I was asked by the Chang School of Continuing Studies at Ryerson University to do a master class on this topic at their ChangSchoolTalks on February 17, based on Appendix 1 in my open, online textbook, Teaching in a Digital Age.
I was a little surprised by the request. I had moved what had originally been the second chapter of the book to an appendix, as I thought it was rather obvious and most instructors would already be aware of the key factors in an effective learning environment, so I was somewhat nervous about doing a master class for faculty and instructors on this topic.
As it turned out, I need not have worried. The master class was the first to be fully booked and the way the master class developed suggested that participants found the topic both stimulating and challenging. I think the reason for this is that my approach to building an effective learning environment is driven by a particular philosophy of education that is not always understood in post-secondary education. For this reason I thought I would share with you my thoughts on this in this post.
Learning as a ‘natural’ human activity
One premise behind building an effective learning environment is that it is inbuilt in humans to learn. If we had not been reasonably good at learning, we would have been killed off early in the earth’s history by faster, bigger and more ferocious animals. The ability not only to learn, but to learn in abstract and conscious ways, is therefore part of human nature.
If that is the case, a teacher’s job is not to do the learning for the student, but to build a rich environment that facilitates the kind of learning that will benefit the learner. It is not a question of pouring knowledge into a student’s head, but enabling the learner to develop concepts, think critically, and apply and evaluate what they have learned, by providing opportunities and experiences that are relevant to such goals.
Learning as development
A second premise is that knowledge is not fixed or static, but is continually developing. Our concept of heat changes and becomes richer as we grow older and become more educated, from understanding heat through touch, to providing a quantitative way of measuring it, to understanding its physical properties, to being able to apply that knowledge to solving problems, such as designing refrigerators. In a knowledge-based society, knowledge is constantly developing and growing, and our understanding is always developing.
This is one reason why I believe that one negative aspect of competency-based education is its attempt to measure competencies in terms of ‘mastery’ and limiting them to competencies required by employers. The difference between a skill and a competency is that there is no limit to a skill. You can continually improve a skill. We should be enabling students to develop skills that will carry them through maybe multiple employers, and enable them to adapt to changing market requirements, for instance.
If then we want students to develop knowledge and skills, we need to provide the right kind of learning environments that encourage and support such development. Although analogies have their limitations, I like to think of education as gardening, where the learners are the plants. Plants know how to grow; they just need the right environment, the right balance of sun and shadow, the right soil conditions, enough water, etc. Our job as teachers is to make sure we are providing learners with those elements that will allow them to grow and learn. (The analogy breaks down though if we think of learners as having consciousness and free will, which adds an important element to developing an effective learning environment.)
There are many possible effective learning environments
Teaching is incredibly context-specific so the learning environment must be suitable to the context. For this reason, every teacher or instructor needs to think about and build their own learning environment that is appropriate to the context in which they are working. Here are some examples of different learning environments:
- a school or college campus
- an online course
- military training
- friends, family and work
- personal, technology-based, learning environments
Nevertheless I will argue that despite the differences in context, there are certain elements or components that will be found in most effective learning environments.
In developing an effective learning environment, there are two issues I need to address up front:
- First, it is the learner who has to do the learning.
- Second, any learning environment is much more than the technology used to support it.
With regard to the first, teachers cannot do the learning for the learner. All they can do is to create and manage an environment that enables and encourages learning. My focus then in terms of building an effective learning environment is on what the teacher can do, because in the end that is all they can control. However, the focus of what the teacher does should be on the learner, and what the learner needs. That of course will require good communication between the learners and the teacher.
Second, many technology-based personal learning environments are bereft of some of the key components that make an effective learning environment. The technology may be necessary but it is not sufficient. I suggest below what some of those components are.
These will vary somewhat, depending on the context. I will give examples below, but it is important for every individual teacher to think about what components may be necessary within their own context and then on how best to ensure these components are effectively present and used. (There is a much fuller discussion of this in Appendix 1 of my book)
This is probably the most important of all the components: the learners themselves. Some of the key characteristics are listed below:
- what are their goals and motivation to learn what I am teaching them?
- in what contexts (home, campus, online) will they prefer to learn?
- how diverse are they in terms of language, culture, and prior knowledge?
- how digitally capable are they?
Given these characteristics, what are the implications for providing an effective learning environment for these specific learners?
- what content do students need to cover? What are the goals in covering this content?
- what sources of content are necessary? Who should find, evaluate, and apply these sources: me or the students? If the learners, what do I need to provide to enable them to do this?
- how should the content be structured? Who should do this structuring: me or the learners? If learners, what do I need to provide to help them?
- what is the right balance between breadth and depth of content for the learners in this specific context?
- what activities will learners need in order to acquire and manage this content?
- what skills do students need to develop?
- what activities will enable learners to develop and apply these skills? (e.g. thinking, doing, discussing)
- what is the goal in skill development? Mastery? A minimal level of performance? How will learners know this?
- what counselling and/or mentoring will learners need to succeed?
- how will learners get feedback (particularly on skills development)?
- how will learners relate to other learners so they are mutually supporting?
- how much time can I devote to each of the components of a learning environment? What’s the best way to split my time?
- what help will I get from other teaching staff, e.g. teaching assistants, librarians? What is the best way to use them?
- what facilities will the learners have available (e.g. learning spaces, online resources)?
- what technology can the learners use; how should this be managed and organized?
- what types of assessment should be used? (formative, essays, e-portfolios, projects)?
- how will these measure the content and skills that learners are expected to master?
These questions are meant mainly as examples. Each teacher needs to develop and think about what components will be necessary in their context and how best to provide those components.
For instance, I did not include culture as a component. In some contexts, cultural change is one of the most important goals of education. Negative examples of this might include the culture of privilege encouraged in private British boarding schools, or the attempt to replace indigenous cultures with a western culture, as practiced in Canada with aboriginal residential schools. More positive cultural components may be to encourage inclusivity or ethical behaviour. Again, each teacher should decide on what components are important for their learners.
Necessary but not sufficient
Thinking about and implementing these components may be necessary, but they are not sufficient in themselves to ensure quality teaching and learning. In addition effective teaching still needs:
- good design
- empathy for the learners
- teacher competence (e.g. subject knowledge)
- imagination to create an effective learning environment.
The learners must do the learning. We need to make sure that learners are able to work within an environment that helps them do this. In other words, our job as teachers is to create the conditions for success.
There are no right or wrong ways to build an effective learning environment. It needs to fit the context in which students will learn. However, before even beginning to design a course or program, we should be thinking of what this learning environment could look like.
Technology now enables us to build a wide variety of effective learning environments. But technology alone is not enough; it needs to include other components for learner success. This is not to say that self-managing learners cannot build their own effective, personal learning environments, but they need to consider the other components as well as the technology.
- What other components would you add to a successful learning environment?
- Could you now design a different and hopefully better learning environment for your courses or programs? If so, what would it look like?
- Is this a helpful way to approach the design of online learning or indeed any other form of learning?