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Reflections Week Nine: Engagement and Experience

I have been in conversation with that Dave Cormier, I found myself on a recent walk out in the countryside near where I live looking around and saying to myself “that’s a rhizome, and that’s a rhizome, and that’s a rhizome…” But also I have been working with colleagues around thinking about education visions (yes plural) for 10 years hence. And in conversation with Cormier you will be unsurprised to read that one of the principles we thought about, that should be at the heart of a vision, is:

The value in education comes through engagement and experience. Content loses its primary place of importance in an age of information abundance; learning is a collaborative and social endeavour.

Peter Bryant flagged an article for me this week in Educause Review. It looks at online learning and where we are now. There is an excellent quote in there that spoke to my own feelings around people who keep referring to “Our online pivot”.

The authors contrast “emergency remote teaching (ERT)” (our current provision) with     experiences that are planned from the beginning and designed to be online. They point out right now the purpose is not to “re-create a robust educational ecosystem but rather to provide temporary access to instruction and instructional supports” in a time of crisis. And they argue that this is essential, so that we can divorce what is happening now from “online learning”. It’s a good article by Charles Hodges, Stephanie Moore, Barb Lockee, Torrey Trust and Aaron Bond.

We have stories of many students without their own laptops, of shared devices, of having no wifi, and many other access issues. There is a large cohort of students out there who, no matter what “Pivot Rhetoric” you are pushing, can not engage in their education. And I will do harm to the next learning tech who tells me that their students can access Moodle on a phone. In fact if that is an answer, then you should be made to do your whole job on a phone for a year and see how it feels.

By and large (and there are exceptions) when we look at the rhetoric of “Pivot to online” we find that those who are hailing its “success” are really only looking at the surface of the move – and the metrics around that success are vastly simplified. When you dig into some of these responses you see that a lot of success is judged by things like “we got our content online”. And more importantly the success of the “pivot” is judged from the institutional, the “transmission”, perspective.

I have been lucky to speak to several lecturers over the past few weeks, and asked them about how do you think students are coping. One indicative response said they are coping really well, and engaging with the material. But only those that are engaging are able to be judged, and a large number of students haven’t engaged at all, and the academic was very concerned about those. (That academic was also worried about peers that hadn’t been visible since lockdown).

Other lecturers and learning technologists are telling us that they are seeing that students are downloading the materials – we have the analytics….

One lecturer told us about how they were trying to get engagement going online with groups of students; they also referenced a fieldcourse that happens in semester 1 of the students second year. I know a little bit about virtual fieldwork (and all of its problems) and I mentioned it to the lecturer as an option at the end of our conversation. They said content isn’t the problem, fieldwork is so much more than the obvious learning outcomes associated with the discipline, it’s about learning as a group, social aspects of learning and many other things.

This is one of the things we have lost in the “Pivot”, perhaps in part a result of the misconceptions that people without experience educating in digital places thinking that digital education is just content delivery. Sheila MacNeil referenced this aspect recently, asking questions around where people are engaging or participating, and asking people to look at our learning design.

Two things are on my mind from this week, the first:

The value in education comes through engagement and experience. Content loses its primary place of importance in an age of information abundance; learning is a collaborative and social endeavour.

But I am also beginning to realise that the post pandemic higher education landscape might end up littered with disappointment and despair at what many students will have experienced as “online learning” because the EdTech sector’s rhetoric of an online pivot was focused on “getting material online” rather than “are they engaged”. There are good things happening out there, but the rhetoric of “we can’t go back” or “the online genie is out of the bottle” is nonsense. If we want to move forward, then yes, we will learn lessons from this “emergency remote teaching” experience. But we must also look to first principles of pedagogy. The technology is easy (probably) – we have shown that. But good learning design takes a lot of work, and we must rethink a lot of what we do.

We refer to teaching and learning, or learning and teaching almost automatically in our education conversations. But, now more than ever we need to think about those two sides of the coin – we need to think about engagement, and in the pandemic we need to look for those we can not see. For those who may be stuck in the briar patch.

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