Posted tagged ‘teaching’

The learnification of education

30 September 2014

I start this post by thanking Angela Towndrow, a fellow Aussie whom I met virtually via a mooc, and from whom I continue to draw insights on things related to education.

After reading my previous post Let’s get rid of the instructors!, Angela pointed me to the journal article Giving Teaching Back to Education: Responding to the Disappearance of the Teacher by Gert Biesta. And I’m glad she did.

Professor Biesta’s article is a response to the marginalisation of teaching in modern society, and a call for teachers to teach, to be allowed to teach, and to have the courage to teach.

The premise of the professor’s argument is that there is a difference between “education” and “learning”:

“…the point of education is never that children or students learn, but that they learn something, that they learn this for particular purposes, and that they learn this from someone. The problem with the language of learning and with the wider ‘learnification’ of educational discourse is that it makes it far more difficult, if not impossible, to ask the crucial educational questions about content, purpose and relationships. Yet it is in relation to these dimensions, so I wish to suggest, that teaching matters and that teachers should teach and should be allowed to teach. And it is also in relation to these dimensions that the language of learning has eroded a meaningful understanding of teaching and the teacher.”

It is this learnification of educational discourse that has rendered the words I cited in my previous post – “training”, “lecture”, “course” and “teaching” – dirty. And I must confess it gives me heart to find someone of Professor Biesta’s calibre in my corner (or more accurately, to find myself in his).

Student using an iPad

In describing our general mindshift from teaching to learning, Biesta tells the story of two English schools that, upon merging, no longer wanted to call themselves a “school”. So they named their merged entity Watercliffe Meadow: A Place for Learning. Beyond the deliciously Waughian nature of this name, Biesta objects to its semantics:

“…the language of learning, particularly in its constructivist form, has repositioned the teacher from someone who is at the heart of the educational process to one who literally stands at the sideline in order to facilitate the learning of his or her ‘learners.’

Some of the arguments that have contributed to the rise of the language of learning are not without reason – there is indeed a need to challenge authoritarian forms of education; the rise of the internet does raise the question as to what makes schools special; and, to a certain extent, it cannot be denied that people can only learn for themselves and others cannot do this for them (although this does not mean that there are no limits to constructivism).

However, the language of learning falls short as an educational language, precisely because, as mentioned, the point of education is never that students learn but that they learn something, for particular purposes and that they learn it from someone. The language of learning is unable to capture these dimensions partly because learning denotes a process that, in itself, is empty with regard to content and direction; and partly because learning, at least in the English language, is an individualistic and individualising term whereas the educational question – if, for the moment we want to phrase it in terms of learning – is always a matter of learning something from someone.

From this angle it is just remarkable, if not shocking, how much policy – but increasingly also research and practice – has adopted the empty language of learning to speak about education. Yet if this is indeed the only language available, then teachers end up being a kind of process-managers of empty and in themselves directionless learning processes.”

Ouch!

I certainly agree that the language of learning pushes the sage off the stage and recasts them as a guide on the side. But I feel compelled to point out that this does not in itself render the art of facilitation devoid of educational purpose. On the contrary, I see facilitation as a means of education. Assuming the teacher has in mind a certain something for his or her children to learn, then to “teach” may mean to stage the encounter indirectly – that is, to seed, scaffold, clarify and validate – as opposed to direct instruction.

Indeed, Biesta offers the most eminent of examples in Socrates:

“…when we look more carefully at Socrates we can already see that he is not just there to facilitate any kind of learning but that, through an extremely skilful process, he is trying to bring his students to very specific insights and understandings. Seen in this way, Socrates is actually an extremely skilful didactician, because he knows all too well that to just ‘rub it in’ is unlikely to convince his students about the things he wants to convince them of.”

Biesta goes on to suggest that that Socrates was a manipulative teacher, and I whole-heartedly agree. If there were no manipulation underpinning the Socratic method, then I dare say that sales people wouldn’t use it! Yet while facilitative teaching is by definition manipulative, I implore that it need not be deemed so in the negative sense. It is rather a manifestation of the teacher exercising his or her judgement in the context of the given situation.

Students in class with teacher reading

To Biesta, it is teaching (not learning) that makes the school special. He sees teaching as a gift, and the giving of this gift as the raison d’ĂȘtre of the institution. So instead of thinking of a school as a place for learning, he prefers to think of it as a place for teaching.

But does this swing the pendulum too far back the other way?

Indeed I agree that we should think of a school as a place for teaching. As my rambling in Let’s get rid of the instructors! will attest, I very much advocate teaching under the right circumstances. However, just as the learnification of educational discourse devalues teaching, I believe the teacherfication of educational discourse devalues learning.

Notwithstanding the importance of our students learning something for particular purposes from someone, sometimes that “something” can not be taught because it hails from the future; which is a round-about way of saying that we need to teach our children how to learn so that we can future proof their education.

My understanding of “learning” in this sense is not empty and directionless because the teacher is there to guide and support the process. I contend that the role of the teacher can find the middle ground between the ultra-conservative view of teaching – whereby the curriculum is transmitted from state to child – and the neo-liberal view that would have us throw the curriculum out the window (except where it furthers its own agenda, of course). On this middle ground the teacher is empowered to work with the curriculum as he or she sees fit; whether that be via direct instruction, or facilitation, or perhaps even – sometimes – rhizomatic exploration.

So I advocate neither Watercliffe Meadow: A Place for Learning nor Watercliffe Meadow: A Place for Teaching. If learning skills are to be incorporated into the education that our schools give our children, then let’s call a spade a spade: Watercliffe School: A Place for Teaching and Learning.

Let’s get rid of the instructors!

9 September 2014

The title of my previous post, Let’s get rid of the instructional designers!, was a tongue-in-cheek reference to a radical view of instructional design.

I think it would be safe to say that the vast majority of us in the L&D profession do not advocate the riddance of instructional designers. On the contrary, they are the experts in a science that is critical to the overall performance of the organisation.

The title of this post however, while similarly tongue-in-cheek on my part, is much less so on the part of many of my peers.

We live in an era where “training”, “lecture”, “course” and even “teaching” have become dirty words. In their place, a learner-centered vocabulary espousing “inquiry”, “exploration” and “discovery” are the soupe du jour.

A manifestation of this trend is no more vivid than in the invective directed at MOOCs – or more accurately, xMOOCs. To many L&D folks, these types of courses (there’s that word again) are mere replicas of the lectures and exams that they so despise. Ergo, xMOOCs are bad.

Now I maintain this view sells xMOOCs short, but for the sake of argument I’m willing to pretend that this mode of delivery is devoid of constructivist empowerment. I acknowledge that many MOOCs do replicate olde worlde instructivism, at least in part.

And here’s where I propose something counter-radical: Sometimes that’s a good thing.

Screenshot of Foundations of Business Strategy

Indeed, I advocate direct instruction under the following circumstances:

1. When the learner is a novice.

Novice learners don’t know what they need to know. But the expert does.

By adopting an instructivist approach, the expert can scaffold the learning experience and construct a foundational framework for the subject matter. The learner can then build upon this foundation by other means.

2. When the subject matter is complex.

By definition, complex subject matter consists of interconnected parts which may be difficult to make sense of through inquiry, exploration and discovery.

Sometimes it makes more sense to have someone who understands the system explain it to you end-to-end.

3. When the subject matter is black & white.

It’s worth noting that complex is not the same as complicated, whereby inquiry, exploration and discovery may be eminently suitable for gathering multiple versions of the “truth”.

Geopolitics springs to mind, but cooler headed topics such as strategic thinking and decision-making are also highly dependent on context, lending themselves to a more constructivist approach.

But not all topics are like that. Consider financial statement analysis: the content is so straight-forward that it would make little sense to inquire, explore and discover, when you could simply see how it’s done and practise it for yourself.

4. When speed to competence is important.

Learners in the workplace are time poor, and whatever the topic, their employer demands that they get up to speed quickly. Otherwise, don’t come Monday.

These people don’t have the luxury of a semester to inquire, explore and discover. They need to know what they need to know now.

5. When the learning outcome is non-negotiable.

There are some things that your employer must know that you know. It may be critical to your role, a compliance obligation, or a risk management issue; so it can’t be left to chance.

Personally, I think the indicator of must-know learning is its assessment. I wouldn’t care so much where, when or even how you learned it, so long as you did.

However, I can also see that if an employer found itself in court because one of its employees sexually harassed one of his colleagues, it would want to demonstrate that it had provided sufficient training to that individual.

6. When the learner is less inclined.

We in the L&D industry tend to believe (or want to believe) that our target audience is just like us. They’re self-motivated individuals with a hunger to inquire, explore and discover.

The truth, of course, is that our target audience occupies the full spectrum of autodidactism. And dare I suggest many huddle at the lower end.

Woman using computer

Getting back to xMOOCs specifically, another point I wish to make is that just because they are delivered in an instructivist manner, does not mean they must be consumed in an instructivist manner.

While the learner is free to work their way through the curriculum along the pre-defined weekly path, they are also free to inquire, explore and discover at their discretion within a thoughtfully structured environment.

But oh no! If we empower the learner to drive their own MOOC experience, they might not finish it!

Grumpy cat thinking they just won't complete their MOOCs.

As history reminds us time and time again, no one view is ever the “right” one – at least, not all the time.

Our perspective is so dependent on the circumstances that we learning pro’s must appreciate the problem before trumpeting or poopooing the solution.

Just as it makes little sense to get rid of the instructional designers, it makes little sense to get rid of the instructors. Instead, let’s get smarter about instruction.

I can’t use Facebook

27 May 2014

This one goes out to all the L&D folk who are wary of the “I haven’t been trained” excuse.

I can't use Facebook because I haven't been trained in it (said nobody ever).

The future of MOOCs

26 November 2012

MOOCs get a bad rap. Dismissed as prescriptive, or teacher-centric, or unsocial, or something else, it’s like a badge of honour to espouse why you dislike MOOCs.

Despite their pedagogical flaws, however, MOOCs provide unprecedented access to quality content for millions of learners.

It’s all very well for Apple-owning, organic-buying professionals to cast aspersions, but consider the girl in Pakistan who’s too scared to set foot in a classroom. Consider the teenager in central Australia whose school has only one teacher. Consider the young woman in Indonesia who can’t afford college. Consider the boy in San Francisco whose maths teacher simply doesn’t teach very well.

Don’t all these people deserve a better education? And isn’t content sourced from some of the world’s best providers a giant leap in that direction?

Sure, the pedagogy may not be perfect, but the alternative is much worse.

Child learning on a computer

MOOC proponent George Siemens distinguishes between two types of MOOC: the xMOOC and the cMOOC.

The former is the subject of such disdain. Involving little more than knowledge transmission and perhaps a quiz at the end, the xMOOC is widely seen as replicating old-fashioned lectures and exams.

In contrast, the latter leverages the connectedness of the participants. Seeded with content, the cMOOC empowers – read “expects” – the learner to discuss, debate, discover, share and co-create new knowledge with his or her fellow learners.

The cMOOC’s participant is active whereas the xMOOC’s participant is passive. As Siemens puts it, cMOOCs focus on knowledge creation and generation whereas xMOOCs focus on knowledge duplication.

Despite Siemens’ evangelism though, I don’t think the cMOOC is necessarily better than the xMOOC. (I’ll explain later.)

Ethernet cable

Love them or loathe them, xMOOC or cMOOC, the fact remains: MOOCs have arrived, and they are here to stay.

Moreover, I submit they are yet to wreak their full vengeance on the education industry. When I look into my crystal ball, I foresee that MOOCs will rock our world, and they will do so in 15 ways…

Fortune teller

1. Universities will finally accept they are service providers.

As the latest edition of Educause Review indicates, universities are fee-for-service businesses. That means they are subjected to market forces such as competition.

MOOCs beg the question: If I can study at Stanford University for free, why would I pay tens of thousands of dollars to study at your dinky university and subject myself to your arcane rules?

2. The vast majority of students will be overseas.

Countries that currently attract foreign students to their shores will need to brace for the impact on their local economies, as an ever-increasing proportion of students choose to gain an international education without leaving their home country.

3. The pecking order will be reshuffled.

While the world’s most prestigious institutions will enjoy a windfall of new students, those that rely more on age than ability will ultimately fail as the target audience realises how pedestrian they are.

Conversely, some of the smaller, younger institutions will emerge from the shadows as the world sees how good they really are.

4. Research will become a competitive advantage.

There’s nowhere to hide on the global stage, and cutting-edge expertise will be one of the few aspects that a university will have to distinguish itself from the others.

No more lazy professors, no more specious journal articles. Faculty who don’t generate a flow of new knowledge for their students will have their tenure terminated.

5. Universities will flip their classrooms.

Bricks’n’mortar establishments will become expensive relics unless their owners redeploy them. One way to do that is to leverage MOOCs for content delivery and provide value-added instruction (discussion, Q&A, worked examples, role plays etc) to local students – who of course will pay a premium for the privilege.

Studying on campus will become a status symbol.

6. The role of the teacher will evolve.

There’s no point rehashing the same lectures when the world’s best authorities have already recorded them and offered them to the world as OERs. It’s how the teacher uses that content to support learning that will make the difference.

7. The pedagogy of MOOCs will be enriched.

While MOOCs typically comprise video clips and perhaps a quiz, they will inevitably include more instructional devices to assist distance learning (and remain competitive).

Over time, content providers will supplement their core offerings with live webinars, interactive exercises, discussion forums, wikis, social networks etc. Some may even organise real-life meetups at selected sites around the world.

8. Content providers will charge for assessment.

A certificate of completion is good; an official grade is better.

Assessment is one of the ways universities will monetise their MOOCs, and edX is already going one step further by offering proctored exams.

9. Universities will offer credits for MOOCs.

Again, this is already being considered by the American Council on Education.

Of course, a certificate of completion won’t suffice. Ka ching!

10. Online cheating will mushroom.

An ever-present thorn in the side of online education, cheating will be almost impossible to prevent in the MOOC space. But surely we can do better than onsite exams?

11. Academic inflation will skyrocket.

Every man and his dog will have a ream of courses listed on his CV. Employers will consider certificates of completion meaningless, while maintaining a reserved suspicion over assessment scores.

Outcomes-based activities that demonstrate the applicant’s knowledge and skills will become a component of best-practice recruitment.

12. Offshoring will become the rule, not the exception.

Deloitte’s global CLO, Nick van Dam, told me that American firms are using MOOCs to upskill accountants based in India on US accounting practices.

Dental, anyone?

13. MOOCs will target the corporate sector.

Current MOOCs are heavily geared towards school and college audiences. Over time, an increasing number of narrow, specific topics that link to corporate competencies will emerge.

Content providers will wag the long tail.

14. The corporate sector will embrace xMOOCs.

Learners in the workplace are time poor. They don’t have the luxury to explore, discover, and “make sense of the chaos”. They need the knowledge now and they are happy for the expert to transmit it to them.

15. An xcMOOC hybrid will emerge as the third variant.

Sooner or later, the powers that be will remember that an instructivist approach suits novices, while an increasingly constructivist and connectivist approach suits learners as they develop their expertise.

Hence, the MOOC of the future may resemble an xMOOC in its early stages, and morph into a cMOOC in its later stages.

The classroom option you should not ignore

19 November 2012

I’m sure you know the feeling. You’re sitting in a classroom watching a presentation – which started late to allow the “stragglers” to show up – when about 10 minutes in it dawns on you…

What am I doing here?

Either you’re already familiar with what’s being presented, or it’s so straight-forward it didn’t require 30 or 60 minutes of your time. But whether it be due to politeness, shyness, peer pressure, or a sense of obligation, you remained bolted to your seat until the bitter end.

It’s such a waste of time – both for you and for the presenter.

Attendees sleeping in a seminar

Despite my obvious predilection for e-learning, I am actually a fan of the traditional classroom.

I appreciate that sometimes it is more efficient for someone who knows more than you to teach you something. As a novice, you don’t know what you don’t know. But the expert does, and he or she can get you up to speed.

Also, away from your desk you’re free from those universal distractions such the phone, email and uninvited guests. Furthermore, you have the opportunity to ask questions and receive immediate feedback from the human standing right before you.

However the traditional classroom has plenty of downsides too. For example, you typically can’t influence the content that is being delivered, you’re beholden to the pace of the presenter, and there’s always that f@#king idiot who hasn’t bothered with the pre-work yet is happy to prolong the misery for everyone else by asking inane, redundant questions.

Woman attending a virtual classA modernised version of the traditional classroom is the virtual classroom.

Delivering the content over the internet allows people to attend wherever they are geographically located, without incurring travel costs and losing time in transit. A virtual class also allows people to attend to other tasks if need be, and to slip away on the sly if it becomes clear the session isn’t adding any value.

Of course, the virtual classroom also has its fair share of downsides too. From technical glitches to the challenges of e-moderation, it is common knowledge that virtual presenters fantasise about the good ol’ days when everyone was in the same room at the same time.

Flipped classroom

A postmodern twist on the classroom delivery model is the flipped classroom.

Taking root in the school and university environments where regular classroom sessions are mandated and homework is the norm, the “flipped” concept posits the content delivery as the homework (typically in the form of a video clip) which frees up the in-person session for value-added instruction such as discussion, Q&A, worked examples, role plays etc.

I truly believe the flipped classroom is on the cusp of revolutionising the education sector.

Empty classroom

Notwithstanding the advantages of the three aforementioned classroom options, there is yet another option that is often ignored by educators: no classroom.

Readers of this blog will be familiar with my obsession passion for informal learning environments, but in this instance I’m not referring to the constructivist approach.

Still true to the instructivist paradigm, I maintain the “no classroom” option can work.

It’s so simple: record your class on video. Then deploy it to your audience, so they are empowered to watch it when convenient, pause, fast-forward, rewind, and even play it again later.

The model is similar to a flipped classroom, but there is no in-person follow-up. And you know what? Frequently that’s all that’s needed. When the content is so straight-forward that it doesn’t require a classroom session, why on earth would you waste everyone’s time with one?

In cases where the content is more complex and follow-up is necessary, why not combine the video with formative exercises? An online discussion forum? A buddy program? Again, you probably don’t need to drag everyone into a classroom.

Woman using computer

My point is, under the right circumstances, video can provide effective instruction.

But don’t just take my word for it. Why not get a second opinion from Ted, Lynda, Salman or David.

Clash of the titans

26 December 2011

I have really enjoyed following the recent argy bargy between Larry Sanger and Steve Wheeler. From a learning practitioner’s point of view, it raises issues of pedagogy, instructional design, and perhaps even epistemology.

Having said that, I think it all boils down to the novice-expert principle. As a novice, you don’t know what you don’t know. Thankfully, an expert (the teacher) can transmit the necessary knowledge to you quickly and efficiently. In eduspeak, you benefit from “scaffolding”.

Then, after you have acquired (yes – “acquired”) a foundational cognitive framework, I suggest a constructivist approach would be appropriate to expand and deepen your knowledge. In other words, now you know what you don’t know, you can do something about it.

My sector of practice is corporate rather than K-12, but I would assume that because the learners are children, their level of experience and prior knowledge is limited. Hence, having the basic concepts explained up front is a perfectly reasonable teaching strategy.

Teacher in front of K-12 class

I wonder, though, whether conversation (online or otherwise) would indeed be a useful technique after the basics have been bedded down? Perhaps the last third or so of the class could be devoted to discourse facilitated by the teacher? Or assigned to participation in a district-wide online discussion forum? (Moderated, of course, by teachers and class nerds.)

Or – more likely – I’m exposing my ignorance of the logistics of managing a classroom.

My point is that constructivism can complement, rather than substitute, instructivism. This is something that I have argued for previously.

My secondary point is that I am quite getting over the Twitterati’s tendency to devalue the role of the expert in education. Not only is the expert aware of the important facts, but they can also impart their meaning and context.

Googling ability does not a scholar make.

On the Money

11 October 2011

I had so much fun creating Australia’s Nobel Laureates, I decided to create another simple interactive learning object.

This one’s called On the Money and it pays homage to the great people who feature on Australia’s currency:

Australia's Nobel Laureates

On the Money

Launch the learning object

Download the files

This time I used Adobe Captivate 5.5. I’m still getting used to it, but I see the residual rollover effects have been fixed.

I also used audio this time to increase media richness.

If I were to create this learning object again, I would probably make better use of Captivate’s master slide functionality.


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