Learner Autonomy, Control and the Balance of Power

This blog post relates to my study of CCK11.

I have been struggling with how to express my view of the future role of educators in the 21st century.  I have had an idea that centres around learner centred, control and individualism, but simply haven’t been able to articulate this in my writing.

I have just listened to the Facilitator’s elluminate session for the 11th of March.  I am excited to say that after listening to this session, I think I have figured it out, and it is with the help of the participants and the facilitators.  So this article is my first attempt at putting into writing what I believe is the future role of the educator.

Towards the end of the elluminate session, discussion centred around learner empowerment.  The class was asked “What Can Educators Do to Empower learners?”  Many responses included the idea that learners should have choices and control over learning.  Stephen provided a quote from an article by Tony Bates that reviews an article by Sarah Guri-Rosenblit and Begoñia Gros where they state:

… the time seems ripe to acknowledge the fact that putting the students in the center of the learning process, and assuming that the information and communication technologies have the power of turning them into self-directed and autonomous learners have turned out to be quite naïve and unsubstantiated assumptions.

Stephen’s interpretation of the article is that in order to educate people properly, you have to exert power and control.  This then implies the above idea of empowerment as incorrect.

So it would seem that there are two opposing positions.

  1. That learning should be learner focused, and controlled.  Learners decide for themselves what they need to learn, and how to learn it.  Learners are self-sufficient & autonomous.
  2. That learners are incapable of managing their own learning and therefore must be managed and controlled by the teacher – by an expert.  Learning should produce consistent outcomes to assure competency.

Is this a dichotomy?  Funnily enough, a participant in the elluminate session made the point: “its not either / or”.

I have this little philosophy that when faced with two extremes, often (but not always) the answer is somewhere in the middle.  In this case, neither extreme is ideal, so the hard part is finding that middle ground.  The middle is a compromise in gaining most of the benefits of each extreme, with the least of the drawbacks. In this vein, I can see benefits and drawbacks from both positions above.  Too much control and learners become stifled, constrained, inculcated – they become a cog in “the [education] system”.  Too little control and in some circumstances, the learner may be unable to manage their learning to achieve their goals.

So from my perspective, learning can be managed and controlled by a teacher to the extent that it is necessary.  Leading into adult education, teachers and learners should work together to determine when this is necessary and to what extent.  A partnership if you will.  It is necessary when the learner does not know sufficiently enough to make informed decisions about how they go about learning something.  The old adage, “you don’t know what you don’t know” fits here for example.  Think of this level of control as a bootstrapping process (if you are knowledgeable of computers). Wikipedia describes bootstrapping (or booting a computer) as “a technique by which a simple computer program activates a more complicated system of programs.”  This is part of a computer’s startup process.  The teacher provides the simple (or not so simple) computer program that activates a more complicated system of programs – self-learning.  Put another way, the teacher provides the structure to assist the learner in making good decisions about how to learn what they wish to learn and achieve through the learning.  Depending on the context, this may be little or no assistance through to continuous and comprehensive management and support of learning.

Guri-Rosenblit and Gros continue in their concluding remarks: “Most students, even digital natives that were born with a mouse in their hand, are unable and unwilling to control fully or largely their studies.”  I have blogged previously on the notion of learner management in the context of PLEs/PLNs, but I believe it also fits here.  The excerpt below from my article is in response to the suggestion by Educause that “… less experienced students may not be ready for the responsibility that comes with building and managing a PLE”:

Managing one’s own learning is not a trivial task – it’s a big responsibility.  Is it reasonable to expect that everyone be able to manage their own learning to this level of detail?  A noble vision, but is it practical or reasonably attainable, or simply a fairy-tale view of education? … I believe this downside is understated, and why I don’t believe this ideal [PLEs/PLNs] is realistic in a global way – a panacea.

Younger learners will require much more bootstrapping than more mature learners – generally. 🙂  Another trend relates to the motivation of our learners.  Why are they learning something?  Is it to satisfy a burning desire or to attain a piece of paper to get a job?  Is it intrinsic, or extrinsic motivation.  Consider the example used by John Biggs in his theory of Constructive Alignment.  He described two very different students as I explain in my review of his book Teaching for Quality Learning at University:

Biggs introduces two student characters that represent two distinct groups of students that comprise a class.  They are also featured in a short film titled Teaching Teaching & Understanding Understanding.  Their names are Susan and Robert.  Susan is the typical academically minded student.  She comes to classes prepared, including pre-reading class materials, reflection on this material, and questions about her understanding of it.  Then there is Robert.  Robert is characterised as a student who is there out of necessity rather than desire.  He only wants to achieve sufficiently to be able to get a good job.  The course he is doing may not have been his first choice.  He comes to class with little preparation or prior reflection.  He hopes to rote learn and memorise to be able to pass his course.

Robert is not ready to manage his own learning – to be an autonomous learner, and requires considerably more bootstrapping than does Susan.  Susan is motivated to learn, rather than obtain a piece of paper (qualification).  Susan is better prepared and motivated to manage her learning and be autonomous.  She will require less bootstrapping because she is intrinsically motivated to take on the role of being an autonomous learner.

But bootstrapping only provides the contextual knowledge and structure required to support learners to the point that they can autonomously carry on and report back if necessary.  The skills to be autonomous and self-sufficient must also be learned.

This is where I believe our modern education system is letting down society.  The balance isn’t right.  In modern times it is becoming increasingly focused on control and measurement, particularly in K-12, to the detriment of broader skills such as learner autonomy.  The net effect of this focus is task corruption.  It’s no longer about the learning.  Teachers are focused on the measurement.  They are teaching to the test.  As learners move into higher education, they have been conditioned to do the same – learn to the test.  How many times have you been asked, “do I need to know this for the exam?”  So we have our measurement, the learner can do xyz in a classroom with an invigilator, pen and paper, and a wall-clock.  Rowntree said of exams, as quoted by Phillips:

The traditional three hour examination tests the student’s ability to write at abnormal speed, under unusual stress, on someone else’s topic without reference to his customary sources of information, and with a premium on question spotting, lucky memorisation, and often on readiness to attempt a cockshy at problems that would confound the subject’s experts

Is this how we perform in the real world?  Modern education is an assembly line – a sausage factory, churning out shrink-wrapped uniform graduates, with a GPA stamped on their forehead, in the name of quality and standards.  I acknowledge that graduates need to differentiate themselves and that employment is a competitive market, but when you are learning to a test, ultimately how meaningful is a GPA?  My point is that we are too focused on measurement.  We need to get the balance right.

I recently commented on Stephen Downes’ article 10 Things you really need to learn. With the exception of reading, none were integral components of my formal education.  Yet, they are sound in my view because they develop your ability to be self-sufficient – to be an autonomous learner.

So my hope for the future of education is that we can get the balance right.  That learners are sufficiently supported and encouraged to develop the life-long skills of learner autonomy and learning management.  Yet, there are also appropriate structures – a bootstrapping process to help learners make their way and achieve their goals, whatever they happen to be (personal enlightment, or a decent job).

Damien.

PLEs and PLNs

This blog post relates to my study of CCK11.

What are the downsides? (http://net.educause.edu/ir/library/pdf/ELI7049.pdf)

As a learning platform that is by definition always evolving, a PLE requires students to engage in ongoing decision making to maintain, organise, and grow their learning environments.  The process of self-directed learning requires a degree of self-awareness, and it must be given time to mature.  Some students, however, may have never taken the time to think about their own metacognition or to reflect on how they learn best.  These less experienced students may not be ready for the responsibility that comes with building and managing a PLE.

Interesting, and a serious downside indeed.  Managing one’s own learning is not a trivial task – it’s a big responsibility.  Is it reasonable to expect that everyone be able to manage their own learning to this level of detail?  A noble vision, but is it practical or reasonably attainable, or simply a fairy-tale view of education?  Let me explain my context, and why I believe this downside is understated, and why I don’t believe this ideal is realistic in a global way – a panacea.

I’m from Australia.  Higher education in Australia is partly funded by the Australian Government.  Students pay a portion of the tuition fees, and can defer their payments until after they obtain a job.  In the meantime, the tuition debt only grows inline with the CPI.  In other words, Australian tertiary students do not pay interest on their loans, and only pay a proportion of the overall costs which are subsidised by the Government.  Tertiary education in Australia is very accessible. Given this accessibility, and the diminished cost to the individual, there is greater diversity in the motivations of students in Australian higher-ed.  The fall-out from failure isn’t as significant as other countries where the individual bears the burden of the full costs of their education.  Don’t get me wrong, I think we have an outstanding system in place, that provides equitable access to higher education.  You don’t have to be wealthy to have a go in Australia.

I’m getting to the point… promise. 🙂  Take the following quote from a blog post I wrote some time ago, where I was reflecting on the book Teaching for Quality Learning at University, written by John Biggs.

Biggs introduces two student characters that represent two distinct groups of students that comprise a class.  They are also featured in a short film titled Teaching Teaching & Understanding Understanding.  Their names are Susan and Robert.  Susan is the typical academically minded student.  She comes to classes prepared, including pre-reading class materials, reflection on this material, and questions about her understanding of it.  Then there is Robert.  Robert is characterised as a student who is there out of necessity rather than desire.  He only wants to achieve sufficiently to be able to get a good job.  The course he is doing may not have been his first choice.  He comes to class with little preparation or prior reflection.  He hopes to rote learn and memorise to be able to pass his course.  These two characters form the cornerstone of his theories into the effectiveness of active versus passive learning.

Not all students are motivated in the same way when it comes to managing their learning.  Robert is not so interested in managing his learning – its about hoops to jump through to get his piece of paper (qualification).  Constructive Alignment, a theory by John Biggs suggests amongst other things that learning must be active – it is all about what the students do.  This in my opinion has merit, but like all theories, is contextual.  That aside, Biggs believes that you can create learning situations that force students such as Robert to be more active learners. As John puts it in an epilogue to the Teaching Teaching & Understanding Understanding Video (Part 3):

Thus we see that alignment throughout the system is based on the relevant constructive student activity.  In our “apply” example, the intended learning outcome, the teaching/learning activities, and the assessment task are all focused on that single verb “apply”:  we have woven a constructive web from which students would find difficulty in escaping without learning.

However, this method of making it difficult for students to escape in my view can often lead to task corruption.  It astounds me what lengths students will go to to avoid doing something if their heart just isn’t in it.

When I reflect on my early teens as an undergraduate student, my level of maturity and my motivations at the time were not conducive to learning management.  I was more interested in drinking, girls, and having fun.  I’m not suggesting that all teenagers are this way, but I don’t believe I was unique either.  Only when I commenced my Master degree, in my mid-20s did I become mature enough to take on the responsibility of managing my own learning.  This is evident through my improved GPA. 🙂  At the time, the web 2.0 revolution had not yet hit mainstream and many of these ideas had not yet been conceived (Oh I’m getting old).

Some may be able to manage their learning using a PLE/PLN, and I see PLE/PLNs as but one way of student learning.  We must remember the crucial point that whatever we do, it must fit the context.  Forcing students to create their own PLE/PLN and be able to manage their learning through this personalised environment is thwart with danger.  Even if you spend the time developing students’ abilities to manage their own learning, doesn’t mean that they will actually do it.

Frames and Context: Toomato or Tomato

This post relates to my study of CCK11.

A fellow student, Jaap recently took the time to comment on my week 3 concept map, plus share his own (thanks Jaap :)).

Jaap asked in a comment on my concept map: “I think in connectivism context and framing are look-a-likes, do you agree?”  Jaap similarly makes reference to an article by Lindsay Jordan where she too asks: “So it’s Week 2 of CCK11 and I’m thinking about Frames (which seem pretty much the same thing as ‘context’ – am I right?).”

I am not sure that context and framing are exactly alike, although I do think they are related.  My interpretation (and my confidence in this interpretation is not high :)) is that framing is a way of seeing the context.  A filter or template for evaluating and interpreting a given scenario or perhaps context, based on past experience and attitudes.  I think people’s frames also relate to the concept of pattern entrainment as explained quite succinctly by David Jones.

So as an example, a teacher after completion of a course of study may reflect on the poor performance of some students.  Being a large class, the teacher does not know each of these students personally, and so judges the performance of the collective, based on his interactions and knowledge of the few that he knows.  The few that he knows did not attend class regularly and in his view appeared lazy and just bad students (ie. Level 1 teacher – Biggs Constructive Alignment).  On this anecdotal evidence or stereo-type, he concludes that those who performed poorly were lazy or just bad students.  This is the frame that he has developed, but is not necessarily the true context.

Damien

REPOST: Improving university teaching, learning theory, and curriculum design

This post relates to my study of CCK11.

I found an article I wrote two years ago regarding improving university teaching, learning theories and instructional (curriculum) design while studying instructional design through UManitoba.  I thought it was relevant to my current study of CCK11, and so am reposting so that it would be included in the CCK11 daily.

While reposting this article, I’ll also link to a more recent blog post I wrote postulating whether learning theories is too much naval-gazing.  In particular, David Jones‘ comments were pertinent to the discussion in my opinion.

Hopefully someone will find this interesting/useful. 🙂

Damien.

Does connectivism facilitiate surface learning?

This blog post relates to my study of CCK11, and is inspired by a blog post from a fellow classmate, Skip titled Are we dumbing down? Is multitasking taking away of our ability our ability [sic] to absorb?

While Skip I believe is referring to the distraction of back-channels during an online live web-conference when his refers to multi-tasking and inability to absorb, its his use of the word absorb that I am focused on.  Absorb in the context of surface versus deep learning.

Some suggest that surface learning should be avoided as it promotes memorisation and regurgitation – a lack of deep understanding of a concept or idea.

Yet George suggests in his article Connectivism:
A Learning Theory for the Digital Age
that today’s learning environment has changed considerably through technology, and amongst a range of questions relating to these changes, asks:

How do learning theories address moments where performance is needed in the absence of complete understanding?

Later in his article, he makes the point:

A real challenge for any learning theory is to actuate known knowledge at the point of application. When knowledge, however, is needed, but not known, the ability to plug into sources to meet the requirements becomes a vital skill.

So I take this to mean knowledge at point-of-need. With such a high-rate of change in modern times, it seems to me that this is a real change for 21st century workers.  Employees more and more will not intrinsically have the knowledge required to do some tasks and therefore rely on their connective network knowledge.  Is it necessary to always know the “ins and outs of a duck’s bum” to achieve your goals?

Improving university teaching, learning theory, and curriculum design

(Update: This post I wrote two years ago when studying instructional (curriculum) design.  It seems quite relevant to my current study of CCK11, so I thought I would add this reference so that it may be included in the 2011 MOOC offering.)

I read this article by David Jones some time ago, and have been thinking it over.  As an early career curriculum designer, I am trying to find my place in the world of education, and how I can be an effective learning designer.

My understanding is that David in his article argues in order to improve university teaching, we should focus on teacher reflection, rather than learning theories.  Reflection is the lowest common denominator in any improvement of learning and teaching practices.  Without it, the teacher is destined to make the same mistakes over and over.  This is highlighted by Biggs and Tang in their book Teaching for Quality Learning at University 3rd edition, which I am currently (trying to) read, and reflect upon, and is drawn upon in part by David (I believe – it is getting late and I have an assessment due tomorrow :)).  Biggs and Tang state:

Wise and effective teaching is not, however, simply a matter of applying general principles of teaching according to rule; they need adapting to each teacher’s own personal strengths and teaching context… Expert teachers continually reflect on how they might teach even better.

Let us imagine that Susan and Robert graduated 20 years ago [as teachers].  Susan now is a teacher with 20 years’ experience; Robert is a teacher with one year’s experience repeated 19 times.  Susan is a reflective teacher:  each significant experience, particularly of failure, has been a learning experience, so she gets better and better.  Robert is a reactive teacher.  He goes through the same motions year after year …  The kind of thinking displayed by Susan, but not by Robert, is known as ‘reflective practice’.”

It occurs to me that prescribing any particular learning theory (such as constructive alignment) is not the answer, after reading a blog post by Stephen Downes.  Stephen critiques a paper by Dicks and Ives that conducted a study into how instructional designers design.  In particular, Stephen highlights the following quote from Dicks, and Ives:

Our interviews appear to confirm the findings of Kenny, Zhang, Schwier, and Campbell (2004) that instructional designers do not do their work by following established models, nor by basing actions on theory. Instead, our designers’ tactics suggest they view design as an ‘ill-structured problem’ (Jonassen, 2002; Schon, 1987) or ‘wicked problem’ (Becker, 2007) with many possible solutions, which they pursue with a large repertoire of social and cognitive skills.

Stephen had the following to say about this quote:  “Which really forces the question of whether our discipline should continue its ill-founded focus on (this person or that’s) theory. ”

I’ve had the opportunity to talk to quite a few different seasoned instructional designers over the past couple of weeks, and I have seen a common theme emerge that is aligned with the findings of Dicks and Ives above:  there is no one ultimate learning theory.  All have stated that while they may have a preferred theory, it is rarely implemented solely to a learning design.  Choice of theory is informed greatly by the context in which the learning is to occur.  No less is the actual teacher of the course a critical factor in deciding which theories are appropriate.  If the teacher has been teaching for many years and has a traditional behaviourist approach to their teaching; trying to model their course design around constructivism or connectivism is not going to prove to be an effective learning design.  This is unless the teacher was motivated to reflect on their practice and consider alternate ways of doing things.

I have been investigating various learning theories over the past week – hardly a deep analysis, but I always considered religion as an appropriate analogy for learning theories.  Everyone has their own view, and they can’t all be right.  However, what I am discovering is that learning theories tend to support one another more so than contradict, which was my former view.  So its probably not so much about which one is right, but which one is right for the given context.

I am finding learning theory absolutely fascinating, yet I do not have sufficient time to study as deep as I would like.  I have decided to remain completely open minded in terms of what tools (theories) I choose to inform my learning designs.  Studying many different theories arms me with many tools, and I hope this will mean I am a more rounded designer.  The skill will be to use these tools in the right combinations to maximise effectiveness.

Definition: Behaviourism

As part of my Certificate in Emerging Technologies for Learning, I am studying 4 popular learning theories. The first theory I am discovering is behaviourism.

I have read an article by Melissa Standridge hosted on the Department of Eduational Psychology and Instructional Technology wiki, from the University of Georgia.  The article begins with a definition of behaviourism, which was stated as:

Behaviorism is primarily concerned with observable and measurable aspects of human behavior. In defining behavior, behaviorist learning theories emphasize changes in behavior that result from stimulus-response associations made by the learner. Behavior is directed by stimuli. An individual selects one response instead of another because of prior conditioning and psychological drives existing at the moment of the action (Parkay & Hass, 2000).

The article then proceeds with a summary of the work from behaviourism advocates. Much of this work was conducted through experiments on animals.  I wasn’t quite sure what to think at this point.

Work conducted by Skinner involved an approach known as operant conditioning.  Melissa writes:

His model was based on the premise that satisfying responses are conditioned, while unsatisfying ones are not. Operant conditioning is the rewarding of part of a desired behavior or a random act that approaches it. Skinner remarked that “the things we call pleasant have an energizing or strengthening effect on our behavior” (Skinner, 1972, p. 74). Through Skinner’s research on animals, he concluded that both animals and humans would repeat acts that led to favorable outcomes, and suppress those that produced unfavorable results (Shaffer, 2000). If a rat presses a bar and receives a food pellet, he will be likely to press it again. Skinner defined the bar-pressing response as operant, and the food pellet as a reinforcer. Punishers, on the other hand, are consequences that suppress a response and decrease the likelihood that it will occur in the future. If the rat had been shocked every time it pressed the bar that behavior would cease.

While it seemed briefly amusing to think of students as experimental rats in a lab (classroom), the final sentence of this paragraph got me thinking:  “Skinner [B. F. (1904-1990)] believed the habits that each of us develops result from our unique operant learning experiences (Shaffer, 2000).”  I am currently reading Biggs’ Teaching for Quality Learning at University and so I am immersed in learning theories around constructivism.   Biggs’ (2007) states:  “All [forms of constructivism] emphasise that the learners construct knowledge with their own activities, building on what they already know.  Teaching is not a matter of transmitting but of engaging students in active learning, building their knowledge in terms of what they already understand.”  I wonder if these two learning theories compliment each other in some small way.  I’m not quite sure how to define or articulate the link at this point – its just getting too late.  Will need to give this further thought.

Reflecting on my own prior teaching activities, I have employed behaviourist tactics in my classes without even realising it. One of the key aspects of success with behavourism is to understand your learners desires and to select highly attractive and valuable reinforcers.  As Melissa puts it:  “They change behaviors to satisfy the desires they have learned to value.”

Some of the behaviourist designs I have employed include:

Chocolate bars

When I was teaching network security, there was a particular module of learning that students found difficult to remain engaged in.  Without the opportunity to make changes to the design of this learning module, instead I attempted to improve engagement in the material and the class activities through small rewards of the confectionery type.  The class activity was question and answer sessions where I would go around the room soliciting solutions from students.  Those who got the answers correct would receive a chocolate reward.

It was mildly effective.  In subsequent offerings, I redesigned the learning activity which proved more effective.

1Gb Memory sticks

Similar to the situation of the chocolate bars, I made a competition of the question and answer time and kept a tally of correct answers for students.  The top two students received a free 1Gb memory stick.  At the time, 1Gb was quite large, and being IT students, it was an attractive item.  This was more effective than the chocolates.  Seems it was a better reinforcer than the confectionery.

Access to a desirable learning activity

When I was teaching data communications, I included an activity that was popular with students.  The activity was for students to be hands-on with creating their own network cables using Cat 5e UTP cable, connectors and a cable crimper. I organised for network engineers and support staff from the university’s networking team to volunteer their time in my class, and assist with the learning activity.  I split students into groups, and then assigned them a mentor from the volunteers.  Each would then guide the students through the process of connectorising their computer cables. On completion, the students would then attach their cable to a tester and determine if the cable was connectorised correctly.

The first time I ran this activity, students were unable to recall the order in which the individual wires were to be connected, despite setting it as homework.  This delayed the activity and quite a few students resulted in faulty cables.

To improve on this situation, the next time I ran this activity, I set the homework to rote memorise the order of the wires.  They are colour coded.  The students were told that they would have to recite the order of the coloured wires from memory before they were permitted into the activity room.

On the day, I went around the room asking students the order – those who had it correct from memory were permitted into the adjacent room to commence the activity.  Those who couldn’t remember, would have time to revise, and after cycling through the class, I would return to them.  Three quarters of the group had it correct first time round.  The activity ran to schedule and there was only 1 faulty cable at the end.

Similar results were repeated in the following offering of the course. This proved to be an effective design.  Also on reflection, with the inclusion of the volunteer mentors, it was a form of cognitive apprenticeship. 🙂

Desire to win

It had been suggested to me that nothing will bring out the inner fire of a geek more than a little healthy competition.  This was in response to queries about how to improve engagement from the students.

When I was teaching System Administration, I was looking for a way for students to develop problem solving skills, and at the same time, gain a deeper understanding of how the UNIX shell parses and executes commands.  So I set a challenge and divided the class into two groups.  As teams, they were required to write a UNIX shell command that would perform a specified set of actions with the greatest efficiency, and the minimum exec system calls.  My apologies for the non-geek reader. 🙂

There was no prize but the glory of being the winner.  Boy were they right.  The students engaged with gusto, searching through documentation, man pages, howtos (even espionage) to come up with the ideal solution.  The winners had bragging rights for weeks to come.  It was also encouraging to see that the score difference between the two groups was by only 1 point, and the winning team’s score was only 1 point short of my own model solution.

It seems to me that behaviourism is not the trendy learning theory of the day, yet in certain circumstances, I believe they can be quite effective.  It is not something however I would use to underpin an entire course design.