Teaching Research without Learning Scholarship

Learning and Schooling
Learning and Schooling (Photo credit: colemama)

As I mature in the field of teaching and learning in HE (after 20 years at it, I think I can claim to have have matured a bit), I have decided that there is a world of difference between “research” into teaching and learning and the scholarship of learning. I have read and reviewed literally hundreds (no –  thousands) of papers, listened to conference presentations galore, and participated in too many workshops and seminars to count. I have sat through keynotes, youtubed talks, discussed with scholars, and blogged with you. With hindsight, I can say that most of the “research” in Teaching & Learning in HE lacks scholarship.

This is not to say that good research doesn’t take place, it does. What I am saying is that the bulk of what is called “research” in higher education is action research – I have a good idea, I try it, it works, and I write it up. There is no theoretical grounding, “it works” usually means that the students liked it, and writing it up is all about getting something on a CV for promotion. There are very few of the teaching and learning journals that have any noticeable impact, and when you read the articles, you can see why. A decade ago, I was at a teaching and learning conference, and I asked a friend, who also happened to be the conference organiser, where the rigour was in the “research” that was being presented? She shrugged and said “you bring some”. Talk after talk, paper after paper, the hallmark of excellence is “I surveyed my students at the end, and they liked it”. When did students liking a learning activity become the kite-mark of success in teaching and learning?

The scholarship of learning involves understanding how people learn. The scholarship of learning is a vast field, with a great deal already understood. What is lacking is the academic discipline required to find out what it says. Applying the scholarship of learning to teaching practise is hard work. It involved time, effort, and energy. Time, effort, and energy to understand the principles. Time, effort, and energy to figure out how to move from principles to practice. Time, effort, and energy to implement the practice. Time, effort, and energy to measure the outcomes (if the implementation was planned to even allow for robust measurement). Time, effort, and energy to communicate this to others.

PLE/PLN and learning theories
(Photo credit: Chris P Jobling)

Even parts of the process are important. I am well known for innovation in teaching and learning. I cannot think of an innovation that I have introduced in the classroom that has not had real, tangible, positive outcomes that demonstrate improvement in learning. That is because I have put in the time, effort, and energy to familiarise myself with the principles of learning, and then I look at a problem in the teaching and learning process and ask myself if there is a change that can be introduced that will improve the experience of the learner (not necessarily make it more fun). I familiarise myself with tools that are available,and ask myself if there is a tool that can be introduced that will make a difference. I then carefully introduce the tool to make a change.

I find myself becoming an advocate for the scholarship of learning. I would like the scholarship of learning to replace much of the teaching and learning research that is being currently carried out. I would like HE teachers to become familiar with the scholarship of learning, and then begin the process of applying that scholarship in a thoughtful and planned manner. That is when we will see a real difference in teaching and learning in HE.

Let’s return scholarship to a place of pride at the centre of what we do.

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Future Learn

I have refrained from writing about the OUs new MOOC platform, Future Learn, because of what I wrote about the OU in October. I honestly did think that the OU had the potential to be a real game changer in massive online learning world. I still believe that, but the announcement of Future Learn, and the UK partners in the venture was disappointing. I think that the OU has cheapened their teaching reputation amongst academics by selecting partners for their reputations (built on research) rather than selecting partners based on teaching expertise.

It was only a few years ago that these same institutions were belittling the the OU and teaching quality measures resulting from official quality inspections, because they didn’t come out as well as they thought they should.

I think Stephen Downes hit the nail on the head by saying that, in todays HE world, the best are those who are best marketed, and the quality of teaching isn’t really considered. The quality inspections for universities in place today are more about the paperwork, processes, and procedures than about the quality of teaching and learning, so it is difficult to do poorly. The teaching and learning strategies for most universities talk about widening participation, employability and internationalisation rather than teaching and learning. Teaching and learning in HE is becoming less and less about teaching and learning. So far, Future Learn is about impression rather than substance.

I still hope that the OU will use the institutional wisdom accumulated over the years to transform education in the digital world, but I find my faith flagging a bit.

Open Education

It has been a couple of weeks since Aaron Swartz died, and I have given his circumstances some thought. What a needless tragedy.

My understanding is that Aaron committed suicide as he faced almost certain imprisonment for posting academic journal articles outside of publishers paywalls. Articles that the producers of the knowledge gave away to corporate interests (in most cases) or large money hungry charities (learned societies etc.) for them to package, distribute, and then make obscene profits on as they sold them back to the academics who wrote them. Aaron Swartz moved some of that material out into the open, and was being prosecuted, to the fullest extent of the law, by the corporate interests who make the money.

When I was an undergraduate, I was working, one summer, in the lab of an academic at the University of Lethbridge, John Vokey. John had done some research into backward masking in musical recordings. As expected, he found that backward masking has no effect on people whatsoever – in spite of what popular culture would have you believe. He was called as an expert witness during the trial of a rock band that was being sued after two teenagers committed suicide after listening to a song being played over and over. The litigants wanted to sue the band on the grounds that the backward masking was a contributing factor in the deaths of the two young boys. The rock band didn’t end up being found guilty (but for the wrong reasons – and I can’t exactly remember what the reasons were). Anyway, I asked John how much being an expert witness in a case like that was worth. He then said something that has shaped my thinking ever since. He said that he hadn’t received anything, refusing payment on the grounds that he had already been paid by society to pursue the knowledge in the first place, and so he felt that it was morally wrong to be paid again, by members of society, for something that he had already been paid for.

That thinking has shaped my approach to the ownership of things that I produce here at the University. I am being paid to produce things, and I can see no moral justification for me withholding what I produce from others. I believe that creative commons copyright protection that ensures I receive attributional rights to my work is enough. I oppose the use of my work being used by others for commercial gain, but have no fear of losing something by having others use it. No one can steal my ideas, because they will always be my ideas. I have avoided publishing in commercial journals as much as possible, and that has had a detrimental effect on my career, but I still have a job that pays me well enough to pursue my interests, and that is enough.

The resources that I produce for learning are open and available to others to use.

Aaron Swartz need not have died in vain. All of us can open up our resources to others. We can stop using commercial, or fat charities for publication and seek other avenues. We can build models that allow for free use and distribution without the threat of piracy hanging over our heads.

The question really is, does anyone care enough?

Learning in HE

Audrey Watters tells us that learning is a verb and not a noun. I agree. For too long, learning has been treated by educationalists as a thing rather than a process. Tony Bates reminds us that learning involves cognitive, personal and social development. Learning is, according to Clark Quinn, strengthening associations between patterns in the brain. Learning, when it is expanded to include within its scope knowledge, understanding, synthesis, and creativity, is about the building and strengthening connections between neurones and networks in the brain. It involves the contextualising of information in the memory, language, emotional, executive and social systems in the brain. The process of contextualising means that we make new connections, strengthen existing connections, and enrich our internal representation of the world. It is all about networking.

When information was scarce and the world was slower, the learning process had built in time for the contextualisation of information. Discussion and debate were an integral part of learning. The content base of a subject was kept manageable, and good students integrated the information they were given into their cognitive, personal and social experience; the information was contextualised.

With the rise in the value of information, and the subsequent increase in the availability and value of a qualification form a HE institution, the efficiency gains necessary to deal with the massive increase in student numbers without the proportionate increase in the resources needed to keep the experience the same has had a profound impact on how students see education.

For many of our students today, getting an education is about getting a qualification. The learning is incidental to the process. Cramming, the memorisation of large amounts of information in a short space of time for the purposes of passing an exam, works. Cramming has become the normal behaviour for students in HE today. With large numbers of students, ever increasing amounts of content to learn, compartmentalisation of subject areas through modularisation, and pressures of time (working students and shorter study times), the system is all about cramming for a qualification. This doesn’t mean that our students don’t occasionally find something that catches their attention, and they delve deeper to understand it, but that is the exception rather than the rule.

Qualifications, content and cramming define our current higher educational system. We ask students to memorise what we already know, and then regurgitate it for qualifications. Is it any wonder that the unwritten social contract between our learning institutions and society in general are breaking down (Donald Clark’s Fail 1)? Is it any wonder that lecturers and administrators in HE today feel uneasy? Is it any wonder that HE graduates leave disillusioned and cynical?

When are we going to move to a symbiotic learning/education relationship? When are we going to reintroduce contextualisation as the primary goal of learning in HE? When is our fixation with content going to transmute into a fostering of understanding?

We live in a different world where the tools and the understanding is there for us to do it now. We need more than just a few champions to change the system, but we have to start with what we have. Keep working – the future can be as bright as we make it.