Context, construction and community – the changing topography of education

For the last couple of years I have been trying to find patterns in and make sense out of the  rapidly changing landscape of tertiary education.  Without choosing any specific pathway I have been following threads of conversations and ideas back to their (often) blog sources, been introduced to various aspects of education theory that had previously escaped me, been amazed, intrigued and sometimes bewildered by the options provided by new technology and enjoyed the very vigorous debate along the way.

The original impetus for this journey had been the SLENZ project (2008-2010) which had funded us to explore and experiment with the use of a multi-user virtual environment (Second Life) for tertiary education.  The project had many successes and had left me with a very clear vision of the enormous potential these kinds of spaces had for changing the way in which people learned. My initial purpose was to indulge my own delight in innovative technological applications and to see how I could use them in my own teaching practice. Frustrated by the  constraints of Learning Management Systems with their focus more on educational administration and control than excellent learning experiences, I experimented with driving my face-to-face teaching from class blogs and using various cloud based tools, particularly Google docs, as interactive class whiteboards and participated in two MOOCs, Pedagogy First and Designing a New Learning Environment.

Since 2010, the possibilities for technology to disrupt the traditional model of education have increased at a rate which is overwhelming to me and no doubt alarming to a very large number of educators.  Flipped classrooms, education in virtual worlds, MOOCs (xMOOCs and cMOOCs), PLNs (personal learning networks), e-Portfolios, connectivism, gamification, OER (open education resources) and a plethora of new educational tools are all making it very difficult to see the forest for the trees.  I have found it much too easy to become entranced by one intriguing branch! Over the last few days, prompted by an invitation to attend a brainstorming session on moving our institute towards a ‘future learning space’, I have been attempting to stand back a little and identify some of the patterns that I see.

I have come to the conclusion that it isn’t just the landscape of education that is changing, it is the entire topography.  We may rearrange the deck-chairs to better catch the sun but the land on which we sit is itself shifting, cracking and reforming. Unless we stand up and engage with some very fast and fancy footwork, the pleasant landscape will shortly become unrecognisable as the sun disappears behind turbulent storm clouds.

I have categorised the fundamental changes that I believe are taking place as the three C’s

  • Context not content
  • Construction of knowledge
  • Community.

I have written before on the notion of context and I have beoming increasingly convinced this is correct.  While there is always some factual knowledge that is important to memorise (for convenience if nothing else), our almost immediate access to a global resource of knowledge makes much fact retention redundant.  How we find the relevant knowledge, how we judge and evaluate it, how we relate the context of the found knowledge to the context in which we use it, and how we do all that efficiently and competently is much more important.

How we construct new knowledge is also changing.  The trial and error approach of practical application has long been recognised as a successful learning mechanism as has the more structured and guided approach to task completion by following a set of steps. In an educational context however, both of these have generally been teacher led or instigated.  The concept of challenging students to find their own solutions and create their own new knowledge with little direction seems risky and failure prone.  Yet the need to create knowledge, either new, or new to the individual, is now recognised in the value placed on life-long learning and is an essential component of it.

There is a growing recognition that learning is a social activity – that we learn best, not in isolation, but in learning with and from others.  Collaboration and cooperation,  acting within a team, connecting with others for mutual learning are all part of builidng this life-long learning community.

Coming to grips with these changes is not about how to use tech in the classroom or even how to design online courses – it is about understanding that technology is bringing about a fundamental shift in the way we learn and in the way we construct and use knowledge.  This understanding has to transform how we teach and even more importantly how we assess and reward the learning.  We have to reassess what we value as educators and how we can assess that.  There is little to be gained by changing how we provide learning experiences for students if we continue to reward memorisation and individual achievment.  We need to re-consider and re-design our assessment practices and reward systems just as thoroughly as we do our teaching and I will be writing more on this topic in a later post!.


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