I read an inspiring piece at Online College the other day: Emergence of the new learner. It suggested that the characteristics of the new learner are that they create and broadcast content, they are connected and networked, that they are used to critique and need feedback. Furthermore the new learning environment is peer-to-peer collaborative and process-oriented. This is great stuff and it describes in nutshell some of the key features of 21st century learning.
Inspiring as I say. Or it would be if I'd ever met a learner like that. OK, I exaggerate a tiny, tiny bit. I've tutored several hundred students in the last ten years, and I've lost count of the thousands who've been in forums I have moderated. I reckon I could count the new learners, as described above, on the fingers of both hands. I have no criticism personally of any of the students I have taught or moderated over the years: it's the way they've been taught. As the Online College article goes on to say: “We are brought up, educationally speaking, sitting in neat rows and columns of chairs, listening to instructor-driven lectures, and completing multiple-choice exams at pre-determined intervals.” So people do what they have always done. And it's comfortable to do that. This is connected with my previous post about deep and surface learning. Surface learning is alienated learning, in my opinion – it is personally distant, irrelevant, useful only for jumping through hoops and is often jettisoned as soon as the hoop has been jumped. It's boring and the student can often be resentful and less than fully engaged in a task that is necessary because one is in school, but otherwise meaningless. On the other hand, the student is given little opportunity to explore ways in which the tasks might become meaningful, and no incentive either – surface learning is monotonous and featureless, but on the other hand it makes no personal demands. Real learning can shake your soul, and that is a step too far for many people.
Paradoxically, I don't think I can blame their teachers either. Primary and secondary teaching in the UK has improved greatly since I was at school
Also, learning happens in the context of a person's whole world. It's not just the teachers that are responsible, but the whole of society. Teachers don't stand a chance if the child they've been teaching goes home and hears what the teacher is doing rubbished by their family, their friends and their media. Our society teaches us how to do things and what things to do – and by “our society” I mean us, not some mythical thing for which nobody can take any responsibility. Driving is a good example. We get taught the mechanics,and a bit about manners, then we go off and drive the way everybody else does, which causes both chaos and carnage on the roads. More on that here and here. I don't want to get into the ins and outs of how we learn to drive, just to use it as an example of how powerful the learning is that we do from those around us.
I teach level 1 modules for the Open University. Most of my students have done no formal learning since school, regardless of what age they are. We get more and more young-ish people coming to us. Out of 25 current students 7 are under 25. That is they left school less than ten years ago. They, like everyone else, still need to learn how to learn. That is the first and most important aspect of my teaching relationship with them. Linked to that is the fact that they do not know how to learn online, and in fact are completely unfamiliar with the online environment as a place of learning. So I need to address both of these issues – learning how to learn, and learning how to learn online.
Learning how to learn is relatively easy to deal with. Every student arrives with their own motivation. There are some who will listen to me and some who will not. I don't mind that, as long as they get what they want. I can enthuse and inspire those who will listen and are open to being inspired. And I can start to teach them the benefits of critical thinking – the ability to look for the bigger picture, the habit of always asking why, the habit of never taking the taken-for-granted for granted, the habit of questioning everything, habits of honesty and objectivity, openness to new ideas, learning to base judgement on evidence. Interesting, isn't it, how many of these characteristics are personal rather than intellectual ones. It's hard work, it's a tough job, but it's relatively easy to conceptualise.
The elearning thing is a bit trickier though. Generally speaking students are not taking to elearning like ducks to water. They do what they have to, and they otherwise tend to ignore it. This is treated by some as a bit of a puzzle, particularly if you subscribe to the digital natives theory, which says that new generations of learners grow up with the online world. They're used to it, so they should naturally be able to learn in it. Doesn't seem to be the case with my students. Doesn't seem to be the case with other students either – there is an interesting survey from Canada – If Students Are Digital Natives, Why Don’t They Like E-Learning? – the conclusions of which are summed up by the title. And in fact the idea doesn't hold water, for a couple of reasons.
First of all, assuming that they know how to learn online assumes that they know how to learn. This doesn't seem to be the case. That is to say, they use a method of learning (everybody does) – usually the surface method, unless they have a reason for getting involved in something when they may well switch to the deep method. But using the deep method involves developing the skills and practices mentioned earlier on, and if people haven't developed those skills through repeated practice, then they won't be as good at it as they could be. That will be less satisfying for them, and it may be that they will drop back to the old, less effective but less demanding ways of learning. Unless they're consistently and enthusiastically taught to learn in this way. (I'll return to that.)
Secondly the assumption is made that if people are comfortable “being” online, they will be comfortable “learning” online. It ain't necessarily so. Being online for many people is about chatting and pursuing leisure interests. It is specifically not a place to engage the brain. Engaging the brain involves an entirely different set of habits and attitudes, and it takes an effort of will to move from one to the other – until you get used to it, and then the students will switch from Facebook friends to Facebook tutor groups with the same facility with which I do it. But the point is that they have to learn how to do it, and if they are not given the room and motivation to do it, they won't.
And there I think we academics in higher education, with some notable exceptions, are failing our students. There is not enough alignment in our teaching practices, and not enough acknowledgement of the basic skills that need to be learned by most university entrants. Alignment in teaching practice has been a problem for a long time, and remains a problem. Back in the 70s it appeared that lecturers looked for critical thinking, but taught and assessed conformity in ideas and the acquisition of detailed factual knowledge. (Entwistle, N. (2005) 'Introduction'. In: Marton, F., Hounsell, D. and Entwistle, N., (eds.) The Experience of Learning: Implications for teaching and studying in higher education. 3rd (Internet) edition. Edinburgh: University of Edinburgh, Centre for Teaching, Learning and Assessment. p6.
And now I teach two courses where the importance of working online and collaboratively is acknowledged, and the tutors are required to offer online tutorials, but all the marks are given for traditional written assignments. If you think it's important, you should mark it.
Secondly, we don't acknowledge the need for the majority of our students, of whatever age or background, for a proper introduction to what learning online really means – the ability and the need to both control and juggle the sources and the motivations of our learning. When to put effort into working collaboratively so as to get the benefit out of it and when and how to put the effort into and learning critically so as to be able to take full control of their own lives.
The only question that remains is – is it really that important? If students can still learn satisfactorily in the traditional ways, why not let them do it? Because, rather like all those schools that are only “satisfactory”, it's not good enough. Surface learning is an old skill, suited to a world in which you could be a good worker and a good citizen without ever thinking too much. Deep learning has become a necessity for surviving in this world, both as a worker and as a human being. Students can get by making use of their education in a second rate way just as they always have done. And in some ways governments would rather they did – they don't want questioning, persistent, well-informed citizens, they want compliant ones. But for us as individuals, we have two choices, we can stagnate, or we can take control of both the style and the environment in which we learn. That means getting on top of the manifold ways in which data and information are spread across the internet, and learning how to evaluate, manipulate and deploy them. Doing any less means second tier jobs for second tier citizens. So, yes, it is important – important enough for us to insist that our students get the best they can out of both learning and elearning.