September 3, 2014

Adapting student assessment to the needs of a digital age

Listen with webReader

Assessment 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 been working 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 briefly described some of the key components of an effective learning environment in a series of blog posts:

In this post, I examine the assessment of students as a key component, and how assessment methods need to be adapted to meet the needs of a digital age. This is the last component I’m discussing, but it will be followed by a final post that discusses the value of designing teaching and learning through the lens of a comprehensive learning environment.

Learner assessment

‘I was struck by the way assessment always came at the end, not only in the unit of work but also in teachers’ planning….Assessment was almost an afterthought…

Teachers…are being caught between competing purposes of …assessment and are often confused and frustrated by the difficulties that they experience as they try to reconcile the demands.’

Earle, 2003

Learner assessment in a digital age

Because assessment is a huge topic, it is important to be clear that the purpose of this section is (a) to look at one of the components that constitute an effective and comprehensive learning environment, and (b) briefly to examine the extent to which assessment is or should be changing in a digital age. Assessment will be a recurring theme in this book, so in this section the treatment is deliberately cursory.

Probably nothing drives the behaviour of students more than how they will be assessed. Not all students are instrumental in their learning, but given the competing pressures on students’ time in a digital age, most ‘successful’ learners focus on what will be examined and how they can most effectively (i.e. in as little time as possible) meet the assessment requirements. Therefore decisions about methods of assessment will in most contexts be fundamental to building an effective learning environment.

The purpose of assessment

There are many different reasons for assessing learners. It is important to be clear about the purpose of the assessment, because it is unlikely that one single assessment instrument will meet all assessment needs. Here are some reasons (you can probably think of many more):

  1. to improve and extend students’ learning
  2. to assess students’ knowledge and competence in terms of desired learning goals or outcomes
  3. to provide the teacher/instructor with feedback on the effectiveness of their teaching and how it might be improved
  4. to provide information for employers about what the student knows and/or can do
  5. to filter students for further study, jobs or professional advancement
  6. for institutional accountability and/or financial purposes.

I have deliberately ordered these in importance for creating an effective learning environment. In terms of the needs of a digital age, assessment needs to focus on both developing and assessing skills. This means that continuous or formative assessment will be as important as summative or ‘end-of-course’ assessment.

A question to be considered is whether there is a need for assessment of learning in the first place. There may be contexts, such as a community of practice, where learning is informal, and the learners themselves decide what they wish to learn, and whether they are satisfied with what they have learned. In other cases, learners may not want or need to be formally evaluated or graded, but do want or need feedback on how they are doing with their learning. ‘Do I really understand this?’ or ‘How am I doing compared to other learners?’

However, even in these contexts, some informal methods of assessment by experts, specialists or more experienced participants could help other participants extend their learning by providing feedback and indicating the level of competence or understanding that a participant has achieved or has yet to accomplish. Lastly, students themselves can extend their learning by participating in both self-assessment and peer assessment, preferably with guidance and monitoring from a more knowledgeable or skilled instructor.

Methods of assessment

The form the assessment takes, as well as the purpose, will be influenced by the instructors’ or examiners’ underlying epistemology: what they believe constitutes knowledge, and therefore how students need to demonstrate their knowledge. The form of assessment should also be influenced by the knowledge and skills that students need in a digital age, which means focusing as much on assessing skills as knowledge of content.

There is a wide range of possible assessment methods. I have selected just a few to illustrate how technology can change the way we assess learners in ways that are relevant to a digital age:

  • computer-based multiple-choice tests: good for testing ‘objective’ knowledge of facts, ideas, principles, laws, and quantitative procedures in mathematics, science and engineering etc., and are cost-effective for these purposes. This form of testing though tends to be limited  in assessing high-level intellectual skills, such as complex problem-solving, creativity, and evaluation, and therefore less likely to be useful for developing or assessing many of the skills needed in a digital age.
  • written essays or short answers: good for assessing comprehension and some of the more advanced intellectual skills, such as critical thinking, but are labour intensive, open to subjectivity, and are not good for assessing practical skills. Experiments are taking place with automated essay marking, using developments in artificial intelligence, but so far automated essay marking still struggles with reliably identifying valid semantic meaning (for a balanced and more detailed account of the current state of machine grading, see Mayfield, 2013Parachuri, 2013).
  • project work: either individual but more commonly group-based, project work encourages the development of authentic skills that require understanding of content, knowledge management, problem-solving, collaborative learning, evaluation, creativity and practical outcomes. Designing valid and practical project work needs a high level of skill and imagination from the instructor.
  • e-portfolios (an online compendium of student work): enables self-assessment through reflection, knowledge management, recording and evaluation of learning activities, such as teaching or nursing practice, and recording of an individual’s contribution to project work (as an example, see  the use of e-portfolios in Visual Arts and Built Environment at the University of Windsor.); usually self-managed by the learner but can be made available or adapted for formal assessment purposes or job interviews
  • simulations, educational games (usually online) and virtual worlds: facilitate the practice of skills, such as complex and real time decision-making, operation of (simulated or remote) complex equipment, the development of safety procedures and awareness, risk taking and assessment in a safe environment, and activities that require a combination of manual and cognitive skills (see the training of Canadian Border Service officers at Loyalist College, Ontario). Currently expensive to develop, but cost-effective with multiple use, where it replaces the use of extremely expensive equipment, where operational activities cannot be halted for training purposes, or  where available as open educational resources.
Virtual world border crossing, Loyalist College, Ontario

Virtual world border crossing, Loyalist College, Ontario

It can be seen that some of these assessment methods are both formative, in helping students to develop and increase their competence and knowledge, as well as summative, in assessing knowledge and skill levels at the end of a course or program.

In conclusion

Nothing is likely to drive student learning more than the method of assessment. At the same time, assessment methods are rapidly changing and are likely to continue to change. Assessment in terms of skills development needs to be both ongoing and continuous as well as summative. There is an increasing range of digitally based tools that can enrich the quality and range of student assessment. Therefore the choice of assessment methods, and their relevance to other components, are vital elements of any effective learning environment.

Over to you

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

  • are there other methods of assessment relevant to a digital age that I should have included?
  • there is still a heavy reliance on computer-based multiple-choice tests in much teaching, mainly for cost reasons. However, although there are exceptions, in general these really don’t assess the high level conceptual skills needed in a digital age. Are there other methods that are equally as economical, particularly in terms of instructor time, that are more suitable for assessment in a digital age? For instance, do you think automated essay grading is a viable alternative?
  • would it be helpful to think about assessment right at the start of course planning, rather than at the end? Is this feasible?

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

Next up

Why thinking in terms of a comprehensive learning environment is necessary but not sufficient when designing a course or program.

 

References

Earle, L. (2003) Assessment as Learning Thousand Oaks CA: Corwin Press

Mayfield, E. (2013) Six ways the edX Announcement Gets Automated Essay Grading Wrong, e-Literate, April 8

Parachuri, V. (2013) On the automated scoring of essays and the lessons learned along the way, vicparachuri.com,  July 31

 

Resources and the design of teaching and learning

Listen with webReader

 Steelcase Node Classroom

Steelcase Node Classroom

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, how both intellectual and practical skills can be developed to meet the needs of a digital age, and the importance of learner support within the learning environment. In subsequent posts, I will cover resources and assessment respectively.

In this post, I examine how resources can and do influence the learning environment and ultimately the design of teaching and learning.

Resources

Resources 2Resources available to teachers/instructors and the learners are a critical component of an effective learning environment. As in the case of learner characteristics, an instructor may not have a lot of control over the resources available to him or her, but resources (or the lack of them) will impact a great deal on the design of teaching. Fighting for appropriate resources is often one of the most challenging tasks for many teachers and instructors. At the same time, of all the components, resources reflect some of the greatest changes resulting from a digital age.

Teaching assistance

I define teaching assistance as people such as adjunct or sessional instructors, teaching assistants, librarians, and technical support staff, including instructional designers, media producers and IT technical support. An institution may have policies or guidelines about how many support staff an instructor can have for a set number of students.

It is important to think about the best way to use supporting staff. In universities, the tendency is to chop a large class into sections, with each section with its own sessional instructor or teaching assistant, which then operate relatively independently, with often large differences in the quality of the teaching in different sections, depending on the experience of the instructor.

However, new technologies enable the teaching to be organised differently and more consistently. For instance, a senior professor may determine the overall curriculum and assessment strategy, and working with an instructional designer, provide the overall design of a course. Sessionals and/or teaching assistants then are hired to deliver the course either face-to-face or online or more often a mix of both, under the supervision of the senior professor (see the National Center for Academic Transformation for examples). Flipped classrooms are another way to organise resources differently (see Blended Learning in Introductory Psychology as an example.)

Furthermore, online learning may bring in more revenues through government grants for extra students and/or direct tuition revenue, so there may be economies of scale which would enable the institution to hire more sessionals from the extra revenues generated by the additional online students. Indeed, there are now examples of fully online masters programs more than covering the full cost, including the hiring of research professors to teach the program, from tuition revenues alone (the University of British Columbia’s online Master in Educational Technology is one example.) Thus design can influence resources, as well as the other way round.

Facilities

This refers primarily to physical facilities available to an instructor and students, such as classrooms, labs, and the library. These may provide constraints on the teaching, because for example the physical set-up of a lecture hall or classroom may limit opportunities for discussion or project work, or an instructor may be forced to organise the teaching around three hours of lecturing and six hours of labs per week, to ‘fit’ with broader institutional requirements for classroom allocations (see How Online Learning is Going to Affect Classroom Design regarding attempts to re-design classrooms for the digital age.)

Online learning can free instructors and students from such rigid physical constraints, but there is still a need for structure and organization of units or modules of teaching, even or especially when teaching online (see Is content still important in a digital age?).

Technology

The development of new technologies, and especially learning management systems, lecture capture, and social media,have radical implications for the design of teaching and learning. This will be discussed in much more depth in Chapter 7, but for the purpose of describing an effective learning environment, the technologies available to an instructor can contribute immensely to creating interactive and engaging learning environments for students. However, it is important to emphasise that technology is just one component within any effective learning environment, and needs to be balanced and integrated with all the other components.

The instructor’s time

The greatest and most precious resource of all! Building an effective learning environment is an iterative process, but in the end, the teaching design, and to some extent the learning environment as a whole, will be dependent on the time available from the instructor (and his or her team) for teaching. The less time available, the more restrictive the learning environment is likely to be, unless the instructor’s time is very carefully managed. Again, though, we shall see in Chapter 7 that good design takes into account the time available for teaching.

Resources, class size and control

Nothing drives an instructor to distraction more than trying to juggle with what are perceived as inadequate resources. Certainly, if a teacher or instructor is allocated a class of 200 students, with no additional teaching support, and an expectation that the class will be taught as a unit with six one hour lectures a week allocated to a large lecture hall, then the instructor is going to have difficulty creating a rich and effective learning environment, because the lack of resources limits the options. On the other hand, an instructor with 30 students, access to a wide range of technology, freedom to organise and structure the curriculum, and with support from an instructional designer and a web designer, has the luxury of exploring a range of different designs and possible learning environments.

Nevertheless it is probably when resources are most scarce that the most creativity is needed to break out of traditional teaching models. New technology, if properly used and available, does enable even large classes with otherwise few resources to be designed with a relatively rich learning environment. This will be explored in more depth in the next chapter. At the same time, expectations need to be realistic. Providing adequate learner support with an instructor:student ratio of 1:200 will always be a challenge. Improvements are possible through re-design – but not miracles. (For more on increasing productivity through online teaching, see Productivity and Online Learning Redux.)

Over to you

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

  • are there other resources that influence the design of an effective learning environment that I should have included?
  • Winston Churchill once said ‘We shape our buildings and in turn our buildings shape us.’ To what extent do you think online learning can free us of some of the constraints that buildings impose on the design of teaching and learning? What new constraints does online learning bring in terms of design?
  • how do you feel about the whole issue of teaching assistance? I have grave reservations myself about the use of students as teaching assistants in universities, in terms of the quality of the teaching. I also believe that sessionals and adjunct instructors are badly treated in terms of how they are managed. In British Columbia we have had two Supreme Court cases and a major teachers’ strike over class size and composition, and in particular how much help school teachers should receive for coping with students with learning disabilities. But by bringing in less qualified (and cheaper) support for instructors, do we strengthen or weaken the learning environment for students?

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

Next up

Assessment as a key component of an effective learning environment.

 

 

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

Listen with webReader

Learner support 2

The story so far

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

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

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

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

Learner support

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

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

Scaffolding

helping hand 2

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

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

Feedback

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

Counselling

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

Other students

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

Why learner support is so important

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

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

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

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

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

Over to you

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

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

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

Next up

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

References

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

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

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

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

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

 

Developing intellectual and practical skills in a digital age

Listen with webReader

 

Skills 2

The story so far

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

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

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

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

Scenario: Developing historical thinking

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They had five weeks to do this.

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

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

Based on an actual case, but with some embellishments.

Skills in a digital age

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

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

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

Setting goals for skills development

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

Thinking activities

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

Practical activities

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

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

Discussion as a tool for developing intellectual skills

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

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

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

In conclusion

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

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

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

Over to you

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

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

Love to hear from you.

Next up

Learner support in a digital age

 

Kuali Foundation goes commercial

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

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

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

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

What is Kuali?

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

What does Kuali do?

So far it has developed the following software systems:

How is it doing?

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

Why does it matter?

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

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

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

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

Comment

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

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

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

For more on Kuali, see:

A student information system monopoly?

Open source software for research administration

Open source software for administrative systems

 

Is content still important in a digital age?

Listen with webReader
© handyguyspodcast.com

© handyguyspodcast.com

The story so far

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

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

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

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

Managing content

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

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

Goals for content

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

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

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

Quantity and depth

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

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

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

Sources

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

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

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

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

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

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

Structure

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Activities

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

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

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

In conclusion

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

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

Over to you

So wha’d’ya think?

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

Love to hear from you.

Next up

Developing skills for a digital age

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

Listen with webReader

cultural diversity 2

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

Figure 5.1 A learning environment from the perspective of an instructor

Figure 5.1 A learning environment from the perspective of an instructor

Learner characteristics

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

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

Learner characteristics 2

Increased diversity

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

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

The work and home context

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

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

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

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

Learners’ goals

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

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

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

Prior knowledge or skills

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

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

Digital natives

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

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

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

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

In conclusion

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

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

Over to you

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

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

Next up

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

Learning environments: a critical component of the design of online teaching

Listen with webReader
Figure 5.1 A learning environment from the perspective of an instructor

Figure 5.1 A learning environment from the perspective of an instructor

I have now published the first four chapters of my open textbook ‘Teaching in a Digital Age’. These chapters have greatly benefited from your feedback.

I am now working on Chapter 5, ‘The design of teaching and learning.’

I’m offering you here my first thoughts on the design of teaching and learning, with a particular focus on creating and working with a rich learning environment that will support students’ learning.

Overview of the whole chapter

  • introduction to the design of teaching/learning design
  • learning environments
    • learner characteristics: digital natives and digital literacy; learning styles; family and work contexts
    • content: structure; sources; quantity/depth
    • skills: opportunities for skills development and practice; competency based learning,
    • learner support: activities; feedback;
    • resources: time; facilities;, technology
    • assessment: methods
  • learning design models (objectivist lectures/LMSs, ADDIE, online collaborative learning, communities of practice, flexible design models, PLEs/MOOC of One, AI approaches).
  • summary/conclusions

5.1 What is learning design?

It is one thing to have a good theory of learning and a choice of appropriate teaching method, but it is quite another to implement the chosen teaching method successfully. As noted in the previous chapter, teachers and instructors may need a mix of methods, depending on the circumstances. This means deliberately planning methods of teaching and a broad learning environment that will facilitate the development of the knowledge and skills that are needed.

Once again, though, there is extensive research and experience that point to the key factors to be taken into consideration in the successful implementation of teaching. In essence we are talking about using best practices in the design of teaching – sometimes called learning design.

We shall see that these principles may vary somewhat, depending on the chosen teaching method and the underlying epistemological position of each teacher, but a large number of the core principles in learning design extend across several of the teaching methods. These main principles can be summarised as follows:

  • know your students: identifying the key characteristics of the students you will be or could be teaching, and how that will/should influence your methods of teaching
  • know what you are trying to achieve: in any particular course or program what are the critical areas of content and in particular the particular skills or learning outcomes that students need to achieve as a result of your teaching? What is the best way to identify and assess these desired outcomes?
  • know how students learn: what drives learning for your students? How do you engage or motivate students? How can you best support that learning?
  • know how to implement this knowledge: what learning design model(s) will work best for you? What kind of learning environment do you need to create to support student learning?
  • know how to use technology to support your teaching: this is really a sub-set of the previous point, and will be discussed in much more detail in later chapters.

In order to implement these core principles of design, we need to construct effective learning environments for our students.

5.2 Learning environments

Definitions

Environment: ‘The surroundings or conditions in which a person, animal, or plant lives or operates.’

‘Learning environment refers to the diverse physical locations, contexts, and cultures in which students learn. Since students may learn in a wide variety of settings, such as outside-of-school locations and outdoor environments, the term is often used as a more accurate or preferred alternative to classroom, which has more limited and traditional connotations—a room with rows of desks and a chalkboard, for example.

The term also encompasses the culture of a school or class—its presiding ethos and characteristics, including how individuals interact with and treat one another—as well as the ways in which teachers may organize an educational setting to facilitate learning…..’

The Glossary of Educational Reform, 29 August, 2013

The latter definition recognises that students learn in many different ways in very different contexts. Since learners must do the learning, the aim is to create a total environment for learning that optimises the ability of students to learn.

There is of course no single optimum learning environment. There is an infinite number of possible learning environments, which is what makes teaching so interesting. Developing a total learning environment for students in a particular course or program is probably the most creative part of teaching.

There is a tendency in the literature to focus on either physical institutional learning environments (such as classrooms, lecture theatres and labs) or on the technologies used to to create online personal learning environments (PLEs), but as the definitions quoted above make clear, learning environments are broader than just the physical components. They include the goals for teaching and learning, what engages or motivates students to learn, what student activities will best support learning, and what assessment strategies best measure and drive student learning.

Thus one place to start in designing a learning environment for a course or program is to identify some of the key components.

Figure 5.1 A learning environment from the perspective of an instructor

Figure 5.1 A learning environment from the perspective of an instructor

Figure 5.1 illustrates one possible learning environment from the perspective of a teacher or instructor. It should be pointed out that this represents both a set of components that it may be difficult for an instructor to change (learner characteristics, resources, etc.), but which may nevertheless have important implications for how the course should be taught, and other components (content, skills to be taught, etc.) over which an instructor may have more choice or control. Within each of the main components there are a set of sub-components that will need to be considered. In fact, it is in the sub-components (content structure, practical activities, feedback, use of technology, assessment methods, etc.) where the real decisions need to be made.

I have listed just a few components in Figure 5.1 and the set is not meant to be comprehensive. For instance it could have included attitudes or social factors as well as content and skills, institutional factors (policies, priorities,etc.) and personal factors (being a part-time or adjunct faculty, a dual role as instructor and family carer, etc.), all of which might also affect the learning environment in which a teacher or instructor has to work. Creating a model of a learning environment then is a heuristic device that aims to provide a comprehensive view of the whole teaching context for a particular course or program, by a particular instructor or teacher with a particular view of learning. It is also not enough to list the components; they need to be organized, scheduled and integrated. The more detailed design of a course will then be built around and take best advantage of the learning environment.

Once again, our choice of components and their perceived importance will be driven to some extent by our personal epistemologies and beliefs about knowledge, learning and teaching methods. The preferred teaching method and epistemological position will influence which components of the learning environment get the most attention from a teacher or instructor. For instance, an instructor with a transmissive or objectivist view of teaching is likely to focus mainly on content and certain kinds of assessment tools, while a more constructivist or nurturing teacher will pay particular attention to learner characteristics (particularly their goals), and learner support.

Lastly, I have deliberately suggested a learning environment from the perspective of a teacher, as the teacher has the main responsibility for creating an appropriate learning environment, but it is also important to consider learning environments from the learners’ perspectives. Indeed, adult or mature learners are capable of creating their own, personal, relatively autonomous learning environments, and this will also be discussed in more depth later in the chapter.

The significant point here is that it is important to identify those components that need to be considered in teaching a course or program, and in particular that there are many components in addition to content or curriculum.  The key components of a learning environment will be discussed in more detail in later posts. After that, different learning design models will be discussed.

Up next

My next post will be on learner characteristics and their potential influence on the design of teaching – especially in a digital age.

Over to you

1. Is it legitimate to focus on a learning environment from a teacher’s perspective rather than a learner’s perspective?

2. What would you add (or remove) from the learning environment in Figure 5.1?

3. Does thinking about the whole learning environment overly complicate the teaching endeavour? Why not just get on with it?

Special edition on research on MOOCs in the journal ‘Distance Education’

Listen with webReader
The University of Toronto is one of a number of institutions conducting research on MOOCs

The University of Toronto is one of a number of institutions conducting research on MOOCs; their results are still to come

The August 2014 edition of the Australian-based journal, Distance Education (Vol.35, No. 2.), is devoted to new research on MOOCs. There is a guest editor, Kemi Jona, from Northwestern University, Illinois, as well as the regular editor, Som Naidu.

The six articles in this edition are fascinating, both in terms of their content, but even more so in their diversity. There are also three commentaries, by Jon Baggaley, Gerhard Fischer and myself.

My commentary provides my personal analysis of the six articles.

MOOCs are a changing concept

In most of the literature and discussion about MOOCs, there is a tendency to talk about ‘instructionist’ MOOCs (i.e. Coursera, edX, Udacity, xMOOCs) or ‘connectivist’ MOOCs (i.e. Downes, Siemens, Cormier, cMOOCs). Although this is still a useful distinction, representing very different pedagogies and approaches, the articles in this edition show that MOOCs come in all sizes and varieties.

Indeed, it is clear that the design of MOOCs is undergoing rapid development, partly as a result of more players coming in to the market, partly because of the kinds of research now being conducted on MOOCs themselves, and, sadly much more slowly, a recognition by some of the newer players that much is already known about open and online education that needs to be applied to the design of MOOCs, while accepting that there are certain aspects, in particular the scale, that make MOOCs unique.

The diversity of MOOC designs

These articles illustrate clearly such developments. The MOOCs covered by the articles range from

  • MOOC video recorded lectures watched in isolation by learners (Adams et al.)
  • MOOC video lectures watched in co-located groups in a flipped classroom mode without instructor or tutorial support (Nan Li et al.)
  • MOOCs integrated into regular campus-based programs with some learner support (Firmin et al.)
  • MOOCs using participatory and/or connectivist pedagogy (Anderson, Knox)

Also the size of the different MOOC populations studied here differed enormously, from 54 students per course to 42,000.

It is also clear that MOOC material is being increasingly extracted from the ‘massive’, open context and used in very specific ‘closed’ contexts, such as flipped classrooms, at which point one questions the difference between such use of MOOCs and regular for-credit online programming, which in many cases also use recorded video lectures or online discussion and increasingly other sources of open educational materials. I would expect in such campus-based contexts the same quality standards to apply to the MOOC+ course designs as are already applied to credit-based online learning. Some of the research findings in these articles indirectly support the need for this.

The diversity of research questions on MOOCs

Almost as interesting is the range of questions covered by these articles, which include:

  • capturing the lived experience of being in a MOOC (Adams et al.; Knox)
  • the extent to which learners can/should create their own content, and the challenges around that (Knox; Andersen)
  • how watching video lectures in a group affects learner satisfaction (Nan Li et al.)
  • what ‘massive’ means in terms of a unique pedagogy (Knox)
  • the ethical implications of MOOCs (Marshall)
  • reasons for academic success and failure in ‘flipped’ MOOCs (Firmin et al.; Knox)

What is clear from the articles is that MOOCs raise some fundamental questions about the nature of learning in digital environments. In particular, the question of the extent to which learners need guidance and support in MOOCs, and how this can best be provided, were common themes across several of the papers, with no definitive answers.

The diversity of methodology in MOOC research

Not surprisingly, given the range of research questions, there is also a very wide range of methodologies used in the articles in this edition, ranging from

  • phenomenology (Adams),
  • heuristics (Marshall)
  • virtual ethnography (Knox; Andersen)
  • quasi-experimental comparisons (Nan Li et al.)
  • data and learning analytics (Firmin et al.)

The massiveness of MOOCs, their accessibility, and the wide range of questions they raise make the topic a very fertile area for research, and this is likely to generate new methods of research and analysis in the educational field.

Lessons learned

Readers are likely to draw a variety of conclusions from these studies. Here are mine:

  • the social aspect of learning is extremely important, and MOOCs offer great potential for exploiting this kind of learning, but organizing and managing social learning on a massive scale, without losing the potential advantages of collaboration at scale, is a major challenge that still remains to be adequately addressed. The Knox article in particular describes in graphic detail the sense of being overwhelmed by information in open connectivist MOOCs. We still lack methods or designs that properly support participants in such environments. This is a critical area for further research and development.
  • a lecture on video is still a lecture, whether watched in isolation or in groups. The more we attempt to support this transmissive model through organized group work, ‘facilitators’, or ‘advisors’ the closer we move towards conventional (and traditional) education and the further away from the core concept of a MOOC.
  • MOOCs have a unique place in the educational ecology. MOOCs are primarily instruments for non-formal learning. Trying to adapt MOOCs to the campus not only undermines their primary purpose, but risks moving institutions in the wrong direction. We would be better re-designing our large lecture classes from scratch, using criteria, methods and standards appropriate to the goals of formal higher education. My view is that in the long run, we will learn more from MOOCs about handling social learning at scale than about transmitting information at scale. We already know about that. It’s called broadcasting.
  • lastly, there was surprisingly little in the articles about what actual learning took place. In some cases, it was a deliberate research strategy not to enquire into this, relying more on student or instructor feelings and perceptions. While other potential benefits, such as institutional branding, stimulating interest, providing a network of connections, and so on, are important, the question remains: what are participants actually learning from MOOCs, and does this justify the hype and investment (both institutionally and in participants’ time) that surrounds them?

Cultural and ethical issues

The Marshall paper provides an excellent overview of ethical issues, but there is almost no representation of perspectives on MOOCs from outside Western contexts. I would have liked to have seen more on cultural and ethical issues arising from the globalization of MOOCs, based on actual cases or examples. Given the global implications of MOOCs, other perspectives are needed. Perhaps this is a topic for another issue.

Happy reading

I am sure you will be as fascinated and stimulated by these articles as I am. I am also sure you will come away with different conclusions from mine. I am sure we will see a flood of other articles soon on this topic. Nevertheless, these articles are important in setting the research agenda, and should be essential reading for MOOC designers as well as future researchers on this topic.

How to get the articles

To obtain access to these articles, go to: http://www.tandfonline.com/toc/cdie20/current#.U-1WqrxdWh1

Choosing teaching methods for a digital age

Listen with webReader

 Video games designer 2

Introduction

I’m going to try to pull together here the main conclusions following my discussion of epistemologies, learning theories and methods of teaching that I’ve been covering as the ‘foundations’ for my open textbook on ‘Teaching in a Digital Age.’

What I’m focusing on in this post are the teaching methods that appear to best fit the needs of learners in a digital age, and in particular those that have the best chance of developing the knowledge and skills that they will need after graduation.

Epistemologies

I discussed very briefly in Chapter 2 the following epistemologies:

  • objectivism
  • constructivism
  • connectivism

Learning Theories

I discussed very briefly in Chapter 3 the following learning theories:

  • behaviourism
  • (social) constructivism
  • learning by doing
  • connectivism.

Methods of teaching

I discussed very briefly in Chapters 3 and 4 the following methods of teaching

  • transmissive lectures, including xMOOCs
  • teaching machines
  • computer-assisted learning
  • computer-based training
  • adaptive learning
  • interactive lectures, including flipped learning
  • seminars and tutorials
  • online collaborative learning
  • cMOOCs
  • labs, workshops and field trips
  • traditional and cognitive apprenticeship
  • experiential learning
  • nurturing
  • social reform

Again, the aim has not been to cover all epistemologies, theories of learning and methods of teaching, but to look at a wide range that have implications for developing the knowledge and skills identified in Chapter 1.

Relating epistemology, learning theories and teaching methods

Although there is often a direct relationship between a method of teaching, a learning theory and an epistemological position, this is by no means always the case. It is tempting to try to put together a table and neatly fit each teaching method into a particular learning theory, and each theory into a particular epistemology, but unfortunately education is not as tidy as computer science, so it would be misleading to try to do a direct ontological classification. For instance a transmissive lecture might be structured so as to further a cognitivist rather than a behaviourist approach to learning, or a lecture session may combine several elements, such as transmission of information, learning by doing, and discussion.

Purists may argue that it is logically inconsistent for a teacher to use methods that cross epistemological boundaries (and it may certainly be confusing for students) but teaching is essentially a pragmatic profession and teachers will do what it takes to get the job done. If students need to learn facts, principles, standard procedures or ways of doing things, before they can start an informed discussion about their meaning, or before they can start solving problems, then a teacher may well consider behaviourist methods to lay this foundation before moving to more constructivist approaches later in a course or program.

Similarly we have seen that technology applications such as MOOCs or video recorded lectures may replicate exactly a particular teaching method or approach to learning used in the classroom. In many ways these methods of teaching, theories of learning and epistemologies are independent of a particular technology or medium of delivery, although we shall see in Chapter 6 that technologies can be used to transform teaching, and a particular technology will in some cases further one method of teaching more easily than others, depending on the characteristics or ‘affordances’ of that technology.

Thus, teachers who are aware of not only a wide array of teaching methods, but also of learning theories and their epistemological foundation will be in a far better position to make appropriate decisions about how to teach in a particular context. Also, as we shall see, having this kind of understanding will also facilitate an appropriate choice of technology for a particular learning task or context.

Relating teaching methods to the knowledge and skills needed in a digital age

The main purpose of this whole exercise has been to enable you as a teacher to identify the teaching methods that are most likely to support the development of the knowledge and skills that students or learners will need in a digital age. We still have a way to go before we have all the information and tools needed to make this decision, but we can at least have a stab at it from here, while recognising that such decisions will depend on a wide variety of factors, such as the nature of the learners and their prior knowledge and experience, the demands of particular subject areas, the institutional context in which teachers and learners find themselves, and the likely employment context for learners.

First, we can identify a number of different types of skills needed:

  • conceptual skills, such as knowledge management, critical thinking, analysis, synthesis, problem-solving, creativity/innovation, experimental design
  • developmental or personal skills, such as independent learning, communications skills, ethics, networking, responsibility and teamwork
  • digital skills, embedded within and related to a particular subject or professional domain
  • manual and practical skills, such as machine or equipment operation, safety procedures, observation and recognition of data, patterns, and spatial factors.

There are several key points for a teacher or instructor to note:

  • the teacher needs to be able to identify/recognise the skills they are hoping to develop in their students within a particular course or program
  • these skills are often not easily separated but tend to be contextually based and often integrated
  • teachers need to identify appropriate methods and contexts that will enable students to develop these skills
  • students will need practice to develop such skills.
  • students will need feedback and intervention from the teacher and other students to ensure a high level of competence or mastery in the skill
  • an assessment strategy needs to be developed that recognises and rewards students’ competence and mastery of such skills

One thing that becomes clear here is that just choosing a particular teaching method such as seminars or apprenticeship is not going to be sufficient. We have to provide a rich learning environment for students to develop such skills that includes contextual relevance, and opportunities for practice, discussion and feedback. As a result, we are likely to combine different methods of teaching. It is unlikely that one method, such as transmissive lectures, or seminars, will provide a rich enough learning environment for a full range of skills to be developed within the subject area.

So it would be foolish at this stage to say that seminars, or apprenticeship, or nurturing, is the best method for developing this range of skills. At the same time, we can see the limitations of transmissive lectures, especially if they are used as the dominant method for teaching.

In order to better answer the question, we need to look more closely at the design of teaching, which means deliberately planning methods of teaching and a broad learning environment that will facilitate the development of the knowledge and skills that our students need. This will be the subject of my next chapter, which I will also share through further blog posts.

Key takeaways from Chapter 4

This list of teaching methods is not meant to be exhaustive or comprehensive. The aim is to show that there many different ways to teach, and all are in some ways legitimate in certain circumstances. Most instructors will mix and match different methods, depending on the needs of both the subject matter and the needs of their students at a particular time (a topic covered in Chapter 5.). There are though some core conclusions to be drawn from this comparative review of different approaches to teaching.

  1. No single method is likely to meet all the requirements teachers face in a digital age.
  2. Nevertheless, some forms of teaching fit better with the development of the skills needed in a digital age. In particular, methods that focus on conceptual development, such as dialogue and discussion, and knowledge management, rather than information transmission, and experiential learning in real-world contexts, are more likely to develop the high level conceptual skills required in a digital age.
  3. It is not just conceptual skills though that are needed. It is the combination of conceptual, practical and personal and social skills in highly complex situations that are needed. This again means combining a variety of teaching methods.
  4. Nearly all of these teaching methods are media or technology independent. In other words, they can be used in classrooms or online. What matters from a learning perspective is not so much the choice of technology as the efficacy and expertise in appropriately choosing and using the teaching method.
  5. Nevertheless, we shall see later in this book that new technologies offer new possibilities for teaching, including offering more practice or time on task, reaching out to new target groups, and increasing the productivity of both teachers and the system as a whole.
  6. In order though to fully exploit the benefits of new technologies, changes to the way we teach will be necessary, making some methods, such as transmissive lectures, almost redundant, at least as far as developing skills for a digital age are concerned.
  7. It is not enough to look just at teaching methods; we need to look at designing an appropriate learning environment to help foster and develop the knowledge and skills that students will need. We shall see that technology can be particularly helpful in providing such rich learning contexts.

Lastly, the full first draft of Chapter 4, Methods of Teaching in a Digital Age, is now complete and can be accessed here - subject, of course, to any feedback I get from you on this post!