Wednesday, February 23, 2022

The invisible students

I've read lots of articles in recent weeks about the return to campus after the pandemic. There's naturally a great feeling of relief from students and staff alike. Many articles focus on how students prefer campus teaching to online. Well of course they do - that's what they signed up for! If you commit to a traditional campus degree you naturally want the whole package even if the use of digital media and online spaces will be an integral part of the programme. They accepted online teaching as an emergency solution but although it worked well, they lost out on all the benefits of being on campus such as the network building, social events, sense of identity and being part of a major institution. No-one suggests that they should switch to completely online. The traditional university experience is a vital stage in so many people's development and a completely life-changing period for many. Most reports indicate that staff and students have realised that online spaces add important elements to the campus experience and expect a greater blend between physical and online spaces in the future. However it's sad that all too often the media and politicians want to use this to create a false polaristaion between on-site and online. 

It also brings up the question of what we mean by the term student. All too often it means an 18-23 year old, full-time campus student. However, an increasingly large student population is conveniently forgotten in media discussions. There are millions of people who sign up for an online course or degree because they simply can't move to a campus or university city. Campus is not relevant for them because they already have their identity and networks firmly established where they live with their families, work and community. This group is growing rapidly in response to the demands for lifelong learning and reskilling in an increasingly unpredictable labour market. They value the learning but have little interest in the university experience. Sadly their voice is seldom heard and no-one really represents their interests. .

The main student organisations have difficulty attracting online students. The online students see the student organisations as representatives of campus study but at the same time the student organisations can't represent the online students because they have so little contact with them. It's a vicious circle. This in turn means that the needs of online students do not reach university management and academic boards. The dominance of young campus students on university websites and brochures reinforces this disconnect.

Universities are very willing to hear the voices of their campus students and they are represented in the highest decision-making bodies. How do we give the online student community a similar voice?

Tuesday, February 8, 2022

Finding the sweet spot for learning

Photo by Maria Lupan on Unsplash

Learning is an extremely complex field and, in order to make sense of what is going on in the interaction between teachers and students, models and diagrams can help to make sense of the complexity. we will never capture the whole picture in one diagram but the interplay between models at least offer us guidelines for practice. 

One diagram caught my eye last week  in an article by Melissa EmlerFuture of Work Is Nothing Without Consideration For The Future of Learning (see below). The article looks at professional training but shows that learning takes place at the intersection of three elements: event, content and community. The gist of the model is that learning doesn't happen if one of these elements is missing.

If organizations want to get a return on their investment on learning, the components must be seen as interdependent parts of the whole. When making decisions about professional learning opportunities, people must understand the best experiences will contain all three components: community, content, and events. The ones that don’t contain all three components can be left unopened in your inbox.

Basically an event full of content but with no community element (ie. no discussion, interaction) has no lasting effect. Similarly a community with events but no content lacks a purpose - maybe lots of fun but what's it all about? Finally a community with content but with no events lacks urgency and the chance to get involved. Over the last couple of years we have certainly seen examples of all three with countless well-purposed webinars full of useful content but without forming a sense of involvement. many started a good discussion but offered no space for that to develop into a sense of community. I have certainly been part of quite a few such ventures.

In a pre-pandemic era, the components of training and development could stand alone. But if the goal is to embrace being a learning organization in the post-pandemic era, they can’t. During the pandemic, people in every industry were faced with a barrage of offers for free events and online courses. At first, many dove right in because they had a need to upskill fast. Now, heading into the third year of the pandemic, people are tired. Screen fatigue is real. Making sense of the one-off events is complicated. And, the logins for those online courses remain tucked safely away in the email inbox never to be seen again. And more than anything, people are craving connection and a sense of community. 
There are similarities here to the more complex community of inquiry model that shows the close and essential interplay between three presences: teaching presence, social presence and cognitive presence. These elements vary from course to course but the true educational experience takes place in the sweet spot where the three presences meet. So many solutions fail because they only focus on one or two factors. You can have lots of great well-designed content but without a wider context and sense of community it has only limited impact. We need to offer that magic space where several factors intersect.

Image: Melissa Emler Modern Learners 2022


Thursday, February 3, 2022

"It ain't what you do it's the way that you do it" - note taking skills

Photo by Dollar Gill on Unsplash
One rather sad reflection on the world today is that we tend to believe what we want to believe and often disregard scientific evidence that goes against these beliefs. Sometimes it gets absurd - it may be a myth but it's such a good story so we're sticking with it. Even in education we have many myths that are simply too good to discard, despite considerable scientific evidence against them. Digital natives, learning styles, the benefits of open-plan offices are still going strong after all these years. 

Another fondly held belief is that learning was somehow better before computers came along. This appears in different guises such as the benefits of print books over e-books, classroom teaching versus online teaching, video meetings versus online meetings and so on. Another in this series is about handwritten notes being more beneficial to learning than typed notes on a digital device. A post by Donald ClarkIs handwriting better than typing for note taking? Surprisingly, it's not!, debunks this myth very well, though I suspect that it will still continue to thrive. Clark points out that the claim is based on one article from 2014 that showed better learning from handwritten notes. Subsequent studies have shown no significant difference between the note-taking methods but have received much less coverage than the original study. The problem is that it is not a simple contest between two methods but we need to look deeper to see that note-taking is a valuable learning tool, no matter how you do it, but also that it is one of many learning strategies. Learning happens when you make a conscious effort.

It would seem that writing notes in your own words, and studying your notes, matter more than the methods used to write your notes. This makes sense, as the cognitive effort involved in studying are likely to outweigh the initial method of capture. It is not note taking that matters but effortful learning.

There are far too many discussions today trying to prove which method/tool/medium is "best" as if it was a contest. Taking notes is a skill that all students need to develop but they need to find the format that works for them whether it be traditional handwritten notes, Word documents, collaborative notes in Google Drive, a writing tablet, a collaborative mindmap or even reflections recorded as voice notes. The active process of summarising, rephrasing and sorting is part of the learning process. 

This debate focuses on one issue, the method of note talking but the more important issue is to move beyond note taking to actual learning. Here we know that underlining, highlighting and rereading are not efficient learning strategies. One needs to move towards effortful, generative learning, deliberate, retrieval and spaced practice. Note taking is not an end in itself, merely the start of a learning journey. It is an important bridge to more effortful learning.

Note taking can also be used as an alternative to recording online meetings. Simply hitting the record button is convenient for students but why not ask them to take notes instead and collaborate in producing collective notes? They may need some guidelines at first, but if two students take notes during the session and at the end allow the rest of the class to fill in gaps and post comments and links the collective notes can be much more valuable than a simple recording.