Wednesday, June 11, 2003

Education in a Wider Context

I've been mired in writing an essay for my current course for the past week or so. The topic: how instructional designers determine, select and create learning materials as part of a sytematic approach to educational programme design (I can actually hear the sound of your eyes glazing over). I couldn't really care less about the topic because it's not particularly relevant to me right now, and I was struggling to string together 3,000 coherent words about it. But yesterday I had two epiphanies that helped me get over the hump.

The first was simple enough: determining content for an educational programme isn't all that different from the work I do in creating web sites or applications. Information architecture is about selecting, organizing (and sometimes creating, or assigning the creation of) content, and interaction design is a series of decisions about how people will access and use that content. Suddenly the middle 1,000 words of the essay wrote themselves. Now if only I can find some official-sounding references.

The second epiphany came while viewing Stephen Downes' latest powerpoint presentation about learning objects in a wider context. In the broadest definition, learning objects are chunks of content (usually digital) that may be used for instructional purposes. The dream has been that educators and instructional designers would have access to vast repositories of learning objects to combine in sequences for lessons, units, courses and programmes. One of the messages in Stephen's presentation is that although this is possible, it's probably not how things should be done. The old model is built on industrial-era assumptions about learning -- that the purpose of education is to get as many people to learn the same things at the same time and the same pace. This is enforced through curriculum, timetables and the (gasp!) design of programmes.

I was particularly interested in slides 18-21 -- he's talking about learning objects, but the undercurrent requires reframing the way education is "delivered" today. The fundamental shifts are in the role of the learner from passive to active, and the role of institutions/instructors from disseminators of information and credentials to facilitators of learning. It's constructivism and informal learning, extending the ways people are already using the web to learn -- providing them with what they need, when they need it, and even access to the people they need to communicate with.

Of course all of this flies in the face of the way most of us see education, which is a Good Thing, because most people aren't learning anything very meaningful from the formalized curricula we foist on everyone. When we realize that requiring students to learn the same things at the same time means that most of them disengage from the process, then we'll start to believe that it would be ok for individuals to learn entirely different things in completely different ways, because they'll actually be learning.

Highlights from Stephen's presentation:

Structure of the Language (slide 18)
-- Old: objects are placed in a sequence with (maybe) limited branching -- limited choices, need for uniformity, static, single focus
-- New: objects are placed in an environment -- multiple choices, room for diversity, dynamic, multiple points of focus

The Wider Context (slide 19)
-- Linear --> Multi-threaded
-- Content Delivery --> immersive, interactive
-- Static, paced --> dynamic, unpaced
-- Demonstration --> inference
-- Learning objectives --> learner goals
-- Motivation --> desire

Using Learning Objects (slide 20)
Old: static, paced
-- Objects are organized in a predetermined order -- the idea of succession
-- The delivery or invocation of objects is determined by time or sequence
-- This delivery is defined by an instructional designer or teacher

Using Learning Objects (slide 21)
New: dynamic, unpaced
-- objects are not ordered; each persists independently of the others
-- The delivery or invocation of objects is triggered by events
-- The use of learning objects is based on learner choices

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