Friday, March 27, 2020

From anytime, anywhere, to all the time, everywhere

Many years ago (2001 in fact) I read a very insightful piece by Phil Agre: Welcome to the Always-On World. This piece has been on my mind of late as the world transitions into remote work. I am reminded of something a student once said - or rather posted in an online course I was teaching back in 2003 or so (in which I was referencing the above article). We were discussing the pros and cons about online learning, and talking about the phrase being bandied about then of the Internet enabling learning anytime, anywhere. This student said online learning is more like all the time, everywhere. 

While we all realize that working from home brings its own challenges - not to mention that it has amplified issues of accessibility, access and broader digital literacy - we are all realizing that it is important to have some boundaries, mostly time-based, but habitual as well. And in many respects learning all the time everywhere is what we do anyway. It is an apt representation of what we now call experiential learning. What the Internet adds is the connection to wider communities - communities of learning, communities of interest, and communities of practice. We are all engaging in some form of "legitimate peripheral participation" in which learning happens with our peers.

For those of us in post-secondary education making a wholesale transition into more online learning, as much to enable students to salvage current semesters as to scaffold the current reality into the new normal. In making this transition we have to recognize that not everything can be taught online, but we can - and we should - leverage the wider capabilities that online learning affords in order to support skills development and digital literacy more broadly.

This means we need to engage the cognitive, affective and psychomotor learning modalities, to help learners move from head, to heart to hand - to link thinking, with doing, and to do so with care.

I've been working on updating a model of flexible learning developed via research on this topic over the past couple of decades.

Diagram showing a circular model of flexible learning, connecting the conspicuous contribution of the academic enterprise with community learning and in situ making.

Monday, March 23, 2020

The skills that are in high demand are those most difficult to teach online

Global pandemic planning has led to emphasis on online learning to ensure that students can continue to learn and finish the current term. But maker skills, which are now more than ever in demand, are the most difficult to teach online. This conundrum underlies the transition to a new, social-distancing normal.

The current crisis has amplified a downside of globalization: the interconnectivity of market production has for the past several decades led to the hollowing out of manufacturing capability. Since the early years of the last decade there have been calls for and moves toward a reshoring of manufacturing--largely a result of a lack of jobs and the social risks of insufficient employment for large swathes of the population. This in turn has led to a commensurate focus on the skills and competencies associated with being able to build and make things. And herein lies the main irony of where we are in education: the skills that are in high demand are those most difficult to teach online.

As the global community starts to grasp the magnitude of the challenges we are collectively facing those of us in universities and colleges are starting to plan for unknown event horizons, including when to restart in-person instruction. While it is not feasible to think that whole societies can remain in socially distant quasi-isolation indefinitely, we are witnessing a wholesale move towards more online, distributed, or flexible teaching and learning. This means thinking through how we can translate educational outcomes adapted for distributed teaching and learning. It also means figuring how we might prioritize programming to account for and accommodate those whose programs have been disrupted. We'll need to work out the best means to stage online back into in-person engagements, and to adapt in situ learning to the inevitable new guidelines or rules around social distancing.

Throughout this it occurs to me that those same goals of globalization--of distributing the means of production to lower cost regions--has led to precisely some of the problems we face in online education. Everything from engineering to design to health care will have to adapt in the short term, which may lead to positive changes over the long term. Now is the time to focus on how effective pedagogy can drive the use of any technology, and to heed the decades of research into teaching and learning, particularly as mediated through technologies like the Internet.