The importance of student engagement as a success factor in learning has long been recognized. With all the tools and resources available in the 21st century to extend and support this engagement, we need to revise our understanding of teaching and learning – what we refer to as pedagogy.
Teachers strive to engage each learner, in order to achieve optimum learning and ensure the accomplishment of learning outcomes. In some courses, this may involve intensive laboratory study, field work, projects, or researching original manuscripts online or in a library. In others, learners may network with learners anywhere in the world so as to access the perspectives and experiences of different cultures or connect to others pursuing similar interests. Teaching is rarely just “sage on the stage” anymore – it is what it takes to secure learning outcomes that matter.
Let’s explore the new pedagogy of engaged learning from the disruptive point of view that it is time to stop thinking of online learning, blended learning and classroom-based teaching as if these were competing pedagogies. They are not. They are all part of the approaches available to twenty-first century college or university faculty and instructors.
Drivers of a New Pedagogy
A New Pedagogy is Emerging...and Online Learning is a Key Contributing Factor, posted on the Ontario Online Learning Portal for Faculty & Instructors, suggests three major patterns of change driving the new pedagogy. These patterns include:
- Opening up learning, making it more accessible and flexible. The classroom is no longer the unique centre of learning, based on information delivery through a lecture. Learners can acquire learning resources, collaborators and insights, as well as quality learning processes from all over the world. What faculty and students are looking for is meaning and engagement – what the January 2014 publication by Michael Fullan and Maria Longworthy, entitled A Rich Seam: How New Pedagogies Find Deep Learning, calls “deep learning”.
- Increased sharing of power between the professor and the learner. This is manifest as a changing professorial role, towards more support and negotiation over content and methods, and a focus on developing and supporting learner autonomy. On the student side, this can mean an emphasis on learners supporting each other through new social media, peer assessment, discussion groups, and online study groups, but with guidance, support and feedback from content experts. We can see this as a new kind of learning partnership between the faculty member and learners and amongst learners themselves – a community of practice for learning.
- Increased use of technology not only to deliver teaching, but also to support and assist students and to provide new forms of student assessment, collaboration and the use of global resources.
The focus of these three trends is on improving learning outcomes through effective student engagement – doing what it takes to engage the hearts and minds of students in their work so the learning outcomes can be achieved and be transferable.
Let’s see how this might be accomplished.
Student Engagement and Meaningful Learning
According to the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE), student engagement involves:
- The amount of time and effort students put into their studies and other educationally purposeful activities; and
- How the educational institution uses its resources and organizes the curriculum and other learning opportunities to get students to participate in activities that decades of research studies show are linked to student learning.
Ten ‘engagement indicators’ or activities are organized under 4 themes and annual research is done involving both first-year and senior students. In 2013, more than 371,000 students from 621 colleges and universities in the US and Canada replied to the survey.
Learning with Peers
Experiences with Faculty
The analysis of the 2013 NSSE survey provided a number of important insights into the nature of student engagement in online learning:
- Students whose courses challenged them to do their best work also experienced greater emphasis on higher-order learning and higher levels of reflection and integrative learning.
- Three-quarters of students taking all their courses online experienced high levels of challenge, while those with no online courses had significantly lower levels. Online students spent slightly more time studying and reading, and they were assigned more writing on average.
- Learning strategies, such as identifying key information from reading assignments, were used more often by students taking all their courses online, and were associated with higher self-reported grades.
- Students taking all of their courses online were significantly less engaged in collaborative learning and had fewer interactions with faculty.
- However, online students rated the quality of their interactions more highly than students with no online courses.
- Both learning with technology and courses that improved students’ understanding and use of technology had a positive impact on all four of the NSSE academic challenge indicators.
This is worth repeating: student engagement is linked positively to desirable learning outcomes such as critical thinking, knowledge retention and transfer, and academic performance. As this research shows, it can be accomplished online, as well as in classroom situations, and, sometimes, even more effectively in online situations.
Learning Partnerships and Communities of Practice
A course involves students working with the support of a faculty member who acts as a coach, guide, mentor, and instructor. Students may also engage with others – locally, regionally, nationally and globally – to help with their understanding, knowledge acquisition, and skills development. In essence, a course can involve more than one community of practice – with each member collaborating to develop and enhance their knowledge, skills and understanding.
There is substantial literature on the best practices associated with communities of practice for learning, with, for example, a Step-by-Step Guide for Designing and Cultivating Communities of Practice available from EDUCAUSE and Scientific Communities of Practice for Learning – Lessons from Ethnographic Research from Academica.edu. The key elements of such communities for learning are:
- Connect people through meaningful activity, tasks and challenges – student to student, student to faculty, student to others around the world, students to knowledge resources.
- Provide a shared context for people to communicate and share information, evidence, cases, and personal experiences in a way that builds understanding and insight.
- Enable dialogue between people who come together to learn, explore new knowledge and skills, solve challenging problems, and create new, mutually beneficial opportunities.
- Stimulate learning by serving as a vehicle for authentic communication, mentoring, coaching, formative assessment and self-reflection.
- Capture and diffuse existing knowledge to help people improve their practice by providing a forum to identify solutions to common problems and a process to collect and evaluate best practices.
- Introduce collaborative processes to student groups, as well as between students and other organizations, to encourage the free flow of ideas and exchange of information.
- Help students organize around purposeful actions that deliver tangible learning outcomes.
- Generate new knowledge to help people transform their practice to accommodate changes in needs and technologies.
Appropriate Use of Technology
Learning is a complex process. Different kinds of subject matter require different approaches - for example, critical text analysis is a very different process from an environmental impact assessment, and understanding the relevance of the law to a particular circumstance requires different skills from deciding how best to undertake a statistical analysis.
The idea that today’s students - the “net generation” - learn differently from older people is a popular one, but it is unsupported by evidence. Recent Canadian research, including articles entitled Digital Learners in Higher Education: Generation is Not the Issue and The Digital Native Debate in Higher Education: A Comparative Analysis of Recent Literature, suggests there are no meaningful generational differences in how learners say they use information and communications technologies or their perceived behavioural characteristics. Given that online learners tend to be older than the ‘net generation’, this is significant for online learning.
As outlined in the National Survey of Student Engagement categories for student engagement, effective interaction can be with faculty, peers, materials and resources, and with the institution. Technology can provide all of these links:
- Access to quality learning materials, including online course materials, open educational resources, simulations, serious games and online “labs” and activity learning centres.
- Access to e-books, journals and massive research libraries.
- Access to peer and expert networks through social media, specialist networks (e.g. within LinkedIn), and experts.
- Access to structured assignment and support resources.
- Access to peer networks for student-to-student learning.
- Access to databases, data repositories, and other sources.
- Links to communities of practice and global networks.
- Links to news feeds and custom article feeds.
- Access to formative and summative assessment tools and competency assessments
- Access to project support tools and statistical analysis tools.
- Access to writing and communication support tools.
The issue is not “which LMS [learning management system] shall we use” or “which is the best web conferencing system”, but how can we use technology as part of our strategy for student engagement and deep learning.
But this is the key: technology is among the resources available to a faculty member. So are workshops, labs, moots for law students, simulations, projects, field work and many other devices. Online learning can increase flexibility, but only if it is a part of learning design – part of the pedagogy.
Supporting Faculty Communities of Practice
Faculty see fully online courses as one option amongst many that can be used to achieve successful learning outcomes. Many, if we take their behaviour as an indicator, prefer blended learning – a mixture of online, in class, and self-study.
Course designs are linked to the nature of the content and the skills and understanding which students are required to master, the nature of the learners’ backgrounds and knowledge and the capacity of the faculty member to imagine different ways of ensuring that their students have the opportunity to be successful.
One difficulty for faculty may be that they are not aware of all that is possible for their discipline and their students. They would benefit from examples of their own work done differently by others. This is why a community of practice portal for faculty members is so important – they need to be able to see what is possible and to connect to those who “go before them” so that they find out what works, what didn’t work and what were the lessons learned. Some work towards such portals exists, such as the Ontario Online Learning Portal for Faculty & Instructors and Academica.edu.
In addition, when a faculty member wants to increase student engagement, pursue deep learning, create effective communities of practice for his or her students and leverage technology and online resources for improved learning outcomes, institutions need to have centres of support and training, research funds, access to technology, and other structures in place to respond to these needs.
The Current State of the New Pedagogy
Teaching and learning is alive and well in our colleges and universities and there are a great many innovations and new approaches being taken, many of them highlighted in Contact North | Contact Nord’s Pockets of Innovation Series. More students than ever are studying at the college and university level and more faculty are designing courses in which students leverage peer networks, social networks and technology to enhance their learning.
Although innovative pedagogy is thriving, we could do much more to advance the new pedagogy by being better ourselves at faculty engagement, deep learning about teaching and learning and the smart use of technology to support this agenda.