As I'm leading a webinar on the subject of 'learners' this week i thought it was time to engage with some of the content and comments in the ongoing OcTEL MOOC. Week two's activities start with reviewing four questionnaires designed to find out whether learners are 'ready to learn online'. Once I'd got over the 'online' learning bit - I had thought this was a general TEL course with the focus on blended rather than purely online learning - I decided to complete these questionnaires in as unready a way as possible. The Penn State feedback directed me to some general study skills resources. However, these were not at all suited to online students or even students with basic digital habits - for example the mindmapping tutorial only covered the use of pen and paper to create mindmaps. The San Diego questionnaire seemed very joky - in fact if I was unsure about using a computer I would find it frankly insulting - and the Illinois one though more serious had obviously not been piloted on any real students. In both cases the feedback only reinforced my deficits: 'Not only do you need to feel
comfortable reading course content online, but you must feel comfortable
with the technology used to deliver the information'. 'you must be extremely self-disciplined, somewhat
technologically savvy, and communicate through writing without ever
meeting your instructor or peers face to face' Need to? Must? How do I get better at these things? The University of Houston questionnaire was the most useful in that it actually identified different kinds of aptitude that might support online learning and was reasonably serious in its approach, though the questions were extremely repetitive and again I wondered about piloting. Again i was directed to general advice about 'improving' my skills before attempting to learn online. While masquerading as self-help, all four of these questionnaires read to me like disclaimers designed to protect the relevant universities from irate students who may not have learned successfully online. They were not research-based diagnostic tools, and nor were they supportive signposts to relevant resources for prospective students.
I'd refer people interested in this kind of questionnaire to the one we created at Exeter ('what kind of digital learner are you?') which produces customised feedback with clear pointers to how students can build on what they already do. Bath have built a similar questionnaire, using our code but with categories mapped to Doug Belshaw's model of digital literacy. Neither are exactly research-based instruments, though in the case of Exeter it was based on interviews with real students. But both are intended to help staff and students appreciate the different skills and resources they bring to study, and explore how they can build on them.
I suggested that the term comes from a time when institutional LTA systems were being developed and implemented for the first time. Important because one of the great powers of digital technology is interoperability, and making information easily shared among all the people and processes involved in learning. But since the emergence of VLEs, I think different strengths of digital technology have come to the fore, especially portability and ubiquity. Networks, tools and services that happen to be useful for learning have become much more available, disappearing at one end into disciplinary practices (GIS are hardly 'learning technologies' but 'technologies of geographical practice'), and at the other end into learners' personal and social habits (blogs, wikis, social networks, digital media…). So it has become less useful to talk about 'learning technologies', which implies that the learning is in the system, and more important to talk about specifically educational practices (LTA and research/scholarship) in a digital environment - an environment in which activity is always already infused with digital information and communication options, and in which this fundamentally changes the meaning of the activity.
I do think that in all this we must give ourselves the means to describe the material, social, cultural effects of the digital as distinct from other human technologies such as print, writing, picture-making etc. In part just because these effects are becoming harder and harder to see - particularly for younger students who have been surrounded by them from birth and have them, so to speak, pressed up against their eyes. As educators and developers we need to open up spaces in which it is possible to critique these effects, to reflect on how they act in our own lives/learning, and to adopt critical stances towards the ways they act on us collectively - I mean specifically, materially, historically etc and not imagining digital technologies to have some magical powers that other technologies do not. This space can't be opened if we adopt the position that 'it's all just technology' or 'the kids don't see the difference so it doesn't exist'.
As a further complication of terms, I've grown quite keen on the word 'educational' for all its baggage. Teaching/educating others is a different set of activities to learning, or at least a radically different 'set towards' those activities (a 'set towards' the learning of the other person). All animals learn but only social animals teach, and I dislike the over-valuing of informal learning if what that means is the basic human aspiration to help others to learn is side-lined. There are enough people gunning for the teaching profession. And again in the interests of making visible, learning/teaching that takes place in institutions/settings specifically designed for those activities is different from learning/teaching that takes place in other settings. That's not to say new relationships should not be developed between formal educational settings and other places of learning, and in fact digital technology is critical in mediating those new relationships. But if we lose sight of what is different and special about times/places of formal learning it becomes very difficult to bring those relationships into being, or indeed to pursue the aim of equal access to those special times and places which has been the driving force behind educational thinking for much of the last two centuries.
So I think we are talking about educational practice in a digital society. Not as neat as learning technology, but for me it puts the emphasis of the current political/social/educational project in the right places. Defending formal education. Defending the right to formal education. Placing it in its proper social context. Understanding that the social context has been changed beyond recognition by the ubiquitous use of digital forms of information and communication, and that this would change the whole meaning of educational practice even if those social changes had not in many cases originated in the educational sphere.
Tomorrow I'm meeting with some old friends/collaborators (and a few new) to collaboratively write a final chapter for the second edition of Rethinking Pedagogy for a Digital Age. I'm slightly nervous about the collaborative writing aspect - coordinating people across several timezones and a larger number of theoretical perspectives to produce a coherent text in a few hours will not be easy. But I'm excited to be focusing on 'the future of e-learning', with all its risk of egg-on-face.
Topics I hope will be included in our final piece:
It's always great to be on a panel with Josie Fraser and David White, not to mention the other excellent bloggers whose fingers will be racing over the pages of the Guardian's live web chat tomorrow. I'll post more when the dust has settled, but just to say that I'm hoping debate will cover: - what it means to be critical in a digital age - open scholarship and the identity of the public intellectual in a digital age - the intersection of academic and digital practice - and the cutting edges of both I'm also hoping for opportunities to mention the excellent work being done by projects in the JISC digital literacies programme, particularly of course Exeter's Cascade project which I'm lucky enough to be project managing, jointly with Liz Dunne, but also projects at Plymouth and Greenwich where I have been more peripherally involved. Very different examples of whole-institution approaches but all concerned with the lifelong, lifewide impact that digital literacies will have in the near future.
Over our cascade coffee mugs this morning we were debating why raspberry pi should be on the menu for all school children. Not because everyone needs to be excited by coding or want to develop apps for a living, but because everyone needs to know how the tools and environments we live by are designed for us, and design our world for us. Just as everyone needs to know how to add up to survive in a monetised economy, or in our visual culture needs to know how images of women are manipulated, or how documentary films are edited and framed. Yes the curriculum is already crowded, but the part that is given over to ICT should not be dedicated to learning the programmes that will make students productive workers in the five years after they leave school.
In the new digital literacy campaign from Michael Gove's office (as reported here in the Guardian) there are a few things to celebrate but perhaps more to regret.
1. Yes, at the classroom level we should focus on teachers' digital capabilities - as an integral aspect of their professionalism - rather than on specific hardware. But it's the government's job to ensure schools have the ICT infrastructure that allows teachers and learners to develop, experiment, and be creative. Higher level capabilities are built on the foundation of basic functional access. In place of the previous Government's investment in ICT infrastructure for schools - whatever we might have thought of how this was targeted - there is just a nod to Google and Microsoft to move into the gap.
2. Yes, computer science is a scholarly, rigorous, exciting and intellectually demanding field of study, and computer scientists will shape all our futures. Courses which focus on the use of basic Office applications should not be confused with computer science. Coding, creating apps, design, understanding formal logic, working with user needs and HCI are all IMO critical skills for the coming decade. As Douglas Rushkoff argues in his book of the same title, we must all learn to 'program or be programmed' by others with better access to digital capital. But how do we make these courses attractive to students again when they have been so thoroughly devalued, not to say trashed as a 'soft option' by the rightwing press?
3. Yes, digital literacy - like reading, writing and the use of number - has life-wide, curriculum wide implications and should not be coralled into a specialist subject area. But where are the teachers with the time - where are the rewards for investing the time? - in substantially rethinking their subject area and teaching practice? Which is what this approach, taken seriously, requires.
Young people in our society, on the whole, can use a diversity of digital devices for entertainment and social networking. The role of schools and the education sector beyond school should be to develop a critical and creative digital literacy, which goes beyond the capacity to choose and use the latest digital product. David Buckingham calls this the capacity for critical reading and creative production. For me the key questions any digital curriculum should ask are:
How are applications, interfaces and environments designed? What are the affordances and implications of those design decisions? Can we use technology 'against' the purposes for which it was designed? How do we recognise the purposes - subtle and unsubtle - for which technology offers itself as the means? How can we use digital networks and infrastructure to further our own collective and individual aims? How are we being threatened, pacified and controlled by technology (and what can we do about it)? How do messages in digital media work on us as audience, and how can we construct our own messages persuasively?
These are questions that the digital media does not exist to ask - only formal education can encourage young people to ask them. We will not find a curriculum of this kind emanating from Gove's offices, but we might find elements of it elsewhere. Read Josie Fraser's blog post on the same topic for signs of hope - at least if you live in Leicester.
I took part in an online seminar on the Digital visitors and residents project at a Collaborate seminar organised by the JISC last week. I think this is a useful metaphor to have in play, and the findings of the project which look extremely valuable in extending our understanding of what motivates students to engage in the digital environment. There are obvious links with the JISC Developing Digital Literacies programme: by helping explain what strategies students are using, the project can help us understand what educators might do to validate or further develop those strategies, or introduce others that might give students greater repertoire and fluency.
Some of the early findings obviously replicate work that has been done in the past to problematise the digital natives narrative, to demonstrate that personal/social skills with technology are not highly transferable to learning, and to recognise that students have many strategies for using technology to support their studies which do not necessarily coincide with what institutions see as 'good' study skills (the Learners' experiences of e-learning studies confirmed both of these).
I do have some thoughts about the metaphor itself, which I shared at the seminar. For example: - Is the place vs tool metaphor one that the project is using, or one they are finding that participants use in thinking about the online space? - How far is the metaphor a design artefact of the environment and how far is it a property of the individual's stance towards the environment? For example, 'windows' are intuitively spatial. Drop down menus are intuitively tool-like. Most software interfaces combine both to give different messages to the user about how to behave. - We know that people's behaviour in online environments is very strongly influenced by those environments - arguably more than any innate factors including age, confidence with technology etc. At least, it is a question that can be researched: to what extent is behaviour in online environments an aspect of relatively stable aspects of the person and to what extent it is environmentally determined? This might vary depending on the environment in question (and even on the person??) - I am assuming that the metaphor distinguishes behaviours and not individuals. i.e. we are all visitors and residents in different contexts. - As described in the seminar, the visitors-residents continuum seems to combine a range of behavioural and perceptual aspect: the metaphors we use when we engage with technology; whether we are behaving as individual or social participants/learners; whether we are behaving as consumers, collaborators or producers of content etc. There is an empirical question here: to what extent are these different factors linked? Is this a question the project is trying to answer?
One of the dimensions along which visitors and residents were said to differ is whether their behaviour is 'instrumental' or 'networked'. For me, the web 2.0 era is essentially one in which to be networked IS to be instrumental. Asking a question of my twitter followers is me being instrumental. In exercising my agency I recognise the value of collaboration.
So, this post is meant to open a conversation that I hope will be a productive one!