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Open Learning and Contextual Diversity

September 27th, 2010 by Graham Attwell

The debate over open learning is still going on through various fora such as the Open Educational Resources discussion currently being hosted by UNESCO and the #PLENK2010 MOOC. And in many ways, it is not technology which is driving the discussion but a more fundamental question about how to provide wider access to learning and access to wider groups of learners.

One post which caught my eye is The ‘Open Mode’ – A Step Toward Completely Online by Tom Prescott (it is interesting to note that even in the days of Twitter;s ascendency blog posts continue to provide the most thoughtful exchanges).

Talking about the trend away from purely online distance learning courses towards blended learning, Tom says:

It’s wrong because most of the time the educators and the students don’t really want to use technology. They’ll do a bit for the administration, but for learning, no way. It’s a face-to-face course. Why tamper with it. I am of the opinion that this is misguided, but it’s not a battle worth fighting (for now). Fighting this resentment is unnecessary.

I think Tom is mixing up a whole series of things here. Firstly the move towards Blended Learning was driven by pedagogy and not by a retreat from Technology Enhanced Learning. And that move towards Blended Learning has led to a period of pedagogic innovation, albeit based on the adoption of social software and social networking for learning. By focusing on the pedagogy of using technology, increasing numbers of teachers have adopted technology as part of their every day practices in tecahing and learning. This is reflected in changes in teachers’ dispositions towards using technology. I would also challenge the idea that students are opposed to technology for learning. Students are opposed to the use of technology which fails to enhance their learning experience, just precisely to the use of technology for managing, rather than learning.

But the major impact of technologies and especially of mobile devices, is to move learning outside the institutional culture and practice, into new contexts. Of course this provides a challenge to existing institutional cultures and to the existing cultures of tecahing and learning practice. And some teachers will be wary of such a challenge. But its is the potentials of using technology for informal learning, for networked and self structured  learning (as in PLENK2010) and for workbased learning which can open up learning (or put another way, develop Open Learning).

I remain unconvinced that traditional online courses (as in Open and Distance Learning) have challenged that learning in context. Instead they have tended to reproduce existing pedagogic and cultural forms of learning, at a distance. Thus I think we need to see more diversified and contextual applications of technology to learning, rather than a focus on any particular organisational or institutional format.

2 Responses to “Open Learning and Contextual Diversity”

  1. Tom Preskett says:

    Hi Graham,

    First of all many thanks for posting about something I have written. Your blog is one of my core spaces for learning within the blogosphere. Also, it’s Tom Preskett not Prescott (this is common mistake and has probably got something to do with the politician).

    In many ways I agree with your sentiments. I think the context got a little lost when the post was published on the ETCJ – http://etcjournal.com/. I primarily write for my own blog – http://tpreskett.blogspot.com/ but sometime offer posts for the ETCJ because I like the discussion and debate that go on there. Jim often changes the titles (for the better) and my title of “Promoting Distance” gives a better sense of where the post if coming from. Within my educational institution, I’m diverting my energies to helping develop viable distance learning offerings. This consists of working with academics to convert existing face-to-face offering. Overall, this a long journey which we are just starting out on. But I think it’s the right path to take. The quote above reflects the frustration of wasted energies with promoting a blended approach. The reality is that where there is an existing face-to-face offering, the expectation from students and academics of what “proper” teaching and learning looks like is face-to-face. Quite often you simply can’t get past this standpoint. Even where online learning activities are introduced, it’s difficult to get them used and they are often not truly embedded into the learning design. Reading the above quote in isolation probably sends the wrong message. What I’m getting at is where we should be diverting our energies. Or perhaps where I think I should be diverting my energies – in this academic year.

    I am known in my organisation for being the promoter of social software so it seems odd to debate you on this issue. I promote its use whatever the mode of delivery. And you are right that the pedagogy is all important. My point here is that you often cannot get to have this discussion. The walls come up before pedagogy can be talked about. This is area which I find particularly challenging. I’ve reflected on it many times (e.g. http://tpreskett.blogspot.com/2009/11/dont-tell-me-how-to-teach.html).

    The point about students is an interesting one. Yes, the driver will ultimately come from students. In my HE organisation, the Institute of Education, I observe anecdotally that for those who attend face-to-face expect face-to-face. Admittedly, we have a more mature and international student population than most.

    Overall, I am advocate of almost all the things you promote in this post – the informal learning, challenging the pedagogy, the mobile learning potential. This is why I read your blog. What I’m talking about in this instance is what we can do in reality to take a small step along the right path.

  2. Graham Attwell says:

    Hi Tom
    Sorry for the delay in replying to your reply 🙂

    I think we are probably both basically agreeing – also think your original title – though less provocative makes more sense.

    And as I think your editor pointed out my original wording was less than clear – hasty thinking and hasty writing.

    I ‘think’ what I was trying to say is that the original drive towards the use of technology for distance learning – as in the e-university type development – tended to start from the wonders of technology rather than from a pedagogic viewpoint.

    And also my experience of late has been much influenced by working with school teachers who do not really think about blended learning but just of integrating technology in their classroom and pedagogic practice.

    Here one of the bigger barriers is the difficulty in creatively using technology in the abstract from the subjects they are teaching. Unless you give them examples from their subject they find it hard to grasp it.

    I also think there are very different practices bound to the context in which learning is taking place – bound to different domains – including in the workplace, the home etc.

    I like the idea of ‘Promoting Distance’ – especially in the opportunities to go beyond lectures and course materials on line and promote collaborative learning between participants – and between participants and wider communities. Which is where I think the MOOC model is also very interesting. I would be interested to know more about your pedagogic approaches to new distance learning programmes.

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