Setting the context – Learning as a journey
The current pandemic has disrupted the process of learning in myriad ways. During this time, institutions and educators have come up with innovative ways to employ technology to impart learning. It would be unfortunate if things simply reverted to the way they were as soon as the pandemic subsided. It is imperative that we build on the learnings acquired and chart a new direction that learning can take.
I have always mentioned that I view learning as a journey. This statement is two-fold – first, individual learners have a journey of learning they are on throughout their lives. Secondly, the ‘process of learning’ itself is also on a journey. If we examine the trends within learning communities it will become evident that the journey of the ‘process of learning’ has been cyclical. Within learning communities, there is often new evidence that directs the most recent practices with some becoming embedded in the ongoing learning community while others are merely ‘fads’ that for some time make an impact but are not long-lived. What I feel is happening now is that there has been considerable movement to suggest that the process of learning is itself at a crossroad. And this is not just because of the pandemic. In fact, the movement was occurring prior to this. What the pandemic has done is brought this movement more to the forefront by acting as a catalyst. The pandemic has created an opportunity for educators to ask the question – what is the future of learning?
This is the question I pose to us all now – What is, or should be, the future of learning? We have the opportunity to shape it, so what do you think it should be?
I see this question as one of the most prominent and vital questions of our time. The way we answer this question has the potential to shape the education practices and livelihoods and culture for generations.
The current disruption – challenges and opportunities
The disruption to the learning process that the pandemic has created has meant that some of the standard practices in our educational institutions have had to be altered in order to allow for social distancing. For example, teachers have always wished for smaller class sizes so that we could provide a more individualised learning experience to our learners. Administratively it has been hard to accomplish. But now we are looking at a reality where physical class sizes will have to be much smaller for the near future and maybe even permanently. With social distancing measures in place, it may be that not all students are in school at once. A considerable amount of academic teaching will have to take place outside of the classroom too. But what does this actually mean? When educators reacted to the pandemic we saw instances where teachers took their classes online. This does not in itself suggest a change of trajectory for the process of learning, as it is just a variation of business as usual. Before we delve further, it is worth noting that an added complication to this discussion arises because the phrase ‘online learning’ has become an umbrella term for a variety of learning methods and strategies that are currently made possible by technology. Similarly, ‘home schooling’ is being used to describe the current scenario where students are made to learn at home although we know that it originally referred to the process of receiving schooling at home by choice.
On one end, we have Coursera offering courses where the learning takes place completely online and is imparted through the internet. On the other end is a teacher on a virtual platform like Zoom who has essentially recreated the classroom situation and is simply using technology as a medium of transmission. The present scenario requires the teacher to adapt to a very different environment than the one she was trained in. Since change and disruptions are going to be a regular part of the future world, we need to ensure that teacher development is built into our processes so that our teachers are adequately equipped to thrive while helping learners actualise their potential. At the same time, we need to broaden our vocabulary when it comes to online learning and calibrate our pedagogical approach based on how frequently and how intimately technology is used to affect learning. There are many considerations to discuss depending on what kind of online learning is occurring. Take for example the ‘online classroom’. If this is just a recreation of the physical classroom, that is being broadcast using technology, then there are so many elements of good learning that are missing especially when we consider the 5 Areas of Development of a student – Cerebral, Emotional, Physical, Social & Spiritual. A danger now is a shift back to a focus solely on academic performance, facilitated by technology, at the expense of the other important areas of a learner’s development. Even within the academic or cerebral realm, how do we ensure that non-silo learning experiences are taking place where information and knowledge transcend demarcations such as subjects and domain areas? We also know that a significant part of good teaching and good learning practices stem from the interactions between students and teachers. It’s the learning environment that the teacher and students create together inside the classroom that has allowed learners to thrive. It is important to note that while students are learning from the teacher, teachers are constantly learning from students too. Can this be recreated for all learners in an online classroom? Simply putting a good orator in front of a camera does not make them a good teacher.
This brings me to stress that any shift in the process of learning or introduction of a new pedagogy has to bear in mind the needs of the learners. Some students will thrive in the online learning environment when they didn’t in the classroom environment while others may feel they prefer the classroom environment. We have to acknowledge that different learning environments may allow different students to succeed, or a certain aspect of their development to thrive. That is why engaging in a range of learning activities across a range of learning environments may actually be beneficial for some students. It allows them to access parts of their potential that they wouldn’t normally have in a school environment. However, conversely, the approach may have a negative impact on some students’ learning. We need to be actively addressing these concerns. Fostering students who are skills-rich should be one of the aims of education. We should look at ‘being rich’ from a Skills standpoint, not an economic one.
Augmented learning – The way forward?
Over the past few decades there has not been any major fundamental shifts in the trajectory of the process of learning. Today, there is the possibility of an innovative paradigm and pedagogical shift within the process of learning that transforms the trajectory of the learning process. This pedagogical shift would be towards a form of hybrid learning in which the continuously evolving technologies are fully utilised and integrated into the learning process. I see this as augmented learning.
What is becoming increasingly clear is we need to have a new framework of teaching and learning – a coalition of best practices that can be continually contextualised to the learners’ needs. How can we conceive of such a pedagogical coalition that factors in content, technology, interventions and practices while being flexible to scale to different evolving contexts? There are so many unknowns. How do learners learn in a digital setting? What is the scaffolding needed? What should be the ratio of physical face-to-face and online instruction? In terms of technological advances and its role in education, we need to start thinking about when and how virtual reality could become a formidable player in the formal education process. The next big question could be, how can we augment our intelligence through learning experiences using virtual reality? In navigating technology and real life, how can we balance a hybrid way of functioning to optimize our learning? How can virtual reality support us in actualizing our potential to become the best version of ourselves? Could the use of augmented virtual reality allow learners to make decisions about real life situations, justify their choices and evaluate different possible scenarios? Is this a way we could stimulate more real life contextual learning from home? We want learners to go through a learning experience and come out better or more developed in various aspects of themselves. Online learning should cross the borders of schools – it does not have to be confined to the usual borders of institutions and even countries. It could help bridge the gap between learners from different backgrounds. The use of virtual reality could allow all learners to visit a museum, watch an astronomical event taking place on the other side of the world, and train in safety procedures, medicine and ethics. It has the possibility to broaden the depth of experiences learners have access to. While planning for all of the above, we need to ensure that students understand the nuanced differences and far-reaching effects between the repercussions of their actions in the virtual reality world and the real world. For example, certain essential traits, such as responsibility and fairness will ensure that the learners are able to transition from a simulated environment to a real case scenario in a sensitised manner. I call these traits, watermarks, which need to be inculcated in our learners to ensure that they are well placed to make the most of what technology has to offer.
We need learners to take ownership of their learning, choices and decisions. More importantly, learners should realize the significance of taking ownership of the consequences of their decisions. The people surrounding the learners can help inculcate that understanding and facilitate the learning process. We need to reinforce the efforts of parents and carers in supporting their children’s learning, not only during the current pandemic but beyond. We need to create guiding frameworks for parents and invest in their capabilities to become meaningful learning partners. The dividends of this measure is not only going to be a boost of confidence to the learner but will also involve the parents and carers in the pursuit of their children’s dreams. Teachers also stand to benefit from this experience as parents bring in their own expertise which otherwise may have been missed.
At this crucial juncture, we have an opportunity to transform education in a meaningful way if we ask the right questions with regards to technology and the future of learning. If technology and augmented learning are indeed going to be an integral part of education, how are we going to ensure a wholistic development in areas of physical, social, emotional and spiritual development? What form of social, physical, spiritual and emotional development will learners have access to? Do we need to bring in new skills, processes and watermarks to help learners thrive? These are the questions we need to ponder on as we work towards creating a pedagogy geared towards the future of learning.