Monday, April 14, 2008


The learning environment optimization series is an exercise in optimization applied to educational engineering. Originally referring to mathematical techniques employed to make a system or design perform at the highest level possible (Answers.com), the optimization exercise I am into seeks to optimize the totality of the features of the instructional system with the goal of bringing them as close as possible to what is believed to be an ideal system of education. The totality of resources the system makes available should be tweaked in such a manner as to yield a learner profile that best matches the requirements of the environment in which the learner will successfully deploy the knowledge, skills, competencies and attitudes that the instructional system will have equipped them with.
A multi-dimensional view of optimization applied to instruction means that a number of areas have to be examined so we can identify the elements to be optimized and determine a performance value for each of these elements. These areas include, but are not limited to, academic curricula, student services, university governance, instructor profiles, and certainly learner profiles.
There is no doubt in my mind that such an exercise represents a foray into what is imaginable but optimization studies are also cognizant of what is permissible and feasible. They look to improve the end results of the educational design to the greatest extent possible while not taxing or stretching the system resources to breaking point.
Educational planning, including learner profile engineering, has to start with a description of the society in which the learner is destined to operate and the values upon which a premium is placed. For now, it will suffice to refer to this as the knowledge or information society. Information and Communications Technology (ICT) occupies pride of place in this society with technology being more and more the medium and object of communication. The major of feature of ICT is that it is perennially changing, which means that successful individuals’ work skills have to be to be constantly updated in order to fit the production requirements. Whereas products had a relatively extended longevity in industrial societies, the ‘life expectancy’ of a product Alpha is currently so short that you have to come up with an improved Beta version much sooner than you otherwise would when the production cycle was easy going. Given this state of affairs, product makers have to uphold the notion that there is no such thing as a finished product. Products should be an addition to and an improvement upon what has already been accomplished.
In educational terms, pre-knowledge society learners often did things, made presentations, wrote essays and answered exam questions. Their work would be reviewed, assigned a grade, and then transferred to the archives to gather dust. The tendency now, in educational environments and elsewhere is to make products. This adds the commercial, business, aspect to what we do, the idea that the product has to have value, has to be marketable, and has to envisage a target much wider audience than the teacher who will mark it. Most products are thus destined for public consumption. And in order to quality amid the plethora of products competing for attention and subject to uncontrolled user reviews, those who design products have to keep in mind from the very beginning, the value of ‘productizing’. (Kelly-Walker: 207).
Now, what productizing involves is a mindset whereby much of what we produce in the knowledge society is produced in confluence, which signifies that a product is arrived at through blending or combining two or more products into one (Wordwebonline Dictionary). A product is thus the end result of work conducted by different contributors who choose to work together to produce a common product. The notion of confluence refers to the participatory nature of today’s production process. Ability to work in confluence, as part of a team, using communication networks and what is commonly referred to as social software is a prerequisite of membership in today’s workforce.
Finally, because many of today’s products are collectively created by individuals and groups through ‘participatory media’, as expounded by Rheingold (2008), the latter enables ‘young people to create as well as consume media’. In this sense, the knowledge society that we wish to be active members of requires a new attitude to knowledge which is that individuals not only participate as passive readers, viewers and consumers of products, but also as knowledge makers and creators. Thus, the phrase ‘knowledge society’ only captures part of the prospect; ideally, our educational programs have to graduate people who belong to the ‘knowledge-making society’. The term ‘prosumer’, a combination of (producer + consumer), which was coined by Robbins (2007), is adequate to represent the profile of the knowledge-making society member.

The starting point for this series has been that there is a need for applying optimization procedures on the current resources available for the Sfax University education system. Keeping in mind the features of the target knowledge society, it is conceivable that the resources can be made to produce a graduate profile that is more adequately prepared to actively participate in knowledge making.
In part two of this series, I hope to be able to outline the broad characteristics of this very graduate in terms of the skills, competencies and attitudes that the system should impart to them if they are to adhere to the requirements of the global knowledge-making society.
Answers.com. Optimization. http://www.answers.com/topic/optimization?cat=technology
Rheingold, Howard. “Using Participatory Media and Public Voice to Encourage Civic Engagement." Civic Life Online: Learning How Digital Media Can Engage Youth. Edited by W. Lance Bennett. The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Series on Digital Media and Learning. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2008. 97–118. doi: 10.1162/dmal.9780262524827.097.

Robins, S.M. Virtual Worlds as Web 2.0 Learning Spaces. Educause. February 05, 2008. Podcast retrieved from the World Wide Web, February 06, 2008: http://connect.educause.edu/blog/gbayne/elipodcastvirtualworldsas/46116

Walker, K. et al. ‘The uPortal Project’. Educause. November 7, 2007. Podcast retrieved from the World Wide Web, February 6, 2008: http://connect.educause.edu/blog/kellywalker/e07podcasttheuportalproje/45525
Wordweb Online Dictionary. http://www.wordwebonline.com