If you can’t explain it simply…

Sometimes I get frustrated with colleagues who seem to think that the more complicated they can make an idea sound, the more intelligent they must be. I can’t think of another reason why they would obfuscate what they’re trying to say. I spend a lot of time trying to simplify what I’m talking about, although I don’t always manage to get this right. It’s not that I think my audience isn’t able to deal with complex ideas, I just think that I should be able to share complicated ideas simply.

assessment mobile technology

Adding complexity for its own sake

saraceno15I was discussing a PhD project with a colleague at the HELTASA conference a few weeks ago and she was describing her plan to me. She’s interested in the possibilities that mobile technology brings to higher learning, specifically in nursing education. I gathered that she was talking about mobile as a combination of hardware and software as a means of accessing content, although we didn’t really get into how she was defining mobile for her study.

What I found most interesting was that she was starting from the point that she would be using mobile, and then looking for a problem that she could use it to solve. This seems to be the wrong way around.

We often find people wanting to add complexity (e.g. using mobile devices in the clinical context) without really thinking about whether that added complexity brings with it any benefits. And then asking if the cost of the added complexity brings about a greater benefit. Before adding anything to the curriculum we need to ask ourselves, “What are we going to get in return?”

My colleague wanted to use mobile devices to figure out students’ prior knowledge i.e. she began from the premise that she would be using mobile devices. When I asked her why she didn’t just use pen and paper, she was confused. She said that she couldn’t use pen and paper because she would be using mobile devices. And therein lies the problem. She didn’t say that she wanted students to collaboratively come up with a dataset of “prior knowledge”, or that she wanted all students to see each others’ work, or any other reason that digital or mobile would have an advantage. Her sole reason for wanting to use mobile is that she wanted to use mobile.

By adding complexity to the curriculum without conducting a cost/benefit analysis, you will most likely include a set of unintended consequences, like increasing the actual financial cost of the course, increasing the workload of teachers, or confusing students. Without having a definite objective in mind, which would be enhanced or otherwise facilitated through the addition of the new feature, it’s difficult to argue convincingly for its inclusion.


The Internet is here to stay

Quote from Alec Couros‘ blog post, “It’s not going away“:

We live in complex, media-rich, connected environments. As adults, we have built these spaces for our kids and set them up in situations where I’ve heard members of our generation exclaim, “I’m sure glad Youtube or Facebook didn’t exist when I was a kid!” But these do exist. And no one – no one – really understands the full implications of what these devices and spaces have on the future of our children. So what are our *obligations* in all of this as administrators, parents, and educators? Do we selfishly ignore “it” because it feels uncomfortable and complex? Or do we roll-up our sleeves, embrace this discomfort, and live up to our ethical responsibilities for our kids?

We need to be comfortable with complexity.

I like the part about embracing the discomfort because I think that this is what’s really difficult for so many people. Change is hard to deal with and the Internet is changing everything. In order to move forward and really use this platform for something fundamentally different, we’re going to have to accept the disorder and discomfort, and figure out how to work within it rather than get upset because we can’t control it.

assessment learning PhD research teaching

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.


  • 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)
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Twitter Weekly Updates for 2011-10-17

  • @Suhaifa it’s an easy walk, easier than lions head, don’t stress 🙂 #
  • Daily Papert We can’t solve the world’s problems with the same thinking that created them #
  • Critical Thinker Explains Skepticism vs. Cynicism via @zite #
  • RT @engadget: MobiUS smartphone ultrasound hits the market two years too late for relevancy #
  • Stephen’s Web – Free learning: essays on open educational resources and copyright via @zite #
  • The atomic method of creating a Powerpoint presentation via @zite #
  • The Complexity Of Learning via @zite #
  • @USMCShrink Focus in education is that tech is good 2 get more content 2 more students in less time 4 less money, which misses the point #
  • A Tablet for the Blind? – Technology Review Elegant and clever solution #
  • What’s Behind the Culture of Academic Dishonesty Cheating doesn’t help if learning matters more than grades #
  • #Zite now my favourite news reading app on the iPad. Flipboard not iterating fast enough #
  • Ask the Students: Their Wise Wishes for Improving Education I keep saying that health education needs more art #
  • @USMCShrink its about not making the assumption that technology in education is automatically a good thing #
  • @USMCShrink I just highlighted a quote, so it was out of context. Did you read the rest of the post? #
  • “technology will be used…for the profit of corporations rather than…the benefit of children” #
  • If you are a clinician who supervises or teaches healthcare students, consider completing my survey Please RT #
education learning PhD research teaching technology

Complexity theory: learning in unfamiliar contexts

The following are notes I took while reading Fraser, SW & Greenhalgh, T. (2001). Coping with complexity: educating for capability.

During the past 6 months or so I’ve found myself thinking more and more that the way we teach health professionals (at least, in my experience) has had too much of a focus on technical competence, a mix of pure technical skill applied in contexts defined by the students’ basic knowledge base. I’ve suggested in various presentations and conversations that students need far more than the ability “to do” and that we need to shift the emphasis of our training to develop the underlying practice knowledge that’s often hidden in a professional culture obscured from the student. In clinical situations that are often complex, dynamic and multi-faceted, I’ve seen many academically strong students fall apart as they struggle to adapt to the changing context of patient management.

Recently I came across  complexity theory and how it’s use in education could help students move from simple competence (technical skill, knowledge and attitudes) to capability (ability to adapt to change, generate knowledge and continue to improve), and its really helped me in terms of structuring my thinking around the subject. The aspects of complexity theory that appeal to me are that:

  • Systems are constantly changing
  • Those changes are uncertain and paradoxical
  • Individuals within the system are independent and creative
  • Even if problems cannot be solved they can nonetheless be “moved forward”
  •  Solutions may only need minimal specification
  • Small changes can have large effects

I’ve observed these principles in practice but now I have a framework and a language to help structure the observations. So, how can principles of complexity be applied in an educational context? Fraser and Greenhalgh discuss 4 areas that it could be useful, and I was surprised to discover that I’ve been doing some of this already. Below are examples of how I’ve been teaching during this year and how it relates to complex systems.

The first area is in developing capability through transformational learning. One of the biggest problems I’ve faced is in trying to figure out how to teach something that can’t really be taught e.g. changing students’ thinking patterns from “passive-receptive” to “active-interactive”. One of the options is to provide the student with unfamiliar problems or contexts in a meaningful way (this isn’t about throwing the student into the deep end without support). In the Movement Science module I taught earlier this year, I gave the students practical problems that they hadn’t seen before and then asked them to solve the problems using theory (knowledge) and practical techniques (competencies) that had recently been covered in class. There were many acceptable solutions to these problems and many students figured out different ways to get to “the answer”. I’d move between groups to give guidance and answer questions that arose (immediate, contextual feedback is an important component of transformational learning). At the end of the class I asked one group to demonstrate their solution and then showed them how I would’ve solved the problem. I wanted to show them that even though we both used different approaches, and that we applied our knowledge and understanding in different ways, we still managed to “solve” the problem. I haven’t measured the outcome but anecdotally the students seemed to leave with a good understanding of the difficulties involved in clinical problem-solving. I wanted them to see that there isn’t an “A+B=C” solution to managing movement dysfunction.

The second area in education that can be understood through the lens of complexity theory is in relational learning. In the past, expertise derived from “having knowledge”. In an ever-changing world in which you can’t know a fraction of what’s available, expertise has become more about accessing knowledge from different sources. In other worlds, expertise is about forming relationships between concepts from possibly different fields. The relationships between concepts are just as important as the concepts themselves. Again, I’ve used this principle earlier in the year when I gave a concept mapping assignment, also in the Movement Science module, in which students had to demonstrate an understanding of complex relationships between concepts in a clinical context. I realised that although students had a good grasp of the concepts in the module, they weren’t familiar with the relationships between them. Of even greater concern was that many of them were unable to apply their knowledge clinically, even though they had a good understanding of the theory. After the assignment was over, one student told me that this was the most challenging assignment she’d ever done, and then thanked me for it! I’ve read somewhere that students want to be challenged, it’s just that they’ve become used to a system in which being passive can be successful. Without meaningful challenges, passively consuming content is easier than actually trying to understand. I’m hoping that through providing learning activities that push students out of their comfort zones we can help to begin a cultural mindshift within our department.

Non-linear learning. Check lists and clinical guidelines undoubtedly have their place but the problem is that they can only be used after the problem has been identified. It sometimes takes creativity and deep understanding to get to the point where a guideline can be applied. Einstein may have been right when he said that “imagination is more important than knowledge“. The real world is complex and difficult to navigate even with the right competencies, and yet we often don’t equip students to deal with the real world. Often when we try, the simulated environments we use don’t (can’t) come close to what will be expected of them in the rapidly changing clinical environments they will encounter after graduating. Our assessments / practical scenarios are too controlled and standardised. In fact, it’s almost impossible in our curriculum to present the students with non-linear problems because the curriculum is linear. It’s designed as a series of “blocks” of facts that build on each other, which doesn’t take into account the fact that life (and healthcare) aren’t that simple. There might be some way to incorporate non-linear teaching practices through the use of stories and case-based learning. I’m excited about the latter, as we’re introducing some aspects of case-based learning and PBL into a few of our module streams next year.

Process techniques. Building capability can be aided with minimal structuring, which is especially important as we move from mass education to individualised learning spaces. There is a focus on the process of learning, with protected time for reflection (not often seen in healthcare curricula), identified personal needs expressed through a learning plan and some kind of record of progress e.g. a portfolio. In addition, there is evidence that the effects of small group learning can amplify the knowledge of individuals so that the learning experience is greater for the group when trying to solve complex problems. One of the points made by the authors is that emergent learning will not occur merely because the group is formed. I learned this a few years ago when I created a wiki-based assignment with the goal of collaborative learning. Students worked as individuals within the group, not paying attention to each other at all. In retrospect this is probably because I didn’t provide the structure to guide them through the process.

Ultimately, Fraser and Greenhalgh emphasise the importance of shifting healthcare education from competency-based to capability-based assessment. We need to change our assessment focus from knowledge and technical skill to rather measure students’ ability to adapt to changing, complex clinical environments. It’s not enough for students to know what to do and how, they need to know when to do it and why.