Stephen Downes

Knowledge, Learning, Community

Half an Hour, Oct 16, 2017

1. Building an Effective Learning Environment

What is knowedge, and how does learning occur. Analogy: coal. We can think of knowledge as coal, and shovel it into a furnace (this is the objectivist perspective). Or we can think of knowledge as developmental, fpr example, heat. This is the constructivist perspective. Heat is a concept you don’t just deliver - it’s a concept you build and construct over time (sometimes through the use of coal).

Or, we can think of teaching as gardening. We’re creating the environment where people learn naturally, without our having to force them to do it.

So - do we think of learning this way? (Some discussion)

Now there is an argument for coal - some things you just have to remember. Memory is an important ability - we should use that.

There are many possible learning environments: campus or school (this one, eg., is a bad one), online course, personal experience, online personal learning environments, etc. All of these need certain common elements that support learning. And that’s what I want to focus on…

What are these common elements? Consider eg., military training, online course, nature as a learning environment. Or (suggested from audience) MOOCs, hospital, sports…

Think of a learning environment from a teacher’s perspective: we have learner characteristics, assessment, resources, learner support, skills, content… And permeating all of these is culture. This influences everything. For example, consider the residential schools - it was the culture, the values and belief systems that underpin the institution - that made everything else wrong.

So the question is, what kind of cultural values do you want to have implicit in what you teach? We need to think of this - it’s a chance to break away from institutional cultures, which are not always good things.

Additionally, different kinds of technologies provide different kinds of learning environments. Consider the LMS - not entirely bad, everyone needs filing cabinets. But there can also be virtual worlds, or personal learning environments.

But note: it may be necessary, but it’s not sufficient, to have a good learning environment. You need good course design, empathy, competence (which is where professors excel), and the imagination to create context. Meanwhile, the learners have to do the learning. You have to step back. People say online learning is so much work - but you can have the students do the work.

There’s no one perfect learning environment. The best one is the one that works for you in your context (that’s why comparative research on online education always fails - it strips the context out).

Question: is that all? Is there more to a successful learning environment?

-          A place to create

-          A place for students to have community

-          Kids can’t learn if they’re hungry

Comment: I’m not so sure there’s an ‘institutional culture’ - in a world with multiple cultures. Tont replies: if the institution is not going to allow you to create your own culture, then you have a big struggle ahead. Linda Harasin said, the university never asked me if I was doing online learning, so how do they know I am doing it? If they knew I was doing it they would stopped me.

Comment: if the student is used to coal, they can have difficulty with the other stuff.

Comment: where is it that the expertise on learning resides at the institution? At AU, we use people who have that expertise help us with course design, so experts don’t have to do this as well as their own discipline. Tony: we can have these centres for online learning, but they don’t scale to the whole institution.


2. Choosing an Appropriate Delivery Mode

If students can access the course online, why do they need to go to the university? There’s a lot of research in online learning, but in face-to-face there isn’t the same research The presumption is that it must be better. But we have found that in many cases the online works better.

To define out subject: there’s a continuum of delivery from pure face-to-face to classroom aids, flipped learning, hybrid learning (reduced class time), and fully online distance learning. We did a survey - we’re seeing how much this is beginning to spread in Canadian universities. I saw this in Britain as well. Let’s be honest about this - even in a traditional class, all students are really online.


-          Comment: One thing missing from this is the synchronous-asynchronous discussion. Eg. Classes where students watch videos. Tony: I interviewed various people doing ‘pockets of innovation’ - eg. Quebec, they have cold winters, a professor uses videoconferencing in class, giving students the choice, and there’s an effect in retention.

-          Comment: we often talk about learning styles for students, but much less about teaching styles for teachers. Colleagues say, eg., “I’m not good at facilitating, I’m much better at lecturing.” Tony: bad news: faculty are going to have to change, because other providers will come along and do it instead. Good news: I see faculty changing all the time, not because of the LMS, but because of simple tech, like the iPhone. But it won’t happen fast enough without institutional support. But it’s like driving a car: you can’t just say “I’m good at shifting gears, but I’m no good at steering.”

-          Comment: shouldn’t be a continuum of delivery, but of teaching? Tony: there are different ways we can teach. Delivery is about student convenience. What does the student want? The question is: what’s the added value of them coming in to the physical location?

Four Criteria for Choosing:

1. Students - which models work for them? Maybe multiple models work for them. There’s no one model - there are ypung, old, dependent, independent, etc. Let the students choose, and if they’re struggling, help them.

2. identifying teaching approach + necessary learner activities. This is based on what you think knowledge is and how best to approach it. If there are skills you want them to learn, what do they have to do to learn those skills? What kind of activities do you need to build in? Note: skills are not generic. Problem-solving is not the same in business as it is in medicine.

3. What resources do I have available? Do I have a TA? Etc.

4. Analyze the most appropriate mode for each learner activity. Eg. The theory they can do online. But if they have to learn how to observe analytes under a microscope, then you either need virtual equipment, or a real lab (in science, too often, we don’t teach them how do design experiments, we just give them the experiment to do). The idea is: push as much as you can online, and do the rest in person.

What is the research showing when face-to-face interaction is needed?

-          (SD - some quick Google searching) Fast Company: ; Mercola ; ScienceDirect - size of groups vs Facebook -

Also, a comment: we teach nurses, but we can’t get the students to learn to form a relationship when it’s with a sim.


Finally: what do we do on campus? Are there unique teaching/learning functions? Is there an impact on campus design? It’s a lot cheaper to do stuff online that to build a new building. One campus example has meeting rooms, breakout rooms, etc. The people researching this? Steelcase - a furniture maker. They have a PhD working on this.

Stephen Downes Stephen Downes, Casselman, Canada

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Last Updated: Mar 30, 2021 8:50 p.m.