In this week’s MOOC, the focus is on authentic learning. Jan Herrington provides very insightful pointers to her understanding of authentic learning (which differs from may other notions regarding authentic learning).
Let me immediately state that her proposal makes a lot of sense to me and I found her videos and explanations insightful.
Looking at the amount of articles that she has written on the subject, I felt both overwhelmed and somewhat angry. Overwhelmed at the sheer volume of research and angry at myself that I just don’t have the time to engage with most of her research. Every week during this MOOC I encounter a new focus which sets me on a wild Google-chase amidst balancing work/life and end-of-the-year-tiredness.
According to Herrington, authentic learning consists of nine elements namely:
- Authentic context
- Authentic activity
- Expert performances
- Multiple perspectives
- Coaching and scaffolding
- Authentic assessment
Before I attempt to make sense of these within the context of a huge open distance learning provider on the African continent, let me share a recent experience with you.
Recently I was part of an interdisciplinary course development team which designed a foundational module with the broad focus of “Engaging with society”. The project was one of the first interdisciplinary offerings and were developed from the following disciplines: sociology, anthropology, archaeology, history, political science and development studies. The course development team developed a curriculum for a cohort of students who would have comprised of 95% black students of which the majority of students would have been female. The student enrolment would furthermore have come from a range of rural and urban settings with most students in the age group of 25-35.
The plot is about to thicken…
Around the table were academic experts of both genders but all of them white… (don’t go away, the plot thickens even further).
Each of the academics representing the different disciplines put forward “content” that they felt was important. This resulted in an interesting and at-times deeply frustrating experience as all of them jostled for “content space” in the 16-week semester. From all the participating disciplines and individual academics (each with their different hobby horses and claims to fame) there were an unlimited number of options and possible foci to cover (and uncover). This resulted in the first number of meetings giving new meaning to “the curriculum as contested space” (Prinsloo 2006).
At a follow-up meeting where we attempted to finalise the “content”, one white male academic proposed: “We should definitely include something about gangs”. Immediately I asked “why?” to which the academic replied “Because it is important for them”.
Let me immediately acknowledge that I had and still don’t have any doubt about the academic and personal integrity of the academic members of the team – they were all very committed and honest in their attempt to design an authentic learning journey that will empower students to “engage with society”.
So what was wrong with the wish to “include something about gangs”?
I suspect there were two major issues at stake, namely the somewhat untenable position of a group of white academics designing a curriculum for 95% black students on how to engage with a society of which the team had no idea about; and the somewhat arrogant claim that gangs are important to them.
Which brings me to Herrington’s proposal for “authentic learning”.
While residential lecturers have the luxury of seeing and knowing their students (I assume) in classroom interactions, open distance learning institutions never “see” their students – and open distance learning (ODL) institutions have to rely on up-to-date student profile data and learning analytics to get to know our students. Add to this that many of our foundational courses (modules) have more than 15,000 students per 16-week semester with relatively limited Internet access; then the issues Herrington raises such as “collaboration”, “coaching and scaffolding”, “authentic assessment” and “authentic activities” are real challenges.
With the digital divide slowly disappearing; mobile and online learning will soon create huge possibilities and opportunities for more authentic learning design in a 16-week semester. However, my main concern is that for authentic learning to become a reality, course design teams will really have to take student profiles and student contexts much more seriously.
While “gangs” may be a very interesting and depending on the context, be an authentic focus; I suspect that in the example above (taking into account the student profile) – that a focus on “gangs” would have been not only inauthentic but also resulted in a possible racist curriculum.
Unfortunately the above is not the only example where the composition of a course development team results in a serious misjudging of the curriculum’s audience.
I suspect that designing authentic learning requires that we also seriously consider the capacity and composition of course development teams in order to design authentic tasks and authentic curricula for an increasingly diverse student body.
But are we ready? Do we care?
[Image retrieved from http://www.streetgangs.com/news/112810_aztecas_gang on 12 December 2011]