Woods, trees and on ramps

Sometimes, the more time I spend with something, the more I seem to lose my way with it. This is what seems to have happened to me in the past few months. I have apparently lost my ability to articulate the “why” of embedding digital technologies for learning. And this is a bit of a problem.

beech_forest_vtacnik
CC BY 3.0

So, in order to find my way through this inability to see the wood for the trees situation, perhaps it’s more useful to think about what I do know.

I do know I’m not a ‘techie’. In fact, I’m constantly embarrassed by my low-tech skills. I rarely know the new, cool apps, and while these can be fun, aren’t really what ignites a passion for education and learning in me.

I do know that technology in and of itself won’t make a difference to learning. Equally, the same can be said, I believe, of an exercise book, or even a teacher. Plonk these things in a classroom and there will be no discernible effect. Like any tool, it’s what we do with it that counts.

I do know that relationships and emotions make a difference to teaching and learning. Mostly  based on my own experience of being a student, as well as fifteen years in the classroom, but also because the OECD tells me so:

“Emotion and cognition operate seamlessly in the brain to guide learning….Any debate about whether learning institutions should be concerned about learners’ emotions and their development is…irrelevant” (“Nature of Learning”, OECD, p. 4)

I do know that there is, rightly, in my opinion, an increasingly loud call for learner-centred education. There are many facets to this argument. One is an egalitarian one – that it is simply not acceptable that our schooling system works for some, but not for others. Another is that a knowledge economy requires that everyone be lifelong learners. Without the skills to learn how to learn, the motivation or interest to do so, then we run the risk of perpetuating an out-of-date, industrial model. A further argument is a learning sciences one. This links to the statement above about the role of emotions, as well as showing that learning collaboratively, learning deeply, and learning connected knowledge is key. (See “21st Century Learning: Research, Innovation and Policy”, CERI) And maybe another is just a ‘gut feeling’ one. We are all different, with different backgrounds, interests and needs. One size just doesn’t fit all, nor should it, and increasingly we have the ability to meet these diverse needs.

david_pulver_bridge_over_the_hume_highway_and_serves_as_the_exit_ramp_on_and_off_the_highway
CC BY 3.0

Hmmm.

Maybe this is my “why”. Because digital technologies can offer significant ‘on ramps’ to this desired pathway of learner-centred education.

Again, from the OECD report “The Nature of Learning”, we know that the learning sciences suggest that the following are the fundamental conditions under which successful learning can occur:

When:

  • “Constructive, self-regulated learning is fostered
  • The learning is sensitive to context”
  • It is often “collaborative” (p. 3)

And they list six “building blocks for innovative learning environments”:

  • Cooperative learning
  • Service learning
  • Home-school partnerships
  • Formative assessment
  • Inquiry-based approaches
  • Learning with technology (p. 10)

Learning with technology: “Learner-centred approaches to technology-enabled learning can empower learners and leverage good learning experiences that would not otherwise have been possible. Technology also often offers valuable tools for other building blocks in effective learning environments, including personalisation, cooperative learning, managing formative assessment, and many inquiry-based methods.” (p. 10)

This first sentence about learner-centred approaches has definite echoes of the New Zealand Curriculum to me: “Schools should explore not only how ICT can supplement traditional ways of teaching but also how it can open up new and different ways of learning.” (Emphasis mine in both cases.)

This call is similarly repeated in the e-Learning Planning Framework, where learning and teaching should work towards “Student-centred, authentic, higher-order, collaborative learning, and digital literacy, is enhanced by ubiquitous digital technologies.”

So here’s my own list. Technology is not THE solution, but A solution. An on ramp to learner-centred education. Technology offers us ways to:

  • Access information and people
  • Collaborate
  • Bring the world to the classroom – to be connected to the global community
  • Self-manage and reflect on our learning
  • Ensure learning is engaging, authentic, purposeful
  • Learn ubiquitously: anywhere, anytime

And I’m picking this is a good thing.

Re-focusing my UDL Lenses

Lately, I’ve been challenged to think more about Universal Design for Learning (UDL). I’ve been exposed to the framework previously, even using it to inform a professional learning session when I was the Future Learning Leader at Marsden. I thoroughly enjoyed Katie Novak’s presentation at ULearn in 2014. I was so impressed by the way she modelled UDL even given the constraints of a conference keynote speech. Lucky enough to be a CORE Education eFellow last year, Chrissie Butler, our local UDL guru, led us through a session on UDL which prompted me to think more about the kind of language we use to talk about individuals and groups within our schools, e.g. the “special needs” kids and their “teacher aides”.

So I believed I understood the ‘big picture’ behind UDL – that it’s about providing universal supports that work for everyone, the way automatic opening and closing doors do in the supermarket or shopping mall regardless of someone’s mobility.

Underpinning this idea are values that I am comfortable with: the notion of equity for one. That we are not all equal, but with the same right to access information and knowledge and learning. Therefore as teachers, we should provide ‘on ramps’ so that everyone can have access to the learning.

With my design thinking hat on, I easily get on board with the idea of knowing your learner as this is what being empathetic requires.

And when it came to the role of technology with UDL, it was clear to me that it was mostly about assistive technologies like text to speech functions, altering font size and colour. If I pushed the boat out a bit further I could see that digital technologies also had a role to play in offering choice: offering more ways to access information and more ways to demonstrate understanding of knowledge.

Yep. This UDL thing. I’ve got it down.

But then it was pointed out to me the underlying purpose of UDL.

12_udl_guidelines

  • Engagement: purposeful, motivated learners
  • Representation: resourceful, knowledgeable learners
  • Action and expression: strategic, goal-directed learners

Suddenly these reminded me of future-focused pedagogy goals. Self-managing learners. Curious, motivated, life-long learners. Oh.

And then I started to connect this to the OECD 7 Principles of Learning. Recognise these ideas?

  • Learner at the centre: “Learners are the central players in the environment and therefore activities centre on their cognition and growth.” “The environment aims to develop ‘self-regulated learners’” (p. 6)
  • Recognising individual differences: “The learning environment is acutely sensitive to the individual differences among the learners in it…” (p. 7)

With these new UDL lenses on, the role of digital technologies becomes greatly expanded. Much more than a learning support and a means to offer choice, but instead to ensure learning is:

  • Engaging
  • Motivating
  • Personalised
  • Collaborative
  • Connected to students’ passions
  • Matched to students’ needs and interests

And that learning is about:

  • Bringing who you are to the learning
  • Being responsible for your own learning
  • Becoming a more independent, self-managing learner: knowing what is being taught and why

Ah!

I’ll be the first one to admit that I’ve still got a lot more thinking to do about this, but suddenly UDL makes a lot more sense to me. As always, there is a lot more behind a concept than a surface glance can give.

Adopting future-focused pedagogies means being learner-centred. In turn this means knowing your learners deeply. And UDL is a way to achieve this. It is not a separate framework, but a lens through which to view curriculum design and the role of digital technologies for learning. It isn’t a ‘bolt on’ addition, but a crucial ‘yes, and’.

This re-focusing also reinforces my belief in the power of language. If you choose to adopt a ‘buzz word’, or, as in this case, a buzz phrase like ‘learner-centred’, be prepared to really sit with it and unpack it deeply. There’s always a lot more than meets the eye.