Categories
education learning

Universal principles of learning task design. Crisis edition.

It seems that everyone has decided to move teaching, learning and assessment online with a massive focus on synchronous, video-based lectures as the primary means of “delivering” the curriculum remotely. It’s as if we don’t have about 100 years of experience with distance learning to draw from and that there are no lessons to be learned from all of that experience. In this post I’m going to share what I think are important design principles for teaching and learning remotely, drawing mainly from my own experience with online and blended learning over the past few years.

While there are good pedagogical reasons for the principles I’m going to describe, there’s really only one reason that matters and it’s an ethical one. You should assume that at least one of your students is learning in this context:

It’s an extreme example but it highlights the fact that our students have enormous challenges trying to learn at home, and if this image doesn’t exactly describe all of our students’ home environment, it helps to focus our attention on what some version of those challenges might be. So here are my suggestions for anyone trying to work out how to “go online” over the next few months.

Universal principles for learning task design in a crisis

Prioritise asynchronous interaction. Because our students are at home with their families, elderly and sick relatives, young children and siblings, stressed parents, and barking dogs. Because their parents are now having to try and work at home as well, and they may all share one laptop (if they’re lucky enough to have a laptop at home). Because it’s not reasonable to expect 60 students to be able to get online at 09:00 on Monday morning. Because asynchronous interactions free everyone from the pressure of having to be availabe on your schedule. Asynchronous means that everyone has more flexibility to determine their own schedule.

Work offline as much as possible. Of course students will need to connect to the internet at some point (because we have to assume that they don’t have their notes, textbooks, slides, assignments and tests at home). But it’s not reasonable to expect your students to stay online for any length of time. Some of them (maybe most of them) will have always on, uncapped, fibre coming into their homes, distributed to 10 devices across multiple routers. We should not be focusing any attention on these students when it comes to learning task design. Our entire focus should be on the student who needs to stand in a corner of their back yard with their cellphone raised to the sky in order to connect to the internet. When we plan for the student who has an intermittent, unstable and expensive internet connection, we make it easier for everyone.

Privilege text over audio and video. There are lots of reasons that text is better than anything else and I’ll expand on these a bit since everyone is so focused on video right now and I think that this is an important point.

  • Text is searchable. Video and audio are not. Try finding a 30 second segment in a 20 minute video. Now try finding a description of something in a series of 5 one hour lectures. Try to avoid wasting students’ time by providing resources in a format that is searchable.
  • Text compresses better than anything else (making the file size compared to video, orders of magnitude smaller). This makes content quicker and therefore, cheaper to download. Also, lots of the video being planned for online learning is of the “talking head” variety, which means that the bulk of your students’ bandwidth is taken up by useless data (yes, the “video” part of your talking head is useless).
  • Text is usually more information-dense than audio or video, which again means that you can transmit more of it in less time. It also means that students can keep more of it in their limited phone storage capacity than they can with videos.
  • Text can be marked up with comments and questions, edited, copied/pasted, which is better for active learning than passively watching a video. None of your students can edit your video in order to extract meaningful information from it. They would have to transcribe the useful bits. This isn’t a good use of their time.

Low-tech over the Shiny New Thing. Now is not the time to ask students to download and install that new application that the IT department or edtech experts are suggesting everyone needs. If you need your students to go online, they should be able to do everything they need to via a browser, email client, or whatever software and apps you’ve been using extensively with them for at least a few months. These should already be installed on their devices. We not only need to assume that new apps will be an added expense to download and install, but it’s an additional cognitive load that will add to students’ stress and anxiety. In my opinion, email is the most fantastic killer-app in the current situation. In case anyone needs reminding, here are some features that are supported by email protocols:

  • One-to-one, private communication.
  • One-to-many, public communication.
  • Supports attachments of any format.
  • The email is an open standard that’s been around for longer than the web. It is solid, robust, stable, and very fast.
  • Email doesn’t require that anyone install anything since every device on the planet is capable of sending and receiving email.
  • Email supports asynchronous communication.
  • Email can be used offline with any email client.
  • Email is text-based.
  • Email is searchable.
  • No-one has to learn how to use email.

Simplicity over complexity. Now is not the time to have students struggling to understand what exactly you want them to do. Clear and simple instructions that leave no room for ambiguous interpretation are what students need to complete learning tasks in the current circumstances. I don’t any of my students to have to leave their homes (because they can only get online at the public library) in order to to send me an email to ask what exactly I expect them to do.

Everything is flexible. Deadlines. Learning tasks. Content to be covered. Assignment formatting. Everything. Let’s start from a blank slate and assume that this is an opportunity to think differently about everything. Let’s be open to suggestions, from colleagues, from friends, from students, from our own children. We can finally let go of the self-imposed expectation that we’re supposed to know what we’re doing and admit that, given the current global catastrophe, it may be OK to change…well, everything. Consider being flexible around the following:

  • Hard deadlines: “You can submit any time within a 3 day window.”
  • Format of student work: “You want to submit a narrated slideshow instead of an MCQ? Sure, let’s see how it goes.”
  • Expectations around device ownership: “No laptop? No problem. Write the essay by hand, take a photo of it and email it to me.” Pro-tip: It is unethical to expect any student to type an assignment on a phone.
  • Once we start looking for spaces within the curriculum for us and our students to be flexible, we’ll starting finding lots of creative, exciting opportunities emerging.

These principles aren’t perfect and they certainly aren’t new. But it feels like most educators and universities are throwing in their lot with a mass migration of content into learning management systems and other online platforms. I think that this is a mistake. Our students don’t need more resources that are high-bandwidth, expensive, and inherently worse than simple solutions. I believe that a combination of email, intermittent internet access, and plain text can get us 90% towards where we need to be with respect to teaching, learning and assessment in these trying times. Let’s not stuff things up even more by choosing “solutions” that will potentially disadvantage millions of learners across primary, secondary and higher education around the world.


Note: You may also appreciate these Low tech remote teaching principles produced by the Centre for Innovation in Learning and Teaching at the University of Cape Town.

Categories
assessment curriculum learning

Recalibrating expectations?

Last week we had a discussion about teaching practical physiotherapy techniques remotely and one of our participants asked (in the text chat) if anyone had any plans to teach fewer techniques. Unfortunately we didn’t get to the question because the conversation moved on quickly to explore other lines of inquiry, which is a pity because I think it was touching on an important point; are we recalibrating our expectations of the work we’re expecting students to do?

Our students are trying to work from home, in unusual sitations and enviroments, probably surrounded by family members who also have claims on their time (or who may be separated from family), who may be sick, cut off from friends, cut off from employment, don’t have internet access, don’t have laptops (have you tried typing an essay on a phone?) and a host of other problems that are normally an inconvenience but that are now fundamental to their learning.

You probably don’t have time to change your learning outcomes (since these usually need to be approved at higher faculty levels at least, and can’t be applied to the cohorts that they affect) but you almost certainly have some wiggle room when it comes to the content you expect students to learn. Review your regulatory body’s minimum standards to see what content has crept into the curriculum that doesn’t need to be there. You can probably even take a second look at the content that should be included and ask how much of that is essential?

How many assessment tasks do you usually include? You could probably half those. Tests of recall could be replaced by projects that can unfold over time and that demonstrate more authentic understanding. A few high stakes assessments (i.e. exams) could be replaced by more low-stakes assessments. How many readings do you usually ask students to complete? How many of those are essential? In short, there are almost certainly quite a few changes you could make to your programme that would decrease the pressure that students are currently experiencing, give them more time to think, and make this all slightly less stressful.

To be clear, I’m not talking about lowering standards (although I’m also not saying that we shouldn’t consider lowering standards). I’m just wondering if anyone is rethinking what work would adequately demonstrate the achievement of those standards? What does your programme look like when it’s pared down to it’s essentials? Now may be a good time to tidy the curriculum and get rid of the bloat that’s been creeping in over the past few years.

And then, when this is all over, you may need to think about why you’d choose to go back to what you were doing before.

Categories
education learning

For students: The Learning to Learn project

Earlier this year I launched a small project in my department, called Learning to Learn. The aim of the project is to share and discuss with students a range of evidence-based techniques that improve their ability to learn. I realised that, for many of my students, learning was something that they were simply expected to know how to do. No-one had ever explicitly helped them to improve the strategies they used to learn and few had considered the fact that learning is a skill that can be improved.

Doing well at university is easy. All you have to do is work hard. But, don’t you already work hard? Maybe it’s time to work differently.

The project is in the form of a monthly face-to-face seminar series, with supplementary material shared via a weekly newsletter. Since many of my students can’t make the F2F session I also provide extended notes where they can download the slides, find additional readings and resources, and in the future, listen to short audio summaries of the topic.

The idea isn’t that these strategies will lead to better grades – although they might – but that students develop more effective approaches to learning that help them to feel less anxious, overwhelmed and uncertain. The strategies are all simple, free, and can be implemented immediately (although they may not always be easy to implement).

So far I’ve created modules on:

I’ll also be publishing modules on How to read, How to write, Preparing for tests, and Getting enough sleep.

If you think that this is something that your students may benefit from, please feel free to share the link to the project with them. I won’t be running the F2F seminars for the next few months anyway, so the project notes and weekly newsletters will be all that’s happening for now. Students (anyone, actually) can sign up for the newsletter on the project page and are free to unsubscribe at any time.


Note: The next newsletter is due to go out on Friday the 27th of March, so this might be a good time to sign up and get a sense of what it’s about.

Categories
assessment education learning

Resource: Online learning in a hurry

Dave Cormier has provided an excellent series of short (5 minute) videos called Online learning in a hurry, for teachers who are now expected to move their teaching and assessment online.

What I really like about this collection is that it’s not a list of [insert service here] for remote teaching and learning. For example, the first post (not a video) is about setting up clear lines of communication with students and managing expectations. This is way more valuable than another “How to use Google Docs” article.

It takes Dave some time to get to advice on moving content online, which is where most other resources start. While the collection of videos is presented as advice for getting your teaching online “in a hurry” it’s also a considered and thoughtful approach.

The video series is also available as a YouTube playlist.

Categories
learning

Seven principles of learning

This is a short summary of a post by Scott Young that itself summarises the learning principles presented in Why don’t students like school, by Daniel Willingham. I’ve added the book to my reading list based on Scott’s recommendation.

Here are the principles from Scott’s post (with some of my own comments in italics):

  1. Factual knowledge precedes skill. Before you can understand complex ideas or be creative you need a sound knowledge base. See spaced repetition as an example of how to improve here. Anki is a useful app for this.
  2. Memory is the residue of thought. We remember what we think about. You can improve this skill by looking away from what you’ve just read and paraphrasing the text in your notes. It’s important not to simply copy the words (i.e. rewrite them) but to put them into your own words. Hypothesi.is will enable you to do this for most content that you access through the browser.
  3. We understand new things in the context of what we already know. This makes it difficult to learn abstract concepts, since we need to use metaphor and analogies to connect related ideas. Mind mapping might be a useful tool to think about in this context. Also, see the first principle.
  4. Proficiency requires practice. You need to be proficient in basic skills before you can progress to more complex ones. Focused repetition with feedback (see deliberate practice) is important.
  5. Cognition is fundamentally different early and late in training. Knowledge creation (research) and knowledge acquisition (learning) are different and therefore require different approaches. We’re not training people to become academics so we need to be sure that they can learn before we teach them how to create new knowledge.
  6. People are more alike than different in how we learn. Don’t spend too much time thinking about learning styles because learning styles aren’t real.
  7. Intelligence can be changed through sustained hard work. The genetic component of intelligence, combined with a sustained, nurturing learning environment, can see a relatively small advantage compound over time. And this doesn’t need to be in the form of complete lifestyle changes. Small, consistent changes in our habits can result in massive changes over time in how we live and learn.
Categories
learning

PSA: Learning is not fun

At the risk of upsetting people again I thought it’d be useful to reiterate (i.e. double down) on the idea that learning is not fun. Last year I made what I thought was a relatively uncontroversial statement that learning is not fun (it’s somewhere on Twitter, if you have the time to try and find it). Ben and I talked about it a bit on this episode of the In Beta podcast and, while I felt confident of the claim, it kept nagging away at me.

So I read these (links to go book summaries):

I’m not going to summarise everything I learned from the books other than to say that all of them talk about the idea that learning something new is hard, and none of them talk about the value of trying to make learning tasks fun (I acknowledge that there are other books which may offer different perspectives; if you’ve read any of them feel free to respond in the comments). There’s an acknowledgement in each book that pushing yourself to make intellectual leaps is a mental challenge and that to learn something difficult requires a certain amount of cognitive effort that can be described as uncomfortable.

Maybe people confuse the social aspects of going to school or university with the practical aspects of learning. In fact, I think that people tend to conflate “learning” with lots of the other activities associated with being at school. I also think that it’s easy to confuse the feelings we have when we achieve something difficult (e.g. satisfed, content, elated, etc.) with having fun. But a few seconds thought should make it clear that these are not the same thing.

No-one would ever suggest that the physical effort you put into training for a marathon is – or should be – fun. I have no idea why anyone thinks that the cognitive exertion necessary for learning is any different.

Categories
education learning

Comment: The game of school.

Schools are about learning, but it’s mostly learning how to play the game. At some level, even though we like to talk about schools as though they are about learning in some pure, liberal-arts sense, on a pragmatic level we know that what we’re really teaching students is to get done the things that they are asked to do, to get them done on time, and to get them done with as few mistakes as possible.

I think the danger comes from believing that those who by chance, genetics, temperament, family support, or cultural background find the game easier to play are actually somehow inherently betteror have more human value than the other students.

The students who aren’t succeeding usually don’t have any idea that school is a game. Since we tell them it’s about learning, when they fail they then internalize the belief that they themselves are actual failures–that they are not good learners. And we tell ourselves some things to feel OK about this taking place: that some kids are smart and some are not, that the top students will always rise to the top, that their behavior is not the result of the system but that is their own fault.

Hargadon, S. (2019). The game of school. Steve Hargadon blog: The learning revoluation has begun.

I thought that this was an interesting post with a few ideas that helped me to think more carefully about my own teaching. I’ve pulled out a few of the sentences from the post that really resonated with me but there are plenty more. Once you accept the idea that school (and university) is a game, it all makes a lot more sense; ranking students in leaderboards, passing and failing (as in quests or missions), levelling up, etc.

The author also then goes on to present 4 hierarchical “levels” of learning that really describe frameworks or paradigms rather than any real description of learning (i.e. the categores and names of the levels in the hierarchy are to some extent, arbitrary; it’s the descriptions in each level that count).

If I think about our own physiotherapy programme, we use all 4 “levels” interchangeably and have varying degrees of each of them scattered throughout the curriculum. However, I’d say that the bulk of our approach happens at the lowest level of Schooling, some at Training, a little at Education, and almost none at Self-regulated learning. While we pay lip service to the fact that we “offer opportunities for self-regulated learning”, what it really boils down to is that we give students reading to do outside of class time.

Categories
education learning scholarship

When a metric becomes a target it fails to be a good metric.

Lately I’ve been thinking about metrics and all the ways that they can be misleading. Don’t get me wrong; I think that measuring is important. Measuring is the reason that our buildings and bridges don’t collapse. Measurements help tell us when a drug is working. GPS would be impossible without precise measurements of time. My Fitbit tells me when I’m exercising close to my maximum heart rate. So I’m definitely a fan of measuring things.

The problem is when we try to use measurements for things that aren’t easy to measure. For example, it’s hard to know when an article we publish has had an impact, so we look at the number of times that other researchers have used our articles as proxy indicators for their influence on the thinking of others. But this ignores the number of times that the articles are used to change a programme or trigger a new line of thinking in someone who isn’t publishing themselves. Or we use the number of articles being published in a department as a measure of “how much” science that department is doing. But this prioritises quantity over quality and ignores the fact that what we really want is a better understanding of the world, not “more publications”.

It sometimes feels like academia is just a weird version of Klout where we’re all trying to get better at increasing our “engagement” scores and we’ve forgotten the purpose of the exercise. We’ve confused achieving better scores on the metric rather than workign to move the larger project forward. We publish articles because articles are evidence that we’re doing research, and we use article citations and journal impact factors as evidence that our work is influential. But when a metric becomes a target it fails to be a good metric.

We see similar things happening all around us in higher education. We use percentages and scores to measure learning, even though we know that these numbers in themselves are subjective and sometimes arbitrary. We set targets in departments that ostensibly help us know when we’ve achieved an objective but we’re only mildly confident that the behaviours we’re measuring will help achieve the objective. For example, you have to be in the office for a certain number of hours each week so that we know that you’re working. But I don’t really care how often you’re in your office; I only really care about the quality of the work you do. But it’s hard to measure the quality of the work you do so I measure the thing that’s easy to measure.

This isn’t to say that we shouldn’t try to measure what we value, only that measurement is hard and that the metrics we choose will influence our behaviour. If I notice that people at work don’t seem to like each other very much I might start using some kind of  likeability index that aims to score everyone. But then we’d see people trying to increase their scores on the index rather than simply being kinder to each other. What I care about is that we treat each other well, not how well we each score on a metric.

We’ve set up the system so that students – and teachers – care more about the score achieved on the assessment rather than learning or critical thinking or collaborating. We give students page limits for writing tasks because we don’t want them to write everything in the hope that some of what they write is what we’re looking for. But then they play around with different variables (margin and font sizes, line spacing, title pages, etc.) in order to hit the page limit. What we really care about are other things, for example the ability to answer a question clearly and concisely, from a novel perspective, and to support claims about the world with good arguments.

I don’t have any solutions to the problem of measurement in higher education and academia. It’s a ahrd problem. I’m just thinking out loud about the fact that our behaviours are driven by what we’ve chosen to measure, and I’m wondering if maybe it’s time to start using different metrics as a way to be more intentional about achieving what we say we care about. Maybe it doesn’t even matter what the metrics are. Maybe what matters is how the choice of metrics can change certain kinds of behaviours.

Categories
AI learning

Knowledge is more important than money

Those who work really hard throughout their career but don’t take time out of their schedule to constantly learn will be the new “at-risk” group. They risk remaining stuck on the bottom rung of global competition, and they risk losing their jobs to automation, just as blue-collar workers did between 2000 and 2010 when robots replaced 85 percent of manufacturing jobs.

Simmons, M. (2017). 5-Hour Rule: If you’re not spending 5 hours per week learning, you’re being irresponsible.

As I mentioned in my Plans! post from a few days ago, I’m trying to make more space in my day for reading. It’s partly because I enjoy reading more than almost anything else and partly because of my growing conviction that reading is one of the most important things I could be doing with my time. Reading is also a pre-requisite for being able to write well and I’d like to improve my writing quality and output during 2019. This post is really just a writing exercise where I expand on one of the points that I made in the post I just mentioned, providing some background and rationale for why I want to read more (this may become a short series of posts where I unpack my thinking around my plans).

In the early stages of your career, you want to focus on building what Cal Newport calls career capital, which is a shorthand for the kind of credibility that you can only get through hard graft. It’s the characteristic that makes people trust you because you’ve demonstrated a track record of consistently good work. It’s not just about showing up on time; it’s about how you show up. While career capital can be turned into financial reward, it’s really unlikely (unless you come from old money) that you can have money without first putting in the work. So it seems to me that you should make choices, especially early on in your career, that increase your chances of learning something new rather than looking for a bigger paycheque. Promotions are fine things to aim for but they won’t always lead to better opportunities in the long-term if they’re not associated with a high level of career capital (and yes, it’s possible to promote without having done the work).

Kevin Kelley said that you should “move into spaces that increase your options” but you can’t do this without first having a solid foundation of broad and deep knowledge of the world, or at least in your domain of interest. There are few opportunities available for those who are left behind and in the second decade of the 21st century, it’s become increasingly clear that many professionals are at risk of being left behind. Automation and machine learning are likely to make many tasks that we consider routine, redundant. Imagine if 25% of your daily work was automated away; what would you do with those extra 2 hours? Will you simply work fewer hours (at lower pay)? Or will you be ready to fill that time with meaningful tasks that machines can’t automate?

I started this post by saying that knowledge is more important than money because a high salary is a poor indicator of your ability to adapt to automation, whereas knowledge is the one thing that can help you to move quickly. The only way to plan for an uncertain future is to keep learning and one of the best ways to learn is to read.

Categories
learning

How people learn

Source: Downes, S. (2018). How people learn.

A nice collection of quotes in a slideshow, taken from a new report by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, that  highlights the dynamic process of learning throughout the lifespan.