Below is an article that I co-authored with Scott Adamson (Head of Department Science) and Christine Beckmann (Head of Department English) for an upcoming conference presentation.
To respond effectively to the changes in society, both technological and social, learning theories and pedagogical practices of education must undergo constant revision, refinement or even revolution (Guder, 2010), such that students may effectively face the challenges brought about by the information and knowledge society (Pettenati & Cigognini, 2007). Educators are faced with attempting to teach in accordance with a paradigm shift caused by emerging technologies whilst effectively preparing today’s learners for the world as an outcome of this shift. Bell and Pape (2012) described:
“The paradigm shift in learning associated with emerging technologies increases the scope of change beyond individuals, classrooms and institutions and provokes shifts in roles and power relations. For these reasons we need to look beyond traditional theories of learning in education” (p. 107).
This places a responsibility on curriculum designers to enact teaching and learning practices that are relevant to present and future needs of students. The concept of teachers as curriculum designers is predicated on the fact that implementation decisions lie in the hands of a particular teacher in a particular classroom (Colbert et al., 2008).
An Imperative to Change
The contemporary teacher-designer has access to digital technologies with extensive pedagogical affordances and the potential to transform the learning environment when utilised appropriately. Through their use, the learner has the opportunity to create, share and organise their personal learning environments as well as to engage in collaborative activities. There is a fundamental shift in the way students can learn, consume and produce new artefacts through the thoughtful and informed implementation of a suitably designed curriculum and learning environment (Tu, Sujo-montes, Yen, Chan, & Blocher, 2012). Advances in technology allow the student experience to be more interactive and distributed, including the means to be actively involved in incredibly complex networks of information, resources and instruction (Bonk & Cunningham, 1998). Shared and networked experiences are key differences between connectivism and other learning theories and, as learning environments, should be reflective of the collaborative learning and social environments discussed.
Connectivism as a Learning Theory
Maintaining a store of knowledge internally is no longer seen as critically important, provided that there is access to suitable knowledge through the students’ created networks (Guder, 2010). Siemens (2004) proposed the learning theory connectivism as a way of conceptualizing learning in the digital age, believing that students derive their competencies from making connections and, by including technology and connection making as learning activities, presenting a model that acknowledges the societal shift associated with digital technologies within which learning is no longer an individualistic activity and connective knowledge can be described as distributed knowledge, spread and shared across more than one entity. Weblogs, videocasting, collaborative authoring sites, video conferencing, Learning Management Systems (LMS) plus other Web 2.0 tools have become mechanisms that enhance learning networks and allow students to utilize distributed or connective knowledge (Downes, 2006). A strength of connectivism lies in the principle of creating a lifelong learner who is connected to sources of knowledge that are current and that knowledge is no longer simply obtained through a course of study.
Personal Learning Environments
Connectivism provides one means of understanding the power of personal web resources which allow a networked student to transcend the concept of classroom through the creation of what are described by Drexler (2010) as personal learning environments (PLE). The organisation of the resources into suitable connections in a learner’s network empowers the student. A PLE places the control and the ability to connect with subject matter experts in the hands of the learner, providing autonomous, diverse and creative knowledge development. The idea of the PLE is that the management of learning lies with the student, not the institution, as has been the case with more traditional use of technology within education (Boitshwarelo, 2011; Downes, 2006; Drexler, 2010). The role of the teacher within this construct is to facilitate and to guide the creation of a learning environment that provides the opportunity for students to receive learning through modes and methods that best support their learning needs. The emergence of cloud based technologies such as Office 365 and Google classroom presents classroom teachers with the opportunity to create and develop an environment for students that extend their learning beyond the classroom. This environment should allow for exploration, problem solving and discourse in which the learner is actively refining and constructing knowledge (Pugalee, 2001).
Affordances and Practices
1. The Mathematics Classroom
The use of integrated cloud based technologies and collaborative tools allows the mathematics classroom to move beyond transmission style teaching as the primary method of content delivery. Transmission style teaching alone provides an inadequate framework to think and act in a connected world, particularly when developing a creating, synthesizing and developing mind (Colbert, et al., 2008; Koehler, Mishra, & Yahya, 2007; Marais, 2011; Richardson, 2009). Affordances of cloud based technologies are the extension of connected learning that moves it beyond the physical classroom. Using Office 365 to host a teacher created class workspace created through OneNote is an approach that is proving to be one effective example of mathematics teachers implementing a networked learning environment. Within a shared class workspace, students are: presented with content that has currency; provided the opportunity to receive timely feedback; connected to distributed knowledge from a variety of information sources; and afforded the ability to collaborate. It transforms the learning environment from a largely individualistic experience to a more networked, information rich, connected experience.
2. The Science Classroom
Strategies relating to feedback (particularly student to teacher), student self-verbalising, self-questioning, meta-cognitive strategies and reciprocal teaching are afforded by the open, collaborative, connected classroom available using Teacher Creator shared OneNote, synchronized via Office 365.
Trials implemented within the science classrooms of a metropolitan school include those relating to feedback, where the power of student to teacher feedback is maximized by gauging all individuals’ progress in their shared Student-Teacher workspace. In such a space students can engage meta-cognitive tasks that make thinking visible, including self-verbalising and self-questioning, and the identification of key components or processes in problems posed or concepts addressed.
Meta-cognitive strategies are applied in the Student-Teacher workspace to elicit from learners the higher level thinking skills of modification, creation and evaluation as students write questions shared within the Collaborative workspace, creating revision spaces, distilling complex concepts into efficient summaries and comparing their collective work with that of others. Seeking examples of ‘good’ questioning, effective summaries and the noting errors, corrections and, most importantly, misconceptions also illustrate these skills.
Reciprocal teaching, aids understanding and transfer, empowering students as they develop and re-formulate questions, working and explaining solutions, identifying key components as they break down challenging concepts with screen-casts that allow for repeated access, replay, asynchronous and just-in-time learning.
The implementation of such strategies while building PLEs allows students to regulate and to take ownership of their learning through variable modality, content, pacing, time allocation and sequencing.
The additional data also affords an enhanced student-teacher relationship, with teachers hooked into student PLEs typically knowing their students’ learning capabilities and application better, that is, knowing their students as learners.
3. The English Classroom
Emerging understandings about learning networks and their place in the educational development of students today is working to reshape the contemporary English classroom. Lessons encouraging students to be better writers, readers and speakers take many form but these classroom activities, when examined objectively, often fall back to the tried and true formula of guiding students through a process of attempting a task, gathering feedback, refining the first attempt and extending into new and improved versions of the original response. The dialogue between teacher and student guides this process but until relatively recently such conversations have been limited by the time available in a given lesson and the mechanics of trying to impart feedback in ways which are useful to students and sustainable by teachers in a pen and paper world. Cloud based technologies, learning management tools and social media which allow teachers and students to engage in digital dialogues, to directly connect ideas from the world of literature to applications in the local community and which provide a space to share learning and to connect with others engaged in a similar journey of discovery, have opened up a world of interactions which have heretofore been difficult to sustain. The English classroom today increasingly draws on video-casting technology and audio-visual applications as a means of facilitating a learning-focused dialogue which is not limited by lesson time or margin space. Students use collaborative spaces to capture their emerging understandings in a variety of different contexts and from a variety of different perspectives. For learners this digital landscape means much greater control over how they access feedback, how they process such input and how they contribute to wider communities of learning.
Learning should not just take place in class, under specific conditions and for a limited period of time. It should just as easily take place in non-formal, informal and life-long settings (Pettenati & Cigognini, 2007). Connectivism is an assertion that learning is primarily a distributed networking process where knowledge for the learner is no longer limited to the course of study through a classroom, but extends beyond through active networks, limited only by the strength and dimensions of the connections. The utilization of cloud based technologies by teachers allows them to create open learning networks that provide students with opportunities to collaborate and to develop their own PLEs. Engaging in this transformative practice enables teaching and learning to be relevant to the present and foreseeable future needs of learner.
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