Why do we work from home but learn remotely?

I am slowly getting used to the ugly abbreviation WFH that has emerged during the pandemic, though I don’t much like it because it’s not always accurate. Even in pandemic times I often work from my boat (WFB). In non-pandemic times I’ve worked from a tent (WFT), a library (WFL), a hotel room (WFHR), a park bench (WFPB), a conference (WFC), a plane (WFP), a bus (WF… OK, you get the picture), and much, much more. I have even worked at Athabasca University’s own buildings (Working from Work?) on rare occasions. But why do most of us in the trade so rarely use terms like learning from home when working from home (WFH) is so ubiquitous?

Terms like e-learning, online learning, distance learning, remote learning, and so on, are weird. Learning is never remote, electronic, online, or at a distance.  There is more sense to terms like distance education, online education, remote teaching, and so on, because education and teaching describe relationships between people, and there are different ways that those relationships can be mediated, that do (or should) deeply affect the process. There is also a whole slew of intentional and implicit structures, systems, methods, and toolsets that are assumed when we prefix education with terms like distance or online. But why online or distance learning?

As teachers we are (rightly) taught that it’s not about the teaching, it’s about the learning. For at least the last 30 years or more we have, for instance, therefore been strongly encouraged to use the term ‘learning & teaching’ instead of ‘teaching & learning’ because learning must come first. I’ve corrected people myself for getting the order wrong, many times. Charitably, therefore, it might be that we are trying to draw attention to the fact that it’s about learning. But, if so, why distance or online?

Ricardo Liberato, CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons I think something nasty has happened to the term ‘learning’ when it is used this way, because I think that what we actually mean by it is ‘teaching’.  Some British English dialects take that dubious elision fully on board. When something nasty happens to someone as a consequence of something they have done that is perceived to be wrong, or even when some punishment is inflicted on them by someone else, it is common in some circles to say ‘that’ll learn yer’ (the ‘yer’ is important – don’t imagine the Queen saying in received pronunciation ‘that will learn you’ because it would be wrong). When I hear the phrase I imagine it being said with a snarl. It’s a cruel thing to say, though it can be used kind-of humorously, at least if, as many of my compatriots do, you appreciate a particularly crude form of Benny-Hillish shadenfreude (‘Ha ha, you fell flat on your face and hurt yourself. That’ll learn yer’).

Outside a subset of British and perhaps some other minor English vernaculars, learning is never something that we do to people. It’s something done by people, with what and with whom is around them (and that might include a teaching website, textbook, or course pack). So let’s stop calling people distance or online learners because it devalues and obscures what they are actually doing. They are not being learned at. They are being taught at a distance, and learning from home (or wherever they happen to be).

Beyond learning outcomes

What we teach, what a student learns, what we assess This is a slide deck for a talk I’m giving today, at a faculty workshop, on the subject of learning outcomes.

I think that well-considered learning outcomes can be really helpful when planning and designing learning activities, especially where there is a need to assess learning. They can help keep a learning designer focused, and to remember to ensure that assessment activities actually make a positive contribution to learning. They can also be helpful to teachers while teaching, as a framework to keep them on track (if they wish to remain on track).  However, that’s about it. Learning outcomes are not useful when applied to bureaucratic ends, they are very poor descriptors of what learning actually happens, as a rule, and they are of very little (if any) use to students under most circumstances (there are exceptions – it’s a design issue, not a logical flaw).

The big point of my talk, though, is that we should be measuring what students have actually learned, not whether they have learned what we think we have taught, and that the purpose of everything we do should be to support learning, not to support bureaucracy.

I frame this in terms of the relationships between:

  • what we teach (what we actually teach, not just what we think we are teaching, including stuff like attitudes, beliefs, methods of teaching, etc),
  • what a student learns in the process (an individual student, not students as a whole), and
  • what we assess (formally and summatively, not necessarily as part of the learning process).

There are many things that we teach that any given student will not learn, albeit that (arguably) we wouldn’t be teaching at all if learning were not happening for someone. Most students get a small subset of that. There are also many things that we teach without intentionally teaching, not all of them good or useful.

There are also very many things that students learn that we do not teach, intentionally or otherwise. In fact, it is normal for us to mandate this as part of a learning design: any mildly creative or problem-solving/inquiry-oriented activity will lead to different learning outcomes for every learner. Even in the most horribly regimented teaching contexts, students are the ones that connect everything together, and that’s always going to include a lot more than what their teachers teach.

Similarly, there are lots of things that we assess that we do not teach, even with great constructive alignment. For example, the students’ ability to string a sentence together tends to be not just a prerequisite but something that is actively graded in typical assessments.

My main points are that, though it is good to have a teaching plan (albeit that it should be flexible,  reponsive to student needs, and should accommodate serendipity)learning :

  • students should be participants in planning outcomes and
  • we should assess what students actually learn, not what we think we are teaching.

From a learning perspective, there’s less than no point in summatively judging what learners have not learned. However, that’s exactly what most institutions actually do. Assessment should be about how learners have positively changed, not whether they have met our demands.

This also implies that students should be participants in the planning and use of learning outcomes: they should be able to personalize their learning, and we should recognize their needs and interests. I use andragogy to frame this, because it is relatively uncontroversial, is easily understood, and doesn’t require people to change everything in their world view to become better teachers, but I could have equally used quite a large number of other models. Connectivism, Communities of Practice, and most constructivist theories, for instance, force us to similar conclusions.

I suggest that appreciative inquiry may be useful as an approach to assessment, inasmuch as the research methodology is purpose-built to bring about positive change, and its focus on success rather than failure makes sense in a learning context.

I also suggest the use of outcome mapping (and its close cousin, outcome harvesting) as a means of capturing unplanned as well as planned outcomes. I like these methods because they only look at changes, and then try to find out what led to those changes. Again, it’s about evaluation rather than judgment.