Friday, June 11, 2010

The problem of control in education

I attended TTIX 2010 yesterday at the University of Utah.  TTIX (Teaching with Technology Idea Exchange) brings together instructional designers, technology specialists, and educators interested in the use of technology.  In her the keynote address, Nancy White explored the question "Should we use communities in learning?"  While there wasn't much argument that we should not, Nancy did present an interesting paradigm for thinking about the ways in which learning occurs.  She thought about it as an issue of "me, we, and the networks."  Or, more simply, we can learn individually, in small groups, or as part of a much broader network.  

We see individual and small-group learning at work every day in higher education.  But, real networked learning that extends outside of campus seems to be missing from most universities.  Of course, students often have their own personal learning networks, but these networks generally live outside of what they perceive as their school experience.  Students do one sort of learning in class, in the library, and with project groups.  They do another type of learning "outside of school," learning that is largely separated from their course work.  This seems problematic to me for at least two reasons.  First, formalized "school learning" should be authentic and connected to students' interests.  Second, if we really believe that higher education should produce life-long learners, campuses should help students begin to build and use a personal learning network that includes people, media, web resources, organizations, etc.  While some of those elements will be available on a college campus, it is either arrogant, naive, or both to think that a single college campus can connect students to all of the resources they will need for a rich learning network.  In short, there are times when we need to get students off-campus and encourage them to do their learning there.  And, this learning needs to have meaningful connections to what they are doing on campus as part of formal university programs.

Our problem in higher ed is that we want to exert control over students.  We want to tell them what they can learn and when they can learn it (the standard course model); we want to create closed learning management systems (e.g. Blackboard &Brain Honey) that allow us to monitor student learning and keep out "intruders;" and we tell them what their learning goals will be (graduation requirements).  Universities, by their very nature, will always have some level of structure and exert some level of control over students--I've come to accept that fact as unavoidable.  However, why couldn't our institutions help students identify their own learning goals, build their own personal learning networks, and then find ways to connect that learning to university coursework (or internships, captstone experiences, field studies, service learning, etc.)?  

We often wonder why students aren't motivated to do the sorts of deep learning that we would hope to see at the university level?  But, we can't be too surprised, given the fact that we removed most of a student's autonomy.  If students don't have some choice in structuring their learning (and selecting from a list of courses to take is a poor excuse for "choice"), they will rarely be motivated to learn deeply (see this TED talk by Dan Pink for more on this idea or this condensed version of his ideas; his newest book, Drive is also a good read) .

What we need in higher education is more boundaryless, fuzzy, relationship-based learning that doesn't begin and end at the semester.  The traditional course model might not ever go away, but why couldn't there be an overarching learning process that is overlaid on top of courses?  The type of learning that is motivating, inspiring, and that will likely last well beyond graduation?  

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