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Students can feel constrained by ways of communicating and learning that seem opaque and fixed because they are permeated with norms never made explicit, knowledge they do not share, or the language of others.

Janette Ryan and Rosemary Viete
Respectful interactions: learning with international students in the English-speaking academy.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Students (and teachers) as Creators of Knowledge with new Educational Technology

A reflection on Mike Neary's "Student as Producer: A Pedagogy for the avant-garde: or, how do revolutionary teachers teach?"

As a tertiary teacher I'm not quite sure why it took me so long to think about pedagogy. My excuse, as I've admitted to myself and others, is that I was not trained to be a teacher while studying for my Ph.D, and not many post-graduates who choose to, or are fortunate enough to remain in academia (depending on your point of view) are given the opportunity to formalise a teaching qualification while taking undergraduate classes on low pay, and further delaying submission day. But I'm thinking a lot about it now, especially as the tides of change have finally rolled in to the safe harbour of my place of employment, and past ways of teaching students seem to be on the way out. An article by McLoughlin and Lee, 2008, really raised my awareness of this issue. See references below.

This change was discomfiting, and is still as the changes are moving relatively slowly for some sections of the tertiary sector. I'm not particularly interested in engaging in a debate with myself about what I imagine my colleagues must think of this change, but would gladly have it with colleagues in person. What I'm interested in is affirming for myself an anchor point - something relatively stable which resides just outside the artifice of negotiating with the hard and soft skills of mastering new technology. This anchor point is the philosophy which shapes the educational experiences I design for my students: it is the pedagogy which guides the way I deliver a curriculum. Without this, all the workshops on effectively using the LMS, and integrating forum posts and online quizzes into classes are just so much hot, gusty, and irritating wind generated from who knows, and who cares where. Without a base of fundamental beliefs about the value of what is being taught, the winds of technological and social change can easily blow you off course.

The pedagogical approach which has most interest for me is constructivism. Students work on real world, open ended problems with the guidance of an instructor, and build original knowledge from the application of principles and theories to these problems. (I plan to look at this in more applied contexts soon). "Vygotsky argues that teaching begins from the student's experience in a particular social context. Pushing that notion to the extreme of it's radical logic, he suggests that the social context must be arranged by the teacher so that the student teaches themselves (sic)" (Neary). There is a progressive politics at the heart of Vygotsky's constructivism - one that "place(s) the student in the role of 'investigator who is out to establish a particular truth and whom the teacher only guides' " (Vygotsky, 1997).

The approach is empowering but on its own could be co-opted into a number of philosophical positions, including the pragmatic student-as-consumer position. Crudely expressed, from this position, if the subject material isn't directly useful for assisting students to pass their exams and be industry ready graduates then it is largely redundant. Deeper knowledge about the history of a discipline and the evolving patterns of its influences on the world, and the world's influence in it, can be sacrificed to the imperatives of feeding graduates into the "industry". Bypassing the opportunity to expose students to the (evolving and changing) philosophical roots, and the particular 'logic' of a discipline (Entwistle) is to send them into their futures under prepared, and potentially ill equipped to maintain themselves as responsive and responsible workers and world citizens.

Should idealism give way to pragmatism in the twenty-first century? Is it redundant idealism to consider that university should be an experience to shape citizens as much as it shapes workers? There is much written about the changing cultures of higher-education and the growing requirement for educators to meet students where they are assumed to be - firmly entrenched in Web 2.0 social networks and fluent in digital relations. But there is a tendency to read this powerful imperative as also consisting of a call to abandon pedagogy as a practical philosophy, and rely on the technology alone to function as a democratiser and a reliable inspiration for creative engagement. I think this alarmist, polarised reading is often made by those who are compelled to confront technological change, rather than having come to it by personal curiosity or sought after opportunity. Technology is not available to all, nor is it utilised wisely by all. There are still vital roles for educators in advancing pedagogy - one of the basic being an obligation to raise awareness of the larger social, environmental and political contexts in which students will eventually apply their learning as workers. Now more than ever - simply because it is now - the time is right for exposing students to the broader contexts which a critical pedagogy can make visible.

Mike Neary from the Centre for Educational Research and Development at the University of Lincoln, presents his centre's work on 'Student as Producer' as part of a pedagogy for the avant-garde derived from the work of Walter Benjamin and Lev Vygotsky. See article here. The kind of Avant-garde Marxism with which Benjamin advocated went beyond issues of means of production or a stated commitment to progressive social values. The way work was enacted and products produced should reflect 'the ways in which the social relations of capitalist society might be transformed' (Neary). Benjamin's work suggests to Neary that in education, students needed to be the subject, not the object, of instruction and learning. Intellectual labour - the production of knowledge - should not be confined to the instructor as imparter of wisdom, but part of the learning processes undertaken by students.

Vygotsky's approach to education briefly touched on above, is one of 'social learning' - where 'not only the individual student will be transformed, but ... the nature and character of the social will be remade' (Neary). Students must strive to push past the prescribed limits of set tasks and achieve more than their current educational levels seem to allow. This puts students in the position of being able to produce and collaborate in knowledge creation, not simply receive or consume. The ambition of the 'Student as producer' project is to disturb the business as usual approach to university teaching, and the average expectations which align with learning outcomes. Instead, an environment of 'open-ended' exploration and problem solving needs to be cultivated.

The broader vision Neary articulates in his paper - like Benjamin's and Vygotsky's visions - is potentially transformative and idealistic. It's not necessary for idealism to give way to pragmatism in this case, because idealism is pragmatic if it ultimately prevents social and environmental catastrophe. Yet perhaps without the institutional framework of a major philosophical project like Neary's, the ambitions of individual teachers or departments can further the philosophy but be rather less lofty. I started this commentary with the goal of trying to affirm for myself an anchor point from where I could negotiate the task of mastering new technology, and acclimatise to changing higher education cultures, without risking losing my sense of being valuable as an educator. The technology itself can ironically help with this goal, an idea which nicely mirrors, I think, Vygotsky's socially-embedded constructivism.

Learning happens within the social context, and today's social contexts are expanding in unexpected and rapid ways. However, knowledge about older ways of thinking and knowing are well documented, and also deeply embedded in the teaching ideologies of many university instructors. As tides shift, it's not necessary to abandon and devalue past ways of understanding the world, or the deeper historical roots of disciplinary knowledge. Rather, it should be considered as an important foundation upon which to build newer pedagogical approaches; or indeed older approaches if you recognise the early twentieth-century contexts of Benjamin's and Vygotsky's theories. It only requires a shift of perspective to see new technology and networked learning as an opportunity instead of a barrier.

The greatest opportunity I think new educational technology challenges offer educators is the chance to become learners once more, and model in their learning the constructivist principles they might want to cultivate in their students (McLoughlin and Lee, 2008). What better way is there to become aware of the mechanics of constructivism, than to participate in an ongoing group endeavour such as developing new learning activities, redesigning curriculum, and collaborating with colleagues to refresh course materials for the new learning environments technology involvement will require? I can't think of one. It's perfect.

Teachers with decades of experience probably don't want to go back to school and be lectured about how to teach, especially by someone with less experience. But they might, if they are inspired enough and can identify sufficient incentive, take responsibility for their own learning, and then feel motivated to share that learning with their colleagues. This is a necessary first step to precede involving students in similar constructive learning opportunities.

I'm planning to research the potential of this theory in 2011. Stay tuned for updates.

Entwistle, Noel. (2010) Teaching for Understanding at University. Deep Approaches and Distinctive Ways of Thinking. Palgrave Macmillan, London

McLoughlin, Catherine & Lee, Mark. J. W. 'The Three P's of Pedagogy for the Networked Society: Personalization, Participation, and Productivity.' International Journal of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education. 2008, Volume 20, Number 1, 10-27.

Neary, Mike. (2010) 'Student as Producer: A Pedagogy for the avant-garde: or, how do revolutionary teachers teach?' Learning Exchange, Vol 1, No 1 (2010)

Vygotsky, Lev. (1997) Education Psychology St Lucie Press, Boca Raton, Florida.

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  1. wow great post Jennifer i enjoyed reading every single of it thank you very much for all your efforts . happy new year .

  2. Thanks Med - it is gratifying to get feedback of such a positive nature. Thanks for being my first follower!! Happy New Year to you too.