Wednesday, 21 May 2014

#ocTEL2014 - Approaches to Learning: deep, strategic, and surface

Learning styles is a contentious topic and #ocTEL does acknowledge it. However, Week -2 'if you only do one thing' activity is :
to think about the general idea of ‘approaches to learning’ in relation to online learning. Questions for consideration are:

  • 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?
I am not sure I will be addressing all these questions but let me reflect on my approach to learning.

I really liked the blog post by @chcoll on the lines "Deep" learning is not the ideal. I tend to change my style of learning all the time depending on what I want at that point. If I wanted to quickly learn something to do a task say I wanted to write a programme script for something in a language I am non familiar with, I would search to find a similar source code and modify it to my needs. I may not go into studying all the little details of the language but I would focus on what is needed at that point for me. Now is this a form of surface learning? Some may say that it is but, I see it as surface + strategic learning (extrinsic motivation to complete the task at hand). 

As a creator/facilitator in a MOOC: I facilitated two runs of Begin Programming: build your first mobile game, a University of Reading MOOC on FutureLearn. In this beginner course we provide a game framework and explore various basic programming concepts each week by modifying the game. This video gives a brief overview of what we are doing.

In this course we used videos, articles, quizzes and discussions. When designing formative quizzes we used questions to check knowledge, the understanding they have and their ability to apply it to a different problem. In the 4th week (mid course) and at the end (7th week) we had dedicated discussion topics on reflection, in fact the 7th week of the course was all about consolidation, reflection and celebration. There is also a discussion in week 7 where we ask learners to think about one of the features in a game they like and try to deconstruct it - or think how programmers have developed the feature using building blocks that we teach in the course. This too in my view facilitates the higher order thinking skills that we expect from our learners. I think we sufficiently supported our learners to get knowledge, apply it, and reflect on their learning. 

Now as a learner in a MOOC:
I am on a statistical programming course that runs these days on a popular MOOC site. I find the material to be good but even after you go through them you cannot do the assignment unless you have prior programming knowledge. The assignments are difficult and very vague (example, assignment explains 3 parts for the question and you are expected to submit answers to 10! to be fair on making this point in my blog, I asked one of my colleague at work to have a look at the assignment and and he found instructions to be 'appalling'). Submitting assignments is a total nightmare due to various technical difficulties. Once I submit the answers (somehow) I get told that the answer is 'Correct!' but I do not get full marks. As a learner I am interested to know even after my program identically matches the output required why it is not getting the full marks allocated (who would not?) - that is feedback. Then I would learn what I could have done better. But there is no mechanism to support that. (Also if I click and view feedback it says I have got 2.0/2.0 but when adding up I am only given 1.6/2.0 - inconsistency doesn't help either!) There may be technical difficulties but then could they not provide 'ideal solution' under the 'honour code' only for those who have submitted already? The course does not say a previous course run by the university is a prerequisite but then seem to 'assume' that everyone 'knows' them. To be fair, I've taken (and completed!) another MOOC on the same platform but in that too I observed similar issues. (I really hope not all MOOCs on this platform are like that and my experience is in the minority).

 Biggs(1999) argues that
[g]ood teaching is getting most students to use the higher cognitive level processes that the more academic students use spontaneously (Biggs, 1999:58).
He suggests that to ensure learners reach the level of understanding generally achieved by 'academic Susan' (or learners who take deep approach to learning) teachers have to create more favourable and active learning opportunities for other ordinary learners. Not only that, he shows that assignments should align with teaching and that with the objectives set out in the course. 
He shows that "[l]ack of alignment is a major reason why students adopt a surface approach to learning" (Biggs, 1999:69). 

But sadly I think some MOOCs are not designed with these in mind - at least some of the ones I have taken. When this happens it may lead to unfavourable conditions for ordinary students while 'academic Susan' may still be able to excel. 

References:Biggs, J. (1999). What the Student Does: teaching for enhanced learning, Higher Education Research & Development, 18(1), 57-75.

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