Slow, connected learning vs. assembly line education (#change11)

[Images retrieved from, and 28 February 2012]

Engaging with Geetha Narayanan’s proposal of slow and whole learning (last week  in was an interesting exercise of trying to make sense of something so far removed from my present context, that I was left feeling disoriented for a huge part of last week. [Actually I was born disoriented so these feelings are not necessarily new :-)].

In her paper, Geetha shares the fact that her proposals are often met with disbelief. Her ideas are furthermore described as “heretic” and “dangerous”. She writes: “Dangerous ideas … go beyond merely questioning fads and fashions, or even challenging memes, [and] can be powerful ideas; ideas that foster creativity and spawn innovation in the truest sense of the word”.  Although I can identify with her positioning of herself and her ideas as being on the margins of the dominant discourses of the day; I was left disoriented trying to make sense of her ideas in the context of a mega open distance learning (ODL) institution with more than 400,000 students (and growing).

Geetha shares the basic tenets of the “Coalition of Essential Schools” which drive the “small schools movement” in the US and shares her discomfort with the idea that “small” will necessarily address the problem of the lack of meaning in mainstream education. “Project Vision” was therefore born as counter-narrative celebrating the notion of “small” but also to embed and integrate these small schools in local communities, often in underserved, marginalised and slum areas.

Project Vision “addresses … fundamental inequities by shifting the notion of a school from a fixed place to a set of spaces that exist and operate simultaneously within and without the community” (emphasis added). These spaces include Community Learning Centres within each slum community; Idea-Media centres (serving different purposes and are common and shared spaces); the Expedition (real and natural sites for introspection, contemplation and active, participatory learning); and the Network (wired/wireless links that integrate community members with one another and the rest of the world).

I completely agree with her that “changes in structure and form are meaningless without corresponding changes in pedagogy”. [Also see the article by Ertmer (2005), “Teacher pedagogical beliefs: The final frontier in our quest for technology integration”].

Geetha therefore proposes “slowness as pedagogy” to allow “students to learn not at the metronome of the school day or the school bell, but at the metronome of nature, giving them time to absorb, to introspect, to contemplate, to argue and to enjoy). Learning opportunities are co-created and encompass looking and listening, exploring and thinking, as well as making and being. “The goal of our slowness pedagogy is to generate the more creative, more lyrical and the playful aspects of learning and represent it in the many languages of children”.

Particularly interesting is the “learning arrangements” which promote and foster slowness such as themes or topics for study are not prescribed but are emergent, project-based, using large blocks of time grouping learners in collaborative, vertical heterogeneous  groups.

I find her proposal a necessary and timely counter-narrative to the industrialised character underpinning and guiding much distance education where economies of scale result in massive enrolments, often with scant formative assessment, even lesser learning and most probably resulting in disconnected graduates – disconnected from themselves, their communities and the broader issues such as sustainability and increasing inequalities.

So far so good – albeit slowly.

Making sense of Geetha’s proposal in my own context is however another story.

Enrolments in higher education in South Africa increase annually as higher education is seen and sold as the panacea for all our country’s problems. My own institution’s enrolment figures are well over 400,000 this year and growing. Our undergraduate modules are offered in two semesters per year, each entailing a 14 week tuition period. This barely leaves enough time for postal delivery in a developing country and two assignments before a summative examination. Most students take too many modules (courses) due to many factors including the general need to graduate as soon as possible in order to join the throngs of other unemployed graduates. Many students are not interested in learning and growing but in passing the examination before moving on to the next registration period.

Faculty and professional staff are not aloof to this madness and face meticulously scheduled course development cycles and often massive (and relentless) administrative burden and performance management systems. Often faculty and professional staff, inundated with the industrialised character of their institutions forget (and forsake)  their original dreams of making a difference to other people’s lives through education.

Sadly, even open distance learning (ODL) which is supposed to celebrate the different spaces in which education can be possible, succumb to the meta-narratives inherent in drop-off-and-go industrialised education.

Geetha’s article prompted the following questions:

How possible is it that ODL institutions can allow for curricula to emerge from student contexts and communities where student learning needs within specific contexts determine curricula and assessment? How possible are creative, lyrical and playful curricula and pedagogies in an industrialised model of education? How possible and viable is a counter-narrative in a higher education system which is sold out to the highest bid of neoliberal market ideologies and academic capitalism?

My disorientation and depression deepens…


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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8 Responses to Slow, connected learning vs. assembly line education (#change11)

  1. Pingback: Slow, connected learning vs. assembly line education (#change11) | E-Learning-Inclusivo (Mashup) |

  2. Pingback: Slow, connected learning vs. assembly line education (#change11) « juandon. Innovación y conocimiento

  3. Hi, Paul. I empathize with your struggle to balance mega with meaningful. I am also pondering how the slower and more playful approach to learning would translate to the working world where ‘production’ is key (whether production of a widget, a report, a service, whatever). For the past few weeks, I have had the privilege to work at a slower and more exploratory pace than usual while on a short-term assignment with a not-for-profit organization. Though it is somewhat unsettling to operate this way after more than a decade of punching the clock in the public sector, I find it very enjoyable and ultimately more ‘productive’ in the sense of having deeper reflections and more creative ideas and outputs. Notably, my experience seems rare and probably won’t last after this assignment ends but I am enjoying the change of pace while I can.

    • Hi Brainysmurf – your comments made me think of the definition of “meaningful”. Who decides on what is meaningful learning?

      If students, at least in my context, really need to graduate as soon as possible in order to stand a better chance at employment; then “meaningful” learning is most probably defined by their aspirations? We know that if they take a bit more time and if we have a bit more time and allow for a bit more time for emerging, playful curricula and pedagogies that their learning may be even more meaningful and lifechanging. But who are we to judge? Or maybe we should convince them?

      The fact that you share your positive recent experience of “slower” learning also made me think that “meaningful” as defined by mature, established professionals most probably look much different from the definition of meaningful by a younger generation.

      But then there are also the bigger issues of the environmental and injustice issues we face and then “meaningful” takes on a total new meaning. If current educational practices only prepare students for employment and not responsible citizenship, then I would most probably say that their education is not meaningful?

      Just some thoughts…

  4. sharonslade says:

    Hi Paul – thanks for a really interesting article. I also struggled with relating to this to my own ODL context, but there’s plenty there to trigger further consideration and hopefully debate. I really appreciated your attempt to relate to the mega institution – it would certainly not be an easy task to allow emergent learning at scale and I share your slight pessimism about how possible this really is. A stimulating read, thanks.

  5. Thanks for sharing Sharon. See also my response to Brainysmurf above.

    Can mega be meaningful? And is small necessarily “better” and more meaningful?

    I suspect the answer depends on, amongst other factors, on the context, the aspirations of those that enrol, the bigger needs of their societies and the dominat narratives in their contexts.

    Higher education institutions have become so intertwined with ranking criteria, accreditation and articulation regimes, and the dominant voice of the employers and professional bodies; that I suspect it is almost impossible for a specific higher education institution to deviate and offer playful and emergent/emerging curricula. Their may be a a niche for non-formal offerings or open education (like this MOOC) to lay claim to slower and more connected learning. Whether the pace involved in most MOOCs allow for slower learning is debatable… I can hardly keep up with this MOOC! But maybe I am just a slow learner…

  6. Pingback: Word Association reaches out into the wider community.. | WORD ASSOCIATION

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