Monday, 18 August 2014

Future-focused learning?

In May this year (2014), the report from the 21st Century Learning Reference Group was published. This report, called Future-focused learning in connected communities, outlines its parameters:
1. that it's stated vision is focused on young New Zealanders
2. that digital technologies "change the way students learn, the way teachers teach and where and when learning takes place" (p. 4)
3. that they propose 10 "strategic priorities for 21st century skills and digital competencies"

I want to discuss each of those items, but I'll address the recommendations in another blog post.

Young New Zealanders
Focusing a vision on young people is perfectly acceptable, but it ignores and discounts those of us in positions to help, equip and nurture them. Young people do not exist in a vacuum, for they are surrounded by Significant Others in roles of mentors, models and sources of resources. If these young people are to "contribute to a thriving and prosperous economy" (p. 4) then that is something created by others - ie adults. Ignoring the role others play in developing the confidence, connection and disposition for lifelong learning the vision advocates, is a very large gap in the thinking. This will connect with things I raise later.

Digital technologies and changing teaching
I wrote a literature review for the Ministry of Education a few years ago (Wright, 2010). In it, I mentioned that a striking feature of the literature available was that using digital technologies was altering what went on in the classroom. However, I also wondered if what I was reading about was a case of the Hawthorne Effect in action, where temporary changes occur because of the scrutiny. This question arose because the literature available at the time tended to be about single or short term instances of experimenting with various digital technologies in specific classroom settings. Longitudinal studies in such a new field were not yet available. Also, the literature review predated the explosion of mobile technologies on the educational scene.

I'm currently working with three teachers in a local high school experimenting with iPads and Chromebooks. I mostly visit fortnightly, and this project is in its second year. What I am noticing, now that I've been hanging out with these teachers for quite some time, is that rather than changing their pedagogy (ie how they teach), they are facilitating students' use of the devices in ways that suit their existing pedagogical practices. The difference is scale, not kind. I see expressions of the assertion that digital technologies change pedagogy everywhere - it infiltrates government rhetoric (not just here, but overseas too) and the talk of those wanting to sell the latest and greatest shiny toy to teachers. And yet, when we look at how many teachers use things like PowerPoint or interactive whiteboards (IWBs) we see these become methods of delivery, not learning tools for learners. I have seen scenarios where teachers get students to COPY stuff from a powerpoint slide, for heaven's sake, and where the teacher is in firm control of any digital technology in the room. It is still teacher delivery, not student discovery. So, I am not convinced that the claims of the Committee's report that "digital technologies change the way...teachers teach" (p. 4), is anything more than hopeful rhetoric.

To also assert that digital technologies change the way students learn is also nonsense. Learning theories tell us that as learners we have options that include learning from mistakes (of behaviour, of faulty knowledge, of errors of judgement, of skill execution), learning through problem-solving, learning that springboards from prior knowledge, learning with and from others, and should promote the epistemic curiosity kind of learning promoted by Ian Leslie in his book Curious: The desire to know and why your future depends on it. In it, he provocatively argues that
Children who aren't encouraged by adults to commit information to their long-term memories are having their potential damaged and their desire to learn stymied. When we abandon them to the internet, we are leaving their epistemic curiosity to die. 
This provocation is a direct contradiction to the assertion that digital technologies (inert things, by the way) change the way students learn. The things that have always mattered in learning terms, still do. These include:

  • deep and critical thinking 
  • the ability to judge veracity, reliability and value
  • the ability to distinguish opinion from fact
  • behaving ethically
  • knowing how, when, what and whether to share
  • knowing how to work with others and work alone
  • discerning gaps and silences in information, and 
  • understanding when others are attempting to bend us to their will or agenda. 

What also matters is the curiosity to know, to make, to create and to disrupt, all of which occur in relation to specific contexts, contents and learning purposes. Digital technologies can support these fundamentals of learning by simplifying processes, making them faster, and looking more beautiful. However, of themselves, they change nothing. It is what people do with them that matters, and this doing should be discerning, critical, passionate and creative.

So, even though I'm deeply interested in digital technologies and their potential in education, I am increasingly annoyed by the assumptions about them. What do you think?

More in a couple of weeks.

Tuesday, 12 August 2014

Bonk & Khoo (2014) – Adding some TEC-VARIETY

I was delighted to receive my copy of this text and read it eagerly, on the hunt as always for ideas for my online classes. I am currently teaching three fully online papers, which will bring my tally of online classes to six this year. I love teaching online and strive to be innovative and to try something new online in every class each semester.

For a long time, the trend in online learning was to ‘put a course online’ and teach it as closely as possible to how it would be taught on campus in a f2f context. This might mean lots of readings to download, copies of lecture notes and PowerPoint slides. Gradually, this shifted to ‘lecture capture’ via Panopto, and online discussions which usually took the form of a weekly forum where students were assigned literature to read and discuss with a stimulus question and guidance from a lecturer in discussion (if they were lucky).
All rather dull…
Not a lot of magic there!

This book is in the tradition of Salmon’s e-tivities (2nd edition 2013) and McDonald’s Protocols, in that it collates practical suggestions for activities in online classes; is predicated on a solid base of research and theory; and clusters activities according to the rhythm of online teaching and the needs of online students.

Why would these rhythms and needs be any different online, you might ask?
Therein lies the purpose of the book and the heart and soul of Bonk & Khoo’s work: the activities are specifically designed to motivate and retain learners who could otherwise disengage, drop behind, drop out and disappear. The statistics show that a great many online learners do not complete.
The point is: To humanise the cold online classroom, establishing an inclusive climate for learning, to emphasise the construction of knowledge, learning participation, student ownership and creativity.

Yes, humanity, inclusion and creativity online!

I’ve been a fan of Curtis Bonk’s work since the 1998 'Electronic Collaborators' text co-authored with Kira King (aka ‘the Bonk-King book’, much to the amusement of Kiwi readers). I’ve spoken with Curt during his visit to Waikato (in 2002), and in Orlando, Florida at a Hypermedia conference in 2006, and I found his work ‘The World is Open’ to be a source of inspiration. TEC-VARIETY continues this vision, and I was particularly drawn to the statement: “We live in a world rich with golden nuggets of free and open learning content as well as technologies for interacting and collaborating about this content” (Bonk & Khoo, 2014, p.2).

Elaine Khoo is a close colleague and friend, and we have collaborated on a project together, involving student-generated podcasts in teacher education. We’ve presented at ASCILITE and have authored journal articles together. Elaine too, has been a source of inspiration throughout my Doctoral journey as her research broke ground in a similar field and hers was one of the PhDs I read and cited.

Knowing the authors, I knew the activities in the text would be insightfully theorised, informed in particular by key learning theories, based on many years of international experience, and also relevant to New Zealand contexts. I was not disappointed.

From the start, the book clearly works at the intersection of technology, pedagogy and learning.

The use of the memorable acronym – TEC-VARIETY – guides the reader through ten principles of online learning in support of student motivation and retention.
For each principle, there are ten activity ideas. Do the maths: that’s 100 activities, each of which is presented in a clear format with instructional considerations, variations and extensions, as well as time-cost indices.

A few of my favourites:…

Tone: Video Intro
Encouragement: Critical friends
Curiosity: (The most downloaded chapter so far) Contextual and Cultural blogs
Variety: Serious play, via online séances, and encouraging teacher education students to sign up to teach a language online.
Autonomy: Open exploration weeks, OER explorations
Relevance: Pubcasting: embedding multimedia interviews with researchers and academic writers, discussing their most recent findings or publications
Interactivity: Wiki-based brainstorming and co-creation (e.g., student-generated tutorials, class glossaries, e-books); comapping (collaborative mindmapping)
Engagement: Microblogging
Tension: Structured Controversy
Yielding Products: Course video summaries

None of the activities are particularly high-tech or out of the reach of our faculty – all can be accomplished in Moodle (or any other LMS) and using systems and support readily available to us here and now.

Several of the book’s accolades refer to chapter 14 – which looks at how to work with colleagues to encourage them to try new ideas.

I am thrilled and proud that the work of my co-blogger and my own studies are cited in the text.

Importantly, the book has an accompanying website
And in the spirit of openness, the text is available as a free download from the site, along with additional resources. The entire e-book or any of the 15 individual chapters can be downloaded free of charge.
The authors take an interactive approach, inviting readers to trial and provide feedback on the activities, and to suggest modifications and contextual improvements. The intent is to continually update the book site “with new pedagogical activities and ideas, technological tools, reviews and announcements as well as stories of best practices” (p.5).
The text is self-published by Bonk’s Open World Books, and this in itself is a source of inspiration as an act of intellectual generosity, and integrity.

The final word might go to Curtis Bonk’sown blog:

 “Online instructors can learn how to design a safe climate for learning, give feedback, foster interaction and collaboration, nurture student autonomy and creation of products, and much more. The intent is for higher online learning retention and the development of more self-directed online learners”.

TEC-Variety is fresh and ready for immediate and flexible application. I’ll be keeping my copy handy!

Tuesday, 5 August 2014

Assumptions about digital technologies' impact on teachers' pedagogy

I've been thinking a lot recently about the following assumptions regarding digital technologies and education:
1. That teachers' pedagogies are transformed when digital technologies are used in classrooms
2. That 'old' teachers resist using digital technologies
3. That the presence of digital technologies 'changes' teaching and learning.

1. That teachers' pedagogies are transformed when digital technologies are used in classrooms
I want to debunk both as myths. In 2010, I wrote a literature review for the Ministry of Education, and noted that an emerging trend in the literature I canvassed was that teachers were noticing how thing were different in their classrooms when they used these cultural tools. I also cautioned that this trend may also be a symptom of the Hawthorn Effect in action (Sonnerfeld, 1985).  I'm really pleased that I included that caution, for the more I work with teachers experimenting with mobile digital technologies, the more I see that these same tools can also serve to reinforce existing practices.

Asserting that digital technologies have already transformed education, is, I argue, a fallacy. What may be transformed are things like: reducing teachers' workload, including marking (see this blog post and video for an example); reducing preparation time, because things are easy to find, adapt and share; making communication with students or other colleagues easier (blanket posts via email or social media or through an LMS); access to information and more online tools than you can poke a stick at. Teachers can therefore conduct their work more efficiently. This does not mean that pedagogically, there has been any marked change.

When I visit our graduate students on practicum in local secondary schools, I still see replicas of classrooms that were familiar sights last century. It is the industrial model of education still in action: kids in rows facing the front; teachers doing the chalk-and-talk with PowerPoint; students copying notes (for heaven's sake); students working individually; notices banning mobile devices on the school grounds (although, to be fair, this kind of notice and policy is fast receding); teachers saying that it's all right for subject X to use digital technologies, but they don't belong in my subject...

David Parsons (Massey University) for example, talks about a 'paradigm shift' - but what does that mean educationally? Are teachers really teaching in a whole new paradigm, or do they and students just have better access to information and ways of producing more? The European Union also talks about digital technologies transforming education, but I had a hard time finding evidence of this, and even the same site's digital agenda talks about the technology, not the learning. The Horizon site also trumpets the transformation of classrooms, but again, there was little evidence of pedagogical practice being altered - but a lot of talk of technology. What is being used as learning resources may be changing, but pedagogical practices?  I think this is smoke and mirrors.

And even more recently, is the report from Pegasus Bay schools in Christchurch  This set of schools had to reinvent themselves post earthquakes. The report is called Disrupting the boundaries of teaching and learning: How digital devices became a resource for transformative change in a time of crisis. I read that report and was struck by the assumptions which seemed to precede the analysis of any data - that this WOULD be about transformation. An earthquake is definitely disruptive and would certainly precipitate creative thinking and decision-making, but I didn't find out what had been transformed. Instead, I read a report about human resilience, willingness to make things better, and a determined effort to help learning happen for as many students as possible. The digital devices and broadband provisions facilitated the rebuilding education in those schools process more easily than if they had been absent. And they certainly made it easier for students to connect with each other and their teachers, to participate in meaningful learning and feel satisfaction in learning, but was transformed? Teachers talked about being more aware of learning from their students and being more open to being a teacher and a learner, but does that signal disruption? transformation? I think it signals that teachers, students and caregivers found more effective ways to connect with the learning process than they might have, had there been no earthquake. It is a story of good will, creativity and determination (from teachers, school leaders, caregivers ad those charged with helping this education community get back on its feet) in the face of huge upheaval. We have to be careful what is called transformational.

2. That 'old' teachers resist using digital technologies
The more I work with teachers in schools, the I'm convinced that it's the experienced teachers who are ready to experiment with digital technologies. Over four years ago, I worked with teachers in an Auckland secondary school who were experimenting with using cellphone sand other handheld devices (before the iPad hit the scene). All of these teachers were experienced - most had taught for more than 10 years at least. And I'm currently working with three teachers in another school who also have been teaching a long time. All of them were comfortable with trying things they didn't yet know or had never yet used in a classroom. All of them were keen to experiment with using digital technologies. All of them also argued that they would never have contemplated doing these things while they were in their first three years of teaching, because they would have been concentrating on betting the hang of classroom management, how the school functioned, their own time management, and the nuances of their curriculum subjects.  They also admitted that in those first few years of teaching, their pedagogical practices were not yet secure enough for them to cope when things went haywire, as technology has a habit of doing. They were now quite prepared for the 'pain of failure' as one teacher said because they had the experience and pedagogical content knowledge to have a Plan B if necessary.  Sometimes, Plan B morphed further along the alphabet before a semblance of order was restored.

3. That the presence of digital technologies 'changes' or 'transforms' teaching and learning
There is quite a bit of hype around digital technologies in education contexts. Sure, they can help students concentrate on task longer, and be more keen to complete tasks and present higher quality work, but there still appears to be the view that the mere presence of these devices is transformative of teaching and learning. Cleborne Maddux hit the nail on the head about this when he argued that 
We do not ask whether simply exposing children to books, teachers, or much of anything else in the educational environment will improve teaching and learning. Why then do we design studies in which the implicit assumption is that merely exposing children to technology, regardless of what that exposure entails, will facilitate learning? It seems clear that mere exposure to technology carries no particular benefit, and that it is how, not whether technology is used that is critical to student outcomes.(Maddux, 2009, p. 183)
In other words, he's arguing that carefully designed learning is as important as it ever was, and ascribing positive outcome to the presence of the device ignores the parts expert pedagogical design and professional learning facilitation play in any educational outcomes. And it belittles the highly important role a teacher plays in classrooms. 

We must always be mindful that separating out one thing (a digital device) as the game changer for learning, when it is one of many variables in a classroom, is dodgy at best. Variables to acknowledge in classrooms include: how well the technology works, the mood of the class (both individuals and the collective), the time of day (before or after lunch?), the quality of the learning tasks, the lesson facilitation, and the quality of the resources associated with the learning (did it mean students were learning from unseen, challenging texts, for example?). 

In the end, we must always be mindful that learning is not a straight line, nor is it straightforward, or untainted by complexity. On the contrary, it is messy, imperfect, and often emotionally charged. We cannot continue to accept others' assertions that the mere presence of a digital device will transform teaching and learning. 

References not already linked in the text
Sonnenfeld, J. A. (1985). Shedding light on the Hawthorne studies. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 6(2), 111-130