The role of the teacher in learning environments

I recently was asked in Facebook by my friend Di – “I keep mulling around the importance of the practitioner as the key defining resource in learning… feeling very ‘anti’ commodification of education blah, blah again – is this anything you would be interested in? do you hit on anything like this? Would be very cool to look at how manipulation of new learning environments can be linked back to the centrality of the teacher in the educational process? Possibly? Maybe? Has it been done?” It’s a good question – in the debate on VLEs (or I prefer the US phrase LMS since it seems more honest to refer to them as a way to “manage” learning) on an ALT mailing list someone said that a lot of the problems with Blackboard spring from it being designed by technologists rather than pedagogues. Probably true, but the thing that indicates that teachers are still at the centre of the learning experience is that, no matter how bad the platform a good teacher can produce a good learning experience, and a no matter how great the platform, a bad teacher will create a bad one. I’ll concede the tech helps one way or another, though. This is why criticisms of PowerPoint cheese me off. PowerPoint is a passive tool, if you use it well it’s great – it’s just that too many people (and I could probably own up to this myself) use it as a prop to avoid thinking too much about the learning experience. So they produce crap. And so they switch to Prezi because they think this’ll make them look hip, and for a while people are impressed until they realise it’s the same dull presentation, just with added motion sickness.

But Di’s central implicit point I’m sure is – is it fair to say that new learning environments have been exploited to commodify education. The answer is “yes” unfortunately. I’ve been at meetings where people who should know better talk about putting stuff online so they can bring in thousands of students really cheaply. I’ve just finished a study which indicates that – outside of a few rare contexts where they can work, MOOCs do not have a sustainable business model. Students want education that is free, but they also want education that is valued, and that means qualifications. But for qualifications to mean anything, they need robust assessment, and (there are a few specific exceptions) this means human intervention. Which is expensive. That’s a circle you can’t square. Some people like to study for its own sake, some people like to create learning materials for their own sake. In those scenarios MOOCs FTW. Otherwise, no way.

There is a school of thought that you can make the materials able to be worked through on their own, that people can read them and just pay to pass a test, and this will bring education to the masses, and everyone will be able to make money off it by stacking edcucation high and selling them cheap. This is the commodification that Di’s concerned about. It’s been the model in the private sector for decades. (Reality check – the division I’m about to describe is a generalisation, I’ve seen good and practice on both sides, but my experience is that this does represent the two positions of the two sectors on the whole). I’ve sat in presentations by private sector companies that think e-learning and computer-based training are synonymous. If you read the magazine “E-learning” there’s loads of adverts in there about how “Content is king” (usually accompanied by a pic of Elvis).

There’s that Oxford Union debate between Diana Laurillard and some private sector representatives about whether e-learning is effective or not, and the majority of it is taken up with talking at cross-purposes about what the word e-learning means. Because if you’ve been working in the field of e-learning in HE for the last 20 years you’ll think that e-learning is about forums, social media, wikis, annotated artefacts, virtual worlds, webinars. The actual content isn’t king, it’s a serf, in the background, called upon when needed, produced when needed, borrowed, shared, but ultimately of little value. That’s where the confusion in the Oxford debate arose. In the private sector there was some backlash against e-learning, with some commentators saying it didn’t work, because people need to be connected, they need tutors and contact with other learners; their definition of e-learning didn’t include those things. In HE learning environments, that’s the heart of what e-learning is. That’s what worries me about those conversations where people are talking about pushing out large amounts of content to people and letting them work through it on their own. It’s a retrograde step.

That’s not to say it never works. I went through an computer-training package last month on data protection. There were bits of videos, some MCQ tests, which were automatically marked, and then you had another chance to have a go if you got them wrong. I learnt quite a bit. So it worked. People have taught themselves by reading books, watching TV shows, working through MOOCs, but these are limited in subject matter, and/or limited to particularly special types of learners who can learn like that. But some stuff needs to be talked about to be understood, some stuff isn’t about being understood, but about being able to work with the ambiguity, some people just need the extrinsic motivation of being part of a learning set to get there. So we need two terms really for e-learning environments. One which is just content, and self-paced and about large numbers of students just learning facts. The other which is still about tutor-student, student-student interactions, and is participative and experiential and enables contextual and applicable information. We could differentiate them with qualifying adjectives, let’s call them crap e-learning and potentially good e-learning. Let’s hope that with the buzz around MOOCs kicking off the pound signs in the eyes of senior managers the one doesn’t get conflated with the other..


AMORES project – the first deliverable


One of the projects I’m working on is the AMORES project, headed by CARNet in Croatia, and funded by the Comenius programme The aim of the project is “Discovering a love for literature through digital collaboration and creativity” a phrase that took us a long time to develop, but time well-spent as this focuses our attention on the key goals of the project – yes we’re hoping to promote literacy and reading, but the actual aim is generating a love for literature, if literacy improves as a consequence, then great. The means by which we’re hoping to do this is by creating learning activities in which schoolchildren in five different European countries (Denmark, Croatia, Poland, Sweden and the UK) create digital artefacts, mainly videos, and share these with each other.

The first task in the project fell to me, which was to look at the work that had been done in this area before the project started, and also gather together the experience of the contributing practitioners. The report covered the theoretical bases of the work (constructionism, storytelling and experiential learning, looking at previous similar projects) – a key one for us was the Sheherazade project – and also tried to identify where some of the problematic areas in what we were trying to achieve might lie. The full paper can be read from here (you’ll need to register first, though).

Putting together the report was an interesting process, and it went through many revisions (thanks here should go to the people who read through it, commented and provided additional information – they are Vedrana Vojković Estatiev, Gordana Jugo, Tina Richardson and Geoff Walton). There’s too much in there to cover in a single blog post, so below I’m just going to pick out a few key things.

1)       There’s no consensus on what constructivism or constructionism mean.
Moving from the physical sciences to the humanities as academic disciplines over my career hasn’t been that difficult, apart from in one aspect, the ambiguity around terms. In physics, people might disagree about – say – how many dimensions there are, but they use the same terminology to have that argument in. In educational theory constructivism is variously defined as learning by building things, as learning by building knowledge, learning by building on knowledge, and so on. And the word constructionism is often used interchangeably with these. I don’t find this very helpful, so have tried to impose a set of definitions that disambiguate the terms (although looking over my paper now I realise I’ve used constructionism at one point where I meant constructivism, which doesn’t help either).

I’ve picked constructionism as a term to describe what we’re doing, because well Papert. Since he wrote a lot of the early theoretical stuff on this I’ve gone to him. I like his definition of constructionism because it encompasses a lot of the concepts of constructivism, but divides them into two main aspects. I find taxonomies make things easier to get your head around, although there’s a danger in mistaking the map for reality. The two main aspects of making things are that learning happens because of the creation of an artefact (which is some people’s definitions of constructivism) but also the creation of the artefact involves a social collaborative activity (which is defined by some as social constructivism. Therefore by cherry-picking various definitions we can come up with a clearer definition of what we’re doing i.e. constructionism = constructivism + social constructivism. I’ve used the specifics of actually making things as the basis for our terminology because the more general idea that the learner builds up their knowledge through adding ideas together is pretty much captured by the phrase cognitivism. But from now on, can we all agree to pick one word to mean one thing?

2)       Constructivism has had an upgrade
I like the idea of making stuff and learning by actually having physical things, because I’ve seen it happen in virtual worlds. OK I’m stretching the meaning of the word “physical” but you know what I mean. By actually coming together to build something that has an external reality people develop a shared understanding of what they’re working on, and see each other’s perspectives. There’s also a whole lot of science about embodied cognition, that holding and shaping things works directly on the brain. That’s what we’re trying to do in AMORES (other reasons below). However, one thing I came across in the reading for this, which I think is worth passing on, is that THE VERSION OF BLOOM’S TAXONOMY YOU ARE USING IS OUT-DATED). Well if you’re using the one I learnt, it’s outdated. There’s one put together by Krathwohl in 2002 which places creating at the top of the hierarchy, i.e. it involves all the other stages to get to it (these are Remembering, Understanding, Applying, Analysing, Evaluating by the way). If you find using Bloom’s terms helpful, you might want to read the paper. Andrew Churches in 2008 came up with terms drawn from digital technologies, just to bring them really up to date.

3)       Face-to-face co-creation is plentiful, online co-creation is rare
People use a lot of social media, but despite this, they rarely use social media to actually replicate online the social dimension of co-creation that Papert describes. People tend to upload stuff, and go as far as liking or commenting on it, but the incidences of actually sharing and mixing artefacts in an educational context are rare. It’s another part of the myth of the digital native. There’s some interesting studies (Scardamalia, 2004 and Colasante, 2010) using annotation tools to generate “artefact-centred” discussions, but these don’t happen in mainstream education at all. Although we found some great papers on the role of creating artefacts in education (video is very popular, take a look at Allam (2007) for example, I still have boxes of the proceedings in the attic if anyone’s interested). Furthermore, when we looked at the experience of the schools involved, they’ve all got experience of creating videos in the classrooms, but none had really used social media in their education. Indeed, one or two were very reticent about the whole idea, I think a reaction to how it’s been demonised by the educational establishment in their countries. In identifying which areas of the project are at risk, this one stands out – not only is there not a background of online content creation, and the social learning that can triggered by content creation, in the literature as a whole, using social media to support learning is not something the schools really do.

4)       Experiential learning and storytelling are very similar
Learning is always more effective when it’s reflected upon. We’ve all seen this (you might know it, but do you know that you know it?) Reflection is also an opportunity for students to learn metacognitive skills (how do you learn what you need to learn). For these reasons scaffolding the creation of artefacts and the social aspects of creation into an experiential learning cycle provides a chance to make the whole greater than the sum of the parts. That would be a given in a set of learning activities. However, reading through the Sheherazade report I came across Dahlsveen’s model of storytelling. I can’t reproduce it here (no rights to it), but you can check it out in the original report. It shows the stages that a story goes through from shared creation, to performance, to reaction to revision. This is (according to Dahlsveen and I’d have to agree from my own experience) is what makes storytelling such an engaging and motivating experience. What struck me is if you take her model and bring it round into a cycle, it looks like Kolb’s learning cycle (which is itself based on Lewin’s idea of an engineering feedback loop). Here’s a picture of Lewin’s experiential learning cycle and Dahlsveen’s storytelling model as a cycle:


cycles in sync

So ideally we could scaffold the students’ experience of storytelling so that it could become an experiential learning experience at the same time as being a motivating, engaging and most importantly fun experience for the children. However, if the performance and audience feedback is also going to take place online, then we’re stuck in the same impasse of needing to support the social interactions through social media. It’ll be something to aim for, and exciting to see, but I think this is one area where we will need to place a lot of resources and evaluate what we’re doing very carefully.

Allam, C. (2007) “Using filmmaking to teach students about Shakespeare, urban regeneration and other stuff” in Childs, M., Cuttle, M. and Riley, K. (eds.) DIVERSE Conference Proceedings 2005 & 2006, Glasgow: Glasgow Caledonian University

Churches, A. (2008) Bloom’s Taxonomy Blooms Digitally, Tech & Learning, 4th Jan, 2008

Colasante, M. (2010) “Future-focused learning via online anchored discussion, connecting learners with digital artefacts, other learners, and teachers”, Proceedings ascilite Sydney 2010, 211 – 221

Krathwohl, D.R. (2002) A Revision of Bloom’s Taxonomy: An Overview, Theory into Practice, Volume 41, Number 4, Autumn 2002,

Scardamalia, M. (2004). CSILE/Knowledge Forum®. In Education and technology: An encyclopedia (183-192)

Sheherezade Consortium (2011) Sheherazade, 1001 stories for adult learning Theoretical background for methodology: summary,

Post-digitalism – an evolutionary perspective

In June 2009 the ‘52group’ gathered from across the Higher Education sector to consider the confluence of education and the digital. The result was a position paper entitled ‘Preparing for the postdigital era’. At the time the paper was largely met with a mixture of scepticism and confusion, a common response being “The digital hasn’t been superseded?”. Despite this, over the intervening years the term has slowly gained traction in educational contexts.

To what extent our original paper influenced the recent proliferation of the term is of course not clear but we see the concept being employed in various locations including last year’s SEDA conference: “Opportunities and challenges for academic development in a post-digital age” and a forthcoming conference hosted by Greenwich university: Flipping the Institution: Higher Education in the Post Digital Age. There are also numerous examples of the term casually making its way into strategic rhetoric in and around our institutions.

To mark the shift from Digital to Post-digital thinking members of the original ‘52group’ have each revisited the term to consider its definition and relevance five years on. This is my perspective::

Reviewing the Post-digital – five years on

When we were coming up with the idea of the “post-digital” back in 2009 the phrase that seemed to sum up the concept for me was “disappearing into use” – a phrase I heard once and have not been able to remember who to attribute it to. One quote I do know the source of is “Technology is a word that describes something that doesn’t work yet” – which is of course Douglas Adams. There’s McLuhan’s idea (which is covered in Sherry Turkle’s excellent “Life on the Screen”) that when tools become incorporated into our sense of who we are so much that they’re part of our bodies they are more like prostheses than tools. Evolutionarily, technology created the species homo sapiens as much as the other way round. Then there’s Stelarc who gave me a great quote for my last book: “humans are kind of a chimera of meat, metal and code”. If that’s true then technology continues to drive our evolution as a species.

Five years ago I was heavily immersed in virtual worlds. I’d just started finished collecting the data for my PhD about learning in virtual worlds. I was part of a community of academics within Second Life, all of whom I’d met there, very few I’d met in the physical world. I think I saw postdigitalism as the blurring of the lines between the physical and virtual, led largely by the development of Augmented Reality as a way to map the digital directly on to the physical. Many of us would spend our lives switching between the two, or having both simultaneously. I wasn’t the only one; Gartner (those of the hype cycle) predicted that 80 percent of active Internet users (and Fortune 500 enterprises) would have an avatar in a virtual world by the end of 2011. I had the idea that the change we’d all have to go through was to learn to blend the two, which I summarised in the phrase “mutatis metaxis mutandis”. Unsurprisingly, the phrase didn’t catch on. But neither did the technology.

We’ve passed that date and Google has just ended its Google Glass development; news reports are decrying it as a failure. No-one seem to have picked up on the value of AR overlaying information but have instead focused on the creepiness of surreptitious recording, and how nerdy Glassholes look. Many of the people I knew through SL are now gardeners, farmers, silversmiths, vicars, or working in international development. It’s not dead, but it’s not exactly thriving either. On the other hand, at every social occasion everyone gets their phone out immediately anything vaguely interesting happens, takes a photo then immediately uploads it to Facebook. They then check repeatedly on what comments have appeared and how many people have liked it. In that way at least the online digital space pervades our lives ubiquitously. On the technology –> tool –> prosthesis continuum, phones are a long way along the process becoming our physical extensions.

So I would say that the idea of the post-digital, that technology just becomes incorporated into our lives so much that we don’t notice it, is still an interesting process to look out for, and still has relevance as a term. It’s the point at which technology really starts to work, and so is unnoticeable, is when it really starts to matter to us. There are one or two technologies we can point to and say, “that’s invisible to us”, but that general transformation, to a postdigital society, or to postdigital humans, where technology truly becomes integral to us, now seems further away to me than it did five years ago.

Further reflections on the Post-digital from members of the 52group:

Dave Cormier:

Richard Hall:

Lawrie Phipps:

David White: