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Online and Digital Learning

Enabling learners to continue learning beyond programmes of study

Following on from a Twitter chat on the role of learning design that took place in 2020, I was invited back to follow up on one of the questions which focused on how educators can support learners to learn, both during and beyond programmes of study. Co-leading again with Sandra Huskinson, the six questions we posed for #LTHEchat 214: Lifelong learning – instilling the desire to continue to learn, aimed to encourage educators and those supporting higher education to consider the interplay between discipline-based approaches to learning and the need for individuals to have approaches to learning throughout their lives (Cornock and Huskinson, 2021).

Background

One area of curriculum and programme design that has been of interest to me over the last few years, particularly working in professional learning, is how students are prepared (or not) for continuation of learning after programmes of study. This continuation of learning, may be through formal routes such as postgraduate degree programmes, accredited professional qualifications, employer-led workshops or traineeships, or informally through self-study short courses, reading, watching videos and learning from colleagues.

How individuals make the most of these learning opportunities could be dependent on their ‘learning capital’. Broadly speaking I’m referring to the experiences of learning, network of people an individual has learnt with, and the contexts through which learning specific knowledge and skills has happened; I am most definitely not referring to ‘intelligence’ or any notion of fixed capability (there is ample evidence about the potential to continue to grow and learn). I’ve written about the need to support learners to learn before in terms of developing online learners’ capabilities in online conversations for learning (Cornock, 2017), and there are parallels to a paper presented by Baker (2006) who described ‘Social Learning Capital’. Baker’s concept is within the adult learning sector as a possible focus of learner development where conversations and learning from each other are key aspects of how learning takes places in that sector. However, I’m conscious that learning how to learn can sometimes be placed within the guise of ‘generic academic skills’ rather than as an integral part of discipline-specific learning and teaching, and so to challenge that possibility I am keen to explore ways that learning to learn is embedded as part of curricula and programmes of study.

As a possible theoretical basis for this exploration, situated learning, or situated cognition (Brown et al., 1989), is about using knowledge and skills in context, not just having tools, but knowing where and how to use them. The example provided by Brown et al. (1989, p.33) refers to the quirk of the pocket knife blade used to remove a stone from a horse’s hoof; many of us may have seen and owned such a tool, but I for one would not want to try to use it on a full-size, live horse without practice. The learning that comes through using tools, Brown et al. argued, is best placed in ‘Authentic Activity’ (1989, p.34) which is situated in the context and culture of how that tool should be used (a tool could be used in different ways also). Kirschner and Hendrick (2020) provided a particularly useful summary of Brown et al.’s paper that is worth reading also.

Higher education, and the very specific discipline-based learning that takes place in both degree programmes and professional learning, provides immense scope for authentic activity. Learners do not just read about a subject or watch others enact discipline practices, but they do those activities themselves and become part of the discipline.

“People who use tools actively rather than just acquire them, by contrast, build an increasingly rich implicit understanding of the world in which they use the tools and of the tools themselves. The understanding, both of the world and of the tool, continually changes as a result of their interaction. Learning and acting are interestingly indistinct, learning being a continuous, life-long process resulting from acting in situations.”

(Brown, et al., 1989, p.33)

The question is then how do such authentic activities, and the learning how to learn a specific discipline, equip learners with the toolset they need beyond the degree and beyond the discipline area to become lifelong learners?

Coldham et al. (2021) provided a comparison between educational places of learning and workplace learning, and this is largely based on evidence from ten years ago. Starting with the very purpose of learning, formal education was “to acquire a knowledge base; pass assessments; gain qualifications (content-focused)” and workplace learning was “to get the job done; career advancement; to advance the organisation (process-focused).” In many ways the lines between contemporary educational settings and workplace learning are more blurred and have a blend of motivations, reasons and objectives. This is particularly true with professional degrees, where reflection and practice are central to the learning process and require immediate application to workplace objectives, as well as establishing critical thinking and depth to a knowledge base. Coldham et al. (2021) suggested a range of approaches that can be designed in to programmes of study that bridge the formal and workplace learning gap, and in doing so expose learners to a broader range of ways to learn. These include: consultancy for real projects and provision of discipline services to the community (p.248; p.250); simulations for developing strategic and complex thinking (p.249); and placements (p.252).

However, these are significant additions to programmes and there are many ways of developing learners’ approaches to learning based on both discipline practices and broader awareness over their own learning that can be embedded as part of learning design. Even with this range of teaching and learning techniques to provide learners with experiences of learning they can draw upon later, there is a fundamental challenge that may exist for many individuals as they move to workplace learning. Wheeler (2019) made a strong argument in favour of ‘unlearning’ being a fundamental, yet difficult, transformative learning approach essential to individuals’ development, which is typically not part of structured workplace training (p.15).

“Today, much of the formalized learning conducted in organisations is based on knowledge reproduction through transmission of content… Employees should also be encouraged to develop the ability to unlearn and relearn… It should be the challenge of the skilled learning professional to deconstruct, confront and challenge so that unlearning and relearning can be facilitated and supported.”

(Wheeler, 2019, p.15)

Individuals without the capabilities to take passive learning processes and transform them into active, authentic application of understanding, are at a disadvantage in terms of maximising how they will learn in workplace settings. That may seem a rather elaborated view point perhaps, as many formal workplace settings do attempt to embed practical and reflective learning activities as part of development processes. The forms of learning are also constantly changing, and with digital education and workplace learning adopting more creative forms, there is scope for greater learner contributions to both formal study and the creation of informal learning content for others (Wheeler, 2019).

“People are assuming greater responsibility for their own learning and, in so doing, are gaining greater insights into the process of learning by creating their own content around their studies.”

(Wheeler, 2019, p.52)

Yet, for individuals who do not have the opportunity to have formal workplace learning, and are dependent on self-study, informal learning, there are fundamental skills and approaches that require development. These include seeking learning materials, identifying learning needs, applying learning to contexts and learning through authentic activities. In many ways individuals may already be undertaking these processes through their use of online and offline media. However, like technical capabilities, assuming such skills and ways of learning are inherent native abilities is a questionable position to take. That is why the focus of this #LTHEchat was on learning how to learn, the qualities of discipline-based practices, and how those interplay in programme and learning design.

Questions and selected responses

For each of the questions, I’ve selected a just a few of the many responses that particularly stood out to me as providing a great example of practice, challenging my perceptions or suggesting an idea for further discussion.

What was particularly apparent throughout the Twitter chat was how many tweets reference ‘conversation’, ‘discussion’ and other learning activities that involve learners communicating with each other. I found that particularly pertinent considering the role of digital education and the emphasis that I place in learning design that involves social learning, social constructivism and enabling different forms of learner-to-learner interaction. As put by Dr Judith Enterkin, “chatting is underrated,” and I think that is particularly the case as we’ve been missing that in person interaction.

Q1. Think back to your own education. What examples can you provide of when you were motivated to learn beyond the curriculum?

My response to this question, along with some others, showed how planned learning content and activities sometimes have to flex for individual (perhaps ‘unplanned for’) groups without compromising on outcomes. Chris Kennedy presented an experience that inferred the constraints of formal education systems that tie achievement to pre-determined learning outcomes. Within lifelong learning, outcomes may be less well defined, dependent on learners identifying needs, or changed based on new information or changes in circumstance, particularly for complex workplace problems. There’s an excellent suggestion by Virna Rossi in response to Question 5 that takes this further.

Dr Hala Mansour and Suzanne Faulkner both pick up on the themes I’ve discussed in the background above, but I particularly value Hala Mansour’s point about content and context making an impact. Learning is about making an impact, on ourselves as learners, on other learners and in our world. That triad of content, context and impact sounds like a powerful one to explore further.

Q2. What teaching activities are typical in your subject? Think about what makes these distinct to your discipline, e.g. specific approaches you use in your subject.

I caveated this question with some follow up guidance to avoid responses of ‘lecture’, ‘seminars’, ‘labs’, ‘reading’. What I wanted to get at is the purpose of each in terms of how the discipline practices are learnt and to address what type of activities take place in a lecture, seminar or lab environment that are authentic.

Examples from the profession-based degrees and vocational courses, such as in health and law, focused on interactions and practice in a very real way with patients and clients. Through this, learning is in no way abstract, but grounded in a real person’s life and the impact that the learner can make through their chosen profession.

Learning through problem solving, using discipline-specific situations and information, develops a range of transferable skills. Problem solving is very rewarding and demands a range of applied learning approaches.

Q3. How do you enable students to learn from those teaching activities? Think about support you have in place for learning how to learn.

My follow up prompt here was about how learning to learn is designed into courses and the techniques learners will use throughout their lives.

Mirena Malbantova provided a great discipline-specific example of text analysis that shows how subject-specific activities have a long-term benefit to the approaches learners can take forward into informal learning and beyond the degree.

Colleague, Dr Adam Richardson, provided a great example of an underlying principle of learning that can easily be embedded into any programme of study: question everything! Questioning is a fundamental teaching and learning activity. As an educator, questioning students gives you rich information about their understanding. Therefore, empowering learners to question their own level of understanding, being comfortable with asking questions and as an educator being open to questions, are exactly the types of actions lifelong learners need to adopt.

Q4. How do you embed opportunities for students to reflect and develop their approach to learning as part of curriculum design?

I was particularly interested in opportunities to reflect on the process of learning, to surface both skills and attitudes that a student develops through a course of study. For example, being comfortable asking questions, accepting its ok not to know something, reflecting on the value of discussion.

Matt Coombe-Boxall contributed about the importance of allocating time for such reflections, but also the value of conversation and discussion at this stage of learning.

Discussion in professional learning takes reflection to a new level, as reflections others make can influence and shape actions learners take as a result of their own reflection on practice. Social learning and conversations for learning are therefore not constrained to just the knowledge forming stages, but also consolidation of understanding.

If ‘reflection’ is a scary process, then Danielle M Hinton has a solution for you:

Q5. What ways do you enable students to identify their own learning needs and set learning goals?

As mentioned above, both Dr Judith Enterkin and Virna Rossi suggested having both fixed LOs and allowing learners to set their own learning goals. This is a great way to practise the act of setting learning aims to meet personal learning needs, with a review and share process embedded.

Other contributions, such as those from Dr Louise Robson and Martin Billingham referred to assessment for learning approaches, where the role of feedback is critical to ensuring students are able to make progress. This is where formative assessment is used to identify where a learner is at, where they need to go, and how they could get there.

Q6. How might you design in to programmes the opportunities for students to go beyond the curriculum and to address personal learning goals?

Directly addressing the challenge of bridging the formal degree programme and workplace learning that follows, Beverley Gibbs briefly summarised a final year module for students in mechanical engineering.

My final selected responses comes from Adam Tate and Dr Maria Romero Gonzalez, which I think balances both formal and informal learning, and is a reflection of the interconnected paths of information that we all have access to online, through social media, social learning and offline. What I like here is that added breadcrumb trail that leads off in a different direction, but deliberately placed by the subject expert and the coaching aspect to share the expertise of finding “other interesting stuff.” For me, this represents the intricate web of knowledge that a practitioner in a discipline develops over time, and is surfaced for a learner to follow based upon the learner’s own interests and goals. Learners have to make a decision then: do they follow the trail, does it meet their learning need, does it develop a deeper understanding and interest?

Additional readings, commented content and resources are not new to formal programmes of study, but how they are presented, contextualised and enable learners to have more ownership over learning within the structure and scaffold of a course. In life, individuals need to be able to filter the many channels of information to seek out and follow a path that leads to meeting a learning objective. There may be more required in terms of developing those approaches to learning and selecting learning resources, but this method of surfacing insights from the educator could be a useful and engaging starting point.

References

  1. Baker, D. (2006). ‘Social Learning Capital – interlinking social capital, lifelong learning and quality learning conversations‘, Adult and Community Education Aotearoa Conference, Dunedin, New Zealand, 26 – 28 May 2006 for Adult Learning Australia.
  2. Brown, J. S., Collins, A., and Duguid, P. (1989). ‘Situated Cognition and the Culture of Learning’, Educational Researcher, 18(1), 32-42.
  3. Coldham, S., Armsby, P. and Flynn, S. (2021) ‘Learning For, At and Through Work’, in Pokorny, H. and Warren, D. (eds.) Enhancing Teaching Practice in Higher Education. 2nd Ed. London: Sage.
  4. Cornock, M. (2017). Conversational thinking for online learning.
  5. Cornock, M. and Huskinson, S. (2021). #LTHEchat 214: Lifelong Learning – Instilling the Desire to Continue to Learn. #LTHEchat Blog.
  6. Kirschner, P.A. and Hendrick, C. (2020) ‘The culture of learning’, in How Learning Happens. Abingdon: Routledge.
  7. Wheeler, S. (2019) Digital Learning in Organisations. London: Kogan Page.

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