Innovative Curriculum And Approaches To Online Learning – Designing For Social Learning

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Anant Agarwal, CEO of edX, provocatively said, “University teaching hasn’t changed since the Middle Ages.” Those who teach in higher education know that the basic model of the two-hour lecture – what Agarwal might call medieval – is still widely used. They also know that innovation is all around.

Most universities have flipped the classroom in some areas – putting preparatory material online and using classes for interaction rather than didactic lectures. The question is, how do teachers flip the university? In other words, how do educators make innovative, social and natively digital learning experiences the norm and not the exception?

Inside and outside the university, digital technology has changed the way learners learn. Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), provided free by leading institutions around the world, YouTube videos that offer private tutorials and micro-credentials that warrant digital certificates in demonstrating achievements on extra-curricular activities are compelling examples of innovation.

So, when digital technologies yield so much potential for advancing the university curriculum for online learning, what actually works? What is the litmus test for deciding which education technology innovations to roll-out? One way to approach these questions is through designing for social learning, that is, design thinking.

Design thinking – an approach that places user-centred, exploratory, iterative development and refection-in-action at the heart of creating and applying products and services – is now widely used across university curriculum. Design thinking provides a model of learning design and has been popularised by academics like University College London’s Dianna Laurillard and Sydney University’s Peter Goodyear. Design thinking also provides a model for learner experience. It starts with a conviction that learning happens in action and, more specifically, that learning happens through conversations that give people the courage to try things out. Learning is social and educators need to design learning with this in mind.

Since the groundbreaking work by Albert Bandura on social learning in the 1970s, educators know that people observe and learn through social interactions with others. Those around a person have a lot of influence in shaping what that person knows about the world and how he applies that knowledge in daily life. Take language, for example – not only do people need to learn how to construct sentences that are grammatically correct (syntax/linguistic competence), but they also need in-depth knowledge of how to use their language appropriately in certain contexts (pragmatics/sociolinguistic competence). This is why people may talk differently, using different ‘codes/registers’, to their friends and families at a dinner table compared to how they talk with colleagues in a formal work meeting. By critically (and often unconsciously) observing how others around them do things, people learn what is (not) valued and how to behave accordingly.

Social learning happens whether educators like it or not, even in constrained lecture theatres – students talk before and afterwards, they organise themselves, they swap notes, they debrief. They sit in claimed spaces, in particular groupings and communicate through body language. In online learning, with an individual in front of a private screen, social learning experiences need to be designed more deliberately.

There are many opportunities to do things differently in online courses that allow educators to really put the medieval model of teaching and learning well behind them and ensure that social learning is explicit and intentional throughout. The following section of the article describes four key opportunities enabled by online learning and an accompanying set of teaching tips to maximise social learning in each case.

  1. Celebrate and share stories

We are story telling animals – that is how we make sense of the world. Stories can create emotional and personal relevance, which effectively contribute to learning critical information and complex ideas. Digital technologies enable us to craft stories with incredibly rich media beyond simple written texts – for example, video, audio, image and interactive learning resources. Free online tools for creating interactive presentations (such as Prezi and Emaze) and infographics are now readily accessible to all users. Richard Mayer’s decades of research on the use of media in learning also reports that people learn better with a combination of texts and media rather than texts only (which he called the Multimedia Principle). Problem-based learning is one well-known technique that leverages the power of stories – learners engage with carefully designed scenarios, in other words, stories, applying their knowledge to solve real-world problems.

Design tips for social learning:

  • Use case studies that represent authentic problems to encourage learners to hear the perspective of others and then discuss and collaborate.
  • Take advantage of various types of multimedia that appeal to diverse learning styles and can be used to explain traditionally boring/complex key concepts in visually compelling ways.
  • Invite learners to openly share their stories using both text and rich media that reflect their understanding of the topic explored – social learning is not just exchanging words.
  1. Promote peer and self-regulated learning

When online learning is designed through an intentional social lens, the traditional model of transmission of knowledge from teacher to student becomes redundant because students are implicitly located at the centre of learning. In a world where much information is now at anyone’s fingertips through a simple Google search, the role of educator needs to be reconceived. The educator must become a guide, facilitator and curator.

Of course, students need to develop expertise carefully over time and in this they will depend on the assistance of more knowledgeable others. But all students must be encouraged to engage in the process of learning, not just with content knowledge. Skills like critical thinking, problem solving and teamwork are constantly at the top of employers’ most sought-after graduate capabilities. Students need not just to be guided to ‘right answers’ – they need to develop their own evaluative judgement skills so that they can judge their own work and that of their colleagues. They will not have tutors to mark their ‘assignments’ in the workplace. Cultivating learners’ abilities to critically engage and evaluate their own and peers’ work based on agreed criteria or standards is one of the most important life skills that higher education can nurture. To become 21st century ready, students need to be able to navigate complexity, not only through understanding disciplinary-related knowledge, but through a finely honed ability to work with others.

Design tips for social learning:

  • Frame teachers as facilitators who guide learners through questions and prompts, instead of directly feeding answers and information.
  • Encourage peer learning through sharing of stories, reflections, resources and questions.
  • Talk about the power of feedback in learning and how to produce and digest feedback.
  1. Get social with social media

Social media, which has grown exponentially over the past decade, can extend conversations and learning opportunities beyond the usual classroom. Most social media platforms have features such as like, follow, share and reply, which recognisably resonate with many students’ everyday experiences with social media. Because of the open and social nature of social media, incorporating this approach into education provides authentic learning experiences, allowing students to explore and connect with real-world networks. In so doing, learners are also required to apply digital literacy and develop their digital identities. They need to make judgements about what is credible and think about how to represent themselves as distinct professionals through their digital profiles.

Design tips for social learning:

  • Create # for a course/class (for example, #LNG101) and encourage learners to continue conversations and exchange ideas/resources on key concepts explored in class (for example, Twitter and Instagram).
  • Design assessment that scaffolds students’ understanding and creation of digital identity via social media profiles (for example, LinkedIn).
  • Encourage learners to follow and connect with researchers and practitioners in their field of study via social media (for example, Google Scholar and LinkedIn).
  1. Orchestrate team/group work

Contemporary digital tools are designed for collaboration. Google Docs allows multiple writers to contribute and track their writing work online. Google Hangouts or Skype can host online virtual meetings to connect and discuss ideas in real time. Trello invites people to communicate asynchronously and manage their tasks and projects. Orchestrating team or group tasks with specific goals can provide a great opportunity for learning directly through interactions with others. The trick in online team/group tasks is to design tasks that genuinely allow learners to contribute through various roles and responsibilities assigned to them. All of these free online tools are ones that students will likely use in their working lives.

Design tips for social learning:

  • Clearly state the aims and benefits of the team/group task to learners – What are learners going to achieve in this activity?
  • Negotiate and clarify how the team/group task is going to happen – What digital tools are used for collaboration, communication and project management? What are the roles and responsibilities of each member?
  • Set up teams/groups that represent a mix of learners for diversity and learning opportunities (for example, prior knowledge/experience, gender, age and location).

With the proliferation of available digital tools, educators often simultaneously feel both excitement and trepidation – the sky is the limit, but where do we start? We suggest that the place to start is with design. Good learning and teaching, whether online or on-campus, is purposeful and crafted. Good teaching starts with a careful exploration of who the learners are, what they need to achieve and how they can achieve it. Digital innovation is not about the latest trending tool. It is about the ubiquity of networked communication. Effective digital learning is enacted through designing for social learning, which, in turn, activates networks. Networks connect learners to each other, to history and to the great span of ideas – to the stories that make us human.

Dr Chie Adachi is a Lecturer within Deakin Learning Futures at Deakin University and works on various innovation projects around digital learning. Her research interests include: self and peer assessment, digital literacy and digital social learning.

 A/Prof Marcus O’Donnell is Director, Digital Learning at Deakin University where he leads a number of ‘cloud-first’ learning redesign projects. His research interests includes digital learning innovation, contemplative pedagogies and student resilience. 

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Education Technology Solutions has been created to inspire and encourage the use of technology in education. Through its content, Education Technology Solutions seeks to showcase cutting edge products and practices with a view to expanding the boundaries and raising the standards of education curricula. It introduces teachers and IT staff to the latest products, services and developments in education technology with a view to providing practical how-to guidance designed to facilitate the integration of those products and services into the school environment in the most productive and beneficial manner possible.
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