During training to become a school teacher I became interested in the emerging use of Virtual Learning Environments (VLEs). During this course teaching at a distance became an important issue. The two questions that have preoccupied my mind are:
- Is a teacher required to be present for quality learning to take place?
- Is it possible to accurately assess learners remotely?
When implementing my case study project these questions helped me design the learning activity but I remain uncomfortable with the results. Below I will explain my cause for concern and where I currently am in seeking answers.
There is a demand from learners to be able to learn when and where they like, fuelled by the increasing ownership of personal technologies and incorporation of web 2.0 into their daily lives (JISC, 2009). I have been on the learner side of this as someone who has ubiquitous access to technology, a fragmented and full calendar and a desire to learn in ‘spare moments’. I get frustrated when handouts are not electronic and lectures are scripted monologues that could have been videoed. Conversely I have learnt through MOOCs while walking to work. Allowing learners greater control over when and how they learn is a motivator (JISC, 2009). Not only do learners feel empowered but their energy and time can be spent on things they find difficult or interesting.
Unfortunately this demand is being countered by a resistant faculty. Research and experience suggests that there are staff who will go out of their way to avoid using technology - mainly because they resist the change from existing practices (Greener, 2010). Aside from human nature Greener attributes this to teachers who see technology adoption as time consuming and devaluing to their profession. The new world of teaching requires they learn new communication skills to engage with their learners. The adoption of new technology, both inside and outside the classroom, is ‘dramatically changing the communication patterns and relationships between learners and the faculty’ (Boettcher, 2007). However, even if all teachers were techno-gurus there remains a very genuine pedagogical fear that use of VLEs may prematurely end the educational transaction rather than facilitate it - Knox (2012) suggests this is the case if educators view themselves as simply content deliverers. This is something that I think we must avoid. "Any teacher who can be replaced by a machine should be" (Clarke, 1980) - teaching is not just filling empty vessels but is much more engaged and much more human.
How can I resolve this tension between learners wanting the flexibility of teacher absence and teachers either not knowing how to be absent or not thinking it wise?
Contrary to popular interpretation of the success of MOOCs, learners’ demand for increased availability of resources includes access to teachers. Rather than discarding teachers in favour of ‘always on’ content, learners place great importance on face-to-face time with teachers (JISC, 2009). They are misunderstood if their desire for online learning is interpreted as only wishing to learn from computers.
Teachers seem to instinctively recognise that technology must be used to ‘enhance the quality of the face-to-face’ rather than replace it (Hayward in JISC, 2009, p43). The OU has for years integrated human support into their online courses - something that may have been forgotten by some in the present rush to adopt VLEs/MOOCs (Barfield, 2012) but many are now moving towards social learning methodologies.
Teaching is a dialogue (Laurillard, 1997). It would seem impossible then to remove the teacher. However, a dialogue does not necessitate that the teacher is physically present but merely that they preempt the learners misconceptions and questions. It is possible to learn just by reading books, for example. I think this limits learning though and effective learning requires continuous feedback. Laurillard suggests learners need to know why a topic is important. While superficial guidance can be given on this in a passive manner, true guidance relies on a feedback loop. A teacher needs to know if a learner has grasped the importance of a topic - and if they have not then the teacher must try something different. While a teacher’s presence is not necessary for learning I think it is key for effective learning - even if this presence is virtual.
Technology has been ascribed many seemingly magical powers but teaching is not one that stands up to scrutiny. Laurillard (1997) says that a computer that teaches must, among other things, interpret student performance. This they cannot do. In limited circumstances they may assess, mark and quantify student performance but they simply cannot interpret it. Why did the learner get a question wrong? Does the learner understand a concept but is struggling to express that understanding? These are things no one has made a computer do. To answer these questions a teacher must combine subject knowledge; knowledge of education theory; experience with previous students; previous experiences with this student; interpretation of body language, tone of voice and idioms; and the ability to interact with the student. Computer feedback can play a role in learning but good learning will always require the intervention of a teacher skilled in humanity.
My current conclusion is that teacher presence is always needed for good learning - the challenge ahead is bringing that presence at scale and on-demand.
A problem I came across in my project was how to assess learners programatically. I have planned a formative assessment module for the app but this fully relies on self-assessment - which presumes self-awareness. The concept of formative assessment is built upon the understanding that learners are not self-aware until they have been tested.
So why not get the app to actually assess learners directly? Why the need for self-assessment? Computers struggle to test higher order skills because ‘it is not possible to demonstrate the thought processes that lie behind an answer’ to a computer (Jacobson & Kremer, in BECTA, 2007, p23). The feedback they provide is also limited as they only have pre-programmed responses. A teacher can draw on a lifetime of experiences, knowledge and the attributes of teachers listed above to provide effective feedback.
When assessing at a distance it is very difficult to monitor cheating in tests (BECTA, 2007; Gillespie, Boulton, Hramiak and Williamson, 2007). Putting aside the issues of authenticating learner identity and plagiarism there remains the problem of looking up test answers. With the very same technology being used to assess, learners can also find test answers. This may not be direct plagiarism but ‘just-in-time learning’ (JIT-learning) where they only learn what is tested, during the assessment and that learning is not internalised for later recall. Many MOOCs can easily be passed this way, devaluing their accreditation. Some people say that in a world of ubiquitous Google access JIT-learning is more valuable. I agree JIT-learning is a highly valuable and transferable skill but if a learner is to connect concepts those concepts must reside within their head. JIT-learning is calling a tomato a fruit; deep learning is being able to write a song about its sadness at exclusion from fruit salads. Deep learning is achieved by immersion in a problem domain over a period of time so the learner is marinated in the knowledge, skills and problems of the topic. The learner must be challenged and overcome that challenge - or come to a realisation that they can’t.
So is it ever possible to assess without the direct intervention of a teacher?
Putting aside assessment for accreditation and focusing on learning for the direct benefit of the learner we can assume some level of honesty. They will not cheat as they would only be cheating themselves. Can we then assume learners are capable of recognising their own level of ability? Salmon’s five stage model of e-learning does not have a step for organised assessment (2000) but assumes learning will still happen. Assessment is no longer a distinct pedagogical unit and is replaced by continual realisation. By making learners’ thinking visible through creating, talking, writing, explaining, analysing, judging and inquiring activities, learners will become aware of their own level of understanding (Boettcher, 2007). Assessment in this sense is not about rewarding the right and punishing the wrong (as often viewed by learners) but is about exploration and immersion in a subject domain. In self assessment learners are not quantifying themselves - they are discovering themselves.
The next step is to provide the correct task to further their learning. This is the hardest part for computers to do. Self-assembling quizzes can be made that react to learner ability (Ryan, Scott, Freeman and Patel, 2000) but these can never respond effectively to the emotions, world-view and background of a learner in the way a teacher can. The learners need guiding on their journey. Without formal assessment teachers need to form relationships with learners as a group to gauge their current location. Only then can they point to the next landmark.
While self-assessment can be liberating for teaching and learning what about accreditation? If we can only self-assess relying on learner honesty how can we grant qualifications? While as a teacher I can be content with learning for the betterment of the learner, as a learner I must be able to prove myself to employers.
I do not think that we need to (summatively) assess anymore. I think qualifications as we know them will disappear in the next fifty years. In fact, I think by having assessment as the end goal of curriculum design we are progressively damaging our education system by teaching to the test and even coercing teachers into manipulating grades. Teaching and learning has moved on with the grass roots focus on formative assessment but employers need to put less trust in paper. Recruitment must change to authentically running the candidate through their paces instead of blind trust in the administrator who stamped a degree certificate. The MOOC revolution may be the push they need. The CV of job applicants in fifty years may not be a list of qualifications but a list of projects and group experiences. Job interviews will not be a list of summative assessment questions but authentic problems to solve.
- Barfield, T. (2012) ‘This game is wide open’ in Times Higher Education, 1st November 2012
- BECTA (2007) ʻA Review of the Research Literature on the Use of Managed Learning Environments and Virtual Learning Environments in Education, and a Consideration of the Implications for Schools in the United Kingdomʼ (Online article). Available at http:// research.becta.org.uk/upload-dir/downloads/page_documents/research/VLE_report.pdf Accessed 24 October 2010
- Boettcher, J. (2007) ‘Ten Core Principles for Designing Effective Learning Environments: Insights from Brain Research and Pedagogical Theory’ (Online article). Available at: http://www.innovateonline.info/index.php?view=article&id=54 Accessed 9 October 2012
- Clarke, A. C. (1980) Omni Magazine: Electronic Tutors, Retrieved from https://archive.org/stream/omni-magazine-1980-06/OMNI_1980_06_djvu.txt
- Gillespie, H., Boulton, H., Hramiak, A. and Williamson, R. (2007) ‘Learning and Teaching with Virtual Learning Environments’, Exeter, Learning Matters Ltd
- Greener, S. (2010) Staff who say no to Technology Enhanced Learning, International Conference on e-Learning: 2010, p134
- JISC (2009) ‘Effective Practice in a Digital Age: A guide to technology-enhanced learning and teaching’ (Online article). Available at: http://www.jisc.ac.uk/media/documents/publications/effectivepracticedigitalage.pdf Accessed 24 September 2012
- Knox, J. (2012) 'Open to question' in Times Higher Education, 1st November 2012
- Laurillard, D. (1997) Rethinking University Teaching: A framework for the effective use of educational technology, New York, Routledge
- Ryan, S., Scott, B., Freeman, H. & Patel, D. (2000) ʻThe Virtual University: The Internet and Resource-Based Learningʼ, London, Kogan Page Limited
- Salmon, G. (2000) E-moderating, London, Kogan Page