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Social Learning Tools Are Fine, But Not Critical For All Educational Models

This article was originally posted at e-Literate

We are in a high point of investment and interest in the application of technology to innovate education, and a lot of attention has been paid to the new class of learning platforms that have social tools at the center of the platform design – think Instructure, Coursekit, OpenClass, etc. I have written about several new solutions and how they could disrupt our traditional LMS markets. However, the discussions about the potential of different learning platforms too often ignore some key differences in the models of education that are the targets for educational technology. One result is that some systems are often dismissed out of hand for not having any real social or collaboration tools – think the new iTunesU app or Khan Academy.

There is a big divide, in my opinion, between the application of technology to support and improve traditional models of education and the application of technology to create or enable new models of education. Whether social and collaboration features are critical depends on the educational model, not on the technology available.

Improving Traditional Education

In this case, the role of educational technology is to bring the benefits of technical features of social, mobile, big data, consumerization, etc to the classroom model that has existed for hundreds of years. The obvious example is bringing learning platforms and other tools to improve how well students learn in a classroom setting. I would include in this model the goals of the flipped classroom as well as online courses designed by individual faculty members. In all these cases, the usage of technology is to reduce the administrative burden, make the best usage of classroom time, and supporting pedagogical designs of the class. The technology replicates – hopefully in a compelling manner – the traditional role of tranmitting information, cohort-based learning and interaction, self-assessment such as quizzes, and official assessments such as tests and grading.

In this model, social and collaborative tools show great potential of improving education and allowing innovations to the course or curriculum design. Social tools can even help break down the boundaries of course, program or institution, and it makes sense that a learning platform designed around the social tools should be very useful in this context.

Enabling New Models of Education

In this case, the role of technology not to enhance an existing model, but rather to enable a different educational model. I’d like to highlight one model – competency-based education – that has a very different set of needs than traditional models, and where social and collaboration tools are not critical for learning platform support. To be clear, this is not to argue that all new models of education place a low priority on social sharing and collaboration, but to argue that we should judge learning platforms based on which educational models they are supporting or enabling.

I ran across two articles last week highlighting credential-based education – one in K-12 and one in higher ed. The first article, in Education Week, describes New Hampshire efforts to implement competency-based learning for K-12. Following a senior named Brittany, the article offers a balanced view of the promises and challenges of this approach.

Embracing that approach fully, however, can be tough because it challenges such basic systems as testing and grading. Brittany Rollins’ experience at Newfound Regional illustrates both how far New Hampshire has come in shaking off traditional conceptions of time-based learning, and also how far it still has to go.

Brittany’s off-campus work in an “extended learning opportunity” reflects the state’s emphasis on three related ideas: “anytime, anywhere” learning, which includes out-of-school and virtual programs; personalized education, which strives to tailor studies to students’ needs and interests; and competency-based learning. [snip]

In Brittany’s case, she’ll be able to demonstrate mastery of her subject matter on her own timetable. She’ll prove her knowledge and skills piece by piece, in a variety of ways, as she masters them.

The second article is the testimony of Western Governors University to the US Senate in a hearing on college affordability (full text here). They describe their unique approach to higher education as based on competency-based learning and technology enablement.

The WGU approach to learning is unique in two important ways, resulting in increased productivity, a higher level of student support, and shorter times to graduation. First, rather than simply delivering classroom instruction through the Internet, WGU uses a competency-based learning model, which measures learning rather than time. This approach allows students to earn their degrees by demonstrating their mastery of subject matter rather than spending time in class to accumulate credit hours. [snip]

The second unique attribute of our model is the use of technology to facilitate learning. Technology has increased the productivity of nearly every industry except education, where it is most often an add-on cost and not used to change or improve teaching and learning. Even with the improvements in online learning platforms and resources, the majority of online education is simply classroom education delivered through the Internet, instructor-led and time-based. As a result, most online higher education is no more affordable than traditional education.

The role of social learning in competency-based models becomes minimized – a nice-to-have – as the whole concept of a cohort of students moving through the material at roughly the same time goes away. The focus shifts to consuming and interacting with personalized content and demonstrating mastery of the subject as the individual student is ready to assessed.

Given this model, there are real opportunities for a learning platform which are based on transmitting content, allowing the student to access and interact with the material anytime, anywhere, even without some of the social tools that are so attractive to traditional education and other models.

Rather than arguing that some platform misses the mark due to its content focus and lack of collaborative tools, I hope we get more arguments in how well platforms supports the actual educational model(s). We are entering a world with multiple educational models, and I doubt that any single model will prevail.

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