It is my own messy chaos: on a new understanding of learning spaces and connecting

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Space is a strange, quixotic thing. It is a construct of things both solid and ephemeral. Take today, I am in the beer garden of my local pub, mainly because it is a glorious spring afternoon and after months of winter the outside and sunshine represent such a welcome change. The physical space is made up of tables, benches, plants and the still slightly wet moss-covered cement tiles. I am listening to music (The new Arcade Fire album ‘Reflektor’ for those keeping tabs, and yes, it is awesome) and enjoying a beer. The ambient noise of the 30 or so people out here occasionally clatters above Win Butler’s voice. This is the physicality of the space. But it not what the space means or represents.

 

When we talk about learning spaces we concern ourselves with what is contained within the four walls of a physical room. We can argue, by virtue of experience or the shrill ring of a sales pitch, that furniture can encourage collaboration. The technology in the form of screens, projectors, hubs and plugs will encourage people to use technology in new ways to enhance learning. Wi-Fi networks, flexible and high capacity will be the new wired network, bringing the outside in and what happens inside out. These are expensive decisions, costing institutions hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions of pounds and not insignificant staff time. However, there is nothing to say that these rooms will change the way people teach. The learning space does not of its own accord change pedagogy. The most innovative use of furniture and technology will still result in a teacher moving it all to rows if that is the way they want to teach.

 

Coming back to the beer garden, all these things that I described earlier don’t determine the intrinsic impact of the space, or how the space is used. Yes, they influence it, they sometimes shape it and can create and support the ways it is used (would anyone be out here in 2 degrees in January…). But in the end, it is what it is, a physical space. The President Emeritus of Harvard, Derek Bok, noted in 2013 that in the context of defending the ongoing viability of a residential university (which the eminent management scholar Peter Drucker had argued strongly against)…

‘We are a long way from being able to train graduate students to be scientists and scholars by online instruction. The same is true of teaching in fields of knowledge where there are no definite answers but rather a need to ask appropriate questions, use imagination, or see intriguing patterns in a jumble of seemingly disconnected facts. It is also unlikely that online instruction will be able to offer role models to inspire emulation and encourage moral development and far from clear that technology will be able to match living in a residence hall for giving students an appreciation of people from other cultures and religions or an ability to work effectively with persons very different from themselves. Much else that is memorable and important in a college education is not readily reproducible by machine. Rather, it occurs through impromptu conversations with students and instructors, or emerges in seminar discussions from unexpected turns and twists in the conversations that are hard to program in advance.’ Source: http://bit.ly/NOnbLV

 

He argues that the only way to reproduce the discontinuous, chaotic and spontaneous learning that underpins higher education is through a face-to-face engagement, in a traditional class and residential environment. Interestingly, he doesn’t suggest the need for funky chairs and rolling iPad connection panels. He does argues that virtual spaces and technology enhanced learning is limited for the teaching of scholars, scientists or graduates. To be fair to him, his whole speech is an important statement of advocacy for technology, especially the benefit of information consumption through lecture capture and on-line platforms. But this debate around the (in)ability of technology to capture the unique ‘magic’ of learning is quite pervasive. There are a number of studies that argue that students themselves want a more traditional education, where notes are handed out and lecturers engage in monologues followed by seminar type dialogues conducted in large lecture halls and rowed classrooms.  Whether it is parsed as resistance to change, a sense of retro values personified by the hipster youth or that it is a behaviour that the learner thinks once replicated will provide the teacher with what they want, it seems contradictory to the way people conduct significant aspects of their daily life.

 

The argument made by Professor Bok that learning is enhanced by the ‘…need to ask appropriate questions, use imagination, or see intriguing patterns in a jumble of seemingly disconnected facts’ resonates strongly with me. As I have discussed in earlier blogs, I strongly believe there is an urgent need to engage a wide ranging and probably quite painful and divisive debate about the efficacy and relevance of our pedagogical approaches in the digital world. The epoch-inching micro-impacts of MOOCs were not about doing something new, just something a little less shit for a bigger, less engaged audience. However, I don’t believe that these chaotic and discontinuous learning moments cannot occur in an online learning space.  The physicality makes marginal difference, because the learning is occurring in spaces in and between interactions with other people and knowledge.  This means that institutions need to think about new definitions and understandings for learning spaces.  As much as universities like doing this, I am not arguing for sending a Miley Cyrus mounted wrecking ball through the average classroom.  In fact, these are still vitals parts of the university experience for some learners.  But the new spaces work and act in different ways.  They are owned by the learners, who control the access (or choose not to) and control the content (or at least aggregate it, remix it and share it).  The new learning spaces are platforms, devices, the cloud and other virtual places where people congregate and share.

 

What is needed in the modern university is a redefinition of what constitutes a learning space. A learning space is more than a function and construction of its physicality. And I am not talking necessarily about a VLE here either, they are just as much bound by their construction as a classroom or lecture theatre. Online learning offers the definition of learning spaces a number of new dimensions. However it takes a recognition that learning and learners have changed, and that perhaps the way we were taught may have changed over time. The new learning spaces exist inside and outside the academy. They provide an environment where learners can engage with faculty and then link with connected others and sources of information, contrary and advocating those coming from the curriculum. These learning spaces are being formed now, because of the needs of the learners to interact, share, vent, collaborate, understand and vindicate. They happen in cafeterias, Facebook pages, IM groups, happy pics in Snapchat and in text conversations. They don’t need flip top desks, they need Wi-Fi and devices, and most importantly they need platforms to connect. And in most cases they are outside of the academic or the academy. In fact, if they are owned or setup by the university, they are often turned into ghost towns. The learners own these new learning spaces, quite happy in the knowledge that they are the product for these sites and platforms. But they are in control of who accesses it, who sees it and whom they share it with. They choose what gets put on the walls and whether everyone can see it or just their closest friends. They choose if it is a site of rebellion, of collegiality, of relationships or of creativity. For me, it is a simply an extension of the way I felt about my primary school classrooms.

 

I was in year 2 at St Mary’s Primary School in Rydalmere, Australia. I was seven years old. Our teacher, Mrs Charker, built our room up with our art, our learning and our stuff. Each table was a network of our space. Sure, Mrs Charker taught, but it was in our space. I remember feeling comfortable there. Two years later, my year 4 teacher put us all in rows, denied us any space, moved us around into good and bad people rows (cockatoos, rosellas, parrots and VULTURES – guess which row I ended up in more often). The result was a disaffected class, who took their learning out of the room and in this case, to my desk at home.

 

The result in higher education is not much different. Learners form their own networks. And the discontinuous and spontaneous learning that Derek Bok advocates happens there, interacting with colleagues, professionals and the wider internet community. And in some ways, these new learning spaces create a much greater opportunity for chance meetings, discursive dialogues, interrogating and testing of ideas and thoughts, questions being answered and new questions being formed. I don’t see this as an abstract concept, the rantings of an e-learning zealot wanting to bring down the walls of the academy. This is the way learning spaces have changed. Ways of learning and knowledge acquisition have changed. Learning spaces are an evolving and fluid concept, not well represented by the fixed capital investment made by institutions.

 

The technologies our potential learners are using today are often in advance of those being ‘trialed’ at institutions. Facebook usage has been in decline for the last 18 months or so as young people move to more private and controllable networks like Snapchat and Whatsapp. There is no chance of their parents finding out stuff, or it getting into the ether for all to see, especially with something like Snapchat that self-destructs content in seconds. Yet many institutions are talking about Facebook as an innovative potential place for learning (or at least knowledge transfer) to occur. Learning spaces have to be more agile than institutions currently have the infrastructure or capacity to be. Successful entrepreneurs innovate through understanding what is happening, what might happen, engage with it and then respond. The way we conceptualise learning spaces need to occur in a similar pattern. It is already inherent in most of our learning designs that students are expected to undertake independent study, which represents nearly 90% of the hours they spend on courses. What do we think they do? Be like us in our learning heyday? Head buried in books, at a desk in the library or in our residence? Hard work, cold sweat and graft makes Peter learn. Guess what? They are studying together in groups, they are talking to each other, they are asking other people what they think, they are complaining and griping about how hard this and how much reading they have to do and then they are swapping pictures of their desk, their opinion on the latest Arcade Fire record or sending sad faces on Whatsapp because they are exhausted. And its what we all did. It just happens online as well as face-to-face now and learning is happening in those spaces.

 

So, what does all of this debate and froth mean to higher education, both institutions and teachers alike? Well, I wish there was a magic theory that I could invent here, represent with some moving bubbles and quick, catchy titles. There isn’t. However, there are four things we as educators need to consider…

1. In what ways do we understand the changes in learners and learning in the digital age?
2. How do we understand, engage and support the spaces in which new learners learn, physical or virtual?
3. How does our learning, teaching and assessment practice need to change to get the best out of these new spaces?
4. What is making us frightened, resistant and ‘control freaky’ about this change? Technology in higher education is still generally occurring at the fringes of experimentation, rarely crossing into the mainstream unless its flashy (MOOCs) or keeping with the Jonses’ (VLEs, Lecture Capture). Why has it not had the same transformative (disruptive, destructive or constructive) effect in our activity as it has arguably had on society as a whole?

Normal service will resume shortly

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Hola everyone, apologies for my long period of silence.  I have recently changed jobs and have not gotten around to emptying my brain of thoughts, but that will change soon, I promise.  And in the meantime, have a read of very well written, thoughtful and considered piece about the current educational trends impacting on Higher Education by Arun Karnad from the Centre for Learning Technology at the London School of Economics.

http://eprints.lse.ac.uk/55965/

and in the true spirit of this blog, you need reading music, so here is a clip from almighty Saints.  Enjoy

 

 

‘I am going to blow the whole thing to kingdom come’: In praise of discontinuity within a digital pedagogy

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One of the things valued in higher education is it’s ability to scaffold and structure knowledge in a logical progression of activity, learning and assessment leading to the achievement of learning outcomes, and the certification of that learning as a qualification. This logical progression approach (constructive alignment to some) informs the way we have subsequently used technology to enhance our teaching. A VLE, for example, is structured generally in a logical, topic driven way, often aligned with weeks of activity or work. There is much to be said for the notion of learning in order, knowing something before you can use or apply it to a context. The euphemism about learning to crawl before you can walk is true often because it is right. However I want to make a case for the power of discontinuity, chaos or mess in higher education pedagogy and especially in the use of technology as both disruptive and transformative tools of education within a digital pedagogy.

 

This ain’t new-fangled thinking by any stretch of the imagination. Piaget in the early seventies had been talking about the idea of disequilibrium as a spur for cognitive growth. He defined this as where information acquired could not be fitted into a person existing schema (conceptual or perhaps even experiential frameworks). Round peg, square hole. How do we make it work? We change our schema as we acquire and assimilate new knowledge. All good so far. What happens though when the information we get is discontinuous or chaotic? When we find the end first and the beginning somewhere later down the line? Story lines criss-cross each other so that narratives and concepts blend and you are not sure whether you are watching something coming or going. You see, consume or miss small fragments of knowledge, like shards of glass shattered across the floor. You might only brush past bits of content, and in another turn of your head see all of a fragment, fully exposed to the world.  This is knowledge and skills consumed in a discontinuous manner.  It is quite similar to the way people search the internet, floating from link to search in a weird and strangely poetic pattern (don’t believe, check out your daily internet browsing history one day, you will see all of these weird junctures and transitions – well at least I do ;-).

 

Now this might all seem a little abstract, or dare I say the rudest word in the academic lexicon ‘post-modern’, but bear with me peeps.

 

The Drowned Man

 

This is a new play by the rightly acclaimed Punchdrunk, in co-operation with the National Theatre called ‘The Drowned Man’, playing in London right now.  They call it an immersive experience where you are let blindly (or at least in a mask)  into a labyrinth of rooms and plot lines spread across over 100 rooms in an old mail sorting warehouse in Paddington, London. You are watching characters, chasing them up and down stairs, and equally being led to particular parts of the show. The experience is entirely discontinuous, with everyone ending up together only once during the night for the finale, which you may or may not have seen before. We saw it twice in the space of 2 weeks and engaged with almost an entirely different interpretation of the story. We were forced to try and find connections between the fragments and then fill in the gaps and solve the problem with the bits of knowledge you have that arrive scattered from throughout the narrative. It is the polar opposite of a traditional narrative structure, where beginning, middle and end come in that order, providing a satisfying though perhaps predictable resolution.

 

What gets lost in the context of HE with all learning following this staged procession, levels 4 through 6, pre-requisites and constructive alignment is that discontinuity can provide the learners with a critical opportunity to solve problems not simply in the time worn way they have always been solved, but to make new connections, linking bit A and bit B and finding they don’t equal bit AB but some something entirely new. Like with many of my previous blogs posts, I am not arguing to throw the baby out with the bath water and that we move to entirely discontinuous, chaotic or problem focused curricula. However that experience with the Drowned Man made me think about the disconnects between the way we live life and the way education prepares us to live life. Life is sequential to some extent. But the experiences of life not always are. We don’t watch people life their lives in order, we see bits and fragments, we hear stories told from different perspectives and we find out own way through the narrative. Work is often an aggregation of different people working on different parts of a project, with the left hand not always knowing what the right hand is doing. We survive, we flourish, we innovate and we create in the spaces between, where the tenuous threads are fleshed out by problem solving, imagination, experimentation and risk taking in an environment of unpredictability and rapid change. And to be honest, it is these things that modern HE seems to struggle a lot with.

 

Written in the context of school education, Anna Craft from the University of Exeter notes that ‘…in the shifting technological landscape, childhood and youth are changing. Connectivity around the clock, with a parallel existence in virtual space, is seamlessly integrated with actual lives. Young people are skillful collaborators, navigating digital gaming and social networking with ease, capably generating and manipulating content, experimenting virtually with versions of their ‘social face’. They are implicit, inherent and immersed consumers. They are digital possibility thinkers posing ‘what if?’ questions and engaging in ‘as if’ activity.’ (Craft 2012: 173).  But in order to support this engagement during their education experience, institutions (or in this case schools) need to engage in a ‘high trust pedagogy which encourages uncertainties, co-construction, diversity and dialogue’.

 

What does this all mean for e-learning?

 

It is another critical factor in the debate for a digital pedagogy. Many of our existing pedagogical approaches assumes learners are empty vessels, that they don’t have the academic or digital literacy required to actively participate in the privileged narratives of higher education and the learners need to start at the beginning before they can earn expertise or mastery. And there is a lot to be said for that. But there is something different already happening here (or actually has already happened). We know the learner five, ten, fifteen years before they get to university are developing skills that are not rooted in certainty or continuity. They consume media in small, bit sized chunks or gorge on it all at once, in a weekend sitting lashed with popcorn. They have access to a library of information more vast than we would have ever imagined possible and can have instant sight of any amount of it. The job they will do when they grow up more than likely does exist. With the amount of information available, mastery is not simply an aspirational impossibility but a physical and logical one (thanks Henry Jenkins for that thought).

 

So, how can higher education cope with this? Sure, we need to develop a framework, step by step, crawling before sprinting. But we also need to recognise that learners can be involved in developing and structuring their own learning. We need to recognise that our pedagogical task is not to present the beginning, middle and end as a fair accompli, like the ‘tah-da!’ at the end of a magic trick. It is presenting problems without solutions. Identifying the questions for which there no answers. Letting students jump off the cliff knowing there is no net but they will not fall. Letting them play, experiment, fail, succeed and invent a totally new way to make the ground shake. A pedagogy that simply delivers a lecture followed by a tutorial, week by week building a story that is already repeated in a thousand theatres across a million websites does not add value nor does it empower learners to create and connect. Supporting that however, with a digital pedagogy predicated on co-production, not knowing all the answers but having a good idea about what questions to ask. Putting creativity and criticality at the heart of the curriculum supported strongly by access to and analysis of knowledge and skills relevant to the discipline and the trans-discipline. In this media-rich digital age, higher education has an opportunity to embrace discontinuity. The challenge is not necessarily just about poking and prodding the schema of our students. In reality, it is also about poking and prodding our own. The resistance is not coming from the learners. This technology is what they use every day, to varying degrees and for varying reasons, but it is part of their everyday lives. It is not new. It is not hi-tech. It is not bright and shiny. It’s a phone. It’s the internet. It’s Wikipedia, innit? The same can be said for discontinuity. Where we have an opportunity is that the disconnect between the institution and learner could be fertile ground for this type of innovation. We know part of the story, they know a different part. As we walk around the theatre, we can choose to follow characters up and down the stairs, hear bits of the story, or they can follow us, learn more about other small fragments. The pedagogy should be what glues it together, allows learners to make connections, both inside and outside the ‘walls’. A digital pedagogy should not be the answers. It should be the questions.

 

Reference: Craft, Anna. “Childhood in a digital age: creative challenges for educational futures.” London Review of Education 10.2 (2012): 173-190.

Image 1 by quinn.anya @ http://bit.ly/1cwwd8N