August 20, 2014

Learning theories and online learning

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Figure 3.3. Adults learning in groups in a constructivist manner - and assisted by technology

Figure 3.3. Adults learning in groups in a constructivist manner – and assisted by technology

Introduction

Chapter 3 of my open textbook on ‘Teaching in a Digital Age‘ is about theory and practice in teaching for a digital age, which I am still in the process of writing. I have to admit that I approached writing about learning theories with some dread. In particular I was concerned (in order of dread) that:

  • this will appear incredibly boring/lack originality, because it has been done so many times before by other, more qualified authors (but then those that already know this stuff can easily skip it)
  • I’m not sure that theories of learning actually drive teaching (although surely an understanding of how students learn should do so)
  • I would have to deal with connectivism somehow, and I am certainly not an expert on that topic – but maybe that might be an advantage in bringing it to the attention of people who have previously shown no interest in it, and how it differs from previous theories
  • it could be argued that past learning theories are made irrelevant by digital technologies (and I certainly don’t agree with that point of view.)

In the end, I can’t see how a discussion of learning theories can be avoided. Unless readers of the book have this basic understanding of the different views of learning, they will not be in a good position to make choices, especially regarding the use of technology for teaching and learning. In particular, I see a danger of becoming dogmatic and blinkered by unchallenged assumptions about the nature of learning that results from not exploring alternative theories. But lastly, as Kurt Lewin said, there is nothing more practical than a good theory. A good theory helps us make informed decisions in areas of uncertainty. So, I am sharing here my first draft with you. Please note this is just part of the whole chapter, which also includes the following:

  • Teaching and learning styles
  • Deep vs surface learning.
  • Learner-centered teaching, learner engagement.
  • What we know about skills development
  • Competency based learning.
  • Learning design models
  • learner characteristics: digital natives and digital literacy
  • are we right to fear the use of computers for teaching?
  • Summary of research on teaching.

Also, Chapter 2 discusses the nature of knowledge, and in particular different epistemologies that underpin different theories of learning. However, theories of learning are more than enough to chew on for the moment.

Theories of learning

…there is an impressive body of evidence on how teaching methods and curriculum design affect deep, autonomous, and reflective learning. Yet most faculty are largely ignorant of this scholarship, and instructional practices and curriculum planning are dominated by tradition rather than research evidence. As a result, teaching remains largely didactic, assessment of student work is often trivial, and curricula are more likely to emphasize content coverage than acquisition of lifelong and life-wide learning skills.”

Knapper, 2010, p. 229

“There is nothing so practical as a good theory.” Kurt Lewin, 1951, p. 169

Why an understanding of theories of learning is important

Most teachers in the k-12 sector will be familiar with the main theories of learning, but because instructors in post-secondary education are hired primarily for their subject experience, or research or vocational skills, it is essential to introduce and discuss, if only briefly, these main theories. In practice, even without formal training or knowledge of different theories of learning, all teachers and instructors will approach teaching within one of these main theoretical approaches, whether or not they are aware of the educational jargon surrounding these approaches. Also, as online learning, technology-based teaching, and informal digital networks of learners have evolved, new theories of learning are emerging.

With a knowledge of alternative theoretical approaches, teachers and instructors are in a better position to make choices about how to approach their teaching in ways that will best fit the perceived needs of their students, within the very many different learning contexts that teachers and instructors face. This is particularly important when addressing many of the requirements of learners in a digital age. Furthermore, the choice of or preference for one particular theoretical approach will have major implications for the way that technology is used to support teaching.

In fact, there is a huge amount of literature on theories of learning, and I am aware that the treatment here is cursory, to say the least. Those who would prefer a more detailed introduction to theories of learning could, for an obscene price, purchase Schunk (2011), or for a more reasonable price Harasim (2012). The aim of my book though is not to be comprehensive in terms of in-depth coverage of all learning theories, but to provide a basis on which to suggest and evaluate different ways of teaching to meet the diverse needs of learners in a digital age.

Behaviourism

Although initially developed in the 1920s, behaviourism still dominates approaches to teaching and learning in many places, particularly in the USA.

Behaviourist psychology is an attempt to model the study of human behaviour on the methods of the physical sciences, and therefore concentrates attention on those aspects of behaviour that are capable of direct observation and measurement. At the heart of behaviourism is the idea that certain behavioural responses become associated in a mechanistic and invariant way with specific stimuli. Thus a certain stimulus will evoke a particular response. At its simplest, it may be a purely physiological reflex action, like the contraction of an iris in the eye when stimulated by bright light.

However, most human behaviour is more complex. Nevertheless behaviourists have demonstrated in labs that it is possible to reinforce through reward or punishment the association between any particular stimulus or event and a particular behavioural response. The bond formed between a stimulus and response will depend on the existence of an appropriate means of reinforcement at the time of association between stimulus and response.  This depends on random behaviour (trial and error) being appropriately reinforced as it occurs.

This is essentially the concept of operant conditioning, a principle most clearly developed by Skinner (1968). He showed that pigeons could be trained in quite complex behaviour by rewarding particular, desired responses that might initially occur at random, with appropriate stimuli, such as the provision of food pellets. He also found that a chain of responses could be developed, without the need for intervening stimuli to be present, thus linking an initially remote stimulus with a more complex behaviour. Furthermore, inappropriate or previously learned behaviour could be extinguished by withdrawing reinforcement. Reinforcement in humans can be quite simple, such as immediate feedback for an activity or getting a correct answer to a multiple-choice test.

Skinner and his machine 2

Figure 3.1 YouTube video/film of B.F. Skinner demonstrating his teaching machine, 1954

You can see a fascinating five minute film of B.F. Skinner describing his teaching machine in a 1954 YouTube video, either by clicking on the picture above or at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jTH3ob1IRFo

Underlying a behaviourist approach to teaching is the belief that learning is governed by invariant principles, and these principles are independent of conscious control on the part of the learner. Behaviourists attempt to maintain a high degree of objectivity in the way they view human activity, and they generally reject reference to unmeasurable states, such as feelings, attitudes, and consciousness. Human behaviour is above all seen as predictable and controllable. Behaviourism thus stems from a strongly objectivist epistemological position.

Skinner’s theory of learning provides the underlying theoretical basis for the development of teaching machines, measurable learning objectives, computer-assisted instruction, and multiple choice tests. Behaviourism’s influence is still strong in corporate and military training, and in some areas of science, engineering, and medical training. It can be of particular value for rote learning of facts or standard procedures such as multiplication tables, for dealing with children or adults with limited cognitive ability due to brain disorders, or for compliance with industrial or business standards or processes that are invariant and do not require individual judgement.

Finally, it should be noted that behaviourism, with its emphasis on rewards and punishment as drivers of learning, and on pre-defined and measurable outcomes, is the basis of populist conceptions of learning among many parents, politicians, and, it should be noted, computer scientists interested in automating learning. It is not surprising then that there has also been a tendency until recently to see technology, and in particular computer-aided instruction, as being closely associated with behaviourist approaches to learning, although we shall see that this does not necessarily follow.

Cognitivism

An obvious criticism of behaviourism is that it treats humans as a black box, where inputs into the black box, and outputs from the black box, are known and measurable, but what goes on inside the black box is ignored or not considered of interest. However, humans have the ability for conscious thought, decision-making, emotions, and the ability to express ideas through social discourse, all of which may be highly significant for learning. Thus we will likely get a better understanding of learning if we try to find out what goes on inside the black box. Cognitivists therefore have focused on identifying mental processes – internal and conscious representations of the world – that they consider are essential for human learning. Fontana (1981) summarises the cognitive approach to learning as follows:

The cognitive approach … holds that if we are to understand learning we cannot confine ourselves to observable behaviour, but must also concern ourselves with the learner’s ability mentally to re-organize his psychological field (i.e. his inner world of concepts, memories, etc.) in response to experience. This latter approach therefore lays stress not only on the environment, but upon the way in which the individual interprets and tries to make sense of the environment. It sees the individual not as the somewhat mechanical product of his environment, but as an active agent in the learning process, deliberately trying to process and categorize the stream of information fed into him by the external world.’ (p. 148)

Thus the search for rules, principles or relationships in processing new information, and the search for meaning and consistency in reconciling new information with previous knowledge, are key concepts in cognitive psychology. Cognitive psychology is concerned with identifying and describing mental processes that affect learning, thinking and behaviour, and the conditions that influence those mental processes.

© Agile Development Blog, 2013

© Agile Development Blog, 2013

Figure 3.2: Some of the areas covered by cognitivism, based on Bloom’s taxonomy (1956). Note that this becomes a reductionist exercise, as psychologists delve deeper into each of these cognitive activities to understand the underlying mental processes.

Cognitive approaches to learning cover a very wide range. At one end, the objectivist end, cognitivists consider basic mental processes to be genetic or hard-wired, but can be programmed or modified by external factors, such as new experiences. Early cognitivists in particular were interested in the concept of mind as computer, and more recently brain research has led to a search for linking learning to the development and reinforcement of neural networks in the brain. In terms of practice this concept of mind as computer has led to several technology-based developments in teaching, including:

  • intelligent tutoring systems, a more refined version of teaching machines, based on analysing student responses to questions and redirecting them to the appropriate next steps in learning. Adaptive learning is the latest extension of such developments;
  • artificial intelligence, which seeks to represent in computer software the mental processes used in human learning (which of course if successful would result in computers replacing many human activities – such as teaching, if learning is considered in an objectivist framework.)
  • pre-determined learning outcomes, based on an analysis and development of different kinds of cognitive activities, such as comprehension, analysis, synthesis, and evaluation
  • certain instructional design approaches that attempt to manage the design of teaching to ensure successful achievement of pre-determined learning outcomes or objectives.

On the other hand, many other cognitivists, coming from a more constructivist epistemological perspective, would argue that mental states or even processes are not fixed but constantly evolving as new information is integrated with prior knowledge, and new strategies for seeking meaning are developed by the individual. Thus teachers who place a strong emphasis on learners developing personal meaning through reflection, analysis and construction of knowledge through conscious mental processing would represent much more of a constructivist epistemological position. It is here that the boundaries between cognitivist and constructivist learning begin to break down.

Cognitive approaches to learning, with a focus on comprehension, abstraction, analysis, synthesis, generalization, evaluation, decision-making and creative thinking, seem to fit much better with higher education than behaviourism,  but even in k-12 education, a cognitivist approach would mean for instance focusing on teaching learners how to learn, on developing stronger or new mental processes for future learning, and on developing deeper and constantly changing understanding of concepts and ideas.

Put simply, brains have more plasticity, adaptability and complexity than current computer software programs, and other factors, such as emotion, motivation, self-determination, values, and a wider range of senses, make human learning very different from the way computers operate, at least at the moment. Education would be much better served if computer scientists tried to make software to support learning more reflective of the way human learning operates, rather than trying to fit human learning into the current restrictions of behaviourist computer programming.

Nevertheless, cognitivists have increased our understanding of how humans process and make sense of new information, how we access, interpret, integrate, process, organize and manage knowledge, and have given us a better understanding of the conditions that affect learners’ mental states.

Constructivism

Both behaviourist and some elements of cognitive theories of learning are deterministic, in the sense that behaviour and learning are believed to be rule-based and operate under predictable and constant conditions over which the individual learner has no or little control. However, constructivists emphasise the importance of consciousness, free will and social influences on learning. Carl Rogers (1969) stated that: ‘every individual exists in a continually changing world of experience in which he is the center.’ The external world is interpreted within the context of that private world. The belief that humans are essentially active, free and strive for meaning in personal terms has been around for a long time.

Constructivists argue that individuals consciously strive for meaning to make sense of their environment in terms of past experience and their present state. It is an attempt to create order in their minds out of disorder, to resolve incongruities, and to reconcile external realities with prior experience. The means by which this is done are complex and multi-faceted, from personal reflection, seeking new information, to testing ideas through social contact with others. Problems are resolved, and incongruities sorted out, through strategies such as seeking relationships between what was known and what is new, identifying similarities and differences, and testing hypotheses or assumptions. Reality is always tentative and dynamic.

For many educators, the social context of learning is critical. Ideas are tested not just on the teacher, but with fellow students, friends and colleagues. Furthermore, knowledge is mainly acquired through social processes or institutions that are socially constructed: schools, universities, and increasingly these days, online communities. Thus what is taken to be ‘valued’ knowledge is also socially constructed. Thus knowledge is not just about content, but also values. One set of values are those around the concept of a liberal education. According to this ideology, one of the principal aims of education is that it should develop a critical awareness of the values and ideologies that shape the form of received knowledge. This then suggests a constant probing and criticism of received knowledge.

One consequence of constructivist theory is that each individual is unique, because the interaction of their different experiences, and their search for personal meaning, results in each person being different from anyone else. Thus behaviour is not predictable or deterministic, at least not at the individual level. The key point here is that learning is seen as essentially a social process, requiring communication between learner, teacher and others. This social process cannot effectively be replaced by technology, although technology may facilitate it.

It can be seen that although constructivist approaches can be and have been applied to all fields of knowledge, it is more commonly found in approaches to teaching in the humanities, social sciences, education, and other less quantitative subject areas.

Online collaborative learning

The concurrence of both constructivist approaches to learning and the development of the Internet has led to the development of a particular form of constructivist teaching, originally called computer-mediated communication (CMC), but which has developed into what Harasim (2012) now calls online collaborative learning theory (OCL). She describes OCL as follows (p. 90):

OCL theory provides a model of learning in which students are encouraged and supported to work together to create knowledge: to invent, to explore ways to innovate, and, by so doing, to seek the conceptual knowledge needed to solve problems rather than recite what they think is the right answer. While OCL theory does encourage the learner to be active and engaged, this is not considered to be sufficient for learning or knowledge construction……In the OCL theory, the teacher plays a key role not as a fellow-learner, but as the link to the knowledge community, or state of the art in that discipline. Learning is defined as conceptual change and is key to building knowledge. Learning activity needs to be informed and guided by the norms of the discipline and a discourse process that emphasises conceptual learning and builds knowledge.

This approach to the use of technology for teaching is very different from the more objectivist approaches found in computer-assisted learning, teaching machines, and artificial intelligence applications to education, which primarily aim to use computing to replace at least some of the activities traditionally done by human teachers. With online collaborative learning, the aim is not to replace the teacher, but to use the technology primarily to increase and improve communication between teacher and learners, with a particular approach to the development of learning based on knowledge construction assisted and developed through social discourse. This social discourse furthermore is not random in OCL, but managed in such a way as to ‘scaffold’ learning, by assisting with the construction of knowledge in ways that are guided by the instructor, that reflect the norms or values of the discipline, and that also respect or take into consideration the prior knowledge within the discipline.

Connectivism

Connectivism is a relatively new theory of learning or epistemology (there’s not even agreement about which it is), it is still being refined and developed, and it is currently highly controversial, with many critics. Siemens, Downes and Cormier constructed the first massive open online course (MOOC), Connectivism and Connective Knowledge 2011, partly to explain and partly to model a connectivist approach to learning. More recently, Downes (2014) has spelled out, in a presentation called The MOOC of One, some of the relationships between individual learning, the contribution of individuals to knowledge and its flow, and networks of learners, within a broad interpretation of connectivist theory. In this presentation Downes sets out some design principles for  connectivist ‘courses’ or cMOOCs, such as:

  • learner autonomy, in terms of choice of content and how they choose to learn
  • openness, in terms of  access to the course, content, activities and methods of assessment
  • diversity: varied content, individual perspectives and multiple tools, especially for networking learners and creating opportunities for dialogue and discussio
  • interactivity: ‘massive’ communication between learners and co-operative learning, resulting in emergent knowledge
Figure 2.1: A map of connectivism, © Stephen Downes, 2011 (accessed via pkab.wordpress.com)

Figure 2.1: A map of connectivism, © Stephen Downes, 2011 (accessed via pkab.wordpress.com)

Connectivists such as Siemens and Downes tend to be somewhat vague about the role of teachers or instructors, as the focus of connectivism is more on individual participants, networks and the flow of information and the new forms of knowledge that result.. The main purpose of a teacher appears to be to provide the initial learning environment and context that brings learners together, and  to help learners construct their own personal learning environments to enable them to connect to ‘successful’ networks, with the assumption that learning will automatically occur as a result, through exposure to the flow of information and the individual’s autonomous reflection on its meaning. There is no need for formal institutions to support this kind of learning, especially since such learning often depends heavily on social media readily available to all participants.

There are numerous criticisms of the connectivist approach to teaching and learning, which include:

  • there is no control on the quality of content, or on contributions from participants;
  • assessment strategies, such as peer assessment, are primitive and unreliable, thus making reliable or valid recognition of achievement more difficult;
  • the kinds of learning that take place in connectivist MOOCs or courses are not necessarily academic, in the sense of meeting the requirements for academic knowledge, as defined in Chapter 2;
  • many participants struggle with the lack of structure and are overwhelmed by the volume of content generated by other learners;
  • most students need a high level of explicit support in learning from an ‘expert’ teacher and this is lacking in connectivist courses
  • this kind of learning requires learners already to have at least some level of more formal or traditional education before they participate if they are to fully benefit from this kind of learning experience (and there is substantial evidence that MOOC participants tend to have an already high level of post-secondary education).
  • thus this kind of learning is more appropriate for non-formal learning or communities of practice than for formal education.

Some of these criticisms may be overcome as practice improves, as new tools for assessment, and for organizing co-operative and collaborative work with massive numbers, are developed, and as more experience is gained. More importantly, connectivism is really the first theoretical attempt to radically re-examine the implications for learning of the Internet and the explosion of new communications technologies.

Conclusion

Different theories of learning reflect different positions on the nature of knowledge. With the possible exception of connectivism, there is some form of empirical evidence to support each of the theories of learning outlined here.

However, while the theories suggest different ways in which all people learn, they do not automatically tell teachers or instructors how to teach. Indeed, theories of behaviourism, cognitivism and constructivism were all developed outside of education, in experimental labs, psychology , neuroscience, and psychotherapy respectively. Educators have had to work out how to move from the theoretical position to the practical one of applying these theories within an educational experience. In other words, they have had to develop teaching methods that build on such learning theories. The next section of the book examines a range of teaching methods that have been developed, their epistemological roots, and their implications for teaching in a digital age.

Over to you

Your feedback on this will be invaluable. In particular:

  • are theories of learning still relevant in a digital age? Is it important to discuss these?
  • is the description of the various theories accurate and useful; if not, what should be changed?
  • are there important theories or theoretical positions that have been missed?

References

Bloom, B., Englehart, M., Furst, E., Hill, W. and Krathwohl, D. (1956) Taxonomy of Educational Objectives, Handbook I: The Cognitive Domain, Longmans Green, New York, 1956

Downes, S. (2014) The MOOC of One, Stephen’s Web, March 10

Fontana, D. (1981) Psychology for Teachers London: Macmillan/British Psychological Society

Harasim, L. (2012) Learning Theory and Online Technologies New York/London: Routledge

Knapper, C. (2010) ‘Changing Teaching Practice: Barriers and Strategies’ in Christensen Hughes, J. and Mighty, J. eds. Taking Stock: Research on Teaching and Learning in Higher Education Toronto ON: McGill-Queen’s University Press

Lewin, K. (1951) Field theory in social science; selected theoretical papers. D. Cartwright (ed.). New York: Harper & Row.

Rogers, C. (1969) Freedom to Learn Columbus, OH: Charles E. Merrill Publishing Co.

Schunk, D. (2011) Learning Theories: An Educational Perspective (6th edition) New York: Pearson

Why lectures are dead (or soon will be)

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Artist: Laurentius de Voltolina; Liber ethicorum des Henricus de Alemannia; Kupferstichkabinett SMPK, Berlin/Staatliche Museen Preussiischer Kulturbesitz, Min. 1233

Artist: Laurentius de Voltolina;
Liber ethicorum des Henricus de Alemannia; Kupferstichkabinett SMPK, Berlin/Staatliche Museen Preussiischer Kulturbesitz, Min. 1233

As part of my open textbook on Teaching in a Digital Age, I am working my way through theories of learning and methods of teaching. I will post shortly my initial draft on theories of learning and their relevance for a digital age. In this post I want to discuss the lecture and its relevance for a digital age. Comments as always are more than welcome.

Definition:

‘[Lectures] are more or less continuous expositions by a speaker who wants the audience to learn something.’

Bligh, 2000

History

Lectures go back as far as ancient Greece and Roman times, and certainly from at least the start of the European university, in the 13th century. The term ‘lecture’ comes from the Latin to read. This was because in the 13th century, most books were extremely rare. They were painstakingly handcrafted and illustrated by monks, often from fragments or collections of earlier and exceedingly rare and valuable scrolls remaining from more than 1,000 years earlier from ancient Greek or Roman times, or were translated from Arabic sources, as much documentation was destroyed in Europe during the Dark Ages following the fall of the Roman empire. As a result, a university would often have only one copy of a book, and it may have been the only copy available in the world. The library and its collection therefore became critical to the reputation of a university, and professors had to borrow the only text from the library and literally read from it to the students, who dutifully wrote down their own version of the lecture.

The illustration at the head of this post from a thirteenth-century manuscript shows Henry of Germany delivering a lecture to university students in Bologna, Italy, in 1233. What is striking is how similar the whole context is to lectures today, with students taking notes, some talking at the back, and one clearly asleep. Certainly, if Rip Van Winkle awoke in a modern lecture theatre from his 800 years of sleeping, he would know exactly where he was and what was happening.

Lectures themselves belong to an even longer oral tradition of learning, where knowledge is passed on by word of mouth from one generation to the next. In such contexts, accuracy and authority (or power in controlling access to knowledge) are critical for ‘accepted’ knowledge to be successfully transmitted. Thus accurate memory, repetition and a reference to authoritative sources become exceedingly important in terms of validating the information transmitted. The great sagas of the ancient Greeks and much later, of the Vikings, and even today,the oral myths and legends of many indigenous communities, are examples of the power of the oral transmission of knowledge.

Nevertheless, the lecture format has been questioned for many years. Samuel Johnson (1709-1784) long ago produced his own straightforward critique of lectures:

People have nowadays…got a strange opinion that everything should be taught by lectures. Now, I cannot see that lectures can do as much good as reading the books from which the lectures are taken…Lectures were once useful, but now, when all can read, and books are so numerous, lectures are unnecessary.’

What is remarkable is that even after the invention of the printing press, radio, television, and the Internet, the lecture, characterised by the authoritative instructor talking to a group of students, still remains the dominant methodology for teaching in many institutions, even in a digital age, where information is available at a click of a button.

It could be argued that anything that has lasted this long must have something going for it. On the other hand, we need to question whether the lecture is still the most appropriate means of teaching, given all the changes that have taken place in recent years, and in particular given the kinds of knowledge and skills needed in a digital age.

What does research tell us about the effectiveness of lectures?

Whatever you may think of Samuel Johnson’s opinion, there has indeed been a great deal of research into the effectiveness of lectures, going back to the 1960s, and continued through until today. The most authoritative analysis of the research on the effectiveness of lectures remains Bligh’s (2000). He summarized a wide range of meta-analyses and studies of the effectiveness of lectures compared with other teaching methods and found consistent results:

  1. The lecture is as effective as other methods for transmitting information (the corollary of course is that other methods – such as video, reading, independent study - are just as effective as lecturing for transmitting information)
  2. Most lectures are not as effective as discussion for promoting thought
  3. Lectures are generally ineffective for changing attitudes or values or for inspiring interest in a subject
  4. Lectures are relatively ineffective for teaching behavioural skills.

It should be noted that are are also many studies that suggest that it makes little difference to the learning effectiveness of a lecture if it is live (with the lecturer and the audience together at the same place and time), if it is transmitted in real time across distance (such as via a webcast or video-conference) or is viewed once on a recording as a continuous event. Thus merely by transmitting a MOOC in the form of a video lecture makes it no more or less effective in terms of an individual’s learning than if it was delivered in a classroom (although of course the MOOC will reach a lot more learners). Thus the medium of transmission makes no difference to an individual’s learning if the form of the lecture remains the same.

However, my research colleagues and I at the U.K. Open University, as early as 1984, established that making a lecture available in a recorded format (either on video or audio) increased the learning effectiveness, because it increased students’ time on task, by enabling them to review and repeat the material. We also found that recorded video or audio was even more effective than a recorded lecture if the program was re-designed to break the transmission of information into small chunks, and if the stop-start facility of recordings was used to build in student activities and feedback following each chunk of information. Proponents of Coursera-style MOOCs are just beginning to rediscover this thirty years later.

Bligh also examined research on student attention, on memorizing, and on motivation, and concluded (p.56):

We see evidence… once again to suppose that lectures should not be longer than twenty to thirty minutes – at least without techniques to vary stimulation.’

These research studies have shown that in order to understand, analyze, apply, and commit information to long-term memory, the learner must actively engage with the material. In order for a lecture to be effective, it must include activities that compel the student to mentally manipulate the information. Many lecturers of course do this, by stopping and asking for comments or questions throughout the lecture – but many do not.

Again, although these findings have been available for a long time, and You Tube videos now last approximately eight minutes and TED talks 20 minutes at a maximum, teaching in many educational institutions is still organized around a standard 50 minute lecture session, with, if students are lucky, a few minutes at the end for questions or discussion. Indeed in some institutions it is not uncommon to find even longer lecture sessions.

There are two important conclusions from the research:

1. Even for the sole purpose for which lectures may be effective – the transmission of information – the 50 minute lecture needs to be well organized, with frequent opportunities for student questions and discussion. (Bligh provides excellent suggestions on how to do this in his book.)

2. For all other important learning activities, such as developing critical thinking, deep understanding, and application of knowledge – the kind of skills needed in a digital age – lectures are ineffective. Other forms of teaching and learning – such as opportunities for discussion and student activities – are necessary.

Does new technology make lectures more relevant?

Over the years, institutions have made massive investments in ‘technologising’ the lecture. Powerpoint presentations, multiple projectors and screens, clickers for recording student responses, even ‘back-chat’ channels on Twitter, enabling students to comment on a lecture – or more often, the lecturer – in real time (surely the worse form of torture), have all been tried. Students have been asked to bring tablets or lap-tops to class, and universities in particular have invested millions of dollars in state of the art lecture theatres.

Nevertheless, all this is just lipstick on a pig. The essence of a lecture remains the transmission of information, all of which is now readily and, in most cases, freely available in other media and in more learner-friendly formats.

I worked in a college where in one program all students had to bring laptops to class. At least in these classes, there were some activities to do related to the lecture that required the students to use the laptops during class time. However, in most classes this took less than 25 per cent of the lesson time. Most of the other time, students were talked at, and as a result used their laptops for other, mainly non-academic activities, especially playing online poker.

Faculty often complain about students use of technology such as mobile phones or tablets, for ‘non-relevant’ multitasking in class, but this misses the point. If most students have mobile phones or laptops, why are they still having physically to come to a lecture hall? Why can’t they get a podcast of the lecture? Second, if they are coming, why are the lecturers not requiring them to use their mobile phones, tablets, or laptops for study? Why not break them into small groups and get them to do some online research then come back with group answers to share with the rest of the class? If lectures are to be offered, the aim should be to make the lecture engaging in its own right, so the students are not distracted by their online activity. If lecturers can’t do this, perhaps they should give up lecturing and find more interactive ways of engaging students.

Is there then no role for lectures in a digital age?

I do believe that lectures have their uses. As an example, I have attended an inaugural lecture for a newly appointed research professor. In this lecture, he summarised all the research he and his team had done, resulting in treatments for several cancers and other diseases. This was a public lecture, so he had to satisfy not only other leading researchers in the area, but also a lay public with often no science background. He did this by using excellent visuals and analogies. The lecture was followed by a small wine and cheese reception for the audience.

The lecture worked for several reasons:

  • first of all, it was a celebratory occasion bring together family, colleagues and friends.
  • second, it was an opportunity to pull together nearly 20 years of research into a single, coherent narrative or story.
  • third, the lecture was well supported by an appropriate use of graphics and video.
  • lastly, he put a great deal of work into preparing this lecture and thinking about who would be in the audience – much more preparation than would be the case if this was just one of many lectures in a course.

More importantly, though, that lecture is now publicly available via You Tube for anyone to view.

McKeachie and Svinicki (2006, p. 58) believe that lecturing is best used for:

  • providing up-to-date material that can’t be found in one source
  • summarizing material found in a variety of sources.
  • adapting material to the interests of a particular group.
  • initially helping students discover key concepts, principles or ideas
  • modelling expert thinking.

The last point is important. Faculty often argue that the real value of a lecture is to model for students how the faculty member, as an expert, approaches a topic or problem. Thus the important point of the lecture is not the transmission of content (facts, principles, ideas), which the students could get from just reading, but an expert way of thinking about the topic. The trouble with this argument for lectures is three-fold:

  • students are rarely aware that this is the purpose of the lecture, and therefore focus on memorizing the content, rather than the ‘modelling’ of expert thinking
  • faculty themselves are not explicit about how they are doing the modelling (or fail to offer other ways in which modelling could be used, so students can compare and contrast)
  • students get no practice themselves in modelling this skill, even if they are aware of the modelling.

So, yes, there are a few occasions when lectures work very well. But they should not be the default model for regular teaching. There are much better ways to teach that will result in better learning over the length of a course or program, and that lectures, whether live, or on MOOCs, YouTube videos or TED talks, are a poor way to prepare learners for a digital age.

Why are lectures still the main form of educational delivery?

Given all of the above, some explanation needs to be offered for the persistence of the lecture into the 21st century. Here are my suggestions

  1. in fact, in many areas of education, the lecture has been replaced, particularly in many elementary or primary schools (although parents often are unhappy about this, because a lecture represents their understanding of what teaching is all about); online learning (usually avoiding recorded lectures) and open education is also increasing more rapidly than classroom based learning
  2. a false assumption that the lecture is economically efficient. It is true it is efficient in the use of an instructor’s time, in that increasing student numbers in a lecture is no more work for the instructor for each student added to a class. However, efficiency needs to take into account output. If the output is to transfer information both less effectively per individual learner and in terms of providing the knowledge and skills in demand, then large lecture classes are a false efficiency;
  3. architectural inertia: a huge investment has been made by institutions in facilities that support the lecture model. What is to happen to all that real estate if it is not used?
  4. the Carnegie unit of teaching, which is based on a notion of one hour per week of classroom time per credit over a 13 week period. It is easy then to divide a three credit course into 39 one hour lectures over which the curriculum for the course must be covered. It is on this basis that teaching load and resources are decided.
  5. faculty in post-secondary education have no other model for teaching. This is the model they are used to, and because appointment is based on training in research or work experience, and not on qualifications in teaching, they have no knowledge of how students learn or confidence or experience in other methods of teaching.
  6. many experts prefer the oral tradition of teaching and learning, because it enhances their status as an expert and source of knowledge: being allowed an hour of other people’s time to hear your ideas without major interruption is very satisfying on a personal level (at least for me).

Is there a future for lectures in a digital age?

That depends on how far into the future one wants to look. Given the inertia in the system, I suspect that lectures will still predominate for another ten years, but after that, in most institutions, courses based on three lectures a week over 13 weeks will have disappeared. There are several reasons for this.

  • the first is that all content can be easily digitalized and made available on demand at very low cost.
  • second, institutions will be making greater use of dynamic video (not talking heads) for demonstration, simulations, animations, etc. Thus most content modules will be multi-media.
  • third, open textbooks incorporating multi media components and student activities will provide the content, organization and interpretation that are the rationale for most lectures.
  • lastly, and most significantly, the priority for teaching will have changed from information transmission and organization to knowledge management, where students have the responsibility for finding, analyzing, evaluating, sharing and applying knowledge, under the direction of a skilled subject expert. Project-based learning, collaborative learning and situated or experiential learning will become much more widely prevalent. Also many instructors will prefer to use the time they would have spent on a series of  lectures in providing more direct, individual and group learner support, thus bringing them into closer contact with learners.

This does not mean that lectures will disappear altogether, but they will be special events, and probably multi-media, synchronously and asynchronously delivered. Special events might include a professor’s summary of his latest research, the introduction to a course, a point mid-way through a course for taking stock and dealing with common difficulties, or the wrap-up to a course. A lecture will provide a chance for an instructor to makes themselves known, to impart their interests and enthusiasm, and to motivate learners, but this will be just one, relatively small, but important component of a much broader learning experience for students.

 In the meantime, institutions should be looking at their building plans, and deciding if the money they are thinking of in terms of classrooms and lecture theatres may not be better spent on digitizing the curriculum and making it openly available.

References

Bates, A. (1985) Broadcasting in Education: An Evaluation. London: Constable

Bligh, D. (2000) What’s the Use of Lectures? San Francisco: Jossey-Bass

Boswell, James (1986), Hibbert, Christopher, ed., The Life of Samuel Johnson, New York: Penguin Classics, ISBN 0-14-043116-0.

McKeachie, W. and Svinicki, M. (2006) McKeachie’s Teaching Tips: Strategies, Research, and Theory for College and University Teachers, 13th Edition Independence KY: Cengage

WCET’s analysis of U.S. statistics on distance education

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IPEDS 2

U.S.Department of Education (2014) Web Tables: Enrollment in Distance Education Courses, by State: Fall 2012 Washington DC: U.S.Department of Education National Center for Education Statistics

Hill, P. and Poulin, R. (2014) A response to new NCES report on distance education e-Literate, June 11

The U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences operates a National Center for Education Statistics which in turn runs the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS). IPEDS is:

a system of interrelated surveys conducted annually by the U.S. Department’s National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). IPEDS gathers information from every college, university, and technical and vocational institution that participates in the federal student financial aid programs. The Higher Education Act of 1965, as amended, requires that institutions that participate in federal student aid programs report data on enrollments, program completions, graduation rates, faculty and staff, finances, institutional prices, and student financial aid. These data are made available to students and parents through the College Navigator college search Web site and to researchers and others through the IPEDS Data Center

Recently IPEDS released “Web Tables” containing results from their Fall Enrollment 2012 survey. This was the first survey in over a decade to include institutional enrollment counts for distance education students. In the article above, Phil Hill of e-Literate and Russell Poulin of WCET have co-written a short analysis of the Web Tables released by IPEDS.

The Hill and Poulin analysis

The main points they make are as follows:

  • overall the publication of the web tables in the form of a pdf is most welcome, in particular by providing a breakdown of IPEDS data by different variables such as state jurisdiction, control of institution, sector and student level
  • according to the IPEDS report there were just over 5.4 million students enrolled in distance education courses in the fall semester 2012 (NOTE: this number refers to students, NOT course enrollments).
  • roughly a quarter of all post-secondary students in the USA are enrolled in a distance education course.
  • the bulk of students in the USA taking distance education courses are in publicly funded institutions (85% of those taking at least some DE courses), although about one third of those taking all their classes at a distance are in private, for-profit institutions (e.g. University of Phoenix)
  • these figures do NOT include MOOC enrollments
  • as previously identified by Phil Hill in e-Literate, there is major discrepancy in the number of students taking at least one online course between the IPEDS study and the regular annual surveys conducted by Allen and Seaman at Babson College – 7.1 million for Babson and 5.5 million for IPEDS. Jeff Seaman, one of the two Babson authors, is also quoted in e-Literate on his interpretation of the differences. Hill and Poulin comment that the NCES report would have done well to at least refer to the significant differences.
  • Hill and Poulin claim that there has been confusion over which students get counted in IPEDS reporting and which do not. They suspect that there is undercounting in the hundreds of thousands, independent of distance education status.

Comment

There are lies, damned lies and statistics. Nevertheless, although the IPEDS data may not be perfect, it does a pretty good job of collecting data on distance education students across the whole of the USA. However, it does not distinguish between mode of delivery of distance education (are there still mainly print-based courses around)?

So we now have two totally independent analyses of distance education students in the USA, with a minimum number of 5.5 million and a maximum number of 7.1 million, i.e. between roughly a quarter and a third of all post-secondary students. From the Allen and Seaman longitudinal studies, we can also reasonably safely assume that online enrollments have been increasing between 10-20% per annum over the last 10 years, compared with overall enrollments of 2-5% per annum.

By contrast, in Canada we have no national data on either online or distance education students. It’s hard to see how Canadian governments or institutions can take evidence-based policy decisions about online or distance education without such basic information.

Lastly, thank you, Phil and Russ, for a very helpful analysis of the IPEDs report.

Update

For a more detailed analysis, see also:

Haynie, D. (2014) New Government Data Sheds Light on Online Learners US News, June 13

 

Opening up: chapter one of Teaching in a Digital Age

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The view when I was writing Chapter 1, from the Island of Braç, Croatia

The view when I was writing Chapter 1, from the Island of Braç, Croatia

I’ve not been blogging much recently, because (a) I’ve been on holiday for a month in the Mediterranean and (b) I’ve been writing my book.

Teaching in a Digital World

As you are probably aware, I’m doing this as an open textbook, which means learning to adapt to a new publishing environment. As well as writing a darned good book for instructors on teaching in in a digital age, my aim is to push the boundaries a little with open publishing, to move it out of the traditional publishing mode into a a truly open textbook, with the help of the good folks at BCcampus who are running their open textbook project.

You will see that there’s still a long way to go before we can really exploit all the virtues of openness in publishing, and I’m hoping you can help me – and BCcampus- along the way with this.

What I’d like you to do

What I’m hoping you will do is find the time to browse the content list and preface (which is not yet finalized) and read more carefully Chapter 1, Fundamental Change in Higher Education, then give me some feedback. To do this, just go to: http://opentextbc.ca/teachinginadigitalage/

The first thing you will realise is that there is nowhere to comment on the published version. (Ideally I would like to have a comment section after every section of each chapter.) I will be publishing another post about some of the technical features I feel are still needed within PressBooks, but in the meantime, please use the comment page on this post (in which case your comment will be public), or use the e-mail facility  at the bottom of the chapter or preface (in which case your comment will be private). Send to tony.bates@ubc.ca .

What kind of feedback?

At this stage, I’m looking more for comments on the substance of the book, rather than the openness (my next post will deal with the technical issues). To help you with feedback, here are some of the questions I’m looking for answers to:

  1. Market: from what you’ve read so far, does there appear to be a need for this type of book? Are there other books that already do what I’m trying to do?
  2. Structure: does Chapter 1 have the right structure? Does it flow and is it logically organized?How could it be improved?
  3. Content: is there anything missing, dubious or just plain wrong? References that I have missed that support (or challenge) the content would also be useful.
  4. Do the activities work for you? Are there more interesting activities you can think of? How best to provide feedback? (e.g. does the use of ‘Parts’ work for this?)
  5. Presentation: are there other media/better images I could use? Is the balance between text and media right?

What’s in it for you?

First, I hope the content will be useful. Chapter 1 is probably the least useful of all the chapters to come for readers of this blog, because it’s aimed at instructors who are not comfortable with using technology, but if the material is useful to you, you are free to use it in whatever way you wish, within the constraints of a Creative Commons license.

Second, the whole point of open education is to share and collaborate. I’m opening up my book and the process; in return can I get some help and advice? In anticipation and with a degree of nervousness I look forward to your comments.

Washington State Community College System plans online competency-based associate degree

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Whatcom Community College, Bellingham, WA

Whatcom Community College, Bellingham, WA

The Olympian (2014) Competency-based learning makes college credit more accessible for all The Bellingham Herald, June 3

The State of Washington is introducing a new online associate degree program in business studies. Some of the features::

  • competency-based, recognizing the value of what students already know and can do
  • state-wide
  • transferable to four year state universities
  • students could advance by demonstrating a command of the subject matter through a test or writing assignment rather than taking a whole course

The program offers great promise to older students who may draw on work experiences to complete their community college credits. It is also well-suited to students who are place-bound and unable to attend classes in person due to family and job commitments.

Washington State Community Colleges already have extensive online programs, but this will be the first competency-based program that they are offering.