Digital pedagogy in an online environment

I was challenged recently to do some ‘blue-sky’ thinking around what effective online learning environments look like. What would students be doing in that space? What would teachers be doing? How would learning occur? How would the virtual community facilitate this?

Interestingly, the conversation immediately turned to the tools which were needed. Do we need blogs? What sort of discussion forum do you want? Do you want polls? Do you want one wiki or the ability to create multiple wikis? There was also considerable discussion around security and who had the ability to access the community and around the sorts of tasks they were able to do.

There was obviously a step missing here (and probably a few steps). In our big-picture thinking we had immediately locked ourselves into present-day online tools and their functionality without considering two of the most important aspects – learning and pedagogy. Apparently, when considering online learning spaces, this is a common occurance.

In his article Learning or Management Systems (2006) George Siemens writes that so often Learning Management Systems are built with management in mind… not learning. Siemens writes how enterprise systems – particularly BlackBoard – are popular not because of their ability to facilitate quality learning but because of their ease of management and ability to integrate into existing systems.

“The enterprise-wide, controlled, centralized learning model serves a particular type of learning (often entry-level or foundational). As learners move beyond content consumption and into stages of critical thinking, collaboration, and content creation, LMS weaknesses become apparent. For this reason, the definition of a [school’s] learning philosophy is critical in guiding LMS activities.”

Siemens writes that in considering and implementing online learning environments, schools need a “definition of effective learning, pedagogical models, and larger visions for a changed society-contrast fostering critical thinking with developing learners for the workforce”.

Lisa Lane (2008) puts it another way in her article Toolbox or Trap? Course Management Systems and Pedagogy with

“If we were building something tangible out of wood or metal, for instance, it would be silly let the tools in our toolbox determine what we construct and how we construct it. I wouldn’t set out to build a Victorian dollhouse and switch to a modernist garden bench because I couldn’t find the scroll saw. And yet this type of shift often happens when faculty encounter a CMS.”

Essentially, many BlackBoard-type commercial online environments are also content-, teacher- and tool-driven. The default homepage when you create a new BlackBoard community is the Announcements page, suggesting a teacher-controlled dissemination of information. The default “Course Content” menu item strongly suggests the virtual space be used as a repository for instructor-generated content, with no personalised or differentiated experience for the learner. The Collaboration link also takes you to a set of individual and separate tools – Blogs, Discussion Board, Wiki, Elluminate etc. So, as an example, if you want to upload an artefact, discuss it with someone and then collaborate to improve it, you need to go into three separate tools, with no way of relating your activities in each.

BlackBoard Tools

BlackBoard Tools

Can you imagine doing that in a physical learning space? Let’s pretend you present a report you’ve been working on to a group of colleagues in a meeting. So you arrange a meeting in the Staff room and present the report, but in order to discuss it you say “Uh, sorry, as we’re now in Discussion mode we need to move down the hall way to another space, as that’s where discussion happens”. And then in order to work together on it to make improvements you again say “Hold it right there, we can’t collaborate in here, we need to move to get up and move to the next block as that’s the space where we collaborate”.

Seems a bit ridiculous doesn’t it? But isn’t this – presenting a learning artefact, discussing it and collaborating – a relatively simple task which we’d ask students to do all the time? Why isn’t there an online environment where this can happen as seamlessly as it would in a face-to-face environment? Perhaps this is where Google Wave is going?

My point is that our existing, most popular ideas of online learning spaces don’t match our expectations of digital pedagogy and contemporary learning. So, my question for you is, what would?

I would like to develop a simple table to expand on this clean-slate thinking, where what we expect in P-12 contemporary learning is matched with what this could look like in an online environment.

As an example, I’ve written what personalised learning could look like in an effective online space:

Contemporary Learning In an Online Environment
Personalised The online space is personalised to students needs and learning styles. Formative assessment surveys determine the content students have access to appropriate for their zone of proximal development. Students add their personal learning goals and can submit learning artefacts for assessment which meet these goals. Students have a My Learning Tasks section, with both teacher-deployed  and negotiated learning activities. Students feel ownership of their environment through customisations. Visual and Auditory learners are scaffolded in the environment, with the ability to instructors and students to record and store audio and video as easily as they can text. Feedback from peers, teachers and parents would feature prominently to support learning.

What else do we expect from contemporary learning? What could this look like in an online community? How would the architecture change in moving from a teacher- and content-driven community to a participant-driven community?

Appreciate your ideas.

5 thoughts on “Digital pedagogy in an online environment

  1. I am not sure I agree that what you are arguing is an “environment” – it may be a semantic argument but an environment is not just a place to be, rather the individual has a sense of being somewhere, have a sense of themselves in that world and interact with the avatars of others.

    An environment is a level of abstraction beyond merely a web2.0 website or learning management system – an “environment” has a sense of belonging, a sense of travelling a sense of place. It does not need to be 3d (like 2L), it can be multimedia enriched (like a MOO) or entirely textual (like a MUD).

    More signal than noise? Not sure…

  2. Cheers for the reply.

    Yes, you could be right. I use ‘environment’, ‘space’ and ‘community’ almost interchangeably to describe the same thing. In this context, I’m talking primarily about what would typically be described as a learning management system, however, I’m wondering if the same paradox exists in 3D ‘environments’ like Second Life… where the technology and design of the environment inhibits the pedagogy? I haven’t had enough experience with these types of environments to really comment.

    Perhaps you’ve hit the nail on the head… we need to be thinking about facilitating ‘environments’ for students to work and learn in (whatever the mode / medium) rather than ‘websites’.

    Would you define a virtual world as an ‘environment’?

  3. For me, eLearning Utopia would allow students to:
    – automatically pick up where their learning/ understanding is up to with resources matched to preferred learning styles
    – develop other literacies as they become more confidant with said content
    – learn how to collaborate in a working team effectively
    – learn how to research, validate and cite sources
    – respond to their chosen tasks individually but within a team context
    – publish to a world stage as well as to secure environment and understand the implications
    – probably lots more as developing technologies present us with more possibilities.

    The bits we can do now seem to work together OK – we use hyperlinks a lot to get from one application to another fairly seemlessly. Would be nice to have a system that had it all together though.

  4. Joe, a thought provoking post. Is there somewhere we can contribute to your “table of thinking”? Lisa’s article was also very thought provoking. I think part of the problem is that educators who are not familiar with the power of the tools are limited in their vision of potential learning activities. Cheers for making me think 🙂

  5. By focusing on how information technology can facilitate interaction in learning teachers avoid becoming technophiles and distance themselves from the politics of information technology in education.

    This focus is manifest when teachers develop the use of information technology in the online classroom to increase the quality of interaction between the student and the learning environment.

    The opportunity to increase the quality of interaction should be of special interest to teachers operating in virtual and distance education environments.

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