Chapter 6: Building an effective learning environment
6.1 Integrating design principles within a rich learning environment
6.1.1 The importance of creating an effective learning environment
Chapters 1 to 5 provide a set of methods for teaching in a digital age. These methods though will not operate in a vacuum. Both teachers and learners are faced with a rapidly changing world, with new technology, new teaching approaches and external pressures from government, employers, parents, and the media. It is easy to be tossed around in such a stormy environment. Learning always takes place within a context that can influence how and what we learn. Good teachers and instructors try to shape the environment in which they are teaching to create the right conditions for learning. This becomes even more important in a volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous world.
6.1.2 Learning environments and epistemology
First though we need to examine two very different approaches to teaching and learning. One approach starts with an objectivist view of the world. Knowledge is like coal. It is there to be mined by the teacher and transported to the learner. The learner’s job is to acquire that coal or knowledge and then use it as necessary, either with or without the help of the teacher. This seems to me to be the approach of most xMOOCs and most classroom lectures. There is little attention if any paid to the conditions in which such learning will best take place.
Another approach starts from the assumption that learning is a fundamental human activity. Humans have become the dominant species because they have a need and above all an inherited ability to learn. If we had not been reasonably good at learning, we would have been killed off early in the earth’s history by faster, bigger and more ferocious animals. The ability not only to learn, but to learn in abstract and conscious ways, is therefore part of human nature.
If that is the case, a teacher’s job is not to do the learning for the student, but to build a rich environment that facilitates the kind of learning that will benefit the learner. It is not a question of pouring knowledge into a student’s head, but enabling the learner to develop concepts, think critically, and apply and evaluate what they have learned, by providing opportunities and experiences that are relevant to such goals.
The analogy here is gardening. Humans are like plants: all we need to do is to provide the right conditions for them to grow: the right soil, sufficient sunshine and water, and help eliminating pests and weeds. In terms of humans, this means providing security, and the best conditions for learning. This is a very constructivist view of the world. This seems to me to be the approach of most cMOOCs and most early childhood education. However, there is little attention paid to priorities or to efficiency in learning.
A second premise is that knowledge is not fixed or static once learned, but continually develops. Our concept of heat changes and becomes richer as we grow older and become more educated, from understanding heat through touch, to providing a quantitative way of measuring it, to understanding its physical properties, to being able to apply that knowledge to solving problems, such as designing refrigerators. Furthermore, in a knowledge-based society, the sum of knowledge is constantly developing and growing, and thus our understanding is also always developing.
6.1.3 What learning environments do we want?
Why thinking about effective learning environments is important is because most teachers currently inherit a teaching environment, usually based on a campus, physical classrooms, regularly scheduled lessons, with the expectation of the teacher in control at the front of the class. However, new technologies provide us with the opportunity to design other kinds of learning environments. What do we want to be: coal miners – or gardeners? Or something else? My own view is that the ideal learning environment is somewhere in between coal mining and gardening. Most learners require structure and guidance, but within an environment that enables freedom and exploration.
In developing an effective learning environment, there are another two issues that need to be addressed:
- First, it is the learner who has to do the learning.
- Second, any learning environment is much more than the technology used to support it.
With regard to the first, teachers cannot do the learning for the learner. All teachers or instructors can do is to create and manage an environment that enables and encourages learning. My focus then in terms of building an effective learning environment is on what the teacher or instructor can do, because in the end that is all they can control. However, the focus of what the teacher does should be on the learner, and what the learner needs. That of course will require good communication between the learners and the teacher.
For this reason, I want to examine some of the fundamental components of most effective teaching environments. Not only will this provide some general guidance for the design of teaching, it will also allow consideration of technology-based learning environments that can fundamentally differ from traditional campus-based environments, while at the same time ensuring conditions for successful learning. I set out these components or conditions in the following sections.
Activity 6.1 Your current students’ learning environment
- If you are currently teaching, describe briefly the student learning environment within which they are learning. What are the restrictions, if any, on their learning as a result of this environment?
- What do you think are the most important components for effective learning within this environment (as well as your teaching)?
- Are you more of a coal miner or a gardener in your approach to teaching?
There is no feedback from me on this activity. It is for your own reflection.