Sunday, December 12, 2021

The age of the educational technologist

Photo by UX Indonesia on Unsplash

I always enjoy reading Tony Bates' posts that always offer a balanced and informed view of current trends in education. This week's post is a review of educational technology trends of the past year,  A Review of Online Learning in 2021, and has the sub-heading bad but still better. The lessons learned this year are the same as those learned in 2020 only more nuanced. There is the realisation that almost all courses are now blended in some way and this is changing how we design our courses as well as how we design our learning spaces, both on-site and online. There are plenty of new buzzwords in this field and there's a lot of learning by trial and error but we have come a long way since early 2020. 

There are all kinds of new terms for these moves toward blended learning, such as flipped, hyflex, hybrid, and these terms will continue to evolve and confuse, because there is no dominant pedagogical model or even theory for blended learning. Everyone is learning by the seat of their pants, and this may not be a bad thing, at least initially. What is important is that these developments are encouraged, recorded and evaluated, so that eventually best practices can emerge.

One group that has moved on to centre stage during the pandemic is the educational technologist (there are many other names for this role as it is still developing into a profession). Institutions who already had centres of teaching and learning to support staff in using technology handled the transition to online education much more smoothly than institutions who lacked formal support. Today we see a realisation of the need for comprehensive support for teachers in designing and running courses.  Before covid this support was mostly aimed at a minority of teachers - early adopters. That meant there was time for individual support and guidance. But now, when all teaching staff need support, the role of educational technologists and pedagogical development specialists has become a core function. 

When only 10 per cent of courses were online, one-on-one support for faculty was feasible. However with everyone moving toward some version of blended learning, the challenge of quality control and agile course design, especially for blended learning, has become urgent. How do we scale up support for instructors to ensure quality blended learning? The challenge of blended learning means moving from an ad hoc model of faculty development, based on instructors, often reluctantly, opting in, to a more systematic faculty development model that ensures everyone has exposure to best practices in blended learning.

What is important now is that support for teachers is strengthened and professionalised. In some institutions this kind of support is still offered by either the IT department, who seldom have pedagogical experience, or rely on the goodwill of more experienced colleagues, who have to combine their regular duties with being unofficial and unrecognised educational technologists. The recognised educational technologists in turn need career paths, professional development and recognition of their contribution to the institution's core business. Even if we don't really know where we are heading it would seem to be safe to predict that most if not all educational institutions now realise the vital importance of professional support to teachers in managing the transition to a more digitally dependent university.

Sunday, December 5, 2021

Attention literacy and the value of slow learning

Photo by Johannes Plenio on Unsplash

The paradox of today's society is that we are both more connected than ever before and at the same time becoming increasingly disconnected from each other and even ourselves as we drown in a flood of information, advertising, entertainment and chatter. The torrent never stops and prevents us from stopping to reflect or question what is going on and there is growing interest in finding strategies to counter this threat. These strategies are an integral part of the so-called 21st century literacies including source criticism, information literacy, media literacy, data literacy and network literacy. 

The concept attention literacy caught my attention in an article by Howard Rheingold, Attention, and Other 21st-Century Social Media Literacies (Educause Review, vol. 45, no. 5), back in 2010. He described five key social media literacies: attention, participation, collaboration, network awareness and critical consumption. The issue of attention was mostly about the digital distractions that his students were subjected to in class and he proposed establishing oases of offline interaction when all focus would be on class discussion or deeper reading. The ability to switch between online and offline was the core of attention literacy.

Since then attention literacy has expanded and is discussed in a new article by Mark Pegrum and Agnieszka Palalas in the Canadian Journal of Learning and Technology, Attentional literacy as a new literacy: Helping students deal with digital disarray. They outline the challenge presented by the concept of digital disarray: the effects of today's information overload and the algorithm-controlled digital landscape that dominates our lives. They describe three components of digital disarray:

  • digital distraction is the overwhelming volume of news, updates, entertainment and social interaction that compete for our attention every day and often prevent us from focusing on any specific task.
  • digital disorder represents the abundance of misleading information, alternatives realities and conspiracy theories and how they have divided society on increasingly polarised tribal lines.
  • digital disconnection represents a growing disconnection between people with a growing trust in dangerous stereotypes and a lack of curiosity. People can have a strong online presence but lack interpersonal skills and an ability to connect with others outside their own sphere. The result perhaps of people being trapped in their own filter bubbles.

Many "new" literacies have been described in recent years (evidently an Irish review of the field identified 100 different models of digital literacies, see Brown 2017) but the authors suggest that attention literacy is an overarching literacy and a strategy to combat this notion of digital disarray. Attention is therefore a macroliteracy.

Arguing that today’s growing focus on digital literacies in education already serves as a partial response to digital disarray, this evidence-based position paper proposes the concept of attentional literacy as a macroliteracy which interweaves elements of now established literacies with the emerging educational discourse of mindfulness.Through attentional literacy, students may gain awareness of how to focus their attention intentionally on the self, relationships with others, and the informational environment, resulting in a more considered approach to learning coupled with an appreciation of multiple shifting perspectives.

Learning to focus and filter out the digital distractions involves not simply switching off your digital devices but learning to concentrate your mind on one task and being able to approach a topic without preconceptions and biases. The authors see mindfulness as a key to developing this skill and suggest integrating elements of this in education. Their working definition of mindfulness is given as the mental capacity to pay attention intentionally and non-judgmentally to an object of choice while remaining aware of changing experiences and contexts. Whether or not the concept of mindfulness is the answer here, there is a case for more focus on rediscovering the benefits of silence, quiet reflection, deep reading and simply switching off the distractions. 

The problem is that most university courses today focus on efficiency and demands to fulfill learning outcomes as quickly as possible. Students want to earn their credits and get their qualifications and this leaves little time for a new kind of slow learning. True lifelong learning is a slow process and insights often take years to develop. We need to create more space for reflection and develop strategies for fostering deeper learning. Whether you call this mindfulness or something else we need to learn to step away from the torrent of distractions and think more about where we want to go.