• The dark matter of the Bologna Process – the phenomenon “learning outcomes”

    Åsa Lindberg-Sand
    Lund University

    Conceptual paper

    Themes: lifelong learning

    Tuesday 2 September 2008, 09.00-10.00 in the Senior Common Room

    In cosmology, dark matter is a hypothetical form of matter that does not emit or reflect enough radiation to be observed directly, but whose presence can be inferred from its effects on visible matter. Dark matter accounts for the vast majority of mass in the observable universe, according to Wikipedia (26/02/08). This conceptual paper deals with the dark matter of the Bologna Process; Somewhere behind or below the learning outcomes frequently put forward as the single concept that will carry the burden of uniting all curricula and qualifications in the expanding European Higher Education Area, a vast sea of unknown matter is silently hiding – the actual phenomenon: learning outcomes. The question is: Should it be named and framed or should we leave it alone, accepting that curricula have very little to do with what students actually learn?

    The paper starts in an attempt to wriggle out of the confusion concerning the use of the concepts of learning outcomes, competence and qualifications in some of the important Bologna and EU documents: The Framework for Qualifications in the European Higher Education Area (EQF-HE), The European Qualifications Framework (EQF), The Bologna Handbook and the Tuning project, among others. The perspective underpinning the analysis is founded in social practice theory (Giddens, 1991; Wenger, 1998), looking at the Bologna agreements as a complicated artefact, as a growing multi-layered classification system (Bowker & Star, 1999) that might be named a meta-curricular structure. This structure has the following properties: 1) Output-oriented - The basic organising elements of the curricular structure are the outcomes the system is intended to produce. 2) Focussing learning - different outcomes of human learning are regarded both as the proper objectives and as the results of education. Learning outcomes get a triple function as the organising element and the descriptions both of goals and of outcomes. 3) Internationally coordinated – the curricular structure includes two frameworks for qualifications, which regulates the levels of degrees and qualifications (EQF-HE & EQF). 4) Guarantee of quality assurance – programmes and degrees in Europe are mutually recognised through the accepted connections between the organisation of quality assurance both at national and institutional levels and the design of the curricular system at each level.

    In most of the documents analysed there is an ongoing fusion, underpinned by the promises of quality assurance, that there is no need to make any conceptual difference between learning outcomes intended, assessed or acquired (See f. i. Bergan, 2007). Learning outcomes seem to integrate all of these properties - like some magic that teachers never have experienced. Still the concept is strangely empty. In the Bologna documents as well as in the guides aimed at supporting teachers in writing intended learning outcomes, the question of the nature of actual human learning outcomes is absent. So - what are they? Should the concept not primarily refer to all possible outcomes of human learning, from all kinds of learning processes – informal and formal? This invisible dark matter is the focus of this paper.