August 27, 2014

Why learner support is an important component in the design of teaching and learning

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Learner support 2

The story so far

Chapter 5 of my open textbook, ‘Teaching in a Digital Age’ is about the design of teaching and learning, which I am currently writing and publishing as I go.

I started Chapter 5 by suggesting that instructors should think about design through the lens of constructing a comprehensive learning environment in which teaching and learning will take place. I have started to work through the various components of a learning environment, focusing particularly on how the digital age affects the way we need to look at some of these components.

I started by looking at how the characteristics of our learners are changing, and followed that by examining how our perspectives on content are being influenced by the digital age. In my last post, I look at how both intellectual and practical skills can be developed to meet the needs of a digital age. In this post, I discuss the importance of learner support within the learning environment. In subsequent posts, I will cover resources and assessment respectively.

This will then lead to a discussion of different models for designing teaching and learning. These models aim to provide a structure for and integration of these various components of a learning environment.

Learner support

Learner support is another critical component of an effective learning environment. It focuses on what the teacher or instructor can or should do to help learners beyond the formal delivery of content, or skills development.

Learner support covers a wide range of functions, and is a topic that will be dealt with in more depth elsewhere. Here my focus is on indicating why it is an essential component of an effective learning environment, and to describe briefly some of the main activities associated with learner support.

Scaffolding

helping hand 2

I use the term scaffolding to cover the many functions of an instructor in diagnosing learners’ difficulties, helping students when they struggle with new concepts or ideas, helping students to gain deep understanding of a topic or subject, helping students to evaluate a range of different ideas or practices, helping students to understand the limits of knowledge, and above all challenging students to go beyond their current level of thinking or practice to acquire deeper understanding or a higher level of competency.

These activities normally take the form of personal interventions and communication between an instructor and an individual or a group of students, in face-to-face contexts or online. They tend not to be pre-planned. They are usually a means of individualising the learning, enabling student differences in learning to be better accommodated as they occur.

Feedback

This could be seen as a sub-category of scaffolding, but it covers the role of providing feedback on student performance of activities such as writing assignments, project work, creative activities, and other student activities that are beyond the current and perhaps future scope of automated computer feedback. Again, the instructor’s role here is to provide more individualisation of feedback to deal with more qualitatively assessed student activities, and may or may not be associated with formal assessment or grading.

Counselling

As well as direct support within their academic studying, learners often need help and guidance on administrative or personal issues, such as whether to repeat a course, delay an assignment because of sickness in the family, or cancel enrollment in a course and postpone it to another date. This potential source of help needs to be included in the design of an effective learning environment, with the aim of doing all that can be done to ensure that students succeed while meeting the academic standards of a program.

Other students

Other students can be a great support for learners. Much of this will happen informally, through students talking after class, through social media, or helping each other with assignments. However, instructors can make more formal use of other students by designing collaborative learning activities, group work, and designing online discussions so that students need to work together rather than individually.

Why learner support is so important

We shall see in Chapter 6 that good design can reduce substantially demand for learner support, by ensuring clarity and building in appropriate learning activities. Students also vary enormously in their need for support in learning. Many lifelong learners, who have already been through a post-secondary education, have families, careers and a great deal of life experience, can be self-managed, autonomous learners, identifying what they need to learn and how best to do this. At the other extreme, there are students for whom the formal school system was a disaster, who lack basic learning skills or foundations, such as reading, writing and mathematical skills, and therefore lack confidence in learning. These will need a lot of support to succeed.

However the vast majority of learners are somewhere in the middle of the spectrum, occasionally, no matter how good the course design, running into problems, unsure what standards are expected, and needing to know how they are doing. Indeed, there is a good deal of research that indicates that ‘instructor presence’ is associated with student success or failure in a course, at least in online learning (Anderson et al, 2001; Richardson and Swan, 2003; Garrison and Cleveland-Innes, 2005; Baker, 2010; Sheridan and Kelly, 2010). Where students feel the instructor is not present, both learner performance and completion rates decline. For such students, good, timely learner support is the difference between success and failure.

It should be noted that the need for good learner support, and the ability to provide it, is not dependent on the medium of instruction. The kind of credit online courses that have been designed and delivered long before MOOCs came along often provided high levels of learner support, through having a strong instructor presence and careful design to ensure students were supported. At the same time, although computer programs can go some way to providing learner support, many of the most important functions of learner support associated with high-level conceptual learning and skills development still need to be provided by an expert teacher or instructor, whether present or at a distance. Furthermore, this kind of learner support is difficult to scale up, as it tends to be relatively labour intensive and requires instructors with a deep level of knowledge within the subject area to provide the high-level support often needed. Thus, the need to provide adequate levels of learner support cannot just be wished away, if we are to achieve successful learning on a large scale..

This may seem obvious to teachers, but the importance of learner support for student success is not always recognised or appreciated, as can be seen from the design of many MOOCs, and the reaction of politicians and the media to the cost savings promised by MOOCs, which are entirely a function of eliminating learner support. There are also different attitudes from instructors and institutions towards the need for learner support. Some faculty may believe that ‘It’s my job to instruct and yours to learn’; in other words, once students are presented with the necessary content through lectures or reading, the rest is up to them.

Nevertheless, the reality is that in any system with a wide diversity of students, as is so common today, teachers and instructors will have to deal with students with a wide range of needs in terms of learner support, unless we are willing to sacrifice the future of many thousands of learners. This means thinking about and planning how the support can best be provided, within the constraints of the resources available, which leads us to our next topic.

Over to you

Your views, comments and criticisms are always welcome. In particular:

  • do you think it is possible to design an effective course or program without the need for high levels of learner support? If so, what would it look like? A development of MOOCs or something completely different?
  • do you share my views about the limitations of computers for providing the kind of high-level learner support needed for conceptual learning in a digital age? What do they do well in terms of supporting learners?
  • is ‘scaffolding’ the best term to describe the kind of learning support I described in that section? If not is there a better term for this?

Or any other comments on learner support as a critical component of a learning environment, please!

Next up

How resources (or lack of them) can shape a learning environment.

References

Anderson, T., Rourke, L., Garrison, R., & Archer, W. (2001). Assessing teaching presence in a computer conferencing context. Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks, Vol. 5, No.2.

Baker, C. (2010) The Impact of Instructor Immediacy and Presence for Online Student Affective Learning, Cognition, and Motivation The Journal of Educators Online Vol. 7, No. 1

Garrison, D. R. & Cleveland-Innes, M. (2005). Facilitating cognitive presence in online learning: Interaction is not enough. American Journal of Distance Education, Vol. 19, No. 3

Richardson, J. C., & Swan, K. (2003). Examining social presence in online courses in relation to students’ perceived learning and satisfaction. Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks, 7 (1), 68-8 8.

Sheridan, K. and Kelly, M.  (2010) The Indicators of Instructor Presence that are Important to Students in Online Courses MERLOT Journal of Online Learning and Teaching, Vol. 6, No. 4

 

Developing intellectual and practical skills in a digital age

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Skills 2

The story so far

Chapter 5 of my open textbook, ‘Teaching in a Digital Age’ is about the design of teaching and learning, which I am currently writing and publishing as I go.

I started Chapter 5 by suggesting that instructors should think about design through the lens of constructing a comprehensive learning environment in which teaching and learning will take place. I have started to work through the various components of a learning environment, focusing particularly on how the digital age affects the way we need to look at some of these components.

I started by looking at how the characteristics of our learners are changing, and followed that by examining how our perspectives on content are being influenced by the digital age. In this post, I look at how both intellectual and practical skills can be developed to meet the needs of a digital age. The following posts will do the same for learner support, resources and assessment respectively.

This will then lead to a discussion of different models for designing teaching and learning. These models aim to provide a structure for and integration of these various components of a learning environment.

Scenario: Developing historical thinking

© Wenxue City: China During the Early Days of the Reform

© Wenxue City: China During the Early Days of the Reform

Ralph Goodyear is a professor of history in a public Tier 1 research university in the central United States. He has a class of 120 undergraduate students taking HIST 305, ‘Historiography’.

For the first three weeks of the course, Goodyear had recorded a series of short 15 minute video lectures that covered the following topics/content:

  • the various sources used by historians (e.g. earlier writings, empirical records including registries of birth, marriage and death, eye witness accounts, artifacts such as paintings, photographs, and physical evidence such as ruins.)
  • the themes around which historical analysis tend to be written,
  • some of the techniques used by historians, such as narrative, analysis and interpretation
  • three different positions or theories about history (objectivist, marxist, post modernist).

Students downloaded the videos according to a schedule suggested by Goodyear. Students attended two one hour classes a week, where specific topics covered in the videos were discussed. Students also had an online discussion forum in the course space on the university’s learning management system, where Goodyear had posted similar topics for discussion. Students were expected to make at least one substantive contribution to each online topic for which they received a grade that went towards their final grade.

Students also had to read a major textbook on historiography over this three week period.

In the fourth week, he divided the class into twelve groups of six, and asked each group to research the history of any city outside the United States over the last 50 years or so. They could use whatever sources they could find, including online sources such as newspaper reports, images, research publications, and so on, as well as the university’s own library collection. In writing their report, they had to do the following:

  • pick a particular theme that covered the 50 years and write a narrative based around the theme
  • identify the sources they finally used in their report, and discuss why they selected some sources and dismissed others
  • compare their approach to the three positions covered in the lectures
  • post their report in the form of an online e-portfolio in the course space on the university’s learning management system

They had five weeks to do this.

The last three weeks of the course were devoted to presentations by each of the groups, with comments, discussion and questions, both in class and online (the in class presentations were recorded and made available online). At the end of the course, students assigned grades to each of the other groups’ work. Goodyear took these student gradings into consideration, but reserved the right to adjust the grades, with an explanation of why he did the adjustment. Goodyear also gave each student an individual grade, based on both their group’s grade, and their personal contribution to the online and class discussions.

Goodyear commented that he was surprised and delighted at the quality of the students’ work. He said: ‘What I liked was that the students weren’t learning about history; they were doing it.’

Based on an actual case, but with some embellishments.

Skills in a digital age

In Chapter 1, Section 1.4, I listed some of the skills that graduates need in a digital age, and argued that this requires a greater focus on developing such skills, at all levels of education, but particularly at a post-secondary level, where the focus is often on specialised content. Although skills such as critical thinking, problem solving and creative thinking have always been valued in higher education, the identification and development of such skills is often implicit and almost accidental, as if students will somehow pick up these skills from observing faculty themselves demonstrating such skills or through some form of osmosis resulting from the study of content. I also pointed out in the same section, though, that there is substantial research on skills development but the knowledge deriving from such research is at best applied haphazardly, if at all, to the development of intellectual skills.

Furthermore the skills required in a digital age are broader and more wide ranging than the abstract academic skills traditionally developed in higher education. For instance, they need to be grounded just as much in digital communications media as in traditional writing or lecturing, and include the development of digital competence and expertise within a subject domain, as well as skills such as independent learning and knowledge management. These are not so much new skills as a different emphasis, focus or direction.

It is somewhat artificial to separate content from skills, because content is the fuel that drives the development of intellectual skills. At the same time, in more traditionally vocational training, we see the reverse trend in a digital age, with much more focus on developing high level conceptual thinking as well as manual skills development. My aim here is not to downplay the importance of content, but to ensure that skills development receives as much focus and attention from instructors, and that we approach intellectual skills development in the same rigorous and explicit way as apprentices are trained in manual skills.

Setting goals for skills development

Thus a critical step is to be explicit about what skills a particular course or program is trying to develop, and to define these goals in such a way that they can be implemented and assessed. In other words it is not enough to say that a course aims to develop critical thinking, but to state clearly what this would look like in the context of the particular course or content area, in ways that are clear to students. In particular the ‘skills’ goals should be capable of assessment and students should be aware of the criteria or rubrics that will be used for assessment.

Thinking activities

A skill is not binary, in the sense that you either have it or you don’t. There is a tendency to talk about skills and competencies in terms of novice, intermediate, expert, and master, but in reality skills require constant practice and application and there is, at least with regard to intellectual skills, no final destination. So it is critically important when designing a course or program to design activities that require students to develop, practice and apply thinking skills on a continuous basis, preferably in a way that starts with small steps and leads eventually to larger ones. There are many ways in which this can be done, such as written assignments, project work, and focused discussion, but these thinking activities need to be thought about, planned and implemented on a consistent basis by the instructor.

Practical activities

It is a given in vocational programs that students need lots of practical activities to develop their manual skills. This though is equally true for intellectual skills. Students need to be able to demonstrate where they are along the road to mastery, get feedback on it, and retry as a result. This means doing work that enables them to practice specific skills.

In the scenario above, students had to cover and understand the essential content in the first three weeks, do research in a group, develop an agreed project report, in the form of an e-portfolio, share it with other students and the instructor for comments, feedback and assessment, and present their report orally and online. Ideally, they will have the opportunity to carry over many of these skills into other courses where the skills can be further refined and developed. Thus, with skills development, a longer term horizon than a single course will be necessary, so integrated program as well as course planning is important.

Discussion as a tool for developing intellectual skills

Discussion is a very important tool for developing thinking skills. However, not any kind of discussion. It was argued in Chapter 2 that academic knowledge requires a different kind of thinking to everyday thinking. It usually requires students to see the world differently, in terms of underlying principles, abstractions and ideas. Thus discussion needs to be carefully managed by the instructor, so that it focuses on the development of skills in thinking that are integral to the area of study. This requires the instructor to plan, structure and support discussion within the class, keeping the discussions in focus, and providing opportunities to demonstrate how experts in the field approach topics under discussion, and comparing students’ efforts.

Figure 5.3: Online threaded discussion forums provide students with opportunities for developing intellectual skills, but the instructor needs to design and manage such forums carefully for this to happen

Figure 5.3: Online threaded discussion forums provide students with opportunities for developing intellectual skills, but the instructor needs to design and manage such forums carefully for this to happen

In conclusion

There are many opportunities in even the most academic courses to develop intellectual and practical skills that will carry over into work and life activities in a digital age, without corrupting the values or standards of academia. Even in vocational courses, students need opportunities to practice intellectual or conceptual skills such as problem-solving, communication skills, and collaborative learning. However, this won’t happen merely through the delivery of content. Instructors need to:

  • think carefully about exactly what skills their students need,
  • how this fits with the nature of the subject matter,
  • the kind of activities that will allow students to develop and improve their intellectual skills, and
  • how to give feedback and to assess those skills, within the time and resources available.

This is a very brief discussion of how and why skills development should be an integral part of any learning environment. We will be discussing skills and skill development in more depth in later chapters.

Over to you

Your views, comments and criticisms are always welcome. In particular:

  • how does the history scenario work for you? Does it demonstrate adequately the points I’m making about skills development?
  • are the skills being developed by students in the history scenario relevant to a digital age?
  • is this post likely to change the way you think about teaching your subject, or do you already cover skills development adequately? If you feel you do cover skills development well, does your approach differ from mine?

Love to hear from you.

Next up

Learner support in a digital age

 

Kuali Foundation goes commercial

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"No, you idiot, Kuali, not Koalas" 'But isn't kuali a Malaysian way of cooking?"

“No, you idiot, Kuali, not Koalas” ‘But isn’t kuali a Malaysian way of cooking?”

Straumsheim, C. (2014) Kuali Foundation: If you can’t beat them….., Inside Higher Education, August 25

While there are several providers of open source learning management systems for education, Kuali is the only provider of free, open source administrative software specifically built for higher education. In a blog post on August 22, it announced that while its software will still continue to be developed, open source and freely available, it will be creating a commercial company to provide for profit commercial services, such as hosting and contracted software development.

What is Kuali?

Kuali started as a consortium of mainly U.S. research universities which paid to join the Kuali Foundation, with the aim of developing free administrative software software systems designed specifically to meet the needs of higher education/post-secondary institutions.

What does Kuali do?

So far it has developed the following software systems:

How is it doing?

So far nearly 60 HE institutions are using Kuali products. However,  each product is at a different stage of development/usefulness. The financial system is the most advanced and most stabilized.

Why does it matter?

Although the days when Peoplesoft nearly bankrupted several major HE institutions are now long gone, commercial administrative systems such as Oracle and SAS are extremely expensive, designed primarily for a business rather than an educational environment, and as a consequence are often financially risky when it comes to adaptation and implementation within a higher education context. The development of administrative systems for higher education by higher education is a worthy goal, if it can be accomplished.

The ‘if’ though is still in some doubt. The financial system seems to be a success, the Student system is described as a ‘monster’ development project, and the HR system lacks enough investment. So Kuali as a whole is still very much a work in progress.

What are the changes? How is Kuali 2.0 different from the Kuali Foundation?

Kuali is now essentially a for-profit company, rather than a community consortium, although its governance is actually more complex than that. Universities and colleges paid to join the Foundation and contributed investment towards product development. The Foundation will continue to exist but members will not have votes or shares in the new company, although members can continue to contribute to projects that they want done. Other sources of revenue will come from charging for software as a service for cloud-based services.

Comment

I’m not in anyway involved with Kuali, so it is difficult to give an informed comment. I thought it was a good idea when it started, but making a consortium approach to sustainable software development and services work is a major challenge. It requires dedication, goodwill, and continuity from a large number of institutions. In these circumstances, any benefits for the participating organizations need to direct and substantive.

Changing it to a commercial organization is a major disruption to this model. In particular, even if the same people are involved in the investment in product development, governance and operation, it radically changes the culture of the organization. I’m not a governance expert, but I don’t understand why full members who invest substantially in product development don’t have shares or voting rights in the board.

I do hope it succeeds in its goal of providing reliable, sustainable open source solutions for administrative software for HE institutions. I wouldn’t bet my own money on it now, though.

For more on Kuali, see:

A student information system monopoly?

Open source software for research administration

Open source software for administrative systems

 

Is content still important in a digital age?

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© handyguyspodcast.com

© handyguyspodcast.com

The story so far

Chapter 5 of my open textbook, ‘Teaching in a Digital Age’ is about the design of teaching and learning, which I am currently writing and publishing as I go.

I started Chapter 5 by suggesting that instructors should think about design through the lens of constructing a comprehensive learning environment in which teaching and learning will take place. I have started to work through the various components of a learning environment, focusing particularly on how the digital age affects the way we need to look at some of these components.

I started by looking at how the characteristics of our learners are changing. This post now examines how our perspectives on content are being influenced by the digital age. The following posts will do the same for skills, learner support, resources and assessment respectively.

This will then lead to a discussion of different models for designing teaching and learning, which attempt to provide a structure and integration of these various components of a learning environment.

Managing content

For most teachers and instructors, content remains a key focus. Content includes facts, ideas, principles, evidence, and descriptions of processes or procedures. A great deal of time is spent on discussing what content should be included in the curriculum, what needs to be covered in a course or a program, what content sources such as text-books students should access, and so on.

Teachers and instructors often feel pressured to cover the whole curriculum in the time available. In particular, lecturing or face-to-face classes remain a prime means for organizing and delivering content. I have already made a case for balancing content with skills development, but issues around content remain critically important in teaching. However, there are some developments resulting from a digital age that require special attention with regard to content.

Goals for content

Because as instructors we tend to take content for granted – this is what we teach – it is important, when designing teaching for a digital age, to be clear in our goals for teaching content. Why do we require students to know facts, ideas, principles, evidence, and descriptions of processes or procedures? Is learning specific content a goal in itself, or is it a means to an end? For instance, is there an intrinsic value in knowing the periodic table, or the dates of battles, or are they means to an end, such as designing experiments or understanding why French is an official language in Canada?

The question is important, because in a digital age, some would argue that learning or memorising content becomes less important or even irrelevant when it is easy just to look up facts or definitions or equations. Cognitivists will argue that content needs to be framed or put in context for it to have meaning. Thus it could be argued that knowing not only the dates of a battle and who won but also why the battle was fought and its significance in the later development of a country is the reason for knowing about the battle, its date and the victors. Or does content need to be learned solely to enable us to do things, such as solve problems, or make decisions, and we need only to draw on content as and when needed, since it is now so easy to access?

Probably more important than the instructor being clear on why content is being taught is for the students to understand why. One way of stating this is to ask: what value is added to the overall goals of this course or program by teaching this specific content? Do students need to memorise this content, or know where to find it, and when it is important to use it? This means of course having very clear goals for the course or program as a whole.

Quantity and depth

In many contexts, instructors have little choice over content. External bodies, such as accreditation agencies, state or provincial governments, or professional licensing boards, may well dictate what content a particular course or program needs to cover. However, the rapid growth of scientific and technological knowledge increasingly challenges the idea of a fixed body of content that students must learn. Engineering and medical programs struggle to cover even in six or eight years of formal education all the knowledge that professionals need to know to practice effectively. Professionals will need to go on learning well past graduation if they are to keep up with new developments in the field.

In particular, covering content quickly or overloading students with content are not effective teaching strategies, because even working harder all waking hours will not enable students in these subject domains to master all the information they might possibly need in their professions. Specialization has been a traditional way of handling the growth of knowledge, but that does not help in dealing with complex problems or issues in the real world, which often require inter-disciplinary and broader based approaches. Thus instructors need to develop strategies that enable students to cope with the massive and growing amounts of knowledge in their field.

One way to handle the problem of knowledge explosion is to focus on the development of skills, such as knowledge management, problem-solving and decision-making. However, these skills are not content-free. In order to solve problems or make decisions, you need access to facts, principles, ideas, concepts and data. To manage knowledge, you need to know what content is important and why, where to find it, and how to evaluate it. In particular there may be core or basic knowledge or content that needs to be mastered for many if not most of their professional activities. One teaching skill then will be the ability to differentiate between essential and desirable areas of content, and to ensure that whatever is done to develop skills, in the process core content is also covered.

Sources

Another critical decision for teachers in a digital age is where students should source or find content. In medieval times, books were scarce, and the library was an essential source of content not only for students but also for professors. Professors had to select, mediate and filter content because the sources of content were extremely scarce. We are not in that situation today. Content is literally everywhere: on the Internet, in social media, on mass media, in libraries and books, as well as in the lecture theatre.

Often, a great deal of time is spent in departmental or program meetings on discussing what textbooks or articles students should be required to read. Part of the reason for selecting or limiting content is to limit the cost to students, as well as the need to focus on a limited range of material within a course or program. But today, content is increasingly open, free and available on demand over the Internet. It has already been argued that most students will need to continue learning after graduation. They will increasingly resort to digital media for their sources of knowledge. Therefore when deciding on content we should be considering:

(a) to what extent does the instructor need to choose the content for a program (other than a broad set of curriculum topics) and to what extent should students be free to choose both content and the source of that content?

(b) to what extent does the instructor need to deliver content themselves, such as through a lecture or Powerpoint slides, when content is so freely available elsewhere? What is the added value you are providing by delivering the content yourself? Could your time be better used in other ways?

(c) to what extent do we need to provide criteria or guidelines to students for choosing and using openly accessible content, and what is the best way to do that?

When answering such questions, we should also be asking whether our decisions will help students manage content better themselves after graduating.

Structure

One of the most critical supports that teachers and instructors provide is to structure the sequence and inter-relationship of different content elements. I include within structure:

  • the selection and sequencing of content,
  • developing a particular focus or approach to specific content areas,
  • helping students with the analysis, interpretation or application of content
  • integrating and relating different content areas.

Traditionally, content has been structured by breaking a course into a number of topic-related classes delivered in a particular sequence, and within the classes, by instructors ‘framing’ and interpreting content. However, new technologies provide alternative means to structure content. Learning management systems such as Blackboard or Moodle enable instructors to select and sequence content material, which students can access anywhere, at any time – and in any order. The availability of a wide range of content over the Internet, and the ability to collect and sort content through blogs, wikis,and e-portfolios enable students increasingly to impose their own structures on content.

Students need some form of structure within content areas, partly because some things need to be learned in ‘the right order’, partly because without structure content becomes a jumble of unrelated topics, and partly because students can’t know or work out what is important and what is not within a total content domain, at least until they have started studying it. Novice students in particular need to know what they must study each week. There is a good deal of research evidence to suggest that novice students benefit a great deal from tightly structured, sequential approaches to content, but as they become more knowledgeable or experienced in the domain, they seek to develop their own approaches to the selection, ordering and interpretation of content.

Therefore in deciding on the structure of the content in a course or program instructors need to ask:

(a) how much structure should I provide in managing content, and how much should I leave to the students?

(b) how do new technologies affect the way I should structure the content? Will they enable me to provide more flexible structures that will suit a diverse range of student needs?

Similarly, when answering these questions we should ask how important it is for students themselves to be able to structure content, and whether our answers to the two questions above will further help them to do this.

Activities

Lastly, what activities do we need to ask students to do to help them learn content? To answer this question will mean returning to the goals for learning content and the overall goals of the course:

  • if memorization is important, then automated tests such as computer-marked assignments with correct answers being provided can be used
  • if the aim is to enable students to draw on content such as facts, principles, data or evidence to construct an argument, to solve equations, or to design an experiment, then opportunities for practising such skills that require students to draw on specific content will be needed
  • if the aim is to help students to manage knowledge, then we may need to set tasks for students to do that requires them to select, evaluate, analyse and apply content.

We shall see that technology enables us to widen considerably the range of activities that students can use to master content, but these need to be related to the learning goals set for the course of program. Without a planned set of activities, though, content may just enter the brain one day and leave it the next.

In conclusion

Even or especially in a digital age, content, in terms of things to know, remains critically important, but in a digital age the role of content is subtly changing, in some ways becoming a means to other ends, such as skills development, rather than an end in itself. Because of the rapid growth in knowledge in nearly all subject areas, being clear about the role and purpose of content in a course, and communicating that effectively to students, becomes particularly important.

New technologies offer alternative ways to present and structure content and raise the fundamental question of the role of teachers or instructors in delivering content when so many alternative sources are available. Lastly in any modern learning environment, activities need to be designed that enable students to master and appropriately apply essential content.

Over to you

So wha’d’ya think?

  • Is this a useful way at looking at content in a digital age or is it all pretty obvious?
  • is the distinction between content and skills useful, or is it a false dichotomy?
  • do you think there is too much emphasis on learning content and not enough on skills development?
  • does the increased accessibility of different sources of content change the game – or should instructors continue to select and control access to content for students?

Love to hear from you.

Next up

Developing skills for a digital age

Key characteristics of learners in a digital age and their influence on the design of teaching and learning

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cultural diversity 2

In my previous post, I outlined some key components of learning environments, which will form part of Chapter 5 of my open textbook, ‘Teaching in a Digital Age.’ Here is one model of a learning environment that I provided in my previous post.

Figure 5.1 A learning environment from the perspective of an instructor

Figure 5.1 A learning environment from the perspective of an instructor

Learner characteristics

Here I want to discuss one key component of a learning environment, learner characteristics, and in particular focus on the characteristics of learners that are particularly relevant for designing teaching and learning in a digital age.

Probably nothing more reflects changes to teaching in a digital age than the change in learner characteristics.

Learner characteristics 2

Increased diversity

I noted in Chapter 1 (Section 1.4) that in developed countries such as Canada, public ‘post-secondary institutions are expected to represent the same kind of socio-economic and cultural diversity as in society at large, rather than being institutions reserved for an elite minority.’ In an age where economic development is tightly associated with higher levels of education, the goal now is to bring as many students as possible to the standards required, rather than focus on just the needs of the most able students. This means finding ways of helping a very wide range of students with very different levels of ability and/or prior knowledge to succeed. One size clearly does not fit all today. Dealing with an increasingly diverse student population is perhaps the greatest of all challenges then that teachers and instructors face in a digital age, particularly but not exclusively at a post-secondary level.  This is not something for which instructors primarily qualified in subject matter expertise are well prepared. 

Later in the book I will demonstrate that a combination of good design and an appropriate use of technology will greatly facilitate the personalization of learning, allowing for instance for different students to work at different speeds, and to focus learning on students’ specific interests and needs, thus ensuring engagement and motivation for a diverse range of students. However, the first and perhaps most important step is for instructors to know their students, and in particular, to identify from the vast range of information regarding students and their differences, which are the most important for the design of teaching and learning in a digital age.

The work and home context

Two factors make the work and home context an important consideration in the design of teaching and learning: students are increasingly working while studying (about half of all Canadian post-secondary students also work, and those that do work average 16 hours a week - Marshall, 2011); and the age range of students continues to spread, with the average age of students slowly increasing (at the University of British Columbia, the average age of undergraduates is 20, but more than one third of all their students are over 24 years old. The mean age for graduate students in 2014 was 31 - UBC Vancouver Fact Sheet, 2014.)

There are several reasons for the average age of students increasing, at least in North America:

  • students are taking longer to graduate (partly because they tend to take a smaller study load when working)
  • increasing numbers of students are going on to grad school
  • more students are coming back for additional courses and programs after graduating (lifelong learners), mainly for economic reasons.

What partly or fully employed students, or students with families, are increasingly requiring is more flexibility in their studying, and especially avoiding long commutes between home, work and college. Thus this type of student is looking increasingly to hybrid or fully online courses, and for smaller modules, certificates or programs that they can fit around their work and family life.

Learners’ goals

Understanding the motivation of students and what they expect to get out of a course or program should also influence the design of a course or program. For academic learning, it is often necessary to find ways to move students whose approach to learning is initially driven by extrinsic rewards such as grades or qualifications to an approach that engages and motivates students in the subject matter itself.

Potential students already with a post-secondary qualification and a good job may not want to work through a pre-determined set of courses but may want just specific areas of content from existing courses, tailored to meet their needs (for instance, on demand and delivered online).

Thus it is important to have some kind of knowledge or understanding of why learners are likely to take your course or program, and what they are hoping to get out of it.

Prior knowledge or skills

Future learning often depends on students having prior knowledge or an ability to do things at a certain level. Teachers aim to bridge the difference between what a learner can do without help and what he or she can do with help, what Vygotsky (1978) termed the zone of proximal development. If the difficulty level of the teaching is aimed too far beyond the capability or prior knowledge and skills of a learner, then learning fails to occur.

However, the more diverse the students in a program, the more diverse the knowledge and skill levels they are likely to bring with them. Indeed, lifelong learners, or new immigrants repeating a subject because their foreign qualifications are not recognised, may bring specialist or advanced knowledge that can be drawn on to enrich the learning experience for everyone. Other students may not have the same basic knowledge as others in a course and will need more help. In such a context it is important to design the learning experience so that it is flexible enough to accommodate students with a wide range of prior knowledge and skills.

Digital natives

Most students now have grown up with digital technologies such as mobile phones, tablets and social media, including Facebook, Twitter, blogs and wikis.  Prensky (2010) and others (e.g. Tapscott, 2008) argue that not only are such students more proficient in using such technologies than those who had to learn how to use such technologies as adults (termed ‘digital immigrants’ by Prensky), but that they also think differently (Tapscott, 2008).

Jones and Shao (2011) have made a thorough review of the literature on this topic, and found the following:

  • the terms Net Generation and Digital Native do not capture the processes of change that are taking place [which are more complex]; the evidence indicates that young students do not form a generational cohort and they do not express consistent or generationally organised demands..
  • students do not naturally make extensive use [for study purposesof many of the most discussed new technologies such as Blogs, Wikis and 3D Virtual Worlds ….
  • the gap between students and their teachers is not fixed, nor is the gulf so large that it cannot be bridged.
  • students who are required to use these technologies in their courses are unlikely to reject them and low use does not imply that they are inappropriate for educational use. 
  • the development of university infrastructures, such as new kinds of learning environments ….should be choices about the kinds of provision that the university wishes to make and not a response to general statements about what a new generation of students are demanding

It is particularly important to understand that students themselves vary a great deal in their use of social media and new technologies, that their use is largely driven by social and personal demands, and their use of digital technologies does not naturally flow across into educational use. They will use new technologies and social media for learning though where instructors make a good case for it and when students can see that the use of digital media will directly help them in their studies. For this to happen though deliberate design choices are required on the part of the instructor.

In conclusion

With an increasingly diverse student population, one size will not fit all. We need to develop flexible approaches to teaching and learning that can accommodate and support this diversity. The aim is to enable as many students as possible to succeed, not just to identify the best and brightest for grad school. At the same time, the student demographic in most countries is rapidly changing. The more we understand our students – who they are, what they want, how they live – the better placed we are to design a learning environment that fits their needs.

The work and home context, learners’ goals, and students’ prior knowledge and skills (including their competence with digital media) are some of the critical factors that should influence the design of teaching. For some instructors, other characteristics of learners, such as learning styles, gender differences or cultural background, may be more important, depending on the context. Whatever the context, good design in teaching requires good information about the learners we are going to teach, and in particular good design needs to address the increasing diversity of our students.

Over to you

As always, your comments and feedback on this are critical. In particular:

  1. Are these the main characteristics of learners that you would consider important to identify when designing teaching for a digital age? What would you have added?
  2. What do you see as the main implications for the design of teaching and learning of these changing student characteristics?
  3. How feasible is it to get this information? How would or do you go about it?

Next up

I will be discussing how we need to look differently in a digital age at teaching content and skills.