From exposition to enabling participation: the OU’s learning journey.

Prof Andy Northedge – Inaugural lecture. Liveblog 7 April 2009.

Starting question: Is an OU educationist any help?

What do we know about HE teaching and learning? Literature scanty compared to schools – especially when he started. How can teaching work at a distance? Many fundamental questions addressed by early course teams.  Teaching and learning acts separate, disconnect in feedback loop.

OU as an extraordinary test-bed for educational ideas – very new thing for academics to discuss teaching with each other: forced a discourse of practice. Also discipline of the market. (Stats a hard sell particularly.) So have to worry about whether students want to learn what you’re trying to teach – again a new thing. Students could walk away. Concretisation/reification of teaching, replication possible.

How has pedagogic thinking moved on in 40 years? (OU 40 years.)

D100: Unit 1 – starting with the fundamentals of human nature. Unit has its own purpose, to consider – i.e. exposition. Question ‘Why does man live in society’ – not a burning one for students. “I’m afraid the outcome is going to be pretty unsatisfactorey, but what can I do? You’ll just have to make allowances” – aim at academic peer audience? Start with broad, abstract theoretical foundations.

DD100 – crime – starts with ‘Tales of Fear and Fascination’ – consciously stylish and intriguing. No preamble, straight in to concrete direct questions. Student addressed in second person ‘you will look’ vs ‘it will consider’. Activity right up front. Colloquialisms. How are we – joint project – going to answer interesting questions. Work from your personal experience, ‘have a go’. Challenge to everyday assumptions. – teaching as supporting participation in meaningful, active dialogue.

1969: HE teaching largely unexplored, unquestioned. Hard to research tuition and counselling. Little theory applied.

Four models then extant.

Apprentice-scholar (Oxbridge tutorial) model. Teaching recommends texts, sets & marks tutorials, lectures are incidental. Teacher guide to lit, taskmaster, critic. Presumes well-schooled intake.

Lecture-centred model. Teacher as key knowledge source – must have sound, up-to-date discipline knowledge, select/synthesie/organise it, transmit by speaking with visual aids. Fear of not knowing enough as teacher. Teaching as tealling/explaining. Unproblematic, poor learning is poor attention. OU units as lectures-in-print – conventional lectures much criticised.

Constructivist model (Piaget, Bruner roots). Learning as active, exploratory, constructive process. Teacher provides conceptual dilemmas, scaffolding – not explanation. OU case material and activities. BUT which concepts are to be constructed? How do you know when they’re constructed well enough? Must students recapitulate history of discipline’s discoveries? (long process!)

Radical student-centred model. Real learning grows from within. Students pursue own agendas with supportive peer group. Learning within group process, teacher as facilitator.  (Stuart Hall lecture at summer school – students said was the best thing ever, changed everything – but couldn’t tell you what it was they’d learned.) One Technology, art and design course (TADxxx) was like this … but only one.

All used with claims of success. Not contradictory is we view learning as a multi-faceted sociocultural process : learning is becoming immersed in the ways of thinking, discoursing, doing – of a ‘knowledge community’ (i.e. discipline). Knowledge is what is shared within discourse, within a textual community – Bruner 1996.

Aspects of HE teaching and learning – Intellectual cognitive vs personal/social aspects; (one axis), outer aspects (discipline) vs inner aspects (within mental/social being of student.) Lecture – outer/intellectual. Apprentice – personal/outer. Constructivist – intellectual/inner. Radically student-centred – personal/inner. Good teaching makes all these happens.

Sociocultural account of learning – specialist discourse of a knowledge community. Different levels and modes of participation in a specialist discourse: Vicarious participation vs generative. [Link to generative internet stuff here – note to self: follow this up!] Peripheral vs central forums (radio tx vs specialist conference). Idiosyncratic vs convergent usages. Outsider identity vs insider identity.  Learning is progress on these 4, gaining intellectual and social power.

Learning is a fuzzy process. Can’t pinpoint it as it happens, recognise it in retrospect. This allows OU courses to be open entry and modular.  Can’t all be learning the same concepts, but all progress in ability to engage with the discourse. (Anecdote about reading a passage on causal relationships as casual relationships … and the students more-or-less made sense of it.)

Learning is the unwilled by-product of meaningful participation in discourse of a knowledge community. In the process, your mental organisation shifts and becomes increasingly congruous with discipline. Metaphor not storage of lumps, but invisible shifting of sandbanks in a tidal estuary. Teaching is mainly enabling participation in specialist discourse.

Map of unit difficulty perceived – highly variable on D101, but ‘too difficult’ usually over 50%. D102 starkly different results – all ‘about right’, >80% – because consistent narrative.

Socio-cultural model now: in K101 online project. Teaching number skills. In discursive subjects, students skip numbers stuff. Give little time, learn very little. Sociocultural model – Inversion of standard approach: have a go at a question, then get involved in the discourse.

Also need to help students learn to engage generatively – TMAs! But for another time.

Enabling LPP is what OU CTs have learned to do in last 40y!


Author: dougclow

Academic in the Institute of Educational Technology, the Open University, UK. Interested in technology-enhanced learning and learning analytics.