Philip Long: My name is Philip Long. I am the Chief Innovation Officer and Associate Vice Provost at the University of Texas at Austin.
Gerry Bayne: Okay. Well you're at the conference this week talking little bit about learning recognition systems. What is a learning recognition system?
Philip Long: Fundamentally, a learning recognition system is a piece of software and a framework for identifying when students have achieved something that faculty or others in the institution have set out for them to learn. Doing so in a way that tries to make it as objective as possible and recording that so that it can be used as a way of justifying the value of whatever achievement it is that they've been awarded. Doesn't mean that they're technology based. They've been around for hundreds of thousands of years in some ways-
Gerry Bayne: Sometimes a pencil?
Philip Long: Well, early on, if you remember, people used to get, and still do in the military, they get badges associated with achievements of various kinds. Some for performance in academic settings. Some for performance on the field of battle. So those are recognition systems. It can be done simply awarding a certificate for accomplishing the various requirements of a course of study. What's happened in recent years with the invention of various kinds of digital technologies is those have been effectively digitized and the processes have been written up as execution steps in a learning sequence that can be tracked in a digital environment. By doing so, it also affords greater both transparency and visibility to the learning but it also allows it to be connected to other kinds of digital artifacts.
Gerry Bayne: I'm interested in you saying it's connected to different kinds of digital artifacts. Is there any sort of standardization going on where you can take things across institutions, across different learning systems?
Philip Long: Absolutely. For awhile there, there was something called The Open Badge Initiative which was a community based organization that was trying to standardize the actual structure of the data associated with the elements that are necessary to recognize achievement, who the issuer was, what it was for, what is the evidence that was submitted to be able to judge and be awarded this particular achievement, etc. That group has been merged now with an international software standards organization. That group is called IMS Global and they do interoperability standards for all kinds of software. Primarily in the learning environment so they define interoperability for how learning tools plug into a learning management system through a standard called LTI or how information is captured. The events associated with the activity students are doing in a class. How those sensors are described and how that data is passed on to something else so that everybody can follow the same pattern and therefore, that data can move across boundaries.
Gerry Bayne: How do you think learning recognition systems will evolve and effect higher education in the future?
Philip Long: And that's probably the $64,000 question. In some cases, it depends on the sector of higher education you're talking about. They have been traditionally associated with more skill based activities and so those programs in those parts of higher education that have a more vocational scope tend to be adopting these things relatively quickly. More traditional research focused universities have been less willing to step into this space because I think they would say, "Well how do you objectively determine that someone has thought creatively?" And that's what we do in university. We teach creative thinking or we teach you how to think better. The challenge is, in fact, just doing that. Because in some sense, that judgment is being made by the faculty member, in the classroom, based on something and in many ways, this effort is trying to say, "Well, what can we do to actually extract out the key elements of that?" In a way that, if you brought 50 similar professors together with that discipline and you ask them do these things indicate that they achieved X, there would be reasonable concurrence that they would say yes.
Gerry Bayne: Do you think, and this may be overly dramatic talk, I'm curious, do you think the popularization of badges' certifications could, not delegitimize degrees, but could compete with the degree system?
Philip Long: Right, so there's certainly the potential threat of the tower of badges, similar to the battle of tower that we are familiar with and it is a legitimate concern. Particularly if the attention to the criteria associated with the rubric for assessing whether or not something's been achieved is taking carefully and seriously in how it's being developed and applied. I think that the likelihood of that is diminishing, even as the potential growth of badging increases because there has been additional data added to the open badge specification that describes who the issuer is, what the authority the issuer has for making that assertion, if there is a third party that has validated that the issuer is capable of making that assertion. So it's sort of tracing back, if you will, the authenticity and the authority associated with that process, which gives a little bit more credibility to the assertion in the first place.
What is more interesting is the potential for the idea that the issuer is no longer just the institution. That's the idea that the students themselves may be able to issue badges to others based on the extent to which that student judged the contribution of another student to their own work. So you might expect, for example, if you have a certain number of badge points that you can allocate to your colleagues when you're working on a project and you've really helped me a lot, I could give you X number of badge points, write a description as to why those badge points were earned. That's the criteria. What's the rubric by which I judge that? Because I was able, based on your help, to do the following and then issue you something. That starts to democratize the process and potentially makes institutions nervous.
Gerry Bayne: Right, yeah. There's a million questions that go along with that we don't have time to get to but I'll let that one go because, I mean, I find myself feeling ambivalent about it. I mean, on the one hand, it's great to ... It's like the music industry, it's great that anybody can make music now but it kind of sucks that anybody can make music now.
Philip Long: Well, yes and no. I mean, there are people that have emerged out of that vast hoard who turned out to be phenomenally creative, worthy of everything that they've achieved. And yeah, that there's a lot more noise in the system so it improves or increases the need for discernment.
Gerry Bayne: Yeah. It's an interesting concept though.
Philip Long: But you can also think of using this in ways to surface work that otherwise has been invisible. In the academic arena, the most common example is most faculty are judged by the merits of their publications. Their publications are submitted to peer review processes. The people who do the peer review are, of course, their fellow faculty but those people aren't rewarded for that work. It's just built into the system. The publisher takes their feedback, uses it to judge whether or not to accept the publication or not. The individual who does that work for that purpose, what do they get? Other than, legitimately, a contribution to their own discipline. So there's a sense of community obligation but what if the publisher awarded that individual review points and some sort of quality recognition for their reviews and that starts to distinguish better reviewers from other reviewers. If that review could than take that information and present it in their package for promotion and tenure, and say, "I've been doing all of these reviews, have taken this amount of time and here's the value that I've contributed based on the publisher's comments." Shouldn't that account for something?
Gerry Bayne: Totally.
Philip Long: Right now, you can't do that.
Gerry Bayne: What technology trends do you think will enable student agency in the future?
Philip Long: Well the biggest one is the thing that's quite the hype these days in the cryptocurrency world and that's the so called badge blockchain. The reason is that the blockchain can disintermediate, or separate, the mechanism by which the award of credit and it's management can be done independent of the institution. So in the cryptocurrency world, the whole sort of disruption that came along with that is that you no longer need banks to intermediate the exchange of money. People can buy and sell across each other and do it by transferring bitcoin from one person to another and there's nothing in the middle.
Well, in the blockchain environment for universities and credit, you can imagine blocks, credits being awarded and instantiated in a block. That block is part of a fabric that's outside of the institution. They may be apart of it if they wish, they don't have to be. Since it's been encrypted, it can't be changed so it has the same authority that it always has. At the time the value of it and the authority of is determined when it's written and it stays with it permanently. So you no longer have to go back to an institution and say, "Did Joe Smith actually earn this?" Well, if they've got a piece of information that's written into a block saying it they did, then they did.
So there's the question of what sort of an impact that will have on the institutions down the road. Is that one that frees them from that responsibility and keeps them from having to spend a lot of time and money and energy doing all of that verification or does it threaten them?
Gerry Bayne: Is there anything else that you want to add that we haven't touched on?
Philip Long: You mentioned earlier about the proliferation of types of certification and such. I think the back story behind that is the thing that we haven't talked about and that's the actual pressures from the job market and employers who are struggling to find ways of identifying workers who can perform the jobs they have. And are a bit taken aback at this point by the lack of information a transcript affords them. Now that they've built all kinds of procedures to try to look past that and talk to the person's references and other sorts of things but you can imagine where some of that evidence of their achievement isn't instantiated in some sort of a record, including actual artifacts that they produced to be awarded that work. Which gives the employer a chance to actually see, "Oh, here's a CAD drawing that they made while they were doing this project." Or here is a way in which they tested this particular chemical. That's a lot different than getting a B in chemistry.
Gerry Bayne: That's true. Thanks so much for your time Phil. I appreciate it.