Framing some project ideas around support and services for learning and teaching

When time permits I’m working with a group (one of many) that is tasked with coming up with project ideas that could support my current institution’s strategic plan around learning and teaching. In particular we’ve been tasked to consider projects that will help build the institution’s capacity to

Continuously improve capacity to effectively and efficiently develop, manage, and deliver support and services.

The following is a re-working of a presentation of some of the groups initial ideas. The re-working is very much my own thinking, so while it’s based on the ideas of the group it isn’t necessarily representative.

Assumptions

Some of the assumptions that underpinned the group’s thinking include:

  1. The ultimate aim is to enhance student learning.
  2. Over recent years the institution has spent a lot of time and resources directly on enhancing the student learning experience.

    A trend that is not stopping, as a number of the other groups in this process appear to have a strong student focus.

  3. The perception of many teaching staff, however, is that the experience of teaching staff has been somewhat starved of attention and this is creating difficulties in teaching.
  4. While not the only factor in student learning, the impact of the teacher does retain some significance in a formal education setting.

Hence the focus of the group on how to enhance the support and services available to teaching staff.

Identified Projects

The initial set of projects discussed at the initial presentation were

  1. Situative teacher learning: support and services;
  2. University of the API;
  3. Authoritative data sources;
  4. Maker spaces; and,
  5. Governance.

What follows is a description of the first four of these.

Situative/Distributive teacher learning: support and services

There continues to be concern at this (and most other) institution about the quality of the online learning (e-learning, insert your own favourite phrase) in many courses. The “distributive teacher learning” project sees this problem as a problem of teacher learning and cognition. Teaching staff are facing difficulties in developing and accessing the knowledge and capabilities required to produce better online learning. To address this problem, it needs to start from a conception of learning and cognition.

The conception on which this project is based could be called either situative learning (Putnam & Borko, 2000) or (a recent slight extension) distributive learning (Jones, Heffernan, Albion, 2015). A view that sees learning and cognition as: situated, social, distributed, and protean. These four perspectives inform how a “Distributive teacher learning” system would operate.

Situated

Support and services to learn how to solve a problem or develop new insight is situated where the requirement arises. For example, if I have a problem in a Moodle discussion forum, then the support and services that will help me learn how to solve that problem are located right there. I don’t need to remember which non-searchable institution specific website contains support resources that might help me. I wouldn’t need to remember which of the three support units of the institution is best placed to help. I don’t need to wait until the next scheduled face-to-face session to ask for help. The help that is provided is also as specific to me as possible. If I’m in charge of a course, I would see a different set of support and services than if I were a casual marker.

Also, the support and services could/should appear where ever I am when I’m teaching. It shouldn’t be restricted to the LMS. It should include the institutional e-portfolio, the student records system and other institutional services used to support teaching and learning. In a perfect world there should be no apparent difference around where/how support and services are available. It’s there where I need it.

In a perfect world it would not be restricted to institutional systems. There are a broad array of external systems being used to support teaching and learning. Some of them (e.g. hosting of student email accounts with Google) are institutionally approved. Others aren’t so formally approved at the institutional level (e.g. the use of blogs on WordPress.com). When I’m teaching using these external tools, the support and services required for my teacher learning should be visible.

Social

The support and services that are situated in the place are not limited to those provided by the central support institutions. The support and services encourage and enable communication, collaboration, and sharing of experience amongst all of the people using that particular tool or space.

Distributed

A distributed view of learning and cognition sees knowledge as not limited to individuals, but is instead spread across people and technologies. Too many of our systems assume that the cognition must reside solely in the head of the teacher/user. For example, a gradebook that requires human beings to manually search for students with results that are within 0.5% of a grade boundary and upgrade the result of those students. The system doesn’t help by providing some level of knowledge of capability. A system based on a more distributed view of knowledge would be able to highlight those students with a result within 0.5% of a grade boundary. The system does some of the work.

Beyond this, the system would aim to help make connections between people and practices.

Protean

Digital technologies have always been amongst the most protean – flexible and adaptable – of mediums. Back in 1984, Alan Kay writes that the computer offers “degrees of freedom and expression never before encountered” (Kay, 1984, p. 59). Since then enterprise computing has shown all the flexibility, adaptability, and fitness for purpose as a concrete lounge. Support and services for teacher learning that are protean move away from the established practice of a focus on the design of a “perfect” system, and move toward a system that allows users to create and share work-arounds (Koopman & Hoffman, 2003). A flexible and adaptable system that grows and changes in encourage the development of knowledge and in response to that changing knowledge.

University of the API

An Application Programming Interface (API) is a method by which the data and services provided by a system can be used via other applications. This allows new and interesting services to be developed in an agile way. Increasingly the capability to use APIs is not limited to programmers. Services such as If This, Then That (ifttt) are putting the capability to leverage APIs within the hands of most people. For example, this announcement of a thermostat control company providing an API that integrates with ifttt.

Already there are a growing number of American universities providing APIs around a number of institutional services that can be used by appropriate people. This white paper on University APIs provides additional information.

The availability of appropriate APIs around institutional services would enhance the distributive teaching learning idea in two ways:

  1. make it significantly easier to implement the idea; and,
  2. significantly enhance the protean nature of the tool by supporting the development and sharing of new services by people other than central IT.

Authoritative data sources

APIs are designed (in part) to provide access to data. For example, there might be an API to generate a list of all students in a course who are late to submit their first assignment. Such an API can only be implemented and useful if there is an authoritative source of data for: the due date for an assignment, the list of students enrolled in a course, and which students have or haven’t submitted their first assignment.

Makerspaces and hackfests

The 2015 Horizon Report for Higher Education lists Makerspaces as a “technology to watch”. Makerspaces are defined in the Horizon Report as “are community-oriented workshops where tech enthusiasts meet regularly to share and explore electronic hardware, manufacturing tools, and programming techniques and tricks” (p. 40). The connection to teaching and learning is that institutions “are taking advantage of makerspaces to provide students and faculty a place that is integrated into the community to do their tinkering” (p. 40). Makerspaces are a “collaborative workspace where learners from every discipline can feel comfortable learning skills”.

The focus here is on how Makerspaces can be applied to the question of teacher learning. There are at least three different possibilities:

  1. Setting up physical makerspaces where teaching staff can feel comfortable learning through making is one option.
  2. Exploring the use of the distributive teacher learning space as a form of virtual maker space.
  3. The use of physical makerspaces or hackfests as methods for quickly developing new services for teaching and learning.

References

Kay, A. (1984). Computer Software. Scientific American, 251(3), 53–59.

Koopman, P., & Hoffman, R. (2003). Work-arounds, make-work and kludges. Intelligent Systems, IEEE, 18(6), 70–75. Retrieved from http://ieeexplore.ieee.org/xpls/abs_all.jsp?arnumber=1249172

Putnam, R. T., & Borko, H. (2000). What do new views of knowledge and thinking have to say about research on teacher learning? Educational Researcher, 4-15.

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