Smart learning – a new approach or simply a new name? | Smart Learning

Kinshuk has begun a blog on smart learning and, in this post, defines what that means. I particularly like:

 I have come to realize that while technology can help us in improving learning, a fundamental change is needed in the overall perception of educators and learners to see any real effect. Simply trying to create adaptive systems, intelligent systems, or any sort of mobile/ubiquitous environments is going to have only superficial impact, if we do not change the way we teach, and more importantly, the way we think of learning process (and assessment process). 

This very much echoes my own view. At least that fundamental change is needed in the context of formal education. Outside our ivory towers that fundamental change has already happened and continues to accelerate. Google Search, Wikipedia, Twitter, Reddit, StackExchange, Facebook and countless others of their net-enabled ilk are amongst the most successful learning technologies (more accurately, components of learning technologies) ever created, arguably up there with language and writing, ultimately way beyond printing or schools. 

Kinshuk goes on to talk of an ecosystem of technology and pedagogy, which I think is a useful way of looking at it. Terry Anderson, too, talks of the dance between technology and pedagogy with much the same intent. I agree that we have to take a total systems view of this. My own take on it is that pedagogies are technologies – learning technologies are simply those with pedagogies in the assembly, whether human-instantiated or embedded in tools. Technologies and pedagogies are not separate categories. Within the ecosystem there are many other technologies involved in the assembly apart from those we traditionally label as ‘learning technologies’ such as timetables, organizational structures, regulations, departmental roles, accreditation frameworks, curricula, organizational methods, processes and rituals, not to mention pieces like routers, protocols, software programs and whiteboards. But, though important, technologies are not the only objects in this ecology. We need to think of the entire ecosystem and consider things that are not technologies at all like friendship, caring, learning, creativity, belief, environment, ethics, and, of course, people. As soon as you get past the ‘if intervention x, then result y’ mindset that plagues much learning technology (and education) research, and start to see it as a complex adaptive system that is ultimately about what it means to be human, you enter a world of rich complexity that I think is far more productive territory. Its an ecosystem that is filled not just with process but with meaning and value. 

On a more mundane and pragmatic note, I think it is worth observing that learning and accreditation of competence must be entirely separated – accreditation is an invasive parasite in this ecosystem that feeds on and consumes learning. Or maybe it is more like the effluent that poisons it. Either way, I’d prefer that accreditation should not be lumped under the ‘smart learning’ banner at all. ‘Smart accreditation’ is fine – I have no particular concerns about that, as a separate field of study. In some ways it is worthy of study in smart learning because of its effects. That is somewhat along the lines of studying oil spills when considering natural ecosystems.  Assessment (feedback, critical reflection, judgement, etc), on the other hand, is a totally different matter. Assessment is a critical part of almost any pedagogy worthy of the name and so of course must be part of a smart learning ecology. I’m not sure that it warrants a separate category of its own but it is certainly important. It is, however, highly dangerous to take the ‘easy’ next step of using it to assert competence, especially when that assertion becomes the reason for learning in the first place, or is used as a tool to manipulate learners. That is what predominantly drives education now, to the point that it threatens the entire ecosystem. 

That said, I’d like to think that it is possible that the paths of accreditation and assessment might one day rejoin because they do share copious commonalities. It would be great to find ways that the smart stuff we are doing to support learning might, as a byproduct, also be useful evidence in accreditation, without clogging up the whole ecosystem. Technologies like Caliper, TinCan, and portfolios offer much promise for that. 

Address of the bookmark:

I am a professional learner, employed as a Full Professor at Athabasca University, where I research lots of things broadly in the area of learning and technology and teach mainly in the School of Computing & Information Systems, of which I am the Chair. I am married, with two grown-up children, and live in beautiful Vancouver.

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