The personal, the platform and the political James Moir School of Social and Health Sciences Kydd Building University of Abertay Dundee Bell Street, Dundee UK DD1 1HG
Tel 01382 308752 Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Biography Dr James Moir is a senior lecturer in sociology at the University of Abertay Dundee (Scotland) with a research interest the discourse of personal development planning and graduate attributes in higher education. He is currently a senior associate of the Centre for Sociology, Anthropology and Politics (CSAP) and has a particular interest in the firstyear experience in the Scottish higher education system. This interest forms a major aspect of his involvement with the Quality Assurance Agency (Scotland) on the Graduates for the 21st Century project.
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The personal, the platform and the political Abstract This paper examines issues surrounding the use of electronic portfolios for personal development planning (PDP) in sociology. These are now a common feature of many virtual learning environments (VLEs) across higher education institutions. However, while such an approach can be enabling for students in their learning, all too often the learning process can be subtly moulded as an instrumental rather than a critical process. Learning in this context can become a process of managing information (including personal information) rather than discovery, insight and growth. There is a clear tension here for some between what they regard as the academic nature of personal development, leading to personal growth and the concomitant contribution to an educated citizenry, and the underlying national imperative that requires knowledge linked to economic wealth creation. However, in an era of mass higher education, it is often the latter that is a priority for governments. This political dimension to PDP can be lost when located inside the practical matters associated with education as an innerdirected process. One suggestion for overcoming this issue is to make use of Web 2.0 as a platform for opening up reflexive personal development planning through the various tools that permit interaction. This paper considers this proposition in terms of reflexive learning in sociology. Key words: personal development planning, electronic portfolios, sociology, reflexive learning, political issues
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Introduction Someone was said to have once asked the late and fondly remembered jazz musician and broadcaster, Humphrey Lyttelton, where he thought jazz was going. His reply was characteristically sharpwitted: ‘If I knew where jazz was going, I’d be there already!’ It is amusing and somewhat ironic that this quip should appear, of all places, in Peter Winch’s (1958) The idea of a social science and its relation to philosophy, but it is perhaps all the more apt when thinking about where the virtual university is ‘going’. Winch’s point in using this anecdote was to illustrate why some forms of social practice are not amenable to prediction derivable from any putative a priori knowledge of the antecedents to those practices. Those who try to understand and perhaps even critique where elearning is going from a social scientific viewpoint would therefore do well to heed Winch’s point. The everincreasing speed of change in computer technology, in terms of hardware, software and the social practices (including learning practices) that both drive and follow these developments, makes the area of elearning an evolving and unpredictable moving target. The word ‘target’ here perhaps betrays my own stance in this paper for, although elearning is clearly evolving and moving, I believe it is possible to take aim with some further critical points that the Humphrey Lyttelton anecdote can teach us about how university educators are trying to use electronic portfolios in sociology and more generally across the curriculum in terms of personal development planning (PDP). These points derive from the need for education to be at one and the same time controlling of what is learned, but also to allow scope for personal growth that cannot be so easily captured and specified through reference to learning outcomes. There are clearly tensions here, and the use of portfolios to record the development of, for example, ‘graduate attributes’ does not sit easily alongside many Web 2.0 applications and resources that can take students in many different directions. This is the crux of the Lyttelton anecdote for the ‘virtual university’: the more we use the immediacy and interactivity of the web as a pedagogic tool, the ELiSS, Vol 2 Issue 2, November 2009 ISSN: 1756 ‐ 848X 3
more we open up learning beyond the borders of our codified educational aims and outcomes into a world where we cannot so easily say where students are ‘going’. This may be liberating in some respects but it occurs at a time when most universities have modernised their operations through the use of modular schemes with descriptors that require the specification of learning outcomes, which in turn nest within programmes that require the specification of stage outcomes. This increasing bureaucratisation of the learning process as a codified product is paradoxical when set aside alongside the ways in which students are encouraged to engage with their curricula in a constructivist manner, and in particular through modes of elearning that are studentled. This is not a new pedagogical problem and it is one that confronts enquirybased learning: how can we ensure that students learn what their curriculum demands but through their own devices? In other words, how do we ensure that students meet learning outcomes if they are encouraged to construct their own learning? I would not wish to overstate this paradox given that students commonly receive a mixed or blended learning approach which incorporates traditional didactic modes of learning such as lectures and more participatory modes such as discussion groups (via tutorials or electronically), contributions to blogs, wikis, mashups, etc. The potential of these will be discussed later but it is still also paradoxical that, despite the shift towards these more participatory and open modes of learning, students are nonetheless encouraged to engage in an innerdirected process in which they reflect upon and plan their own learning and careers. Again, the rhetoric of graduate attributes is one that is taken as driving this and is often linked to the notion of flexibility associated with a globalised knowledge economy. Documenting the process in acquiring these attributes has therefore become linked to the use of electronic PDP portfolios. The ideological effect of this personcentred discourse concerning PDP is therefore of sociological interest in its own right. As previously noted, while on the face of it this discourse may seem personally liberating, there are a number of problematic issues that follow from this inward focus on personal ELiSS, Vol 2 Issue 2, November 2009 ISSN: 1756 ‐ 848X 4
reflection. The root of this is the inherent voluntarism in such a focus and the concomitant dissolving of wider political matters that impact upon the individual into a private world of thoughts and feelings.
This discourse is now entrenched in policy initiatives at a national and trans national level, notably through the Bologna process. Thus, in the world of higher education, there is an increasing emphasis on encouraging students to engage in PDP, both in an academic and vocational sense. This is taken as developing independence in students so that they can become more autonomous learners and career planners (WilsonMedhurst, 2005a,b). However, tensions arise when educational and career matters are viewed as being related to individual reflection and choice. Recent developments in PDP in the UK have led to a concern with an instrumental approach to learning rather than one based on viewing knowledge as provisional and open to critique. However, the increasing use of Web 2.0 resources and applications has given a literally new platform on which to adopt a more genuinely constructivist approach to learning. This runs counter to the employability driven approach associated with the inculcation of ‘graduate attributes’. The argument advanced here is again related to the tensions inherent in this individualising discourse that dissolve away any sense of the political backdrop to these matters. It is evident that higher education is utilising a variety of Web 2.0 products as a part of the learning process. Whether these become an instrumental focus of learning in themselves, or whether they facilitate learning as engagement with a process of scholarship and critical scrutiny, is an interesting point. PDP in UK Higher Education
It has been over a decade since PDP was proposed by the National Commission into Higher Education in the UK (Dearing, 1997). The discussion of PDP advanced in the report, which stresses a structured and supported process designed to help the individual student reflect on their own learning and to plan for their personal, educational and career development, has
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become a central feature of higher education. The basic principles of PDP are actionoriented and cyclical and include the following dimensions:
a) goal setting and action planning b) doing (learning through the experience of doing with greater awareness) c) recording (thoughts, ideas, experiences, evidence of learning) d) reviewing (reflections on what has happened, making sense of it all), and e) evaluating (making judgments about self and own work and determining what needs to be done to develop, improve, and move on).
However, while these principles are readily accepted, their translation into curricular developments and their relationship with subject provision are less clear. This is a significant issue as the first ever mapping and synthesis review of PDP processes found that most ‘adopted a prescriptive approach to PDP implementation in order to achieve coursespecific outcomes’ (Gough, Kiwan et al, 2003). The danger with such prescriptive approaches is that PDP may come to be seen as an imposition rather than something that is integral to the higher education experience. Moreover, it can be viewed as an end in itself rather than as a means to a genuine engagement with knowledge.
PDP can be a genuinely transformational experience for students if it is linked to their learning and pedagogic practice in the classroom. For example, there is now often an explicit link made between PDP and the development of graduate attributes (GAs) through specific curricular measures such as enquirybased learning or, more loosely, what is referred to as ‘active learning’. Broadly speaking, these modes of learning engagement promote a sense of agency on the part of the student in terms of their involvement in the learning process. It is here that PDP, through, for example, prompt questions in electronic portfolios, encourages students to take a more reflective and proactive stance towards their learning.
Therefore, if the process of PDP is to become an integral part of the student learning experience, a number of fundamental constructs need to be accepted by academic staff and students. It is crucial that these processes are integral ELiSS, Vol 2 Issue 2, November 2009 ISSN: 1756 ‐ 848X 6
to the whole learning experience of a student in higher education and thus should be embedded firmly with the rest of the curricula and student experience, not seen as a separate activity or concept. The process also needs to be underpinned by institutional strategies, especially for teaching, learning and assessment and student support, and needs to be learner centred in terms of supporting a wide range of different learning styles and motivations. The main outcome from such processes in terms of personal development is likely to be a significant contribution to students becoming independent, autonomous, selfaware learners. In other words, staff and students should be able to engage actively with the PDP process rather than experiencing it as an imposition.
However, while such an approach can be enabling for students in their learning, there are tensions that emerge with such a focus on the individual student. These are often political issues concerned with matters such as: a) national, institutional or departmental PDP policies; b) access to PDP records; and c) academic or vocationally driven approaches. These issues can become dissolved in the instantiation of PDP in terms of the overall focus on the individual and the need to get such a policy translated into action, especially via the increasing reliance on virtual learning environments (VLEs). The nature of any VLE defines the nature of the learning process via provision of tools and templates for actions. All too often, the learning process can be subtly moulded as an instrumental rather than a critical process. Learning in this context can become a process of managing information (including personal information) rather than discovery, insight and growth. Thus, as some have suggested, this has enabled a managerial model of learning to be surreptitiously substituted for the dialogic and critical model which characterises the ideal of learning in higher education (Lambier and Ramaekers, 2006).
Others have pointed towards the tensions that arise in the different uses to which PDP is put. Three ‘ideal types’, encapsulating the attitudes of different subject or discipline areas, have been distilled. The first ideal type, the professional, is strongly governed by the requirements stipulated by ELiSS, Vol 2 Issue 2, November 2009 ISSN: 1756 ‐ 848X 7
professional and statutory bodies such as specific healthcare professional bodies. The second, employment, includes both a general orientation to graduate employment and also specific work placement during study. This model is associated with areas such as management and business, sport and leisure, and those areas of applied science and engineering where the course focus is primarily towards employment rather than discipline. The final model, academic, is focused on the academic development of the student, incorporating metacognitive skills and those of the specific subject discipline. Humanities and social sciences predominate in the academic. The model also includes some areas of pure science where the emphasis is more on subject understanding (Clegg and Bradley, 2006).
The aforementioned tensions in PDP were drawn out and articulated in interviews conducted with staff and students in the social sciences in one recent study. (Moir, Di Domenico et al, 2008). One major aspect of this is the extent to which PDP is dealt with on an institutionwide basis and its relevance for social science. In effect, this is an issue of generality versus specificity. However, this warrants closer inspection in terms of the way that PDP can, at a broad level, appear to be related to the issue of enhancing employability, which some staff do not see as their subject in the sense that it is not an academic matter as such. On the other hand, there are members of staff who have suggested that PDP is something that could be used to encourage reflexivity, which they see as a key academic skill for social science students. A key issue that cuts across the above practical concerns is that of ensuring that the ‘personal’ nature of the process stays with the student, while ensuring engagement in order to bring about the stated aims of PDP. On the one hand, it is something that is within the individual student’s control; on the other hand, it needs to be accessible to allow staff to assess its impact.
However, it is also clear that while PDP is almost universally accepted in principle, the perceptions of implementation raise some problematic practical issues. Perhaps this is not to be entirely unexpected given that PDP has to function as a public institutional quality enhancement measure related to such ELiSS, Vol 2 Issue 2, November 2009 ISSN: 1756 ‐ 848X 8
themes as employability and the development of graduate attributes, and also as something that is private and personal to the student and within his or her control. It is precisely this tension between an advocacy of principle versus practice where political matters come into play. A discourse focused on personal development is something that is almost universally agreed upon as beneficial in principle. However, it is when people come to flesh out and specify what this means in practice that political matters are at stake. This is the point at which there has to be a commitment to action and where responsibility for those actions is apportioned.
One of the central tenets of a focus on analysing discourse is the examination of the variable deployment of such discourse and its ideological effects. When considering the discourse of PDP, it is clear that while there is a positive connotation with the notion of personal development, this is not simply about a neutral inner process in isolation, but rather is related to wider political and policyrelated issues. Thus there is often a concern with the notion of individual selfdirection and planning related to politicoeconomic aims such as employability and improving the nature of graduates as future employees in terms of national competitiveness in the face of a globalised knowledge driven economy.
There is a clear tension here for some between what they regard as the academic nature of personal development, leading to personal growth and the concomitant contribution to an educated citizenry, and the underlying national imperative that requires knowledge linked to economic wealth creation. However, in an era of mass higher education, it is often the latter that is a priority for governments. This political dimension to PDP can be lost when located inside the practical matters associated with education as an inner directed process. Once set within this discourse, the practicalities of such matters as curricular design, delivery and assessment come into play. Moreover, if PDP is viewed as being driven by students themselves, then the political dimension dissolves away as they engage in the practicalities of the educational process. An innerdirected focus is not one that usually leads to a reflexive engagement with the political nature of PDP and the location of ELiSS, Vol 2 Issue 2, November 2009 ISSN: 1756 ‐ 848X 9
agency within the individual. Learning the process of PDP becomes the end in itself in an instrumentally driven fashion. In this way, learning is depoliticised in the sense that its purpose is driven down to the level of the personal. However, without sounding overly critical of such an approach, it is clear that ‘good’ teaching can prevent this from happening through lecturer–student relationships which can foster a sense of development beyond the confines of technical procedures (for example, eportfolios).
In order to take up a more dynamic approach to PDP, the approach of Carr and Kemmis (1986) can be applied in the sense of adopting ‘research into one’s own practice’ (p 191). Here, the notion of the insider’s vantage point is crucial in thinking through how PDP can be applied to subjectbased teaching, and this is surely a rich vein to tap for those in the social sciences. Hence, a critical social science approach can offer students an awareness of how their aims and purposes can be asserted in an emancipatory way (Carr and Kemmis, 1986: 136). This approach chimes with that of John Mezirow (1991) who argues that transformational learning can occur through a process involving a ‘disorientating dilemma’ followed by critical reflection and new interpretations of experience. In applying this to PDP in higher education, the aim should be to encourage students to examine their personal assumptions and explore new possibilities. Learning therefore arises through such examinations and new idea formulation. Given the aforementioned point about active learning, it is apparent that universities are changing the way learning takes place and lectures are giving way, to some extent, to methods of discovery that yield transformational learning. Web 2.0 as a way forward?
With the above aim in mind, perhaps an ideal goal for some would be for students to step into the world of Web 2.0 learning as a step back from the more instrumental modes of learning promoted via the eportfolios associated with PDP. Certainly within sociology there may be many who would wish to break ranks with the more avowedly vocational rhetoric associated with mass higher education. PDP in this mould is associated with public sociology, with ELiSS, Vol 2 Issue 2, November 2009 ISSN: 1756 ‐ 848X 10
the ideal of a critical and educated citizenry. This may seem an attractive and attainable prospect through the enhancement of learning via various Web 2.0 tools. After all, the hallmark of these is their openness, scope for collaboration and creativity. There are differing stages in the adoption of these across higher education institutions and departments but it is clear that the ‘virtual university’ is with us to some extent or another. However, as Brabazon (2007) tellingly points out:
Being a student of higher education at the moment is like living in someone else’s iPod. The transference from a manufacturing to an informationdriven economy necessitates permanent reskilling. The cost of labour market flexibility is educational standards and scholarly excellence.
(Brabazon, 2007: 163)
In sociology, if we are to avoid the reduction of student learning to that of the status of an index of employability, then it is clear that we must harness the capabilities of Web 2.0 in such a way that we are engaged in ensuring that scholarship is made the engine of PDP rather than its contribution to the student as a ‘future worker’.
Beer and Burrows (2007) point the way for us to consider a sociology both of and in Web 2.0. This kind of reflexive project is one that both educators and students can engage in as an enterprise in scholarship. As they put it:
There seems to us to be at least three interrelated issues that the Web 2.0 phenomena invokes that require sociological engagement: the changing relations between the production and consumption of content; the mainstreaming of private information posted to the public domain; and, our main focus here, the emergence of a new rhetoric of ‘democratisation’.
(Beer and Burrows, 2007: para 3.1) ELiSS, Vol 2 Issue 2, November 2009 ISSN: 1756 ‐ 848X 11
This affords the opportunity for the consideration of PDP in a completely new way: one that not only involves the development and archiving of skills but also a sociological reflection upon the public actions being performed. In this way, students can come to grips with Mills’ (1959) ‘sociological imagination’ as they consider what the act of posting personal information signifies. It is here that students could be encouraged to move into the realm beyond a psychological notion of ‘development’ to one that looks at how social practices are themselves developing via the web. This is one of the great advantages of the sharing capacity of the Web 2.0 phenomenon. The blurred relationship between consumption and production of wikis, social networks, blogs, mash ups, etc throws into relief sociological questions about what kinds of information are routinely posted, accumulated, traded and shared. Of particular interest from the point of view of PDP is the way in which what would have been considered private information is now made public in an increasing trend of the codification of habitus (Burrows and Gane, 2006). However, despite an accompanying rhetoric of empowering and democratic openness, Beer and Burrows (2007) also add a counterpoint for consideration, primarily an issue concerning access and surveillance. Who is watching? The university? Future employers? And is this developing or empowering anyone?
To return to the Humphrey Lyttelton anecdote, if the virtual university is going in the direction of utilising Web 2.0 resources, then it is of interest to sociology to be on the inside, so to speak, investigating both the pedagogic possibilities as well as engaging in a reflexive sociological project about these resources. We may not be sure where this will take us but it is worth pitching a sociological contribution. This affords the opportunity of not only engagement with the technology but also insight into what kinds of personal profiles and social practices students share: a vernacular sociology of the kinds of things that people find interesting about one another (Hardey and Burrows, 2008). There is also a sociological concern with where people go on the web and how they negotiate their way through the virtual landscape. This is indeed an
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education for personal development as well as being about the relationship between the self and the social world through the intermediary of the web.
Conclusion The emergence of a discourse of personal development related to education has intensified in recent years. On the face of it, this may at first appear a welcome development. The fastpaced and evolving nature of the knowledge economy has led many to argue for a more flexible workforce capable of keeping pace by planning and managing their own learning, developing themselves and managing their own career. Mass higher education has come to be regarded as an essential means of meeting the demands of the knowledge economy, and students are urged to engage in PDP through building up portfolios via VLEs in order to make themselves more adaptable and marketable through this process.
At the same time, there has been an explosion in the growth of personal information placed upon the web. Personal accounts of experiences, encounters and events, likes and dislikes, biographies and aspirations are all there to be found. This discourse of the personal and the interest others have in engaging with the material sharing and trading of discourse is a sociological phenomenon that can be both a resource for study and a pedagogical tool that can be utilised in terms of learning by doing. Students in sociology can engage in PDP in a way that is therefore both in and about this personal discourse mediated through the virtual world. It is akin to walking forward while looking backwards, both engaged and reflexive. You may be able to put one foot in front of the other not knowing exactly where you are going, but at least you are aware of the ground you have covered.
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Mills. C. W (1959). The Sociological Imagination. New York: Oxford University Press Moir J, Di Domenico C, Sutton P and Vertigans S (2008). ‘Personal development planning in sociology and social science: the Scottish higher education context’. Enhancing Learning in the Social Sciences 1(2). WilsonMedhurst S (2005a). ‘Supporting student development using reflective writing’. Investigations in University Teaching and Learning, 2(2), pp 89–92. WilsonMedhurst S (2005b). ‘Using assessment to support employability awareness and development’. Investigations in University Teaching and Learning, 3(1), pp 72–79, 20. Available at: www.eliss.org.uk/CurrentIssue/ViewArticle/tabid/72/itemid/27/pubtabid/73/rep modid/411/Default.aspx. Winch P (1958). The idea of a social science and its relation to philosophy. London: Routledge, pp 93–94.
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