altPhysio | Getting rid of modules

This is the third post in a series looking at the ideas and processes we take for granted in a mainstream physiotherapy curriculum. In the first post I looked at the background behind a decision to form a new kind of physiotherapy school, and then wrote a second post questioning the assumption that there is an inherent value in the things we ask students to do. In this post I wonder if modules are the best we can do when it comes to configuring the basic unit of a curriculum.

Q: You made a decision early on that there wouldn’t be any modules at altPhysio. Tell us a little more about the thinking behind that decision.

Modules exist in a curriculum so that we can divide complex ideas into something more manageable and because the curriculum needs discrete units around which learning activities can aggregate. For the most part, those units are the modules that we use to aggregate other things like lectures, textbooks, assignments and tests. We like to think that modules are neat collections of related concepts that are combined with each other, forming foundations upon which other modules can build. The reality is that modules are somewhat arbitrary divisions of complex concepts into increasingly smaller and simpler ideas.

Modules are the organising principle of a curriculum, used to link related concepts, around which teaching and learning activities are aggregated.

The problem with modules is that we spend 4 years teaching students which blocks the concepts fit into and assessing them within the constraints of those basic conceptual divisions. Tests and assignments are given within the context of a module and it’s actually quite difficult to give learning activities that cross modular boundaries. After students are comfortable with pigeon-holing ideas into neat boxes we ask them to integrate the concepts from different modules as part of clinical practice, another separate module. How does it make sense to break complex ideas into discrete units and then expect students to put it all back together again, often by themselves?

Q: OK, so no modules at altPhysio. What about a PBL approach?

In a PBL curriculum the clinical problem is the organising principle, rather than the module. The concern with the kinds of problems found in PBL curricula is that the problems are not complex enough to model real world clinical situations, and they don’t run over long enough periods for students to get sufficiently engaged. Another concern is that the problems are often decontextalised from the situations in which knowledge gained is to be applied.

We knew that knowledge must be constructed in the same contexts in which it is to be used, but our classroom activities were so contextually disconnected from how we expected students to practice that they were effectively useless. How often have you heard clinicians and teachers complain that students have trouble transferring knowledge learned in the classroom context to the clinical context?

If we want students to solve difficult problems in the real world, they must be trained by solving difficult problems in the real world. A module-based curriculum – and to a certain extent, a problem-based curriculum – doesn’t create enough space for sufficiently complex tasks to be designed.

Trying to design an authentic learning task that is sufficiently complex to model a real world phenomenon, within the constraints of a single module is difficult. It’s possible to do it within a PBL context but also unsatisfactory. We wanted to take a systems approach to designing the kinds of problems we wanted our students to solve, which we think more accurately describes real world clinical problems. When we started looking at relatively large-scale Projects as the organising principle in a curriculum, we found that it gave us the space we needed to build activities that would help students develop the characteristics we say are important.

Q: Tell us what a Project looks like. Where do they come from?

We work closely with clinicians from a variety of contexts who provide us with the basic framework for all of the Projects in our curriculum. They submit Contexts from their clinical experiences according to a framework that we provide for them. Any situations in their contexts that meet the boundary conditions that we set, can be included in the curriculum. A Project involves students working together in groups to achieve complex objectives, none of which are possible for students to complete on their own.

Our Projects usually run over 3-12 months and involve a variety of activities, which may include short lectures, research, practical sessions, field trips, virtual and augmented reality simulations, and interaction with qualified professionals in online and face-to-face environments.

Some Projects run over multiple year levels too, so students can begin a Project in their first year and only complete it in their second year. This is especially useful when Projects grow in complexity in real time – because the real world is dynamic – and are extended beyond their original lifespan.

Most of our Projects are also inter-disciplinary because any sufficiently complex real world problem cannot be addressed by any single discipline. We get special input from people in a variety of different domains, including engineers, artists, horticulturalists…you name it we get them to come and spend time with students on their Projects. We want our students working on real world problems from day one in the programme, with input from a diverse range of the kinds of people they’ll be expected to work with when they graduate.

Q: You mentioned the boundary conditions that Projects need to satisfy before you’ll take them on as part of the curriculum. What are those conditions?

We use Authentic learning – based on Situated cognition – as a framework to determine the basic structure of a Project. The framework is a way of thinking about task design so as to increase the probability of developing within students the competencies we want. Authentic tasks should meet the following criteria:

  1. Real-world relevance: Activities match as nearly as possible the real-world tasks of professionals in practice rather than decontextualized or classroom-based tasks.
  2. Ill-defined: Activities require students to define the tasks and sub-tasks needed to complete the activity.
  3. Complex, sustained tasks: Activities are completed in days, weeks, and months rather than minutes or hours. They require significant investment of time and intellectual resources.
  4. Multiple perspectives: Provides the opportunity for students to examine the task from different perspectives using a variety of resources, and separate relevant from irrelevant information.
  5. Collaborative: Collaboration is integral and required for task completion.
  6. Value laden: Provide the opportunity to reflect and involve students’ beliefs and values.
  7. Interdisciplinary: Activities encourage interdisciplinary perspectives and enable learners to play diverse roles and build expertise that is applicable beyond a single well-defined field or domain.
  8. Authentically assessed: Assessment is seamlessly integrated with learning in a manner that reflects how quality is judged in the real world.
  9. Authentic products: Authentic activities create polished products valuable in their own right rather than as preparation for something else.
  10. Multiple possible outcomes: Activities allow a range and diversity of outcomes open to multiple solutions of an original nature, rather than a single correct response obtained by the application of predefined rules and procedures.

If the Context submitted by clinicians meet the majority of these criteria, or if we see the potential to modify the Context enough that we can create a Project, we accept it into our workflow. Then we work with a variety of colleagues from different professions to refine the Projects over the course of 6-12 months. During this period we design the Project so that we can use it to accurately describe the kinds of competencies that we expect students will be able to develop while working in the Project. After that we incorporate the Project into the curriculum where they become another unit that students can sign up for.

Q: What do you mean when you say that students can sign up for Projects?

We don’t tell students what Projects to complete and allow them to choose from the full range of Projects available in that year level. Students know that they have a set number of competencies that need to be acquired in order to progress in the programme, and they know which competencies are integrated into which Projects. They make choices about the Projects they want to work on, based on which competencies they know they need to develop, as well as other factors that go into their decision making.

For example, consider a student who is going through some personal struggles; maybe a situation where someone close to them is ill. For that period they may choose a relatively low level Project that has a short duration. They know that the competencies developed in the Project will be fewer and maybe at a lower level than for other Projects, but this is OK because it buys them time to spend with their sick relative. In addition, since we don’t really have a timetable at altPhysio, students are able to organise their days and weeks in ways that give them space to focus on their personal lives, while at the same time continuing to work through the curriculum, albeit in a much less pressured environment.

The way that we’ve conceived of Projects gives us a level of flexibility and pedagogical range that we found impossible to achieve with modules or PBL. It means that we can have students working on complex, real world problems from day one. It means that at no point in the programme do we have to ask them to integrate concepts contained separately in different modules. Completing a Project at altPhysio requires that students think and behave like the professionals we say we want to develop.

 

Stop complaining about the “knowledge-practice gap”

The “knowledge-practice gap” is a well known problem in health professions education and an enormous amount of time is spent complaining about how difficult it is to narrow the gap. The truth is, the knowledge-practice gap is a problem of our own making, and the name we’ve given this problem hints at the answer.

We’ve set it up so that there is a tension between what happens in the classroom (acquire knowledge) and what is supposed to happen in practice (use knowledge). Or, to be more specific, there is a tension between how students think and behave in the classroom and how we want them to think and behave in the clinical context. This is the “gap” that we’re always talking about bridging; the difference between the knowledge that students acquire in the classroom, and the practical application of that knowledge in clinical practice.

However, instead of treating the problem as something natural to be overcome (“this is just the way it is”), we can just accept that the reason the gap exists is simply because what most of what we expect students to do in the classroom is not a practice at all. We set up a situation where we create different contexts for knowledge acquired and knowledge applied and then complain when students struggle to move between the different contexts.

The truth is that we already have good evidence to suggest alternative ways of thinking about the “different contexts” problem, and we know what to do about it. Situated cognition is a learning theory that proposes that:

“…knowledge is situated, being in part a product of the activity, context, and culture in which it is developed and used.”

In other words, knowledge must be acquired in similar contexts to the ones in which it must be used. If you think about the classroom context, what ways of thinking and being are students required to practice? Are they required to practice at all? In order to satisfy most physiotherapy educators, our students simply need to show up, sit down and listen. Even if we assume that they are able to construct knowledge in some meaningful way from this traditional approach to learning (generally speaking, they are not), how does this practice enable them to apply what they learn in classroom to the clinical context? Simply put, it doesn’t. The reality is that the knowledge-practice gap exists because of the way we teach.

In order to address the problem of the knowledge-practice gap we need to accept that students’ ways of thinking and being in the classroom must be similar to the ways of thinking and being we expect in the clinical context. We must therefore give students learning tasks in the classroom that require them to think and behave in the same way as we expect them to think and behave while on clinical rotation. The classroom practice and the clinical practice must therefore be similar. Seen from this perspective, there would be no knowledge-practice gap because there would be no difference in the contexts in which knowledge is acquired and how it is used.

So, how do we create a classroom context where students are expected to think and behave in ways that are similar to how we expect them to think and behave in the clinical context? I think that Authentic learning is a good place to start. It’s a teaching framework that operationalises situated cognition. In other words, it’s a way of thinking about learning task design that includes attributes that would cause students to think and behave in one context that would help develop those processes for other contexts. I’ve written some notes on Authentic learning before, so won’t go into detail here, other than to share the characteristics of authentic learning, which are that tasks:

  • Should have real-world relevance i.e. they match real-world tasks
  • Are ill-defined (students must define tasks and sub-tasks in order to complete the activity) i.e. there are multiple interpretations of both the problem and the solution
  • Are complex and must be explored over a sustained period of time i.e. days, weeks and months, rather than minutes or hours
  • Provide opportunities to examine the task from different perspectives, using a variety of resources i.e. there isn’t a single answer that is the “best” one. Multiple resources requires that students differentiate between relevant / irrelevant information
  • Provide opportunities to collaborate should be inherent i.e. are integral to the task
  • Provide opportunities to reflect i.e. students must be able to make choices and reflect on those choices
  • Must be integrated and applied across different subject areas and lead beyond domain-specific outcomes i.e. they encourage interdisciplinary perspectives and enable diverse roles and expertise
  • Seamlessly integrated with assessment i.e. the assessment tasks reflect real-world assessment, rather than separate assessment removed from the task
  • Result in a finished product, rather than as preparation for something else
  • Allow for competing solutions and diversity of outcome i.e. the outcomes can have multiple solutions that are original, rather than a single “correct” response

Looking at the above list it should be easy to see how tasks designed with these characteristics in mind would be similar to the ways we would think about successful clinical practice. In other words, you could see how students who could successfully solve problems designed with this framework might also be able to solve clinical problems. The tasks we give them in the classroom would require them to think and behave in ways that we expect them to think and behave in clinical practice. No more knowledge-practice gap?

References

Emerging Technologies and Authentic Learning in Vocational Higher Education conference

Last week I attended the Emerging Technologies and Authentic Learning in Vocational Higher Education conference at the UCT Graduate School of Business, which had a pretty impressive lineup of keynote speakers:

The general theme of the conference was the idea of “learning and play”, with Professor Dick N’gambi opening the event with the following statement: “The creative adult is the child who survived”, referring to the fact that the formal educational system doesn’t encourage innovation and creativity. How do we prepare students for a world that we can’t predict, unless we encourage within them an attitude of exploration and discovery.

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The conference was linked to a Special Issue of the British Journal of Educational Technology, to which I’ve submitted the following paper: Rowe – Developing graduate attributes in an open online course (note that this is currently under review). Here are my slides from the workshop I ran on setting up and running an open online course:

…and here is the Twitter feed for the event.


Proposal abstract: Case-based learning in undergraduate physiotherapy education

Abstract for a project I submitted earlier this week for ethics clearance. During 2012 – 2014 we converted one of our modules that runs in the 2nd, 3rd and 4th year levels from a lecture-based format to a case-based learning format. We are now hoping to have a closer look at whether or not the CBL approach led to any changes in teaching and learning behaviours in staff and students.

Case-based learning (CBL) is a teaching method that makes use of clinical narratives to create an authentic learning activity in which students navigate their way through complex patient scenarios. The use of CBL in a health professions undergraduate curriculum attempts to convey a multidimensional representation of the context, participants and reality of a clinical situation, allowing students to explore these concepts in the classroom. While the implementation of CBL has a sound theoretical basis, as well as a strong evidence base for use in health professions education, there are challenges in its effective use that are not easily resolved. However, if it can be shown that the approach leads to changes in teaching and learning practice, which enhance student learning, providing additional resources to resolve the challenges can be more strongly justified. This project therefore aims to determine staff members’ and students’ perceptions of CBL as a teaching method, and to find out how it influenced their teaching and learning behaviours.

This study will make use of a mixed method research design in which the experiences and perceptions of student and staff members are used to determine whether or not there was a change in their teaching and learning practice. Qualitative and quantitative data will be gathered using a survey of all students in the population, focus group discussions of students and in-depth interviews of all staff in the department. The survey will determine if the design of the CBL approach led to a change in what the students did. The focus group discussions will gather data on the nature of the changes and the underlying rationale for those changes. The interviews with lecturers will be conducted in order to delve more deeply into whether or not lecturers’ teaching behaviours changed, and again, to explore the underlying rationale of those changes.

The survey will make use of a self-developed questionnaire that will gather quantitative data using Likert scales and other closed-ended questions. The survey will be sent to all 3rd and 4th year students in the 2015 academic year. The same students will be invited to participate in the focus groups, and the researchers will make use of purposive sampling to allocate volunteers into two focus groups in each year level. All lecturers in the department (n=10) will be invited to participate in the in-depth interviews, including those who were not directly involved in the implementation of CBL. In addition, we will also invite ex-staff members who were involved in the process, as well as postgraduate students who assisted with student facilitation.

Qualitative data will be gathered during the focus groups and interviews. This data will be interpreted via the theoretical frameworks used in the design of the CBL cases. The focus group discussions and interviews will be conducted in English and recorded using a digital audio recorder. The audio files will be sent for verbatim transcription and the anonymised, transcribed documents will then be sent to participants for verification. The transcripts will be analysed thematically, coding the data into categories of emerging themes. Trustworthiness of the analysis will be determined through member checking and peer debriefing and participants will be given the opportunity to comment on whether or not the data was interpreted according to what they meant. The transcribed verbatim draft will be given to colleagues who were not involved in the study for comment.

Activity Theory, Authentic Learning and Emerging Technologies

Selection_001For the past few years I’ve been involved in an NRF-funded research project looking at the use of emerging technologies in higher education. One of the products of that collaborative project was an edited book that has recently been published. Professor Denise Wood, one of the editors, describes the book on her blog:

This edited collection seeks to fill the current gap in understanding about the use of emerging technologies for transformative learning and teaching by providing a nuanced view, locating higher education pedagogical practices at an intersection of emerging technologies, authentic learning and activity systems.

The book, which is edited by Professors Vivienne Bozalek, Dick N’gambi, Denise Wood, Jan Herrington, Joanne Hardman and Alan Amory, includes case studies as examples, and draws from a wide range of contexts to illustrate how such a convergence has the potential to track transformative teaching and learning practices in the higher education sector. Chapters provide the reader with a variety of transformative higher education pedagogical practices in southern contexts, theorised within the framework of Cultural Historical Activity Theory (CHAT) and tool mediation, while using authentic learning as a pedagogical model upon which this theoretical framework is based.

I made a small contribution to the book in the form of a case study that emerged from my PhD work as part of the project. Professor Jan Herrington wrote the introduction to the section on the Case Studies:

Moving from theory to practice in higher education is deeply challenging. While exploring pedagogical models in the literature may lead to tacit understanding of general principles, actually implementing these principles in practice can be an entirely different matter. Authentic learning is a pedagogical model that is sometimes misunderstood, such as when teachers believe that in order for authenticity to be achieved, learning must occur outside the classroom in the real world. In fact, authenticity – as described in this model – can readily be achieved within the regular classrooms and lecture halls of the university environment. Providing examples of successful cases of such authentic learning environments offers an opportunity to explore the practical application of a theoretical model, and provide concrete instances of implementation in different subject areas. This chapter provides three such cases. The cases presented here provide international examples of authentic learning in practice across different discipline areas, using different technologies, and focusing on different aspects of the approach. The first case (Case study 14.1) describes the use of reflective analysis and role play in the study of obstetrics, using the model of authentic learning described in Chapter 5 (Herrington, 2014). It focuses on the use of technology as a mediating vehicle for authentic learning through the use of practice dilemmas. The second case (Case study 14.2) describes specific tasks developed within an authentic learning environment, using characteristics of authentic tasks (Herrington, Reeves, Oliver, & Woo, 2004). This case describes the use of complex contexts and the development of case notes in the study of physiotherapy. The final case (Case study 14.3) explores the use of wikis and blogs to mediate authentic learning in sport science education. All the cases represent authentic learning in action, and include details of the context, the tasks, and the problems that inevitably arise when teachers necessarily relinquish their more traditional role to allow students to take primary responsibility for learning. They are also effectively works in progress, where solutions are refined and improved in successive iterations. But above all, they are visible and tangible exemplars of theory in action.

While my own contribution was small, I’m really proud that I could be part of the initiative. The book is available on Amazon in a variety of formats.

T&L seminar with UCT Law Faculty

Earlier this year I was invited by Alan Rycroft at the UCT Law Faculty to give a presentation at a seminar on T&L. The seminar took place yesterday and I presented some research that I did in 2012 where we used Google Drive as an implementation platform for authentic learning. I’ve written about authentic learning before, so I won’t go into any more detail here.

I would however, like to share some of my thoughts and notes from the session. Unfortunately, I had to leave halfway through the presentations, so I missed the second half of the day.

Anton Fagan – The use of laptops in the classroom. Anton made a strong case for banning laptops in the classroom under certain conditions, specifically when students are taking notes during lectures. There seems to be evidence that, while using a laptop to take notes can result in higher fidelity (more notes and more accuracy) it also results in less understanding, probably as a result processing information differently depending on whether we type it or write it. However, we do need to be careful about conflating lecturing with learning. Most of the articles discussed seemed to posit that the ability to recall facts presented during a lecture was the same thing as learning. Coincidentally, I had recently read this article in the New Yorker, which discusses the same thing:

regardless of the kind or duration of the computer use, the disconnected students performed better on a post-lecture quiz. The message of the study aligns pretty well with the evidence that multitasking degrades task performance across the board.

There are other studies that present similar findings but should we really be surprised by this? We’re saying that distracted students score poorly on tests of recall and understanding. This doesn’t seem to be about laptop usage, but rather that there are two other issues present.

  1. Students are more likely to be distracted when using an internet connected device during lectures, and are more likely to distract others
  2. Even when they are trying to take notes during the lecture, the act of typing those notes can degrade their processing relative to hand writing them

It seems that these two issues are relatively simple to address. In the first instance, work on improving your lecture so that students are less likely to be distracted, and in the second, make students aware that typing notes leads to lower levels of recall and understanding, but allow them to choose the method that best suits them. For example, I prefer that my notes more accurately capture what the speaker is saying. Afterwards, I go through my notes again, adding additional thoughts, linking to additional resources, and therefore engaging with the content a second time around. This is what I have done with these notes.

Geo Quinot – The LLB between profession and higher education. Geo presented his perspective on a set of policy frameworks, including recent proposals by the Council on Higher Education Task Team on Undergraduate Curriculum Structure. He discussed the relationships between the Profession and Higher Education the Quality Enhancement Project (QEP).

I found the talk to be a really comprehensive overview of the relevant policies and frameworks that will be placed centre stage over in South African higher education over the next few years. Unfortunately, there was way too much that was covered for me to try and sum up what was presented. I’ve linked to some of the documents that Geo referred to in the list at the end of this post.

Jacqui Yeats – Student engagement in lectures and tutorials: an experiment. Jacqui shared some of her experiences of teaching large classes in the Law Faculty. I was impressed with her systematic approach to changing the way she lectures, and took away the following ideas:

  • When your class size exceeds a certain number (and no-one really knows what that number is) you move from being a lecturer to being a performer or public speaker. The Presentation Zen blog has some really great resources for lecturers who are intentional about how they present.
  • Lecturers rely a lot on student feedback and reaction. Even if they’re not actually saying anything, it makes a huge difference to at least see some nodding heads when you make eye contact. I’ve never thought much about students’ responsibilities in terms of giving something back to the lecturer. This comment made me think a bit about my own accountability when listening to others’ speak.
  • Use more “soft” breaks. Soft breaks are short breaks (2-3 minutes) where Jacqui presents students with “educationally useful” content that is still marginally relevant to them in order to keep them interested. In other words, the cognitive distance is not so close to the lecture content that it doesn’t count as a break, but not so far removed that students are distracted and find it difficult to get back into the topic when the break is over. The example she gave was giving students writing tips, which I thought was a great idea.
  • Encourage friendly competition between students or groups of students. Jacqui made it clear that aggressive competition and ranking students probably isn’t a great way to get them to engage but that friendly competition with low risk that wasn’t explicitly linked to module outcomes seemed to get them more motivated. This is something that we’re struggling with in our department…student motivation and engagement seems quite low. We’re trying to figure out ways to develop a community in our department and I think that this idea of friendly competition is worth exploring.

Thank you to the UCT Law Faculty for inviting to present some of my work. I appreciated the opportunity and also learned a lot from the experience.

Additional resources related to the post

Presentation on an open, online course

Last year I ran an open online course in Professional Ethics, in collaboration with Physiopedia. Earlier today, I presented the process of designing and implementing that course at a conference on Transforming Education through Technological Innovation, hosted by Stellenbosch University. I really enjoyed the morning and thank the event coordinators for inviting me to present.

I enjoyed reading (January)

SummerReadingStudent

Constructivism in the shadow of a dead god (Michael Potter). Potter discusses how academics have dismissed positivism and objectivism only on a superficial level and these concepts are alive and well in the language, course outlines and physical structures of universities. We won’t be able to truly embrace ideas like social constructivism until we start thinking about our learning spaces very differently.

 

The earth as art (NASA). Beautiful images of the earth from space, shared with no restrictions as a downloadable PDF and iPad app. The iPad app is well-designed, easy to navigate, and visually stunning. It also connects you to online content like time-lapse satellite imagery of disappearing glaciers and the aftermath of a volcano.

 

Letters to a young teacher (Jonathan Kozol). Jonathan writes a series of letters to a teacher he befriended over the course of a few years, sharing his own experiences of teaching and learning with young children. I highly recommend this book for when you’re feeling a bit down about the barriers and limitations you face as a teacher. I found it inspiring and thought-provoking.

 

06-medications-wired-designRedesigning the medical record (Wired) and the Future of medical records (the Atlantic). I’ve been excited about the prospect of an Electronic Medical Record since I first came across it almost 10 years ago. Not much has happened (that’s worth noting) in the interim, which is why I got so excited with the design mock-ups in these two posts.

 

Three ideas that won’t change classrooms (George Couros). George makes some really good points about some of the ideas that are hitting mainstream media around innovations in the classroom (e.g. the “flipped” classroom and BYOD). He doesn’t say that they’re bad ideas, only that when they’re implemented without thinking deeply about them, they have little value in and of themselves.

 

Why learning should be messy (Mind/Shift). The idea of learning being “messy” forces us to consider removing the subject-specific boundaries and thinking of it as a holistic problem. My students don’t need to just know about anatomy. They need to know about anatomy in the context of human movement and dysfunction, which is how their patients will present in the real world. Yet we teach these concepts to them in separate subjects, which doesn’t help them integrate the concepts at all.

In practice, this means the elimination of English, mathematics, history, and science class. Instead, we need to arrange the curriculum around big ideas, questions, and conundrums. What does learning look like in this model? Letting kids learn by doing — the essence of the philosophy of educator John Dewey. He wrote: “The school must represent present life — life as real and vital to the child as that which he carries on in the home, in the neighborhood, or on the playground.”

 

Trying to write Rhizomatic learning in 300 words (Dave Cormier). The concept of rhizomatic learning fits in nicely with theories of complexity and authenticity in education, which is why I really like it as a way of thinking about learning.

The idea is to think of a classroom/community/network as an ecosystem in which each person is spreading their own understanding with the pieces the available in that ecosystem. The public negotiation of that ‘acquisition’ (through content creation, sharing) provides a contextual curriculum to remix back into the existing research/thoughts/ideas in a given field. Their own rhizomatic learning experience becomes more curriculum for others.

Jan Herrington’s model of Authentic learning

A few days ago I met with my supervisor  to discuss my research plan for the year. She suggested I look into Jan Herrington’s work on authentic learning so I thought I’d make some notes here as I familiarize myself with it.

To begin with, there are 9 elements of authentic learning (I believe that in designing our blended module we’ve managed to cover most of these elements. I’ll write that process up another time):

  1. Provide authentic contexts that reflect the way the knowledge will be used in real life
  2. Provide authentic tasks and activities
  3. Provide access to expert performances and the modelling of processes
  4. Provide multiple roles and perspectives
  5. Support collaborative construction of knowledge
  6. Promote reflection to enable abstractions to be formed
  7. Promote articulation to enable tacit knowledge to be made explicit
  8. Provide coaching and scaffolding by the teacher at critical times
  9. Provide for authentic assessment of learning within the tasks

The above elements are non-sequential.

“Authentic activities” don’t necessarily mean “real”, as in constructed in the real-world (e.g. internship), only that they are realistic tasks that enable students to behave as they would in the real-world.

Here are 10 characteristics of authentic activities (Reeves, Herrington & Oliver, 2002). Again, I believe that we’ve designed learning activities and tasks that conform – in general – to these principles. It’s affirming to see that our design choices are being validated as we move forward. In short, authentic tasks:

  1. Have real-world relevance i.e. they match real-world tasks
  2. Are ill-defined (students must define tasks and sub-tasks in order to complete the activity) i.e. there are multiple interpretations of both the problem and the solution
  3. Are complex and must be explored over a sustained period of time i.e. days, weeks and months, rather than minutes or hours
  4. Provide opportunities to examine the task from different perspectives, using a variety of resources i.e. there isn’t a single answer that is the “best” one. Multiple resources requires that students differentiate between relevant / irrelevant information
  5. Provide opportunities to collaborate should be inherent i.e. are integral to the task
  6. Provide opportunities to reflect i.e. students must be able to make choices and reflect on those choices
  7. Must be integrated and applied across different subject areas and lead beyond domain-specific outcomes i.e. they encourage interdisciplinary perspectives and enable diverse roles and expertise
  8. Seamlessly integrated with assessment i.e. the assessment tasks reflect real-world assessment, rather than separate assessment removed from the task
  9. Result in a finished product, rather than as preparation for something else
  10. Allow for competing solutions and diversity of outcome i.e. the outcomes can have multiple solutions that are original, rather than a single “correct” response

Design principles for authentic e-learning (Herrington, 2006)

“Authentic learning” places the task as the central focus for authentic activity, and is grounded in part in the situated cognition model (Brown et al, 1989) i.e. meaningful learning will only occur when it happens in the social and physical context in which it is to be used.

“How can situated theories be operationalized?” (Brown & Duguid, 1993, 10). Herrington (2006) suggests that the “9 elements” framework can be used to design online, technology-based learning environments based on theories of situated learning.

The most successful online learning environments:

  • Emphasised education as a process, rather than a product
  • Did not seek to provide real experiences but to provide a “cognitive realism”
  • Accept the need to assist students to develop in a completely new way

There is a tendency when using online learning environments to focus on the information processing features of computers and the internet. There is rarely an understanding of the complex nature of learning in unfamiliar contexts in which tasks are “ill-defined”.

The “physical fidelity” (how real it is) of the material is less important than the extent to which the activity promotes “realistic problem-solving processes” i.e. it’s cognitive realism. “The physical reality of the learning situation is of less importance that the characteristics of the task design, and the engagement of students in the learning environment” (Herrington, Oliver, & Reeves, 2003a).

Learners may need to be assisted in coming to terms with the fact that the simulated reality of their task is in fact, an authentic learning environment. It may call for their “willing suspension of disbelief” (Herrington, 2006).

There is a need for design-based research into the efficacy of authentic learning to better understand the affordances and challenges of the approach.

An instructional design framework for authentic learning environments (Herrington & Oliver, 2000)
One of the difficulties with higher education is teaching concepts, etc. in a decontextualised situation, and then expecting the students / graduates to apply what they’ve learned in another situation. This is probably one of the biggest challenges in clinical education, with people being “unable to access relevant knowledge for solving problems”

“Information is stored as facts, rather than as tools (Bransford, Sherwood, Hasselbring, Kinzer & Williams, 1990). When knowledge and context are separated, knowledge is seen by learners as a product of education, rather than a tool to be used within dynamic, real-world situations. Situated learning is a model that encourages the learning of knowledge in contexts that reflect the way in which the knowledge is to be used (Collins, 1988).

Useful tables and checklists on pg. 4-6 and pg. 8-10 of Herrington & Oliver, 2000. An instructional design framework for authentic learning environments
An “ill-defined” problem isn’t prescriptive, lacks boundaries, doesn’t provide guiding questions and doesn’t break the global task into sub-tasks. Students are expected to figure out those components on their own. We’re beginning by providing boundaries and structure. As we move through subsequent cases, the facilitators will withdraw structure and guidance, until by the end of the module, students are setting their own, personal objectives. Students should define the pathway and the steps they need to take.

Situated learning seems to be an effective teaching model with trying to guide the learning of an appropriately complex task i.e. advanced knowledge acquisition

Students benefit from the opportunity to articulate, scaffold and reflect on activities with a partner. When these opportunities are not explicitly described, students may seek it covertly.

Students often perceive a void between theory and practice, viewing theory as relatively unimportant (jumping through hoops, in the case of our students…busy-work with no real benefit other than passing theory exams) and the practical component as all-important. They appreciate the blurring of boundaries between the two domains.

The authentic activity should present a new situation for which the students have no answer, nor for which they have a set of procedures for obtaining an answer i.e. it should be complex and the solution uncertain.

Herrington & Reeves (2003). Patterns of engagement in authentic online learning environments

There seems to be an initial reluctance to immerse oneself in the online learning environment, possibly owing to the lack of realism from contexts that are not perfect simulations of the real-world. Students may need to be encouraged to suspend their disbelief  (pg. 2). They must agree to go along with an interpretation of the world that has been created.
Once the student has accepted the presented interpretation of the world, it is only internal inconsistency that causes dissonance. Other challenges occur when students perceive the environment as being non-academic, non-rigorous, a waste of time, and unnecessary for effective learning (which may well be the case if they perceive “effective learning” as sitting passively in a classroom trying to memorise content)
Be aware that the designer of the online space may present an interpretation of the world that is not shared with everyone i.e. it is one person’s view of what the real world is like.
A willing suspension of disbelief can be likened to engagement: “…when we are able to give ourselves over to a representational action, comfortably and unambiguously. It involves a kind of complexity” (Laurel, 1993, 115). It isn’t necessary to try and perfectly simulate the real-world, only that the representation is close enough to get students engaged e.g. the quality / realism  of images doesn’t have to be perfect, as long as it enables students to get the idea.
Many students find the shift to a new learning paradigm uncomfortable. If students are not self-motivated, if they are accustomed to teacher-centred modes of instruction and if they dislike the lack of direct supervision, they may resist. They may also be uncomfortable with the increased freedom they have i.e. there is less teacher-specified content, fewer teacher-constructed objectives, and almost no teacher-led activities. On some occasions, students may feel that they are not being taught, and may express this with anger and frustration.
The facilitator is vital in terms of presenting the representation in a way that encourages engagement, much like an actor in a play must convince the audience that what is happening on the stage is “real”. Without that acceptance, you would not enjoy the play, just as the student won’t perceive the value of the learning experience.
Students need to be given the time and space to make mistakes. They will begin by working inefficiently, but the expectation is that efficiency increases over time.
We need to “humanise” the online learning experience with compassion, empathy and open-mindedness.

References

  • Bransford, J.D., Sherwood, R.D., Hasselbring, T.S., Kinzer, C.K., & Williams, S.M. (1990). Anchored instruction: Why we need it and how technology can help. In D. Nix & R. Spiro (Eds.), Cognition, education and multimedia: Exploring ideas in high technology (pp. 115-141). Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum
  • Brown, J.S., & Duguid, P. (1993). Stolen knowledge. Educational Technology, 33(3), 10-15
  • Brown, J.S., Collins, A., & Duguid, P. (1989). Situated cognition and the culture of learning. Educational Researcher, 18(1), 32-42
  • Collins, A. (1988). Cognitive apprenticeship and instructional technology (Technical Report 6899): BBN Labs Inc., Cambridge, MA
  • Herrington, J. (2006). Authentic e-learning in higher education: Design principles for authentic learning environments and tasks, World Conference on E-Learning in Corporate, Government, Healthcare, and Higher Education, Chesapeake, Va
  • Herrington, J., & Oliver, R. (2000). An instructional design framework for authentic learning environments. Educational Technology Research and Development, 48(3), 23-48
  • Herrington, J., Oliver, R., & Reeves, T.C. (2003a). ‘Cognitive realism’ in online authentic learning environments. In D. Lassner & C. McNaught (Eds.), EdMedia World Conference on Educational
  • Herrington, J., & Reeves, T. C. (2003). Patterns of engagement in authentic online learning environments. Australian Journal of Educational Technology, 19(1), 59-71
  • Laurel, B. (1993). Computers as theatre. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley
  • Reeves, T. C., Herrington, J., & Oliver, R. (2002). Authentic activities and online learning. HERDSA (pp. 562-567)