Social Learning Tools Are Fine, But Not Critical For All Educational Models

We are in a high point of investment and interest in the application of technology to innovate education, and a lot of attention has been paid to the new class of learning platforms that have social tools at the center of the platform design – think Instructure, Coursekit, OpenClass, etc. I have written about several new solutions and how they could disrupt our traditional LMS markets. However, the discussions about the potential of different learning platforms too often ignore some key differences in the models of education that are the targets for educational technology. One result is that some systems are often dismissed out of hand for not having any real social or collaboration tools – think the new iTunesU app or Khan Academy.

There is a big divide, in my opinion, between the application of technology to support and improve traditional models of education and the application of technology to create or enable new models of education. Whether social and collaboration features are critical depends on the educational model, not on the technology available.

Improving Traditional Education

In this case, the role of educational technology is to bring the benefits of technical features of social, mobile, big data, consumerization, etc to the classroom model that has existed for hundreds of years. The obvious example is bringing learning platforms and other tools to improve how well students learn in a classroom setting. I would include in this model the goals of the flipped classroom as well as online courses designed by individual faculty members. In all these cases, the usage of technology is to reduce the administrative burden, make the best usage of classroom time, and supporting pedagogical designs of the class. The technology replicates – hopefully in a compelling manner – the traditional role of tranmitting information, cohort-based learning and interaction, self-assessment such as quizzes, and official assessments such as tests and grading.

In this model, social and collaborative tools show great potential of improving education and allowing innovations to the course or curriculum design. Social tools can even help break down the boundaries of course, program or institution, and it makes sense that a learning platform designed around the social tools should be very useful in this context.

Enabling New Models of Education

In this case, the role of technology not to enhance an existing model, but rather to enable a different educational model. I’d like to highlight one model – competency-based education – that has a very different set of needs than traditional models, and where social and collaboration tools are not critical for learning platform support. To be clear, this is not to argue that all new models of education place a low priority on social sharing and collaboration, but to argue that we should judge learning platforms based on which educational models they are supporting or enabling.

I ran across two articles last week highlighting credential-based education – one in K-12 and one in higher ed. The first article, in Education Week, describes New Hampshire efforts to implement competency-based learning for K-12. Following a senior named Brittany, the article offers a balanced view of the promises and challenges of this approach.

Embracing that approach fully, however, can be tough because it challenges such basic systems as testing and grading. Brittany Rollins’ experience at Newfound Regional illustrates both how far New Hampshire has come in shaking off traditional conceptions of time-based learning, and also how far it still has to go.

Brittany’s off-campus work in an “extended learning opportunity” reflects the state’s emphasis on three related ideas: “anytime, anywhere” learning, which includes out-of-school and virtual programs; personalized education, which strives to tailor studies to students’ needs and interests; and competency-based learning. [snip]

In Brittany’s case, she’ll be able to demonstrate mastery of her subject matter on her own timetable. She’ll prove her knowledge and skills piece by piece, in a variety of ways, as she masters them.

The second article is the testimony of Western Governors University to the US Senate in a hearing on college affordability (full text here). They describe their unique approach to higher education as based on competency-based learning and technology enablement.

The WGU approach to learning is unique in two important ways, resulting in increased productivity, a higher level of student support, and shorter times to graduation. First, rather than simply delivering classroom instruction through the Internet, WGU uses a competency-based learning model, which measures learning rather than time. This approach allows students to earn their degrees by demonstrating their mastery of subject matter rather than spending time in class to accumulate credit hours. [snip]

The second unique attribute of our model is the use of technology to facilitate learning. Technology has increased the productivity of nearly every industry except education, where it is most often an add-on cost and not used to change or improve teaching and learning. Even with the improvements in online learning platforms and resources, the majority of online education is simply  classroom education delivered through the Internet, instructor-led and time-based. As a result, most online higher education is no more affordable than traditional education.

The role of social learning in competency-based models becomes minimized – a nice-to-have – as the whole concept of a cohort of students moving through the material at roughly the same time goes away. The focus shifts to consuming and interacting with personalized content and demonstrating mastery of the subject as the individual student is ready to assessed.

Given this model, there are real opportunities for a learning platform which are based on transmitting content, allowing the student to access and interact with the material anytime, anywhere, even without some of the social tools that are so attractive to traditional education and other models.

Rather than arguing that some platform misses the mark due to its content focus and lack of collaborative tools, I hope we get more arguments in how well platforms supports the actual educational model(s). We are entering a world with multiple educational models, and I doubt that any single model will prevail.

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About Phil Hill

Phil is a consultant and industry analyst covering the educational technology market primarily for higher education. He has written for e-Literate since Aug 2011. For a more complete biography, view his profile page.
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6 Responses to Social Learning Tools Are Fine, But Not Critical For All Educational Models

  1. Allison Wood says:

    Great post, Phil. I agree that social learning tools are not table stakes for all kinds of learning management systems. Our system is designed for medical education, where there simply hasn’t been the demand for these kinds of social tools – the thinking seems to be “if you want to go to Facebook, go to Facebook – we’re learning stuff here.” As medical education moves more toward competency-based learning and embracing new kinds of online learning, there may be more organic opportunities for integration of new social tools – but if they’re simply slapped on, they will likely be of negligible value.

  2. Phil Hill says:

    Allison – good point about the disciplinary dependence on the value of social tools.

  3. The history of technology is sometimes written as a history of increasing connectivity. The telegraph, the telephone, radio, television and the internet can be seen as devices which draw us closer together and make us more social (albeit not categorically). And as William Powers has argued, the implicit philosophy in modern computing (and especially mobile devices) is that connectivity is good and that more connectivity is better. So it’s not a surprise if LMSs have adopted that philosophy — it’s especially evident in Moodle and Martin Dougiamas’s explicit endorsement of social constructivist learning. It’s a philosophy that the much celebrated John Seelye Brown also promotes and many others. But not everyone embraces that vision. Arguably there’s a lot of good learning going on when people study alone and disconnect from others. Those sentiments have been expressed by the likes of Seneca, Thoreau and Wordsworth. But even if you don’t buy into the professing of dead white males there’s recent scholarship that supports the thesis as well. In Academically Adrift the authors discovered that their particular measures of learning seemed to be best realized in students who took time to study alone. All of this is to say that it’s nice to have collaborative tools in our LMSs (I use them when I teach). But are they the only way to learn? And are they the only measures by which to gauge the quality of our educational technology? I’m not so sure.

  4. The problem seems to me to be that we are still dealing with institutional reliance on the big LMS, and beyond that the big content repository. Both of these then come in for extra protection by internal policies requiring their use. And we’re still placing high levels of trust in content because it represents such a tangible outcome in terms of institutional investment of resources, including time.

    So academics working in the disciplines where social and connectivist approaches have stronger significance are often left trying to find workarounds: either bolting social tools onto the underside of the LMS where campus IT management can’t see them, leaving the LMS altogether and striking out on their own, or subordinating what they know works best for their students to what the LMS can do best.

    So I agree with your general principle, Phil, but I think the reason there’s currently so much negative sentiment about the social failings of the standard LMS, particularly relative to common social media environments and tools, is that most institutions are still favouring the content-centred LMS as their required environment. We need to move to a point where there’s institutional recognition that different disciplines, different learners, and different contexts demand different solutions, and we need to explain more consistently that diversity doesn’t automatically represent either unreasonable support costs or a business risk to the institution.

  5. Phil Hill says:

    Luke, great comments, especially providing some philosophical background. I hadn’t really thought of this need in terms of ‘studying alone’ as referenced in Academically Adrift, but that is another reason to support social-less tools in appropriate situations.

    Kate, I completely agree that we need better tools to support social and constructivist approaches for the right disciplines and educational models, and that big LMS and content historically have hindered academics. The legacy or standard LMS has not served us well in this respect. Great summary that “we need to move to a point where there’s institutional recognition that different disciplines, different learners, and different contexts demand different solutions”. The challenge is, for institutions and the edtech industry, how to allow the different solutions approach in a coherent, seamless fashion that doesn’t devolve into the ‘I prefer LMS A, you prefer LMS B, regardless of student experience’ mentality that was so prevalent in the early to mid 2000′s.

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