A case of you don’t know what you don’t know?

One of my current research projects involves assisting lecturers to make small and practical changes to the way they teach and the tools they use to teach, particularly to distance ed students. In a nutshell, the lecturers in the trial units are changing a percentage of their assessment to focus on student-generated, collaborative learning using an easily-managed local WordPressMU installation. None of the lecturers have previously taught using social media or any kind of interactive or collaborative task in their (distance ed) teaching, and none of the students have previously experienced the use of these in their degree.

What is most interesting for me coming out of the student survey data is the perception of what effective and engaging learning is. One of the survey questions asks students to identify tools and aspects of distance learning that they find engaging and effective – and nearly every student has answered lecture notes, lecture podcasts and Powerpoint slides. Now, I’ll admit I initially cringed at this. Education research has been advocating a move away from this kind of push delivery for years now. And personally, as a learner, these three things are the most tedious, boring, disengaging features of distance learning. I realise that my level of self-directedness is probably not the norm in adult learners, but I also did not expect to get a near 100% response rate in favour of old-school, content-push, read-this-then-write-an-essay delivery.

But.

I’m reluctant to tie concepts to a demographic, but nearly all respondents are in the 36-50 age bracket. They’re comfortable with this style of learning. Why fix what ain’t broke? Many also said they hated groupwork, thought social media was a waste of time and so on. I was getting concerned that those who keep telling me that this ‘new kind of teaching’ isn’t relevant to our demographic of external students might have a point. Until I read on.

Except for a couple of (not unexpected) respondents who put it in the ‘too hard’ basket, almost all the students who initially noted they preferred to learn via lecture notes and Powerpoints and who were unconvinced of the value of social media indicated that they were finding the collaborative blog task really valuable and engaging, significantly more so than they had expected. Which leads me to wonder – is it simply a case of we don’t know what we don’t know? I have long thought that adult learners have the same needs as school students when it comes to in-depth, engaging and valuable study, yet feedback from adult students often indicates otherwise. I have also long suspected that educators often confuse engagement with outcomes – what I didn’t realise is that maybe students do this too. So what I’m asking now is – is there a better experience distance students could be having, that they might not be aware of?

Just because it ain’t broke doesn’t mean we can’t do it better.

Academics, internet and the elephant in the room

Below is a discussion post I wrote in response to Larry Cuban’s book, Oversold and Underused: Computers in the Classroom, a set reading and task for one of my Master’s units. Now, I am probably not saying anything here that most of you don’t already know, but then, if you’re reading this, you’re probably not in my target demographic :). I’m posting it here for interests’ sake, for anyone who would like to contribute to the discussion.

On more serious matters, there are two points I’ll raise, one on the big fat elephant in the room, the other on the divide between computers and the internet. Both are on the back of Cuban’s ‘unexpected’ findings, and he does mention some of what I’m about to cover.

The thing I find interesting when we talk about the use of computers in education is that we are not actually talking about the use of computers at all. What we aren’t saying is that we are in fact talking about transforming pedagogy. Cuban’s research paints a fairly accurate portrait of the use of computers in education, in that those who are using computers are largely integrating them into existing teaching strategies. But ‘computer use’ is not really what we’re getting at. If we achieved 100% usage of computers in education by teachers and students (which is quickly becoming realistic), I think most of us would be left asking ‘what did we really gain from that?’. What we are really looking for is a ‘revolution’ in education, an overhaul of pedagogy. The current practice of giving computers to everyone (KRudd’s DER epitomises Cuban’s ‘oversold’) is ignoring the elephant in the room.

The next issue is what got the elephant there in the first place. There is a very fundamental distinction between ‘computers’ and ‘the internet’ that often isn’t addressed. Computers are designed to make tasks easier and more efficient. That has been the case for a good 40 years now. What computers haven’t done is fundamentally change society. Think about what computers allow you to do – write, create media, play games, organisational tasks. They are remarkably efficient (and often very sophisticated) in how they do this, but there is nothing on that list that couldn’t be done in a different format a hundred years ago. Use of computers in schools largely echoes this – old tasks in newer, more efficient, more sophisticated ways. What has fundamentally changed things, though, is the internet. Internet access is the one thing that computers enable that has really changed the way people think and interact. It has changed culture. And that’s what makes people so uncomfortable. It’s easy to put computers in schools, and have kids make Powerpoints or podcasts or whatever. It’s not challenging to anyone’s beliefs on teaching and pedagogy. What’s hard, what’s challenging, is the shift away from teacher-driven, information-based instruction that the internet fosters. And schools aren’t ready for this – changing the way teachers teach is currently too daunting. Those teachers who do embrace change are self-selecting.¬†You only need to look at the DET’s internet filtering policies to know this is the case – anything information-based is allowed. Anything that fosters collaborative, student-generated learning (social media etc etc) is blocked.

The two most effective things schools could do to turn Cuban’s findings around, produce ‘worthy outcomes’ and really make computers a worthwhile investment? Unblock the internet and design an effective development structure that supports pedagogical reform.

Rethinking the ‘biblio’ in bibliography – referencing for 21st century academia

For years, academia relied solely on books, and eventually journals. A referencing system (or multiple variations thereof) grew up around this, and for years it was fine. And then there was the internet. It has become very apparent to me of late that traditional scholarly methods of referencing are in dire need of an overhaul to accommodate new technologies – and I’m not just talking about working out how to reference a podcast in the Harvard system.

I’ve recently been exploring Twitter and Facebook in the Flipboard app on my iPad, and the interface has got me thinking. Imagine reading a paper or thesis where the in-text references and quotes are all hyperlinked. Imagine being able to pull the referenced media up in a pop-up and immediately access and make commentary on it. Imagine immediately being able to see a source in context. Imagine being able to reference an ephemeral source, like a tweet or hashtag stream, or embed widgets and media directly into a document.

The problem with scholarly referencing as it stands is that it is linear, stand-alone and limited. Currently we are still lucky if the bibliography includes hyperlinks to web articles that are actually clickable. When people need to reference a new type of media, somebody creates a way to reference it in the traditional way and thinks no more of it. And yet, the web has been interconnected, interactive and layered for years now. The technology to create a more dynamic and relevant style of referencing is easily available – why not begin to use it?