Education as It Happens 1

It has been some time since I felt that I had anything to contribute to the narrative I have been constructing on this topic over the past few years. As part of my initial forays into the miasma that is education within the scientific-technological wave (Toffler 1982) or paradigm as it is now characterised, I initiated a series of interviews with people I considered to be luminaries in the area of education and the use of technology to enhance the teaching and learning experience.

For this post I want to try and shape my narrative around the recent book by Clayton Christensen, called Disrupting Class. He and his co-authors have taken the lens with which they first gained fame: disruptive innovation and focussed it on education in the 21st century. They argue that much change is essentially impossible due to the entrenched ideologies and competing interests groups that currently drive the educational experience. That said, they do hold that with the arrival of online learning -- the first truly disruptive educational experience since the move from the one room classroom -- the same disruptive potential for change is now upon us. I need not review all the points they make here, but I do think that most readers will concur that the era of monolithic instruction is coming to an end. The one size fits all approach driven by the 'Sage on Stage' mentality is giving way to something much more robust and engaging: the 'Guide on the Side'.

While those of us who been in education - for say, the last 25 years or more - will likely agree that there is nothing radical or innovative about this notion, here in Singapore, and other Asian educational systems (where the monolithic impulse is firmly entrenched - and who can argue with test results, eh?), this movement towards 'active learning' represents a sea change on the swirling waters now that characterise digitally enabled learning. These waves now lap the shores of our current educational systems.

When I initiated my interviews for 'Education as IT Happens' I was trying to determine if there was some general consensus among educational leaders with whom I collaborate, as to how we can transform the educational experience in the digital age. If you have the time and inclination they can be previewed at this link. When we talk about this transformation, it is clear that there are many voices shouting into the winds of change: some with the true purpose of advancing the educational narrative; others with self-interest or aggrandisement as their only agenda. Sadly, I feel many fall into the latter category. I am especially concerned about the leading role that technologists are taking in shaping the agenda, especially given their limited understanding of the teaching and learning process. The 'if I build it they will come' mentality pervades most IT cultures that I currently encounter.

There exists a continued flutter of excitement about Web 2.0 and the advent of social networking tools. I find this particularly unsettling, not because I haven't tried them, i.e., Facebook, Twitter, Delicious etc, but precisely because I have; and they do little more than extend the social interactions that are part and parcel of the face-to-face experience that characterises school education and family life in general. Mostly, I find they have practical utility for encouraging interaction and dialogue with friends and family who live and work at some distance. In my case, and with respect to my family who are halfway around the world from me, it is through the use of these tools that I am able to nudge and prod on a fairly regular basis (once a week) to keep abreast of their developments. The bigger question is: Would I do that if they lived around the corner. In my case, not likely, as each of us has distinct lives and interests which are not always correlated.

I believe that what is not examined is the potential which the internet and such tools have for enlarging and transforming the global village. I fear that we continue to advocate for the use of these tools in the wrong environments. We don't seek the synergies possible by having learners interacting -- within structured curriculum experiences -- to deal, for instance, with larger and pressing issues, i.e., the ability of our present land, water, and air resources to sustain this and future generations. But I digress. It requires a great act of will to change the old, to disrupt the known—and I fully admit that I am as quick to resist change as the next guy, save when a logical and reasoned argument supported by real examples is given. Such is the nature of the dialectical approach.

We move forward within this penumbra, not through dictated responses or bullying by those whose exercise of office comes from the power of the role—or assumed power- as opposed to the power of intellectual discourse.


Online Pedagogy: Where are we now?

Online Pedagogy: Where are we now?

A Guiding Framework:

A Guiding Framework (Author's Note: The Posting 'Where are We' should be read first.)

One framework that holds promise for thinking about how to morph the most effective F2F practices into the online learning environment and thereby facilitate effective online learning is advanced by Oliver (2001). The framework consists of three interconnecting elements:
1. Learning activities,
2. Learning support, and
3. Learning resources.
While Oliver (2001) suggests that these elements are critical for the online learning environment, most readers will recognise that they already exist in effective F2F environments and should therefore provide an easy scaffold for those seeking to learn how to set their sails.

1. Learning Activities

Central to the success of any learning activity is the degree to which students process and construct knowledge. Here, there are three useful dimensions to consider. The first is to design relevant and challenging assignments (Levin et al., 2001) which in turn facilitate learner control of the process of the learning experience (Oliver, 2001). Concomitantly, it must also be recognised that such exercise of control is directly proportionate to the learner’s perception of whether the assignment is worth doing.

The second dimension requires flexibility in both teaching and learning (Levin et al., 2001). There are many roads to Rome and effective online learning experiences ought to at least provide more than one method of presentation and allow for more than one way of learning.

The third and equally compelling dimension is the role of emotion in learning. Emotionally engaged learners learn more and retain information longer (Squire & Kandel, 1999). Obviously, consideration must be given to the ways that learning activities create and sustain emotional engagement.

2. Learning Support

Learning support refers to the process by which the teacher becomes active and supportive as the coach and facilitator, making use of scaffolding activities which involve peer cooperation and collaboration (Oliver, 2001). Support also requires teacher interaction in the form of adequate and timely feedback (Levin, et al., 2001) which:
· Moves online learning towards Laurillard’s (1998) conversational model,
· Provides an opportunity for the teacher to facilitate critical thinking strategies, and
· Gives the teacher an online voice and presence which can be more directed towards a guiding and mentoring role.

The use of the Group Learning Environments (GLE) (Gagnon, 2002) is also a crucial part of providing an effective online learning experience. The GLE allows the teacher to construct and coordinate the learning environments and learning activities, as well as provide rich environments for student-to student interaction (Levin et al., 2001). In turn, this enhances the development of the online community.

3. Learning Resources

Online materials and digital resources form an equally important part of the framework. Much online content currently reflects the traditional ‘sage on stage’ orientation and choosing and developing such content is seen by many teachers as the most important task to successfully create their online learning environment (Oliver, 2001). Expository content nonetheless, has a place in the online environment and should not be ignored nor denigrated. However, for those who are predisposed to a ‘guide on the side’ role, content in the online environment may eventually be regarded as but one of many resources available to the learner.

In the final analysis, the most effective online learning experiences will be those that build upon an easily understood framework, utilise research supported dimensions of effective online learning and reflect the skilled morphing of existing and successful F2F practices to the online learning environment.


Doolittle, P. (October 1999). Constructivism and Online Education. Fort Wayne, IN: Online Conference on Teaching Online in Higher Education. http://edpsychserver.ed.vt.edu/workshops/tohe1999/types.html. (Last accessed: 25 February 2004).

Gagnon, P. (2003). ‘Collaborative Learning Online: Setting the Stage’. CDTLink. Newsletter of the Centre for Development of Teaching and Learning. National University of Singapore. Vol. 7, No. 3. pp. 17 & 19. http://www.cdtl.nus.edu.sg/link/nov2003/learn4.htm. (Last accessed: 25 February 2004).

Johanssen, D.H. (31 January 2001). ‘Interview with elearningpost’. http://www.elearningpost.com/features/archives/002077.asp. (Last accessed: 25 February 2004).

Joy E.H. II & Garcia F.E. (2000). ‘Measuring Learning Effectiveness: A New Look at No-Significant Difference Findings’. JALN, Volume 4, Issue 1. http://www.aln.org/publications/jaln/v4n1/pdf/v4n1_joygarcia.pdf. (Last accessed: 25 February 2004).
Laurillard, D. (1998). ‘A conversational framework for individual learning applied to the learning organisation and the learning society’, Systems Research and Behavioural Science. http://www.hkwebsym.org.hk/2000/laur_cv.html. ( Last accessed: 2 April 2004)

Levin, S.; Waddoups, G.; Levin, J. & Buell, J. (2001). ‘Highly Interactive and Effective Online Learning Environments for Teacher Professional Development’. International Journal of Educational Technology. Vol. 2, No. 2. http://www.ao.uiuc.edu/ijet/v2n2/slevin/index.html. (Last accessed: 25 February 2004).

Martinez, M. & Bunderson, C.V. (2000). ‘Building Interactive World Wide Web (Web) Learning Environments to Match and Support Individual Learning Differences’. Journal of Interactive Learning Research, Vol. 11, No. 2. pp.163–195.

Oliver, R. (2001). Developing e-learning environments that support knowledge construction in higher education. In Stoney, S. & Burn, J. (Eds). Working for Excellence in the e-conomy. Churchlands: Australia, We-B Centre. pp. 407–416.

Reeves, T.C. (1993). Pseudoscience in computer-based instruction: The case of learner control research. Journal of Computer-Based Instruction, 20(2), 39-46.

Squire, L.R. & Kandel E.R. (1999). Memory: From Mind to Molecules. New York: Scientific American Library.


Where are we now?

Effective online learning currently sails upon a swirling sea of powerful waves. Accordingly, those who seek to design and deliver online material must understand the nature of these waves if the ship upon which they currently sail is to make the journey successfully. What then are these waves and how do they appear? One of the waves commanding considerable attention is known as the delivery model. It is deceptive for it can appear one moment as ‘blended learning’ and in the very same instant change to ‘fully online’. Another powerful wave is the audience. This is fickle for it can appear both as ‘desperate to learn’ or needing to be ‘seduced’. Yet another is the treacherous twins who have been known to founder many a good ship. Twin A builds on the debate surrounding the absence of strong theoretical foundations governing the application of computer based instruction and is called: Is the research pseudo-science (Reeves, 1993)? Twin B arises from the lack of well-designed media comparison studies to measure learning effectiveness and is known as: how effective is technology driven education (Joy & Garcia, 2000)? Finally, and perhaps more importantly, there are the serial waves which arrive steadily and are known variously as constructivist or discovery based orientation (Doolittle, 1999; Johanssen, 2001; Oliver 2001), the conversational framework (Laurillard, 1998) and/or the design must reflect the reality of learner differences or orientations (Martinez and al, 2000).

Given such a tumultuous sea, I advocate that the ship’s compass heading must be: ‘Good teaching is good teaching, be it in a Face-to-Face (F2F) or online environment’. Further, the ease with which the vessel known as ‘Effective Online Learning’ negotiates the contentious waves will be consonant with the ability of its crew of educators to morph good teaching practices to the online learning environment. And finally, that such morphing must occur within an easily understood framework, supported by recognised dimensions of effective online learning and teaching (Levin et al., 2001).

Rationale for Morphing

Education has consistently built upon what is known, both in its research and practice. What is not reflected however, is the acknowledgement that the transition to the online learning environment by most teachers will depend on the following critical factors:

  1. Teachers must have a solid understanding of the nature and function of the tools available, and
  2. Administrators must recognise and support teachers who build upon their successful classroom practices, be they expository or discovery driven.

Though the latter approach is preferred, it must be acknowledged that there is a place for both pedagogies. The merits of these positions are derived from long standing successful F2F practices which reflect solid empirical evidence related to the nature of learning.

What is worrisome is the current tendency to dismiss the early ventures of teachers into the online platform as inappropriate because such ventures tend to focus more on the content rather than the use of content. This may be true, but it is by building upon what one knows that one is able to venture more easily into the unknown.