August 28, 2014

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

 

MIT, learning technologies, and developing countries: lessons in technology transfer

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This week I spent three days at the MIT LINC (Learning International Networks Consortium) conference in Boston/Cambridge, Massachusetts, with the theme: ‘Realizing the Dream: Education Becoming Available to All. Will the World take Advantage?’.

Because there is so much information that I would like to share, I am dividing this into two posts. This post will focus mainly on the activities reported from around the world, although many of these projects are related to or supported by MIT faculty and staff volunteers.

My second post, MOOCs, MIT and Magic, will focus on what MIT is doing to support technology-enabled learning, mainly at home.

But first some words about the conference.

LINC

The Learning International Networks Consortium (LINC) is an MIT-managed international initiative that began in 2001 and is operated by a growing team of MIT faculty, student and staff volunteers. 

The mission of the LINC project is: With today’s computer and telecommunications technologies, every young person can have a quality education regardless of his or her place of birth or wealth of parents.

LINC was the brain-child of Richard Larson, Professor of Engineering Systems at MIT.

The conference

LINC 2013 was the sixth conference on this theme organized by MIT. It presented a range of topics, technologies and strategies for technology-enabled learning for developing countries, and raised a number of questions about the implementation of learning technologies within developing countries. There were over 300 participants from 49 countries.

The conference was supported by MIT, Universiti Teknologi Malaysia, and Fujitsu, enabling many participants from developing countries to be supported in their travel and accommodation.

I report below just a selection of the many sessions around the theme of technology-supported education in or for developing countries, and I apologize that for space reasons, I can’t give a full report on all the sessions.

MOOCs

The conference started with a session on four perspectives on MOOCs, with four speakers making short 20 minute presentations followed by a Q&A panel with the four speakers fielding questions from the audience. I was one of the speakers in this session, and because the session deserves a whole report on its own, I discuss this in more detail in my second post, MOOCs, MIT and Magic.

Sufficient here to say that Sir John Daniel made a point reinforced by speakers in other sections that open and virtual universities have been delivering mass credit-based open learning in developing countries for many decades before MOOCs arrived.

The state of technology-enabled education around the world

The future direction of virtual universities

John Daniel’s point was picked up in this session, when Presidents/Rectors from Tec de Monterrey’s Virtual University in Mexico, the African Virtual University, and the Virtual University of Pakistan described the activities of their institutions. In each case, these projects are reaching very large numbers of students in their own countries or region (around 100,000 each), but each institution has its own sets of challenges as well, especially in reaching the very poor or disadvantaged. However, each of these institutions seems to have a sustainable funding base which promises well for the future.

Bakary Diallo, Rector, African Virtual University

Reaching poor young men in Latin America

Fernando Reimers, the Director of the International Education Policy Program at Harvard, discussed the challenges that youth face in developing countries, particularly adolescent boys and young men, who are turned off by traditional teaching methods that neither fit their learning styles nor prepare them for the skills and knowledge needed in today’s workforce. He pointed out that less than 1% of the poorest 10% in Brazil have Internet access. (Similarly, in Mexico, less than 5% of socio-economic groups C, D and E currently have Internet access, and these three groups constitute almost two-thirds of the population.)

National educational policies and educational reform

Robin Horn discussed a World Bank project, SABER, which stands for A Systems Approach to Better Educational Results. The World Bank has found that often educational reform initiatives fail to gain traction in many countries because they do not align with existing government policies (or put another way, without changing policies, the reforms will not gain traction.) By looking at countries that have successful educational outcomes, and comparing their policies with the policies in other developing countries, it is hoped to identify barriers to educational reform. One example is telecommunications policies. An over-regulated, government controlled access to bandwidths can lead to high Internet costs due to lack of competition, whereas loose or unregulated government policies allow for competition resulting in both increased access and lower Internet costs (Canadian government: please note). Mike Trucano at the World Bank is identifying policies that appear to facilitate or inhibit the application of learning technologies in developing countries and this will be added to SABER in the near future.

The SABER website is packed full of data and analysis and makes fascinating reading for policy aficionados, and certainly my experience is that in all countries (not just developing countries) government policies do have a major influence on innovation and change in education. However, at the same time, ‘top-down’ strategies for increasing the use of learning technologies rarely work (South Korea may be an example of this – see below). In other words, government policies can foster or inhibit educational reform, but the reforms themselves will often have to come from or be supported by those close to the action, the teachers, parents and other stakeholders who will gain most from the changes.

Reaching the poor through educational TV in Brazil

Lúcia Araújo, the CEO of Canal Futura, an educational television network in Brazil, described the extensive use of ‘open source’ educational television and support materials that are being used by teachers throughout Brazil to support their classroom teaching. The programs are freely accessible through public television stations throughout Brazil, and almost 100% of homes in Brazil have access to television, a reminder that in many countries there are still better alternatives than the Internet to reach out to the poor and disadvantaged.

Online universities in Korea and SE Asia

Okwha Lee from Chungbuk National University in South Korea gave an overview of national educational technology developments in South Korea. In terms of sheer scale of online learning South Korea is one of the world’s leaders, with 21 cyber or online universities alone serving over 100,000 Korean students. The South Korean government plays a heavy hand in financing and managing national educational technology initiatives, through KERIS (the Korean Education and Research Information Service), and some of its centralization of data collection and top-down policies have provoked both hunger strikes and a national teachers’ strikes. South Korea has also invested in the ASEAN cyber university, which will include students from Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Mynmar, with plans to extend it later to other ASEAN countries. Initially students will access programs through local e-learning centres.

Using Intranets to lower the cost of online learning in Africa

Cliff Missen, Director of the WiderNet Project and eGranary, gave a fascinating talk based around access to online learning in Africa. The WiderNet Project is a nonprofit organization, based at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, that is dedicated to improving digital communications to all communities and individuals around the world in need of educational resources, knowledge, and training. Cliff Missen’s focus was on the high cost of Internet access for learners in developing countries, pointing out that while mobile phones are widespread in Africa, they operate on very narrow bandwidths. For instance, it costs US$2 to download a typical YouTube video – equivalent to a day’s salary for many Africans. Programs requiring extensive bandwidth, such as video lectures, are therefore prohibitively expensive for most Africans.

The WiderNet solution is the development of local Intranets linked to an extensive local library of open educational resources, the e-Granary project. The eGranary Digital Library — “The Internet in a Box” – is an off-line information store that provides instant access to over 30 million Internet resources to institutions lacking adequate Internet access. Through a process of copying web sites (with permission) and delivering them to partner institutions in developing countries, this digital library delivers instant access to a wide variety of educational resources including video, audio, books, journals, and Web sites. This means setting up local servers and terminals, and even building a small wireless station to cover the surrounding community, but not necessarily linked into the wider Internet. This cuts down substantially on the cost of accessing digital educational resources.

MIT BLOSSOMS: Math and Science Video Lessons for High School Classes

This project has developed over 60 short videos to enrich science and math high school lessons, all freely available to teachers as streaming video and Internet downloads and as DVDs and videotapes. The videos are made in short sections, with stopping points for student and teacher activities built into the videos and supported by the teachers’ guide to each video

What makes this program particularly interesting is that many of the videos have been developed in developing countries, through partnerships between MIT and local schools and teachers, and with local presenters, often from high schools themselves. The videos are of high quality, both in terms of content, which is guaranteed by oversight from MIT professors, and in production quality. There is a strong emphasis in relating science and math to everyday life. For examples see: How Mosquitoes Fly in Rain (made in the USA) and Pythagoras and the Juice Seller (made in Jordan).

As a result, these videos are also being increasingly used by schools in the USA as well as by schools in developing countries. Although some of the programs are made in the native language of the country where they are made, they are also provided with English sub-titles or with also a voice-over version. By developing programs with local teachers, programs can be fully integrated within the national curriculum, and MIT BLOSSOMS team has also shown how each video relates to individual US state curricula.

What MIT is doing in technology-enabled learning

This session focused on MIT’s other activities in technology-enabled learning. I will discuss this in more detail in my second post, MOOCs, MIT and Magic.

Parallel sessions

In addition to the above plenary sessions there were also 72 presentations, each of roughly ten minutes, in parallel sessions. I cannot possibly report on them all, but I will report on two that I found really interesting .

Taylor’s University, a private university in Malaysia, is using the iPad for teaching foundational engineering. The iPads are used to access  iBooks and electronic study materials that have been specially developed by the School of Engineering to support and enhance the students’ learning. Many of the animations and applications were specially developed by final year undergraduate students, working with their professor, Mushtak Al-Atabi. There is a video on YouTube that includes a good demonstration of how the iPad is used.

The second was presented by Ahmed Ibrahim in behalf of a team of researchers from McGill University and the University of British Columbia in Canada. They investgated through interviews “sources of knowledge” for students entering a gateway science course. The found that the most common source of ‘physics’ knowledge for the students is the teacher, followed by the textbook and other sources such as the Internet – what the researchers called testimony. Few students used deduction, induction or experimentation as means to ‘verify’ their knowledge. Thus the students did not feel empowered to be able to generate valid physics knowledge by themselves and  they have to turn to experts for it. In other words students are taught about science, rather than doing science, in high schools. They concluded that instructors need to use instructional methods, and activities that promote deeper learning, more conceptual knowledge construction, and more sophisticated epistemological beliefs. In other words, stay away from information transmission and focus on activities that encourage scientific thinking. Although this is a general finding (and based on a very small sample), it is significant for what I have to say in my next post about MOOCs and teaching science.

Conclusions

This was one of the most interesting conferences I have been to for a long time. It brought together practitioners in using technology-enabled learning, primarily in science, math and engineering, from a wide range of countries. As a result there was a wide range of approaches, from the highly ‘engineering-based’ approach of MIT with a focus on advanced or new technologies such as MOOCs, to practitioners tackling the challenges of lack of access to or the high cost of the Internet in many developing countries.

In particular, Internet access remains a major challenge, even in newly emerging countries with dynamic economies, such as Brazil, Mexico, and India, especially for reaching beyond the relatively wealthy middle classes. Even in economically advanced countries such as Canada, wideband access, needed for video-lecture based MOOCs for instance, is problematic for many disadvantaged groups such as the urban poor or for remote aboriginal reserves.

I was therefore interested to see that non-Internet based technologies such as radio, broadcast television or DVDs are still immensely valuable technologies for reaching the poor and disadvantaged in developing countries, as are Internet-linked local learning centres and/or Intranets.

Lastly, despite nearly 80 years of aid to developing countries, finding technology-enabled solutions to increasing access to education that are long-term and sustainable remains a challenge, especially when the aid is generated and organized from developed countries such as the USA and Canada. Local partnerships, cultural adaptation, use of appropriate, low-cost technologies, teacher education, and institutional and government policy changes are all needed if technology transfer is to work.

However, there is clear evidence from this conference that in many developing or economically emerging countries, there are local individuals and institutions finding local and appropriate ways to use technology to support learning. It will often start in the more affluent schools or in universities, but as the Internet gradually widens its spread, it begins to filter down to lower income groups as well. Indeed, in some areas, such as mobile learning in Africa, there is innovation and development taking place that exceeds anything in the developed world, in terms of originality and spread amongst the poor and disadvantaged.

The MIT group behind LINC has done a great service in providing a means for participants from both developed and developing countries to share experience and knowledge in this area.

 

Massive growth of online learning in Asia

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Aakash 2: already 3.5 million ordered

Adkins, S. S. (2012) The Asia Market for Self-paced eLearning Products and Services: 2011-2016 Forecast and Analysis Ambient Insight, October

In all the hoopla about MOOCs, it is worth noting that in Asia, credit-based online learning is already reaching many millions of learners. This report from Ambient Insight, targeted mainly at the corporate e-learning market, provides a host of fascinating statistics about the Asian market for online learning.

Several countries for instance are putting their entire k-12 curriculum online. China’s goal is to have their entire K-12 population of over 200 million students online by 2020. In South Korea all primary and secondary schools must be entirely digital by 2015, and every child with have a personal learning device. In India, the Aakash 2 tablet, which launched this month, already has 3.5 million orders.

The report also highlights ‘explosive growth of online higher education enrollments‘ in Asia. One institution alone in China, ChinaEdu, has nearly 200,000 students taking degree programs wholly online, and over 100,000 South Koreans are enrolled in cyber universities.

Perhaps most interesting of all though is the author’s comment on how the digitization is occurring:

The content digitization tends to start with converting print-based textbooks to eTextbooks. Yet, once the infrastructure and learning technology is in place, the buyers are increasingly opting for interactive, self-paced multimedia content. Several of the newer initiatives are leapfrogging eTextbooks altogether and building out interactive media as a core component.

If you want to pay for a full copy of the report, contact: info@ambientinsight.com