Thursday, July 10, 2014

Open Badges No Answer to Australian Research Skills

The Insignia Project is researching the use of open badges to overcome the lack of basic courses for Australian research students. It seems to me there is a much simpler solution: provide courses for Australian research students, as is done in other countries. This can incorporate Recognition of Prior Learning (RPL) using e-Portfolios.

As described on the Insignia blog, Australian research students are only required to produce a document (thesis or dissertation) to get their degree, they are not required to undertake any formal courses. As a result it can be difficult to ensure that all students have the required skills in research methods, ethics and literacy.

The Insignia project aims to solve this problem by awarding  "badges" to students for undertaking informal education. Instead of doing a formal course run by the university at which they are enrolled, the student undertakes some informal learning and for this they are awarded a "badge" by the university.

Research Methods Courses

The universities of other nations address this issue of basic skills by requiring all students to undertake formal courses. Given that universities are already step up to run courses, that would seem the obvious solution to the Australian problem.

Currently I am a postgraduate student of education at a North American university. I am required to undertake core courses, regardless of if I am doing coursework or research. In addition, as I plan to do research I am required to undertake a course in research methods, before I can commence research. Apart from ensuring I have the required skills for research, this allows me to try it out. If I, or my supervisor, decide research doesn't suit me, I can continue on as a coursework student (doing a smaller "project" rather than a thesis).

I can apply for credit for courses I have already undertaken at other universities. Also I can have skills learned outside a formal course recognised by RPL. As well as undertaking courses, both coursework and research students are required to reflect on their studies in an e-portfolio (I am using Mahara for this).

This process would seem to be suitable for adoption in Australia, to ensure all students have the required skills. It could be build on the current coursework processes already in place and would not need a new  "badges" system to be developed.

RPL in Australian VET Sector

The part of Australian Higher Education which has the most experience with RPL is the Vocation Education and Training sector (VET), both government TAFEs and private Registered Training Organisations. To teach in a VET institution, formal qualifications are required. To obtain the necessary Certificate IV in Training and Assessment (TAE40110) I went through RPL at the Canberra Institute of Technology (CIT). My university qualifications in teaching and experience allowed me to obtain 80% of the certificate by RPL and I did online courses (using Moodle) for the other 20%.

The VET system uses "Units of Competency", equivalent to about one day's training, as its building blocks, which could be seen as "badges". There are very detailed specifications for each unit, which are standardised across Australia. Also the RPL process requires trained assessors.

If Australian universities want to create a system of "badges" then it would need to create something like the VET system. This would require standardised definitions of units and also require training of staff to assess these (the training which university lecturers get is not adequate). A system where universities each create their own incompatible badges and where these is no quality standard and no accredited training of assessors would not solve the skills problem and would lower the quality of Australian research degrees.

See also, "Proposal for Incorporating an ePortfolio in the ANU Master of Computing".

1 comment:

  1. Love to have you at our National Forum at Deakin on November 13 to further this discussion with some of the thought leaders: