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Collaborative Learning and Teaching in Higher Ed: Approaching the Crossroads

3 Trends

Institutional centres for learning and teaching serve vitally important functions in higher education.  They focus on core educational activities.  However, across the country, for a variety of reasons, these offices are at a crossroads.  I’d like to consider at least some of the factors creating change as we move ahead to a 21st century learning and teaching environment.

What is the 'place' of teaching in higher education?
What is the ‘place’ of teaching in higher education?

The impetus to create centres for learning and teaching in the 1970s and 1980s arose from three main developments.

First, there was an explosive growth in literature in the educational field that could inform teaching and contribute to better learning outcomes.

Second, governments increased pressure on higher education institutions to make use of resources more efficiently and effectively.

Third, there was a growing unrest among students concerning the quality of instruction (understandably, given the rising cost of tuition and the declining relative value of a degree in an increasingly competitive job market).

Despite their prominence, these three sets of priorites (dissemination of knowledge, the need for cost savings, and response to demands) represent very different, often conflicting, pathways for institutions.  The need for cost savings conflicts with the desire for student access to quality teaching, and student demands sometimes conflict with the best practices of teaching.  As well, there has been an incomplete fit between the growth in teaching-oriented professional development and improved student learning outcomes overall.

The ‘Place’ of Teaching

In research universities, teaching has often been considered a ‘lower tier’ of academic activities .  This is not without reason if the focus is on graduate education, since on average only 30% of PhDs actually go on to academic positions in which teaching is a primary activity. Given this, it makes little sense to ask graduate students to devote a lot of time to prepare to be teachers. In addition, the universities’ focus on research as a source of funding means fewer expenditures on other initiatives with less potential for return.  As a result, despite the fact that teaching occupies a considerable amount of professors’ time and energy, professional recognition or institutional support for teaching remains comparatively low.  While less apparent in teaching-oriented universities and colleges, the same dynamics are at work driving teaching-oriented professional development at other institutions.

Despite their prominence, these three sets of priorites (dissemination of knowledge, the need for cost savings, and response to demands) represent very different, often conflicting, pathways for institutions.

The Great Acceleration

All three of the conditions that contributed to the creation of learning and teaching offices in higher education still persist.  The growth in knowledge about learning, student expectations, and governmental belt-tightening are still at work.  However, almost everything else about the environment has changed, creating a sense of flux and transition, opening up new opportunities and choices.

The crossroads confronting education is at least in part, a function of the wave of disruptive technology, including mobile and online options, which has upended education.  New technologies diffuse power, eroding the monopoly of knowledge and expertise.  This is evident in the boardroom as well as the classroom.  In response, managing technological transition has become a key focus for centres for learning and teaching.  The technological imperative is accompanied by the perception among administators (although not necessarily the reality) that new technologies will create cost savings and that students will demand them.  The drive to incorporate and disseminate new educational technologies and to encourage their adoption by faculty has become central.

Administrative Imperatives

The fear of being overtaken by competitors is almost overwhelming. As W.D. Smith pointed out in Maclean’s a few years ago, the drive to be competitive (which incurs increasing costs for recruitment advertising and change management) are causing ballooning administrative costs.  CBC news reports that “non-academic full-time salaries at Ontario universities, adjusted for inflation, rose 78 per cent from 2000/01 to 2013/14, from $934 million to nearly $1.7 billion (Davison, March 16 2015).”

The 2012 removal of Teresa Sullivan as President of the University of Virginia was motivated largely by concerns over “competition, technology and scarce resources.”  Her subsequent reinstatement after an outcry from students and faculty vindicated her view that “corporate-style, top-down leadership does not work in a great university (Sampson, Aug 27 2012).”

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Professional development that uses a transmission model is less suited to a world of rapid technological change.

The pressure to compete and for cost control also accelerates a focus on superficial measurement of professional development activities.  As Broad and Evans point out in their summary of the PD literature, “evaluation connected to professional development tends to consist of “counting” or recording activities or outlining the activities undertaken with no analysis of their impact on learning or practice (25).”

Growth in Knowledge

The second big change is around the literature on learning and teaching.  There is little agreement on what kinds of professional development actually lead educators to improve their teaching practice.  The result is a cacophony of conflicting advice and forces. Approaches veer between the extremes of standardized delivery models on the one hand, and collaborative peer-led models of professional development on the other.

The complexity and ambiguity of learning and teaching, as evidenced by the trends in the literature, defies an easy fit into the ‘one size fits all’ model of delivery.   Together with the trend toward knowledge sharing facilitated by network technologies, the need for a collaborative model of professional development is increasingly apparent.

The benefit of a collaborative approach is its recognition and respect for diversities of opinion and for the knowledge and experience of teaching practitioners.  This philosophy prioritizes bottom-up expertise, dialogue, exchange of knowledge, problem-solving, realistic expectations, caring for the teacher and learner, and, at its core, a recognition of the ambiguity of the practice of teaching and learning.  It prioritizes a consultative, open, and mutually supportive culture that recognizes disciplinary knowledge and respects differences while working to improve student learning outcomes by building relationships.

The complexity and ambiguity of learning and teaching, as evidenced by the trends in the literature, defies an easy fit into the ‘one size fits all’ model of delivery.

This approach, while true to the state of the literature on learning and teaching, is at odds with the third driver, that of improved cost-effectiveness.  It is also at odds with the increasing pressures to be competitive and cutting-edge in an era of shifting technologies.  Managing change under this philosophy is slow, incremental, and consensus-driven.

Growing philosophies of learning focus the process on the learner.
What is the ‘place’ of teaching in higher education?

The future of learning and teaching will be shaped by many conflicting forces. Shifting student demand, changing technologies, and a focus on organizational efficiency and measurable outcomes will continue to influence decisions.  Proceeding as if all options are possible (and compatible) only deepens the cacophony and reduces effectiveness.   Managing change in this transition means going beyond superficial forms of consultation to create new, more inclusive and open forms of collaboration.  This is in line with the levelling influence of technology, and is a good fit with the dominant philosophies of education, which increasingly recognize the need to acknowledge and include the learner in all dimensions of the educational process.

“Old School Makes a Comeback”? Round Two

dictideaThis is (finally!) my second post in this series.  My goal remains to advocate a dialogue between conservatives and reformers, and in my first post I noted the continuing relevance of ‘old school’ teaching methods and philosophies.  Since then, I’ve seen a number of other interventions along the same lines.  This study based on student preferences sparked a storm by suggesting that students preferred good lectures over the latest technology, and led to not a few qualifications on the part of the authors.  This rejoinder reminded us all of the body of literature showing the ineffectiveness of lecturing under any circumstances.  And This one in the Atlantic takes an eminently reasonable middle ground in its agnostic advocacy of ‘lecturing’ as one tool in the kit of varied methods, that is most successful when used purposefully and skillfully.

Some of this healthy debate arises from the ongoing backlash against MOOCs and the Silicon Valley startup philosophy that underwrote the idea of online mass education.  This backlash was facilitated by Sebastian Thrun’s about face and his public confessions of over-optimism for technology.  I want to reiterate that it’s important to separate out the question of technology from the question of teaching techniques.  Neither side of the debate should be reduced to ‘either-or’ options.

As an advocate of learner-centred teaching, I think it’s possible to believe BOTH that lecturing is a less effective strategy over all for achieving learning goals AND that ‘good’ lecturing can make learning more engaging if done consciously and well.   In some ways, it’s unfortunate that ‘lecturing’ has become emblematic of conservatism, since I would argue that conservatism is actually much bigger than lecturing.  Conservatism is a whole approach to teaching and learning, and so it encompasses lecturing, but it also encompasses ‘tried and true’ methods like Socratic questioning, drills and memorization.  So, the focus should be on conservatism as a teaching philosophy and less on any particular teaching technique or strategy.

it’s possible to believe BOTH that lecturing is a less effective strategy over all for achieving learning goals AND that ‘good’ lecturing can make learning more engaging if done consciously and well.

What is the argument for ‘old school’ instruction as we experience it today?  I think it draws from 5 main premises.  In my previous post, I discussed two of those premises: 1) the focus on standards and 2) the need for mastery.  In this post, I’ll turn to the 3 remaining premises of conservatism:

3. Self-discipline is a necessary goal of education.  Joanne Lipman’s article notes the work of Anders Ericsson, whose work was popularized by Malcolm Gladwell in his book Outliers.  She quotes: “true expertise requires teachers who give “constructive, even painful, feedback”‘.

4. Failure is instructive.  A strict teacher will enable students to fail, to try again, and to learn ‘grit’ and persistence pay off.  Studies show that students with more persistence are more likely to succeed.

5. Rote learning and drills can be a means to enhance creativity, improve performance in basic skills, and encourage independence.  Therefore learning must be somewhat stressful and even uncomfortable and boring, to be effective.99951157

Let’s take each of these premises in turn:

3. On self-discipline: I am still waiting for the evidence that externally-imposed punishment is a more effective way to learn.  Much depends on determining what students know, what they are able to know, and what they can know with supports.  This means knowing the learner well, and committing to their learning, not to the teachers’ idea of an acceptable standard. I suspect that the ‘toughest’ teachers also know their learners extremely well, and know how far they can push successfully.  Self-discipline is cultured by offering supports and timely corrections when needed.  It means paying attention to what learners need and not necessarily what they want.

IMG_04264. Failure is instructive.  A recent study by Viktor Venkatesh sparked a storm by suggesting that ‘productive failure’ leads to deeper and more meaningful learning.  I would venture that a distinction be made between ‘punishment’ and the ‘natural’ consequences of failure.   Punishment, or failure for failure’s sake, is not the way that we get the best performance.  Imagine if we coached our Olympic athletes only using strict punishments for failure.  Athletes know the stakes, and they therefore seek out coaches who encourage them and support them through those failures and trials. This usually does not mean blanket praise, but a judicious use of supports to get the most out of one’s failure.  Failure without supports is like throwing someone into a river and expecting them to learn how to swim.  Such an experience may indeed make one persistent in the moment, but will that help them learn better, and will that persistence carry over to other tasks?

4. On rote learning: Lipman states of reformers: “Projects and collaborative learning are applauded; traditional methods like lecturing and memorization—derided as “drill and kill”—are frowned upon, dismissed as a surefire way to suck young minds dry of creativity and motivation.”  Indeed, there is a certain hostility to lecturing and to ‘drilling’ among advocates of constructivist techniques.  However, this unease is well-founded in the scientific literature, which in comparative studies has found that lecturing is relatively ineffective on a variety of measures of learning, including recall as well as understanding.  On this question, I would argue that there is a place for rote learning and memorization in education, and this place will likely remain for some time to come. As the Atlantic points out, lecturing has the upper hand in institutions of higher learning around the world.  However, if the goals of learning are deeper, if they involve mastery, the development of thinking, and the ability to problem-solve, then lecturing and drilling are less likely to achieve their stated goals on their own, when compared with alternative strategies. Learning outcomes should be the measure of effectiveness, rather than whether the process is stressful or difficult.

‘Old School’ Makes a Comeback? Opening a Dialogue Between Conservatives and Reformers

Science Teacher Writing on Black BoardRecently I’ve come across a couple of posts in support of ‘old school’ teaching styles.  This one presents the ‘latest findings’ of recent studies that tend to support ‘tough’ teaching methods.  This one, written by a prominent political scientist, laments the ‘demise’ of traditional education.  It’s worth noting that these traditional voices are still relevant and in fact the arguments are becoming more prominent as educational technology upends the traditional teaching model in unexpected ways.  It is completely understandable that educators might long for a more comfortable past, where authority was intrinsically respected (at least in our minds’s memory) and the power of the educator could be more easily leveraged to convey a universally recognized canon. One could also point to the ‘generation gap’ between ‘digital natives’ and others.  However, I feel the heart of this debate is less technological than it is philosophical.

I’d like to use the next two posts to analyze this phenomenon. I’ll state from the outset that I remain an advocate of learner-centred teaching, which I understand to draw from constructivist and connectivist learning philosophies that contend: 1) that learners be held responsible for their learning process and goals; and 2) that teaching be attentive to the specific needs of learners.

I’ve noticed that considerable misunderstanding arises when learner-centred teaching is counterposed with ‘traditional’ teaching methods.

Do we need to choose between ‘the guide on the side’ instead of the ‘sage on the stage’?

Learner-centred teaching is not the ‘opposite of’ traditional teaching.  Learner-centred teaching does not mean upending the relationship of respect between the learner and the teacher. Indeed, it is hard to imagine how instruction could be at all effective in the absence of mutual regard.

The defenses of those advocating ‘old school’ methods are therefore founded on a mistaken impression of what the ‘reformist’ alternative philosophies and methods are fundamentally about.  It is, appropriately, the job of those who advocate changes to make their case.  With the goal of opening a dialogue, let’s examine the arguments of the conservatives and some of the possible responses.  What is precisely the argument for ‘old school’ instruction as we experience it today?  I think it draws from several main premises, which I will extract from the two blogs posts described above.  In this post I will address 2 of these, and in the next post I will talk about the last few.

‘Old School’ Arguments

  1. Standards matter.  Grades represent a real measure of accomplishment and effort.  High levels of accomplishment deserve reward, and lower levels send an important signal to the student about their degree of learning, which can either motivate more effort or help the student realize they are unsuited. Standards are best determined by the experts in a field, who are best-placed to judge what skills and knowledge are necessary to succeed.  To fudge on or de-emphasize grades is to rob students of the opportunity to excel or fail, both are necessary in the process of learning, and both will help students to advance.
  2. A well-rounded education based on mastery should be the goal of learning. It is clear that a ‘well-rounded’ education for Barry Cooper (see his blog in the Calgary Herald) does not include things like anti-discrimination training or sustainability education, or explicit attention to soft goals like ‘well-being’. But what might a well-rounded education include?

Let’s take each of these premises in turn:stick_figure_book_pile_800_clr_9092

  1. With respect to standards, learner-centred teaching emphasizes that the expectations of teachers must be high.  There is no real disagreement on that. The disconnect arises I think when the emphasis is solely on meeting the standards set by teachers and other authorities.  The assumption is that students will always set their own standards too low, and require the teachers’ intervention to achieve.

Students will choose high standards for themselves very often if given the chance, and will benefit from a learning environment in which the material is advanced, sometimes very advanced.

When students do choose high standards, requiring a teachers’ intervention actually robs students of the ability to be more conscious, and yes, more self-disciplined and persistent. This is because these external standards give the message that teachers are their sole source of feedback.  Lipman mentions an interesting example: music students who chose teachers that would be tough on them.  The point is that the students chose those standards and were therefore more self-motivated to learn as a result.  Here I would cite work done by Ken Bain and other educators and psychologists who emphasize that an intrinsic interest in learning can be compromised when the focus is on extrinsic rewards and punishments.  The result of ‘learning for the grade’ is that learners will do just enough to earn the grade and no more.  If part of the goal of education is to learn self-reliance, why compromise that goal by removing any chance to be accountable to oneself.

2. With respect to ‘mastery’, there is again not really a disagreement here about the goal.  For Cooper, though, mastery means a specific thing: the ability to be conversant in a specific culture.   While one may argue about the content of that culture, I think we can agree that certain habits of mind underlie all forms of learning: the ability to be open-minded, critically-minded, curious, thorough, persistent, detailed, even-handed, thoughtful and reflective, a problem-solver, expressive, and/or skeptical.  How we acquire these habits is still a question in hot debate in educational circles.  It is far from resolved, but there is no reason yet to believe that mastery is any less likely to occur in a constructivist than in a traditional setting.  There is also really no reason to believe that tolerance, commitment to community, or even self-development are incompatible with mastery learning.  If we uncover the conservatives’ focus on a ‘well-rounded’ education, I think we will see something that very closely resembles ‘character-building’ or ‘service to the community’ as well as the acquisition of skills.  These values underlie a lot of the ‘old school’ philosophy and are implicit values of education.

In my next post, I’ll look ahead to other components of the ‘old school’ argument: discipline, stress, and failure.  Just what we look for in a well-educated individual.

The Unbroken Line between Games and Education

University learning is often like a game.

Let’s play a game: I’ll set the rules.  Your goal: to perform various complex and skilled tasks in an adventure-style first person game involving personal quests, team cooperation, and writing, speaking, and recall tests.  Your goal: to achieve a sufficient level of accomplishment in each task to advance to future levels, with the ultimate goal of leaving the game.  Points are earned by passing tests or performing set tasks.  Extensive instruction is required to accomplish each task, and more time will be spent absorbing the instruction than actually performing the task.  Failure is severely punished, and results in setbacks to your progress in achieving the task.  There are no shortcuts, and the schedule of tasks is predetermined.   There may or may not be rewards for participating.

How many of us would wish to play this game?  Well, this is exactly what we ask students to do throughout their university careers.  Education is very much a game—if we understand a ‘game’ as a competitive activity with rules to test various skills and produce outcomes, such as winners or losers.  But gaming is associated with play, diversion, recreation, and less so with learning.  Nevertheless, because university learning is a poorly designed game, it does not do a good job of motivating people to learn.  The point system (marks) is often inconsistent, punishment is too severe, and too much time is spent absorbing information and not enough time is spent in applying the knowledge learned.

This can result in an inordinate focus on extrinsic motivators, which psychologists tell us can actually reduce initiative, creativity, and intrinsic motivation, which are all necessary to learning.  As Jane McGonigal points out, well-designed games work to enhance these traits, by using a feedback system that lets players know where they are in the 101433076process, setting up rules or limitations (sometimes unnecessary ones) that offer meaningful stakes, and allowing for ‘fun failure’ (spectacular failures that actually reward effort).  Frequent feedback and active learning techniques are already widely acknowledged as effective teaching strategies that enhance both motivation and deeper forms of learning.

Well-designed games allow players to progress at their own speed, with an awareness of how they compare with others, and foster social connection that helps players identify their contribution to a larger project.  Admitting that education is a game is not pejorative, neither is it to say that education should only be reduced to a game and nothing else.  Nevertheless, admitting that the game elements of university education tend to make it less motivating seems only a statement of fact.

Further Reading: Jane McGonigal Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How they Can Change the World Penguin, 2011

Student Showcase

Political Science students at Okanagan College this past Fall term have worked very hard to prepare work on cutting-edge political topics and issues.  Students were challenged to analyze a political problem, consider various policy options, and come up with creative solutions.  They prepared a blog, poster or paper to present their work.  This showcase is a sampling of some of the best work done this term.  My thanks to all of my hard-working students, it was a close competition among some outstanding submissions.  I am blown away with the outstanding work that you do!

Continue reading Student Showcase

Table of Educational Functions and Technologies

I have focused on those that are free, semi-free or web-based.  I have also focused on those that are best suited to educators’ purposes, or are customizable for particular functions, or are particularly inspirational examples of what is possible.

For a list of online educational resource libraries, visit: http://online-educational-resource-libraries.wikispaces.com/

Delivering Course Content

Improving Engagement

Encouraging Critical Thinking

Images

Presentation

Recording

Text

Video

Assessment

Projects/Research

Sharing

Crowdsourcing

Learning Objects/LMS

Simulation