the ambiguous ubiquitous

This is one of my blog posts from the Empowering Learning Through Community MOOC this past spring. I couldn’t get a link that bypassed the login, so decided to throw it up here for all the world to see!

Tuesday, May 8, 2012 12:04:42 PM EDT
I’ve hinted at this in a brief comment on the Learning Designers in Higher Education group blog, but what strikes me in this–and many other–pedagogical discussions of blended learning or online teaching or technology in the classroom is that we have to look at things the wrong way round. We can’t start from ‘how best can students learn X’ and then work from there. We seem to have to start from ‘what tools are there?’, ‘what do they do?’, ‘how have they been used?’, ‘could I use them to teach X?’, ‘would students learn anything if I did that?’… To be fair, this isn’t much different from what instructors have always done, but with full understanding of the tools from the start: ‘how best can students learn X through the medium of chalk/OHP/video/DVD/PowerPoint/interactive whiteboards?’ The methods are embedded in the question.

My list of ubiquitous tools, of course, has a flaw in that none of them started out this way–ubiquity is in the eye of the beholder. The tools embedded in some instructors’ questions will be very different from the ones embedded in others. And this won’t just have to do with digital literacy; a great proportion I think will have to do with the tools that were available when the instructor was a learner, which they like best, and which were available to them up to now. You then need to add to the equation what each student finds ubiquitous (and what they don’t–one student might find chalkboard teaching unacceptable; another might not know what a tweet is). (This is the long way of rephrasing this blog’s title.)

I think my point is that everyone has preconceived notions of what is new, what is established, what is innovative, what is traditional and (as in the aforementioned group blog) what is entertainment and what is learning. And since this is true for any mode of teaching, we have to go back to the fundamental purpose.

Since it’s just the first week (okay, the second–I’m a bit behind) I’d like to be totally idealogical and say this: as educators, whether in-class, blended, online, whatever, we need to clear all of our learning tool cache, all of our teaching method cache, and start from scratch–with knowledge, to be sure, of as many tools as possible, but not with presuppositions about what a learning experience should be. Then we could ask the original question, ‘how best can students learn X’ without constraint. Once we’ve got the ideal in our heads, we can start looking at the method that would best achieve it.

This probably either sounds like complete pie-in-the-sky/first-day-of-teacher-training, or like a false distinction that really boils down to what we do everyday. As far as the latter goes, yes it is…but I think we could edge toward this mind frame rather than the reverse. In answer to the latter, it may be that the methods that are ubiquitous to us are more insidious than we might think. A TED talk, for example, while probably superior in delivery and content to most lectures, is still a person talking in front of some slides (for the most part). The medium through which it’s viewed (oooo…it’s a video online!!) is just a more convenient way of doing what’s been done for sixty years (films in school) or rather 5000 (speaking in public). Not that convenience and accessibility aren’t very important, but they can sometimes masquerade as something completely new when they’re not.

On the ground, then, I guess I’m suggesting that we should be redesigning learning from scratch (aiiiee)…and maybe partially from OER scrap…with the latest, most exhaustive set of tools at our disposal.

Oh, yes, I know that ‘latest’ is ridiculous in this context. Maybe I’ll save that to think about next week…


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