June 22, 2018

Reading between the lines: the ‘intangibles’ in quality online teaching and learning

Teaching needs empathy, intuition and imagination, as well as technical competence.

Teaching needs empathy, intuition and imagination, as well as technical competence.

Contact North has organised a series of four webinars highlighting the practical advice and guidelines offered in my online, open textbook, Teaching in a Digital Age. The first webinar took place last week on September 29. It covered the first five chapters in the book, which discuss:

  • the implications of the major changes taking place in education
  • epistemologies that drive approaches to teaching and learning
  • different teaching methods and their appropriateness for developing the knowledge and skills needed in a knowledge-based society.

The aim of the webinar was not to cover the same ground as in the book,  but to provide an opportunity for participants to raise questions or comments about these issues, which was what they did. I received and answered nearly 30 different questions in the one hour. You can access the recording here: https://contactnorth.webex.com/contactnorth/lsr.php?RCID=67ca245af5fa7a21546ba37e10f306ba

In particular, there were questions about the importance of passion in teaching, whether learners today are really different, how to engage passive learners or introverts online, how to get students to take responsibility for learning, how to get students to collaborate online, and lastly whether cognitivism is an epistemology or a learning theory. I did answer all these questions briefly within the webinar.

On listening again to the recording, though, I was struck by the interest or concern of participants for what I would call the intangibles or the more human aspects in teaching and learning, such as the importance of passion in teaching and learning, dealing with learners’ ‘readiness’ or motivation to learn, building relationships between online learners and instructors, and how to encourage/develop interaction, discussion and collaboration between learners.

This brought home to me that for most instructors, teaching is not just a technical activity that can be categorized, systematised and computerised, but is a fundamentally human practice that requires empathy, intuition, and imagination. These are qualities that cannot be automated.

The next webinar, which will cover chapters 6-9 on media and technology selection, will be on November 3, 2015. For more details, click here.

 

Thinking about theory and practice in online learning

Taking the float plane to Victoria: always a wonderful experience

Taking the float plane to Victoria: always a wonderful experience

I ran a short face-to-face workshop yesterday on ‘Thinking about Theory and Practice’ for about a dozen students taking the Masters of Arts in Learning and Technology at Royal Roads University  My online open textbook, Teaching in a Digital Age, is being used in this program and the instructors asked me to run a workshop on this topic, as students struggle with the relationship between epistemology, theories of learning, and methods of teaching.

The exercise

I’m not surprised that students struggle with this, as the relationships are by no means clear. I started by asking them to define different epistemologies. I then asked them what the connection was between different epistemologies and different learning theories. Then I asked them to choose from about 18 different methods or approaches to teaching (all covered in my book) and try to place them in relationship to theories of learning, as in Figure 1 below.

Figure 1: Thinking about theory and practice

Figure 1: Thinking about theory and practice

I also raised questions about whether constructivism and connectivism are epistemologies, or theories of learning, or both.

This was meant as a heuristic exercise, to get students arguing about and discussing the relationship between epistemology, theory, and practice, and why it is important to think about this in terms of learning design.

I ended my session with the following questions:

  • Constructivism and connectivism: are they epistemologies or learning theories?
  • Is there a direct relationship between epistemology, theory and practice?
  • How well do different teaching methods ‘fit’ with a specific learning theory?
  • Does technology change the nature of knowledge? If so, is connectivism an ‘adequate’ epistemology for a digital age?

Following my workshop, in the afternoon the students were divided into two teams to formally debate the motion (chosen by the instructors):

Connectivism should be adopted as the learning theory for educating students in our digital culture.

Both the workshop and the debate resulted in very thoughtful and forceful, sometimes impassioned, discussion.

Outcomes

It is impossible to capture the richness of the discussions in a short blog (I am hoping that the MALAT team will make an edited recording of the sessions available online). Different participants will have come away from the two sessions with different conclusions. Although I am fairly confident about discussing theories of learning and methods of teaching, I am not a trained or qualified philosopher, so I hesitate to tell students what the truth is in this area (OK, so I’m a relative constructivist).

However, here are some of my conclusions:

  • the most important is that I believe that connectivism is more of an epistemology than a theory of learning. Indeed it is an epistemology that relies on other theories of learning to explain how learning occurs in networks, although it has established conditions that make for ‘effective’ networks (see, for instance, Downes, 2007). In this sense it can be seen as an overall belief system about the importance of networks for sustaining and creating knowledge, but the mechanisms by which learning occurs in networks still need to be identified or worked out, or explained in terms of existing theories, such as constructivism.  This does not mean that over time, particular ways of learning and creating new knowledge through networking will not be identified, but more importantly, it would seem to make sense that we should be making use of networks and social media in education, since we are all becoming increasingly immersed in a connectivist world, and learning how to adapt and thrive in such a world probably requires using connections and networks for teaching and learning;
  • similarly, I am uncomfortable with defining constructivism as an epistemology. It is a strong theory in terms of explaining how learning occurs, but it takes its philosophical roots from other more general epistemologies. I would need to be a philosopher to define accurately what these would be, but constructivism is strongly influenced by philosophers such as John Stuart Mill (free will), Jean Jacques Rousseau (the Natural Human), and Jean Piaget (‘genetic’ epistemology);
  • although there is some relationship between epistemologies and theories of learning, they are not isomorphic, in the sense that a single theory of learning derives solely from one epistemological position. For instance, cognitive theories of learning draw heavily on both objectivist approaches (e.g. brain research) and more subjective or reflective approaches, such as constructivism;
  • there is even less isomorphism between theories of learning and methods of teaching, because methods of teaching are driven primarily by context. For instance, in a digital age, trades apprentices increasingly need both manual and cognitive learning. The learning of manual or mechanical skills through an apprenticeship model may be behaviourist in approach, but cognitive apprenticeship may draw much more heavily on a constructivist approach. Nevertheless some teaching methods, such as lectures or xMOOCs, are generally more towards the objectivist spectrum, while cMOOCs are more towards the connectivist spectrum (even though in practice they may include other approaches, such as more objectivist webinars, and support from teachers or experts through constructivist forms of discussion);
  • different subject areas tend to favour different epistemological positions, such as science favouring more objectivist approaches to teaching, and arts more subjective and interpretive approaches. However, it is still possible to teach science in a constructivist way – for instance through problem or inquiry-based learning – and arts in a more objectivist way (for instance, Mrs. Thatcher wanted British school children to learn the facts about British history, rather than discuss imperialism or racism and their legacies), although purists will argue that students will not become ‘true’ scientists or historians if the teaching does not reflect the ‘core’ epistemological nature of the subject area.

However, I’m a ‘relativist’ on all these points and open to be persuaded.

Does it matter?

Isn’t this all terribly abstract and philosophical? Nothing seems clear and definite, so how does thinking about these things help to teach better?

Well, if you are going to be an instructional designer, you will come across instructors and subject experts who may have a fundamentally different epistemological position from you. It will really help if you understand their position and how to take this into account when designing courses.

Second, there is nothing more practical than a good theory. If you have a theory that is convincing to you in terms of explaining how learners best learn, this should drive your teaching practice. It may not tell you exactly what to do as a teacher, but it should enable you to work out for yourself what to do – and more importantly, what learners need to do. But this theory needs to fit with your overall epistemological position about the nature of knowledge in your subject area.

Third, teaching is a pragmatic profession. It may take several different approaches, depending on the context and above all on the learner. In some contexts, such as safety compliance, employers don’t want workers questioning the process; they need to learn exactly what to do in a particular circumstance (behaviourism rules). In others, where problem-solving is essential, rote learning is not going to help dealing with a new or unanticipated danger.  Having a range of options in terms of teaching approaches for a range of different kinds of learners and contexts is more likely to produce results than slavishly following one particular method.

Lastly, all this uncertainty and choice illustrates why teaching and learning are not well defined activities that can be easily mechanised. Humans are better than machines at dealing with uncertainty and fuzzy or ambiguous circumstances, but only if they have a deep understanding of the options available to them and the circumstances in which each option is likely to succeed. This means thinking carefully about epistemology and theories of learning as well as various methods of teaching.

Galiano Island, on the way to Victoria

Galiano Island, on the way to Victoria. Vancouver Island is in the background.

Some (further) thoughts about ‘agile’ learning design

Peter Rawsthorne's model of agile learning design

Peter Rawsthorne’s model of agile learning design (see references at end)

In my online, open textbook, Teaching in a Digital Age, I felt I needed a separate section on agile learning design, to capture some of the innovative teaching that is happening online. I based the section in the book very much on ETEC 522, ‘Ventures in Learning Technology‘, which is part of the University of British Columbia’s Master in Educational Technology. The course is designed and taught by two very innovative adjunct professors, David Voigt and David Porter, supported by Jeff Miller, a brilliant instructional designer.

As soon as I finished the book, I discovered that there was in fact a small but significant literature on agile learning design, and that there were other people ‘out there’ practising agile learning design.

So when I was approached by the British Columbia Educational Technology Users’ Group (ETUG) to do a ‘Tuesday’s ETUG Lunch and Learn’ (T.e.l.l) webinar on any aspect covered in the book, agile learning design was an obvious choice. ETUG is a great community of practice, and there were bound to be several agile learning practitioners in the group. So I prepared a few slides, and then used the webinar as an opportunity to have a professional ‘chat’ about agile learning design. Here’s what ensued (a recording of the whole webinar will be available from ETUG shortly and I will add the link as soon as it becomes available).

Defining agile learning design

Well, I did my best to define it in both Scenario F and Section 4.7 ‘Agile Design’: Flexible Designs for Learning’. Originally I started to describe this teaching method as flexible design, but because flexible learning has a broader and more widely used meaning, almost at the last draft stage I changed ‘flexible’ to ‘agile’, as this represented better what I was trying to get at. However, after I finished the book, I discovered that ‘agile learning design’ has a history emanating from software design, as can be seen by this diagram by Jennifer Bertram of Bottom Line Performance (2012):

© Jennifer Bertram, Bottom Line performance, 2012

© Jennifer Bertram, 2012

However, I felt that even the Bertram diagram was too ‘systematized’ to capture the ‘open-ness’ of the agile design process being used in ETEC 522 and other ‘lightweight’ design models in online learning. So from my perspective, the Bertram model is just one of many possible agile design approaches.

Designing for a VUCA world

© C. Adamson, 2012

© C. Adamson, 2012

In my book, I draw on Claire Adamson’s description of the kind of world in which our students now need to learn and live. In particular, teachers and instructors need to prepare students for a world that is:

  • volatile
  • uncertain
  • complex
  • ambiguous.

VUCA requires a strategy for coping with unavoidable changes and events that may arise. Agile learning design enables both instructors and learners to operate and teach and learn in such an environment.

When to use agile learning design?

The contexts in which there is a need for agile learning design could include the following:

  • areas where the subject matter is particularly dynamic, or where examples that illustrate more abstract contexts are frequently occurring. Subject areas that are about, or strongly influenced by, digital technologies, for instance, or political science, economics, or environmental studies, where examples and new thinking are constantly developing, need an agile design that enables changes in the subject area or the external environment to be quickly incorporated into the teaching and learning;
  • where the course or program has very diverse students with very different needs. Agile learning design allows the instructor to take into account the various needs of students and to design the course or program accordingly. Since the students and their diversity are likely to be different on each offering of the course, the design needs to change from offering to offering;
  • where appropriate teaching and learning tools are under constant change and development. For instance, any course that uses social media to enable student networking will need to integrate new tools and applications as they develop;
  • where the main goal is to enable students to develop appropriate skills to cope with a VUCA world, in whatever field they may be studying. This will mean presenting constantly changing and challenging course content, methods and tools, but within a framework that enables students to develop the skills needed to cope with such an environment.

It can be seen then that agile learning design has great potential for developing the knowledge and skills that students will need in a digital age.

Teaching economics? Would agile design enable you to include the Greek crisis? Image: Getty Pictures, 2015

Teaching economics? Would agile design enable you to include the Greek crisis as it develops? Image: Getty Pictures, 2015

Guidelines for agile design

Trying to set guidelines for agile learning design is a little like trying to establish rules for managing chaos. Nevertheless, successful agile designers need to be guided by a set of pedagogically sound principles, otherwise the course or program will quickly get out of hand, or students will feel lost and confused. Here are some suggestions, although there are many other possible guidelines that will need to be identified through greater experience from using such designs:

  • clearly defined and measurable broad learning goals that are communicated to and understood by the learners; these are likely to focus on learners covering and understanding certain core content and developing specific skills and will usually be determined by the instructor in advance of the course;
  • sub-goals or topics, negotiated with learners – particularly important for very diverse students within a course;
  • core learning materials and tools chosen in advance by the instructor; learners will be responsible for discovering and analyzing other learning materials and will be free to incorporate or negotiate the use of other tools; for instance, the instructor may decide that everyone will use a common course ‘platform’ such as WordPress, and assessment will be through a single e-portfolio software, but students may also use other tools that can be linked to WordPress and/or their e-portfolios; these decisions may vary across different offerings of the course;
  • assessment based on pre-determined criteria linked to the broad learning outcomes set for the course; again there may be room for some negotiation of assessment criteria between instructor and learners;
  • vision: a clear idea of what the overall goals, methods, and assessment for the course will be, and an open, flexible approach to achieving these goals; this is probably the most important requirement from the instructor.

Some agile learning designers may find even these guidelines to be too restrictive.

Conditions for success

We need more research and evaluation on agile learning design to determine the conditions for success, but the following are likely to be critical:

  • skilled, confident instructors supported by instructional designers with a strong pedagogical background;
  • learners will need careful preparation and orientation to a style or method of teaching with which they will be unfamiliar; it will be particularly important to stress the development of key skills that will carry over into work and life after graduation;
  • there needs to be a wealth of appropriate and relevant high quality open learning resources and digital tools that students can access and use;
  • constant and on-going communication between instructors and students, feedback, and evaluation will all be necessary to enable the course and methods are adapted as appropriate;
  • there will need to be sufficient minimum structure and content to pass any institutional or professional course approval process; the focus should be though on broad learning goals, core materials, and clear assessment criteria, rather than on detailed content;
  • at this stage, it is difficult to see how an agile design could be scaled up to large numbers of learners for a single instructor, although a team teaching approach may both strengthen the teaching and enable larger numbers of students to participate successfully.

In conclusion

I find agile learning design to be one of the most exciting and potentially powerful means of developing the knowledge and skills needed in a digital age. Even among the limited number of participants in the ETUG webinar, there were at least two who were engaged in agile learning design. However, more experimentation, applications and evaluation are needed, and it is important that we do not converge too quickly on ‘best practices’ in this design method until it has been explored and applied more generally.

I would particularly appreciate hearing from anyone ‘out there’ who has been using agile learning design methods and what they believe are the conditions for success.

References

Adamson, C. (2012) Learning in a VUCA world, Online Educa Berlin News Portal, November 13

Bertram, J. (2013) Agile Learning Design for Beginners New Palestine IN: Bottom Line Performance

Rawsthorne, P. (2012) Agile Instructional Design St. John’s NF: Memorial University of Newfoundland: http://www.rawsthorne.org/bit/docs/RawsthorneAIDFinal.pdf

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

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?

Choosing teaching methods for a digital age

 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!