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Posts Tagged ‘learning

In my journey to be a better educator, I have learnt that it is more important to empower learners than to merely engage them. 

Why? Engagement is often about shiny bells and whistles and other hook activities from the teacher. This does not ensure learning. 

I am not the only one to think and act on this. In 2019, Donald Clark wrote:

Engagement so often means that edutainment stuff – all tainment and no edu. The self-perception of engagement is, in fact, often a poor predictor of learning. As Bjork repeatedly says, on the back of decades of research, from Roediger, Karpicke, Heustler, Metcalfwe and many others, “we have a flawed model of how we learn and remember”.

Clark went on to write about the design of effortful learning activities instead of the easy click-through activities touted by vendors, bought in by administrators, and blindly used by teachers. He concluded: 

Engagement is not a bad thing but it is neither a necessary, and certainly not a sufficient condition, for learning… the excessive focus on surface experience may not help. All experience leads to some learning… (but) some experiences are better than others. What those experiences should be are rarely understood by learners. What matters is effortful learning.

Students avoid effortful learning because it is not easy. Teachers who do not process the research or give in to what is easy enable superficial learning. 

I would argue that there is a step above the design of effortful learning — empowered learning. This is where educators facilitate how students select outcomes, teach themselves and their peers, monitor progress, evaluate outcomes, and change strategies when needed.

Call it effortful learning plus. Call it difficult or unpopular. Empowered learning is for the long haul for both teacher and student. If you say you want independent, self-directed, and lifelong learners, you have to use strategies that mould them. There are no snazzy shortcuts.

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Today I reflect on how my distaste for dinners in public clarified a personal approach on educating teachers.

I dislike going out for dinners with extended family for two reasons. 

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First, the din at eateries here is unbearable because locals do not seem to know how to talk in hushed tones. I recently “enjoyed” a stereo effect of the piercing screeches of a toddler on the left, and the complaints of parents (in English and Hokkien) about their son’s academic struggles on the right. 

Second, the conversations at my own table can often be superficial or insincere. I particularly “enjoy” having to answer questions where the asker has already made up their minds or is more interested in giving their uninformed opinions.

At a recent dinner, a former student of mine walked up to say hello. After we chatted about the now and 30+ years ago, someone at my table asked me what I teach. 

I did not have a heart to point out that WHAT I taught was less important than WHO I taught. Nor did I have the bandwidth provide a sermon on how I preferred to educate and facilitate instead of teach. 

So I said that I teach teachers. When pushed about content, I mentioned educational technology.

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I would have liked to say that I try to educate teachers about humility and honesty in our profession. 

If we are truly humble, we would acknowledge that we still do not know much about how different people learn. Teaching is as much an art as it is a science. 

If we are honest, we would admit that we are quite ignorant, perhaps to the point of being stupid. How stupid can we get? We think we know a lot and that we are smarter than we actually are.

I wish more of us started from a foundation of humility and honesty. We might build conduct better conversations and design better learning experiences that way.

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I am already thinking about how I might start and end a workshop on the design of online learning. The workshop is months down the road.

I might use the portion of the clip above that features Gromit (of Wallace and Gromit fame) frantically laying train tracks as he needed them.

Why use this clip?

I sense that teachers do not plan as far ahead or with enough depth when they are tasked to conduct online lessons. Gromit’s tracks are like readymade resources prepared by someone else and their use is reactionary. This leads to failed or unpleasant experiences for both them and their students. 

For online learning to be effective, one design practice is to prepare well in advance. Such preparation is about preempting and preventing instead of reacting and firefighting. Roughly speaking, the preparation to implementation time might follow a 90:10 rule, i.e., 90% preparation, 10% implementation. 

Most teachers are probably not used to doing this. They might prefer to put their 90% into live instruction instead. However, doing this is an attempt to force a face-to-face practice into an online context.

The switch in environment necessitates change because the affordances and expectations are different. Not changing is like a human refusing to learn how to breathe under water with new tools and techniques. That person would likely drown. 

In the space of about a week, I read two reflections that challenged the narrative of “online = bad, face to face = good”.

The first was a tweet thread by Tim Fawns:

Fawn’s main points seemed to be:

  • It is not logical or possible to compare “face-to-face learning” and “online learning” because each is not just one method, environment, or resource.
  • Even if you compare just one method, e.g., online lectures and in-person lectures, or online group work vs face-to-face group work, how well each approach worked would depend on a host of other factors such as “how well each approach was done, how well it suited students, how well students engaged with it, relationships between teachers & student, infrastructure & support for each approach, surrounding circumstances, what else students did”.
  • The either/or argument is counterproductive. Students already do both, both teachers and students have strategies that work well for them, and much of teaching and learning is already blended in terms of environments and methods.
  • Labelling all online learning as bad probably stems from a bad experience, but this does not make all online learning bad. One rotten apple does not mean that all other apples are bad.

The second resource — good online learning – group work — was from Martin Weller. Citing previous research and practice, Weller stated that there are “well established model(s) to help you construct online interaction in a way that is different from face to face”.

Specifically, he suggested Diana Laurillard’s conversational framework (see condensed version of four categories of activities and five media forms here) and Gilly Salmon’s 5 stage e-moderating model.

Then he summed up what research has uncovered on online learning and group work. In plain speak, he suggested that we:

  • Clearly differentiate synchronous vs asynchronous activities
  • Include a lot more time for activities to be conducted and completed
  • Engage in careful design when planning, and provide detailed instructions and guidance when facilitating 
  • Take advantage of pre-existing learner expectations and behaviours about operating online
  • Establish social connections early in an online course: It is the glue that holds people together
  • Leverage on asynchronous work to not just provide flexibility of time for all but also reassurance for the socially awkward
  • Monitor and deal with behaviours that are counterproductive to online learning and cooperation
  • Not simply transfer face-to-face group work designs to online experiences without redesign or greater support

Rising above, these two gents provided precursors for a masterclass on the design of online learning experiences. I have a Masters and Ph.D. for studies relevant in this field and have taught online since 2001. But I am still learning how to do this. So I appreciate the pearls of wisdom they threw online. Oink!

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If there is a better and more timely example of “let the children lead”, it might be this one.

The video features a Ukrainian girl seeking refuge in Poland because of the Russian invasion of her home country. She is already in school and her new best friend is Polish. They rely on Google Translate to speak with each other.

The technology does not merely enhance learning, it enables it. Teachers might learn from the example of these two girls on how to do the latter. Enabling with technology is student-centred, meaningful, and powerful.

Just when I thought it was safe to go outside, more learning style zombies appeared. 

Why? A newspaper that has no business commenting on educational theory or practice declared that learning styles were “the Number 1 low-cost way to improve educational outcomes”. In doing so, they released a hoard of new zombies.

I love how several folk used animated GIFs to express their thoughts. For example:

Originally tweeted by David Christianson 🕊 (@DChristianson) on March 10, 2022.

But perhaps I am being too harsh. Forbes might be targetting trainers in the business world and I know many there who say so much while knowing so little. Zombie producers, all of them!

And the last word should go to @EDTECHHULK (who has not tweeted in a long time):

It was from this tweeted article that I found two gems — one new and one old.

The old gem was a reference that I had lost because it did not bookmark it properly in Diigo. It was from Yale’s Poorvu Center for Teaching and Learning and it cited the work of Coffield et al (2004)* which documented that there were “over 71 separate learning-style instruments and theories”.

One rationalisation of proponents of learning styles is that they cater to different “styles” of learners because that is how they supposedly learn best. To take that seriously, they would have to design for 71! (71 factorial) variations.

The new gem was a study by Husmann and O’Loughlin published in 2018 — Another Nail in the Coffin for Learning Styles** — that I had not added to my Diigo collection about the myth learning styles. The tweeted article summarised the study:

…students generally did not study in accordance with their learning style, and that even when they did, their test scores did not improve.

While the study added to the pool of knowledge about the myth of learning styles, it was optimistically titled as “another nail in the coffin for learning styles”. The myth has been peddled so long that it is refuses to die. Even when you stuff it in a well-crafted coffin, it breaks out like a zombie, bites the nearest victim, and keeps spreading.

There are many more zombies than zombie killers. I am one of the latter and do what I can to keep the walking dead in check.

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*Coffield, F., Moseley, D., Hall, E., & Ecclestone, K. (2004). Learning styles and pedagogy in post-16 learning: A systematic and critical review. London, UK: Learning and Skills Research Centre. [PDF, see Appendix 1 on p.166 for the list of the 71 instruments and theories]

** Husmann, P. R., & O’Loughlin, V. D. (2018). Another nail in the coffin for learning styles? Disparities among undergraduate anatomy students’ study strategies, class performance, and reported VARK learning styles. Anatomical Sciences Education12(1), 6–19. 

I agree with the tweeted sentiment and add to it.

We are myopic (shortsighted) in that we cannot clearly see what is far ahead. We are also presbyopic (longsighted) because cannot see what is right in front of us.

Learning is putting corrective lenses in front of our eyes so we see more clearly. Learning to learn is knowing when to use each lens. And seamless learning is having a technology-enabled lens that helps you do both.

This tweet thread and the ensuing conversation needs to be a blog post.

Distilling the wisdom from the tweets, effective online design and implementation could result from:

  • Sufficient time to practice (≈ two years)
  • The intrinsic desire to improve by learning from successes and failures
  • Getting academic qualifications for instructional design (ID) of online courses
  • Providing online facilitators with the resources they need (not what administrators or vendors want them to use)

The two-year tinkering and improving period sounds reasonable if the online educator is new to teaching. After all, we would not expect a beginning classroom teacher be exemplary from the start.

Getting a Masters in ID (mentioned in one conversation) might be too much to ask of faculty who already have their research, service, and content focus. But I do not think that it is unreasonable for leaders to enable professional development opportunities so that their teaching staff are better at facilitating learning online.

The final bullet point is about support from management and leadership. Instead of planning with spreadsheets and increasing class sizes, they could find out what teaching staff actually need.

I argue that they do not need clunky LMS designed by programmers and bean counters. The Apples and Googles of the world listen to and work with educators, and provide simple and intuitive tools, e.g., Google Sites, Google Classroom.

The point is not to reward vendors for feature bloat or pedagogical incompetence. Listen to your educators and partner with those who also listen to them.

Don’t paint online learning as bad and with the brush you used when you were a student and there was no pandemic. Try the broad strategies outlined above and then evaluate the quality of your online courses.

This critique by Martin Weller on why “education secretaries hate online learning” does not apply only to politicians. Other stakeholders like administrators, teachers, and parents can be just as misguided.

Weller offered possible reasons for why these folk might portray “online learning as, at best, a lazy, cheap option and at worst, some form of abuse”. Among them are these gems.

There is…

Faulty generalisation – nearly every Education Secretary seems to feel that their own experience of education is the only dataset they need to draw upon. They want Latindiscipline and Oxbridge type higher education. Online learning does not look like any of these things, so is, ipso facto, a bad thing.

Combined with…

Ignorance – I haven’t seen any desire to engage with what online, or blended, learning really looks like in a positive sense from any recent education secretary. And so they operate in a state of wilful ignorance about how effective it can be, and what is required to make it so.

Take any complex phenomenon, try to reduce it to a soundbite by combining anecdotal generalisation and wilful ignorance, and you get oversimplification and a standstill.

The oversimplification is that online learning is cheaper because it is more efficient and lazy because you do not have to show up in a classroom or because you can reuse resources.

The design, development, evaluation, and revision of online learning experiences is not cheaper than face-to-face. Factor in the time and effort to create a short YouTube video that is not just a talking head. Heck, consider what it even takes to make a talking head video good with proper script writing, camera work, sound, lighting, backgrounding, illustrating, editing, etc.!

Now consider how online learning might comprise asynchronous tasks. This could mean that learners do not Zoom or otherwise meet ‘live’ by other means like text chat or audio exchange. This is an intentional design element to take advantage of self-managed and dispersed individual time (over shared and limited classroom time) as well as reflective and investigative space (over immediate  or superficial talk). How is this lazy?

If a policymaker has only seen teaching from the student side of the desk, s/he cannot possibly empathise with what a teacher experiences. If a teacher has not designed lessons specifically with online affordances and limitations before, or not been given professional development to teach online, they cannot make comparisons or put online learning down.

To move forward, we need to learn from the pandemic pivot to online teaching and learning. Both successful and failed attempts offer lessons and ideas for education as a whole. We lose if stakeholders make uninformed judgements and throw away the gem in their hands only because it was not polished.


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