Changing the way we learn

Hermien Geldenhuys, Senior Instructional Designer at IIE
Hermien Geldenhuys.jpg

Technology enabled learning is a major buzz term at the moment, with everyone from public to private schools and higher education institutions trying to get in on the action. But for this new frontier of learning to produce the desired results, there must be a clear strategy about what needs to be accomplished and how, experts say. It is not enough to merely drop some technology into the classroom and take it from there.

According to Dr Najma Agherdien, instructional designer at the Independent Institute of Education (IIE), technology, enabled learning entails using technology as a tool to enable, mediate and enhance learning.  It implies that we do not only use technology to access information, but that we learn with it by using it to communicate, create artefacts, share and collaborate with others and solve problems. In this way, we become creators and co-creators of knowledge.

Despite technology being introduced at all levels in education in South Africa, we are not yet fully capitalising on its potential as a tool to enable learning.  

“There seems to be an active drive to incorporate technology in our teaching and learning but, in my experience at two public universities, high schools and in the private sector, technology often gets used only to disseminate information,” says Dr Agherdien.

As a result, the utilisation of technology is still very mechanical/artificial.  “What we should be doing more of is to utilise technology in such a way that it allows students to learn the skills, knowledge, attitudes and values that will enable them to be informed, responsible and productive citizens.”

IIE Senior Instructional Designer Hermien Geldenhuys says some institutions have taken a step in the right direction, but the progress has been slow with technology enabled learning experiences provided in “pockets of excellence. Not enough people are being given the opportunity to experience and benefit from technology enabled learning.”

On the topic of what can be done to improve technology enabled learning in South Africa, Dr Agherdien says this is a complex problem that requires a holistic approach. However, if she were to list a few challenges (coupled with possible solutions) they would be:

  • The general perception of the role of technology in education still needs to change.  In order to capitalise on the capabilities of technology as a tool to enable learning, there is also an urgent need to invest in finding and developing people with the necessary skills to develop technology enabled learning spaces.  Availability of these spaces should also not be sporadic, but should rather become the norm.
  • In South Africa, access to technology and connectivity are still major barriers to implementing technology enabled learning on a wide scale.  The sooner these matters are resolved, the sooner the entire country will reap the benefits of technology enabled learning.

In order for technology enabled learning spaces to deliver their intended results, all the role players have to accept and take responsibility.  Not only is it essential for students to take responsibility for their own learning, but academia should, for example, also take responsibility for their role which includes encouraging their students and using the technology themselves to engage with their students and to facilitate learning. Practical examples of responsibilities (using authentic learning principles) would include:

  • Articulation (participating in synchronous and asynchronous discussions/debates). Through articulation, tacit knowledge, the myths and misconceptions are made explicit;
  • Reflection: providing students the opportunity to reflect on their learning;
  • Collaboration: co-creating content or knowledge and getting feedback from their peers encourage students to learn to work with and from others;
  • Posing questions that take students beyond the content/knowledge required for the qualification;
  • Bringing the academic world and the personal/social/real world closer together through incorporating the social debates and challenges;
  • Bringing formal learning and informal learning closer together (such as using twitter to follow experts in the field, encouraging students to take part in webinars);
  • The research focus should shift away from a technicist approach, to one that considers the pedagogical underpinnings of technology-enabled learning;
  • Addressing the problem of digital literacy (not all next-generation students have grown up with technology, or even if they have, they have not used it for educational purposes). Student support is therefore crucial.
  • Embrace failure/experimentation/measurement. Not all learning is measurable and without failure there often is no innovation;
  • Reward academics for teaching and learning innovation as opposed to only rewarding research related activities; and 
  • Encourage a culture of sharing (showcase work, form Communities of Practice (CoPs), support team teaching approaches, encourage peer feedback, develop a teaching and learning philosophy -institutional and individual).

Looking at the rest of the world, and which countries SA can learn from regarding best practice, “There seems to be pockets of excellence everywhere, including South Africa, but not one single country is at the forefront as far as technology enabled learning is concerned. MOOCs, flipped classrooms, blended learning and learning analytics seem to be the buzzwords currently, but whether these have had any significant impact on the student learning experience, is still questionable,” says Agherdien.

She says the field is still evolving and research shows that much more needs to be done.  Some examples of excellence, according to the 2015 Higher Education Edition of the Horizon Report include:

  • In the United Kingdom: The Open University created policies that support the ethical use of learning analytics.
  • In the US:  The development of a framework to influence policy on the proliferation of open educational resources was a huge breakthrough. SUNY’s University in Buffalo launched FLEXspace (an interactive online database that highlights and shares best practices in the redesign of learning spaces from universities all over the world). The University of Florida established an Innovation Academy that serves as an incubator for students regarding planning and developing products and businesses, and external funding.
  • Australia: The University of Western Sydney has an updated curriculum that gives students more learning options.
  • Ireland presents a good model for universities through incorporating and rewarding of work experience.

“Education is the foundation of every country’s success.  More than twenty years after democracy, higher education has not yet evolved sufficiently to cater for our knowledge economy and our youth are often underprepared for higher education, the world of work and for the complexities of the real world. Because technology enabled learning allows students to learn the skills, knowledge, attitudes and values that will enable them to be informed, responsible and productive citizens, it will most certainly have a positive impact on productivity and commitment – two essential attributes which will ultimately contribute to a stronger and healthier economy. The sooner we can get to a point where technology is fully integrated into teaching and learning, the sooner the country will reap the benefits of technology enabled learning.

“The best approaches to technology enabled learning recognise that learning, like all development, involves complex, social beings engaged in complex intellectual, social and psychological processes that happen in a fluid space. It is also true that what and how people learn influences what they are able to do with what they learn,” she says.

According to Agherdien online learning at higher education institutions should be deliberately structured to promote the skills needed in the world of work, and that it is not enough to simply upload some PDFs and courses in an effort to claim tech credentials for the institution.

“Key to success in the workplace is the ability to consider problems and scenarios and select the appropriate knowledge needed to resolve the issue. It is vital that graduates in the workplace know how to, and are able to, access knowledge they do not already possess. This means they need to know how to find sources and then to evaluate the relevance of those sources for the situation that needs resolving, rather than having all the answers memorised,” she says.

Geldenhuys says the workplace-ready approach means that technologically-focused learning should be structured not to transmit content only, but to let students grapple with the content in its real world application. For instance, don’t just teach them how to use PowerPoint or Excel, but let them use these programmes to resolve actual scenarios.

“This is achieved by focusing, in the first instance, on the objectives and themes of content and then posing questions which have no simple yes or no answer,” she says.

“Students are then given resources to explore and to formulate answers to these questions. Students are also given opportunities for further reading and exploration, guided by activities in which they are able to collaborate with peers and collectively find solutions to the problems being tackled.

“Finally, the process should include opportunities to reflect on what was learnt, to ensure students draw connections between what they had to consider and what was learned. Formal assessment in the traditional academic sense should conclude all exercises.”

Geldenhuys says the workplace of today demands problem-solvers and critical thinkers who are able to deal with ever-shifting challenges and that the workplace-geared learning model is not only effective in terms of the learning itself, but also in rendering workplace skills second nature, so that the mechanics of resolving a task does not take focus away from the actual task that needs resolving.

“Students respond positively as soon as they overcome some of the initial anxiety that comes with not simply being spoon-fed,” adds Agherdien.

“This approach also empowers students in terms of gaining a solid skills base from which they are better able to focus on technical content. In the workplace, there is no time to fiddle with trying to understand the platforms on which you need to solve problems. The solving of the problems and execution of tasks should be the only focus, not the tools with which you make this happen.”

Geldenhuys says tracked and graded activities should be used throughout to ensure that students and lecturers build evidence of the learning and development and are able to intervene where learning does not appear to have been effective.  Furthermore, such tracking helps to build a portfolio, which can be used during the job search.

“This approach provides opportunities to collaboratively solve problems, participate in discussions and to reflect on a student’s learning. There is no more space for institutions of higher learning to simply ‘tech up’ their existing content, or create an online repository of PDFs. “Technologically enabled learning should ensure that graduates are truly work ready. Not just from what they have learnt about their field of study, but because they are able to apply what they know in the real working world.”

Gwen Bosman


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This edition

Issue 58