Conference presentation and interview with Dr. Wihak
She once threw her own university diplomas into the flames of her fireplace. It was an action born out of a desperate need to break free of the constraints imposed by the formal education system. Today Dr. Christine Wihak has come to peace with a combination of formal and non-formal education. As she claims, the learning revolution is here.
Dr. Christine Wihak is the Director of PLAR at the Thompson Rivers University in Canada. She has a background in working as a practitioner in adult education with specific target groups such as single parents, Inuits and disabled people. She highly values non-formal learning and has spent part of her academic career at the Open University.
To explain her view on changes in educational systems today, Christine Wihak compares those changes to the Protestant revolution. - Some hundred years ago, the new invention of printed press changed peoples’ access to the holy scripts, she says. - Before, their only access to the Bible had been through the priests’ interpretations, strongly controlled by the Church authorities. When they gained access to their own Bible and could learn to read themselves, it opened up to new interpretations and understandings of the content. This weakened the power and position of the Church dramatically, and forced it to change, Wihak explains. And this is where she draws a comparison to the power of universities and other formal education institutions in our time.
Formal institutions challenged by mobile phones
- The learning revolution is here, and we don’t recognize it, she claims. The reason for this is, according to Wihak, that the formal institutions’ former control of “all knowledge“ is gone. The main reason for this is the Internet, and the global distribution of and more and more widespread access to information and learning through mobile units. She gives many examples of this change. – My brother is an elementary school teacher, and after some persuasion, I was finally allowed to give my 4 year old niece a computer game for her birthday. After watching her using, learning and playing with that game, he exclaimed: “No wonder the teachers are scared”!
Another example she gives is from the research of the Indian researcher Sugata Mitra: Can kids teach themselves? Watch the YouTube video here . - This demonstration on how people can learn outside the established institutions should make many universities and schools shake in their boots, Wihak concludes. – When people can find knowledge so many other places, I think the settled and predictable formal curriculum doesn’t seem like the best alternative any more, she explains.
Christine Wihak strongly believes that learners want to influence on their learning, and that they want to get credits and evidence for what they know. Her prime example on how to do this is Mozilla Badges. In their wiki, they present themselves like this: “Learning today happens everywhere, not just in the classroom. But it's often difficult to get recognition for skills and achievements that happen outside of school. Mozilla's Open Badges project is working to solve that problem, making it easy for anyone to issue, earn and display badges across the web -- through a shared infrastructure that's free and open to all. The result: helping learners everywhere display 21st century skills, unlock career and educational opportunities, and level up in their life and work.” - As you can see, we are many striving for validation of non-formal and informal learning, she concludes.
Quality in learning?
- Another threat to the formal system today is that even the most credited universities in the world, like Harvard, are beginning to question some of their established truths, Wihak claims. - Harvard University has come to the conclusion that some of their most honored professors are not good teachers. They have started to look into their teaching quality. Their academic skills are not questioned, but what about the learning outcomes of the students? Wihak doesn’t try to answer the question, but leaves it hanging.
Christine Wihak also gives examples that the perception of higher formal education as always being the best alternative in terms of credit, value and documentation, is at stake. – In for example the field of ICT, certain Microsoft certificates achieved via non-formal courses, is valued more highly than formal diplomas, she tells. Her belief is that this is related to the strict curriculum competing with the flexible, up-to-date and learner driven alternatives.
Money, money, money
In many countries, money is also one reason behind the changes. – In many countries, like in Canada, it’s very expensive to study at universities, and many students are looking for cheaper alternatives. Institutions like Excelsior College, being an Open University, can now offer BA degrees at a cost starting from 10 000 dollars, a fraction of the price of traditional BS degrees. This of course weakens the positions of the traditional, formal institutions, Wihak explains. While these changes are happening, the number of people with higher education in society is exploding. – In Canada the concept of over credentialing is turning into a problem. You now need a BA to work at Starbucks, Wihak sighs. But this also devaluates credentials, and then again weakens the power of the formal institutions, she states.
Validation for the future
- Of course I don’t know if these trends will actually turn the development of the educational world in a new direction, but I think we can see positive results in projects and policies for validation, states Wihak. In her view, established structures such as the formal institutions, professional associations, corporations and businesses hold a lot of power in this respect. - Initially their interest lays in establishing a validation system closely related to formal education. But is that sustainable in the long run, in the current situation? She asks. The advocates for change can choose to either compete or cooperate with the formal institutions. The goal is to open up the view on knowledge and learning, and to establish a sustainable system for validation. Personally, Christine Wihak has chosen to cooperate.
Not knowing what the future will bring, Christine Wihak closes the interview with an optimistic sentence. - I’m an optimist, because I believe in peoples’ basic drive to grow and thrive.