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 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.