May 29, 2016

Technology, alienation and the role of education: an introduction

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One definition of alienation Image: Reuters

One definition of alienation
Image: Reuters

Is there a problem here?

I live a 30 minute drive from the U.S. border, and like many of my fellow Canadians (and many U.S. colleagues) I have been watching with a mixture of disgust and horror the Donald Trump presidential campaign gathering increasing momentum. However unlike most Canadians, I am not surprised at Trump’s growing success (nor is Canada immune – Rob Ford’s support also comes from the same origins). Trump derives his support from an ever expanding body of people who feel alienated and marginalized by technology, globalization and the growing gap between rich and poor.

On the other side of the political spectrum, the supporters of Bernie Sanders as a candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination, and the anti-austerity movements in Europe, are also driven by increasing alienation due to perceived failures of the capitalist/’democratic’ system to meet the interests of ordinary people. Both sides see government as having been captured by special interest groups, especially but not exclusively financial establishments and the major media and Internet companies.

There is of course no single reason for this growing alienation, but the way technology, and particularly digital technology, has been moving recently is one major cause of this alienation. People feel they are losing control to forces they do not understand. In particular, there is a growing sense that the benefits of technology are going to an increasingly smaller and richer group of people. The public, the end users of technology, increasingly feel that they are being exploited for the benefit of those that control the technology. People are losing jobs and those that have jobs are working harder or longer to stand still.

Dealing with the problem (or challenge)

I plan to explore this issue further in several blog posts that focus particularly on the role of education, and how we deal with technology, both as a field of study, and with its use for teaching and learning. I will argue that educators have a special responsibility to prepare students better for this rapidly changing and increasingly threatening digital world, so students can try to wrest some control and make technology work better for them in the future. I will also be arguing that some potential developments in the use of technology in education could be more harmful than beneficial, and will further increase feelings of alienation, if we are not careful.

This is very much an exploratory journey on my part. I will outline a series of topics for discussion in different blog posts, but this may well change as we get into it. In particular, I am looking for discussion and interaction, an exchange of views, and different perspectives on what I see as an increasingly important topic. The focus will always be on the implications for teaching and learning.

Here is my initial breakdown of topics:

  • introduction (this post)
  • technology and alienation: symptoms, causes and a framework for discussion (next post)
  • skills development and the labour market: are we fighting the last war? (This will include a discussion of competency-based learning, and the difference between skills and competencies – or competences, if you are European), with the goal of better preparing learners for an increasingly hostile digital age;
  • automation vs empowerment in educational technology (already done; maybe some revisions)
  • unbundling of educational services: who benefits; alternative models; privatisation versus state funding; risk management
  • the myth of the autonomous learner: the changing relationship between teachers and learners; creating effective learning environments (partly done); how to personalise learning to the benefit of the learner
  • teaching ‘defensive’ skills: protecting privacy, avoiding monopolies, citizen engagement, understanding and controlling the technology
  • globalization and online learning: think/learn globally, act/do locally; ways to open the curriculum; building bridges with other cultures
  • wrap-up.

Help!

This is starting to look like a mini-course, maybe even a cMOOC, but my thinking is so unformed at this stage that I want to keep the topic and approach as open as possible, and in particular I want to clarify my own thoughts through the process of writing (yes, that does work sometimes). So:

  • do you believe that alienation is increasing/a serious problem, due to the way technology is being managed and controlled? Or am I being paranoid?
  • what topics would you add to this list? Is there anything essential in discussing the topic of technology-based alienation and the role of education that needs to be included that I have missed?
  • can education really make a difference? Can it help prevent alienation – or should it encourage it? Or are we already stitched up?
  • would you be interesting in contributing to this discussion; if so how? (e.g. guest posts; comments; suggested readings/videos)
  • are you thinking: ‘Don’t even go there, Tony – it’s a waste of time!’?

Why digital technology is not necessarily the answer to your problem

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The darker the shade, the higher the Internet population

The darker the shade, the higher the Internet population

World Bank (2016) World Development Report 2016: Digital Dividends. Washington, DC: World Bank.

What is the report about?

This 359 page report, partly funded by Canada’s Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade, and Development and the International Development Research Centre, involved the work of several hundred people and was based on consultation meetings in 27 different countries (see here for more information on these consultations).
The report notes that more households in developing countries own a mobile phone than have access to electricity or clean water, and nearly 70 percent of the bottom fifth of the population in developing countries own a mobile phone. The number of internet users has more than tripled in a decade—from 1 billion in 2005 to an estimated 3.2 billion at the end of 2015.

The key question addressed by this report then is as follows:

Have [these] massive investments in information and communication technologies (ICTs) generated faster growth, more jobs, and better services? Indeed, are countries reaping sizeable digital dividends?
I can only briefly summarise this lengthy report, and if this post peaks your interest, please read the full report.

Main conclusions

Despite this vast investment in digital technologies, the digital dividend in terms of greater productivity, less inequality, more democracy, and greater wealth for all has not been gained. For instance:

  • global productivity growth has slowed;
  • labor markets have become more polarized and inequality is rising—particularly in the wealthier countries, but increasingly in developing countries;
  • while the number of democracies is growing, the share of free and fair elections is falling.

Digital divide Africa 2

Furthermore:

  • nearly 60 percent of the world’s people are still offline and can’t participate in the digital economy in any meaningful way;
  • many advanced economies face increasingly polarized labor markets and rising inequality—in part because technology augments higher skills while replacing routine jobs, forcing many workers to compete for low-paying jobs;
  • public sector investments in digital technologies, in the absence of accountable institutions, amplify the voice of elites, which can result in policy capture and greater state control;
  • because the economics of the internet favour natural monopolies, the absence of a competitive business environment can result in more concentrated markets, benefiting incumbent firms;
  • not surprisingly, the better educated, well connected, and more capable have received most of the benefits, circumscribing the gains from the digital revolution.

The fundamentals (‘complements’) of development are:

  • good governance;
  • a robust and open business market;
  • accountability (i.e. lack of corruption);
  • strong human capital (i.e. a well educated work-force)

In countries where these fundamentals are weak, digital technologies have not boosted productivity or reduced inequality. These poor trends persist, not because of digital technologies, but in spite of them. Thus while digital technologies have been spreading, digital dividends have not. On the other hand, countries that complement technology investments with broader fundamental reforms reap digital dividends in the form of faster growth, more jobs, and better services.

Thus the report’s main conclusion is:

The full benefits of the information and communications transformation will not be realized unless countries continue to improve their business climate, invest in people’s education and health, and promote good governance.

Barriers to success

For digital technologies to improve productivity and reduce inequality, there are important ‘analogue’ factors that must accompany or support (‘complement’) the introduction of digital technology in order to get the benefits:
  • digital technologies can make routine, transaction-intensive tasks dramatically cheaper, faster, and more convenient. But most tasks also have an aspect that cannot be automated and that requires human judgment, intuition,and discretion; the better educated the workforce the higher the quality of such human decision-making;
  • when technology is applied to automate tasks without matching improvements in other, non-digital social, economic and political activities, such as governance, accountability and education, technology can fail to bring broad-based gains;
  • the digital revolution can give rise to new business models that would benefit consumers, but not when incumbents control market entry;
  • technology can make workers more productive, but not when they lack the know-how to use it;
  • digital technologies can help monitor teacher attendance and improve learning outcomes, but not when the education system lacks accountability.

What should be done?

  • make the internet universally accessible and affordable. The internet, in a broad sense, has grown quickly, but it is by no means universal. For every person connected to high-speed broadband, five are not. Worldwide, some 4 billion people do not have any internet access, nearly 2 billion do not use a mobile phone, and almost half a billion live outside areas with a mobile signal.
  • access to the internet is critical, but not sufficient. The digital economy also requires strong regulations that create a vibrant business climate and let firms leverage digital technologies to compete and innovate; skills that allow workers, entrepreneurs, and public servants to seize opportunities in the digital world; and accountable institutions that use the internet to empower citizens.
The Internet promoted development through three mechanisms

The Internet promotes development through three mechanisms

A favourable business climate, strong human capital and good governance are standard requirements for economic growth. But digital technology has two particular roles to play in development:

  • digital technologies amplify the impact of good (and bad) policies, so any failure to reform means falling farther behind those who do reform. With digital technologies, the stakes have risen for developing countries, which have more to gain than high-income countries, but also more to lose;
  • digital technologies can enable and accelerate the impact of these standard requirements for growth, for example, by creating new jobs and business opportunities, through online learning raising the skills level of workers, and by enabling government to make evidence-based decisions.

Comment

This report is a powerful antidote to those who think digital technologies are the silver bullet for increasing equality, improving education, and reducing the gap between rich and poor. What becomes very clear is that digital technology amplifies change: if things are going badly, digital technology will make it happen worse and faster; if things are going well, digital technology will make it better. Thus digital technology is neither cause nor effect in development, but a catalyst that amplifies change.

This means of course that the hard work of making governments and business transparent and accountable, developing an educated workforce, and having an open, well regulated business environment all need to be done. Digital technology can facilitate this, but on its own it will not lead to a better world except for a very few.

One last point. There is a very interesting article in today’s Globe and Mail newspaper by Jim Balsillie, one of the founders of Blackberry, railing against the TPP, the Trans-Pacific Trade Agreement, because it protects incumbent intellectual property holders. This gives a huge advantage to the USA, by protecting them from innovation originating in other countries with a small number of patents, relatively speaking (such as Canada). Balsillie argues that one reason digital technology has led to a greater increase in inequality is because of the distortion of U.S. patent law which makes it very difficult for new entrants to the digital technology market – although China, interestingly, has been smart enough to work around these barriers by its sheer size and more closed culture. Another barrier we see here in Canada is the power of incumbent organizations such as the three telecommunications companies who, through their control of national network infrastructure, can freeze out new competitors.

It sure ain’t a fair world out there, and digital technology is not helping. We need better regulation, and patent reform, that’s for sure, if digital technology is to reap fully its promise.

Online learning and a knowledge-based economy

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Knowledge-based industries include entertainment, such as video games design

Knowledge-based industries include entertainment, such as video games design

Florida, R. and Spencer, G. (2015) Canada has two growth models, but we’ve been neglecting one Globe and Mail, Oct 7

Boyd, D. (2015) Canada’s party leaders neglecting renewable energy in election talks Globe and Mail, Oct 7

If you are not Canadian, please bear with me in this post, as although these articles focus on Canada, what I have to say will apply to many other economically advanced countries – and I will get to the online learning bit eventually.

The Canadian election

Three parties are running very close in the Canadian federal election, which takes place on October 19. All three parties (Conservatives, who form the current government; the NDP, the official opposition; and the Liberals), have made the economy a central plank of their campaign. In essence the election is being fought primarily on which party is best able to advance the Canadian economy.

Surprisingly though all three parties are very backward looking in their economic strategies. The Conservative government has based its economic strategy primarily around the resource-based industries of oil and mining extraction, and agriculture. It is also supporting free trade through free trade agreements with Europe (CETA) and 22 countries around the Pacific (TPP) as well as the 25 year old North American free trade agreement between Canada, the USA and Mexico (NAFTA), but still with high tariffs and protection for the Canadian dairy industry. Interestingly, there has been almost no discussion by the major Canadian political parties about the copyright and intellectual property agreements in these pacts, yet these have tremendous implications for developing home-grown innovative industries.

The Conservative economic strategy has recently run into severe problems due to a crash in commodity prices, and the oil industry in particular is in trouble due to excess capacity, low prices and increasing environmental and aboriginal land claim pressures that have resulted in difficulties in getting the oil to market.

The NDP, which has its roots in labour and the union movement, is pushing to support manufacturing industries, such as auto production. The Liberals are focusing on taxation and funding policies that are aimed at encouraging small businesses and protecting the current economy. The Liberals though have pledged a small increase (around ($100 million) to support incubators and new start-ups.

These are all very 20th century approaches to the economy, and frankly are not very different from one another at a strategic level. Where are the long-term strategies or plans that will support new knowledge-based industries?

The knowledge economy

Richard Florida, an urban economist at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management, and Greg Spencer, a research associate, have pointed out in their article in the Globe and Mail that:

the real sources of sustained prosperity and rising living standards are knowledge, innovation and creativity. Canada has neglected the development of its knowledge-based economy….Cities are the central organizing unit on the knowledge economy, with knowledge and creativity concentrated in Canada’s largest city regions.’

Florida and Spencer then go on to define five key ‘pillars’ that are needed to build Canada’s knowledge economy:

  • increased urban density
  • a shift from investment in roads to an investment in transit and high-speed rail, to make communication quicker and easier
  • more compact and affordable housing in cities to encourage young knowledge-workers to come together
  • increasing the minimum wage and replacing low-wage service jobs with more creative approaches to service provision
  • increased taxing and spending powers to cities.

Noticeably they do not mention high quality post-secondary education.

Renewable energy

David Boyd, an environmental lawyer, in a separate article argues that Canada’s government to date has ignored the potential of renewable energy, focusing instead on trying to extract and move carbon-heavy oil, gas and coal, through pipelines and tankers. Instead, he argues, future economic growth will be driven by developments in renewable energy such as solar, wind and geo-thermal power. He argues that Canada has the potential to generate 100 per cent of its electricity from renewable sources within two decades.

Canada has an unenviable reputation as being a major emitter of greenhouse gases, particularly through its production of heavy crude and bitumen from the oil sands. It is increasingly clear that there will be an increasing charge on the production of such carbon, mainly through direct carbon taxes (as has been the case here in British Columbia for a number of years, with success in driving down carbon emissions) or indirect cap and trade schemes (which are coming in Ontario and Quebec). Even major investment funds are now looking at carbon-emitting industries as high risk investments for the future. As a result the Canadian oil industry must now find cleaner ways to extract and treat oil and petroleum.

Renewable and clean energy however depends on invention and innovation to develop economically efficient sources of energy. In other words, it needs a heavy investment in developing new knowledge that will drive the development of new, clean technologies.

The increasing demand for high level knowledge workers

Neither article in the Globe and Mail made the link to the need for high level knowledge workers to grow the knowledge economy. It is as if it is almost taken for granted that Canada’s universities and colleges will develop such workers. However, although Canadian institutions may train academic researchers, engineers, media designers and developers and entrepreneurial business people, they need to have the right skills to work effectively in a knowledge-based economy. We are talking about a highly competitive market here. All advanced developed countries want to be leaders in innovation. Will Canada produce the researchers, engineers and managers with the right skills for a knowledge-based economy? In particular will they develop people skilled in knowledge management, creativity, problem solving, design, entrepreneurialism, critical thinking, etc.?

Online learning and the knowledge economy

This is where online learning becomes critically important. In my online open textbook, Teaching in a Digital Age, I focus specifically on the kind of skills that will be needed in a knowledge intensive economy, and demonstrate that online learning has a key role to play in developing such skills (although of course it is not the only way).

However, this is just one person’s contribution. Canada needs to focus much more on identifying the knowledge and skills that will be needed in knowledge intensive industries and ensure that our educational institutions know how to develop such skills. In particular are we using the appropriate teaching methods and technologies that will help learners develop these skills and knowledge?

Those countries that can harness new knowledge to clean and innovative industries will surely be the economic drivers of the future. I just wish that our political parties would pay more attention to developing strategies that support a knowledge-based economy, because the fate of Canada as a prosperous country with an enviable standard of living and quality of life absolutely depends on this.

 

Next steps for the European HE system

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The University of Siena: founded in 1240, but is it still relevant today?

The University of Siena: founded in 1240, but is it still relevant today?

Klemenčič, M. and Ashwin, P. (2015) What’s next for Europe? Inside Higher Ed, May 26

As my holiday in Italy draws to a close, I thought it would be appropriate to do a short blog on developments in European higher education. I look to my many readers in Europe to comment and correct me as appropriate.

What the article is about

This is an interesting article about future policy for European Higher Education, following the Bologna Process Ministerial Conference on May 14-15 in Yerevan, Armenia. (Sigh! Yes, you are right, Armenia is not yet part of the European Union, but it is a member of the Council of Europe, and, since 2005 has been part of the Bologna Process, which sets out pan-European strategy for higher education.)

This article gives a pretty good overview of what the Bologna Process has achieved to date, and also what it has not achieved, and also gives a good description of where European education ministers want to go in the future, in terms of pan-European policy.

The achievements of the Bologna Process

The Bologna Process is:

a voluntary convergence and coordinated reform of higher education systems across the member countries of the European Union and beyond. The aims have been to promote the mobility of students and staff and to enhance the quality and international competitiveness of European higher education.

The European Higher Education Area (EHEA) now has 48 members, including non-European Union countries such as the Russian Federation, Belarus, Armenia and the Ukraine.

Its successes include:

  • a common three-cycle degree structure across countries;
  • student mobility: students can transfer course credits acquired at one institution to any another institution in the EHEA;
  • European Standards and Guidelines for Quality Assurance and the European Register of Quality Assurance Agencies, ensuring that all countries have compatible internal and external quality assurance procedures.

This of course raises the question: If the Europeans can enable students to transfer seamlessly between 4,000 higher education institutions across Europe and beyond (and they do, in droves), why is it so difficult to do this in Canada, and particularly within Ontario, for God’s sake?

One of the great scandals of Canadian higher education is the refusal of Ontario universities or the Ontario government to put in place any form of automatic transfer of credits. (Yeah, there are seven universities in Ontario that have a paper agreement amongst themselves, but the reality is that it is NOT an automatic process even between these seven institutions).

BC and Alberta have had a mutual transfer system in place for many years, but the only thing more difficult than moving from a university in BC (or from anywhere else in Canada) to a university in Ontario is taking a bottle of BC wine with you to Ontario (yes, that is actually illegal in Canada). Talk about provincialism.

The challenges of the Bologna Process

Like anything to do with the European Union, excessive bureaucracy is a major challenge. In particular, to quote from the article:

much of the energy of the Bologna Follow-Up Group, the governing body of the process, has been channeled into detailed questions about decision structures and processes. The Bologna Process needed a new sense of purpose to bring the governments together and re-energize international cooperation within the EHEA. And this indeed happened [at the Yerevan conference].

What’s driven this new sense of purpose is youth unemployment:

The unemployment rate for people 29 and younger in the European Union is 19 percent, the highest in at least 10 years. In Spain, the figure was 53 percent in November 2014; it was 49 percent, in Greece, followed closely by Croatia and Italy. Higher education is seen as one key pillar in Europe’s vision to fight unemployment among young people, preventing them from becoming a “lost generation” and source of social upheaval. The communiqué emphasizes the need to ensure that graduates possess competencies that will make them employable.

The article lists several ways this is to be done, such as:

  • a better dialogue between higher education institutions and employers,
  • a good balance between theoretical and practical components in curricula, and
  • continued support for international mobility for study and work placement.

The authors though acknowledge that:

higher education alone, of course, cannot solve the problem that is so clearly linked to economic growth and also labor regulations.

They might also have mentioned the failed economic policy of austerity, which is a major cause of youth unemployment in Europe.

A second objective is to make European higher education more inclusive. A particular concern is the low participation rate of immigrants from the Middle East and Africa in European higher education, and the possible radicalization of immigrant youth:

three types of mobility are accentuated in the communiqué: for students and staff from conflict areas, students from disadvantaged backgrounds, and mobility of teacher education students.

The third objective is to improve the quality of teaching and learning in universities and colleges. The authors note that it is surprising that it has taken so long for this to emerge as a priority for this first time at the Armenia conference:

..the quality of teaching and learning is far from satisfactory and varies significantly across European systems and institutions…the majority of countries do not have a strategy for the advancement of teaching and learning or specific structures to support it. At best, higher education institutions are developing their own units for supporting excellence in teaching and learning or funding teaching development programs. At worse, higher education teachers are left to their own devices to improve their teaching (or not) when alerted by the outcomes of student satisfaction surveys.

In Yerevan, the ministers have committed to support higher education institutions in pedagogical innovation, exploring the use of digital technologies for learning and teaching, and in better linking learning and teaching with research, innovation and entrepreneurship. You have to wonder though why it took almost 20 years to get these items on the agenda.

What next?

The authors of the article are surprisingly optimistic that these new policies will be successfully implemented by the governments of member states. However, by 2018, the set target gate for implementation, both Greece and Britain may well have left the European Union, and I will be surprised if countries such as Italy, the Ukraine and Bulgaria will have made much progress towards these objectives, because of structural and economic difficulties.

Nevertheless, on balance, despite the stifling bureaucracy of the European Union, and the political and economic challenges faced by many European countries, the Bologna Process has enabled many European universities to improve their standards and to modernise, and is likely to continue to do so into the future.

One of the University of Siena's student computer labs

One of the University of Siena’s student computer labs

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