressed this in Part One.

Knowledge, capability and identity

The relationships between knowledge, capability and identity are complex. I shall not explore them further here. Except to suggest that the idea of a progression from, in terms from Bloom’s taxonomy of educational outcomes in the cognitive domain (Bloom, Kratwohl and Masia, 1974), knowing, and then advancing, as the years of study pass, through understanding and application to analysis then synthesis and evaluation, bears very little relation to how students actually learn. Bloom suggests, or is often taken to suggest, that students start by collecting and memorizing a bunch of facts. Then, on a second pass through, they come to understand these facts. And then they revisit these understood facts and learn how to apply them …

This is of course nonsense. Most teachers don’t wholly teach this way, fortunately. But I have seen this Bloomian idea of progression pervade teaching portfolios and HE Academy Fellowship claims. I was briefly seduced by it, early in my teaching career. But I recovered. The idea clearly at least affects the practice of teachers, and is sometimes made explicit in course handbooks. (Bloom, in these portfolios and claims, often lies alongside Kolb’s learning cycle and Biggs’ constructive alignment, the latter usually going much heavier on alignment than on constructivism.)  Perhaps, in relation to Bloom at least, the frequent disconnect between teachers’ espoused and enacted pedagogic theories (Baume 2017) is not such a bad thing.

A student is far more likely to learn when a problem, question, issue, idea or challenge seizes their attention, and when they work; at any and all six Bloom levels as appropriate; to solve the problem, answer the question, or do whatever it takes to satisfy them. For now.

The teacher has clear, important and rewarding roles here, including offering questions or problems, helping students to analyze these, and then steering and informing and challenging and reacting – and in helping students to do these things for themselves, and for and with each other. Not so much in telling students lots of stuff, in answering questions that students have not yet asked, as lectures often do.

Bloom’s Taxonomy can provide a valuable tool for analyzing the level of learning outcomes. But it is disastrous as a guide to course design.

Conclusion

So: I also like literacies, with their focus on doing, because they can help us to re-conceptualize disciplines in productive ways. Indeed they can help us to recover disciplines to something like what the discipline or profession means for the member, the practitioner, the advocate, the enthusiast, the lecturer.

Perhaps something like a field of academic, disciplinary and / or professional practice?

Reference

Bloom, B., Kratwohl, D. and Masia, B. (1974). Taxonomy of educational objectives. 1st ed. New York: David McKay.

Next time – Literacies and Beyond

Literacies, Part One

David Baume, Fellow, University of London Centre for Distance Education

New meanings of ‘literacy’

The meaning of ‘literacy’ seems to have expanded, while I wasn’t looking.

It used to mean something like:

‘Being able to read and write, maybe also listen and speak’.

Now literacy (sometimes, literacies) caries a much broader meaning, something like ‘being competent or capable’, at – pretty much anything.

So we have several (often overlapping) literacies – digital literacy, information literacy, library literacy, cultural literacy, academic literacies, research literacy, even numerical literacy – numeracy, surely? And perhaps others to come. Employability can be recast as careers literacy.

This isn’t a moan about the changing meanings of words. It isn’t a moan at all. It’s a reflection on a change, a change that goes off in several interesting directions. Let’s try to follow some of these changes, here and in subsequent posts.

Literacies considered as capabilities

Literacies, whatever else they are, are capabilities. They are things that people can do. People who are, in these various senses, literate, can – read, write, listen, speak, be academic, manage information, work with numbers, plan and manage a career …

I like this. I find it productive to consider learning as the gaining, the development, of capabilities.  (You will see a predilection for verbs over nouns throughout this article. Not to the exclusion of nouns. But, as a metaphor, sentences generally need both a noun and a verb, and some indication of how they relate. In education, learning outcomes generally need both nouns and verbs, and, again, some indication of how nouns and verbs relate.

Generally, “Students will be able to (verb) to, or with, about (noun).

Knowledge

Of course, I also value the acquisition of knowledge. We enjoy learning new things, and knowing things. But my inclination always is to value what we can do with and to and about knowledge, rather than simply the possession and recall of knowledge. Higher-level capabilities build on, test, analyze, draw connections between, and show the need for, items of knowledge. 

To emphasize: I am not against knowledge, against knowing. The more knowledge that we in some sense have; or that we can readily access, or of whose existence we know, or can reasonably surmise; then the more connections, relationships, we can suggest and make and test among these items of knowledge. (This previous sentence is intended to suggest a technology-aided increasingly porous boundary between what we know in our heads and what is increasingly readily accessible to us.)

And the number of these connections between items of knowledge, whatever form these items of knowledge take, rises exponentially in relation to the number of nodes, in this case the number of items of knowledge. This is an individual version of the network effect.

But knowledge, knowing, become increasingly problematic, certainly until we are clear about the status of what we know. And we often are not clear about this, certainly not explicit about the status of our knowledge, not always readily able to say how confident or provisional we are in our knowing, and why. And even when we are currently clear about the status of our knowledge, of our knowing, then some knowledge still becomes wrong and /or irrelevant, more and more rapidly. New knowledge is being created at an increasing rate, faster than we can know it. And old knowledge is becoming wrong or redundant faster than we can forget it.

Anyway, there is more to a satisfying and productive life than being good at answering quiz questions, fun though that can be. (See the extract from the LSE Magazine ca. 1968 below. I’m the one on the left. Summary: LSE won. Notice the epically sexist 1968 prizes. Men drink – hence, tankard. Women need help to remember who they are – hence, identity bracelet. Amazing.)

Knowing includes finding or making, and then testing and explaining and using, shapes, patterns, structures, explanations, out of bits, bricks, facts.

Knowing, doing, being

A useful hierarchy of goals for learning starts with knowing – knowing physics, social science, literature, any discipline.

It progresses to doing – again, doing physics, social science, literature, any discipline.

At the top of this hierarchy may lie being – being a physicist, a social scientist, a writer or critic or scholar of literature, any disciplinary or professional identity. (Not excluding our many other identities, personal, political, and as citizens of the world. If not of Europe. Sorry. No, not sorry, enraged.)

I do not offer this as a developmental sequence. I have reservations about developmental sequences, particularly if they are used to plan education. There is no necessary, let alone automatic, progression from knowing to doing to being. But the hierarchy may usefully describe extents or qualities of engagement with a discipline. I value being over (just) doing and knowing. I value doing over (just) knowing. Although of course I recognize that a piece of knowledge can prompt a question, an action, and even offer a glimpse of an identity.

This series of posts will suggest a shift in our balance of attention away from just knowledge and towards action and then identity. Not a rejection of knowledge; rather an increased caution about it, and, again, putting knowledge in its place.

Conclusion (for now)

So: I like literacies, because they shift attention from just knowing, and towards doing, and potentially towards being. Much more useful than just knowing.

David is working on information literacies, and on literacies more broadly, for the University of London Centre for Distance Education. 

Next time – Knowing and Action

Open Web Examination – OWE

Some thought experiments.

1

Revisit one of your recent examination papers. Make just one change to the rubric – “Students will have full access to the World Wide Web during this examination.” (Assume, at least for now, that they will still handwrite their answer.)

How would the nature and quality of students’ answers be different from the actual answers they wrote? Why?

2

You might want to narrow things down a little. You might want to ban the use of email and other forms of communication, within / outside the examination room. You might or might not want to let students access their Dropbox folder, or the University VLE. Your call. (Why did you make the choices you made?)

What differences would this additional item of rubric make? What would be gained, what would be lost, what would be?

3

Use the results of thought experiment 1 to plan the next examination, in the same subject, with the same new rubric – “Students will have full access to the World Wide Web during this examination.” What difference will that make to the questions you set? What would be a good Open Web version of last year’s questions? Or would you need to set radically different questions? What questions? Why?

4

Changing the exam without telling the students at the start of the course would obviously be wrong. So, assume that you have decided to set an Open Web Examination in this subject next time. First of all, whom if anyone would you have to persuade? What objections might they raise? How would you respond to these objections?  What concerns might you have? What are your responses to these concerns?

5

Assume that you have decided to set an Open Web Examination in this subject next time, and have obtained any necessary permissions.

How will the change to an Open Web Examination affect:

  • The design of the course?
  • The Intended learning outcomes?
  • The assessment criteria?
  • The way you teach the course?
  • The kinds of learning activities, both individual and collective, that you ask students to undertake?
  • The kinds of feedback they receive on their work?
  • The information and advice you give them on finding and sharing and using information?

In each case, again, why?

6

Jump forward a few years. Assume that the University has been using Open Web Examinations for the last few years, certainly all the time your current cohort of students has been at the University. Imagine announcing to them that you, are going to change to closed book examinations. What reactions would you anticipate? What questions would you expect to receive about the change? How would you answer these questions?

7

Imagine that, instead of handwriting their answers, students can word process their answers onto the same machine they are using to access the Web. Again, how do you think colleagues and students will react? Again, what changes would this make to the kinds of questions you ask, and to the way that you plan and run the course and teach the students? (One interesting side-effect would be to make plagiarism detection easier. It is difficult to run a hand-written examination script through Turnitin.)

8

You might want to go even further. Imagine students can communicate with each other, inside and outside the examination room. What differences would that make?

 

These thought experiments, these scenarios, obviously clarify differences between the conditions under which students are required to demonstrate some of their graduateness and the conditions under which, in the real world (including Universities), academic and professional work is done, with access to libraries, the web, email, interchange, conversation, feedback. Articulating these differences may encourage us to revisit conventional examination conditions, and check their continued appropriateness as part of certification for life and practice in the 21st century.

The scenarios draw attention to some of the capabilities that we do not assess – in the examination, at least, we may examine them elsewhere.

They suggest to me that closed book examinations show a sustained belief in the importance of memory, even in an age where we increasingly outsource our memory, though hopefully not our critical faculties. Thinking about Open Web Examination may encourage us to think hard about relations between knowing and doing in an age where both knowledge and action are changing faster than ever.

In a little more detail – Open Web Examination invites us to focus more closely on what students can do with, and to, what they know. It also invites us to focus on how they do what they do: For example, as we fervently hope, in ways that are critical, reflective, scholarly, principled, and values- and research-informed. In the good senses of both words, to act both academically and professionally.

Open Web Examination – OWE – also, Open World Examination.

What would it take for you to bring these OWE thought experiments to life? Again – what would be gained, lost, changed?

 

 

On Difficulty

What makes something – a subject, a topic,an idea, an ability, anything – difficult?

I found it easier to think about difficulty in relation to abilities, things we do. Is a 360° backflip on a BMX bike difficult? Well, I would find it so. I can’t speak for you. But I can probably speak for somebody who had already done a 720° backflip. They would probably say “No, a 360° is not so difficult.”

So, the difficulty of a particular ability is at least partly in the mind of the practitioner. And that difficulty is great or small at least partly in relation to what they already know they can do.

Staying with ability, and shifting from an individual to a societal view, another indicator of difficulty may be the smallness of the proportion of the population that can do it. The rarer, perhaps, the harder.

Staying with ability – we’ll get onto difficulty in relation to subjects, topics and ideas, l promise – other popular or intuitive dimensions of difficulty may be complexity and scale. I can play any particular chord from Tchaikovsky’s first piano concerto – give me a minute – but not all three movements. I can climb onto a small rock, but not climb Everest.

So, as elements or indicators of difficulty in practical tasks, I can offer:

1 Relation to my current capabilities: “It’s hard because I can’t do it (yet)”, which is “I haven’t done it yet” with the possible addition of “and I can’t immediately see how I would do it.”

2 The proportion of the population that can do it: “It’s difficult because lots of people can’t do it.” (Of course there are lots of things that most people don’t do mainly because they would never dream of or want to do them, but we’ll ignore these for now.)

Implicit in both the BMX and the Tchaikovsky examples:

3 The time taken to learn the ability: “It’s hard because it will obviously take a long time to learn to do it” and

4 The effort taken to learn the ability: “… a lot of work … “.

⁃ And then:

5 The complexity of the ability, the number of different elements and relationships in play; “Good grief but that looks complicated” and, related but not the same,

6 The scale – which may be size, duration, whatever applies. “Gosh but that looks enormous.” The Tchaikovsky example illustrates this well.

These are six possible dimensions of difficulty of abilities. What others do you see?

OK, at this point in the writing process, I admit I am surprised. If you’d asked me before I started what I was going to conclude, I’d have predicted that I would just say “Difficulty is purely, or mainly – i’m not sure which – subjective.” I enjoy writing when it gets me to an unexpected conclusion. The unexpected conclusion I’ve got to so far is that it is possible to talk about more-or-less objective factors which may contribute to difficulty.

But there is a sense in which my initial reaction was right, although of course badly incomplete. Difficulty is a feeling. Time or effort or complexity or rarity, any of the six dimensions of difficulty teased out above, may or may not bring with them a feeling of difficulty. For example, to the persistent or the individualistic, the large time investment required or the fact that the vast majority of people can’t do it may not be problems, may not be sources of difficulty. They may simply be facts. Or they may even attract, appeal.

As promised; what makes a subject, a topic, an idea, difficult?

I think, all of the above, as explored briefly here:

1 “I don’t understand it” and, perhaps, for a more persistent learner, “I can’t immediately see how I would come to understand it.”

2 Maybe “Very few people understand that.” or “Everybody says it’s really hard to understand”, a norm-referenced or crowd-sourced account of difficulty.

3 and 4, perceived or actual time and effort required, are very similar for ideas and for abilities. In education, time and effort may be reflected in the length of the course, or by popular accounts of how hard the course is, or by entry requirements.

5, Complexity, in both senses described here – the number of elements and the number of relations among them – is captured by Biggs in his SOLO taxonomy.

6, Scale is also captured by SOLO, and may be made manifest by the length of the reading list or the size of the textbook.

These close links between difficulties in abilities and difficulties in subjects, topics or ideas should not be a surprise. The many and complex relationships between abilities and knowledge are topics for many other blog posts. For now, I’ll simply note that, in education, knowledge usually embraces ability, which may be the ability to construct, critique, use and do many other things to and with the knowledge. Learning outcomes, on a good day, provide a bridge between knowledge and ability.

Beyond the six suggested above, there are further possible elements of difficulty in academic subjects, topics or ideas, if we work with learning outcomes rather than with knowledge as slabs of content.

7 Bloom offers us one way to conceptualise the difficulty of tasks. He considers a range of things we can do with and to knowledge, from recalling it, making sense of it and applying it to analysing it, evaluating it, and synthesising new knowledge. The higher levels of Bloom’s taxonomy are widely treated as corresponding to higher levels of difficulty, with for example lower level courses being confined to the lower levels of Bloom. I have serious difficulties with this, as i explore in other posts. But nonetheless the relating of Bloom level to difficulty is widely practised.

8 If we put Bloom and SOLO together, or rather set them orthogonal to each other, we can develop a useful account of difficulty as a composite function of level and complexity.

9 Wickedness is another dimension of difficulty, in the widely used sense of wicked problems. Wicked problems are not so much difficult to solve as insoluble, certainly incapable of an optimum solution. We may take solvability as another dimension of difficulty, applied of course to problems rather than just to content. To what extent, how far, can an exact or at least a satisfactory solution be obtained? The less solvable, perhaps, the more difficult.

10 If I can do arithmetic on small numbers, I can probably, with some care and effort, become able to do the same arithmetic on larger numbers. I am simply extending my capabilities.
By contrast if I can confidently do arithmetic and I am suddenly faced with differential and integral calculus, it may take me a long time to become competent and confident with them. They may feel to be much more difficult than doing arithmetic with larger numbers.

Why the difference in difficulty?

Doing arithmetic with larger numbers is still doing arithmetic. It’s more difficult, but it’s the same kind of activity. Differential and integral calculus are, by contrast, something else entirely. We have to change our view of what constitutes mathematics, adding calculus to arithmetic, and thereby add new ways of thinking, make sense of and then use new notations and concepts.

In Piaget’s language, calculus requires us to accommodate, to change, our view of what comprises mathematics. By contrast we can simply assimilate arithmetic with larger numbers into what we already knew about arithmetic. Rogers tells us that we are much more likely to resist new ideas and concepts that threaten our sense of self, our current worldview. Changing and extending paradigms, worldviews, is likely to be much more difficult than working within and extending current paradigms. This gives a further plausible account of difficulty.

11 Land and Meyer’s accounts of threshold concepts – ideas which among other qualities require a (usually irreversible) change in world view, and are therefore sometimes troublesome, difficult – usefully add to the work of Piaget and Rogers.

“What do you mean by difficult?”, or “Why do you say this is difficult?”, may be useful questions to ask learners, including of course ourselves. As the technology becomes better and better able to enact simple abilities, ideas, concepts, subjects, questions and tasks, then we are going to be left with the more difficult ones. (To which I reply, yippee, bring ’em on!)

Analysing the nature and sources of difficulty, as I have started to do here, doesn’t magically enable us to deal with these more difficult tasks. But it will give us valuable clues, precursors for planning and acting.

Notes
1 I am very grateful to Gerard Long, Head of Accounting and Finance at Waterford Institute of Technology, for a conversation earlier today which prompted this post.
2 The rather narrow broadband here in Jos, Nigeria, and the relatively small screen of the iPhone, together deny me ready access to references and sources. I shall insert these when back home, but not immediately,

As always – tell me what you think.

Re-mapping the Higher Education Development Community

54

 

Introduction

We’re trying to update our map of what we might call the UK Higher Education Development Community – by which we mean those national professions and organisations with a substantial and explicit focus on improving higher education in the UK.
Obviously our definition of the UK Higher Education Development Community isn’t very precise. I’m not sure it can be. To make things manageable, we’ve generally not included commercial providers, or university-based development units (even those that that work outside their institutions), or Unions or employer associations. Perhaps another day, for a broader study. Accepting that many boundaries/interfaces are a little fuzzy.
Thank you to the many colleagues on the SEDA jiscmail who have already added suggestions to the (much shorter) list posted recently.
We’d welcome your help. Who’s still missing?
If you’re not sure whether it’s a Development Association or not, let me know about it anyway. If you can let me have its web address, so much the better. And please let me know if you spot any errors here.
We’ll keep updating this. A future version will add a line or two about each organisation.
We hope it will be useful to know who else is out there doing development. We also hope this list may serve as a tool to facilitate cooperation, among developers and their associations.
Thank you
 
David Baume
david@davidbaume.com

 

The current list

 
Standing Conference on Academic Practice (SCAP)  
  Heads of Educational Development Group (HEDG)  
  Jisc  
  Association for Learning Development in HE (ALDinHE)

  1. ALDinHE, the Association for Learning Development in Higher Education, is the membership association for staff who work as Learning Developers, or who have a role which involves supporting student learning.
  2. We have an annual conference, regular regional symposia, a journal (the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education), a Jiscmail list, research grants, a website of free teaching and learning resources (LearnHigher), a CPD route towards HEA Fellowship, a professional recognition scheme
  3. The Jiscmail list is lively and active, used for answering queries, sharing practice and resources, and highlighting opportunities; ACLD (ALDinHE-Certified Learning Developer) is a new professional recognition scheme to develop the professional status of learning development; founder member of the International Consortium of Academic Language and Learning Developers (ICALLD)
  4. Social media – @aldinhe_LH
  5. Contact – info@aldinhe.ac.uk
  6. Founded – 2003, with the first LDHEN Symposium at London Metropolitan Univeristy 
 
  5  Association for Researcher Development (Vitae)  
  Association for Learning Technology (ALT)  
  Higher Education Academy (HEA)  
  Centre for Recording Achievement (CRA)  
  Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE)  
  10 Scottish Higher Education Developers (SHED)  
  11 Global Forum for English for Academic Purposes Professionals (BALEAP)  
  12 Leadership Foundation for Higher Education (LFHE)  
  13 Society of College, National and University Libraries  
  14 Network For Excellence In Mathematics and Statistics Support (SIGMA)  
  15 Quality Assurance Agency (QAA)  
  16 All Ireland Society for Higher Education (AISHE)  
  17 Staff and Educational Development Association (SEDA)       
  18 Staff Development Forum (SDF)  
  19  The Library and Information Association (CILIP)  
  20 Society for Research in Higher Education (SRHE)  
  21 UK Council for Graduate Education (UKCGE)  
  22 Association of National Teaching Fellows (ANTF)  
  23 National Union of Students (NUS)  
  24 Scottish Funding Council (SFC)  
  25 Student Participation in Quality Scotland (sparqs)  
  26 Heads of ELearning Forum (HeLF)  
  27 The Economics Network  
  28 Higher Education Funding Council for Wales (HEFCW)  
  29 Department of Education (Northern Ireland)  
  30 Association of Colleges  (AoC)  
  31 Enhancement Themes Scotland  
  32 Collab Group  
  33 Colleges Wales (Colegau Cymru)  
  34 UK Advising and Tutoring (UKAT)  
  35 Association of Graduate Careers Advisory Services (AGCAS)  
  36 Researching, Advancing and Inspiring Student Engagement (RAISE)  
  37 Equality Challenge Unit  
  38 Principal Fellows of the Higher Education Academy (PFHEA)  
  39 GuildHE  
  40 Million+  
  41 UniversitiesUK (UUK)  
  42 University Alliance (UA)  
  43 The Russell Group  
  44 Mixed Economy Group (MEG)  
  45 Council for Higher Education in Art and Design (CHEAD)  
  46 WonkHE  
  47 Universities Scotland  
  48 The Association of University Administrators (AUA)  
  49 National Forum for the Enhancement of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education – Ireland

50 The Cathedrals Group

51 Writing Developers

52 Universities and Colleges Information Systems Association (UCISA)

53 Society of College, National and University Libraries (SCONUL)

54 Association for Authentic, Experiential, and Evidence-Based Learning

55 National Association of Disability Practitioners

Read more…