The dissonance between the constructivist paradigm and the implementation of institutional e-learning

This post is sparked by a combination of recent personal experience and recent discussions on the interweb. As part of current studies I’m reading a lot about e-learning theories, especially constructivism, and seeing the student perspective of the reality of institutional e-learning/resource-based learning. At the same time the last couple of weeks have seen various media articles, blog posts and commentaries around e-learning. I’ll point to a few of these below, but I’ll probably miss a few. Most have been highlighting or commenting upon the significant difference between what is known about good learning and teaching (i.e. something along the lines of constructivist) and what is being done/what academics expect to do.

It’s my argument that there exists a dissonance between the philosophical underpinnings expected of good teaching and learning and the philosophical underpinnings of how universities attempt to encourage and enable good teaching and learning, especially in e-learning. In terms of e-learning, I’m going to argue that this dissonance is enhanced by the lack of flexibility inherent in the tools, policies, and procedures being used to implement it.

This is a first attempt (and not a great one – to many diversions) to make this argument in this form, but it certainly has strong resonances with a lot of my earlier posts and the work in my thesis (which I’d argue describes an attempt to significantly reduce this dissonance).

What am I talking about

Via @sthcrft came this animation of a common situation experienced by most educational developers/curriculum designers (i.e. the folk employed by universities to help academics “get online”). The page is down at the moment, but it basically shows the academic clearly demonstrating a lack of critical insight into the benefits and best approaches for “going online”.

Ahh, here’s the animation from YouTube

Then, this time from @marksmithers, it is time for reality to intrude in the form of this brilliant piece of journalism from the Age newspaper about how online is killing uni life. What was even sadder than the premise of the article were some of the quotes from academics. For example, the academic who described as saying something along the lines of “it took a full day to modify a lecture for use online and two hours to adapt a PowerPoint presentation” and following that up with this beauty

The beauty of a lecture is that you can actually influence people, drag them in … Clearly you can’t do that online.

It’s not surprising that those of us who have invested a bit more time and energy into thinking about learning, teaching and “getting online” are somewhat aghast at perspectives like this.

@markdrechsler picks up on this in a blog post which includes the following presentation that nicely illustrates the gap between the principles embodied within tools such as Moodle and Mahara and the perspectives of some (most?) academics (Aside: An ex-colleague Ken completed a project where he compared his espoused theories of teaching with what analytics revealed about his use of an LMS. Expanding this more broadly would be really interesting)

Mark then wonders

if the tensions between the theoretical need and the brutal reality will mean that we are heading for a significant showdown in tools like Moodle between where teaching practice should (according to Those Who Know Better) be heading, particularly in Higher Education, and where many would prefer it to remain.

It’s this tension I’m trying to get at, its origins and one perspective that might be useful in addressing it.

A blog post from @marksmithers touches on one of the reasons why it is important to bridge this gap. i.e. most university-based e-learning is crap.

The solution is part of the problem

At one institution I know (and I’m certain this practice is being considered and/or implemented at other institutions) the solution was “consistency” or a minimum course presence. i.e. some brains-trust got together decided what was important for a “quality student learning experience” and specified that all courses should meet that minimum.

To ensure that this standard was met, significant resourcing and scaffolding was put in place. i.e. academics were expected to manually construct their course sites to meet this standard and then the course moderator would complete a computer-based checklist to specify that the course site complied with that standard.

If you know anything about academics I’m sure you can guess what happened. Many academics expended effort attempting to meet the standard but when problems or other constraints intervened, they did deals with the moderators to tick all the boxes. I know that there was at least one head of school who, recognising the reality of the situation, agreed that this was okay.

This is not constructivism

I happen to be reading an online resource on constructivism that includes this page which has a nice table explaining the difference between a traditional classroom and a constructivist classroom.

For the rest of this post I’m going to go meta. i.e. I’m going to use the table and the idea of learning paradigms not to talk about the learning within a particular course or classroom (i.e. what the academics are doing). Instead, I’m going to use it to examine what is being done within the institutional context by managers, processes and systems to enable and courage academics to learn more about good learning and teaching.

As stated above, my argument is that while expecting learning and teaching from academics that is more constructivist in nature. The managers, processes and systems being used are more objectivist/behaviourist/traditional in nature and as a result are limiting the amount of learning about learning academics engage in.

Let’s go through the table.

Assumption number 2 of a “traditional” classroom

Strict adherence to fixed curriculum is highly valued.

At the above example institution a strict adherence to the minimum standards is what was valued. Any movement way from that standard was seen as problematic, even those with good reason. This reduces the ability for academics to experiment, to learn. i.e. it doesn’t value assumption #2 of a constructivist classroom

Pursuit of student questions and interests is valued.

Associated with this is the idea that in constructivism

Teachers have a dialogue with students, helping students construct their own knowledge.

How well do the systems, processes and policies around e-learning within a university encourage and enable educational developers to have a dialogue with the academic staff to help them construct their own knowledge?

Does the lack of knowledge around good learning and teaching evidenced in the resources from the above section say more about the limitations of the academics or the nature of a system that does not seek to actively engage in a dialogue with them?

Assumption #6 of a constructivist classroom

Teacher’s role is interactive, rooted in negotiation.

Replace teacher with some of the following terms and ask yourself if the focus is on interaction and negotiation: Moodle, Mahara, the Information Technology Division, university policies, and perspectives of senior management.

As I’ve argued before, the nature of a technology like an LMS (an enterprise information system) and the governance and support processes used to implement that technology within an institution are directly the opposite of interaction and negotiation. The aim of the helpdesk for an LMS is primarily focused on helping people use what is already inherent in the LMS, not on negotiating about how the LMS works or the services it provides. That’s a completely different set of processes that is overly teleological and can really only ever engage in interaction and negotiations at the strategic level. There’s much more to say here, but for another time.

The broader issues

These limitations move beyond the LMS and e-learning and extend to learning and teaching. For all the typical reasons associated with globalisation and other factors, universities are increasingly being managed as businesses. i.e. a techno-rational perspective of management dominantes. Here’s a quick summary of “techno-rational” from part of my thesis

A techno-rational discourse seeks the use of quantitative data and measurement to ensure accountability (Kappler 2004). Enterprise systems are an extreme application of a techno-rational perspective (Dillard and Yuthas 2006). A techno-rational approach to management sees it as a scientifically rational and efficient application of neutral knowledge on a par with the natural sciences (Morgan 1992). It is a school of through aimed at marginalizing the role of intuitive thinking through the use of analytical tools and technical solutions (Vanharanta and Easton 2009).

(I have to include it here because I think I ended up cutting it from the final version of the thesis).

For me, the techno-rational approach to management has very similar epistemological foundations as the “traditional classroom”. It assumes there is objective, quantifiable knowledge and that we can not only find it but specify it in the form of minimum course standards. This is important to management because of accountability reasons, but mainly because they don’t have time in a 5 year contract position to engage in interaction and negotiation with academics about how to improve their learning and teaching. It’s simpler just to tell the silly buggers what to do and expect them to do it.

It’s this techno-rational view that sees academics as inter-changeable parts of the machine that is the university. It’s a view that doesn’t see the value of a “constructivist approach” to the governance, support and implementation of an e-learning system.

Hence, it is no surprise to me that there is a gap between what academics understand and what the experts expect. The academics are working in a system that doesn’t encourage nor enable them to learn. Those that do, do it in spite of the system, not because of it.

So, how do you change this. Well, chapter 5 of <a href="my thesis outlines one approach. It’s not the solution, but then that’s the point of a constructivist perspective.

On learning theory paradigms

I should point out that I’d probably claim to be leaning more towards connectivism as a learning theory/paradigm and I would probably describe the theory for e-learning implementation in my thesis as arising from that paradigm, rather than constructivism. But constructivism is what I was reading today and had a pointer to the resource. In addition, earlier this week I explained how I thought – that from a certain point of view – there are some connections between the two.

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One thought on “The dissonance between the constructivist paradigm and the implementation of institutional e-learning

  1. Pingback: Learning 2.0 03/25/2011 (a.m.) « Digital Learning 2.0

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