An outline of my philosophy for online teaching and learning.
As I consider my initial thoughts on these questions, a mindmap seems to hover above me, following me throughout my day. It is fluid, malleable, and open-ended as I wish to keep adding to the scaffolding beneath it. I question the theories and principles I know from my face to face background and weigh my newer experiences online, as a learner; do I believe what I know; do I know what I believe; do I question what I practice because I understand how to learn; do I impart that on my students intentionally or with a grace so subtle they are learning by it virtually by osmosis. So in an effort to trace this path of where I am, where I am heading and where I have come from, I did just that, a mindmap. This identified key ideas – rooted in philosophy for me as a learner, me as an educator and parallels between face to face (in-situ as designers like to say) and online. This paper provides context and discussion for that exploration.
The core of this ideation is essentially, that I am a designer. A designer of built environments perhaps, however, I am trying to design my philosophy of teaching and learning to encompass being and understanding – I am fighting the suggestion that facilitators are passive and teachers are . . . some kind of force. I also have a niggling thought about epistemology related to more freedom of thought, process, outcome and the formation of knowledge understanding there may be a difference between opinion and knowledge.
I appreciate this blog excerpt written by Leigh Blackall on the notion of testing one’s theoretical approach:
‘As I teach and facilitate various online courses this year, a lot of the theories and concepts I subscribe to are getting some hard testing. The biggest challenge I am finding is the expectation for a teacher or instructor while everyone talks about a facilitator. I don’t think someone can be both, primarily because a teacher inherits a significant amount of power and traditional roles that counter act the more neutral and passive presence of a facilitator’ (Blackall, 2007).
In particular, I think this is where I really debate my most desired role and also how I am learning in courses designed to be facilitated, not taught:
‘I find it is all too easy to assume the role of a teacher if you are an expert in your field, but very difficult to adopt and maintain the role of facilitator to a group studying your field’ (Blackall, 2007).
I think of myself in the context of our face to face building code course where I try so hard to be a facilitator with the silent mantra in my head ‘let them figure it out, let them figure it out, let them figure it out’. However, somewhere between the students’ frustration, angst, complaints “we aren’t teaching them anything”, I relent and become that familiar teacher conveying the means and methods to the best of my ability. I use Problem Based Learning, and lead the learners through a project sample – convincing myself I am still facilitating learning, however, if I measure the ‘passiveness’ of that activity it is still teaching. My colleagues share the same thought – how do we groom our learners so we are less likely to fall back in the teaching zone as an automatic response to student feedback questionnaires when we are striving to facilitate their learning paths of discovery.
From a review of literature, this hesitancy on my part and that of my peers is not unrelated to institutional concerns.
‘Clearly, schools and universities want to stick to well-tried methods, because uncertain experiments conflict with the task to lead thousands of students through their exams in time. . . In addition, education is all about consolidation and transfer of existing knowledge, skills and attitudes from one generation to the next; this gives conservatism a natural basis in education. Educational staff is a product of the educational system itself and is probably pervaded with common patterns and role models’ ((Westera, 1999), as quoted by Westera, 2005, p.29).
Westera (2005) continues to describe that in fact, most students are simply not prepared for the ‘facilitated and individually responsible and self-motivated learning environment’ (p. 30). I think that is often the case, and realize for my own learning and that of my students, this cannot be emphasized enough. In fact it’s a bit ironic that we expect the most liberal free-thinkers to be so disciplined in their online commitments to open learning. As well, I am a bit more timid in my expectations for my design student free thinkers, as I fondly call them, since they have proven the most dissatisfied with that same freedom. As Blackall (2007) describes – there are also very real and quite traditional expectations on the part of most students;
‘I can understand the expectation for a teacher in a course. Naturally a student who has enrolled in a formal course, following traditional administration channels, paying fees etc. and who is of an age and professional experience that is very used to the idea of taught and instructed learning, would expect a similarly efficient, industrial strength, structured learning pathway within the course. But this is at odds with my understanding of facilitation and my principals around individual responsibility, networked learning, and a belief in the importance of deschooling’.
I know that ‘deschooling’ is throwback term from the nineteen-seventies, however, I see its renewed value helping learners navigate their way from what seems to be still very traditional teaching practices in many secondary schools and a transfer to newer post-secondary facilitation. Despite guidance counsellors assuring us the opposite, if the students currently reaching our degree program are any indication, we must pay more attention to enabling learning and understanding these methods rather than our concerted effort of standing back and facilitating because it is considered ‘the right way’.
In one of my orientation workshops I introduce the students to my tag: Uno+TUTUdo – which is an acronym for you know more than you think you do. I joke with my students that I wish I had a stamp which I could dramatically stamp on the whiteboard when they ‘just want an answer’ to a question not encouragement from a facilitator. They chuckle amusedly at this non-answer, pause, then repeat the question, expecting ‘an answer’. So why this struggle? This is how I will reconsider my own philosophical beliefs to question if in fact, there is a discrepancy between belief and practice for me.
Learning theories that have shaped (and continue to shape) my philosophy
Accrediting bodies seemingly encourage Essentialism and clearly discourage Existentialism. I cannot help but be influenced in my own work by the influence of maintaining accreditation for my department/degree. Once engaged in leading discussion in any one of my face to face classes, I probably couldn’t convince anyone that my learning beliefs are embedded in either of these philosophies either. I think that one could only really change the world with some essential understanding of what came before to move forward meaningfully and that sounds a lot like knowledge building.
However, what I seek as a learner, thus inspiring me as an educator is well summed up in this excerpt from a university professional development missive:
‘Although many existentialist educators provide some curricular structure, existentialism, more than other educational philosophies, affords students great latitude in their choice of subject matter. In an existentialist curriculum, students are given a wide variety of options from which to choose’ (Houston Community College, Faculty Portal, n.d.).
What will always challenge me as a learner and as an educator is the connection to my vocation (design) which fuels my teaching and learning. Thus the pragmatics of accepting there is no wrong answer battles against the principles of human well-being in the care of a designer. So when a student does not calculate structural spans correctly – I cannot stand in the philosophical shoes of Existentialist educational philosophers who might argue that ‘individuals are responsible for determining for themselves what is “true” or “false,” “right” or “wrong,” “beautiful” or “ugly.” However, as I will discuss later, I do work to help students discover that more than plain safety contributes to well-being; this being the ways of knowing approach developing attributes rather than ‘just’ skills or knowledge (Houston Community College, Faculty Portal, n.d.).
There is a comfort in assuring oneself, as an educator, that once we provide the fundamentals we can set our students and ourselves free to be creative, liberal, even radical thinkers. For me, it is an urge to get those principles out of the way early in order apply them – those words are like a promise of being set free, outside of the box to explore, challenge and create – proving that you indeed understand the basic principle knowledge (well, hypothetically!). In fact, setting out what your philosophical underpinnings are, before the creation portion of this course, is just like that. Therefore it becomes apparent that part of beliefs as both learner and teacher flies the flag of Essentialism:
‘Essentialists believe that there is a common core of knowledge that needs to be transmitted to students in a systematic, disciplined way. The emphasis in this conservative perspective is on intellectual and moral standards that schools should teach. The core of the curriculum is essential knowledge and skills and academic rigor. Although this educational philosophy is similar in some ways to Perennialism, Essentialists accept the idea that this core curriculum may change. Schooling should be practical, preparing students to become valuable members of society’ (Houston Community College, Faculty Portal, n.d.).
I believe that it is important to measure and respond to how my students understand themselves as learners, their style, their preference for interaction and feedback. Under analysis, this means I am quite grounded by a belief in Progressivism, and that describes how I wish to function as a learner. Design thinking has permeated corporate strategic planning and decision making. Perhaps it is simply a more timely description of creative problem solving or systems thinking. What this trend also supports is connecting industry practices to teaching and learning and for my discipline that means facilitating think tank type design charrettes working through a problem as a team – often interdisciplinary and emphasizing experimentation, one aspect of Progressivism.
‘This educational philosophy stresses that students should test ideas by active experimentation. Learning is rooted in the questions of learners that arise through experiencing the world. It is active, not passive. The learner is a problem solver and thinker who makes meaning through his or her individual experience in the physical and cultural context’ (Houston Community College, Faculty Portal, n.d.).
Paulo Friere was a champion of education, and really a pioneer of the philosophy that education and literacy could set one free from oppression. That philosophy underpins my work in Africa. I have always thought that while advanced formal education is not the key to everyone’s success, understanding how to analyze and ultimately solve problems, is. Social reconstructivism, as Friere saw it, ‘fostered the development of awareness to overcome domination and oppression. Rather than “teaching as banking,” in which the educator deposits information into students’ heads, Freire saw teaching and learning as a process of inquiry in which the child must invent and reinvent the world’ (Houston Community College, Faculty Portal, n.d.).
I think there are parallels to be drawn between Reconstructivism and Progressive philosophies. Specifically, each aims for education as a way to promote a better society as Kanuka (2004) explained. As well, common to both constructs is focus on the individual and on personal growth. Problem-solving via situational context connecting students’ experience to the instructional material and provide a meaningful framework for learning opportunities in a curriculum underpinned by Progressive orientation Kanuka (2004).
My interest in both Reconstructivism and Progressivism also suggests a connection to ‘embodied knowledge’ and ‘ways of being’ which focuses on desirable attributes rather than just necessary knowledge and skills (Dall’Alba, G., & Barnacle, R., 2005, p. 722). Later in their discussion, Dall’Alba and Barnacle (2005) provide an example of medical staff who are less focused on conventional illness diagnosis, but more on a wholistic approach considering the best possible health / solution for a specific patient, not a clinical symptom. Not to say that diagnosis and treatment are not important, but to stress that an individual may not represent the norm and attention to that individual is essential. Educators subscribing to this approach will work to ‘. . . identify graduate attributes or capabilities to be developed during a course or program’ (p. 722).
Technology and my philosophy of education; Are we blaming technology or expecting it to have all the answers? Isn’t this a bit like Heisenberg’s Principle in Quantum Physics?
‘The problem is that when you throw a ball — especially a heavy one like a medicine ball — at something like a stool, the ball will knock the stool across the room and may even have enough momentum to bounce back. You can say where the stool was, but not where it is now. What’s more, you could calculate the velocity of the stool after you hit it with the ball, but you have no idea what its velocity was before you hit it’ http://science.howstuffworks.com/innovation/science-questions/quantum-suicide2.htm.
As an educator, I stress to my students that ‘ . . . technologies [should be] perceived as neutral tools and are simply devices that extend our capacities’ (Kanuka, 2004, p. 96). For example, I firmly believe that a student who lacks an understanding of manual drafting practices and graphic expression will struggle to use the digital tools for drafting in a way which effectively or meaningfully conveys their design intent. First understand the tactile, then extend the skill with the technology. Just as Jonassen (1996), quoted by Kanuka (2004) states; “carpenters use their tools to build things; the tools do not control the carpenter. Similarly, computers technologies [should be] perceived as neutral tools and are simply devices that extend our capacities’ (p.94).
To draw parallels between a practical application and instructional design, Kanuka (2004) also notes that Jonassen’s ‘view is consistent with the seminal writings of Clark (1983; 1985), who argues that our uses of instructional strategies are the active ingredient in effective learning, not the technology’ (p.96). I believe it may be tempting to let technology be far too determining of one’s direction in this regard. Exploring the relationship of one’s philosophical underpinning to integration of technology is perhaps the Heisenberg Theory of education!
Further, I think Technological Determinism and Social Determinism had best remain entangled rather as Heisenberg might say. Kanuka’s (2004) definition of Social Determinism notes that ‘[e]ducators holding this view are concerned about the ways that social and technological uses shape the form and content of the learning experiences’ (p.97). I am not sure how one can realistically assess the effectiveness of technology in education without also filtering results with a lens of Technological Determinism where ‘ . . . technologies are viewed as causal agents determining our uses and having a pivotal role in social change’ (Kanuka, 2004, p. 98).
There are few areas of society who do not play this chicken and egg game with technology– in any profession or vocation technology can chase us or we can chase it. Perhaps that is too simple a view, my intent is to remain very aware of sensitive consideration balanced with reflective experimentation with new ideas fostered by new technology. I stress to my students that they not become slaves to technology, that they remember it is meant to be a tool that enables deeper exploration, effective communication etc. Some technologies are in fact causal agents, however, it does not have to mean that technology controls outcomes due a lack of inputs and understanding. Especially when I hop back and forth between ‘my’ two continents, I question if all the advances brought to the Western world via technology are all ‘good’. When I see ingenuity in keeping ancient relics of vehicles and machinery in motion I can’t help but measure that innovation against our Western world disposal of redundant technology, especially electronics.
In the article, Embodied Knowing in Online Environments, Dall’Alba & Barnacle (2005) support my notion described above:
‘Technologies orient our behaviour and practices, but they are not all determining. So while the word processor does indeed transform writing practices, the transformation is not simply an imposition. Rather, the transformation occurs through the mediated relation between ‘user’ and machine, where the parameters and potentials of both are transformed (although not necessarily symmetrically). . . The impact of technologies, therefore, is neither singular nor predictable as their performance also reconstitutes our own desires and actions’ (p. 735).
Future practice: Where I am going is connected to where I have come from – but with far more reflective practices and informed integration of technology
At this point, in my work as a post-secondary educator, I cannot hide from rather stringent accreditation requirements for this discipline. Without it, our graduates may not enter the professional design association which underwrites other items such as the title act, group liability insurance etc. In addition, face to face instruction currently culminates in two key activities; a work placement and a capstone project, each bursting with the promise of describing one’s best practices and application of knowledge. What I can do is avoid decontextualizing such knowledge, and that is how I understand embodied knowing based on the descriptions in the discussion above. This translates to nurturing graduate attributes and celebrating inherent, intuitive approaches to problem solving.
I am new to online learning and teaching. I am spending time listening and observing the seeming debate over passive facilitation or active teaching – whether that can be so simply packaged as the one or the other I do not yet know.
As a learner and an educator, I am inspired by this excerpt from a report by Gunga and Rickets (2008) regarding [t]he prospects for [an] E-Learning revolution in education. While the discussion was quite focused on teacher training, it helps me summarize key ideas for future work.
‘Online e-education (interface of e-learning and education) has the capability to nurture the student beliefs portrayed as active, independent, persistent, flexible and open minded. Youn (2000) observes that these beliefs contribute significantly in self-search for knowledge, which is further enhanced by collaborative approaches to learning. E-learning is seen, therefore, as the process of exploration of existing knowledge, sharing and enhancing its value to build ones capacity for self-study’ (p. 295).
With regards to activity design and the use of technology, I am in harmony with the majority of my Canadian design and Ugandan vocational students – extremely detail oriented visually, a visual learner for sure and very interested in human interaction with built environments and technology – designers spend much time analyzing activities for this in fact. For this reason I am keen to learn more about more emerging technology/media to connect my learning to others, to our students and to the world. And how to be responsive becomes a subset of finding the means to do this.
In conclusion, some key connections to the contemporary philosophies of Progressivism and Reconstructivism discussed above shall be my markers for continued development – pragmatically as both an online learner and an online instruction explorer. The following points are adapted from Ornstein’s and Oliva’s Educational Philosophies as quoted in a 2006 dissertation by Dr. David E. Diehl reprinted by Houston Community College:
- The teacher as change agent, facilitator, coach
- The student engages discovery as building knowledge
- Creativeness , self-actualization and free, democratic experiences
- Citizenship, social development, individualism
- Intellectual focus on problem solving
- Educational value that is subjective and changeable by the learner
(Houston Community College, Faculty Portal, n.d.).
Blackall, L. To Facilitate or to Teach. Retrieved February 3, 2014, from http://learnonline.wordpress.com/2007/10/12/to-facilitate-or-to-teach/
Dall’Alba, G., & Barnacle, R. (2005). Embodied Knowing in Online Environments. Educational Philosophy & Theory, 37(5), 719-744. doi:10.1111/j.1469-5812.2005.00153.x
Gunga, S. O., & Ricketts, I. W. (2008). The Prospects for E-Learning Revolution in Education: A philosophical analysis. Educational Philosophy & Theory, 40(2), 294-314. doi:10.1111/j.1469-5812.2007.00332.x
Houston Community College Teaching and Learning Faculty Portal. (n.d.) Educational Philosophies Definitions and Comparison Chart. Retrieved February 1, 2-14 from: http://tlr.hccs.edu/facultyportal/tlp/seminars/pdf/comparison_edu_philo.pdf
Kanuka, Heather (2004). Understanding e-Learning Technologies-in-Practice through Philosophies-in-Practice. In The Theory and Practice of Online Learning, Chapter 4. Athabasca University. Retrieved February 3, 2014, from http://www.aupress.ca/books/120146/ebook/04_Anderson_2008-Theory_and_Practice_of_Online_Learning.pdf
Westera, W. (2005). Beyond functionality and technocracy: creating human involvement with educational technology. Journal Of Educational Technology & Society, 8(1), 28-37. Retrieved February 6, 2014, from: http://ezproxy.tru.ca/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=a9h&AN=85866336&site=ehost-live