Alberta's Minister of Learning, Lyle Oberg, and people designing community services websites, face exactly the same problem.
On the one hand, they are being very progressive. Oberg talked about Campus Alberta - a way for anyone in Alberta schools to learn from any institution in the province. He talked about the work underway to provide broadband internet access to schools. And he talked about new initiatives, new alternatives in learning.
On the other hand, he stressed, it is important that fly-by-night dollar-degree institutions not be allowed to practice their ploys in this province. So parallel with the advent of new learning opportunities is a new focus on accreditation to ensure that Alberta students receive a high quality of education.
This two-pronged approach is being incorporated into Campus Alberta, as described Garry Popowich and Bill Muirhead, both of Alberta Learning. As Premier Klein stated in the Campus Alberta discussion paper (see http://www.aecd.gov.ab.ca/campusalberta/discussion_page.htm ),
"Our vision is for Alberta to become like one big campus where students enroled in one post-secondary institution can take courses from any college or university in the province, either on-site or on-line from their homes, or on the job. We want to make lifelong learning a reality in this province."
In order to enable this, Campus Alberta is building a library of educational objects available for use by teachers throughout the province. For example, one resource includes a searchable list of thousands of biological images, complete with annotation. It is a tremendous resource and will be available across Alberta.
At the same time, said Popovich and Muirhead, care must be taken to ensure that the materials available through Campus Alberta are of high quality. Therefore, a team of subject matter experts must accredit each item.
It was at that point I choked on my lunch. Politically, it probably wasn't a good idea to point to a huge, gaping hole in the concept. But there is a huge, gaping hole in the concept.
An educational object repository will contain hundreds of thousands of objects. Think of it as being similar to every college, university and school library in the province, every newspaper and magazine article, every teaching aid, software program, or wall hanging.
Now imagine that each and every one of these must be reviewed by a panel of experts before it is used in an Alberta school, college or university.
It won't happen. It can't happen. No jurisdiction in the world has the staff and the resources to fund and mount such a massive exercise. To be sure, the resources available have been reviewed. But to continue in this way would require an ongoing commitment of staff and money.
Moreover, because it would pose such a massive bottleneck, such a system would preclude the possibility of any new materials being introduced into the system. Were I a publisher, and I had also produced a library of biological images, one which might even be better than the first, I would not be able to make my materials available to Alberta schools because of the time and cost of prior review.
What is happening as a consequence is two-fold: first, Campus Alberta is in fact negotiating with large publishers for rights to material to be placed into the repository. And second, there is already an expectation that teachers and students will also look outside the repository for learning materials.
A similar situation exists when you look at prior accreditation of learning institutions. Nobody could accredit the thousands (2,000 at last count in the United States alone) of new institutions coming online. And these institutions will not spend the time and money to go through a lengthy accreditation process (and certainly not for a small market such as Alberta). Thus, only a few of the larger institutions are being admitted into the system. And also thus, people are looking outside the system of accredited institutions for learning opportunities.
It's a two-edged sword. If you do not ensure quality standards, you cannot ensure that the resources will be of high quality. But if you do ensure quality standards, you ensure that most resources will not be admitted into the system, causing people to look elsewhere. And because people can look elsewhere, they will.
It's hard to believe, but government will soon be out of the business of regulating education. If it is committed to ensuring a quality education for Albertans, it will have to look at creating a mechanism where individuals are able to assess the quality of a resource or program. This means two things:
1. Putting all of the resources into the same system
2. Creating a means where resources may be independently reviewed (or certified) by individuals or interested parties.
Accreditation is the immovable object. Learner centered learning is the irresistible force. And in a revolution, things that are moving are more likely to survive than things which are standing still.
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