April 4, 2009...10:42 pm

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

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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.

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