Tuesday, 13 March 2007

Assessing Informal Learning

I have the pleasure to be working on the e-APEL project on developing a way to help students assess their prior learning, in particular where that learning is experiential. It's a tremendously exiting field, combining developments in diagnostic assessments, e-portfolio's and informal learning. Especially the latter is a domain I wasn't intimately familiar with, but during the initial months of my involvement with this project, it has certainly roused my interest.

Informal learning makes assessments much more crucial, but it also emphasis questions and issues with validity and reliability. In formal learning, the trust in the quality of the learning activities already provides us with a degree of confidence in the outcomes it achieved in our students. We feel more in touch with the process and therefor are in a position to moderate any shortcomings of the assessment with that intimate familiarity.

I know this sounds rather awful, because obviously we are always supposed to have brilliantly valid and solid designs for teaching and assessment. But it isn't easy to create valid assessments; it's not easy at all. Still, it is a problem that needs addressing for various reasons. I will list a few:
  • More and more universities are moving away from the business model where their knowledge or content is the added value they sell. Content is no longer a commodity, and learning content is no different. Anyone can look up the principles on general relativity in great detail without even going near to a university. This is one reason why universities are moving to making their knowledge publicly available, such as Open Courseware at MIT, and more recently Open Learn at the Open University in the UK. What they have realised is that the true value of the University, is in the guidance and support it provides around learning, and the accreditation (and thus the assessment!).
  • Developments towards more simulation and game based learning raise questions about how to assess these less tangible and structured ways of learning in an appropriate and quantitative way. The same is true for assessing competences and skills in stead of knowledge and understanding.
Informal, or at the very least unstructured and non-linear, learning will increase in importance, and is the crucial unsolved challenge we face in the implementation of both our lifelong learning agenda, and the agenda of the knowledge economy (which, ironically, is turning out not to be about knowledge at all!). Unfortunately there is a deafening silence at most institutes on the subject, and the session on lifelong learning I attended at the JISC conference today didn't touch on the subject once.

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