Solutions not problems
Over the last few years I have made the case for a substantive and meaningful debate about redefining pedagogy and reimagining teaching and learning firstly for a digital age and more recently for what many are calling the post-digital world.
But why do we need to debate or design a new pedagogical approach for our modern institutions? There are now more university students and graduates than ever before. The impending death of institution as foretold by many MOOC advocates never happened. Even the studied, reflective and critical arguments made by authors such as John Seely Brown, Randy Garrison, George Siemens and Martin Weller about the impacts of technology on the skills and competencies required by institutions and academics have only been realized in part or through specific components of the wider educational experience.
“The kind of learning that will define the twenty-first century is not taking place in a classroom”
A New Culture of Learning: Cultivating the Imagination for a World of Constant Change; Douglas Thomas and John Seely Brown (2011)
‘Tasks that were previously the domains of faculty are now under the control of learners: searching for information, creating spaces of interaction, forming learning networks, and so on. Through blogs, wikis, online video, podcasts and open educational resources, learners are able to access content from leading lecturers and researchers around the world. Through the use of social media, learners are able to engage and interact with each other (and in some cases, directly with researchers and faculty)’ George Siemens and Martin Weller ‘Higher education and the promises and perils of social network’, Revista de Universidad y Sociedad del Conocimiento (RUSC), vol. 8, no. 1, pp. 164-170
Even the much quoted Alvin Toffler line (‘The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn’) becomes demonstrable mainly in the context of incredibly poor spelling borne out of auto-correct and predictive text rather than in the form of transferable skills and knowledge that can be applied to ever changing professional and personal circumstances. Time after time in surveys like the NSS we see students wanting more of what we might call a traditional academic experience. They want more feedback, they ask for more ‘face time’ with academics, they continue to want lectures and tutorials. The disconnects between the way learners live their lives and the experiences learners have in the academy are hard to disassemble. It is a complex interplay of expectation, outcome, explicit and tacit connections between the experiences informed by exposed and imagined discipline specificities. It is critical though that we as academics and teachers look to understand these disconnects. Perhaps it is acceptable to simply allow the two streams to exist in parallel with the occasional eruptions, disruptions and transformation dealt with as they arise. But maybe we are missing a trick. Nothing stands still. Industries rise and fall. Movements, momentums, equilibriums all change. To assume that we as institutions will not learn ourselves would be dangerous (and patently incorrect in part as there are so many brilliant examples across the sector of where we have). However, there is a dominant institutional paradigm, which in reality is the giant elephant in the centre of the room.
Within many institutions, the patterns and responses of resistance to change position anything different as being the position that has to justify why? There is little criticality around the norm. There is a lot of rigorous defence. It is up to the people advocating for change to make the case for ‘why’. It has worked for centuries as a reason for doing something holds water, even in the light of accusations of historical revisionism (e.g. the modern mass lecture doesn’t date from the 14th century, it is a purely 20th century construct made possible by broadcast technologies). Doing something differently puts you a limb, out on the edge, fringing zealotism. I wrote about this story extensively in my last blog post on ambient conservatism and risk aversion and the behaviours that go with working in those environments
Perhaps there is a not a strong or persuasive enough reason for many teachers and their institutions to change. I fundamentally believe that any teacher, convinced of the efficacy and benefit of a pedagogical change that enhances the outcomes for students would not resist that change. However let me apply two caveats. 1. Rational actor and 2. Perfect world. When you throw in the complexity of the institution into the mix, then it all gets a bit messy. The institution rusts behaviours, practices and pedagogy on through policy, the building and updating of the estate, staff recruitment and promotion and how they respond to league tables and the NSS. All the while, the learners, their jobs, their community and their learning trajectories are changing at pace. The 21st century skills put forward by writers like Henry Jenkins are not a myth. They intersect through social media, collaboration, interaction, relationships, consumption, work and life. If you have never seen them, Jenkins explores them in his brilliant work on Participatory Culture, linked here.
Play: The capacity to experiment with the surroundings as a form of problem solving. Performance: The ability to adopt alternative identities for the purpose of improvisation and discovery. Simulation: The ability to interpret and construct dynamic models of real-world processes. Appropriation: The ability to meaningfully sample and remix media content. Multitasking: The ability to scan the environment and shift focus onto salient details. Distributed cognition: The ability to interact meaningfully with tools that expand mental capacities. Collective intelligence: The ability to pool knowledge and compare notes with others toward a common goal. Judgement: The ability to evaluate the reliability and credibility of different information sources. Trans-media navigation: The ability to follow the flow of stories and information across multiple modalities. Networking: The ability to search for, synthesize, and disseminate information. Negotiation: The ability to travel across diverse communities, discerning and respecting multiple perspectives, and grasping and following alternative norms.
What does this mean for learning? Learners arriving at university are already e-learners and have been almost all of their lives. Information search has been transformed by the internet and then made necessary by the sheer immensity of information. Learners have had to develop different cognitive approaches to seeking and searching behaviours, to manage disorientation, non-linear browsing and authentication and validation of information. The notions of what is real and authentic are defined very differently. Identity is fluid, rent with multiplicity and diversity. There is no visible distinction between the on-line world and the real world. There is just the world. How we use networks and connections in order to share content, validate opinion and acquire information has fundamentally changed with social media. This is not about the technology. This is about the change it has facilitated.
‘…(learners) communicate in a language that many academics don’t yet understand. It’s an everevolving language of interpretation and expression, an interactive approach to learning, creating, and responding to information through a complex montage of images, sound, and communication. Students are pushing learning into a new dimension; it’s a mistake to continue to try to teach them in time-worn ways. Their choices of communication need to be diversified to include, for example, visual interpretations of texts and historical figures or soundtracks for poetry. Students can take advantage of the enormous resources of the Web, transforming what they find there by using digital technologies to create something new and expressive.’ John Seely Brown 2001
And, this is not happening to learners as they grace adulthood, this is part of their primary education, or even earlier. Like counting rods were to my generation, the phone and the tablet are tools of learning (amongst other things). These skills and devices are brought to higher education in a highly tailored, personalised and agile digital backpack. It is not a universal one-size fits all backpack for sure. Not all students are experts in all technologies. But when they arrive, the pedagogical framework that underpins much of our education doesn’t value or even recognise those skills. This is not a ‘have or have not’ polarised debate. Those are pointless when discussing learning because they extremes are just that, extreme. There are degrees here. The VLE requires digital literacies and applies some of the ‘modern’ frameworks of search and access skill, although it can and often does privilege sequential access to knowledge, enforce a linear methodology of consumption and browsing and doesn’t support excursions of clicking to other sources of information. 20th century learning wrapped in 21st century technology. A discussion forum seems to support some of the new learning behaviours (not 21st century – in fact one of the earliest components of the internet, pre-world wide web was the bulletin board dating back to the early 70s). They support students to engage with each other, discuss and learn on-line. In reality, there are many studies that argue that students don’t use them and if they do, they need to be rewarded with grades. I counted over 100 studies published over the last 10 years aimed at enhancing the effectiveness of the forum with solutions ranging from timely instructor interventions, to redefining success measures (a forum with little discussion is not a failure!) to positioning forums as solely on-line tools where the deficits can be picked up in a face to face mode. So, they remain the holy grail of blended learning…the course with an active discussion forum!
But back to the ‘no persuasive reason’ argument briefly – do students have a persuasive enough reason to push for pedagogical change to their education experience? Is it pragmatic to approach education as a transaction, where you accept (and sometimes propagate) the conditions in order to graduate? Or have we through history, received wisdom or a keening sense of nostalgia created the expectations of a higher education experience and rewarded the acceptance of them? Even the completion of a degree programme is often not enough. In the UK, the government reward institutions for increasing the number of ‘good’ degrees (2:1 or higher). There is a growing movement of modern learners and graduates who ascribe to the theory of 2:1 or your career plans are shot. If all of that is in the hands of the institution and system of teaching and learning, what reward is there to challenge it?
Solutions not problems
What I am promising from the next two posts is not a solution in a box. It is not an easily defined pedagogy like social constructivism or connectivism. It is not clean or neat. It is messy and chaotic. The common factor – the belief that the status quo is not inevitable, that the perception of equilibrium is changeable. That innovation is not a buzzword, nor is a dirty word. This is the first part of a three-part article. Parts two and three, which will be published after summer, outline what I am calling a ‘learning experience’ approach to teaching and learning in a post-digital world. How do we leverage the massive potential of modern learning in a higher education context? How do make higher education better and more relevant to the community who clearly value the contribution that a higher education can make? How do we empower teachers and learners to change and make the persuasive case to the institution to change along with them?