Posted tagged ‘instructivism’

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’être 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.

Reflections of a mooc unvirgin

12 March 2013

CherryI recently completed my first mooc, and I will soon receive the certificate to prove it.

Many people don’t think a certificate of completion means much, but this one will mean a lot to me. I put substantial time and energy into this course, so it will be satisfying to have something tangible to recognise it.

Before I signed up, I had decided to do a mooc because I was blogging about them but had never experienced one for myself. I considered doing Georgia Tech’s Fundamentals of Online Education via Coursera, but I wasn’t attracted to the introductory angle of the content. As it turned out, the course crashed under the weight of its own popularity, so I dodged a bullet there.

I also considered the independent(?) Educational Technology and Media mooc, but I was put off by its heavy connectivist approach. Not per se, mind you, but I was looking for more direction.

Eventually I settled on The University of Edinburgh’s E-learning and Digital Cultures mooc, because it targeted practising e-learning professionals who “want to deepen their understanding of what it means to teach and learn in the digital age”, not to mention the fact I was fascinated by its coverage of popular culture.

So my first learning – before I even began – was that all moocs are different. You can’t tar them with the one brush.

Anyway, I thoroughly enjoyed the EDCMOOC. In my opinion, it had a lot going for it. Having said that, however, every course has its pro’s and cons, and this one was no exception…

Thumbs up

Pro’s

  • The mooc was well prepared. The pre-information on the Coursera site was useful, the promotional video was informative, and both were reinforced by a welcome email upon registration.
     
  • The virtual classroom environment was well structured. Not only were the content streams logically sequenced and accessible in advance, but the administrative aspects of the course were outlined under a dedicated “what, where, how and when” page. An announcement board kept us up to date, the discussion forums were easy to find, and the final assessment was explained clearly from Day 1.
     
  • The pedagogical approach of the course combined elements of both instructivism and constructivism. Each topic included an introduction covering the central concepts, plus a resources page comprising several video clips (not of lectures, but of creative works) and readings. I appreciated the readings being classified as “Core” or “Advanced”, as this allowed me to focus my energies on the ones that mattered, while getting around to the others if I had the time and inclination.
     
  • The duration of each topic was one week. This was enough time to get the work done, but not enough time to tempt you to sit on your laurels. I kept up to speed for the first 3 weeks, but I let the fourth week slip when real life got in the way. Thankfully the resources remained accessible, which allowed me to catch up afterwards.
     
  • The duration of the whole course was 5 weeks, which again I found to be just right. After the novelty of the first couple of weeks wears off, real life competes hard for your attention. In all honesty, I think I would have dropped out if it were any longer.
     
  • The course was supported by social media groups across several platforms, including Twitter, Google+ and Facebook. While I initially found this frustrating (having to bounce between them in case I missed out on anything), I now agree in hindsight that multiple platforms are a good idea – on the proviso that the Coursera-hosted forum remains the plenary. It makes no sense to me to force people onto one arbitrary platform which they otherwise would not use, and it was convenient to self-organise the 40,000 students into more manageable sub-groups.
     

Network Analysis of EDCMOOC Facebook group

  • Through the discussions in the course, participation in the social media groups, and comments on my blog posts, I connected with some incredibly smart people from all over the world. These connections will enrich my learning experience well after the course has ended.
     

EDCMOOC map

  • Assessment for the course was crowd-sourced. Each participant was charged with peer assessing the digital artefacts of at least three fellow participants – and this was enshrined as a requirement for your own completion. The final score was an average of the peer scores.
     
  • I used ThingLink for my digital artefact, which I had intended to try since I first heard about it over a year ago. This mooc gave me the nudge I needed. Incidental learning at its finest!
     
  • The proof of the pudding is in its eating, and at the end of the course I can unequivocally say I learned plenty. Some of the learnings were implicit thoughts that were made explicit, while others were novel ideas to which I would otherwise have remained ignorant. I blogged about my learnings along the way, being mindful to draw out the practical applications of the somewhat academic concepts.
     

Thumbs down

Cons

  • With 42,000 participants, it was inevitable that the discussion forum would be swamped. I witnessed many participants talking at their fellow students rather than with them, and some discussion threads ran on for pages and pages. Of course, this became less of a problem over time as huge numbers of participants dropped out, leaving the keen beans to carry on the conversation.
     
  • During Week 1 in particular, the discussion forum and social media groups were inundated with the likes of “Hi, I’m from Sao Paulo” and “Howdy from Texas”. While I’m a fan of social mores, I don’t specifically care where the 27,347th participant is from.
     
  • Hand-in-hand with the “happy greeter” was the “lost soul”. A lot of participants expressed anxiety at being overwhelmed by the mooc – which I found surprising. Not only were the weekly instructions quite clear, but the target audience was e-learning professionals who are, presumably, seasoned adult learners.
     
  • A bugbear of mine in any discussion forum is the “pretender” – ie someone who posts lofty statements with big words, yet devoid of any substance. There was no shortage of them in this mooc.
     
  • At the other end of the extreme, other participants’ contributions were woefully inadequate. In one thread, for example, the discussion descended into a list of sci-fi movies; no explanation as to how they were pertinent to the conversation, but oh what a list!
     
  • Another problem that popped up was the “parasite” – ie someone who signs up to a mooc just so they can spam the discussions with links to their own irrelevant content. Vomit.
     
  • As far as the course content is concerned, I felt the focus on pop culture was perhaps too strong. While the instructors tended to end each topic with a question about its implications for e-learning, that was rarely followed up in the discussions. In my opinion, the participants roasted the same old chestnuts (such as the spectre of big brother and the inequity of digital access in the third world) instead of synthesising connections to the practice of education in their own world.
     

Open palm

Suggestions for improvement

To be fair, the cons that I have listed above are not unique to the EDCMOOC, nor to online learning in general. I remember similar problems from my uni days on campus.

Nonetheless, they inform my following suggestions for improvement…

  • Week 1 should be set aside as a social week to allow the happy greeters to get their social proclivities out of their systems. It may be tempting to set aside a pre-week for this purpose, but the truth is it will bleed into Week 1 anyway.
     
  • The instructors need to be much more active in the discussions. I recommend they seed each week with a pinned discussion thread, which marks the official line of enquiry and discourages multiple (and confusing) threads emerging about the same concepts.
     
  • More importantly, the instructors should actively prompt, prod, guide and challenge the participants to engage in critical analysis. Explication of the implications for e-learning must be the outcome.
     
  • A moderator should delete the spam and ban the spammers.
     
  • A support page and discussion thread should be dedicated to helping the lost souls, so that they don’t pollute the rest of the course with their problems.
     

All in all, I am glad to report my first mooc experience was a positive one.

I won’t rush out to do another one in a hurry, but that’s simply because I know how demanding they are.

But one thing’s for sure, I will do another one at some stage. I look forward to it!

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.

A defence of the “Next” button

4 June 2012

The “Next” button doesn’t have many friends in the e-learning community. The humble yet shiny arrow is associated with boring page turners.

Neon arrow

Hell-bent on avoiding the “Next” button, many instructional designers will delinearise the content by creating a course homepage with a raft of topics represented by funky icons. The learner is free to explore and discover the knowledge contained therein at their convenience and – more importantly – at their discretion.

While I broadly agree with the constructivist sentiment of this approach, I can’t help but think it’s a band-aid for a much deeper issue.

Let me explain by rewinding a little…

In my previous post Informal first, I articulated a mindset that prioritises informal learning over formal training. I argued in favour of providing all the necessary learning resources to the target audience in an open, structured format. I had in mind an Informal Learning Environment which would host the bulk of the content and enable peer-to-peer knowledge sharing.

This is constructivist design. It facilitates pull learning at the convenience and discretion of the learner, and moreover it supports on-the-job learning just in time. Its primary focus is not on training, but on performance support.

Having said that, I am the first to agree that sometimes training is necessary. This is where an online course can step in.

By design, an online course is meant to transmit knowledge to the learner. By design, it’s meant to be programmatic in nature. By design, it’s meant to be ruthlessly efficient.

In other words, it’s meant to be linear.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not suggesting that an online course should be stripped of all constructivist principle. On the contrary, I highly recommend that the learner be empowered to explore and discover the contents of the course as they wish, free of the yoke of forced navigation. However, it is important to note that such freedom is not mutually exclusive with linearity.

What I am suggesting is that the instructional designer who rails against the “Next” button is valiantly (but futilely?) trying to backfill a void in their organisation’s learning architecture. Because open, searchable, browsable, accessible content does not exist, he or she feels compelled to create it. But the LMS is not the place for it!

Open, searchable, browsable, accessible content should be available to the learner all the time on an open, searchable, browsable, accessible platform.

In contrast, an online course should scaffold the learning experience to achieve a pre-defined objective. It should not be played with for hours on end, and it certainly should not be used for ongoing reference.

Neoen arrow through the heart

So whenever you are consumed by the burning desire to deride the “Next” button, ask yourself whether you are assigning guilt by association.

Perhaps the true guilt lay closer to home?

Next!