It doesn’t matter what is in your hands – Reprise: Challenging the learning of the future

So, this is a reprise of my last post, written in late September.

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Jisc have just launched a co-design challenge (#codesign16) looking at what should the next generation of digital learning environments do. There are a number of key assumptions that keen readers of this blog might suspect I will take issue with; should we even be talking about learning environments for a starter. As learning technologists, academics or educational developers, why do we keep talking about the box of tricks as the on-going ticket to educational success? There are a number of much prescient articles about the future of the VLE (Louis Pugilese wrote a nice thought piece on a demand side VLE a few years back HERE and Martin Weller’s 2007 dystopian future ‘The VLE/LMS is dead’. But for me, the debate about what comes next, what does the VLE of the future look like or whether it is cloud or server based is like a drowning man arguing about the political position that his rescuer has on the issue of Brexit (and deciding that drowning is better than jumping in a boat with Nigel Farage).

What we should be talking about is far more fundamental than all of that. In 2014, I wrote a blog post about some the polarising factors that are in fact paralyzing our sector, preventing us from change, supporting entrenched positions of resistance and not affording us the opportunity to truly interrogate why the hell we are educating in the first place. This was not a baby out with the bathwater argument, nor was it the call to smash it all down and start again;

He argued that the modern university needed to prepare itself for a raft of changes that represented substantial changes that arise primarily from the technologies of today. There is a clear disconnect between the pace of technological change, the use of technologies by our learners and the pace in which institutions can change and adapt to both of those. I think we have been successful in winning the battles of large scale institutional systems as a means of embedding learning technology. The difference in the post-digital age is that now, these platforms and tools don’t have to be firewalled behemoths of yore. They are lean, agile, accessible and most of all, social. There isn’t a single institutional ‘out of the box’ solution that we can get the institution to invest in. There are micro platforms, single purpose aggregations of tools, agile new start-ups and the continued predominance of a digital backpack hosted and stored in the cloud.

As a sector, we need to move away from our systems mind set and into one that creates the conditions for agility, creativity and innovation. The effort should not be on shaping the systems to be ready for 2025, it should be shaping the institution to be able to adapt to whatever is thrown at it. If we went back to 2005 and asked the institution to prepare itself for 2015, what would we have told it? What has happened in the intervening years that we could have never predicted? Funnily enough, it’s the stuff we are still trying to ways to adapt to now. Social media! Participatory culture! Digital Citizenship!  (from the post ‘We could ride the surf together – Polarisation and power of riding the wave and not staying in front of it’)

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We don’t know what we don’t know. Prediction is a mugs game for sure. The Jisc challenge here was two-fold;

1. are current systems meeting the needs of our institutions,
2. and is it time to think about the next generation of learning environments?

My question is a different one; are the current systems meeting the needs of learning? Our institutions rise and fall on that question. The one thing we have over and above informal learning, community learning, micro-learning and all the other wolves at the door is that we accredit and certify. The value of that certification comes from the people who get it pinned to their chests. If what we offer stops meeting their needs, then we stop being relevant. The next generation of learning environment must tangle with the provocative and frankly difficult question of what learning actually is. My last post looked at good teaching, and why that was important in the digital age, and in the face of claims that technology courrupts good learning practices. It argued that god teaching was system/OS/box agnostic and that what made teaching ‘good’ was essentially intrinsic and human. One of the controversial interpretations of is that advocated that good teaching as it was human could only happen in ‘real life’. It doesn’t matter what the future learning environment is, the first question is what is the future of learning going to look going to look like? Are we the right people to be a part of it? This is not a clarion call for the heaving morass who argue the age of the expert is dead. Expertise is not a pejorative term FFS. Experts fix things, make things better, cure things, understand things and share things. But we do have to ask ourselves the tough questions; should we be involved in our our students learning? What kind of learning do they need/want/have no idea about yet?

Any learning environment of the future needs to be shaped and understood with at least some interrogwtion of those questions. Gutierrez in 2014 made a broad attempt to answer these questions by saying that learning is changing in four ways;

From Individual to Collaborative Learning
From Passive to Active Learning
The Rise of Differentiated Instruction
The Phenomenon of Multi-tasking

If we assume that this is what learning is in 2020 (which is a giant leap) how would the learning environment we would need to start developing now adapt to these changes, which are no hypothetical or fictitious, they are happening in our institutions now. How can a VLE be made to support active learning; can it be hacked, can it be bent? One of the biggest arguments in the ‘VLE is dead’ saga a few years back was the rise of adaptive and predictive technologies. You know, the ones that Amazon use to tell you which books or music you should buy next. Imagine (we were told) what a VLE could do if it were to become adaptive -after removing the rise of the Apes from your brain (and stopped screaming ‘“YOU BLEW IT UP! AH, DAMN YOU! GOD DAMN YOU ALL TO HELL!’ at the small snow globe of the statue of liberty you have on your desk), take a deep breath. What is it adapting to? Learning is a crooked, messy, chaotic and non-linear pathway through living.  It doesn’t matter where it happens, on what box or within which four august walls.  It matters that we understand why people learn.  It matters we know why we should be part of it and it matters how the learning is used.  And all of that, as it has done for centuries is changing.  Sure, technology is part of the reason, but not the whole of the reason.  Our needs, desire, passions and pains to learn are changing.  Survival is an entirely different beast when you are not facing the 22 foot gleaming teeth of a giant angry pre-historic badger.  How we survive and what we are surviving is different, so how and what we learn to survive must be as well.

 

So, let’s start the debate with an open blue sky of thought.  It shouldn’t be never-ending or ponderous.  It is not a left-wing rant nor is it an affordance or a luxury that we can’t afford.  We have to ask ourselves, our friends and colleagues and our leaders the question ‘What is the next generation of learning?’ As I ask in the earlier blog post, what will our 2025 selves tell us about what we should have prepared for?  And most importantly, we need to ground that in some thinking, exploring and evidence, then we will know exactly how we will design the environments that the learning of the future will sit in.

Re-imagining learning for a post-digital world (part 2) – Introducing Post-Digital Learning Experiences

Introducing post-digital learning experiences

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So, five months ago, I left you, dear reader, with a challenge; how do we re-imagine learning for a post-digital world?  Five months on, I have come back to this challenge with some new perspectives, some learned experiences and a significant amount of re-imagining of my own.  At the heart of that is a proposal for a new approach to designing teaching and learning.  An approach that recognises learning outside the transmission and that through the construction and encouragement of experience provides a context for learning to happen in a way that aligns with the conduct of a post-digital life.  This design process build experiences into the learning and teaching by shaping the way engagement, interaction, assessment and feedback is undertaken. They are post-digital learning experiences (PDLE);  found, making, identity, play, discontinuity, authenticity and community.   Inter-weaving these experiences through teaching and learning can shape, influence and enhance the opportunities for students to learn, to share learning and to teach others.  They are part of a post-digital world, made accessible through social  media, serious gaming, personal and collective spaces, apps, making, remixing, bricolage and sharing.  In this blog, we will discuss the context of learning experiences leading to part 3 which will talk about the PDLE model.

 

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So, where did we leave the debate at the end of part 1?

‘Last time on Peter Bryant rants about innovation…’

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?

 

Learning Experiences, Mark 1

Higher education is more than a series of readings, lectures, class activities, feedback followed by an endless line of tests and essays  Education is a lived experience.  The process of learning, collectively, individually, on-line or face-to-face is in part, a construct of the way it is experienced.  We know learning and teaching spaces influence the way way we teach, we know environments are critical to shaping learning.  We also know that doing, seeing, practising and succeeding/failing are all fertile sites for learning. It is these assumptions that makes the idea of lifelong learning so compelling and aspirational.  If learning at a higher level only occurs at the moments when we are exposed to transmission pedagogies, then it can then be argued that itself learning can stop.  We can stop consuming; we can stop listening to the message, read Facebook and life our lives in splendid isolation.  We can stop learning for life.  But that is not the case. Each experience we have, however hard to describe, de-construct or explain is a learning one.  It puts context on the other stuff we have learnt.  It augments, affirms or contradicts baseline knowledge, higher order skills or more complex critical thought.  It translates theory into practice and research into doing.

 

Knowles in his seminal text ‘The Modern Practice of Adult Education’ describes what he calls ‘learning experiences’.  These fit into teaching and learning process as connective tissue and sinew, they weave the gaps knowledge and skills, integrating the problems, scenarios, applications and schemas in the learner’s brain through the thematic links within and between disciplines.    He describes this type of learning design as an art form, rather than a process, because it is not a prescribed science.  This is not something that can be applied universally.   It is messy and chaotic (see part 1).  It often requires a guide, a guru or a light to illuminate a path.  It is a framework that allows people to understand and evaluate the experience through their own filters.  I have read this book many times.  I like the theory of andragogy. I like the skills set he puts forward for teaching adults.  But there is more to this book that than the words and ideas contained within.  The book is a learned experience for me.  I learnt about teaching by doing some of the things that Knowles suggests.  This copy of the book was my fathers.  It still has slips of papers marking key sections that he thought relevant to his PhD in the 1980s.  I learnt about teaching from watching him, good and bad.  One of the sections he has marked is about learning experiences co-incidentally.  It is the section that argues how learning is constructed through sensory experiences, from concrete to abstract, from direct, purposeful and contrived experiences like observation, simulations and demonstration right up to the burgeoning new fields of semiotics driven by media and computers (Film-strips! Slides! Teaching Machine Programs!).  This book is far more than a workbook on adult teaching.  Informing my practice directly through instruction and reinforcing, challenging and explaining the context in where my practice rests, it is a living, breathing map of sensory learned experiences.  And it was my dad’s.

 

Learning happens when it is experienced.  Transmission pedagogies like lectures and class teaching are still learning experiences.  However, they are often one-way, de-contextualized and essentially normative. The learner’s experience lacks relevance to the process, as the teacher often creates an experience that privileges consumption as the only mode of active learning.  Modern assessment practice does much the same.  Consume, repeat, consume, repeat, sometimes apply, some combine, but always repeat.  You see a number of research studies that say attending lectures increase student achievement (as an argument against lecture capture), that writing things down with a pen increases recall (as an argument against devices in classrooms) and that exams that reward memory are what employers want to assure and certify learning (as an argument against diverse assessment practices).  These are not experiences that dominate post-digital living.

 

Learning Experiences in a post-digital world (Mark II)

So why is any of this different to what it was in say 1970? Aside from the progression from the film-strip to the glorious VHS tape to YouTube, are learning experiences any different in the post-digital world?  I guess it is too easy to simply say yes.  Like most things, there is evidence and there is opinion. The evidence part is easy (cite 2014, cite 2011, cite 2018).  The opinion, as always, is much harder, especially as I would like to convince you of my opinion, by not citing the opinion of others (what a tangled web we weave!).  So, in the time honoured tradition of academics everywhere, here is a list of five reasons why my opinion is what it is.

 

  1. All our students are already using technology to a wide variety of degrees.
    This is a simple assertion. All of us are using technology; from cash machines, to smartphones, to laptops to tablets to our oyster card. Each of these pieces of technology serves a purpose. They change the way we do things. They change the language we use and they shift core practices around processes (such as paying, communications, processing and thinking). There are no universal rules about this. Generations after us are not naturally better than their parents at being technologically adept. These technologies are simply there. They develop, change and progress like most other means. In your classroom you have an array of devices more powerful than any of the ones that went before. There are ways to use that technology for the benefits of learners and learning. Instant communications, collaborations, interactions outside the classroom, annotations, engagement with readings, critical thought, right down to managing the calendar. These skills are not native, nor are they uniform. But they have been learnt through experience. From the first time you swiped left or right on an iPad to learning that not carrying money and getting on the last Tube was pretty damned convenient, even if crowded and hot.
  2. All the jobs students will do are shaped in part by technology
    We use technology to do all our jobs. You are reading a blog now. Almost every discipline has been impacted by technology; from research practice to visual rhetoric through to open access. How do we integrate these changes into curricula, teaching and assessment? Like any other programme/design process, we are research informed, we maintain rigour and we understand what skills and knowledge graduates will need to be develop expertise and understanding. Technology is just another part of that. Technology can make, stimulate or replicate experiences. Technology can help simulate real world employment situations, global phenomena or inter-personal scenarios. Technology can develop the communication, collaboration, identity or teamwork skills required in most modern workplaces. Technology skills such as media making, coding, social media or searching are critical trans-disciplinary concepts. Experience is at the core of these practices (and it is how we translate learning into working).
  3. Technology is not a scorched earth approach to teaching
    No institution wants to replace you with robots after recording your lectures. There is no replacement for the interaction and engagement face to face contact supports (either live or facilitated on-line). Technology does what it says on the box. It enhances, it adds, it disrupts and it transforms. Technology is not cheaper, faster, better or more. It is not an either/or choice. This is not a judgement call that marks on-line as better than face-to-face or that residential education makes on-line learning look like the poor cousin. Whether this is technology students use outside the classroom, or the innovative, flexible spaces were are looking to create within; Technology does not teach. Technology does not make people learn. You do. Students do. Experience does.
  4. Technology can make things possible that you previously thought impossible
    One of the great potentials of technology is change. Technology for education represents a wonderful catalyst for change. One colleague commented to me recently that they have been waiting for the technology to catch up with their thinking. Maybe thinking about technology will change the way we think about assessment, challenge some of our assumptions about feedback, maybe it will open a door or close another. Maybe technology will shift the lecture from being bounded by transmission pedagogies to being discursive and interactive. We advocate for technologies to be more than an economic replacement of one practice with another. They are a chance for a rethink, a chance inspiration or a series of experiments that allow you to embed some play and fun into your teaching and learning.
  5. Technology does enhance learning
    Give it a go. The gap between what our learners see and understand as their on-line learning experience and the face to face experience is narrowing. It is all just learning. The capabilities required to search quickly, determine the veracity of information and do this whilst doing three other things are developing rapidly. These skills are by no means universal or natural, but they are developing and they are shaping how people learn. From students being able to re-watch lectures 8 or 9 times to make sure they understood concepts to being able to access a support network at 4am through twitter (or just to know when the Library lift is out of order) technology is enhancing learning right now.

 

What is a learning experience in the post-digital age?

Learning experiences are still the connective tissue in the process of learning and teaching.  With all the routine and standards around quality assurance and enhancement, much of our focus is almost entirely on the skeleton of learning; the curricula, learning outcomes and modes of assessment.  Then there are the methodologies of teaching; lecture, tutorial, seminar, class, group work, exam, field trip or discussion.  These are structured and shaped by expensive embedded infrastructure that itself shapes the type of teaching done within it.  Teaching rooms with a front and a back. Projectors that can be seen by all and controlled by one. Four walls that contain what happens within them.  Timetables, administration and practices that dictate massive over intimate.  Technology that replicates and reassures the existing practice as a safe and comfortable blanket of conformed practice.  A safe experience. A timely experience. A didactic experience that feels the same as the ones that shaped who we are. But in the end, for all the predictions and the manufactured nostalgia, Back to the Future II was not a documentary, nor was it written by a futurist or a genius.  What we imagined as the future of education in 1985 is not what it should be in 2015, because it is not the 18 year old us that is experiencing it.  It is the next generation and they are not us, as we are not our parents (Heaven forbid!).  What technology, social media, and the impacts of technology on life, love and work have done is change that equation.  Experiences are virtual and real, they are offline and online and they are dangerous, risky, traumatic, joyful, connected, isolating and overwhelming.  And they are ours and they are theirs.

 

The next part of this blog post will look at seven learning experiences that I propose make up a model of post-digital learning.  These experiences are not the exclusive domain of technology and the modern.  Far from it. But, they are facilitated more effectively in a post digital institution, drawing from trans-disciplinary knowledge and rooted in a society that has been transformed (disrupted) by interactive and collaborative technology. They are the bits between curricula and teaching practice. They are the things that shape how we teach and how something is learnt.  I believe that they can work in predictable and unpredictable ways, across disciplines and levels.  Once again, that is opinion.  The reality only comes from when you experience it.

 

And now, some music to make you think (or forget). I have been in an Australian music mode recently.  Music is a great example of a learned experience.  I am always learning about music through experience. Not books, or being told that these are the 100 tracks I have to listen to.  I live it.  I experience it.  So, do the same.  They are both poems of lived experience.  Maybe you will like these two tracks, or maybe they will make you find the connections, the relationships, the lineage or the opposites.  or maybe, by experiencing it, you will decide that it is not for you.  Either way, it is up to you.


 A part of this piece was previously published in an amended form on the LSE LTI Blog*