‘If you spend your life looking behind you, you don’t see what’s up front’: Constructing learning through experience (and how the digital might help)

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‘We stood side by side
Strong and true
I just wish you’d remember
Bad times don’t get you through

When I hear you saying
That we stood no chance
I’ll dive for your memory
We stood that chance’

Dive for your memory – Go-Betweens 1988

 

Memory is a powerful tool.  It provides us with a way of reusing an experience and applying it to new and different circumstances.  The process of moving something from experience to memory is a complex neurocognitive process, still at its formative stages of being understood.  There is a strand of post-digital skill around the constructing of memory and remembering.  Social media is arguably one of the most active at supporting the development of this skill, with   Facebook (for example) helping us to do this by pulling out and sharing photos from your archive and reminding you what you were doing 4 years ago.  Maybe the photo is boring and ignites nothing, but maybe it reminds you of powerful, visceral, funny, tragic, romantic, sexy or entirely above board professional experiences.  This isn’t just nostalgia.  This is the bi-directional pathway of experience and memory, with experiences forming memories that once recalled shape lifelong learning, perhaps equally as powerful as the aggregation of new experiences.  Memory is more than simply recall.  Each memory is placed through a filter of successive and subsequent experiences.  We learn through experiences to better understand the past.  Yet in higher education, we seem to focus on memory simply in terms of recall.  Exams rarely ask for a student’s experiences to be constructed in terms of the questions we ask.  More often than not we ask our students to simply recall facts, quotes or someone else’s analysis, when in real life we remember experiences more as a sprawling portfolio, explicitly and tacitly linked by other people, strengths of connection and emotions.  In a post-digital world, social media does that so well. Flagging ways to remain and become connected through varying degrees of shared experience, committed to cloud memory.

 

Experiences create frames that shape learning far past the duration of the experience.  But experiences are most than just activities or moments.  We get students to experience ‘work’ through case studies, assessment, placements, simulations etc. This is experiential learning, textbook stylz. We can extend that even further to seeing students in work and learning through that work (apprenticeships), structuring assessments to replicate practice, accredit their existing experience as credit (work based learning), supporting skills that support the transition to practice (entrepreneurship, small business skills) and we can run our educational experience at work, customizing it for the specific requirements of firm X.  None of this is entirely controversial or indeed mind blowing, we just do it. But, in the main, the experience the student is having whilst all of this stuff is going on is framed by the same core set of processes.   The teacher-student dynamic (expert-apprentice, listen-learn, consume-repeat, study-succeed, broadcast-receive, stand-sit, performer-audience) is simply repeated and reconfigured for each new context.

 

Equally, we understand that learning can and is socially constructed.  But how does social learning contribute to learning?

 

‘Social learning is enhanced by a dynamic interplay of both community and network processes. Such interplay combines focus and fluidity as it braids individual and collective learning. The work of fostering learning needs to take advantage of this complementarity.’

Wenger, Etienne, Beverly Trayner, and Maarten de Laat. “Promoting and assessing value creation in communities and networks: A conceptual framework.” The Netherlands: Ruud de Moor Centrum (2011).

 

It is not simply putting people in a room, throw in a group exercise, light the touch paper and see what happens.  Wegner et al point to the need to construct the environment that allows for community and networking to happen, both structured and spontaneous. Learning experiences are not easy to create.  And this is made even more complex by the structures that define educational delivery; budgets, rooms, systems, poorly used technology and quality assurance applied as control rather than enhancement.

 

A step into my memory

I was a Head of Department for 11 years, at a large hybrid FE/HE institute in Sydney, Australia.  We taught events management, marketing, advertising and arts and media.  We had nearly 1000 students and a teaching staff of around 25.  Let me talk you through the key decisions I had to make in order to structure and deliver the learning experience for those students.

 

  1. I had a nationally set curriculum (competency based) that I could not change, even if the learning outcomes were blindingly insane (which they were). I had to deliver the learning outcomes, assess them, maintain a reliable and accurate set of documents that proved I had done this, ensure the students were fully informed about the what and how and by when of their learning.  The curriculum was full to brim of content, not always relevant, but lots of it.  Transferable skills and trans-disciplinarity were hived off in favour of more focused disciplinary content.
  2. I had an indicative set of hours with which to deliver this content per course. I never had enough money to actually deliver those hours.  In fact, often the money allocated was 50% less than I needed, so we compromised.  We joined courses together where there were natural alignments (or not), we did bigger classes, lectures instead of seminars.  We had term lengths, where key points for grade submission were set in stone.
  3. I could timetable rooms, but only in fixed slots every week, for a fixed number of hours, and preferably with no gaps in their utilization. These were not my rooms; they were general purpose and as such had the same series of desks, teaching podiums and lack of decoration (other than boastful graffiti).  Capacity was always an issue and weeks 1-3 always had more students than we could fit into a room, in Sydney summer without air-conditioning.
  4. Teachers were trained to varying degrees and were responsible for the mechanics of the class as well as the learning. Start/finish times, attendance, quality assurance, assessment, marking, feedback, pastoral care, health and safety, child protection and sometimes defending students from abuse were part of the day to day operations of a teacher in my department. They also had to structure the learning design to deliver every one of the learning outcomes. All for £30 an hour, and often entirely casualised and without any guarantee of work next term.

 

Much of this will sound familiar.  These are the constraints we deliver teaching and learning in.  We can now add the structure of learning that our VLEs privilege (week-to-week, content as king, aligned and structured) and the systems that collect, check, verify and return assessment, all leading to the precious 2:1 and above, verified by external examiners, assessment boards, double blind marking and moderation.  Every one of these systems, processes, policies or practices seem to lock in the established set of practices of HE. Teach through talk; learn through listen. Every week becomes an episode on a TV show (wait until next Tuesday for next exciting installment of Introduction to Statistics, woo!), when modern TV is not watched weekly, but binged in one hit or deconstructed into youtube’able bits.  How does an academic change that?

 

Great idea Peter! Do something different, but what about the {timetable} {rooms} {semester} {student information system} {quality} etc? Have you thought about children???? HAVE YOU THOUGHT ABOUT THE CHILDREN??

 

Back into the now…

But what if we could construct learning through an experience, not simply by having one? Curricula is set and often jam packed, teaching methods are a product of the constraints we work under (budgets, time, hours, the desperate drive to make all learning practice equal as a surrogate for making it better, thanks QA), assessment that is aligned and structured to bell curve it like it’s hot.  What’s left in your toolkit? The thing that joins these together, learning experiences.  It is the one lever that you as the teacher have control over.  It is how you construct learning through the experience.  It is what Knowles describes as the art, the design, the creativity and the ‘line, space, colour, texture and unity’ of teaching.  It is the intangible.  What makes one person standing at the front of the room boring and the next a person who inspires, challenges and uplifts?  Why does an experience that makes you worried, a little nervous and even scared prepare you for the next time far more effectively that knowing exactly what is coming next? Why is being asked your opinion and having that opinion debated, argued, defended and shared so critical?  It is because we as teachers have the opportunity and the capacity to create the experiences that shape and make learning.  Here is the irony of this.  Knowles talks about adult learners as the neglected species, disparaging the pedagogical theories that underpin modern education as being inadequate for the complexity of adults.  And he is right (IMHO).  But these learning experiences are exactly the way kids learn when they are learning independently.  They try something because they don’t know what will happen, and when it hurts they don’t do it again.

 

Another memory recalled…

‘A recent study of traditional introductory course students bears out some of the deepest fears of those who teach debits-credits at the introductory level. You know what I mean-that gnawing pain in the pit of your stomach when no matter how many times you explain adjusting entries, all a student wants to know is what to debit, an expense or a prepaid…students’ accounting knowledge begins to fade even before the course is over, so that end of-course performance begins to revert back to the level of beginning-of-course performance. The reason: student learning appears to be based on memorization, without real understanding.’

Pincus, Karen V. “Is teaching debits and credits essential in elementary accounting?.” Issues in Accounting Education 12.2 (1997): 575.

 

For me one of the most powerful and effective learning experiences happened in 1989, my first year of UG study.  We were doing financial accounting and everyone of us in my study group found it impenetrable.  Why do we do this double entry bookkeeping? It made NO SENSE.  Every successive week of lecture then tutorial made it worse, not better.  The lecturer for the course who we called ‘Big Ronnie’ (not because it was his name, but because he told us day one that his name was always ‘Ronald’ and never ‘Ron’ and definitely not ‘Ronnie’) was awful, teaching from old notes that simply repeated the same impenetrable scripts from the text book he wrote (the names have been changed to protect the innocent). His tutors were even worse, first year out graduates with no frameworks or knowledge of education, given 10 questions each week that they were made have us answer.  Sometimes they ran out to stuff to talk about after 20 minutes because they were given no agency, just a directive.  Just onto the next ten worked examples, which each week we couldn’t do.  None of us got it.  Attendance declined, the bar filled up at tutorial time because we were timetabled for a 7-9pm tutorial after a 9am lecture the same day with nothing in between.  And then we did the first exam, mid semester and almost everyone failed, or just passed.  And none of us had ever experienced that before.  It was a shock and it hurt.  We sat down to the tutorial after the exam and were angry. Every one of us.  And I remember it vividly, the tutor started on the next weeks questions and we all stopped.  We refused to speak and we said to her ‘what happened? We failed and we don’t why?’ As she had no theoretical framework t reflect on what happened she just reverted to the only thing she knew, her own experiences of learning, and for the first time she opened up. ‘This must have sucked guys, I am so sorry, I had the same experience with Ronald 4 years ago and if it was me who get it wrong….’ She trailed off. We said to her, teach us. Teach us like little kids and start at the beginning.  We stopped learning in week 1 and the lecturer couldn’t care.  In those days you had failing quotas, pass marks at 70% and the belief that failing when you actually passed was character building.  Teach us like children.  We pushed all the desks away, we sat on the floor, she sat on the floor with us and started talking about what she did as an accountant and how she used double entry bookkeeping.  She went back to first principles and for two hours, no one left, no one blanked out. Every one asked questions and after a while it was our own peers who were answering as different bits of the puzzle connected.  She constructed a learning experience, a campfire where she told her story and we found things that we could hook our own fragile, emerging understanding.  And we got better, each week, we engaged and talked and built a relationship.  And even better, she learnt as well through the process of constructing an experience.

 

Yes, there was a curriculum.  There was knowledge.  There was assessment.  There was teaching.  But there was not learning.  Simply using levers to create a mix of education based on the traditional four processes of curriculum, teaching, content and assessment is not enough, especially in a post-digital world where those things are (to varying degrees) more easily accessible and more plentiful than any other time in human history.  The value that we offer as teachers and as institutions comes how we use experience and how we construct experiences for our students.  As Knowles says, the opportunity is for experience to be the connective tissue and sinew for successful adult teaching.  Herein lies the opportunity to take post-digital learning experiences, made possible by the digital to help students make connections between knowledge, find contexts within their own memory to understand them and commit them to the portfolio of learning they have opened up and to share those experiences with others.  This is also an opportunity to change the way we use those levers.

 

How the digital might help?

  1. Change assessment and shape the environment that rewards the construction of and critical reflection on experiences.  Stop standing at the front and droning on.  Afford and indulge some risk.  Social media provides for safe spaces to do dangerous things. Classrooms the same.
  2. Let students speak their opinion and have it challenged and defended.  Let them bring their experiences of learning through play, imagination and creativity that have dominated their lives since they were born to a supposedly adult field. Can their shares those experiences with a network wider than the one in the classroom? How does the fluidity of an online existence (which to be fair is the same fluidity we apply to any other form of existence) become integrated into teaching?
  3. Accredit and recognize experiences in all learners as both formative and summative.  Students aren’t empty vessels when they walk through or sometimes august gates, they have opinions that are formed and informed to a wide variety of degrees. Find ways to draw those experiences of identify formation, sharing, expression and remixing into your teaching. Interrogate their understandings through the ways they consume media, or develop trust and networks, or the way they play.
  4. Give them the opportunity of knowing what it’s like when their next step is into the unknown.  Use scenarios, games or simulations to make this feel real, but be safe.  Introduce a small amount of fear through discontinuity, throw a curve ball in your teaching experience, so that week 1 doesn’t feel exactly the same as week 9.  Use technology to disrupt the norm then challenge why they were or weren’t ‘disrupted’.
  5. Tell them how something ends so that they have to work out how it begins.  Use media to show how something is completed then navigate through the field, using smart searches, fluid approaches to knowledge and an open mind to link discourses and narratives.
  6. Let them use their experiences and those of others to help form an identity within their professional or personal communities.  Use technology to develop identity, shape identify, know what identity means in the context of being a professional, understanding how their identity shapes their learning.  Social media, portfolios, critiques, being a digital citizen, crowdsourcing can all contribute towards shaping and sharing identity.

 

Let them sit around in a circle on the floor and figure out why does double entry bookkeeping exist and how do you match all the debits and credits in order to complete balance day adjustments? And have those very same students still remember how to do it nearly 30 years on.

 

I recall a bigger brighter world
a world of books
and silent times in thought
and then the railroad
the railroad takes him home
through fields of cattle
through fields of cane
from time to time
the waste memory-wastes
the waste memory-wastes
further, longer, higher, older

Cattle and Cane, The Go-Betweens, 1983

 

This post is dedicated to the memory of Grant McLennan of the Go-Betweens, from whom I respectfully borrow the title of this post (from the track Was There Anything I Could Do? released on 16 Lovers Lane in 1988)

Re-imagining learning for a post-digital world (part 1) – Solutions not problems

Solutions not problems

REIMAGINING

 

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.

The logical impossibility of Status Quo: Six disconnects that demand a digital pedagogy (or at least a good debate about it)

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

Shit or get off the pot: Why are we still talking about the seismic impacts technology will have on higher education? 

 

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 WellerHigher 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.

 

The elephant in the room
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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?

 

You can now read parts 2 and 3 of this blog post.  These will introduce the idea of post-digital learning experiences as a solution to the problems put forward here.