The challenge of twenty first century learning? Seeing the hidden connections


“The field of instructional design has developed separately from other theoretical orientations such as research on artificial intelligence, organizational learning and collaborative teaching and learning. Thus, the main problem of instructional design has been its isolation from other fields of teaching, learning and technology.”  (Päive Häkkinen 2002).

Häkkinen, in my opinion, hits the nail on the head, and, as with numerous other disciplines, it is the need to draw on other fields of knowledge, and more holistically address problems, which will greatly assist, but also offer the greatest potential.

I am now in my third week of “Learning Science and Technology” at the University of Sydney and, to be honest, I’m learning more from my own reflective practice in terms of direct experience, than from what I’m discovering in the course materials themselves. But perhaps that may change.

As I said in my last post, I believe that the most important lesson with all communications and learning systems is to put the humans, and not the technologies, first. Indeed, many of the readings we are given focus on the need for “learner-centred” education.

From what we’ve had thus far “instructional design” (ID) is seen to be an engineering activity for which the artefact created is some instructional product designed to help a learner acquire some knowledge or skill, according to M. David Merrill, one of the gurus in the field. Another acknowledged thought leader, Robert Mills Gagné, says that an “Instructional system” is one that is “an arrangement of resources and procedures used to promote learning.”

Pretty much all commentators talk about “anything that is done purposely to facilitate learning” and the major discussion in the field seems to be focused on the increasing importance of recognising the role of the learner, and how much influence and power they have in the process.

So, I’d like to talk about my own experience and what I’ve currently observed as a “student” within a largely technology-mediated environment.

  1. The course is mainly conducted using Adobe Connect and with support from either TWiki or Google docs. Both of these are fine as long as you have a good internet connection (I, and others, have dropped out at least once over the past few weeks as we have tried to participate on the road), and are happy to give your data to Mr Google;
  2. We front up every week – either in physical or virtual form – to a seminar which is a combination of lecture from our tutors and online group work, and, no matter where you are this is how the course is run;
  3. The sound is always a challenge. For those in the room there is often a sound delay together with feedback issues; for those remotely there is usually someone who has sound quality issues or a dicky internet connection;
  4. A lecture is a lecture and there are either good lecturers or not so good. In this instance our lecturers absolutely know their stuff, but the challenge of talking into the ether without direct human feedback is one that is all too obvious in the delivery. During the lecture students interact by making comments in the chat, and, as with people Tweeting during conference presentations, I find this quite distracting and I struggle to concentrate on the slides, the lecture and then the chat all at the same time;
  5. The participatory work is vet clunky, although when well-facilitated it can be satisfactory, but I find just plain hard work. A good practitioner of ID can both moderate and monitor, and ensure that the focus is on the groups and their work, but for me, as a kinaesthetic and auditory learner, the visual overload is tough.

A number of years ago, when I did my NLP training, I learned how I learn, and my experience with this course is strengthening my belief in the importance of this for every learner in every learning situation. As an auditory/kinaesthetic I need to listen, to talk and to write things down, and my visual sense is the one that I learn the least from. Therefore, what I experience is both sensory and information overload as data and information come at me from all sources, but my main focus needs to be on the visual, my weakest and least preferred. As a learner I am being given very little choice as to how I am to learn in class.

This combines with the group dynamics that take place during the group work. With the sound issues I have decided not to even bother to try to speak as there is all to often distracting feedback, intermittent sentences, and numerous people trying to talk at once. I have realised that I can’t focus on this and the chat simultaneously and so I need to focus on my own learning style and try to work to that.  With this in mind I am also mindful of reflecting on my own behaviours in these situations:

  • I can tend to get carried away with my own thread of ideas and not “listen” enough to others and therefore I miss a lot of what others are saying and have to scroll back which means I get behind;
  • when there are more than 3-4 people in the groups there are always those that dominate, which seem to be those that can either type or talk the fastest. I then feel a pressure to get as much down as I can, which is more of a dump than a conversation, and, as I experienced last week, if you are limited to the chat and others are speaking, you can be marginalised because of the limitations of the medium;
  • there is very little processing time unless you consciously make it by sitting back and observing;
  • I would question how much we are really learning from each other the way we would in a face-to-face group.

If learning is meant to be “learner centred” then I am questioning why this course is being run as it is. I totally appreciate that many people want to participate remotely, and last week I did so deliberately to see how the experience differed. However, my preferred learning mechanism is to pitch up to class, and around half of us seem to be doing that. The frustration is that this isn’t being built into the pedagogy or utilised and it would seem that a sensible solution would be to put those who are in the room in a group or two, and then have others participating virtually in other groups, or even to mix the two up to see how it goes.

In addition after three weeks in a face-to-face class I would have normally have found some “mates” by now, but in this environment I hardly feel I am getting to know anyone at all.

When it comes to the learning materials in one course we interact via TWiki. It is quite a good tool as far as these things go, easy to use and to navigate, but, again, there is a lot of written material and the asynchronous interaction of the students via online groups means that you’re just adding your own stuff and commenting on others, but there is virtually no dynamic interaction.

It could well be that one of the objectives of the course is to facilitate precisely the kind of learning which I am experiencing, and to demonstrate first hand that, as an “instructional designer”, you need to understand these challenges and be sensitive to people’s learning styles. However, I think there are two things that are missing from the outset and I am hoping that these will emerge as we continue through the course.

The first is knowing how to work with digital information and to acquire some digital literacy.

I like Wikipedia’s definition and am going to quote it in full here:

“Digital literacy is the ability to effectively and critically navigate, evaluate and create information using a range of digital technologies. It requires one ‘to recognize and use that power, to manipulate and transform digital media, to distribute pervasively, and to easily adapt them to new forms’. Digital literacy does not replace traditional forms of literacy, it builds upon the foundation of traditional forms of literacy. Digital literacy is the marrying of the two terms digital and literacy, however, it is much more than a combination of the two terms. Digital information is a symbolic representation of data, and literacy refers to the ability to read for knowledge, write coherently, and think critically about the written word.”

In my own work with ANZSOG and others I find that one of the most instructive exercises is to get students to understand the different characteristics, or “affordances”, of digital and physically encoded information. Whist is beyond the scope of this blog the work that has been done at PARC over the years is still as relevant and crucial as ever, if not more so as more people interact with digital information systems. (See “The Myth of the Paperless Office” by Harper and Sellen). There is also a need to understand the important differences between data, information and knowledge (see a review of Davenport & Prusack and Nonaka & Takeuchi).

The second area is that of group dynamics and group relations, which is a part of  organizational psychology, but also language and communication. Understanding how people communicate within any group is crucial to managing, or even just framing, any situation, learning or otherwise, and my own observations are that if more of the discipline of group relations underpinned the learning science and technology discipline then it would be more human-centric, no matter what fancy tools and gizmos emerge.

What this course is reinforcing for me is of need (in many disciplines) for a cross-disciplinary and more holistic and human-centred approach to learning and education, and for people who have a broad understanding of the sciences – both physical and social – to bring together the knowledge and, dare I say, wisdom that they have.

For too long in the history of modern human endeavour the silos and “knowledge castles” have proliferated, with disciplines developing their own language and culture, and failing to leverage and build on what others have done. Perhaps it is the fact that I have been involved in the Web World for such a long time, and that I fully embrace Tim Berners-Lee’s vision of how technologies, and the Semantic Web in particular, can help humans to cross the boundaries and more fully integrate the wisdom of the ages, that I find these jurisdictional frameworks so frustrating. It is not necessarily the “age of the generalist” that I see coming, because in order to cross the boundaries you also need to be able to delve in deeply enough to communicate with researchers on their own terms and gain their trust. It is probably more that I see the future of “learning science” as being the ability to cross boundaries and translate ideas between communities in order to generate new knowledge but also to facilitate new insights from what we already know.

Vaclav Havel once said that

“Education is the ability to see the hidden connections”.

For all twenty first century learners, be they school age or professional, I believe that this is both the greatest challenge but also the greatest opportunity.