Teaching, learning and risk

I’ve had these ideas bouncing around in my head for a week or so and finally have a few minutes to try and get them out. I’ve been wondering why changing practice – in higher education and the clinical context – is so hard, and one way that I think I can make some sense out of it is to use the idea of risk.

To change anything is to take a risk where we don’t know what the outcome will be. We risk messing up something that kind-of-works-OK and replacing it with something that could be worse. To change our practice is to risk moving into spaces we might find uncomfortable. To take a risk is to make a decision that you’re OK with not knowing; to be OK with not understanding; to be OK with uncertainty. And many of us are really not OK with any of those things. And so we resist the change because when we don’t take the risk we’re choosing to be safe. I get that.

But the irony is that we ask our students to take risks every single day because to learn is to risk. Learning is partly about making yourself vulnerable by admitting – to yourself and others – that there is something you don’t know. And to be vulnerable is to risk being hurt. We expect our students to move into those uncomfortable spaces where they have take ownership of not knowing and of being uncertain.”Put your hand up if you don’t know.” To put your hand up and announce – to everyone – that you don’t have the answer is really risky.

Why is it OK for us to ask students to put themselves at risk if we’re not prepared to do the same. If my students must put their hands up and announce their ignorance, why don’t I? If change is about risk and so is learning, is it reasonable to ask if changing is about learning? And if that’s true, what does it say about those of us who resist change?

Personal learning environments

Dominant design is the idea that, once a design has risen to prominence, all innovation will aim at improving it, rather than competing alternatives, regardless of whether the dominant design is better than the alternatives. The most commonly used example seems to be the QWERTY keyboard layout, which was implemented when typists would type fast enough to jam the keys of old typewriters. The QWERTY layout was designed to slow down typists in order to prevent jamming the keyboard. So, even though it’s not the optimal layout for typing, and we no longer have the problem of jamming keys, we still see all innovation aimed at improving the current, dominant design, even though it’s not the best.

Another commonly used example is the institutional learning management system (LMS). It would be hard to argue that this represents an optimal design for driving learning, yet this is the design that has risen to dominance in the higher education sector. All efforts to enhance online learning are therefore aimed at improving the LMS, rather than investigating the merits of competing alternatives.

One alternative that continues to be ignored is the Personal Learning Environment (PLE). Many others have written about this and I’m not going to try and summarise their work but I did want to capture some of the ideas that I find most appealing about the concept.

We say we want students to be lifelong learners but we encourage them to use a system – the LMS – that cuts off access to their learning artifacts when they graduate. In most cases they are cut off from all of their activities at the end of each year. There is absolutely no incentive for students to invest any time and effort developing a learning space that they will lose at the end of the year. All of their interactions, content, grades, etc. are all deleted – or at best, archived – and are lost to the student. The data that they created is mined and used by the institution to make choices about future cohorts but even that data is lost to the student.

Now consider the PLE, the primary advantage of which is the fact that control of the learning environment reverts back to the student. When the student enters the university they are given hosted space on the institutional servers and taught how to manage that space. Some universities are already moving forward with this innovative system, called A Domain of Ones’ Own. In this system the student controls their data and gives permission to the institution – or any other 3rd party – to use it.

Another thing that really stands out for me is the fact that learning consists – in large part – of creating networks. The networks may be biological in the connections you make with people, digital in the connections you make with devices and content, and cognitive in the neural connections you make over time. Learning is fundamentally about networks; Think web, not website. The LMS deletes your network when you graduate, while the PLE enables you to take your network with you.

The PLE enables us to connect with people as well as with systems. People have a central online space that they control and then choose how to best to use that space and it’s connected services to learn. They choose the tools they’re most comfortable with, pull in data from other services (e.g. Twitter, Pinterest, etc.) and are able to publish their work into any of those services too. A PLE doesn’t preclude the possibility of students being connected to their institutional LMS, it just gives them other options for connection and developing networks.

There are no single platforms that constitute a PLE and no set frameworks that describe how they work; they are personal to you. However, there are some design principles to take into account that make sense for networked learning. The collection of services in a PLE should allow for:

  • Diversity: Did the process involve the widest possible spectrum of points of view? Did people who interpret the matter one way, and from one set of background assumptions, interact with people who approach the matter from a different perspective?
  • Autonomy: Were the individual knowers contributing to the interaction of their own accord, according to their own knowledge, values and decisions, or were they acting at the behest of some external agency seeking to magnify a certain point of view through quantity rather than reason and reflection?
  • Interactivity: Is the knowledge being produced the product of an interaction between the members, or is it a (mere) aggregation of the members’ perspectives?
  • Openness: Is there a mechanism that allows a given perspective to be entered into the system, to be heard and interacted with by others?

In terms of the practical features of the PLE, it should enable the following activities:

  • The aggregation of personally meaningful information, resources and ideas in a variety of formats e.g. text, images, video, links, tags, etc., from a variety of sources.
  • The student should be able to remix those resources into different formats by reinterpreting, combining and editing them using their own personal insights.
  • It should be possible to repurpose the resources so that the student can use them for a different objective than what they were created for.
  • The student should be able to publish the newly created artifiact in a feed forward mechanism that adds new ideas to the world.

If we want students to take advantage of the enormous possibilities enabled by digital and online learning environments, we will have to challenge the dominant design of learning management systems in higher education. We need to think about systems that not only provide the support that students’ needs for their learning, but also create space for them to move in ways that suit them rather than the institution. The adoption of personal learning environments will not only require significant changes to institutional systems and how these platforms are provided to students, but will also challenge educators to think differently about the kinds of learning activities and assessment tasks that they use in their teaching practices.

Additional reading

Our students succeed despite their education, not because of it

Note: Thank you to Dave Nicholls from the Critical Physiotherapy Network for his insight and comments that helped inform this post.

Foucault said that the most dangerous ideas were the ones that we’re not even aware of; the ones we accept as being fundamentally true. He emphasised the need to examine our everyday practices and to critically analyse the discourses that make these practices possible. He believed that the most powerful disciplinary ideas are the ones that are most benign – the ones that we readily accept. This post is an introduction to a series of critiques (some might say, rants) against the ideas that we most take for granted in our teaching practices. The things that we readily accept as being self-evidently true.

These ideas form the foundation of every professional education programme, yet I will argue that they are also the most dangerous obstacles to real learning. I think that our current educational system not only prevents students from working towards deeper understanding with open minds but actually provides incentives to do the opposite. In this series of posts I’ll present some of the ideas that we accept to be foundational in the undergraduate curriculum but which actually lead students away from developing the outcomes we say we value.

I think that our students succeed despite their education, not because of it.

After decades of research in the fields of cognitive psychology and neuroscience we can be confident of one thing…we can do better. If I look at what a modern health system needs – creative problem solvers, innovative leaders, collaborative team players, critical thinkers – it seems evident that these are exactly the characteristics that our current programmes cannot provide. Our legacy systems are broken, outdated and unfit for the purpose of graduating clinicians with the attributes necessary to address the complex health needs of people in the the 21st century.

What if we designed a curriculum from scratch using everything that we’ve learned from the research into learning and cognition? What would a curriculum look like if we critically questioned every aspect of it, asking if those components lead effectively towards the achievement of our goals? How would we choose the curriculum configuration if we were not constrained by what the institutional LMS and the timetable required? I wonder what a curriculum might look like if it didn’t have to conform to the requirements of a system that hasn’t changed much in 500 years. I think that that it could be an exciting and inspiring thing of beauty.

As a thought experiment I’m going to write a series of posts looking at the ideas that we simply accept as being fundamental to the curriculum, and then argue for why those are the very things that need to go. In each post I’ll take a future position where we have already implemented the changes that I think are necessary, and then argue for why the changes were made. The series is called altPhysio.

Research is about pushing and extending the boundaries of knowledge in order to create new spaces for practice. But despite all the evidence that change is necessary we continue teaching in much that same way that we always have. We’re creating the conceptual spaces for new and innovative practices in physiotherapy education…it’s time we started occupying them.

Creative-Wallpapers-1920x1200-087

Moving between consuming and creating: Thinking about workflow

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I use Pocket a lot. It’s not unusual for me to have more than 500 articles saved to read later, which to be honest, causes me a bit of anxiety. It’s a list of “things to do” that I know I’ll never finish. But I keep adding stuff to the list because I know that it’ll be interesting when I get around to reading it at some point. The recommendation from the guys at Pocket is not to think of the reading list as a list of things to “get through”. Rather, think of it as a queue of reading that you know you’ll never finish.

The key is to think of it like a Netflix queue. You are never overwhelmed or concerned about the number of items in your Netflix queue. You just keep putting things in there because you know that when you have the time to view something, you can guarantee you’ll have something great in there that you’ve been meaning to check out. If you view Pocket as a todo list then you better hope you have a LOT of free time.

– Nate Weiner

But this doesn’t work for me because it’s not the finishing that bothers me, it’s the cognitive space that the list represents. It’s the psychological load knowing that in that reading list are things that I’ve made a mental note to do something with. There are things in there that relate to projects I’m working on or to ideas that I want to develop. For me, Pocket isn’t just a reading list…it’s a thinking list.

That led to me start looking around for others who have had similar issues. I liked Emmanuel Quartey’s post (“Getting to Pocket Zero“), where he explores how Pocket is positioned as a reading app and how, if it were reconceptualised as a content creation app you would change how you use it.

Emmanuel Quartey's suggestion as to how Pocket could actually be used i.e. it's not just about reading great content.
Emmanuel Quartey’s suggestion as to how Pocket could actually be used i.e. it’s not just about reading content.

I’ve found this exact problem in my own use of Pocket. When I’m reading I’m often struck with a thought that I want to develop, or that links to another thought from another article (that is also probably also saved in Pocket). At the moment, I’m stuck trying to copy and paste quotes, links and my own thoughts from Pocket to Evernote. But what if I could create those links and drafts right from inside Pocket?

I’d like to be able to highlight passages within articles and then tag those passages only. Instead of thinking of the article as being a single entity (“the article”) we should understand that an article is created from words, sentences and paragraphs, and that each of those constructs are not only pieces of the whole, but can be complete ideas in themselves. By tagging these discrete items (words, sentences or paragraphs) we can add metadata (the tag name or description) to them that then allows us to perform operations on the item.

For example, “Create New Article from Tag” would take all of the tagged items at either the word, sentence, paragraph or article levels (with original URLs) and paste them into a blank editing space, with the option of rearranging, annotating, commenting and publishing into another space (maybe WordPress). What about “Share this Tag with others”? I could allow others to read the sections I’ve highlighted, and give them options to add their own thoughts comments in the same space. It’s not difficult to see how this could really make a reading app like Pocket far more powerful as an idea-curation-app.

As it is, I’ve tried to deal with the issue by moving my reading / thinking / writing process from Pocket into Evernote. I have a set of “Project” folders in Evernote that are mainly writing and research projects that I have going on at any one time. As I read something in Pocket that is linked to one of the projects I’m busy with, I share the article (the full article) to the relevant project folder in Evernote, tagging it and adding additional notes. When I have time, I go into the project folder and edit the articles I’ve saved. From there, I move the idea / note into the main note in the folder, which is where I integrate the ideas from the various posts. Evernote allows me to share project folders and with that enable collaborators to edit notes in the folder. It’s not perfect but it works for me right now.

Providing students with audio feedback

I’ve started providing my students with audio feedback on a set of about 60 clinical case studies that they recently submitted. I was depressed at the thought of having to write out my feedback; I tend to provide a lot of detail because I almost always try to provide a rationale for the comments I’ve made. I want the students to understand why I’m suggesting the changes, which can be really time consuming when I have a lot of documents.

This semester I decided to try audio feedback (Cavanaugh & Song, 2010) as a method of providing input on the students’ drafts and I have to say, it’s been fantastic. I take about the same amount of time per document (10 – 15 minutes) because I find that I give a more detail in my spoken feedback, compared to the written feedback, so this is not about saving time. I realised that when I write / type comments there are some points I don’t make because in order to explain the reason for the comment would take more space than the margin allows.

In addition, I’ve found that I use a more conversational tone – which the students really appreciate – and because I’m actually speaking to the student, I pay less attention to line items e.g. spelling corrections and punctuation issues. In other words, I give more global comments instead of local comments, and obviously don’t use Track Changes. As I mentioned earlier, I provide more detail, explaining the reasons behind certain points I make, going into the reasons for why it’s important that they address the comment.

Students’ have given me feedback on this process and 100% of those who responded to my request for comment have suggested that this method of receiving feedback is preferable for them. One of them reported that hearing my comments on his draft allowed him to “hear how I think”. This comment reminded me of the thinking aloud protocol, which is a way for experts to model thinking practices to novices (Durning et al. 2014). This insight led to a slight change in how I structured the feedback, where I now “think” my way through the piece, even pausing to tell the student that I’m struggling to put into words an impression or feeling that I experienced while reading. I try to make it as “real time” as possible, imagining that I’m speaking to the student directly.

I record to .mp3 at a sample rate of 44 K/Hz and a bit rate of 128 kbit/s, which offers decent audio quality at a low enough file size to make emailing feasible. This is my basic process for recording audio feedback:

  1. Read through the entire document, making mental notes of the most important points I want to make
  2. Go back to the beginning of the document and start the recorder
  3. Greet the student and identify the piece I’m commenting on
  4. Provide an overview of my thoughts on the document in it’s entirety (structure, headings, logical flow, etc.)
  5. Work through the different sections of the document (e.g. Introduction, Method, Results, etc.), providing more detailed thoughts on the section, pausing the recorder between sections to give myself time to identify specific points I want to make
  6. End with a summing up of what was done well and the 3-5 major points that need to be addressed
  7. Stop the recorder, rename the audio file (student name – course code – title) and email it to the student

Reference

Psychology’s top 20 principles for enhancing teaching and learning

Every once in a while an article is published that you know is Important and that you should take Note of, and in this post I’m going to summarise a paper that I think fits into that category. It’s a recent publication in Mind, Brain and Education that attempts to summarise and explain the Top 20 principles of teaching and learning, as determined by the last few decades of psychological research. The article is called Science Supports Education: The behavioural research base for Psychology’s top 20 principles for enhancing Teaching and Learning, and it’s by Lucariello, Nastasi, Anderman, Dwyer, Ormiston, and Skiba. See the bottom of this post for the abstract and citation information.

After a brief introduction and description of the Methods the article gets stuck into the principles, which I’ll list and describe below. For some reason, Principle 8 – on the development of student creativity – is not included in the paper and no explanation is given for the omission.


Principles 1-8: How do students learn?

1. Students’ beliefs or perceptions about intelligence and ability affect their cognitive functioning and learning: If students believe that intelligence has a fixed value, they are less likely to learn than if they believe that intelligence can be changed. Teachers should communicate to students that “…failure at a task is not due to lack of ability and that performance can be enhanced, particularly with added effort or through the use of different strategies.”

2. What students already know affects their learning: Students prior knowledge influences how they incorporate new ideas because what they already know interacts with the new material being learned. This is an especially important concept when considering students’ misconceptions and how those misconceptions impede new learning. Teachers could create tasks that give students an active role in confronting and then reducing their cognitive dissonance.

3. Students’ cognitive development and learning is not limited by general stages of development: Cognitive growth is uneven and not linked to stages. Therefore, teachers’ ideas around how, and what new material should be presented, are more effective when they can take into consideration the domain-relevant and contextual knowledge of their students.

4. Learning is based on context, so generalizing learning to new contexts is not spontaneous, but rather needs to be facilitated: In order for learning to be effective, it should generalise to new or different contexts and situations. However, student transfer of knowledge and skills is not spontaneous or automatic. Teachers could therefore teach concepts in multiple contexts so that students can recognise contextual similarities, and focus on the application of their knowledge to the real world.

5. Acquiring long-term knowledge and skill is largely dependent on practice: What people know is laid down in long-term memory and information must be processed before it can move from short-term to long-term memory. This processing is accomplished through different strategies, and practice is key. Teachers should consider a variety of frequent assessment tasks given at spaced intervals (distributive practice). In addition, interleaved practice (a schedule of repeated opportunities) to rehearse and transfer skills or content by practicing with tasks that are similar to the target task, or using several methods for the same task, is also recommended.

6. Clear, explanatory, and timely feedback to students is important for learning: Students should receive regular, specific, explanatory, and timely feedback on their work. Feedback is more effective when it includes specific information that is linked to current knowledge and performance to clear learning goals. Teachers should consider providing feedback on assessment tasks – particularly after incorrect responses – in order to improve classroom performance in the future.

7. Students’ self-regulation assists learning and self-regulatory skills can be taught: Self-regulatory skills include setting goals for learning; such as planning, and monitoring progress; and self-reflection, which consists of making judgements about performance and self-efficacy in reaching goals. Self-regulatory skills include the regulation of motivation, which consists of students’ knowledge, monitoring, and active management of their motivation or motivational processing. Teachers can teach these skills directly to learners, by modelling strategies or coaching on their effectiveness. Teachers can also provide opportunities for learners to set goals and manage their attainment and for self-appraisal. A reflective community also can be established by teachers.

8. Missing from this paper

Principles 9-12: What motivates students?

9. Students tend to enjoy learning and perform better when they are more intrinsically than extrinsically motivated: Learners who are intrinsically motivated engage in academic tasks for the pure enjoyment of such engagement, and are more likely to achieve at higher levels and to continue engaging with activities in the future. Intrinsic motivation is linked to effective learning because students persist longer at tasks, experience lower levels of anxiety and develop positive competence beliefs. Learners who are extrinsically motivated engage in tasks in order to receive a reward or avoid a punishment, and are at risk for a number of problematic long term outcomes. Teachers can facilitate intrinsic motivation by de-emphasising high-stakes assessment, by allowing students to engage in projects they are interested in, encouraging students to take academic risks and by ensuring that students have enough time to engage with tasks.

10: Students persist in the face of challenging tasks and process information more deeply when they adopt mastery goals rather than performance goals: When teachers emphasise test scores, ability differences, and competition, students are more likely to adopt performance goals. Moreover, when test scores and grades are presented publicly, students are encouraged to focus on performance goals. In contrast, when teachers emphasise effort, self-improvement, and taking on challenges, students are more likely to adopt mastery goals. At the same time, they are likely to use effective and more complex cognitive strategies, to persist at challenging tasks, to report being intrinsically motivated, and to report feeling efficacious. Mastery goals are therefore more likely to be adopted when grades and test scores are shared privately and not compared across individuals.

11. Teachers’ expectations about their students affect students’ opportunities to learn, their motivation, and their learning outcomes: In classroom settings, teachers’ expectations for students’ successes and failures influence student achievement and motivation. When educators hold high expectations for their students, they often rise to the occasion and achieve at high levels (provided that the necessary support structures are in place). In contrast, when teachers hold low expectations for student success, students may come to believe that they lack skills and abilities, and thus confirm the teachers’ expectations. It is important to understand that teachers may interact differently with students, and provide differential instruction, based on their expectations for each student’s success or failure, regardless of how accurate those expectations are.

12. Setting goals that are short term (proximal), specific, and moderately challenging enhances motivation more than establishing goals that are long term (distal), general, and overly challenging: Goal setting is the process by which an individual sets a standard of performance and is important for motivation because students with a goal and adequate self-efficacy are likely to engage in the activities that lead to achievement of that goal. Three properties of goal setting are important for motivation. First, short-term goals are more motivating than long-term goals because it is easier to assess progress toward short-term goals. Students tend to be less adept at thinking concretely with respect to the distant future. Second, specific goals are preferable to more general goals because it is easier to quantify and monitor specific goals. Third, moderately difficult goals are the most likely to motivate students because they will be perceived as challenging but also attainable.

Principles 13–15: Why are social context, interpersonal relationships, and emotional well-being important to student learning?

13. Learning is situated within multiple social contexts.

14. Interpersonal relationships and interpersonal communication are critical to both the teaching–learning process and the social–emotional development of students.

15. Emotional well-being influences educational performance, learning, and development.

These principles are interrelated and are represented in theory and research relevant to schools as systems that support psychological (social and emotional) well-being as well as cognitive development and academic learning. According to developmental–ecological theory, the child or learner is best viewed as embedded within multiple social contexts or ecosystems (e.g., school, family, neighbourhood, peer group), that influence learning:

  • Microsystem: student-teacher and student-student interactions influence learning
  • Ecosystem: microsystem interactions occur within a school where policies and norms (teaching and learning practices and organisational structure) influence learning
  • Macrosystem: ecosystems interact (e.g. school and families) within a society which reflects culture, values and norms

These interactions within and between systems influence students’ learning significantly, and are documented more extensively in the article (pg. 61-62).

Principles 16–17. How can the classroom best be managed?

16. Expectations for classroom conduct and social interaction are learned and can be taught using proven principles of behaviour and effective classroom instruction.

17. Effective classroom management is based on (1) setting and communicating high expectations, (2) consistently nurturing positive relationships, and (3) providing a high level of student support.

Classroom management is a fundamental, bedrock set of
procedures and skills that establish a climate for instruction and learning. Class and school rules must be positively stated, concrete, observable, posted, explicitly taught, frequently reviewed, and positively reinforced. This allows students to learn the social curriculum in each classroom and enables teachers to develop classroom climates that maximise student engagement and minimises conflict and disruption.

Classrooms that are structured to offer multiple opportunities for students to respond facilitate the development of quality teacher–student relationships, which in turn lead to fewer behavioural problems and increased academic performance. Students who are at risk for classroom disruption may need more attention to relationship-building in order to develop and maintain connections in the classroom.

Culturally responsive classroom management is an approach that aims to actively engage students by offering a curriculum that is relevant to their lives. Teachers demonstrate a willingness to learn about important aspects of their students’ lives and create a physical environment that is reflective of students’ cultural heritage. Culturally responsive teachers understand the ways in which schools reflect and perpetuate discriminatory practices of the larger society and are characterised as “warm demanders”; “strong yet compassionate, authoritative yet loving, firm yet respectful”.

Finally, a high ratio of positive statements / rewards to negative consequences, and nurturing an atmosphere of respect for all students and their heritage, builds trust in the classroom that can prevent behavioural conflict.

Principles 18–20: how to assess student progress?

18. Formative and summative assessments are both useful, but they require different approaches: Formative assessments are carried out during instruction and are aimed at improving learning in the classroom setting. Summative assessments measure learning at a given point in time, usually at the end of some period of instruction where they are used to provide a judgement about student learning. The goal of both formative and summative assessments is to produce valid, fair, useful, and reliable information for decision making. Teachers can also use their understanding of assessment information to decide whether they covered the material that they intended to cover, or to judge how effectively they met the objectives for student learning.

19. Students’ skill and knowledge should be assessed with processes that are grounded in psychological science and that have provided well-defined standards for quality and fairness: Valid and reliable assessments enable teachers to make inferences about what students are learning. To understand the validity of an assessment, there are four question that need to be considered:

  1. How much of what you intended to measure is actually being measured?
  2. How much of what you did not intend to measure actually ended up being measured?
  3. What consequences, either intended or unintended, occurred with the assessment?
  4. Do you have solid evidence to support your answers to the first three questions?

Validity is a judgement, over time and across a variety of situations, about what inferences can be drawn from the test data, and the consequences of using the test. Valid assessment entails specifying what an assessment is supposed to measure. Teachers can improve assessment quality by aligning teaching and testing. However, they should also:

  • Be mindful that valid tests in one context may not be valid for another
  • Ensure that high-stakes decisions be based on multiple measures, not on a single test
  • Examine outcomes for any discrepancies in performance among different cultural groups

20. Good use of assessment data depends on clear, appropriate, and fair interpretation: Effective teaching depends heavily on teachers being informed consumers of educational research, effective interpreters of data for classroom use, and good communicators to students and their families about assessment data and decisions that affect them. The interpretation of assessments involves addressing the following questions:

  1. What was the assessment intended to measure?
  2. On what are comparisons of the assessment data based? Are students being compared to one another? Or, are responses being directly compared to samples of acceptable and unacceptable responses?
  3. Are scores being classified using a standard or cut point, such as letter grades, or another indicator of satisfactory/unsatisfactory performance?How were these standards set?

Awareness of the strengths and limitations of any assessment is critical. Such awareness enables teachers to make others aware of important caveats, such as the imperfect reliability of scores and the importance of using multiple sources of evidence for high-stakes decisions.


And there you have it. Twenty principles (19 without the one on fostering student creativity) on how best to go about enhancing teaching and learning practices in the classroom. While I don’t think it’s feasible to try and incorporate all of these principles in every classroom session, it’s definitely worthwhile having these at the back of your mind when planning assessment tasks, assignments, lectures and activities in class. I also recommend reading the whole paper which provides additional insight and links to further reading that would be useful to dig into.

Abstract

Psychological science has much to contribute to preK-12 education because substantial psychological research exists on the processes of learning, teaching, motivation, classroom management, social interaction, communication, and assessment. This article details the psychological science that led to the identification, by the American Psychological Association’s Coalition for Psychology in Schools and Education, of the “Top 20 Principles from Psychology for PreK-12 Teaching and Learning.” Also noted are the major implications for educational practice that follow from the principles.

Citation: Lucariello, J. M., Nastasi, B. K., Anderman, E. M., Dwyer, C., Ormiston, H., & Skiba, R. (2016). Science Supports Education: The behavioural research base for Psychology’s top 20 principles for enhancing Teaching and Learning. Mind, Brain and Education, 10(1), 55–67.

Groupwork and introverts

I really enjoyed this presentation on TED, particularly this line: “… the transcendent power of solitude“. Being an introvert doesn’t mean someone who is shy or reluctant to engage with others. It describes a person who has a tendency to turn inward mentally, feeling more energized by time spent alone.

As teachers who are preparing students to work as part of health care teams, I think that we have a tendency to emphasise group work as part of our undergraduate modules. But it’s also important to acknowledge that solitary work has its place, and to accommodate in our lesson designs the students who don’t draw their energy from working with others.

Being an introvert myself, I have some empathy with how it feels to be made to work with others. I much prefer to work by myself on most tasks, even though I know that collaboration and diversity of perspective are powerful tools for learning. It’s odd that I never thought about this when designing group activities for my students. Recently however, I changed track, offering students the opportunity to work together, but on individual assignments.

As part of the ethics module that I teach I’ve had students complete various short reflective writing assignments and then sharing their ideas in small groups. They don’t need to read everything that others in the group have written; maybe just share the main ideas, evidence supporting their claims and conclusions. Others in the group give constructive feedback that helps the student develop their ideas and refine their arguments. They then work individually again in order to finalise their writing before submitting it to me.

This gives them the space to work as individuals and to get their own ideas onto paper but also creates a process where they can get different perspectives on their work, helping them to clarify ideas and arguments. I want them to feel comfortable discussing ideas with others but also to make sure that they have the cognitive space and freedom to try out their ideas first before sharing with others. It also means that they are not obliged to share everything with others in the group, and that the student controls how much of themselves they are open to sharing.

Without anyones permission: The open web and online learning

As teaching and learning activities move into online and blended learning environments we need to think carefully about how we use those spaces, which is often determined by the features of the platforms and services we choose. One topic in the field on online learning that’s been getting a lot of attention, is the MOOC (the New York Times declared 2013 the year of the MOOC). However, for all the rhetoric about how MOOCs are disrupting higher education, we have yet to see any strong evidence that they lead to any kind of improved learning, and we are slowly starting to realise that “MOOCs are essentially a dead end with regard to providing learners who do not have adequate access to education with high quality qualifications.” In other words, if you don’t already have a good foundation upon which to build, the promise of MOOCs seems to be an empty one.

One of the reasons that disruption is difficult to apply to the mainstream MOOC phenomenon is that – for all intents and purposes – these MOOCs (specifically, xMOOCs) are not doing anything particularly innovative. They reproduce distance learning models that have existed for decades and moreover, they do so less well. This post will focus on the Open aspect of xMOOCs – in particular how they are anything but open – and to discuss some of the ways that educators need to think differently about how we use the web in our teaching practice.

The majority of xMOOC providers design their courses using non-open formats and use restrictive content licenses preventing reuse and sharing of the content and learning experiences. These MOOC providers are fencing in and closing off the educational experience, while at the same time preaching openness and enhanced accessibility. This loss of openness in online learning – as it is conceived by the major xMOOC providers – is, according to some, a horrific corruption, as more and more of our learning experiences are controlled by organisations that dictate the direction that online and blended learning is taking. Which brings me back to the idea that started this post; if we are going to move teaching and learning into online environments it is important for us to understand the environment that we’re moving to. We need to remember that when we talk about online learning, we should be talking about learning on the web. Not learning on an app, or on Coursera, or on Facebook. And therein lies the problem:

This isn’t our web today. We’ve lost key features that we used to rely on, and worse, we’ve abandoned core values that used to be fundamental to the web world. To the credit of today’s social networks, they’ve brought in hundreds of millions of new participants to these networks, and they’ve certainly made a small number of people rich. But they haven’t shown the web itself the respect and care it deserves, as a medium which has enabled them to succeed. And they’ve now narrowed the possibilities of the web for an entire generation of users who don’t realize how much more innovative and meaningful their experience could be.

Anil Dash

Maybe we need to reclaim online learning for what it is and what it represents. The open source movement has provided the tools we need to build our own (open) online courses, so what exactly do we need Coursera and Udacity for? As we give up more and more (or, as platform providers take more and more?), we must remain cognisant of what it is that we’re losing. The restrictive licensing requirements of most xMOOC providers has shown that we – the people doing the teaching – need to take the online learning environment back, eliminating (or at least reducing) our reliance on convenient platforms that do more to impoverish the learning experience than enhance it. We can provide an open online learning experience while at the same time enabling a culture of democratized, permission-less innovation in education.

We need to remember that delivering mass media is the least of the Net’s powers.
The Net’s super-power is connection without permission. Its almighty power is that we can make of it whatever we want.

We, the People of the Internet, need to remember the glory of its revelation so that we reclaim it now in the name of what it truly is.

No one owns that place. Everybody can use it. Anyone can improve it.

Doc Searles – New Clues

Anil Dash described how we lost the web and then followed up with how to rebuild the web we lost, highlighting the utility of the open web to enable transformative change in the world. The web as an open platform for creative expression and unfettered communication is slowly being eroded and replaced by gilded cages. As the services we champion make it more difficult to move content into and out of, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to create connections between people and ideas in open online spaces. Sure, if you want to do everything in Facebook, then Facebook works. But just try taking something out of Facebook to use somewhere else.

We get bullshit turf battles like Tumblr not being able to find your Twitter friends or Facebook not letting Instagram photos show up on Twitter because of giant companies pursuing their agendas instead of collaborating in a way that would serve users. And we get a generation of entrepreneurs encouraged to make more narrow-minded, web-hostile products like these because it continues to make a small number of wealthy people even more wealthy, instead of letting lots of people build innovative new opportunities for themselves on top of the web itself.

Anil Dash

In his post about rebuilding the web we lost, Anil made the following suggestions for taking back the open web, which I’ve repurposed here in an online learning context. I’m sure that my take on it isn’t perfect, and I’d be happy to hear any other interpretations.

  1. Take responsibility and accept blame. This is our fault. Educators have allowed companies like Coursea / Udacity / Future Learn to take over and drive the online learning agenda. We did this because we didn’t understand what the web was and how we could build enriching educational experiences with it. Instead of embracing the web, we’ve spent the past few decades demonising it. We blame it for increases in cheating, lower levels of critical thinking, and encouraging lazy approaches to student work. Just think of all the rants about why students shouldn’t use Wikipedia, instead of taking on the challenge of making Wikipedia as good as it could possibly be. Educators and students could have used the platform in ways that would have improved the content of the site, while also helping students to develop important 21st century skills that are not covered in the formal curriculum. We dropped the ball, and now we need to ask what we’re going to do about it.
  2. Don’t just meet the UX standards, raise the bar. Coursera, Future Learn, Udacity, Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest are all beautifully designed. They have great websites and come with user-friendly mobile apps, and we marvel at how easy they are to use. They must be wonderful places for learning. All we have to do is provide the content. But is that all there is to learning? Pre-packaged collections of readings, with no opportunities to empower students as part of that process? High quality, well-produced video lectures that students can’t download? Forum discussion boards that were also boring in the 90s? Why do we put up with it? Because it’s pretty? We can do better.
  3. Rethink funding fundamentals. If we want to move the learning experience into online spaces – and with it, open up access to education that xMOOCs so proudly take credit for – we must rethink how we are going to fund the development of those experiences. Is it realistic for individual lecturers to try and manage courses with thousands of students? Does everyone understand that Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest and every other social network that exists does so in order to make a profit for their shareholders or their founders. These are companies designed to make money, not enhance learning. We will need to come up with different ways of funding large-scale online education if we are going to take it seriously.
  4. Explore architectural changes. The ability to manage enormous numbers of users used to require banks of servers and the installation of costly database software. Now you can get the same functionality as a service, either from Amazon (AWS) or a range of other providers. Cloud-based storage providers (Dropbox, Google Drive, OneDrive, etc.) provide hosting and collaborative editing of files – largely for free – that just a few years ago would have been prohibitively expensive. By making use of free or cheap services, we can reproduce platforms that previously would have been impossible or very expensive. Changes in how software and services are offered provide new opportunities for growth and innovation. We need to not only be aware of these services but to think carefully about how we can use them in ways that are truly disruptive.
  5. Exploit their weakness: Insularity. Be sceptical of those who tell us that This New Thing is open in any sense of the word, other than open = free. But even the use of “free” in this context means simply “without cost”, and is dissociated from the freedoms we have come to expect with the web. Instead of looking to the big institutions for guidance – and therefore falling prey to their limited perspectives – we must establish collaborations outside of the walled gardens of closed online learning environments.
  6. Don’t trust the trade press. Stop believing everything that the mainstream media tells you is true. “MOOCs are disrupting higher education”; only…they’re not. Not yet, and certainly not by the Coursera’s of the world. It is essential that teachers, principals, students, parents and every other stakeholder involved in learning educates themselves on what the web is, and how it evolved to become what it is. It’s only by knowing what we’re losing that we can take steps to reclaim it. Even as the mainstream media and uncritical academics proclaim the disruption and end of traditional models of higher education due to the emergence of whatever is trending on Twitter, we must maintain a critical perspective in how we design our online learning experiences.
  7. Create public spaces. Think about this; almost every online space where you can currently assemble large groups of people is privately owned. Facebook, Google+, Instagram…there are no truly open and public spaces where we can engage in public performances, at least not in any real numbers. This holds true for educational online spaces too; Coursera, Udacity, EdX, Canvas. All are privately held and all exist to make a profit. Where are the open spaces that position learning as a public good? Other than a few marginalised experiments like Wikiversity it’s difficult to point out a truly open learning environment. It seems that if this is something that we want – that we value – we are going to have to build it ourselves.

While this list isn’t perfect – it was written for a different context – I think it gives us some ideas about how we can think differently about moving education into online and blended learning spaces. It’s not enough to simply add online to our teaching and learning activities, and think that we’re changing anything. We need to stop doing “business as usual”. The mainstream xMOOC providers offer little more than structured collections of content, well-produced video lectures and extremely limited forms of engagement. There is nothing fundamentally innovative about this approach, nor does it have any pedagogical foundations to support learning. The promise of technology – and the web – in teaching and learning is not simply to reproduce a poorer version of the classroom experience. We need to ask who is setting the online learning agenda and whether or not we are comfortable with that (hint, the correct answer is “No”).

Open source software has given us the tools to create sophisticated online spaces for learning – all we have to do is learn how to use them. We would be asking no more of ourselves than we ask of our students every day i.e. to push ourselves to learn something new; to make a difference in the world. As long as we’re performing in closed spaces, we are disempowering our students and colleagues, preventing them from participating in educational experiences that are liberating and that develop a sense of agency.

Stephen Downes offers us four principles of open and networked learning via the theory of Connectivism – principles that could be useful in our designs for online learning experiences. We could do worse than these concepts when it comes to interrogating what kinds of online platforms we use, and how we use them. It would be an enlightening experiment to take an honest look at our learning spaces – online and physical – and ask if they encourage and facilitate the development of these concepts:

  • Autonomy:  Learners should have the ability to choose where, when, how, what and with whom to learn
  • Diversity: Learners represent sufficiently diverse populations to avoid group-think and “echo-chambers”
  • Openness: The learning environment accommodates all levels of engagement, with no
    barriers between ‘in’ and ‘out’, helping to ensure the free flow of information through the network, and encouraging a culture of sharing
  • Connectedness: “Connectedness” and interactivity is what makes all this possible, as knowledge emerges through the connections that learners make

At the risk of sounding like an uncritical fanboy, I’m well aware that the web is not the panacea we sometimes make it out to be. The presentation below – given at the 2014 meeting of The Network – Towards Unity for Health, in Fortaleza – was largely inspired by the ideas presented here, and highlights the challenges with online and blended learning, especially when we are uncritical about what we use and why.

 

This uncritical perspective is most evident than when we talk about the web. We speak about it as a discrete entity, something defined, bounded and imbued with a set of characteristics that is inherently Good. The web positioned as the solution to our many educational problems is somewhat the essence of the xMOOC contingent, and most solutions to the “education problem” that emerge from Silicon Valley. Evgeny Morozov has suggested that our tendency to look to the internet as the solution to everything is problematic, calling it the “quasi-religion” of “Internet-centrism” where Internet-centrism views the internet as being inherently special. As educators responsible for using the web and it’s features to our advantage, we must ensure that we are cognisant of both it’s utility and potential for harm (or, at the very least, it’s potential for ineffectiveness). Taking a critical position – one of the roles of academics in society – allows us to see mainstream xMOOCs for what they really are: impoverished walled gardens that diminish the learning experience. Learners are treated as users, content is viewed as knowledge, and the learning interaction is regarded as linear and subject to control. But it doesn’t have to be this way.

The internet is essentially a set of agreements (protocols) that tell us how to write a page that can link to any other page without needing anyone’s permission. Without needing anyone’s permission. Without having to ask if it is OK. Without needing to login. Without needing to share our personal information. Without giving up our content through resrictive licensing requirements. “Every link by a person with something to say is an act of generosity and selflessness, bidding our readers to leave the page to see how the world looks to someone else.” When we construct our learning experiences behind closed doors, hiding our interactions inside platforms and apps that we can’t make real choices about, we give up something.  As we continue to move teaching and learning into spaces like Facebook – because it’s “where the students are” – we cede our autonomy and ability to make real choices about how we teach and how students learn. We change our teaching practices, not because it is in the students’ best interest, but because it is all that we are allowed to do.

We all love our shiny apps, even when they’re sealed as tight as a Moon base. But put all the closed apps in the world together and you have a pile of apps.
Put all the Web pages together and you have a new world.
Web pages are about connecting. Apps are about control.
As we move from the Web to an app-based world, we lose the commons we were building together.
In the Kingdom of Apps, we are users, not makers.
Every new page makes the Web bigger. Every new link makes the Web richer.
Every new app gives us something else to do on the bus.

New Clues

Abstract: Student Success and Engagement project

Our faculty has implemented a 3 year research project looking at improving Student Success and Engagement in the faculty. The project is being coordinated across several departments in the faculty and is the first time that we are collaborating on this scale. I will be using this blog as a public progress report of the project, in order to highlight our processes and challenges, as well as to report on draft findings. Here is the abstract of the project proposal.

Achieving promising throughput rates and improving retention remains a challenge for most higher education institutions. Student success in South African higher education has been unsatisfactory and universities have not been effective in developing strategies to enhance students’ learning experiences. Low throughput and poor retention rates have been identified as challenges in the Faculty of Community and Health Sciences at UWC. While success rates of students in the faculty are reported as students who complete their qualification in the shortest possible time, many students require an additional year to graduate. It is important to develop strategies that exploit students’ capacity to engage in their learning, as this may create a space that is conducive to student success. Therefore, the aim of this project is to identify and implement strategies to improve student success in the CHS faculty at UWC through an exploration of student and lecturer engagement. This project will explore student engagement in relation to the domains of assessment, academic literacies and tutoring.

Design-based research has been selected the overarching method as it is informed by the teacher’s desire to improve learning, based on sound theoretical principles. All of the undergraduate students (N=2595) and lecturers in the CHS faculty will be invited to participate in this study. Phase 1 includes the implementation of the South African Survey for Student Engagement (SASSE) and the Lecturer Survey for Student Engagement (LSSE). We will also conduct in-depth interviews and focus group discussions among key informants, who are likely to have insight into the challenges experienced in the areas of assessment, literacy and tutoring, and will be identified through purposive sampling. In addition, document analyses of UWC Assessment policy, Teaching and Learning policy and the Charter of Graduate Attributes will be conducted.

During phase 2, a systematic review will be conducted in order to ascertain which interventions have been demonstrated to increase student engagement in higher education. This data will be combined with the insights gained from Phase 1, and used to inform a series of workshops and seminars in the faculty, aimed at developing and refining principles to enhance student engagement. In addition, course evaluations and other documents will be reviewed, and data related to the domains of assessment, literacies and tutoring will be extracted and compared to the recommended guidelines and principles derived from the systematic review. These principles will then be used to inform interventions that are then implemented in the CHS faculty.

Following implementation of the interventions, Phase 3 will consist of focus group discussions with lecturers and the students who were involved in the project, especially those in areas of assessment, literacy and tutoring. A second South African Survey of Student Engagement (SASSE) and Lecturer Survey of Student Engagement (LSSE) will be conducted at the end of 2016 in order to determine if there has been a change in student engagement. By the end of Phase 3 of the project, a range of interventions within the domains of assessment, literacies and tutoring would have been implemented and evaluated. Ethics clearance will be sought from the University of the Western Cape Senate Research Committee, as well as permission from the Registrar and the various Heads of Department in the Faculty.