We had a number of excellent whiteboard sessions about the future of higher education at the last Transformation Imperative event. During these sessions participants frequently worked with the concept of platforms. I am following up here with a few more thoughts about platforms and their relationship to learning.
What is a platform?
A platform in the broadest sense is something we use to do something else. Platforms allow us to perform a set of desired actions that take place beyond them. In the most literal sense a diving board is a platform; its primary purpose is to help us to spring into the air beyond it.
The strength of a platform should be measured by the extent to which it enables us to do the things we want to accomplish with as little presence and resistance as possible. The ideal platform would be transparent. For example, an iPhone brings together a software framework and hardware architecture to create a platform for doing things (listening to music, texting, shopping, etc.) with a minimum of intrusiveness. The power and success of the iPhone platform is that it enables us to do so many things “beyond it” and (most of the time) not get in the way.
Platforms fail when their presence impedes our ability to act beyond them. How many times have we had to close all applications on our computers and restart them in order to install a software update? I find this process very disruptive since it prevents me from using the platform to get my work done. Here the platform (operating system and hardware running it) calls attention to itself instead of enhancing my agency: it fails the transparency test.
Courses as Platforms
What if courses were designed as platforms? In other words, what would learning look like if the primary purpose of a course were to allow students to accomplish things beyond it?
The implications are vast. Think about it: the content of the course would focus on the knowledge, skills, habits of mind, and tools students need to reflect and act beyond the walls of the classroom. In a sense, our core Integrative Design Processes course is a species of platform. It provides students with the knowledge, skills, habits of mind, and tools they need to identify opportunities for adding value to the world beyond the walls of the classroom.
If a course became a platform it would be designed from the ground up to facilitate and leverage student efforts to access knowledge beyond it. In fact, learning would occur by students interacting with a network of distributed resources: other colleges and universities, cultural and scientific institutions, media, outside content experts, and so on. Students often informally gather knowledge this way now, but what would be the curricular and pedagogical implications of intentionally building a course as a fully integrated platform?
Applying knowledge to context—and doing this together
The knowledge students brought with them into the world would often be insufficient to effectively act in particular contexts. They would have to learn on demand and sort out what happens when general knowledge collides with situated practice. Practical reasoning (see reference at end) would become a fundamental learning literacy.
Since effective action often requires the intellectual and political power of a group rather than the strength of an individual, platform learning would require students to understand how to share knowledge and align actions; in other words, collaborate and work in teams. Therefore, an essential component of such a course would be to deliberately (structurally) channel the power of actual and virtual peer networks into the learning process.
Acting is a precursor to making. Therefore, platform learning would be about producing things: authoring actions (often as a group), and taking responsibility for them as they change the world. In this way, platform learning would always focus on co-creation, in part by leveraging peer networks.
Platforms and the Role of the Faculty
What would be the role of the faculty in such a world? I don’t have final answers to this question, but I can speculate. Faculty members would, of course, be central, but their roles might shift away from primarily delivering content to providing context and added value to the content learned outside of the classroom. This trend is already underway with flipped-classroom teaching models (see reference below) and the results are clearly promising. The critical element of the platform course would be providing students with the knowledge they need to effectively use it. Another way of stating this is that the instructor would be teaching the students to learn in a particular framework. It would also follow that the faculty would help students critically reflect on the unfolding process of using knowledge to accomplishing things beyond the classroom and the effects those accomplishments have on the world. This process could powerfully exercise the abilities of students to analyze, synthesize and iterate in an ethical framework.
A final thought experiment. What if the platform concept included courses, but was applied beyond them to entire programs and the University as a whole? I look forward to hearing your thoughts!
A few interesting references and links:
Regarding the concept of practical reasoning:
Sullivan, W. M., Rosin, M. S., & Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. (2008). A new agenda for higher education: Shaping a life of the mind for practice. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. [Note that co-author Bill Sullivan has visited the campus twice to help us redesign our general education curriculum.]
Game frameworks are often platform based:
An interesting learning model with many platform characteristics:
Flipped classroom teaching model:
Hughes, H. (2012). Introduction to Flipping the College Classroom. In T. Amiel & B. Wilson (Eds.),Proceedings of World Conference on Educational Multimedia, Hypermedia and Telecommunications 2012(pp. 2434-2438). Chesapeake, VA: AACE.