With a possible audience of thousands, and without a clue they were there because the Zoom output was streamed to a different site (weird), I talked very fast about my experience of higher education for about 20 minutes at the THE UK Student Festival yesterday. The talk was recorded and will be used again for the THE Canada Student Festival later in the month. It’s a huge event – over 8000 enrolled (though not all attending every session) – with quite a lot of other keynotes and a great many other talks, panels, and discussions, aimed at helping students starting out in higher education. The audience was very different from those I normally talk to, and the (very sensible) strict 20-minute format gave me a lot less leeway than the usual hour allowed, so I found it interestingly challenging. These are the slides I used.
The brief I was given was not to preach, but to share my experience of higher education, as a student and as an educator. My personal agenda was to talk about why and how online learning is worth doing (especially at AU), so I tried (a bit clunkily) to aim my story in that direction. I failed to remember to mention some key things, I spent too long on others, and I suspect that the most memorable message that came through was, for in-person students living on campus, to get a kettle (it’s a great way to make lots of new friends fast) but, hopefully, my bigger message got through to some.
The essential point of my wild ramble was not that kettles are the solution to success in higher education, but that students and the rest of us should take ownership of our own education: it should be done by us, not to us. We should learn the way we want to learn, and we should learn what we want to learn; we should seek adventure and challenge rather than easy pickings; and we should hang out with interesting people and/or those we care about, because that’s how most learning happens, as well as being a large part of what makes it meaningful. I noted that we should focus on learning and should to try to ignore grades as much as possible, because grades destroy the love of doing something simply because we enjoy it. Essentially, my advice was about finding the things that intrinsically motivate us and reducing the effects of things that demotivate us. My own educational journey, and (I think) that of most committed educators, has largely followed that path: that’s how we thrived in a system not conducive to intrinsic motivation, and it’s the path we try to encourage our own students to take. I observed that it is much easier to own your own education when it is done online, at least if it is done in ways that take advantage of the medium, and not through a pale simulacrum of in-person teaching, because the teacher cannot be in control, the level of challenge is much more controllable, and there are way more people (online and in your own environment) who can support you.
This is my Spotlight Session from the 34th Distance Teaching & Learning Conference, at Wisconsin Madison, August 8th, 2018. Appropriately enough, I did this online and at a distance thanks to my ineptitude at dealing with the bureaucracy of immigration. Unfortunately my audio died as we moved to the Q&A session so, if anyone who was there (or anyone else) has any questions or observations, do please post them here! Comments are moderated.
The talk was concerned with how online learning is fundamentally different from in-person learning, and what that means for how (or even whether) we teach, in the traditional formal sense of the word.
Teaching is always a gestalt process, an emergent consequence of the actions of many teachers, including most notably the learners themselves, which is always greater than (and notably different from) the sum of its parts. This deeply distributed process is often masked by the inevitable (thanks to physics in traditional classrooms) dominance of an individual teacher in the process. Online, the mask falls off. Learners invariably have both far greater control and far more connection with the distributed gestalt. This is great, unless institutional teachers fight against it with rewards and punishments, in a pointless and counter-productive effort to try to sustain the level of control that is almost effortlessly attained by traditional in-person teachers, and that is purely a consequence of solving problems caused by physical classroom needs, not of the needs of learners. I describe some of the ways that we deal with the inherent weaknesses of in-person teaching especially relating to autonomy and competence support, and observe how such pedagogical methods are a solution to problems caused by the contingent side effects of in person teaching, not to learning in general.
The talk concludes with some broad characterization of what is different when teachers choose to let go of that control. I observe that what might have been Leonardo da Vinci’s greatest creation was his effective learning process, without which none of the rest of his creations could have happened. I am hopeful that now, thanks to the connected world that we live in, we can all learn like Leonardo, if and only if teachers can learn to let go.
It is not much of a surprise that many apps are designed to be addictive, nor that there is a whole discipline behind making them so, but I was particularly interested in the delightfully named Dopamine Labs‘ use of behaviourist techniques (operant conditioning with variable ratio scheduling, I think), and the reasoning behind it. As the article puts it:
One of the most popular techniques … is called variable reinforcement or variable rewards. It involves three steps: a trigger, an action and a reward. A push notification, such as a message that someone has commented on your Facebook photo, is a trigger; opening the app is the action; and the reward could be a “like” or a “share” of a message you posted. These rewards trigger the release of dopamine in the brain, making the user feel happy, possibly even euphoric, Brown says. “Just by controlling when and how you give people that little burst of dopamine, you can get them to go from using [the app] a couple times a week to using it dozens of times a week.”
For well-designed social media and games, the reward is intrinsic to the activity, and perfectly aligned with its function. If the intent is to create addicts – which, in both kinds of system, it probably is – the trick is to design an environment that builds rewards into the algorithms (the rules) of the system, and to keep them coming, ideally making it possible for the rewards to increase in intensity as the user gains greater expertise or experience, but varying ratios or intervals between rewards to keep things interesting. Though this particular example falls out from behaviourist theory, it is also well supported by cognitivist and brain-based understandings of how we think. Drug dealers know this too, as it happens. If you want to keep people using your product, this is how to make your product particularly addictive.
Lovers of learning experience addiction too. The more we learn, the more there is to learn, the greater the depth and pleasure there is to be found in doing so, and the sporadic ups and downs, especially when faced with challenges we eventually solve, are part of the joy of it. Increasing mastery of anything is a reward in itself that seems quite intrinsic to our make-up, and to that of many other animals. Doing it in a social context is even better, as we share in the learning of others and gain value (social capital, different perspectives, help overcoming problems, etc) in the process. We gain greater control, greater autonomy, greater capability to live our lives as we want to live them, which is very motivating. As long as the reward comes from the activity itself, and the activity is not harmful, this is good news. It makes sense from an evolutionary perspective. We are innately motivated to learn, because learning is an extremely valuable survival characteristic. Learning generally makes dopamine positively drip from our eyeballs.
So what’s the problem with applying the principle in education?
None at all, until you hit something that you do not wish to learn, that is too difficult to master right now, that is too boring, that has no obvious rewards in and of itself. The correct response to this problem is, ideally, to find what there is to love in it. Good teachers can help with that a lot, inspiring, revealing, supporting, demonstrating, and discussing. Other learners can make a huge difference too, supporting, modelling behaviours, filling gaps, and so on. We very often learn things for other people, with other people, or because of other people. Educational systems offer a good substrate for that.
If intrinsic motivation fails to move us, then at least the motivation should be self-determined. Figure 2 shows a very successful and well-validated model of motivation (from Ryan and Deci) that, amongst other things, usefully describes differing degrees of extrinsic motivation (external, introjected, identified, and integrated) that, as they approach the right of the diagram, increasingly approach intrinsic motivation in value, though ‘external regulation’ is rather different, of which more soon. When intrinsic motivation fails, what we need is some kind of internal regulation to push us onwards. It is not a bad idea to find some internally regulated reason that aligns with your beliefs about yourself and your goals, or that at least fits with some purpose or goal that you find valuable. It’s sometimes useful to develop a bit of ‘grit‘ – to be able to do something that you don’t love doing in order to be able to do things that you do love doing, to find reasons for learning stuff that are meaningful and fit with your personal values, even if the immediately presenting activity is not fun in itself. Again, teachers and other people can help a lot with that, by showing ways that they are doing so themselves, by providing support, by engaging, or by being the reason that we do something in the first place. It’s all very social, at its heart.
Figure 2: Forms of motivation
That social element is important, and not clearly represented in the diagram, despite being a critical aspect of intrinsic motivation and mattering a lot for the ‘higher’ identified forms of extrinsic motivation. From an evolutionary perspective, I suspect this ability to learn because of the presence of others accounts for our species’ apparent dominance in our ecosystems. We are not particularly clever as independent individuals but, collectively, we are mighty smart. This could not be the case without having an innate inclination to value, and to gain value from, other people, and for this to have the consequence that others very materially contribute towards our motivation to do something. I guess I should mention that ‘innate’ does not mean ‘pre-programmed’ – this is almost certainly an emergent phenomenon. But it is a big part of who we are.
So far so good. Educational systems are, at least in principle, very effective ways of bringing people together. It all goes horribly wrong, however, when the educators’ response to amotivation (or worse, to motivation to avoid) is to change the rules by throwing in extrinsic rewards and punishments, like grades, say, or applying other controls to the process like forced attendance. Externally regulated extrinsic motivation is extremely dangerous.
Extrinsic rewards and punishments do work, in the sense that they coerce people and other animals into behaving as the giver of the rewards or punishments wishes them to behave. And yes, dopamine is implicated. This immediate effectiveness is what makes them so alluring. But it’s like giving an athlete performance-enhancing but ultimately harmful drugs. Rewards and punishments are also highly addictive and, like other addictions, you need more and more to sustain your addiction because you become inured to the effects, and withdrawal gets more painful the longer you are addicted. This works two ways. Those that get the rewards (the good grades, gold stars, praise, whatever) go on to want more of them, and will do what they need to get them, whether or not there are any further benefits (like, say, learning). Cheating is one popular way to do this. Tactical study, where the student tries to do what will get good grades rather than learn for the love of it, is another. But grading, though extrinsically motivating for the most part, is not always effective: bad grades can achieve the opposite effect, like drugs spiked with something horrible. Those that get grades as punishments often try to avoid them by whatever means they can: dropping out and cheating (a way to bypass the system to get hold of the good stuff) are popular solutions.
The biggest problems, however, come when you take the rewards/punishments away. As a vast body of research has shown and continues to show, this diminishes intrinsic motivation and often eliminates it altogether. If people are not very inclined to do something then you can temporarily boost interest by adding extrinsic rewards or punishments but, when you take them away, people are considerably less inclined to do the thing than they were before your started even when they originally liked to do it. At a high level this can be explained by the fact that, in giving a reward or punishment, you are drawing attention away from (crowding out) the thing itself and, at the same time, sending a strong signal that the activity itself is not rewarding enough in itself to be worth doing. But I am not sure that this fully explains the very strong negative effects on motivation that we actually see when rewards or punishments are withdrawn. I idly speculate that part of the reason for this effect might be the dopamine crash. We come to associate an activity with a dopamine boost and, when that boost is no longer forthcoming, it can be very disappointing, like smoking a nicotine-free cigarette (trust me – that’s awful). Cold turkey is not the best state to be in, especially when you associate it with an activity like learning something. It could really put you off a subject. This is just a thought: I know of no evidence that it is true, but it seems a plausible hypothesis that would be worth testing.
Whatever the cause, the effects are terrible. By extrinsically driving our students, we kill the love of the activity itself for those that might have loved it, and permanently prevent those that might have later found it valuable from ever wanting to do it again. Remarkably few survive unscathed, and a disproportionate number of those that do go on to become teachers, and so the cycle continues. I don’t think this is how education should be, and I don’t think it is what most of us in the system intend from it.
Getting out of the loop
The only really effective way to ensure lifelong interest and ongoing love of learning is to find the reward in the activity itself, not in an extrinsic reward. The games and social applications described in this article do that very well but it is important to remember that the intent of the designers of the applications is to increase addiction to them in order to sell or promote the product, and that there is perfect alignment between the reward and the activity itself. This is built into the rule system. In an education system that is driven by marks, we are making grades (not learning) the product, and making those the source of the addiction. This is very different. It has nothing to do with the activity of learning itself: it is extrinsic to the process. It might be even more effective give our students addictive drugs (higher concentrations equate to higher grades) to increase the incentive. I’m surprised no one has tried this.
But, seriously, what we really need to be doing is to make learning the addiction.
We can reduce the harm to an extent by removing grades from the teaching process and focusing on useful feedback and encouragement instead. If forced to judge, we can use pass/fail grades that are still harmful but not quite as controlling. If we are inexplicably drawn to grading, then we can build systems similar to those of ‘likes’ and badges of social media where, instead of rewards we give awards – in other words, we remove the expectation of a grade but, where merit is found, sometimes show our approval – and we can make that a social process, so that it is not dominated by a teacher and therefore does not involve exercise of arbitrary power. We can use pedagogies that give teachers and students the chance to model and demonstrate their passion and interest. We can encourage students to reflect on why they are doing it, ideally shared so they can gain inspiration from others. We can help students to integrate work with other things that matter to them. We can help them personalize their own learning so that it is appropriately challenging, not too dull, not to hard, and so that it matches the goals they set for themselves. We can help them to set those goals, and help them to figure out how to attain them. We can make them participants in the grading process, picking outcomes and assessments that match their interests and needs. We can build communities that support and nourish learning through sharing and mutual support. This is just a small sample of ways – there are really quite a few things that we can do, even within a broken system, to make learning addictive, to find ways to make it rewarding in and of itself, even when there is little initial interest to build upon. But we are still stuck in a system that treats grades as rewards, so we are still faced with a furious current pushing against all of our efforts.
Really, we need to change the system, but just a bit: our current educational systems have evolved for pragmatic reasons, mainly because alternatives are too expensive or inconvenient for teachers to manage, not because they are any good for learners. One of the consequences of that is that it is almost impossible to run an institutional course or program without at least some form of grading, even if only at pass/fail level, even if only at the end.
An obvious big part of the solution is to decouple learning and grading. Some more advanced competency-based approaches already do that, as do things like challenge assessments and assessment of prior experience and learning, to some extent project/essay/thesis paths, outcomes-based programs, and even some kinds of professional exams (the latter not in a good way, for the most part, because they tend to drive the process). However, there are risks that universities might turn into an up-market version of driving schools, teaching how to pass the tests and doing just as they are doing now, rather than enabling more expansive learning as they should. To avoid that, it is critical that learners are involved in helping to determine their own personalized outcomes, and very much not to have those learning outcomes ‘personalized’ for them – personal, not personalized, as Alfie Kohn puts it and as Stephen Downes agrees. Grades that learners control, for activities that they choose to undertake, are many times better than grades that someone else imposes. It would also be a good idea either to split teaching activities into assemblable chunks, or into open narratives, without alignment with specific awards or qualifications. Students might build competences from smaller pieces – often from different sources – in order to seek a specific award, or might gain more than one award from a single learning narrative (or perhaps from a couple that overlap). It would be a very good idea to provide ways to mentor and help learners to seek appropriate paths, perhaps through personal tuition, and/or through automated help, and/or through membership of supportive communities (I am a fan of action learning sets for this kind of thing). Such mechanisms might also assist in the preparation of portfolios of evidence that would be an obvious way to manage the formal assessment process. I’m not in any way suggesting that we educators (especially for adult learners) should get rid of our accreditation role, merely that we should stop using it to drive our teaching and to enforce compliance in our students.
I think that such relatively small tweaks to how we teach and assess could have massive benefits further upstream. In one fell swoop it would change the focus of educational systems from grades to learning, and change the reward structure from extrinsic to intrinsic. Instead of building fixed-length courses with measurable outcomes that we the teachers control, we could create ecosystems for learning, where cooperation and collaboration would have greater value than competition, where learners are really part of a club, not a cohort, where teachers are perceived as enablers of learning, not as causes, and certainly not as judges. The words ‘learner-centred’ have been much over-used, often being a shorthand for ‘a friendlier way of making students comply with our demands’ or ‘helping students to get better grades’, but I think they fairly accurately denote what this sort of system would entail when taken seriously. Some of my friends and colleagues prefer ‘learning-centred’ and that works for me too. But really this is about being more human and more humane. It’s about breaking the machines that determine what we do and how we do it, and focusing instead on what we – collectively and individually – want to be. We can do this by thinking carefully about what motivates people, as opposed to attempting to motivate them. As soon as our attitude is one of ‘how can we make our students to this?’ rather than ‘how can we help our students to do this?’ we have failed. It’s easy to create addicts of extrinsic motivation. It is hard to make addicts of learning. But, sometimes, the hard way is the right way.
We already know that extrinsically motivated students (mainly those driven by grades and testing) are far more likely to cheat than those who are more intrinsically motivated. I bookmarked yet another example of this effect just the other day but there are hundreds if not thousands of research papers that confirm this in many different ways. And, as this article reaffirms, we already know that mastery learning approaches (that focus on supporting control, appropriate levels of challenge, and, ideally, social engagement) tend to make cheating far less likely, because they tend to better support intrinsic motivation. Hardly anyone cheats if they are doing stuff they love to do, unless some strong extrinsic force overrides it (like grades, rewards, punishments, hard-to-meet deadlines, etc).
This research reveals another interesting facet of the problem that exactly accords with what self-determination theory would predict: that, whether or not the pedagogy is sensible (supportive of intrinsic motivation) or dumb (extrinsically driven), a student’s dislike of a course appears to predict an increased likelihood of cheating. This is pretty obvious when you think about it. If someone does not like a course then, by definition, they are not intrinsically motivated and, if they are still taking it despite that, the only motivation they can possibly have left is extrinsic.
The increased chances of cheating on disliked courses, whether or not mastery learning techniques are used, is completely unsurprising because it ain’t what you do, it’s the way that you do it. If mastery learning techniques are not working then it probably means that we are simply not using them very well. Most likely there is not enough support, or not enough learner control, or insufficient social engagement, or not enough/too much challenge, or there’s too much pressure, or something along those lines. It is actually much more difficult and usually far more time consuming to teach well using techniques that respect learner autonomy and individual needs than it is to follow the objectivist instructivist path, at least in an institutional environment that deeply embeds extrinsic motivation at its very core, so it is not surprising that it quite often fails. It is also very possible that the problem is almost entirely due to the surrounding educational ecosystem. For instance if it is one that forces students down institutionally-determined paths whether or not they are ready, whether or not it matters to them, or if not enough time is allowed for it, or if the stakes for failure are high, then even well-designed courses with enthusiastic, supportive, skilled, well-informed, compassionate, unpressured teachers are not likely to help that much.
Some people will take a pragmatic lesson from this to look more carefully for cheating on courses that they know to be disliked. That’s not the solution. Others will look at those courses and try to find ways to make them more likeable. That’s much better. But really, once we have done that, we need to be wondering about why anyone would be taking a course that they dislike in the first place. And that points to a central problem with our educational systems and the tightly coupled teaching and accreditation that they embed deep in their bones. Given enough time, support, and skilled tuition, almost anyone can learn almost anything, and love doing so. We live in a time of plenty, where there are usually countless resources, people, and methods to learn almost anything, in almost any practical way, so it makes no sense that people should still be forced to learn in ways that they dislike, at inappropriate times, and at an inappropriate pace. If they do, it is because (one way or another) we make them do so, and that’s the root of the problem. We – the educators and, above all, the educational system – are the cause of cheating, as much as we are the victims of it. And we are the ones that should fix it.
A straightforward and briefly reported study that supports the rather obvious hypothesis that quite young (15-month-old) children can and do learn from observing adults, at least in the short term. The twist here is that adults in the study were deliberately trying to model an attitude (grit) more than a distinct behaviour, in an attempt to teach the kids to do the same.
It is fair to say that the researchers demonstrated to the kids that persevering with problems after initially failure can lead to desirable results, and that the kids appeared to be more inclined to do the same after watching adults doing so: this accords well with the title of the paper. I’m not sure that the adults adequately demonstrated grit, though. I don’t know about you, but I actually enjoy solving problems and positively relish the failures that teach me how to succeed. In fact, in many situations (programming, for example) I deliberately make things fail in order to understand how they do so, and that’s part of the fun, even though (and partly because) I may curse and fume when the process fails to enlighten me. Same for many commercially available puzzles, from Rubik’s Cubes to letter-sliding games. Seems to me that grit involves more than doing something enjoyable on the way to achieving some anticipated goal that matters to us. It’s often about doing unenjoyable things, sometimes for goals we don’t even find particularly interesting or worthwhile, often over a prolonged period. That’s not what was happening here. This is interesting, though, if only to confirm that really quite young kids are able to see others as beings like themselves, and to transfer the lessons of stories that they construct about what they perceive others to be doing into actions they then take themselves.
The brief timeframe of the study means that it doesn’t show whether this is how grit is actually learned over time. The extent to which lessons persist depends on a great many things, including prior experience, repetition, who is repeating it, success in the short term, effectiveness of the attitude in overcoming meaningful challenges in the long term, social value of the attitude, current context, and counter-examples over time. Outside an experimental context we pick up attitudes and sentiments from kids as much as they do from us, from one another, and from the world at large. There are usually very many others around us who are all engaged in a rich reciprocal dance with us through which we collectively construct our various intersecting cultures and subcultures, including our attitudes and values. Also, life is seldom so neatly structured and categorized that a lesson can be so directly transferred from one context to another. At least, such cases are not the interesting ones. Though the experimenters tried to make the tasks a bit different, the study was really set up to highlight the similarities, and to lead to results that would please the children. In real life, we usually need to connect one situation with another that is quite different, separated by time, and to choose between competing strategies to deal with it, often with others around us that are adopting different approaches, all of which will influence us. Often, we are not even particularly interested in the outcomes. It’s much harder to do experiments that reflect that reality. In fact, it’s probably impossible, at least without adopting the ethical precepts of Josef Mengele. The researchers laudably note a range of other limitations, including cultural differences, beliefs of children about adults, task specific issues, and so on, and make no extravagant claims that it can be generalized further. Indeed it cannot.
That said, this is good evidence for something that I believe is not a bad idea: that teachers (formal or otherwise) should act as they hope their students will act. A very large part of the role of a teacher is to model how people in their field (or society at large, in the case of younger kids) think and behave, to enact and demonstrate their approaches and attitudes, perhaps more than to pass on the facts, skills, and technologies of their discipline, or to provide support for gaining such knowledge.
Bearing that in mind, while there is value in ‘grit’ and I don’t want to knock it too much, I think there are other attitudes that might matter a whole lot more, especially those that enable us to not just stick with stuff we don’t enjoy but to find pleasure and meaning in it. Passion is way more useful than grit, in the long run. Caring, too. Teachers that light fires in students’ hearts achieve way more than those that simply show them how to stick at things they hate.
Persistence, above and beyond IQ, is associated with long-term academic outcomes. To look at the effect of adult models on infants’ persistence, we conducted an experiment in which 15-month-olds were assigned to one of three conditions: an Effort condition in which they saw an adult try repeatedly, using various methods, to achieve each of two different goals; a No Effort condition in which the adult achieved the goals effortlessly; or a Baseline condition. Infants were then given a difficult, novel task. Across an initial study and two preregistered experiments (N = 262), infants in the Effort condition made more attempts to achieve the goal than did infants in the other conditions. Pedagogical cues modulated the effect. The results suggest that adult models causally affect infants’ persistence and that infants can generalize the value of persistence to novel tasks.
The title of this Alphr article is a little misleading because the point the article rightly makes is that it all depends on the type of praise given. It reports on research from the University of Toronto that confirms (yet again) what should be obvious: praising learners for who they are (‘you’re so smart’) is a really bad idea, while praising what they do (‘you did that well’) is not normally a bad idea. The issue, though, is essentially one of intrinsic vs extrinsic motivation. By praising the person for being a particular way you are positioning that as the purpose, rather than a side-effect, of the activity, and positioning yourself as the arbiter, so disempowering the learner. By praising the behaviour, you are offering useful feedback on performance that empowers the recipient to choose whether and how to do such things again, as well as supporting needs for relatedness (it shows you care) and competence (it helps them improve). Both forms of praise contribute to feelings of self-esteem, but only one supports intrinsic motivation.
The nice twist in these particular studies (here and here) is that the researchers were looking at effects on morality. They found that ability praise (teling them they are smart) is very strongly correlated with a propensity to cheat. Exactly as theory would predict, kids who have been told that they are smart are significantly more likely to respond to the extrinsic motivation (the need to live up to expectations when given ability praise) by cheating, when given the opportunity. Interestingly, praising the behaviour (performance praise) has little or no effect on likelihood of cheating when compared with those given no praise at all: it is only when an expectation is set that the children are perceived as smart that cheating behaviour increases. It is also interesting, if tangential, that boys appeared to be way more likely to cheat than girls under all the conditions though, once primed by ability praise, girls were more likely to cheat than boys that had received no praise or performance praise.
The lesson is nothing like as simple as remembering to just praise the action, not the person. Praising behaviours can, when used badly, be just as disempowering as praising the person. For instance, while in some senses it might be possible to view grades as a kind of abbreviated praise (or punishment, which amounts to much the same thing) for a behaviour, there’s a critical difference: the fact that it will be graded is known in advance by the learner. This is compounded by the fact that the grade matters to them, often more than the performance of the activity itself. Thus, achieving the grade becomes the goal, not the consequence of the behaviour, and it reinforces the power of the grader to determine the behaviour of the learner, with a consequent loss of learner autonomy. That shift from intrinsic to extrinsic motivation is the big issue here, not the praise itself. There are lots of ways to give both performance praise and ability praise that are not coercive. They are only harmful when used to manipulate behaviour.
Earlier today I responded to a prospective student who was, amongst other things, seeking advice on strategies for success on a couple of our self-paced programming courses. My response was just a stream of consciousness off the top of my head but I think it might be useful to others. Here, then, with some very light editing to remove references to specific courses, are a few fairly random thoughts on how to succeed on a self-paced online programming course (and, for the most part, other courses) at Athabasca University. In no particular order:
Try to make sure that people close to you know what you are doing and, ideally, are supportive. Other people can really help, not just for the mechanical stuff but for the emotional support. Online learning, especially the self-paced form we use, can feel a bit isolating at times, but there are lots of ways to close the gap and they aren’t all found in the course materials and processes. Find support wherever you can.
Make a schedule and try to keep to it, but don’t blame yourself if your deadlines slip a bit here and there – just adjust the plan. The really important thing is that you should feel in control of the process. Having such control is one of the huge benefits of our way of teaching, but you need to take ownership of the process yourself in order to experience the benefits.
If the course provides forums or other social engagement try to proactively engage in them. Again, other people really help.
You will have way more freedom than those in traditional classrooms, who have to follow a teacher simply because of the nature of physics. However, that freedom is a two-edged sword as you can sometimes be swamped with choices and not know which way to go. If you are unsure, don’t be afraid to ask for help. But do take advantage of the freedom. Set your own goals. Look for the things that excite you and explore further. Take breaks if you are getting tired. Play. Take control of the learning process and enjoy the ride.
Enjoy the challenges. Sometimes it will be hard, and you should expect that, especially in programming courses like these. Programming can be very frustrating at times – after 35 years of programming I can still spend days on a problem that turns out to involve a misplaced semi-colon! Accept that, and accept that even the most intractable problems will eventually be solved (and it is a wonderful feeling when you do finally get it to work). Make time to sleep on it. If you’re stuck, ask for help.
Get your work/life/learning balance right. Be realistic in your aspirations and expect to spend many hours a week on this, but make sure you make time to get away from it.
Keep a learning journal, a reflective diary of what you have done and how you have addressed the struggles, even if the course itself doesn’t ask for one. There are few more effective ways to consolidate and connect your learning than to reflect on it, and it can help to mark your progress: good to read when your motivation is flagging.
Get used to waiting for responses and find other things to learn in the meantime. Don’t stop learning because you are waiting – move on to something else, practice something you have already done, or reflect on what you have been doing so far.
Programming is a performance skill that demands constant and repeated practice. You just need to do it, get it wrong, do it again, and again, and again, until it feels like second nature. In many ways it is like learning a musical instrument or maybe even driving. It’s not something you can learn simply by reading or by being told, you really have to immerse yourself in doing it. Make up your own challenges if you run out of things to do.
Don’t just limit yourself to what we provide. Find forums and communities with appropriate interests. I am a big fan of StackOverflow.com for help and inspiration from others, though relevant subreddits can be useful and there are many other sites and systems dedicated to programming. Find one or two that make sense to you. Again, other people can really help.
Online learning can be great fun as long as you are aware of the big differences, primarily relating to control and personal agency. Our role is to provide a bit of structure and a supportive environment to enable you to learn, rather than to tell you stuff and make you do things, which can be disconcerting at first if you are used to traditional classroom learning. This puts more pressure on you, and more onus on you to organize and manage your own learning, but don’t ever forget that you are not ever really alone – we are here to help.
In summary, I think it really comes down to three big things, all of which are really about motivation, and all of which are quite different when learning online compared to face-to-face:
Autonomy – you are in control, but you must take responsibility for your own learning. You can always delegate control to us (or others) when the going gets hard or choices are hard to make, but you are always free to take it back again, and there will be no one standing over you making you do stuff apart from yourself.
Competence – there are few things more satisfying than being able to do more today than you could do yesterday. We provide some challenges and we try to keep them difficult-but-achievable at every stage along the way, but it is a great idea for you to also seek your own challenges, to play, to explore, to discover, especially if the challenges we offer are too difficult or too boring. Reflection can help a lot with this, as a means to recognize what, how, and why you have learned.
Relatedness – never forget the importance of other people. You don’t have to interact with them if you don’t want to do so (that’s another freedom we offer), but it is at the very least helpful to think about how you belong in our community, your own community, and the broader community of learners and programmers, and how what and how you are learning can affect others (directly or indirectly).
This advice is by no means comprehensive! If you have other ideas or advice, or things that have worked for you, or things that you disagree with, do feel free to share them in the comments.
An interview with me by Graham Allcott, author of the bestselling How to be a productivity ninja and other books, for his podcast series Beyond Busy, and as part of the research for his next book. In it I ramble a lot about issues like social media, collective intelligence, motivation, technology, education, leadership, and learning, and Graham makes some incisive comments and asks some probing questions. The interview was conducted on the landing of the Grand Hotel, Brighton, last year.
The always wonderful Alfie Kohn describes an airline survey that sought to find out how it compared with others, which he chose not to answer because the airline was thus signalling no interest in providing the best quality experience possible, just aiming to do enough to beat the competition. The thrust of his article is that much the same is true of standardized tests in schools. As Kohn rightly observes, the central purpose of testing as it tends to be used in schools and beyond is not to evaluate successful learning but to compare students (or teachers, or institutions, or regions) with one another in order to identify winners and losers.
‘When you think about it, all standardized tests — not just those that are norm-referenced — are based on this compulsion to compare. If we were interested in educational excellence, we could use authentic forms of assessment that are based on students’ performance at a variety of classroom projects over time. The only reason to standardize the process, to give all kids the same questions under the same conditions on a contrived, one-shot, high-stakes test, is if what we wanted to know wasn’t “How well are they learning?” but “Who’s beating whom?”‘
It’s a good point, but I think it is not just an issue with standardized tests. The problem occurs with all the summative assessments (the judgments) we use. Our educational assessment systems are designed to create losers as much as they a made to find winners. Whether they follow the heinous practice of norm-referencing or not, they are sorting machines, built to discover competent people, and to discard the incompetent. In fact, as Kohn notes, when there are too many winners we are accused of grade inflation or a dropping of standards.
This makes no sense if you believe, as I do, that the purpose of education is to educate. In a system that demands grading, unless 100% of students that want to succeed get the best possible grades, then we have failed to meet the grade ourselves. The problem, though, is not so much the judgments themselves as it is the intimate, inextricable binding of judgmental with learning processes. Given enough time, effort, and effective teaching, almost anyone can achieve pretty much any skill or competence, as long as they stick at it. We have very deliberately built a system that does not aim for that at all. Instead, it aims to sort wheat from chaff. That’s not why I do the job I do, and I hope it is not why you do it either, but that’s exactly what the system is made to do. And yet we (at least I) think of ourselves as educators, not judges. These two roles are utterly separate and inconsolably inconsistent.
Who needs 100%?
It might be argued that some students don’t actually want to get the best possible grades. True. And sure, we don’t always want or need to learn everything we could learn. If I am learning how to use a new device or musical instrument I sometimes read/watch enough to get me started and do not go any further, or skim through to get the general gist. Going for a less-than-perfect understanding is absolutely fine if that’s all you need right now. But that’s not quite how it works in formal education, in part because we punish those that make such choices (by giving lower grades) and in part because we systematically force students to learn stuff they neither want nor need to learn, at a time that we choose, using the lure of the big prizes at the end to coax them. Even those that actually do want or need to learn a topic must stick with it to the bitter end regardless of whether it is useful to do the whole thing, regardless of whether they need more or less of it, regardless of whether it is the right time to learn it, regardless of whether it is the right way for them to learn it. They must do all that we say they must do, or we won’t give them the gold star. That’s not even a good way to train a dog.
It gets worse. At least dogs normally get a second chance. Having set the bar, we normally give just a single chance at winning or, at best, an option to be re-tested (often at a price and usually only once), rather than doing the human thing of allowing people to take the time they need and learn from their mistakes until they get as good as they want or need to get. We could learn a thing or two from computer games – the ability to repeat over and over, achieving small wins all along the way without huge penalties for losing, is a powerful way to gain competence and sustain motivation. It is better if students have some control over the pacing but, even at Athabasca, an aggressively open university that does its best to give everyone all the opportunity they need to succeed, where self-paced learners can choose the point at which they are ready to take the assessments, we still have strict cut-offs for contract periods and, like all the rest, we still tend to allow just a single stab at each assessment. In most of my own self-paced courses (and in some others) we try to soften that by allowing students to iterate without penalty until the end but, when that end comes, that’s still it. This is not for the benefit of the students: this is for our convenience. Yes, there is a cost to giving greater freedom – it takes time, effort, and compassion – but that’s a business problem to solve, not an insuperable barrier. WGU’s subscription model, for instance, in which students pay for an all-you-can-eat smorgasbord, appears to work pretty well.
It might be argued that there are other important lessons that we teach when we competitively grade. Some might suggest that competition is a good thing to learn in and of itself, because it is one of the things that drives society and everyone has to do it at least sometimes. Sure, but cooperation and mutual support is usually better, or at least an essential counterpart, so embedding competition as the one and only modality seems a bit limiting. And, if we are serious about teaching people about how to compete, then that is what we should do, and not actively put them in jeopardy to achieve that: as Jerome Bruner succinctly put it, ‘Learning something with the aid of an instructor should, if instruction is effective, be less dangerous or risky or painful than learning on one’s own’ (Bruner 1966, p.44).
Others might claim that sticking with something you don’t like doing is a necessary lesson if people are to play a suitably humble/productive role in society. Such lessons have a place, I kind-of agree. Just not a central place, just not a pervasive place that underpins or, worse, displaces everything else. Yes, grit can be really useful, if you are pursuing your goals or helping others to reach theirs. By all means, let’s teach that, let’s nurture that, and by all means let’s do what we can to help students see how learning something we are teaching can help them to reach their goals, even though it might be difficult or unpleasant right now. But there’s a big difference between doing something for self or others, and subservient compliance with someone else’s demands. ‘Grit’ does not have to be synonymous with ‘taking orders’. Doing something distasteful because we feel we must, because it aligns with our sense of self-worth, because it will help those we care about, because it will lead us where we want to be, is all good. Doing something because someone else is making us do it (with the threat/reward of grades) might turn us into good soldiers, might generate a subservient workforce in a factory or coal face, might keep an unruly subjugated populace in check, but it’s not the kind of attitude that is going to be helpful if we want to nurture creative, caring, useful members of 21st Century society.
It might be argued that accreditation serves a powerful societal function, ranking and categorizing people in ways that (at least for the winners and for consumers of graduates) have some value. It’s a broken and heartless system, but our societies do tend to be organized around it and it would be quite disruptive if we got rid of it without finding some replacement. Without it, employers might actually need to look at evidence of what people have done, for instance, rather than speedily weeding out those with insufficient grades. Moreover, circularly enough, most of our students currently want and expect it because it’s how things are done in our culture. Even I, a critic of the system, proudly wear the label ‘Doctor’, because it confers status and signals particular kinds of achievement, and there is no doubt that it and other qualifications have been really quite useful in my career. If that were all accreditation did then I could quite happily live with it, even though the fact that I spent a few years researching something interesting about 15 years ago probably has relatively little bearing on what I do or can do now. The problem is not accreditation in itself, but that it is inextricably bound to the learning process. Under such conditions, educational assessment systems are positively harmful to learning. They are anti-educative. Of necessity, due to the fact that they tend to determine precisely what students should do and how they should do it, they sap intrinsic motivation and undermine love of learning. Even the staunchest of defenders of tightly integrated learning and judgment would presumably accept that learning is at least as important as grading so, if grading undermines learning (and it quite unequivocally does), something is badly broken.
A simple solution?
It does not have to be this way. I’ve said it before but it bears repeating: at least a large part of the solution is to decouple learning and accreditation altogether. There is a need for some means to indicate prowess, sure. But the crude certificates we currently use may not be the best way to do that in all cases, and it doesn’t have to dominate the learning process to the point of killing love of learning. If we could drop the accreditation role during the teaching process we could focus much more on providing useful feedback, on valorizing failures as useful steps towards success, on making interesting diversions, on tailoring the learning experience to the learner’s interests and capabilities rather than to credential requirements, on providing learning experiences that are long enough and detailed enough for the students’ needs, rather than a uniform set of fixed lengths to suit our bureaucracies.
Equally, we could improve our ability to provide credentials. For those that need it, we could still offer plenty of accreditation opportunities, for example through a portfolio-based approach and/or collecting records of learning or badges along the way. We could even allow for some kind of testing like oral, written, or practical exams for those that must, where it is appropriate to the competence (not, as now, as a matter of course) and we could actually do it right, rather than in ways that positively enable and reward cheating. None of this has to bound to specific courses. This decoupling would also give students the freedom to choose other ways of learning apart from our own courses, which would be quite a strong incentive for us to concentrate on teaching well. It might challenge us to come up with authentic forms of assessment that allow students to demonstrate competence through practice, or to use evidence from multiple sources, or to show their particular and unique skillset. It would almost certainly let us do both accreditation and teaching better. And it’s not as though we have no models to work from: from driving tests to diving tests to uses of portfolios in job interviews, there are plenty of examples of ways this can work already.
Apart from some increased complexities of managing such a system (which is where online tools can come in handy and where opportunities exist for online institutions that conventional face-to-face institutions cannot compete with) this is not a million miles removed from what we do now: it doesn’t require a revolution, just a simple shift in emphasis, and a separation of two unnecessarily and mutually inconsistent intertwined roles. Especially when processes and tools already exist for that, as they do at Athabasca University, it would not even be particularly costly. Inertia would be a bigger problem than anything else, but even big ships can eventually be steered in other directions. We just have to choose to make it so.
Bruner, J. S. (1966). Toward a Theory of Instruction. Cambridge MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.