Tuesday, March 24, 2009

1.*: Boredom in the lecture theatre: What can be done?

An article in the latest British Educational Research Journal investigates boredom from the perspective of 21st Century tertiary students (in the UK). Mann, S., & Robinson, A (2009). Boredom in the lecture theatre: an investigation into the contributors, moderators and outcomes of boredom amongst university students. British Educational Research Journal 35(2), 243-258.

Boredom "stems from a situation where none of the possible things that a person can realistically do appeal to the person in question" (p.243). I know how that feels, having attended (and, well, also missed) multiple lectures during my undergraduate years. I admit that I did not mourn the lack of lectures during my PG studies through distance education! Naturally, boredom leads to alternative behaviour rather than a vegetative state. Students playing cell-phone games, doodling and focussing on other thoughts (daydreaming!) are trying to escape boredom in ways not immediately useful to the subject at hand. Boredom has longer-lasting effects as well; after a boring day of lectures, many of Mann & Robinson's respondents would watch TV, eat chocolate, sleep... as in the photo, they were far from energised by the experience.

Mann & Robinson's study has three main findings I would like to emphasise.

Firstly, there are individuals pre-disposed to boredom; there are those who simply to not find thinking or "increasing their understanding of events around them" as stimulating (p.244). It is important to start with this finding, as it clearly suggests that 'let's not do lectures anymore' is a naive response. There are some who will not engage regardless of the educaitonal tool used. There is a need to separate the tool from the technique. Lecturing can be done exceptionally well (I'm sure you can think of examples), so it has potential as a tool.

Secondly: the problem of PowerPoint. Yes, the problem. Whether or not it was somehow responsible for the destruction of the Columbia in 2003, it is certainly responsible for enabling content overload, unimaginative displays of text, and gaudy and distracting transitional effects. Rather than being used to support an engaging narrative or presentation, PowerPoint frequently becomes the focus of lecture preparation. This naturally places the emphasis on information rather than thinking... and information is boring. Copying PowerPoint slides is boring - but providing print-outs of them helps to ease the pain!

Third, the red-herring of 'hands-on'. Students found labs and computer sessions to be the most boring. 'Controlled exercises' are not stimulating for students. Discovery is better.

There are several hints within the article as to what makes learning in general more engaging. A focus on deep learning strategies, for example - and this can be expressed through lectures. A focus on discovery - which, again, can be built into carefully constructed lectures. De-emphasising the content (online lecture notes are perceived as boring) - again, this can be done through the lecture format. The best lectures I have attended are those based on narrative, carefully constructed stories with a twist that make the ideas - not the content - come to life. Effective lectures seek to bring about an 'aha' in the student, moreso than an assurance that all relevant content has been covered. While technology can be used to leverage effective teaching, it can also amplify inneffective teaching. PowerPoint can't save lectures... only careful thought and the creative, passionate and dedicated application of energy can. Effective lecturing is a craft, a craft that needs to be rediscovered rather than dismissed.

Image: 2007_088_01 by chuckp: See more of chuckp's photos, or visit his profile.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

5.*: Just in time and connected: Relevant to formal education?

As a part of my E-Primer 5 research I am reviewing Laurillard's (2002) Rethinking university teaching. I read the first edition of the book, err, last Millenium as I was writing my e-Book Teaching for learning. From a learning theory perspective it has much in common with Ramsden's Learning to teach in higher education, a book that remains a milestone in my development as an education thinker and writer.

Anyways, I am drafting the first parts of a critique of formal vs informal, mediated vs unmediated education through social networking. No doubt this draft will change as the E-Primer takes final shape, but I thought to share it. I'd really appreciate any thoughts that occur to you as you read it, preferably in comments below.

During his junior year, my son started making videos with a digital video camera... he was not merely taking video with his camera and then editing sequence. He was mixing in audio from the Internet, CDs and DVDs, video clips collected from his friends, still images he had taken and downloaded from the net, and even staged video from online video games, where players followed direction and acted out scenes on a virtual stage from their homes across the globe. I did not teach him how to do this... his high school teachers... did not teach him how to do this. He taught himself, with the help of his social network of people, with whom he IMs, text messages, shares MySpace pages, plays in the metaverse of video games, and through venues I am sure I do not even understand yet. He knows how to use this new read/write web to learn what he needs to know, in order to do what he needs to do, now! It's how this generation learns. It's how they use information. (Warlick, 2007, pp. 12-13)

Warlick's account reveals that social networks can be exploited for the purposes of learning. However this does not discount the value of a formal education nor, necessarily, its mechanisms. The link between 'know and do', explicit in Warlick's example, is not always useful when discussing education; in fact, the link may even be irrelevant. The issue is not 'just in time' vs 'just in case' learning; rather the issue is between what is useful immediately and what is useful conceptually. Consider Plato's cave, Marx's critique of capitalism, studying the history of Western Europe, analysing the themes from One flew over the cuckoo's nest. Clearly not all worthwhile educational activities can fit into the model of 'what we need to do, now'. There are activities and ideas that do not directly influence our behaviour, but instead broaden our understanding of reality and which transform our thinking (Mezirow, 1990; 2000). Such transformation is exceptionally valuable. Implicit to an education is not just subject familiarity, but a new way of considering the world and one's place within it. One of the key rationales of formal higher education is exposing people to ideas and perspectives that result in them seeing the world differently, sharing ideas that they may never have opportunity to encounter through everyday experience. As a colleague at my own College recently remarked, you cannot think about (or be transformed by) ideas that have never occurred to you. Laurillard (2002) makes the following observations:

  • There are differences between everyday knowledge and academic knowledge.

  • Everyday knowledge is based on experience; academic knowledge is based on our experience of experience.

  • Everyday knowledge tends to be highly situational however academic knowledge is more objective, transferable and generalisable.

  • Everyday knowledge can be gained through everyday experience, whereas academic knowledge is necessarily mediated by experts with academic knowledge.

Further, higher education is concerned with far more than transferring information to students. Very seldom, if at all, will memorisation, regurgitation of facts and a search for 'the answer' earn an undergraduate degree. Instead, graduates have learned to appraise, compare, contrast, critique, evaluate, and come to their own informed conclusions with reference to others' ideas1. In Laurillard's (2002, p.12) words, “learning is not just about acquiring high-level knowledge. The way students handle that knowledge is what really concerns academics”. The outcome of formal education is not necessarily in-head information, but rather new ways of being able to use information as a tool.

Instead of being enamored with the success of Warlick's son's success at movie-making, we should be careful to contextualise it such that we see the issue he raises as an epistemological one rather than a methodological one. In other words, Warlick's example is more relevant to a discussion on what we understand knowledge to be, than one to do with how we should educate in formal contexts. The purpose of education is not to inform, but rather to transform; not to fill minds, but rather to broaden them. Social networking can certainly be used in the pursuit of broadening minds however its usefulness in formal education contexts is determined by its potential contribution toward the pursuit of academic knowledge.

1In the same way, postgraduates are expected to become comfortable with reconciling complex and conflicting points of view, and to determine and defend their own position within these points of view.

4.*: Student sense of online community: Red herring?

I have sent off the final draft of E-Primer four ("Online discourse") off for editing just tonight. It is by far the longest E-Primer, mainly because of the quantity of literature relating to asynchronous online discourse. It is probably the most thoroughly researched aspect of online learning.

But there are still many open questions.

One of them is, to what extent are social tasks essential for building a sense of online community? Related to it is, how necessary is a sense of online community for effective online learning? Intuitively, online community is a vital aspect of online learning. However studies such as a recent one on AJDE* are challenging this intuition. Using a survey based on work done by other researchers, Cameron et al found that students do not necessarily perceive a link between social tasks and the development of online community, and that only some social tasks are perceived as important. This, from the abstract, seems to tell the underlying story of why this is the case:
Students seemed to focus more on completing a task for a grade than seeing group projects as part of developing community to enhance learning.

What are we to make of this? I think that students in formal education contexts tend to be achievement-oriented, strategic learners. They will do what gets them marks, in a pragmatic pursuit of what assignment tasks indicate to be important. The development of community tends to take place only to the extent to which students perceive it needs to, and this perception is largely determined by assessment. If a group task requires the exchange of potential solutions, then potential solutions will be exchanged. No deeper form of community is necessarily required for the task to be successfully completed.

The authors seem incredulous that this is the case: "Students may view social tasks as superfluous because they do not realize that social tasks are the foundation of successful group formation" (p.28). Yet, there is no mention in the paper of how well students engaged with the task itself. Perhaps the students were right: the social tasks were superfluous, because they added nothing to their requirement to function together in a task-oriented way. The authors state:
We believe that instructors need to develop a structure for online group projects that supports, facilitates, and scaffolds the development of online group processes that reinforce the importance of community building to learning (p.28).

I'm not certain that I agree. Leaving beside the non-often cited differences between gemeinschaft and gesellschaft, researching the fourth E-Primer has demonstrated to me that Cameron et al's findings are not unique. Nor are they necessarily concerning. Students do not always value online community in e-learning contexts, and evidence is actually somewhat mixed as to the extent that 'instructors need to develop' a sense of online community to optimise outcomes in e-learning. I wonder if students are actually more savvy than we give them credit for. The survey findings indicate that making oneself known is more important (88% of students) than is getting to know other group members (63%). Could the difference of 25% be explained by students knowing what assertive, task-based collaboration should really consist of?

* Cameron, B.A., Morgan, K., Williams, K.C. and Kostelecky, K.L. (2009). Group projects: Student perceptions of the relationship between social tasks and a sense of community in online group work. American Journal of Distance Education 23(20-33).