Friday, October 30, 2015

Fine tuning

I've written many times about the issue of silent learners, also known as peripheral or even drive-by learners. In all forms of education there are learners who stay in the background and remain almost invisible throughout the course. This can be due to a lack of confidence or even lack of interest but is often because the learner simply prefers to listen, observe and then reflect alone. Some people simply don't want to take part in group work or perform in front of peers. Should we try to encourage them to participate more or should we give them space to learn on their own? In the classroom this can be more easily tackled by having a chat but in an online setting, especially in a MOOC, these learners simply disappear.

I've just started a project with some colleagues from the Nordic region to investigate whether silent learners are simply "lurking" or whether they are really learning and whether we should design courses to offer space for a more silent and solo learning path (see project description). Are silent learners more or less likely to complete a course? I believe that many learners adapt their learning strategies according to the situation and that the same person can be a highly active collaborative learner in one course and then a silent learner on the next. It depends often on a conscious decision on how much you want or need to engage.

This idea was reinforced by a blog post by Simon Broek on the European adult learning portal EPALE, Thoughts on the concept of learning. Your level of engagement depends on why you take the course. If you see the course as the key to a new career you will engage wholeheartedly whereas if it is simply "good to know something about" then you will not be prepared to invest so much energy. Learning can have different intensities and purposes and the two are interrelated.

I would like to start thinking about the concept of learning by looking at different purposes and intensities of learning.
  • Learning is a broad concept having different intensities, such as adding bits of new knowledge to your body of knowledge and overthrowing everything you once understood as being true.
  • In addition, learning can have different purposes; for instance being able to answer a question, to carry out a task, or using your knowledge and understanding to develop new knowledge and start innovations.
Learning depends a large number of variable factors and all can be fine-tuned according to the situation.We all move up and down these scales even during the same course with certain periods when we are deeply involved and collaborative followed by quieter more passive periods. One week's task can inspire me to work really hard but the following week's task or material is less inspiring. One week I've got other pressures that dominate and my attention to the course suffers as a result. Maybe I joined the course without any clear reason and once it got going I felt I should tag along but with the minimum effort; maybe I'll learn something from it.

How can we help to raise learners' commitment levels without too much simple carrot and stick? An article in Edutopia, Strategies to Build Intrinsic Motivation, suggests several methods to encourage learners to set their own goals and level of commitment. Asking learners to rate how likely they are to complete the course, getting them to write public goals about their commitment to the course or the week's topic, drawing up a learning contract and getting the group to write class rules can all be ways of raising intrinsic motivation rather than relying on the rewards and rules that the teacher traditionally imposes.

In the end however I think we have to accept that learning depends on so many variables and we all adjust these constantly just like a sound studio technician. We will seldom get the mix perfect but we can at least try to create the right prerequisites.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for collecting different views of reasons for learners to be passive. It might be possible that the easy access to courses make us sort of passive, too? We can choose any time to attend a course or a webinar, for free, and we do not really pay full attention to it. Is it like sitting at a table with too much food and too full stomach?