Technology and the Changing Teaching and Learning Landscape
From the May 2003 AAHEBulletin.com
Growing up in a digital world has had a significant influence on how today's students learn. Pioneering faculty members and entrepreneurs working with technologists have been working for several years to meet the needs of this new breed of student by using the enabling power of information technology. The cumulative effect of this work is just now beginning to have a noticeable impact on the form and function of the teaching and learning landscape.
EDUCAUSE is a nonprofit association whose mission is to advance higher education by promoting the intelligent use of information technology. Through studies and focus sessions conducted by its National Learning Infrastructure Initiative (NLII), EDUCAUSE has identified patterns that reveal the changing teaching and learning landscape.
Students "Think Differently."
Students who take email, instant messaging, and seemingly unlimited online resources for granted have very specific needs and expectations from their learning environments. The digital world has had a significant impact on their cognitive functions. They expect to try things rather than hear about them. They tend to learn visually and socially. They are accustomed to using technology to organize and integrate knowledge.
When faced with passive learning experiences, these students are polite but bewildered, later disappointed, and often finally disillusioned and dispirited. It's not that these students don't know how to learn, of course. To quote a recent technology advertising campaign, they simply "think different."
Technology enables the design of learning situations that actively engage and guide learners while allowing them to choose the style of the learning experience and to organize the knowledge outcomes. This conceptualization of the learning environment helps us make the transition from learning in a physical space such as the classroom or the library, to learning in a student-centered learning environment in cyberspace.
Deeper learning is the goal of active, learner-centered practice that involves the interplay of technology and pedagogy. Colleen Carmean, a NLII 2002 fellow from Arizona State University-West, has mapped the learning space, based on learner-centered principles, i.e., active, contextual, social, engaging, and owned by the student, to show how technology promotes deeper learning. Read more about her work at www.educause.edu/nlii/keythemes.
The course is not the container; teaching "space" is not a physical place; personal does not mean "in person."
For most students, including those in traditional residential campus settings, formal education takes place within an intellectual and social context created and sustained by technology. These students often arrive on campus with expectations that conflict with their cognition. They expect the traditional classroom learning situation but they also need the stimulation, ability to socially construct knowledge, and immediate feedback enabled by technology.
Despite their traditional expectations, today's students perceive their learning environments as boundless. They tend to use physical space differently than prior generations and they blur the boundaries between physical and cyber space and between mine, yours, ours, and everyone's. This has immediate implications for campus architectural design and for all aspects of student services, not to mention policies related to the definition of a course and how ownership of learning is determined and assessed.
Because students expect to control when, where, how, and how fast they learn, they are motivating faculty members to change their methods of instruction and interaction. To students who have grown up in a digital world, personal, for example, means getting the attention of the faculty member, whether that is online, on the student's cell phone, or in person, and when the student needs it, not when the faculty member has office hours or comes to the classroom.
Students take the Internet for granted as their access to community. They naturally form their own learning communities because it is the way they test and process knowledge and, indeed, it is one way (but it should not be the only way) they learn discrimination and taste in selection of web-based sources.
Faculty and professional staff are increasingly using technology to create communities to foster the exchange of ideas, address difficult problems, and avoid intellectual or professional isolation. EDUCAUSE, for example, is piloting a series of such communities, which may be reviewed at www.educause.edu/vcop.
Course management systems include community-building tools as a pedagogical feature to engage students in group work that promotes student ownership of the learning environment and facilitates personal contact among students within the learning community. Descriptions of this and other requirements of next generation course management systems appear in the proceedings of the March 2003 National Learning Infrastructure Initiative focus session, available at www.educause.edu/nlii/meetings/nlii032.
An interesting discussion of the intellectual malaise that seems to afflict many students trapped in traditional learning settings has been taking place in the new academy virtual community of practice. A description of this virtual community and information about joining is available at www.educause.edu/vcop/newacademy.
Some misconstrue efforts to establish standards for software and hardware interoperability as being technically motivated constraints on individual pedagogy. However, standards efforts, such as the IMS Global Learning Consortium, have been motivated by the conviction that technical interoperability would be the crucial enabler of the transformation of teaching and learning.
Faculty members who are accustomed to using course management systems and learning objects to develop active, learner-centered pedagogy are now demanding greater freedom and flexibility in working with learning materials. They want it to be easy to share learning objects, to be able to collaborate with others for curriculum development - across courses and across institutions, and they want to take their work with them when the move to another institution. Standards generally flow from practice. Interoperability is necessary to make the new pedagogy affordable, supportable, portable, and robust.
Standards for interoperability provide a subtle but profound illustration of the pedagogical implications of technological choices. It is important to find ways to involve more teaching and learning practitioners and theorists in the standards and technical specification development efforts.
In conjunction with the AAHE, the NLII is working to coordinate face-to-face events (focus sessions) and develop environments, including virtual communities of practice such as the E-Portfolios community (E-PAC), where productive interactions can occur between tool-makers and tool-users.
Technology decisions are teaching and learning decisions.
There is growing recognition that decisions about technology on a campus are, ultimately, academic decisions, and ones that have an impact on valued and respected campus practices, interactions, and conventions. Considering technology in isolation from other campus variables leads to unrealistic expectations and simplistic answers to extremely complex challenges involving multiple interrelationships among issues, governance conventions, and key players.
Concerns about the real or imagined power of technology to distort priorities and alter relationships within the academy will only be ameliorated when academicians and technicians are able to communicate their mutual objectives. Standards offer an interesting example of successful communication.
Key campus decision makers also need to be sufficiently comfortable with technology to understand the implications and trades-offs in terms of overall institutional strategy, and to share ownership of the outcomes of technical decisions.
Support services need to be scaleable, sustainable, and grounded in principle.
Traditional support services, based on furnishing help to individual faculty members, are not scaleable and sustainable when the majority of faculty members seek assistance in revising their pedagogy. Few institutions can afford to hire a sufficient number of staff to meet an expectation of the one-on-one support that the pioneers in course redesign enjoyed. Alternative methods are required.
In addition to creating new organizational collaborations to leverage resources, some institutions are implementing online support systems, many of which are embedded in the campus learning management system. The University of Arizona, for example, has designed and is in the process of implementing the Module Organizer and Teaching Suggestor (MOATS), a knowledge-based system built around learning principles that provides online support to individual faculty members.
MOATS provides guidance in developing learner-centered practices across a variety of instructional technologies. Instead of teaching faculty members how to use technological features, MOATS focuses on the learning problem the faculty member wishes to address and then provides templates and uses case examples of how to employ the technology in accordance with the learning principle.
A mock-up of MOATS is available at www.ic.arizona.edu/~teachorg/. The University of Arizona developers are looking for collaborators to further their work and may be contacted through the website.
The manner in which support is built into learning management systems influences the choices faculty members perceive and make in developing their pedagogy. This is another example of the importance of finding ways for faculty members and technologists to collaborate productively in the development of technical specifications.
Surveying the New Landscape
Technology has permeated the academy to such an extent that institutional behavior occurs within a sociotechnological context, fundamentally altering the dynamics of a campus. The implication of the new teaching and learning landscape is that it is no longer possible to change at the margins because of the powerful interplay of technology, pedagogy, and behavior.
This new context demands more fluid, yet more responsive, organizational structures and conventions. Rigid funding models and budgetary practices inhibit the ability to thrive. The new context requires the alignment of planning and budgeting with the leadership rhetoric surrounding teaching and learning priorities at all levels throughout the institution.
New relationships form in this new sphere of behavior both from the introduction of new agents, such as knowledge management professionals, and as a result of the volatile nature of the new context. Those with the courage to flaunt convention have found the formation of coalitions, consortia, and other collaborations on and off campus to be a successful strategy to accomplish more than would be possible acting in accordance with the deeply held value of independence.
The motivation to engage the digital age learner is leading inexorably to the penetration of new, learner-centered practice. Although there remain cultural, philosophical, and policy barriers to the transformational change envisioned by some, the upheaval has begun. Understanding the forces at work in creating the new teaching and learning landscape is essential to guiding them.
An extended version of this article will be published in a forthcoming issue of EDUCAUSE Review.
Copyright © 2008 - American Association for Higher Education and Accreditation