Buzzwords galore, but what about the learning?

I’ve always had a problem with the term ‘e-learning’. Learning doesn’t take place electronically, but in people and communities of practice.

Cartoon of an e-learning course

There are many different words and phrases bandied about these days to describe 21st Century modes of teaching and learning. Here are some: e-learning, blended learning, technology enhanced learning, flipped classroom, social learning, mobile learning, gamification, cloud based learning, synchronous classroom, distance learning, agile learning, rhizomatic learning.

Experts attempt to differentiate between and define these various terms, which overlap considerably.  I can’t help thinking they all sound very clever, very technical, and slightly mysterious. Certainly, they have their proponents and trailblazers who desperately want others to ‘get it’, adopt the approach and join in the conversation about how it can benefit and transform learning. This all helps to build communities of practice and gather evidence of effectiveness.

Underneath all the buzzwords, there is the tricky concept of LEARNING. Learning is very difficult to pin down. On my bookshelf I have a book edited by Knud Illeris, a Danish professor of lifelong learning, who has gathered contemporary accounts of 16 influential learning theorists. It is a fascinating and inspirational read. But having read it, I still sense that learning itself remains mysterious. Learning is not a spectator sport – you cannot ‘see’ learning happen, although you can witness what emerges the other side of the ‘learning black box’. And you can study the learning context in order to understand how to help people learn.

Learn-small

Behind the inventive terminology and fascinating theories, I can identify five common threads for a successful learning context.

  1. Provide access to information
  2. Promote interaction between the source of information and the learner
  3. Create space for personal reflection and discussion with other learners
  4. Allow learners to test out their newly acquired knowledge/skills and to obtain feedback
  5. Provide learners with means of sensing progress and achievement

Here are some ways these five threads are woven into contemporary education.

  1. Provide access to information

  • Get people into a physical or online (synchronous or asynchronous) classroom and a teacher talks. The talking could be augmented by demonstrating a skill, technique, or practice situation. In an online or face-to-face classroom, the demonstration could be delivered as a pre-recorded video.
  • Supply reading material or a reading list. Formats for reading materials can be print or to suit a range of electronic devices. Some devices are more portable than others. Electronic delivery allows flexibility in meeting the needs of some learners with sensory impairment and learning disabilities – e.g. changing font size and colour, allowing audio conversion.
  • Help learners gain the skills to find appropriate information – e.g. in libraries and on the World Wide Web.
  • In a workplace, allow learners to immerse themselves in the community of practice, observe others, supply them with a buddy or mentor, provide access to libraries and internal documents.
  1. Promote interaction between the source of information and the learner

  • Help learners to make notes, actively interrogate content, organise their thoughts and responses in light of the information. They are not ‘just reading’, or ‘just listening’, or ‘just watching’ – engagement with the information has to be active. Gamification is a very engaging technique for promoting such interaction. In classroom situations, learners commonly achieve active interrogation and organising their thoughts by asking the teacher questions.
  • Help learners to question their information sources. Teach them the skills to judge the provenance, trustworthiness, and so on, of sources.
  • In a workplace, cultivate a climate of trust. Train mentors and buddies to adopt a facilitative, non-judgemental attitude to questions.
  1. Create space for personal reflection and discussion with other learners

  • Create break-out groups in lectures – either virtual or face-to-face. Online classrooms also have the facility for messaging, emoticons and voting buttons – and voting buttons are also available in some lecture halls. Online forums are widespread, a very useful tool for running discussions. Blogging is also becoming increasingly popular for reflection and discussion.
  • Provide prompt questions for reflection. Online, questions can be made interactive so that a learner’s response influences the next question posed.
  • A flipped classroom involves learners accessing the information they need before entering the classroom. This frees up the classroom time for extensive group work and reflection. This is a common model used in distance learning with tutor support.
  • In a workplace, a useful approach is to facilitate learners to form networks or learning sets for reflection, discussion and peer support – ‘social learning‘ springs to mind here.
  1. Allow learners to test out their newly acquired knowledge/skills and to obtain feedback

  • In academic learning, this testing out commonly occurs in formal or informal written assignments.
  • Peer feedback can also be solicited in group work and discussions via a range of electronic media as well as old-fashioned face-to-face.
  • In practice situations, trying things out and obtaining feedback could be almost continuous. If mentors and supervisors accept mistakes as part of the learning process rather than a source of shame, discussion opens up and learning is more likely.
  1. Provide learners with means of sensing progress and achievement

  • Set meaningful and tangible learning outcomes and objectives.
  • Design assessment tasks carefully.
  • Regular quizzes (in any format) can be fun and motivating.
  • Ensure any feedback is carefully formulated to encourage.
  • Emphasise the value of any qualifications to be gained.

I may have missed something out. Can anyone add anything?

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