Wednesday, December 07, 2011

Elearning and digital (not)natives

I read an inspiring piece at Online College the other day: Emergence of the new learner.   It suggested that the characteristics of the new learner are that they create and broadcast content, they are connected and networked, that they are used to critique and need feedback. Furthermore the new learning environment is peer-to-peer collaborative and process-oriented. This is great stuff and it describes in  nutshell some of the key features of 21st century learning.

Inspiring as I say. Or it would be if I'd ever met a learner like that. OK, I exaggerate a tiny, tiny bit. I've tutored several hundred students in the last ten years, and I've lost count of the thousands who've been in forums I have moderated. I reckon I could count the new learners, as described above, on the fingers of both hands. I have no criticism personally of any of the students I have taught or moderated over the years: it's the way they've been taught.  As the Online College article goes on to say: “We are brought up, educationally speaking, sitting in neat rows and columns of chairs, listening to instructor-driven lectures, and completing multiple-choice exams at pre-determined intervals.” So people do what they have always done. And it's comfortable to do that. This is connected with my previous post about deep and surface learning. Surface learning is alienated learning, in my opinion – it is personally distant, irrelevant, useful only for jumping through hoops and is often jettisoned as soon as the hoop has been jumped. It's boring and the student can often be resentful and less than fully engaged in a task that is necessary because one is in school, but otherwise meaningless. On the other hand, the student is given little opportunity to explore ways in which the tasks might become meaningful, and no incentive either – surface learning is monotonous and featureless, but on the other hand it makes no personal demands. Real learning can shake your soul, and that is a step too far for many people.

Paradoxically, I don't think I can blame their teachers either. Primary and secondary teaching in the UK has improved greatly since I was at school decades ago. My children were much better taught than I was, which suggests that the teachers and the methods are better. But I don't think many teachers get a chance to teach as they are capable of teaching because they like everybody else in the primary and secondary education system, are focused on grades and league tables. It doesn't matter how good or bad a teacher you are, your one and only job is to get good grades, and as many as possible. So they teach for the exam, which is not necessarily the same as teaching for the learning. And that rubs off on the children who get the message that learning is a) not under their control b) not interesting in its own right and c) aimed at getting grades rather than having any intrinsic value. Perhaps I exaggerate. I'm sure I'll upset many a secondary school teacher if they read this. I don't intend to; I think they are genuinely trying to do a good job, but in a situation that militates against children ever being able to take control of their own learning – a key prerequisite for deep learning, and for thinking.

Also, learning happens in the context of a person's whole world. It's not just the teachers that are responsible, but the whole of society. Teachers don't stand a chance if the child they've been teaching goes home and hears what the teacher is doing rubbished by their family, their friends and their media. Our society teaches us how to do things and what things to do – and by “our society” I mean us, not some mythical thing for which nobody can take any responsibility. Driving is a good example. We get taught the mechanics,and a bit about manners, then we go off and drive the way everybody else does, which causes both chaos and carnage on the roads. More on that here and here. I don't want to get into the ins and outs of how we learn to drive, just to use it as an example of how powerful the learning is that we do from those around us.

I teach level 1 modules for the Open University. Most of my students have done no formal learning since school, regardless of what age they are. We get more and more young-ish people coming to us. Out of 25 current students 7 are under 25. That is they left school less than ten years ago. They, like everyone else, still need to learn how to learn. That is the first and most important aspect of my teaching relationship with them. Linked to that is the fact that they do not know how to learn online, and in fact are completely unfamiliar with the online environment as a place of learning. So I need to address both of these issues – learning how to learn, and learning how to learn online.

Learning how to learn is relatively easy to deal with. Every student arrives with their own motivation. There are some who will listen to me and some who will not. I don't mind that, as long as they get what they want. I can enthuse and inspire those who will listen and are open to being inspired. And I can start to teach them the benefits of critical thinking – the ability to look for the bigger picture, the habit of always asking why, the habit of never taking the taken-for-granted for granted, the habit of questioning everything, habits of honesty and objectivity, openness to new ideas, learning to base judgement on evidence. Interesting, isn't it, how many of these characteristics are personal rather than intellectual ones. It's hard work, it's a tough job, but it's relatively easy to conceptualise.

The elearning thing is a bit trickier though. Generally speaking students are not taking to elearning like ducks to water. They do what they have to, and they otherwise tend to ignore it. This is treated by some as a bit of a puzzle, particularly if you subscribe to the digital natives theory, which says that new generations of learners grow up with the online world. They're used to it, so they should naturally be able to learn in it. Doesn't seem to be the case with my students. Doesn't seem to be the case with other students either – there is an interesting survey from Canada – If Students Are Digital Natives, Why Don’t They Like E-Learning? – the conclusions of which are summed up by the title. And in fact the idea doesn't hold water, for a couple of reasons.

First of all, assuming that they know how to learn online assumes that they know how to learn. This doesn't seem to be the case. That is to say, they use a method of learning (everybody does) – usually the surface method, unless they have a reason for getting involved in something when they may well switch to the deep method. But using the deep method involves developing the skills and practices mentioned earlier on, and if people haven't developed those skills through repeated practice, then they won't be as good at it as they could be. That will be less satisfying for them, and it may be that they will drop back to the old, less effective but less demanding ways of learning. Unless they're consistently and enthusiastically taught to learn in this way. (I'll return to that.)

Secondly the assumption is made that if people are comfortable “being” online,  they will be comfortable “learning” online.  It ain't necessarily so. Being online for many people is about chatting and pursuing leisure interests. It is specifically not a place to engage the brain. Engaging the brain involves an entirely different set of habits and attitudes, and it takes an effort of will to move from one to the other – until you get used to it, and then the students will switch from Facebook friends to Facebook tutor groups with the same facility with which I do it. But the point is that they have to learn how to do it, and if they are not given the room and motivation to do it, they won't.

And there I think we academics in higher education, with some notable exceptions, are failing our students. There is not enough alignment in our teaching practices, and not enough acknowledgement of the basic skills that need to be learned by most university entrants. Alignment in teaching practice has been a problem for a long time, and remains a problem. Back in the 70s it appeared that lecturers looked for critical thinking, but taught and assessed conformity in ideas and the acquisition of detailed factual knowledge. (Entwistle, N. (2005) 'Introduction'. In: Marton, F., Hounsell, D. and Entwistle, N., (eds.) The Experience of Learning: Implications for teaching and studying in higher education. 3rd (Internet) edition. Edinburgh: University of Edinburgh, Centre for Teaching, Learning and Assessment. p6.

And now I teach two courses where the importance of working online and collaboratively is acknowledged, and the tutors are required to offer online tutorials, but all the marks are given for traditional written assignments. If you think it's important, you should mark it.

Secondly, we don't acknowledge the need for the majority of our students, of whatever age or background, for a proper introduction to what learning online really means – the ability and the need to both control and juggle the sources and the motivations of our learning. When to put effort into working collaboratively so as to get the benefit out of it and when and how to put the effort into and learning critically so as to be able to take full control of their own lives.

The only question that remains is – is it really that important? If students can still learn satisfactorily in the traditional ways, why not let them do it? Because, rather like all those schools that are only “satisfactory”, it's not good enough. Surface learning is an old skill, suited to a world in which you could be a good worker and a good citizen without ever thinking too much. Deep learning has become a necessity for surviving in this world, both as a worker and as a human being. Students can get by making use of their education in a second rate way just as they always have done. And in some ways governments would rather they did – they don't want questioning, persistent, well-informed citizens, they want compliant ones. But for us as individuals, we have two choices, we can stagnate, or we can take control of both the style and the environment in which we learn. That means getting on top of the manifold ways in which data and information are spread across the internet, and learning how to evaluate, manipulate and deploy them. Doing any less means second tier jobs for second tier citizens. So, yes, it is important – important enough for us to insist that our students get the best they can out of both learning and elearning.

Deep and surface learning

We've been considering issues about deep and surface learning on H812. Good course, H812, but deceptively quick. It's very part time,  takes two years, one assignment every three months or so – it's a doddle, I thought. But the weeks fly past with a new topic each week; blink and you miss one, and at my age I blink a lot. Deep and surface learning attracted a lot of chat, and at least one misconception.

There's a very good summary of deep and surface learning at the HEA: Deep and Surface Approaches to Learning.   It gets the distinction right between deep learning being critical and surface learning not. The misconception I referred to above was that some people thought that wide learning entailed surface learning, e.g. For a law student who needs to learn by heart a number of not very well connected cases, it would perforce be surface learning. I don't see it that way at all, and I don't think inventors of the distinction thought so either. Even if you're skating the surface, you can learn deeply. It's not about what you're learning so much as the way you do it. To take the law student example above, learning case law is a gritty but necessary undertaking. Broadly speaking, you can either learn a series of unconnected names, dates,  principles and applications, or you can learn each case as a contribution towards a (probably fuzzy) understanding of an area of law that may connect eventually to other areas, where you can see the principles operating in similar ways, although in completely different spheres. The first student may well turn into a competent lawyer. The second is likely to turn out to be better,because they understand better the way the law works.

It's interesting that the HEA page concentrates on the meaning of deep learning rather than surface learning. It has a list of the characteristics of surface learning, but, other than that, doesn't go into much detail about it. I would have thought that the primary concern for teachers was how to turn surface learning into deep learning wherever possible. For that we need to understand what surface learning is – what motivates it and embeds it into a student's practice.

For me the key characteristic seems to be that it is a disengaged form of learning, learning that does not involve the student, that is kept at a distance from the student's being. It enters their mind, in a special compartment, marked “Nothing to do with me”, and sits there until the student has been examined on it or leaves school, whereupon it instantly self destructs. But it never enters their soul.

In my view, far too many people learn to learn in a surface way. I'll sketch the reasons why this is in another post, but for now I'll just take it as a given – to go into the reasons in detail would take far too long. Regardless of what the reasons are, that fact is a big influence in determining how we need to teach. One of the big debates of course will be whose responsibility it is – there will be those who say that if a student is learning in a disengaged way, it's only their own fault – they should take responsibility for themselves. And there is a tendency then to say that they should dig themselves out of their own hole. I don't think that follows. To me it doesn't make any difference whose fault it is; we still have to teach in a way that will re-engage them if it is possible.

There are two elements. One is attitude, one is skill. To learn at a deep level, you need an attitude of engagement, and you need the skills to learn. Your attitude can be influenced by your teacher, and the skills can certainly be learned under your teacher's tutelage. So that's our job as teachers sorted.