August 6, 2015

Rethinking the Educator’s Role Toward Distributed Teaching

Categories: Digital Learning, Educational Practice
Philosophy medieval university painting

Editor’s note: This blog is the third in a series of four on digital learning (Part 1, Part 2).

In our day-to-day work, we come across a vast range of blog entries, papers, presentations, videos, posts and tweets about digital education, in which different aspects of online learning and teaching are depicted, experiences made are reflected upon and new concepts and approaches are presented. Reading through these, we cannot help but be reminded of the picture showing a typical teaching scenario of the Dark Ages: a teacher being surrounded by a group of learners, listening to him and learning from him. At that time, the teacher was the source of all knowledge. He was the one with power and access to the things known at that time. The learners relied on him to teach them the things they needed to learn. They were the consumers of his knowledge. Since then, teaching methods have come a long way. So why is it that this image still comes to mind when thinking about modern teaching methods, especially in the digital? Often enough, we still come across similar teaching and learning scenarios, at schools, at universities, at advanced training courses. Even after all this time, this ‘traditional’ way of teaching is still very common when designing classroom activities.

In the discussions around digital learning, we often hear about the disruption of the classroom; the way in which today’s teaching methods have changed through the digital and the possibilities that are opened up. Going back to the image of teaching in the Dark Ages, we need to remember why teaching settings used to be designed in that way. At that time, knowledge was mediated orally. “Ordinary” people did not learn how to read or write, so they needed to be taught via oral mediation of knowledge. Only the scholars knew how to read and write and were able to convey their knowledge to the learners through speech. Therefore, the teaching scenario depicted in this image was representative for an entire society. There was no alternative other than the teacher being the source of all knowledge, a mediator of his knowledge to his learners. However, nowadays, knowledge is no more confined to only one person. Since knowledge is available to many on the Internet, modern teaching and learning settings need to be redesigned. Especially, when we consider the possibilities that are offered in digital learning settings: Technical capabilities enable teachers to include multiple approaches into their teaching methods, thus, overcoming the limitations that used to be prevalent during the Dark Ages. At Leuphana Digital School, we have included this into our didactic approach, but with the recent MOOC “Managing the Arts: Marketing for Cultural Organizations,” which has been offered in cooperation with the Goethe-Institute, the shift from unidirectional teaching, as displayed in the cover image, to a distributed teaching approach has been taken to a new dimension. In contrast to the principal of the teacher providing input for the learners, we brought together different kinds of teaching.

Building on Community Learning

All courses are built around the principle of peer-to-peer learning. By matching the learners in teams that work collaboratively on the assignments for the different learning phases throughout the course, each learner can include his experiences, knowledge, and perspective into the tasks at hand. Furthermore, the learners are encouraged to give feedback on the work of other teams, as well as evaluate the teams’ submissions. In doing so, the learners themselves take up the role of the teacher: appraising the work of others, offering suggestions for improvement and commenting on the structuring of the arguments made. In return, learners are given the opportunity to rate the evaluations they received — another step towards creating an equal learning environment. Thereby, we create a community that equates learners with teachers: The learners become teachers and teachers become learners. This also becomes obvious in the forum discussions: all course members are encouraged to engage in discussions with each other, debate controversial topics and exchange different ideas. Even more so, learners feel more compelled to engage with the learning materials and contribute to the discussions in a social context. Making use of this ‘peer-group pressure’ can enhance learners’ motivation to stick to the online program and to complete it, therefore allowing them to benefit from the entire learning process. The social aspect of learning is not only driving the level of commitment among the learners but also changes the way learners interact with their teacher, as well as with their fellow learners. Being part of a global community, in which people with manifold perspectives, experiences and mindsets are brought together, urges learners to commit to their work. There is a tendency for such communities to develop their own dynamics. However, even though these large communities often perform on a self-regulating basis, enforcing netiquette, respectfully discussing and collaborating on their own, at times, there is still the need for mediation, mentoring and guidance during the learning process. This is the point at which a course moderator is needed. In “Managing the Arts,” this was divided into the MOOC director, the academic director and the MOOC facilitator. While the MOOC director was the one officially guiding the learners through the course, the academic director offered support and insights in content-related matters and the MOOC facilitator addressed matters related to the course design. Even though the peer-to-peer approach enhances learning at eye level, this triumvirate accounts for moderating discussions that have arrived at a one-way street, for offering alternative and additional insights to challenge learners to think outside their own mindset, for enlarging upon complex concepts as well as to interfere in case of arising conflicts — in short: for offering guidance during the learning process as the community’s mediators.

Redesigning Learning Materials as Teaching

In the medieval classroom, the teacher was responsible for the curriculum design and the respective learning materials. In addition to the interaction and learning processes described above, the way the curriculum and the learning materials are designed can be opened up to distributedness as well. When we think about the diverse learning community that is addressed in such digital learning scenarios, the curriculum design itself is no longer a single-sided process but a collaborative effort, integrating multiple perspectives, concepts and approaches to the course’s topics. Resting upon this, multiple experts offer various, partially opposing positions and hypotheses, thus, further counteracting to a unidirectional teaching method. In “Managing the Arts,” these keynote lectures were supplemented by the case studies of four different cultural institutions from Berlin, Bangkok, Budapest and Lagos. In this way, multiple practitioners served as teachers as well and presented proposed solutions to the problems highlighted in the course. The curriculum and respective teaching materials merely offer the educational framework and interventions to the subject matter, and no completed picture of the field of knowledge. Supplying a variety of keynotes and case studies, it rests with the learners themselves to form their own view on the subject matter and to find means to be able to incorporate the different inputs into their work.

Where Do We Go From Here?

So what can we take away from these experiences made? If we were to take the existing image above from the Dark Ages and adapt it to integrate these different kinds of teachings, there would be no teacher standing above the learners anymore. Rather, a many to many teaching approach would need to be displayed; learners, teachers, inputs provided via a variety of teaching materials would be need to be on the same level. The real challenge is to make that transition from the ‘traditional’ role of the teacher to the one in a digital learning environment, recognizing the learners not as mere recipients of knowledge but as co-creators of content, embracing their input and insights. Facilitating these processes without setting the agenda is key, and a vital aspect in designing digital education formats. But if one teacher is no longer enough, is there also a limit to the number of teachings?

Banner image credit: Cours de philosophie à Paris Grandes chroniques de France
Inset image credit: