Reshaping Learning

reshapeRating: ★★★★☆

Ronghuai Huang Kinshuk and J Michael Spector. (eds). 2013 Reshaping Learning: Frontiers of Learning Technology in a Global Context. Springer. ISBN 978 3 642 32300 3.

Perhaps it is appropriate that this review should attempt something new on a book dedicated to exploring the new! In one tab I have my review post, on another I have an e-copy of the text currently with limited functions (possibly, mostly my own!). It will be an experience to see what happens – this is the first one!

So I can’t flit through the book as I am used to to get the flavour and overall impression. I’m left with a fairly slow pdf-type experience needing to go line-by-line through the preface to see where we are headed. The ideas start reasonably enough but hardly controversial – life is becoming more electronic, faster and more changeable. The people born into this world will have, or need to develop, a different skill-set focussed on ICT and that the job of current educators is to assess current trends and provide such a setting. So far, so good but we could say the same about the change to television in education (or probably books for that matter). However, the text seems to hint at more as we go towards its five sections.

The first section looks at the new ways of learning. It suggests that the traditional mode (referred to as ‘nibbled learning’ suggesting a piecemeal, individual approach is replaced by connected learning – a more collaborative style.  It’s presented as a black-and-white case and it ignores the many nuances that exist even today but it does serve as a useful platform for discussion. Even more useful are the five “laws” of technology enhance learning – digital resources, virtual communities, learning management systems and designer and learner psychologies which provides us with a way of interrogating our own ideas on the subject. This gives us a way to construct meaningful learning. Other chapters in this section add their own perspective. Firstly, that ICT can be used to take the best of formal (presumably, traditional) and informal (again, presumably, collaborative) learning to create a far better version for our times – transformational learning. The argument here seems to be that issue is not learning information, because that’s already over-supplied. The case needs to be made for taking such knowledge and making something useful with it. If this is the argument then it does align with the final chapter here, namely that schools have been insufficiently realised as learning organisations. The case is made that we just use schools as a place where learning happens as if by accident, whereas if we really knew how it worked and was organised, we could create a far better way of accessing C21st skills (although just what these skills are is not described!).

If we consider that the shape of learning has changed it follows that so much the learner. Part two focusses on this aspect. If it needed more criticism, then the digital native construct receives it here. There is no such person as a digital native, but there is a range of learner types that are connected by using technology. The extent to which such technologies are used in learning is the focus of the second chapter here. In a study of university students, two things seemed to stand out – that, again, there were a range of user-types but, surprisingly, there were few overlaps between students’ everyday tech and that used for learning. It was as if the user carried two distinct set of technologies even if they did the same things. The final chapter here neatly takes these two ideas – student diversity and technology  – to put forward an argument whereby e-learning can be used to address, if not solve, these issues. To do this you need to change considerably the ways in which learning design is constructed. A better understanding of technology, adaptive testing (fitting results to further testing), analytics, social media and neurobiology helps to create a far better learning environment. Just like the first section, these chapters pull together a very compelling picture. Students are changing, so is their use of technology and if we put enough effort into the right places, so will their learning. None of these points are easy but at least we have some path to explore.

Part three moves on from this relatively basic scene. We know we need to change the way we are doing things but towards what, why, how and what are the issues involved? Entitle “the future of learning content” three chapters map out the ways in which ICT could develop (and, in many cases, has already started). Firstly, we move from a static to a dynamic content. This move from websites given to user-generated material (think Instagram, YouTube etc.) created is a start. However, this is not without issues. Copyright and it’s out-dated values and systems still holds a pervasive view on the issue and this needs to be addressed. “New” content is likely to be dynamic, context-aware, immersive, mobile and probably difficult to make a revenue stream from at least in the short term. Of course, it’s another issue entirely to argue that education as a human right, should be commodified! A good way forward is to study the Open Education Resources movement, exemplified by leading US universities such as MIT. The 4 R’s of reuse, revise, remix and redistribute create a great idea for education but if we are to get it out to the wider population then it should be monetised to some extent (although the MIT case seems to have done no harm to its revenue stream!). We conclude this section with a study of the open movement in China, a nation with a large and diverse population rapidly moving into the international arena educationally.

If part three considered the sort of content we might see, the next stage is to look at the sort of technologies that might run it. Almost without issue, the new learning machine is mobile (usually, smartphone). Carefully used, this technology can allow contingent, authentic, situated and augmented learning directly designed to help the specific student. If this sounds too good then perhaps we should, as the next authors indicate, make sure our paradigms match our technologies.  They argue for a paradigm shift and although one can baulk at such terms (or, more specifically, the overuse of such terms) there is something to agree with. We are already moving from the old web-based system to a sensing technology (e.g. location devices) that allow us more direct access to relevant information. Of course, this also needs a shift in pedagogy; not least, the ability to re-use learning systems/scenarios. It’s a pity that this idea is casually thrown into the chapter because it strikes at the heart of education – the need to be responsive but also efficient. We are great at the former but probably very poor at the latter.  Within this world of content we see that games might provide a way forward but that, hype notwithstanding, it’s not for everyone (even if we are treated to an example where playing World of Warcraft was said to help someone land an executive position!). Finally, we are told that to make any real inroads we need to move from using computers as a supplemental activity i.e. we just happen to be using a computer to find something towards an essentialist model where learning can only take place if the device is available. To do this we need to shift teaching.

This moves us neatly on to the final part, which looks at emerging trends. It’s clear that the authors see only a few basic themes, extracted from the large number currently under discussion. Cloud computing is probably a safe bet. It is fast becoming the business model of choice for traditional software companies and one major player, Google, is developing a series of cloud tools and storage (Google apps and drive respectively) that should allow most common computing functions to take place irrespective of the device. It’s this ability to separate usage from machine that makes it attractive to education where provision has always been patchy at best. This is also linked to social networking but, given changes in providers over the last decade, one has to worry about stability. Of course, the same issues arise with cloud computing, alongside the need to consider security of one’s data. Next, we are told that immersive technology is the way to go. This will “unlock the inventiveness” of our learners (although the paradox that the research was probably compiled without such technology remains unsaid!). If we use this, we can create a holistic learning model where content and context are mixed by the user mediated through their own learning skills. The final trend is augmented reality. Here, the user adds to the sensory experience with more information and can aid complex learning. This last point is an interesting one. The argument is put forward that our society is changing and that it is increasing in complexity. To address these issues we need to change our thinking and to do that we should focus on skills acquisition, not content. A raft of national curricula might differ on that score!

This is a fascinating read. The content is quite dense with numerous ideas and copious references. It’s more of an encyclopaedia of current thinking rather than an exploratory text. As such it would make an excellent starting point to those new to the field. I will certainly recommend it in that context. However, for those who have been following the field for a few years it is more of a review of that already well-known rather than an exploration of the new. There were many ideas presented as the only alternative (gaming and augmented reality strike me as two) where, in fact, there are alternatives and not all of them involving computers. I appreciate the advantages of these technologies and use them but not at the risk of proseletysing which is what is seen here. Some key issues e.g. use and security in cloud computing could have been given more prominence, especially as this is a text aimed at professionals in the field. Although these are issues to discuss they do not detract in a major way from this  book and it remains a very useful source of current thinking.

As for my e-reading experiment? Not bad, the reader needed to be re-started each time, there were no cookies to keep it open. I didn’t sign in for the full experience but used pen/paper as my preferred medium of ideas-organisation. Maybe next time!

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