Connection not Content

A Blog for MOOCs and Other Animals

Posts Tagged ‘education

What are learning theories for?

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I taught in a university for many years but only came across learning theories in 2011 in one of the first MOOCs – CCK11 on Connectivism. Coming from a science background, the term ‘theory’ in ‘learning theory’ was a source of confusion. Learning theories are conceptual frameworks proposed and developed by highly respected researchers but they do not enjoy the status of established theories in the physical sciences. They are more like hypotheses, proposed explanations on the basis of evidence that’s probably incomplete, disputed or even pure speculation. For a start, how can a learning theory ever be complete without detailed reference to the place where learning occurs – the brain? Learning theories are important as a source of ideas but difficulties with the collection and interpretation of evidence make firm conclusions hard to come by.
Learning theories may be in their infancy as science but can play a valuable role in providing alternative frameworks for educators, motivating examination of teaching practices and perhaps making improvements on a more rational basis. Even basic familiarity with Behaviourism, Constructivism, Connectivism etc may help educators spot elements of these theories in their own teaching and encourage experimentation. For example, a teacher of medical subjects insisting that a multitude of specialist terms be memorised, might usefully evaluate behaviourist elements in their teaching. (I recall a medical student passing every ‘spotter’ test by studying all through the night before the test with a bottle of whisky: ….. “The thigh bone’s connected to the hip bone …” – Operant conditioning?).

The Skeleton Dance – song for learning parts of the body. (Super Simple Learning)

Teaching in real classrooms or lecture rooms embraces many different circumstances but learning theories say little about what’s actually being taught. There’s a world of difference between STEM type material where ‘facts’ and ‘correctness’ play a far more dominant role than in the humanities with considerably more scope for debate and discussion.

An obsession with the instructivist trappings of Behaviourism has its dangers but caveats apply to any learning theory. Consider the distressed child who just can’t ‘get’ negative numbers while his obsessively constructivist teacher keeps insisting that he had to be self-directed and figure it out for himself. Connectivism, focusing on connected learning and personal learning networks, has much to offer for the digital age but social networks can become – just that. Knowledge is not only found in the connections. For deep learning, complete disconnection in a quiet physical room with a good textbook, pencil, paper, coffee (or whisky!), can offer more than desperately tweeting ‘friends’ for advice or searching for clues on forums. No current theory seems to take into account the wide diversity of learning. Who and what is taught, where and by whom, will inevitably influence best practices in any circumstances.

The role of the education researcher is very different from that of practicing educators. The researcher, aims to advance an academic field while the educator simply aims to teach effectively. Most educators now have access to an abundance of pertinent information and a diversity of viewpoints. They can be trusted (with a Howard Rheingold ‘crap detector’ at the ready!) to maintain open and enquiring minds while using their valuable field experience to exploit and test a diversity of learning theories in a diversity of learning situations.

I recently participated in an excellent short MOOC by Southampton University (Learning in the Network Age) where many participants were practicing educators of one sort or another. Some (like me in 2011) had little prior knowledge of networked learning or learning theory but they were eager to learn about the new learning opportunities for themselves and their students. The course was only 2 weeks long, so no time for detail but numerous participants were motivated to examine material gleaned from several different learning theories with a view to improving their teaching. This ‘mix and mash’ approach suits busy educators. That’s what learning theories are for – ‘If the cap fits, wear it!’

Mixing and mashing learning theories
(Special Collections Toronto Public Library)

Written by Gordon Lockhart

June 14, 2017 at 9:08 pm

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Caring about Caring

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Once (and only once) and for a reason that escapes me now, the engineering professor had written the word ‘love’ on the blackboard, He stepped back and mused, “….don’t see that word often here …” and we males all shifted uncomfortably in our seats. At the time I thought him a little eccentric and behind the times. Rather than building on past successes his research had veered towards psychological and even philosophical aspects (OMG!). I preferred the nitty gritty of technical detail. He was not a particularly good administrator either but his door was always open and when I was in financial difficulties (more than once) he always managed to help. Not all the academic staff were so caring.

University engineering departments probably represent an extreme when it comes to caring about caring. In an almost all male environment it can be difficult to even discuss relationships let alone agree what needs to be done for the better. In particular, the small minority of female students, however academically gifted and self-assured, can find it difficult adjusting to an atmosphere of boyish geekiness and literal mindedness exhibited by some male students and academics.

Engineers – can they ever live a normal life? (Dilbert – The Knack; video via sillytoy)

Being a bit geeky and literal-minded myself and having no background in social sciences, much of the pedagogical discussion in MOOCMOOC either goes over my head or comes through too simply as exhortations to ‘Do Good!’. But I am invigorated by the stories of real teachers and real students and there have been some excellent thought-provoking examples of this. Some caring suggestions I came across could apply to the type of Higher Education environment I knew as a lecturer and I try to envisage the practicalities.

For example, turning up early at lectures for casual chat is one suggestion I considered (apologies as I can’t find who suggested this!). Sometimes students approach the lecturer before a lecture and conversation can flow but it’s not so easy when setting up overhead projectors, drawing curtains, dispensing handouts and attendance sheets, organising demonstrations etc and having to start more or less on time. For the career academic at a UK university, teaching, admin and research usually account for most working activity and in my experience (albeit last century) only the superhuman can balance all three satisfactorily. Promotion prospects hinge primarily on research and that involves travelling to meet potential sponsors, supervising research students and contracts, nail-biting applications for funding, ordering equipment and so on, not to mention actually doing research and writing it all up. The result is that teaching may come to be regarded as a secondary activity or even a necessary evil. Those taking the time to excel as teachers can be sidelined by a lack of publications.

Passion and involvement of the whole self are advocated and for good reason but displays of passion are not without danger. The prof I mentioned above liked and respected his young secretary but became worried that a goodnight kiss following a tequila-laden social event was a little too fond. So he apologised profusely to her the next day. Fortunately, to everyone else, including his secretary, this was nothing more than amusing evidence of his humanity and careful sense of propriety.

Most university academics probably recognise the benefits of getting to know students on a personal level but this can be difficult for practical reasons such as lecturing large numbers of students from different departments and can even be counter-productive if not approached with skill and maturity. The dean in Tom Lehrer’s comic song who “Tried so hard to be pals with us all” illustrates this nicely. These lines also highlight the stark ‘them and us’ divisions that can characterise university life.

To the beer and benzedrine,
To the way that the dean
Tried so hard to be pals with us all.
To excuses we fibbed,
To the papers we cribbed
From the genius who lived down the hall.

To the tables down at Morey’s (wherever that may be)
Let us drink a toast to all we love the best.
We will sleep through all the lectures,
And cheat on the exams,
And we’ll pass, and be forgotten with the rest.

Tom Lehrer – Bright College Days (video via slayerowns666)

The trouble with ‘linear’ subjects such as engineering, or STEM in general, is that there actually is a considerable amount of content that has to be transmitted into heads one way or another before moving on to a next stage. Yes, tutorials can be used to get to know students, problems can be framed authentically to spark interest and engagement but can calculus or circuit theory ever have the same potential for intimate discussion and reflection as poetry, art or philosophy?

UK universities seem better prepared for personal interaction between academic staff and students these days. There are formal systems such as staff/student committees and personal tutor schemes in place for mentoring and identifying collective and individual student problems. Personal tutors are encouraged to meet regularly with their tutees helping them with any type of problem arising but again, properly keeping track of perhaps 8 tutees is time consuming and may not be regarded by some tutors (or students!) as important. When borderline exam results are discussed in the privacy of examiners’ meetings the input provided by personal tutors can be crucial for fair decision making. Sadly, some tutors may have little to contribute – some may not even recognise the names of their tutees!

All sorts of practical issues bedevil good healthy interaction between academic staff and students. Perhaps things will change with the climate of opinion inside universities but I find this difficult to envisage without systemic change and proper resourcing.

Written by Gordon Lockhart

January 30, 2015 at 5:19 pm

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C or X MOOCs ? – Make Way for the Super-MOOC !

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While basic topics such as the validity of various learning theories can be joyfully debated until the cows come home in a connectivist cMOOC, this seems less appropriate for the ‘hard’ sciences, such as physics and chemistry, where a knowledge of fundamental procedures and processes is essential for even basic comprehension, let alone expertise. Here, facts are, … well facts, and becoming familiar with them by slogging through the mathematics and other donkey work is likely to be more productive than protracted debate. Now, having joined an xMOOC in the shape of Coursera’s Quantum Computing Course, I am finding out for myself. This is not a course for beginners but I do at least have some of the required background.

Calling a cMOOC a ‘course’ has always struck me as a misnomer – but not so for a Coursera xMOOC. The course I’m on has a well-defined curriculum of 8 week duration ending with a 3 hour timed examination. New course content in the form of notes and several shortish videos are released every week and there are weekly assignments to be tackled. The assignments can be submitted and auto-marked – frustratingly, only correct answers seem to generate feedback! The professor  in the videos does a good job but is very much ‘sage on the stage’. His explanations are competent and helpful although sometimes the course notes do not match in very well with the videos. I have yet to see the prof descend from the stage and interact directly with learners in the discussion forums. A TA deals with admin matters there (typos in the notes or gremlins in the marking system etc) but evidently not with queries on course content. Queries of this type, at all levels of difficulty, are left to other participants but fortunately there are several individuals (not me!) who appear well-qualified to help out. They devote considerable time and energy to providing personalised assistance and are able to lead informed discussion. This ‘unofficial’ bonus is clearly appreciated by other participants and contrasts with the relentless one-way transfer of content from sage to student.

Receiving the “statement of accomplishment” depends on overall performance on 7 assignments plus the final exam and there is a complicated marking scheme involving penalties for late submissions of the assignments. No doubt carefully crafted to suit the diverse circumstances of participants, its fairness seems doomed to endless debate in the forums! This obsession with the mechanics of assessment and the tacit assumption that expertise at this level can be properly measured by not much more than multiple-choice questions is disconcerting. I conclude that there’s nothing like a bit of old-fashioned xMOOC behaviourist pedagogy for learning the basics and, like many others on the course, I’ve certainly found the experience interesting and enjoyable – as far as it goes. It may not go much further for me though as real life intervenes and keeping up the pace takes an ever-increasing amount of time. I have no particular interest in ‘passing’ the course but yet part of me is spurred on by the fear of ‘failure’ that still dogs the survivors of 20th century formal education (along with ‘exam dreams’!) Another part of me just wants time to study some of the more interesting course topics in detail before moving on. That’s me – but the ‘Massive’ in MOOC delivers a wide diversity of other participants with other learning objectives who want something else. This of course is not usually the case for the traditional college courses on which Coursera and other xMOOCs appear to be based.

It seems to me that a MOOC has the potential to provide learners with a degree of choice way over and above what is possible in traditional courses. Imagine as an ideal, some sort of multi-layered, many-pathed super-MOOC offering a multitude of different modes of participation. Sub-courses on prerequisite topics are available on tap and the path traversed by different learners can, with or without advice, take many different possible routes through copious notes, videos, interactive quizzes and so on depending on the background and objectives of individual learners – even 3 hour timed exams to be taken if you must! Human assistance is available for the asking – perhaps via scores of previous participants who have already demonstrated their usefulness and are rewarded somehow for their assistance. The financial implications are beyond me but could such a super-MOOC not evolve relatively inexpensively from small beginnings by developing content and infrastructure over several iterations as ever-increasing numbers of participation modes are catered for?

Returning to the humble MOOC of today – this is a testing time as the altruism and openess that gave birth to the original cMOOCs is challenged by the new style xMOOCs with their focus on existing Higher Education practices and ways and means of ‘monetising’.  I can only hope that the aspirations (below), expressed almost half a century ago, will not be lost in the process!

Higher education shall be made equally accessible to all, on the basis of capacity, by every appropriate means, and in particular by the progressive introduction of free education.

Article 13: International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, 16th December 1966

Written by Gordon Lockhart

August 10, 2012 at 5:10 pm

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