Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Silent learners guide

For the past couple of years I've been involved in a Nordic project looking at how to be more responsive to the needs of silent learners, especially in online education. We started out with the notion of lurkers, a rather pejorative term that assumes some kind of suspicious behaviour, but quickly realised that being silent does not mean that learning is not taking place. Many are working, not lurking.

Education today focuses so much on active student involvement and collaboration and it's easy to forget that a great deal of learning takes place in silence and alone. Have we actually neglected this aspect of learning in our enthusiasm for activity and engagement? Furthermore, there are many learners who learn best that way and avoid group work and collaboration as much as possible. This can be due to shyness, insecurity or simply because group activities take up so much valuable time, sometimes involving conflicts and compromise. Collaboration is an extremely important skill to learn but there are different ways to collaborate. We need to give space to the silent learners or introverts and let them contribute in their own way. They may not be so vocally active in the brainstorming or creative activities but they may be excellent at note-taking, summarising and analysis. We need to empower the silent learners and let their skills enrich the collaborative process but we also need to help more vocal and active learners to develop their own silent learning skills. In order to let the quiet learners participate in group work the vocal members must develop their listening skills, deep reading skills and their ability to observe and summarise.

One tangible product from our project is a short and concise guide, Silent learners - a guide, with lots of practical ideas for both teachers and students. The guide also describes our own journey from seeing these learners as a problem to seeing the issue as one of inclusion and accessibility and that we need to take all learners into consideration when designing courses, not just the vocal and active ones.

The issue behind this guide is making education more inclusive and so we need to offer alternative pathways for learners and ensure that different competences and learning strategies are recognized. Collaboration does not always demand noisy synchronous meetings but can also involve more silent asynchronous activities where everyone can contribute using a variety of media. Introverts are often invisible in synchronous group work, but if that discussion is continued in an online asynchronous learning space then the more reflective learners are more likely to contribute effectively. Developing better asynchronous collaboration also empowers learners with special needs by allowing them more time to make a response and thereby making a valuable contribution to the group work. Another group of learners that would benefit from a more flexible and inclusive approach are non-native speakers who generally need more time to understand the subject matter and formulate their ideas and are therefore disadvantaged in synchronous discussions.

You can read more about the project activities with links to several webinars and other resources on the project site, Silent learners.

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