Changing Roles of Higher Educators

This blog post is my submission for assignment 2 in CCK11.  I have used links to previous posts to support my arguments.

The shifting basis of certainty has been a critical focus during week 5-8. Through readings and discussions, we have focused on complexity, chaos theory, instructional design, power and control, and the changing roles for educators.

For your second paper, select your point of emphasis as that of the instructional designer or educator. Explore changing roles for your selected field. Do you agree their roles are changing? If so, what are appropriate responses? What are impediments to change? If not, how can current trends be best utilized to serve in the traditional role of educator or designer? In your paper, focus on creative conceptualizations of different roles (or different approaches to serve new needs in existing roles) played by educators. Consider metaphors that capture your views. Times of change permit reformulations of existing viewpoints. Take this opportunity to enjoy a creative stroll in rethinking “what could be”.

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The changing roles of higher educators

My description of the future will be based on hopes and dreams, rather than an objective/rational prediction.  A creative view through a full (rather than half empty) glass.  My perspective will be from a teacher (instructor/lecturer/academic) in higher education.

I would like to see education in the future to be learner centred, controlled and personalised/individualised.  This is probably influenced by my personal politics which are more left than right, and my personal disrespect for power and control.

I have written a comprehensive blog post that articulates in a large part my vision.  It would be worthwhile to read this post as it provides a good backdrop to this article and evidence to support my view, but I have provided a brief summary as an excerpt in the following paragraph.

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.  This is the personalisation that I speak of.  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.

So a metaphor for higher educators of the future to me will be that of a mentor or a learning coach. 🙂  Consider Stephen Downes 10 things you really need to learn.  These are general life-long learning skills, that once learnt, can be used to develop more specific skills and attributes – to be self-sufficient autonomous learners.

Impediments to change

There are many impediments to such a substantial change in thinking as expressed above.  This second part of my article will take a look at pattern entrainment, ignorance of education as a complex system, fixation on measurement and control, and the commodification of education as impediments to change.

Pattern Entrainment

Pattern Entrainment as explained by David Jones is:

… the tendency for peoples conceptions to be limited, entrained based on the successes of the past. What has worked for us in the past, becomes the source of all our thinking about the future.

Sir Ken Robinson suggests the current education system was designed and conceived for a different age – the intellectual culture of the enlightenment and at the time of the industrial revolution.  There are examples of entrainment in higher education with even greater distance of time.  Consider the quote by Phillips (2005): “Laurrillard (2002: 93) claims that the traditional lecture approach is ‘legitimised only by 800 years of tradition’.”  Another clear example of pattern entrainment that is impeding the advancement of education systems relates to current management practices, which are still ignorant of the fact that education systems are complex, and unpredictable.

Education as a complex system

Jean Boulton has written an article titled Managing in an Age of Complexity.  The key message of Boulton’s article is that current decision-making is founded on the assumption of certainty.  But is this assumption sound in the context of higher education?  Do we educate in a world of certainty and determinism?  Is there a simple cause and effect relationship to our decision-making?  I have previously reflected on these questions and come to the conclusion that the answer is largely no. Yet higher education continues to be managed on the assumption of certainty and determinism. I see this at our institution all the time as expressed in my reflections.

Boulton warns against too much reliance on measurement to tell you what is happening in a complex system.

Measurement and Control

One of the most significant impediments to change is the ongoing preoccupation with measurement and control.

Universities came into existence during the pre-modern period, approximately 1000 years ago, and were the ‘holders’ and controllers of knowledge (Phillips, 2005).  This notion of control is still evident in the culture of Universities today (Phillips, 2005).

Sir Ken Robinson has had much to say about the current education system.  Robinson says that a story told to past generations was that if you worked hard, do well, go to university, then you will get a job.  The current generation of kids don’t believe this, and they are right according to Robinson.  Having a university degree no longer guarantees a job in modern society. Add to this that another detractor of college study being that it “marginalises what you think is important about yourself” (Robinson).  A result of being institutionalised.

Mark Smith reflects on the views of Ivan Illich relating to the process of institutionalisation in education.  Smith suggests that it undermines people by diminishing their confidence, their creativity, and their capacity to solve problems.  All critical elements of self-sufficient autonomous learners.

Phillips (2005) has this to say about how teachers perceive their responsibilities as educators:

While some teachers see their responsibility as laying out ‘knowledge’, in the form of content, they are not always confident that learning will occur. Instead, they hope students will learn (Phillips and Baudains 2002: 15). In this scenario, the teacher’s responsibility is to ‘teach’, which implies determining the content, and controlling its sequence. The teacher assumes a pre-modern position of power, while the learner has the responsibility to ‘learn’. If a student fails, it is their fault (Laurillard 2002: 11).

This pre-occupation with content, rather than process (learning to learn) is an element of the problem.  It promotes a reliance or dependence on the teacher to learn, because they know what you must learn.  Again, an impediment to autonomous and self-sufficiency.

According to Robinson, education systems around the world are moving more and more to standardisation and measurement, when they should be moving in opposite direction.  He asserts that a casuality of standardisation is the loss of divergent thinking.  The ability to think laterally or to question the question, a critical skill for life-long learning.  Robinson provides statistics that show that as children grow up, they lose their ability to think divergently.  The implication is that our education systems kill divergent thinking.

The net effect of this focus on standardisation and measurement is task corruption.  It’s no longer about the learning.  Teachers are focused on the measurement.  They are teaching to the test.  Furthermore, 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 standardisation and measurement.  We need to get the balance right.

Commodification of education

Education is increasingly a commodity in these times. More and more, Australian Universities are pitted against one another competing for students.  The more students you have, the more money you get.  This is in a country where almost all Universities are government owned and run.  I think there are maybe 2 or 3 Universities in Australia that are privately owned.  While in contrast to the United States for example where many Universities are not Government owned and run, education is increasingly a customer-driven industry, and their products to be traded.

There is support for the idea that people learn better by collaborating rather than competing.  While not an absolute and dependent on context, it is a reasonable assertion within the higher education context.  With universities competing, there is greater focus on “commercial in-confidence” than on openness.  The problem is that in competing for students, focus of institutions can stray from being “about the students and their learning journey and quality” to the less noble “how can we recruit and retain as many students as possible?”  Another example of task corruption.

Conclusions

There are many impediments to my vision.  But how exciting would it be to have a system of education that is individualistic and  empowers learners to work in partnership with educators to achieve their goals, whatever they might be.  Where the focus is on the learner, and not corrupted by the growing need to measure what is arguably unmeasurable.  A system that does not churn out standardised products in graduates with a grade stamped into their forehead, which means little other than the graduate can complete tests.  The higher education system, and Universities will hopefully unlearn their entrained views and processes and move into the 21st century anew.

As Colin puts it, “I think it [how universities operate] will [change], and it will also get very ugly when it does.”

Academic Publication References

Phillips, R., (2005), Challenging The Primacy of Lectures:  The Dissonance Between Theory and Practice In University Teaching, Journal of University Teaching and Learning Practice, Vol 2, Issue 1.

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.

Things you really need to learn by Stephen Downes

Stephen wrote an article back in 2006 as titled above.  I have just read it and I found it very inspiring. A key message I take away from his article is “Life is too short for bullshit!”

As I read each thing to learn, I reflected on my life and to what extent I had developed those skills.  I can see areas where I think I am doing well, and others where I could do better.

Very practical and sensible advice.

I’d like to learn more about the 4 types of writing (description, argument, explanation and definition).  Hopefully this will help me to better structure my second assignment for CCK11. 🙂

A great article and well worth the read.

Thanks Stephen for sharing these insights.

Damien.

My position on Connectivism

This blog post relates to my study of CCK11, and is my submission for assignment 1 – my position on Connectivism.  As the word-limit is quite low, I’ve linked to previous blog posts which provide greater depth of discussion and links supporting my assertions.

Clarify and state your position on connectivism

I was very excited to be doing this course. I was introduced to Connectivism in my instructional design course as part of my program with UManitoba back in 2009.  At that time, I was unsure about Connectivism and wanted to learn more before forming an opinion on its validity as a learning theory.

My current role with my employer is an instructional designer.  My current value system for learning theories centres mostly on usefulness.  At this stage, I’m not convinced of its usefulness in terms of underpinning a learning design.  This isn’t to say that its not useful, I just haven’t enough experience with it to say that it is.  So I’m saddened to say that after 5 weeks studying Connectivism, I’m still largely a fence-sitter.  Hope this is okay George. 🙂

For me, I don’t think of learning theories in absolutes.  My view is that each learning theory is valid and useful, for given contexts.  I have blogged extensively on this view over the past couple of years, increasingly so in the past weeks.  I found a real nugget in a video by Ian Robertson that provided concrete examples to illustrate my view about context and learning theories. In this blog post, I reflected on what I thought were the right (and wrong) contexts for Connectivism where a primary factor (at this point) is technological accessibility where making connections is not so easy.  This is based on the importance George has placed on technological advancement as a primary driver for considering a new theory for learning.  Another significant factor is the discipline or focus of the learning, which I consider a weakness of the theory and discuss in greater detail later in this article.

Is it a new theory of learning?

For me at this stage, the stand-out elements of Connectivism that are novel are:

  1. Learning may reside in non-human appliances
  2. How can we continue to stay current in a rapidly evolving information ecology?
  3. Currency is the intent of all connectivist learning activities
  4. Decision-making is itself a learning process
  5. Capacity to know more is more critical than what is currently known
  6. How do learning theories address moments where performance is needed in the absence of complete understanding?

These aspects are the ones that resonate most with my life experiences as a learner.  However, these experiences have been very natural and organic.  This course as a MOOC is pseudo-organic.  Everybody has assembled to learn about Connectivism, but the learning is driven by a daily email digest, not purely by one’s own curiosity or need to solve a problem.  My reflections on this MOOC are detailed in a separate blog post.

Returning to the stand-out principles for me, I’d like to unpack these a little more…

Learning may reside in non-human appliances

For most of my adult life, I have been using computers to organise my learning.  It has become an integral part of how I learn.  Whether it be storing information, finding information, reflecting on ideas, sharing ideas, feedback and so on.  For many years, I rarely bother to commit to memory knowledge – I have honed my skills in being able to find it when and where I need it.  If I need to remember the switches to a UNIX command, I access the online manual (using the man command).  If I want to recall my previous thoughts on a topic, I refer to my blog.  If I need to follow a policy for a task at work, I search the policy portal.  The technology becomes an extension of my learning.  It’s more about learning to learn and self-sufficiency.  I recall George commenting that he would be lost if he were to lose the information on his computers, because it has become a fundamental element of how he learns.  I hope I have paraphrased that correctly George. 🙂  I feel exactly the same way.

How can we continue to stay current in a rapidly evolving information ecology?

I have been working in the IT and education industries for 15 years.  Both are very evolutionary and constantly changing.  From the beginning of my working career, I have had to develop strategies for this challenge.

Currency is the intent of all connectivist learning activities

This links to the previous paragraph – it’s all about remaining current in an evolutionary environment.  How can I systemically remain current in a rapidly changing environment.

Decision-making is itself a learning process

Again, this links to the previous paragraph.  Deciding what to learn and how deep to learn it is a critical factor in an age of information abundance.  Is what I learn today going to be applicable in the near future?  You need to constantly reflect upon what you believe to know – challenge previously held assumptions in the light of perpetual change.  This too has linkages with Dave Snowden’s view that we are pattern-matching intelligences, rather than information processing intelligences.

Capacity to know more is more critical than what is currently known

Again, a symptom of evolving contexts and related to decision-making.  What has worked in the past may no longer work due to changing context.

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

This I can identify with again and again.  There are very few tasks or projects that I have worked on where I have known all that I need to produce a satisfactory output.  In my work history, there is very little repetitiveness – almost every day is a new challenge requiring me to develop new skills, ideas, ways of seeing the world.  I can only see this trend continuing.

What are the weaknesses of connectivism as formulated in this course?

Like all existing learning theories, their application is contextual.  I don’t think George considers Connectivism to be the silver-bullet of learning theories, and really its not.  Its just a theory that incorporates the information era of the 21st century and responds to the challenges of learning in this era, plus leverages the affordances of the technology of the time – global interconnectedness.

At times I wonder whether the discipline or topic area suits this style of learning design more so than another. Suifaijohnmak has written an article where he says:

… under a networked learning approach, where diversity of opinions are welcome in a MOOC, then tensions amongst different “voices” seem to be a natural emergence from the networks … This seems to be a natural opposite from the traditional “group” or “team”, or even the Community’s views where consensus and agreed goals are the norms rather than exception.

How do we know if diversity of opinions is the best way to learn under a networked learning ecology (or with internet)?

How do we know if diversity of opinions is the best way to learn full-stop?  Does learning and knowledge [always] rest in diversity of opinions?  Especially when you consider the traditional working environment is more about groups and teams working towards agreed goals.  Again, it depends on context.  Are we discussing facts or ideas, for instance.

What are your outstanding questions?

Continuing from the previous section, I’m curious as to what a connectivist learning design would look like for a course teaching a more hardened science, such as physics, chemistry or computer science.  I have asked George this question in an Elluminate session, but his response at least for me did not solve my dilemma – how do I apply this theory to more diverse contexts?  Learning isn’t always about sharing opinions.  Many of these disciplines are objective – a solution is either right or wrong.  The value of opinion (in my opinion) is significantly lower than in topical areas that are more culturally influenced, such as education – softer sciences if I may, just as an example.

My reflection on Massive Open Online Courses (MOOC)

This blog post relates to my study of CCK11.

Having a technologist background, I love the ideals to which Connectivism holds such as (open, shared, and social, and adaptive to perpetual change).

However, my experience of studying this course as a MOOC, which I consider an application of the Connectivist Learning Theory has not been so idealistic. It would seem my concerns are not uncommon – George himself has admitted that in each offering of the course as a MOOC, there has been complaints relating to the volume of information and the difficulty in managing this.  A 21st century challenge no doubt, and one modern society needs to develop skills for,  but magnified considerably in this implementation.  I’m a technologist and if I am really struggling to manage this information, I can’t imagine how difficult it would be for someone not so confident with technology.

Of course, this may be an issue relating to application, than the underlying theory. George suggested in the next offering that instead of one large group of near 1000 participants, have multiple groups of 100.  I think this is a fabulous idea.  Scalability seems to be one of the biggest issues with a MOOC.  Can the network, can the number of connections be too high?

I am also frustrated with the randomness. Let me explain. I would be interested to see the statistics of comments/discussions comparing postings listed towards the top of the dailies, to those towards the end of the dailies. What I am wondering is whether those articles shown towards the top of the daily email receive more comments and feedback than those towards the bottom. Do people read through all the articles before selecting which they wish to respond to? Or do they go through the first 6 or so and then move on to other things? The comments/feedback that I have received so far has been a bit up and down in terms of frequency and depth. Of course I am always grateful to those who take the time to comment on my writing. 🙂 It is hard to know if the lack of feedback is because I’m talking crap, or whether its because the exposure of my article is lower because it is lower in the daily listing (it’s probably because its crap :)).

In its current form, I don’t think I would do a MOOC like this again.  This saddens me as ideologically, I like the concept.  Although if it were implemented in a more compartmentalised way such as the groups of 100, I’d be tempted to give it another go.  I’m grateful for George and Stephen doing this research and actually trying implementations to see how they run.  Theorising is all good and fine, but application, real-world application is what is important to me.

I have further thoughts and ideas on MOOCs, but alas time is short, so another day. 🙂

Damien.