Reflections on a teaching and learning festival


I recently attended the first Teaching and Learning Festival hosted on the campus of the University of South Africa (Unisa) from 1-9 September. Reflecting on the different keynotes and workshops, the following comes to mind

  • It can no longer be business as usual for teaching and learning in open, distance and e-learning contesxts. More than ever before the message repeatedly came through – we can no longer teach the way we have taught since the early 20th century. We are in the second decade of the 21st century and it is unethical, irresponsible and ineffective to teach in ways as if nothing has changed.There were fundamental shifts not only in pedagogy but also in how knowledge is created and shared. Knowledge has become less hiearchical and more distributed. The roles of educators and students have changed. More than ever before do I have a sense of urgency that we should rethink our assumptions about knowledge and learning.
  • While no one negates the fact that some of our students on the African continent have limited or no connectivity – our responsibility is to prepare students for a networked and fast-changing world. I have realised that we absolutely have to find ways to increase students (and faculty’s…) preparedness for a digital age. We have to find ways to lower the cost of connectivity for staff and our students. We have no choice. It is as if the ‘digital divide’ is holding us in its captive gaze and we are hypnotised and immobilsed. Our mantra has become “we can not” and “they don’t have”. What about a mantra “we should”? We must find ways.
  • The need for effective and integrated systems and processes  has never been greater.We can simply no longer afford to have inefficient, non-integrated and unresponsive systems. We cannot afford to compromise students’ chances on success by organisational inefficiences.
  • For many years faculty assumed the main role in teaching. Distributed learning models and networks make it increasingly impossible for faculty to independently develop curricula, implement these curricula and provide academic, affective and appropriate student support to students. We can no longer ignore the need to urgently relook the role of our tutors and especially the potential of tutors or adjunct faculty.
  • If 20% of students drop-out before the first assignment, there is enough evidence that proactive interventions from the side of the institution can make a huge difference. For many years we hid behind the fictive façade of the “autonomous” learner who must study independently. Hopefully by the time they graduate they should be more autonomous than they were when they regsitered for the first time. But surely the majority of them is anything but “autonomous” when they enroll for their first modules. Do we care?
  • What is higher education institutions in open, distance and e-learning contexts’ value proposition? Up to recently we saw our study guides as our main value proposition. But times have changed. The amount of information and open educational resources have increased exponentially. The quality of many of these open resources is of such a nature that we can simply not compete. What do we add to the learning experience? George Siemens (Athabasca University) stated unequivically that higher education’s value proposition is not necessarily its content, but our caring, our scaffolding, our assistance in wayfinding and sensemaking, our support and encouragement.If he is correct (and I have a strong suspician that he is), we need to seriously reconsider our assumptions about our content, our pedagogies, the scaffolding we provide and the ways we prepare our students for an unflat world. If we do not, we may find ourselves obsolete. A dinosaur.
  • Ormond Simpson (External Division, University of London) shared with us (amonst other things) three ‘types’ of staff in higher education – the Darwinistas, the Fatalistas and the Retentioneers. The Darwinistas see student success as a matter of the ‘survival of the fittest’. Those students who don’t survive higher education simply do not belong in higher education. The Fatalistas as a bit different by claiming that there is actually very little that we can do to increase student success. If students are underprepared for higher education when they register, there is not much we can do.Then there are the Retentioneers who believe that we can and should act to increase student success and retention.Open and distance education institutions have a fair share of all three of these types of staff. While the Darwinistas and the Fatalistas are most probably the most visible in some institutional forums, there are an increasing number of Retentioneers claiming equal if not more prominent footing.So the question that arises, is the following: How can we support those Retentioneers among faculty who are often in the minority or who often face dysfunctional and non-integrated systems and very critical and cynical senior staff?
  • According to George Siemens the amount of data that we (and our students) face on a daily basis exceeds the capacity of the human mind and our human social systems for making sense of it all. He also mooted the notion that the wealth of information creates a poverty of attention.This made me think of the amount of information we provide students in the midst of the data ‘noise’ they face from being increasingly connected.  We try to assist students with providing them with even more information, more tutorial letters, adding DVDs and discussion classes, and so forth. Is that the right way to go? Are we not adding to the ‘noise’?
  • Not only has the amount of data and information flows increased, the structure of data we encounter on a daily basis has changed. In the past data was hierarchical and structured while in the present day data has become distributed, unstructured, increasingly fragmented, contested and complex. We all have an increasing need for developing coherent frameworks to find our ways in and through these data flows. Such frameworks will orientate us to find out how data is connected, structured and related.Siemens again emphasised that our value proposition is not delivering content, but in what he called curatorial teaching where educators amplify, curate, help students to find their ways and find sense, aggregate, filter, model and provide a persistent caring presence.For so many years we have seen the main role of academics to produce content. Are we ready for new roles as curators of connections?
  • The team from the Beyond Distance Research Alliance at the University of Leicester provided excellent examples of how student success, satisfaction and retention could be improved through low cost, high impact strategies and interventions. They provided various examples of how better scafolded courses with podcasts and persistent presence by adjunct faculty can really make a huge difference in the lives of students (and in the lives of staff). Are we ready to get the basics right and explore low cost but high impact solutions or are we sold out to the costly, glamorous and large scale interventions?
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About opendistanceteachingandlearning

Research professor in Open Distance and E-Learning (ODeL) at the University of South Africa (Unisa). Interested in teaching and learning in networked and open distance and e-learning environments. I blog in my personal capacity and the views expressed in the blog does not reflect or represent the views of my employer, the University of South Africa (Unisa).
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