On my mind lately has been the concept of benchmarking, standardisation and QA. I’ve got to this point through watching several things – ACODE/Quality Matters etc benchmarking projects, seeing the issues students have when they are subject to a poor learning experience (props to @UNESupport here for awesome work getting student voices heard), and things like this post from @markdrechsler on how we negotiate the line between standardisation and customisation in systems like Moodle. What I keep coming up against is the overlap between assuring quality (whatever ‘quality’ means) and promoting innovation, because to my mind there’s not a whole lot of overlap at all.
For those not in an area in which we advertise, the title of this post comes from the soundtrack to our TV ads – little boxes made of ticky tacky and they all looked just the same. Aside from being possibly the world’s most irritating song, this is also the fundamental premise of benchmarking/QA processes – a series of tick boxes that will ensure all learning experiences look more or less the same. Yet the strength of this is also its weakness – the fact that the ‘outliers’ will fail the rubric. If you have as your rubric some kind of consensus on what makes a ‘good course’, then (theoretically) you can easily identify ‘bad courses’. Now, while I have some fairly significant reservations about the measures we use for ‘good’ vs ‘bad’, there are certainly some truly crap examples of learning design out there, and it’s certainly true that we want to identify and get rid of these. Little will kill a love of learning faster than a really poorly designed or taught unit.
If I asked you what truly innovative learning looked like, could you tell me? Could you give me a list of features that innovative learning design should have so I can check them off? What about innovative products or systems? Do we even have a metric by which we can define innovation at all? The answer to all of these should be no (and IMHO half of the problem is when people believe the answer is yes). Sometimes the best, most innovative things that turn up are things that we could never conceptualise – except for the one person who did. It brings us neatly to the problem – as soon as you apply some kind of universal standardisation measure to insure against bad or stupid, you immediately also rule out the potential for amazing. The car did not get invented by making sure it had all the features of a horse.
Where do we draw the line? I don’t have an answer but I don’t believe benchmarking and QA is the solution – is it really worth benchmarking ‘good’ at the expense of ‘awesome’? We’re missing the point if we’re aiming for compliance, since all the best, most creative thinking is completely non-compliant. How do we allow for this while keeping the crap to a minimum?