January 8, 2013

Disrupting Ourselves: the Problem of Learning in Higher Education (Educause Review)

Disrupting Ourselves: the Problem of Learning in Higher Education, published in March/April 2012 issue of EDUCAUSE REVIEW

 Our understanding of learning has expanded at a rate that has far outpaced our conceptions of teaching. A growing appreciation for the porous boundaries between the classroom and life experience, along with the power of social learning, authentic audiences, and integrative contexts, has created not only promising changes in learning but also disruptive moments in teaching.

By “disruptive moments,” I’m not referring to students on Facebook in classrooms. I mean “disruption” in the way Clayton Christensen uses the term. Christensen coined the phrase disruptive innovation to refer to a process “by which a product or service takes root initially in simple applications at the bottom of a market and then relentlessly moves ‘up market,’ eventually displacing established competitors.”1 By using the phrase “disrupting ourselves” in this article’s title, I am asserting that one key source of disruption in higher education is coming not from the outside but from our own practices, from the growing body of experiential modes of learning, moving from margin to center, and proving to be critical and powerful in the overall quality and meaning of the undergraduate experience. As a result, at colleges and universities we are running headlong into our own structures, into the way we do business.

April 4, 2009

Wired Campus (repost): A Plan to Develop and Spread Better College Teaching Practices

repost of Wired Campus guest blog, March 20, 2009: Randy Bass and Bret Eynon

How do we move from innovative but often isolated classroom practice to more far-reaching changes in institutions and the field as a whole?

In our first post we called for “an R&D division for teaching in higher education,” because one of the problems in higher education is that we have “no tradition of connecting the edge to the center, no established practices that enable us to turn the individual breakthrough into something more than idiosyncratic.”

Diana Laurillard, in an essay on Academic Commons, takes this further and argues that innovation “will accelerate faster in a teaching community that acts like a learning system—one that makes knowledge of what it takes to learn explicit, adapts it, tests it, refines practice, reflects, rearticulates, and shares that new knowledge. Teaching must become problematized, innovative, and professional, taking research as its model.”

Yet, that kind of research model will not transfer to teaching unless we can imagine it in other than individual terms.

First, to do this we need to take advantage of the ability of new digital systems to support what Toru Iiyoshi and M.S. Vijay Kumar call Open Education, a sweeping combination of open content, knowledge, and tools that provide ways to generate and easily share teaching resources. Digital, Web-based repositories such as Merlot make it easy for faculty to contribute their ideas and borrow from others.

But Open Education resources will really only be useful if we find ways to integrate them with “pedagogical content knowledge.”

Tom Carey, formerly of Merlot, suggests that “we should think of a dynamic knowledge exchange network,” which will allow us to “harness the collective wisdom of a community of practice” where “we should focus less on resources as reusable components and more on resources as focal points for interactions within a social network.”

Second, we need to bear in mind that digital resources and social networking can only work if we are creating layered faculty-development communities that link local conversation to broader input and exchange. In many cases these will be campus-based, where the sustaining power of face-to-face community and the need to reckon with specific institutional realities shapes and energizes faculty’s effort to grapple with the complexities of teaching and learning. These conversations must be inclusive of adjunct and contingent faculty as well.

Local might also mean focused communities of faculty (and students), place-based or virtual, who are linked together by shared questions about learning, such as the Lesson Study Project at the University of Wisconsin at LaCrosse, or the Faculty Inquiry Network linking California Community Colleges.

At their best, such collaborations share a critical focus on the evidence of student learning. In many ways, this is new and unfamiliar. Moving faculty-development communities from a focus on teaching to a focus on student learning is not easy. But it is crucial. And one of the ways we can advance it is by making better use of emerging tools like ePortfolios to collect and analyze the evidence of learning. The rich exhibits at Inside Teaching, from the Carnegie Foundation, and the Digital Storytelling Multimedia Archive are two different examples of projects that use Web-based tools to focus faculty conversations on the evidence of student learning.

Our notions of faculty work on teaching must expand as robustly as our changing conceptions of learning, best understood beyond isolated courses and compartmentalized notions of the curriculum. Is this a good time to make this shift?

We may not have a choice. Structures of higher education, the needs of society and our students, and new forms of digital media are all in motion. Can we fashion “a teaching community that acts like a learning system?” The challenge is on us.

April 4, 2009

Wired Campus (repost): Electronic Portfolios: a Path to the Future of Learning

repost of Wired Campus guest blog, March 18, 2009: Randy Bass and Bret Eynon

If we truly want to advance from a focus on teaching to a focus on student learning, then a strategy involving something like electronic student portfolios, or ePortfolios, is essential.
In an essay in the current issue of Academic Commons, three researchers write that “ePortfolios may be the most likely vehicle to help us make the transition to an academy of the future that is both relevant and authoritative.”

Electronic portfolios mean different things in different settings, some with more or less emphasis on student work, reflection, and integration. Nonetheless, for ePortfolios to be a bridge to the future of a relevant academy we have to emphasize at least four fundamental features:

First, ePortfolios can integrate student learning in an expanded range of media, literacies, and viable intellectual work. As the robust ePortfolio projects at Washington State, Clemson, and Pennsylvania State Universities illustrate, ePortfolios enable students to collect work and reflections on their learning through text, imagery, and multimedia artifacts.  Given that we are already living in a culture where visual communication is as influential as written text, the ability to represent learning through integrated media will be essential.

Second, ePortfolios enable students to link together diverse parts of their learning including the formal and informal curriculum. In their richest format, at places like LaGuardia Community College and San Francisco State University, ePortfolios invite students to undertake an inquiry into their own learning, and to integrate their classroom learning with internships, community service, and their experiences in work, family, and community life.  These projects suggest an ePortfolio’s potential to help us understand the complex interplay between affective and cognitive process, between the academic curriculum and the lived curriculum.

Third, ePortfolios engage students with their learning. The integrative ePortfolio project at LaGuardia Community College, represented in the Visible Knowledge Project collection, has had a drastic impact on student outcomes. Students in ePortfolio classes at LaGuardia are more likely to demonstrate high degrees of engagement in critical thinking, writing, and collaborative learning. They are significantly more likely than students in non-ePortfolio sections of the same classes to pass their classes, and to pass with higher grades. And ePortfolio use also correlates with increased retention – students in ePortfolio courses are more likely to return to college the following semester, continuing their progress towards graduation and transfer.

Fourth, ePortfolios offer colleges a meaningful mechanism for accessing and organizing the evidence of student learning. In many ways, ePortoflios are not primarily about technology but a commitment to a set of principles about education. Writing about the VALUE Project, which is developing ways to compare and evaluate ePortfolios across institutions, Terrel Rhodes argues that learning “needs to be demonstrated through cumulative, progressive work students perform as they move through their educational pathways to graduation” in both curricular and co-curricular contexts.

In the past five years, according to the Campus Computing Project, the percentage of U.S. colleges and universities using ePortfolios has more than tripled.16 It is possible that 10 years from now we will no longer even be discussing these collections as if they were a special practice; they might be a pervasive and transparent part of the learning environment. At the moment, ePortfolios represent perhaps the most promising strategy for responding to calls for accountability and at the same time nurturing a culture of experimentation with new forms of learning.

April 4, 2009

Wired Campus (repost): New Technologies for Essential Learning

repost of Wired Campus guest blog, March 16, 2009: Randy Bass and Bret Eynon

If anything can be said with certainty about the future of education in a roller-coaster world, it is that we must educate students to deal with uncertainty.

But what does that mean in practice? It means that we must design learning experiences to meet our highest learning goals—goals like the Essential Learning Outcomes listed by the Association of American College and Universities. These are not just practical and intellectual skills (such as critical and creative thinking, inquiry, and analysis) but also elusive and important goals that revolve around personal and social responsibility, ethical reasoning, lifelong learning, and integrative habits of mind. Most institutions of higher learning aspire to these goals but have little evidence of the best ways to reach them.

The research supporting the value of such approaches is overwhelming. The past 40 years have seen major advances in the fields of neuroscience, research in cognitive and social psychology, the dynamics of memory and human development, and the environments in which learning best takes place. In 1999 the National Research Council and the National Academy of Sciences published the influential How People Learn, synthesizing these findings and highlighting research data that stand behind teaching approaches that are learner-centered, assessment-guided, and socially situated. Classroom-based research continues to confirm and build on these principles, such as studies done by Carl Wieman, whose work since winning the Nobel Prize in 2001 has focused intensively on introductory physics education.

The work of the Visible Knowledge Project, in the current issue of Academic Commons, is one modest example of a classroom-based effort undertaken by faculty members who want to build on these same principles. Faculty experiments took many forms, from exploring how even something as familiar as online discussion tools could foster dialogue at the heart of essential learning, or examining under what classroom conditions one is more likely to create intellectual communities that mirror and cultivate disciplinary thinking. It included working with digital video and narratives, trying to understand how multimedia creation cultivates thoughtful linkages between personal narrative and cultural history, or studying how documentary video production can engage students in social change.

These efforts are not about eliminating structure in education, or taking an “anything goes” stance. Quite the contrary. We’re encouraging new structures. But we are trying to ensure they are carefully designed and based on the best new evidence of how people learn and what works in higher education.

Our experiences suggest in practice what broader research suggests in theory: If we want to cultivate adaptive and flexible thinkers, then we have to structure experiences for students that put them in positions to engage in intellectual discovery and exercise what Lee S. Shulman called “judgments under uncertainty.” This must be done repeatedly, from the earliest opportunities.

There’s nothing simple or determinative about how new media technologies enable these kinds of learning experiences, but their inherent openness, complexity, and ubiquity should make them an inescapable part of our designs for essential learning.

In our next post we’ll look at how electronic portfolios are framing these possibilities beyond courses and moving to the whole learning experience.

April 4, 2009

Wired Campus (repost): Still Moving From Teaching to Learning

repost of Wired Campus guest blog, March 12, 2009: Randy Bass and Bret Eynon

It has been almost 15 years since Robert Barr and John Tagg published a well-circulated article in Change magazine claiming that we were in the midst of a paradigm shift from “teaching to learning,” set to transform the ways we designed, delivered, and evaluated undergraduate education.

Fifteen years and a next-wave Web later, we are clearly a good piece down that road. Yet this shift leads us to a new set of challenges.

A key to this change is shifting the unit of analysis from blocks of information delivered through courses to something quite different, namely the development of the learner over time, inside and outside the classroom. That has implications for how we design courses, how we count faculty load, how we choose campus technologies, even how we define the curriculum.

It’s telling that we don’t even really have a good word for the part of the curriculum that encompasses some of the richest integrative activities, such as undergraduate research, study abroad, internships, and service learning. “Extra-curriculum” doesn’t seem quite up to the task anymore. The National Survey of Student Engagement calls these activities “high impact activities,” a category that also includes some course-based learning, like first-year seminars. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Something much bigger is going on here.

In his new Academic Commons essay, Michael Wesch, the digital ethnographer from Kansas State, frames the shift this way: “I like to think that we are not teaching subjects but subjectivities: ways of approaching, understanding, and interacting with the world.”4 Subjectivities, in Mr. Wesch’s evocative phrase, “involve an introspective intellectual throw-down in the minds of students.” We saw signs of this shift from “subjects to subjectivities” everywhere in our work on the Visible Knowledge Project, where faculty at all kinds of institutions looked closely at how students learned in the interplay with new media pedagogies.

What emerged from this work was a picture of learning that drew our attention to a series of intermediate thinking processes that characterize flexible thinking, processes that digital media are especially good at making visible. This includes such things as how students work through difficulty, consider alternative pathways to solve problems, speculate about ideas, and argue with one another about meaning. These kinds of thinking processes turn out to be much more than just cognitive. Motivation, confidence, fear, one’s sense of identity, experience, as well as formal knowledge all come to bear on them.

Recognizing all this about learning raises significant challenges. It implies that our earnest but often fragmented efforts at thinking about our curricula are not sufficiently broad to live up to our aspirations about the way the pieces should all fit together. It also implies that technologies built around isolated “courses” may ultimately be of limited value in a learning paradigm. And it means that we need to do much more experimentation with learner-focused technologies and pedagogies if we’re going to cultivate Mr. Wesch’s subjectivities.

In our next blog post we’ll expand on these changes in learning and the integrative technologies that might help advance them.