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Approaches to Learning #ocTEL


Amazing Mud Skippers are Surface Mavens

This week’s core activity on #ocTEL is to evaluate Marton, Hounsell and Entwistle’s approaches to learning framework in the light of one of a choice of four questions.

  • Have you seen any evidence of these different approaches in online contexts, e.g. in technology-enhanced courses you teach? How did these differences manifest themselves in terms of online learning behaviour.
  • Are you leaning towards one approach in particular on ocTEL, and if so why might that be? Perhaps you are employing strategies from more than one approach
  • Are learners who tend to take a ‘surface’ approach likely to learn more or less effectively online versus face-to-face.
  • How might we encourage ‘deep learning’ in online contexts?

This is the framework as stated in the article:


Marton, Hounsell and Entwistle

Marton, F., Hounsell, D. and Entwistle, N., (eds.) The Experience of Learning: Implications for teaching and studying in higher education. 3rd (Internet) edition. Edinburgh: University of Edinburgh

How might we encourage ‘deep learning’ in online contexts?

I started this by reading and responding to Tim Leonard’s post about this activity on his blog. I hadn’t actually realized that this was “homework” so I guess that qualifies this bit of participation as “deep learning.”  In this case, maybe we can encourage ‘deep learning’ by telling people not to read their course materials or assignments – but if they did what they were told to do, wouldn’t they then be “surface” or “compliance” learners?

I actually like this framework, which I’d prefer to call the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly since I see it as value laden as this question is loaded.

The problem I see lies in the issues identified at the “surface” level learning, and with its by-line cope with course requirements – as if the goal of a swimmer were simply not to drown. In my own classes I see all three types of learners, with most of them apparently at surface, and why shouldn’t they be.  Some few are strategists, and there would probably be more of these had they the skills this requires.  If you ask them, most all would say that their primary objective is to get the highest mark possible in the course and what’s wrong with that anyway. Don’t we value them by their marks, after all?

If I knew I was being valued only for a mark I might go in either direction — become a surface learner feigning disinterest, or a deep learner disdaining assessment. So, there’s something about the directive to “encourage deep learning” that I find grating. If we are talking about student-directed learning, they why am I encouraging any type of learning at all?

From a design perspective, the framework is very useful since it helps me to conceptualize these different kind of learners.  Of course, I’ve seen them all and can even put faces to the patterns but having a neat little three part plan is still quite helpful. As a designer I ought to be mindful of the various approaches that I know students will take (at least three) and try to design for that. I should do something to support surface types, and something to support strategists, and something to support deep learners.

I should also be aware that no one will fit neatly into any of these three little boxes but that people will migrate from one to the other as the course progresses, according to what they find, according to what I and other participants provide, and according to their own changing moods, ideals, understandings and ambitions.

#ocTEL Big and Little Questions

This is our first “assignment” in ocTEL. Simon Hawksey asks us to

reflect on your work experience and ambitions for developing your teaching.

  • Can you identify the most important question about TEL that matters to you?
  • Or alternatively do you have a cluster of issues? Or perhaps you’re ‘just browsing’?

Some people are discussing this here.

The most important question I have about Technology Enhanced Learning is about how technology transforms teaching and learning?   I don’t mean that technology directs or determines change, but I do believe that tools change the way we work and see the world – and I’m defining technology very broadly.

2001 Bone to Space

Technology has always had a transformative impact on human cultures and societies.  I became involved in TEL because I was interested in teaching and learning, not because I was interested in technology, and I’ve continued with it because I have found that it did change the way I saw learning and teaching.

I teach English Second Language in an academic bridge program. Our administrators have always been interested in appearing to be “cutting edge” so they provided us with a minimum amount of support: WiFi connectivity and email for students and faculty, Internet wired classrooms with LED projectors and “SmartBoards” (TM) installed. The stuff has been poorly maintained —  the photo-op is now over — and most regard WiFi as something to keep students busy between classes, but it is there anyway, for anyone to use. I have used it.

One thing I’ve learned from this is that I cannot and should not plan what students will learn and I should not be saying things like “students need” this and that. I’ve learned to provide tools and opportunities and then watch and listen. It’s changed my own practice and helped me become a co-learner with them. Others continue their control culture, deciding what students should do at every step… these are “accountable” and “responsible” teachers, unlike me.

I see it changing students too. It changes the way they interact with one another, how they use the space, how they use the material, how they relate to me. They begin to take possession of all these things, and to self-direct, to a large degree. They co-opt me into their subversive activities, learning whatever they feel they need despite what is handed down to them in the syllabus. They do this without commenting. They are not noticed anyway. They reward me by doing well on their common assessments. I’ve learned that the best way to support their learning is to stay out of the way most of the time. This gives me a lot of time to see who needs extra “help” and then to help them. Usually this just means talking to them, showing some interest, showing some support.

This is totally unlike anything I could have imagined happening. I started out with it just as a way to make it easier to handle classroom management tasks, to free me fro the photocopier, to free them from carrying books and papers, but so much more has happened.

So, now I sit quietly in staff meetings and listen to others talking endlessly about control issues – never about teaching or learning, never about students…

TEL will alienate you too, eject you from your control culture, show you that you are more like your students than you had ever suspected.

A Twitch in the Void

Tomorrow is the first day of the Spring Semester and I have a new class. I’m excited about this because I’ll have a chance to try out Dave’s ED366 method and put some of what I’m learning on #rhizo14 into practice. I know I’ve only been doing this MOOC for one day but I’m a fly-by-the-seat-of-his-pants guy and I hear opportunity knocking.

There are a couple of things in my favor. First, I’ll have a small class, about 14 students, and I’ll be with them 14 hours a week, in three hour blocks most days. Then they all failed this course in the first semester and are repeating. This means they’ve already been goose stepped through the “standard curriculum” once… no need to repeat that.

This morning on FB, I saw a link Ma Bali posted to one of Dave’s 2011 blog posts Rhizomatic Learning – Why we teach. I had been distracted by the Academic Elitism brouhaha and ended up at a 2008 post on Dave’s blog, Rhizomatic Education: the community as curriculum.  Both those were very interesting, but scrolling down further I found a ping back in the comments from Hybrid Pedagogy.  This pointed back to a post by Tanya Sasser titled Bring Your Own Disruption: Rhizomatic Learning in the Composition Class.  

If you’re interested in teaching writing, then have a look at her post. She says that writing students – or student writers if you like – need to begin to see themselves as writers before they can write. In another context, you cannot learn to swim by watching swimmers. You need to be a swimmer first. If you are a swimmer, you will swim. If you are not, you will sink.  To do this, you need to overcome your fear and Tanya reminds us that “We cannot ignore the fear that writing engenders in many of our students. And we cannot assume that autonomy is desirable or solely effective for motivating and inspiring all of them.”

We can offer students autonomy, but many do not like this. They want to be told what to do. They want a good grade.  They do not believe that they can do what we are asking them to do, and in any case, why should they learn to do anything that is not on the test? 

While I was rummaging about, a couple of things were rattling around in my brain: First, there was Cath Ellis post about Deleuze and Guattari, and Ma Bali’s reply to Cath, Academic Privilege. Then, there was Dave’s ED366 Course, and how he had built that using easy tools: WP and GoogleDocs. I had earlier poked around on his GoogleDrive folder for that and thought – “I can steal this for my course.”

sumerian homework 2400 bc

Sumerian Homework, 2400 BC

In discussing the “essay” – the standard assignment in writing classes – Tanya quotes Mark Sample who says, that the student essay is  “is a twitch in a void. A compressed outpouring of energy (if we’re lucky) that means nothing to no one.”

Teachers have been doing this for a very long time: old habits are hard to break. Students have old habits too. Tanya also mentions this, saying “Many of [students] don’t think they can write. Some of them don’t wish (or think that they have anything) to learn about writing. These are nodes of thinking that are often, ironically, created in K12 English classrooms and, unfortunately, sustained in the college-level FYC [First Year Composition] classroom.”

Before arrested students can move forward, they may need to losten these nodes that bind them. The twitch in the void haunts them. Nothing comes from nothing.

So, I’m looking forward a rhizomic semester with my new class. Who knows, some of them might learn something. All of us will learn something. Who knows what that will be?

Independence Enforcement

This is week two of #rhizo14 – Rhizomatic Learning – and Dave is asking,  “How can we take people who’ve spent their whole lives believing that this is ‘learning’ and MAKE them independent?”

He explains this a little more in the video intro for the week and places this in the context of his own course, ED366, Educational Technology and the Adult Learner. Even though this course is aimed at teachers, he says that they have difficulty understanding that what happens in institutionalized instruction is not necessarily learning.  (Dave makes a box with his hands and peers through it).


Well, the idea is that you hop from door to door. There are lots of metaphors here… keep to the beaten path, the wolf eats the wandering sheep, and so on. The general mood is of danger lurking – so do what you’re told.

So, to paraphrase Dave, How can we compel people to take responsibility for their own learning?

Teachers are planners and planning assumes control. One of the hardest things I’ve had to do is relinquish control of my class – give them control of their time and their space. I have not been completely successful… but I’m getting there.  I don’t think we can talk about students becoming free until we are willing to set them free.

Dave says that teachers set objectives, assess progress and give direction. How can people believe that this is ‘learning’ – and if they believe it, how can they ever learn anything?

This is interesting. Dave’s ED366 course, according to its course description, is about “the integration of current and future online computer technologies into today’s and tomorrow’s classroom [and provides] an overview of current computer based technology (e.g. multimedia applications, streaming audio, streaming video, online audio chat, online discussion forums, web conferencing, blogs as well as other evolving technologies),” [ ED#366 Revised Course Description ].  A teacher could make a lot of choices here, but Dave’s designed his course to be reasonably unstructured.

I teach English. My course is structured by colleagues who think that learning is the same as covering material in textbooks. They believe that if we cover the material students must learn. If students don’t learn, then it’s because someone didn’t do something right – teacher didn’t cover, or student didn’t do.

I don’t think my subject is much different than Dave’s – it is vaguely contained in a parade of important sounding nouns, but it actually rests on development and mastery of a limited range of skills: we do not stream video, we use video to say something that is worth saying. We do not write to arrange 500 words in 5 paragraphs; we write because we have something worth saying. Everyone has something worth saying.

Coverage doesn’t bother me anyway. I can uncover whatever my colleagues have covered, and by doing this I think we have a chance.

Dave says that making people independent means that they learn how to self assess and self re-mediate. If you are familiar with language teaching then you might have heard of Stephen Krashen. Krashen talks a a lot about self-assessment and self-remediation in the context of language development and literacy.  Krashen’s monitor hypothesis is all about this. One of the techniques he promotes is free voluntary reading. I think it goes like this: to learn to read, you must read. To read well you need to enjoy what you’re reading. To enjoy what you’re reading, you must choose what to read yourself. To read well, you must have no reason for reading other than your desire to do so.  Then you will enjoy reading. You will read, and you will learn.

Krashen has been saying this for at least 30 years. It’s the only thing that works. But education is not evidence driven. This is why you’ve never heard of it.

So, I think we can help people to become free and independent learners but to do this we need to be patient and caring. It can be like re-introducing a wild animal into the bush, after it has been reared by people … like Born Free. (Musical Interlude here)

And it can also be a personal journey, the answer to a call, as with Buck, in Call of the Wild. It can happen with a mentor, or without, but its happening unfolds naturally once we unlearn whatever it is we learned in school.


Cheating as Learning

Last week one of my students came to ask me for his final exam mark. I told him, then he said, “And what did so-and-so get?”

I said, “You’re asking because you copied off his paper.”


“Well, he complained to me about that. I told him not to let anyone copy from his paper again. I can’t tell who’s copied what from who, so you should both get zeros, really.”

He said, “Yeah, but what did he get?”

I work in Saudi Arabia. Cheating of this sort is very common here and I’ve wondered about it for a long time – not so much about the cheating as about the attitude toward it. Students almost expect it, and getting caught is like, well, like loosing a football match.

I also wondered about this as I moved my own kids from school to school. Every year we’d try a new one and all were just about the same: seven weeks of soporific classes followed by a two week hazing of exams, then repeat the cycle.  About two weeks before a new battery of exams, prep started, and the closer the exams got the more kids crammed. Every year in May, following the last day of school – and the last exam cycle, kids poured out of the schools and literally ripped their books to shreds, scattering the pages all over school yards, spilling out into the streets.

Parents whose children struggle in school simply move them to another school where they do better. There are schools where students work hard and get reasonable marks, and there were schools where students do little or nothing and get great marks. Of course, the best schools are those that give the best marks. University entrance officers look only at the GPA, and GPAs are calculated from first grade. I have seen primary school reports with grades calculated to five significant figures after the decimal point. With a granularity of 1/10,000th of one percent, marks would seem to matter, and matter a lot.

cheating to learnIt took me ten years to figure this out. School has little to do with learning. It’s mostly a power game and the GPA is the goal keeper. The object is to score a goal. The rules are customary, arbitrary, invented by committees, by people who are players themselves, by people who don’t understand the game, or care to. Like most traditions, no one really knows where it all comes from. this is just the way it’s always been done.

Suddenly, it all made sense. Our students are players, and they play to win.

Our students are such good cheaters. They collaborate skillfully and easily to overcome any challenge. They co-operate and they help each other. They share what they have, and they contribute what they can, when they can. They are expert learners. I’ve stated marking them on their learning, on their collaboration, and I don’t worry about cheating. I give work that makes them better collaborators, that makes them better learners. They can’t cheat – they have to be players.

Cheating is learning, especially when it is socially supported. Sure, you can cheat alone but that is not often seen here. Local cheaters almost always collude… they co-operate and they collaborate, and they solve their problems collectively. In industry we strive to build these skills.

So, maybe it’s time to mobilize students’ collaborative and co-operative skills to support their learning, to stop policing them and start teaching.

He said, “Yeah, but what did he get?”

“He got a B and you got a B-. The grades mean nothing and I’m not policing anyone. That’s not my job.”


Scientific Humanities

Bruno La Tour

Here’s a new MOOC hosted at FUN – France Université Numerique – and taught by Bruno La Tour.

This looks MOOC quite interesting.

According to La Tour

“Scientific humanities” means the extension of interpretative skills to the discoveries made by science and to technical innovations. The course will equip future citizens with the means to be at ease with many issues that straddle the distinctions between science, morality, politics and society.

For more on FUN and the Scientific Humanities MOOC go check out La Tour at FUN.

This MOOC is in English and runs for eight weeks, 10 February, 2014 to 16 March, 2014. Organizers estimate a 3 hour per week commitment.

For more about La Tour, Science, Knowledge and modernity, listen to this talk between Will Pollard and the Standup Philosopher on SoundCloud


La Tour, B. A Cautious Prometheus: steps toward a philosophy of design

Visions of Students – Ethnography in Action

Michael Wesch and the students of Kansas State University’s Digital Ethnography Research Team produced this video collage about what it means to be a student today. Over 200 submissions went in to this remix.

Here are some excerpts from the voice over:

  • Discovering knowledge is beyond the power of the student, and is, in any case, none of their business.
  • Recall is the highest form of intellectual achievement, and the collection of unrelated facts is the goal of education.
  • One’s own ideas, and the ideas of one’s classmates, are inconsequential.
  • There is always a single, unambiguous, right answer to a question.
  • The voice of authority is to be trusted, and valued more than independent judgment.
  • What students mostly do in class is guess what the teacher wants them to say.


Sounds like not much has changed since the 19th century.

Education is still about power, submission, paying your dues… bricks and walls.

Also check out Wesch’s YouTube Channel.

Grammar and the ESL Writing Class

Kroll, B. Exploring the dynamics of second language writingFrodesden, J. and Holten, C. (2003). Grammar and the ESL Writing Class. In B. Kroll (Ed.), Exploring the dynamics of second language writing (pp. 141-161). New York: Cambridge University Press.

Frodesden and Holten begin with a brief discussion of the construct of “good writing” and then consider the impact of communicative language teaching methodologies on ESL grammar instruction in the 1980s. The authors begin by asking three questions:

  • Is formal grammar instruction useful for L2 (second language) writers?
  • What is the role of grammar in the drafting process?
  • Is individualized feedback on errors in student writing an effective strategy for improving accuracy and developing overall language proficiency?

Three Questions

To answer each of these questions, the authors give a short review of relevant literature published in the 70s and 80s. Major themes covered are a) the dichotomy between theoretical and pedagogical grammar, b) conceptual constructions of error and c) the degree of focus given to form and to function.  They review criticisms of direct grammar instruction attributed to Krashen and Hartwell and others who suggest that formal grammar instruction has a negligible, or even harmful a effect on writers’ emerging composition skills. They point out that these positions were developed within the context of L1 (first language) instruction, and may not be appropriate to L2 (second language) learners, for whom “focused attention to language features is often beneficial and sometimes necessary” (p. 114).

Turning to drafting, Frodesden and Holten suggest that the dominant view of writing as a recursive process unfolding over multiple drafts means that less attention is now given to accuracy. Process writing, they say,  gives a lot of attention the organization of content and often delays editing to final draft stages. They mention that this practice is supported by research indicating that ‘more effective writers’ – in both L1 and L2 instruction – often delay editing until they are at the final draft stage. Frodesden and Holten then say that L2 writers – especially those who are less proficient – do benefit from feedback on both grammar and content throughout the writing process and state that weaker students who do not receive such feedback often produce final drafts replete with errors which they are unable to correct precisely because they lack the formal grammatical knowledge needed to do so.

The authors conclude with a discussion of whether individual feedback on errors contributes to language proficiency. They refer to Truscott’s 1996 paper in which he asserted that “Grammar correction has no place in writing classes and should be abandoned” (p. 361) and explain that this position is based on both theoretical and empirical evidence. They then review a rebuttal of this position by Ferris and Roberts, who claim that empirical evidence – including some from their own studies – shows that students who receive direct grammar feedback are better able to self-edit than are those who received no direct feedback on grammar errors. They point out that explicit grammar instruction and correction

help students notice grammatical forms, focus explicitly on the gap between their output and what native speakers would write, and expose them to language forms that they may not be ready to acquire immediately, but will at some point in their acquisition trajectory, (p. 147).

Frodesden and Holten conclude by mentioning three potential benefits of explicit error correction: 1) students gain an understanding of how their texts deviate from conventions of standard written English; 2) develop self-editing skills; 3) gain understanding of the importance of clarity and appropriateness of written forms.