October 23, 2014

Choosing teaching methods for a digital age

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 Video games designer 2

Introduction

I’m going to try to pull together here the main conclusions following my discussion of epistemologies, learning theories and methods of teaching that I’ve been covering as the ‘foundations’ for my open textbook on ‘Teaching in a Digital Age.’

What I’m focusing on in this post are the teaching methods that appear to best fit the needs of learners in a digital age, and in particular those that have the best chance of developing the knowledge and skills that they will need after graduation.

Epistemologies

I discussed very briefly in Chapter 2 the following epistemologies:

  • objectivism
  • constructivism
  • connectivism

Learning Theories

I discussed very briefly in Chapter 3 the following learning theories:

  • behaviourism
  • (social) constructivism
  • learning by doing
  • connectivism.

Methods of teaching

I discussed very briefly in Chapters 3 and 4 the following methods of teaching

  • transmissive lectures, including xMOOCs
  • teaching machines
  • computer-assisted learning
  • computer-based training
  • adaptive learning
  • interactive lectures, including flipped learning
  • seminars and tutorials
  • online collaborative learning
  • cMOOCs
  • labs, workshops and field trips
  • traditional and cognitive apprenticeship
  • experiential learning
  • nurturing
  • social reform

Again, the aim has not been to cover all epistemologies, theories of learning and methods of teaching, but to look at a wide range that have implications for developing the knowledge and skills identified in Chapter 1.

Relating epistemology, learning theories and teaching methods

Although there is often a direct relationship between a method of teaching, a learning theory and an epistemological position, this is by no means always the case. It is tempting to try to put together a table and neatly fit each teaching method into a particular learning theory, and each theory into a particular epistemology, but unfortunately education is not as tidy as computer science, so it would be misleading to try to do a direct ontological classification. For instance a transmissive lecture might be structured so as to further a cognitivist rather than a behaviourist approach to learning, or a lecture session may combine several elements, such as transmission of information, learning by doing, and discussion.

Purists may argue that it is logically inconsistent for a teacher to use methods that cross epistemological boundaries (and it may certainly be confusing for students) but teaching is essentially a pragmatic profession and teachers will do what it takes to get the job done. If students need to learn facts, principles, standard procedures or ways of doing things, before they can start an informed discussion about their meaning, or before they can start solving problems, then a teacher may well consider behaviourist methods to lay this foundation before moving to more constructivist approaches later in a course or program.

Similarly we have seen that technology applications such as MOOCs or video recorded lectures may replicate exactly a particular teaching method or approach to learning used in the classroom. In many ways these methods of teaching, theories of learning and epistemologies are independent of a particular technology or medium of delivery, although we shall see in Chapter 6 that technologies can be used to transform teaching, and a particular technology will in some cases further one method of teaching more easily than others, depending on the characteristics or ‘affordances’ of that technology.

Thus, teachers who are aware of not only a wide array of teaching methods, but also of learning theories and their epistemological foundation will be in a far better position to make appropriate decisions about how to teach in a particular context. Also, as we shall see, having this kind of understanding will also facilitate an appropriate choice of technology for a particular learning task or context.

Relating teaching methods to the knowledge and skills needed in a digital age

The main purpose of this whole exercise has been to enable you as a teacher to identify the teaching methods that are most likely to support the development of the knowledge and skills that students or learners will need in a digital age. We still have a way to go before we have all the information and tools needed to make this decision, but we can at least have a stab at it from here, while recognising that such decisions will depend on a wide variety of factors, such as the nature of the learners and their prior knowledge and experience, the demands of particular subject areas, the institutional context in which teachers and learners find themselves, and the likely employment context for learners.

First, we can identify a number of different types of skills needed:

  • conceptual skills, such as knowledge management, critical thinking, analysis, synthesis, problem-solving, creativity/innovation, experimental design
  • developmental or personal skills, such as independent learning, communications skills, ethics, networking, responsibility and teamwork
  • digital skills, embedded within and related to a particular subject or professional domain
  • manual and practical skills, such as machine or equipment operation, safety procedures, observation and recognition of data, patterns, and spatial factors.

There are several key points for a teacher or instructor to note:

  • the teacher needs to be able to identify/recognise the skills they are hoping to develop in their students within a particular course or program
  • these skills are often not easily separated but tend to be contextually based and often integrated
  • teachers need to identify appropriate methods and contexts that will enable students to develop these skills
  • students will need practice to develop such skills.
  • students will need feedback and intervention from the teacher and other students to ensure a high level of competence or mastery in the skill
  • an assessment strategy needs to be developed that recognises and rewards students’ competence and mastery of such skills

One thing that becomes clear here is that just choosing a particular teaching method such as seminars or apprenticeship is not going to be sufficient. We have to provide a rich learning environment for students to develop such skills that includes contextual relevance, and opportunities for practice, discussion and feedback. As a result, we are likely to combine different methods of teaching. It is unlikely that one method, such as transmissive lectures, or seminars, will provide a rich enough learning environment for a full range of skills to be developed within the subject area.

So it would be foolish at this stage to say that seminars, or apprenticeship, or nurturing, is the best method for developing this range of skills. At the same time, we can see the limitations of transmissive lectures, especially if they are used as the dominant method for teaching.

In order to better answer the question, we need to look more closely at the design of teaching, which means deliberately planning methods of teaching and a broad learning environment that will facilitate the development of the knowledge and skills that our students need. This will be the subject of my next chapter, which I will also share through further blog posts.

Key takeaways from Chapter 4

This list of teaching methods is not meant to be exhaustive or comprehensive. The aim is to show that there many different ways to teach, and all are in some ways legitimate in certain circumstances. Most instructors will mix and match different methods, depending on the needs of both the subject matter and the needs of their students at a particular time (a topic covered in Chapter 5.). There are though some core conclusions to be drawn from this comparative review of different approaches to teaching.

  1. No single method is likely to meet all the requirements teachers face in a digital age.
  2. Nevertheless, some forms of teaching fit better with the development of the skills needed in a digital age. In particular, methods that focus on conceptual development, such as dialogue and discussion, and knowledge management, rather than information transmission, and experiential learning in real-world contexts, are more likely to develop the high level conceptual skills required in a digital age.
  3. It is not just conceptual skills though that are needed. It is the combination of conceptual, practical and personal and social skills in highly complex situations that are needed. This again means combining a variety of teaching methods.
  4. Nearly all of these teaching methods are media or technology independent. In other words, they can be used in classrooms or online. What matters from a learning perspective is not so much the choice of technology as the efficacy and expertise in appropriately choosing and using the teaching method.
  5. Nevertheless, we shall see later in this book that new technologies offer new possibilities for teaching, including offering more practice or time on task, reaching out to new target groups, and increasing the productivity of both teachers and the system as a whole.
  6. In order though to fully exploit the benefits of new technologies, changes to the way we teach will be necessary, making some methods, such as transmissive lectures, almost redundant, at least as far as developing skills for a digital age are concerned.
  7. It is not enough to look just at teaching methods; we need to look at designing an appropriate learning environment to help foster and develop the knowledge and skills that students will need. We shall see that technology can be particularly helpful in providing such rich learning contexts.

Lastly, the full first draft of Chapter 4, Methods of Teaching in a Digital Age, is now complete and can be accessed here – subject, of course, to any feedback I get from you on this post!

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