Does Digital Learning Have Any Room for Ambiguity?

I want to start this post with a quote from Jenni Carr, Academic Development Officer, HEA:

(knowledge) Once learned it is impossible for them to be ‘unlearned’, and the process of that learning involves a shift in subjectivity.  As teachers we have, for the most part, crossed that threshold into academic literacy, but perhaps in that crossing we have become less able to identify with those who have yet to ‘get it’ – and less willing to think ourselves back into that messy liminal space! (2017)

Strictly speaking, what Carr refers to is academic learning but I am of the opinion that any learning that happens at university has a certain amount of academic value, so I am going to take this slightly out of context and see if the same applies to digital learning.

Fundamentally, what Carr suggests is that we ought to be more empathetic and embrace a more open mind when working with students who are yet to get it.  This is often easier said than done as in order to teach something, particularly with digital tools, we first must be pretty good and comfortable at using the tools ourselves, we already have a certain level of expertise that could pay a part in how we see and use the tools in which we are teaching – our very own subjectivity.  There might not be much room for other opinions or uncertainty, or it would seem.

However, as I have come to a realisation in my day to day interactions with students that digital learning is so much more complex than that – on one hand it is very logical but on the other hand, it is also illogical in a sense that learning the functions of these tools is an entirely different story to learning how and when to use the same set of tools – this is totally subjective and completely personal.

Another issue is that not everyone will ‘get there’ at the same time and even with those who have ‘got there’, each person’s understanding of the same set of knowledge or tools could be very different, as are the intentions of how and when to apply these newly learned skills.  Is this ambiguous yet?

Whether or not liminality equals stuckness is still pretty much open to debate, the essence here, however, is how do we teach our students to think like an expert (whether or not they are yet).  If we can achieve this, then the stuckness is a moot point entirely.

I am of the opinion that the more expertise we gain, the more stuck we could become but it is only through navigating ourselves around, but not necessarily out of, this so called stuck place can we truly claim our knowledge as ours.  As Confucius once said, “Tell me and I will forget.  Show me and I will remember.  Involve me and I will understand.  Step back and I will act.” (date unknown)

So how do we help our students in learning to think like an expert?  Put this in a different way, how do we help our students to cross the threshold from hands off learning to hands on learning into the messy, confusing but potentially exciting liminal space?  By hands on, I don’t just mean learning by doing, I also mean taking an active part in thinking and participating, rather than merely assuming the same role we once had in school of being talked at and use our teachers’ expertise as proxy for any and all answers.

The most important and perhaps the only thing we can do is to reassure students that being stuck doesn’t not mean they need to panic anytime soon, if at all.  It can be completely normal that they most likely will dip in and out of knowing and not knowing as their learning progresses and gain more experience.  As Carr puts it, “Some will think they have ‘got it’ at one moment only to feel this understanding slip away when they try to apply this new-found knowledge in a different context.” (2017)

There certainly is a lot of room for ambiguity with digital learning, the key is perhaps to be open about it with our students from the beginning, to keep reiterating that digital learning is a highly personalised journey that whilst we are here to support them, we are not here to teach them how to do every single thing they need to learn.  We ought to avoid injecting too much of our ways of working, instead to encourage and offer opportunities for experimentations at every stage.  In other words, we ought to let our students know that we are there to support them when they fall, but we are not there to hold their hands in any way at all.  After all, digital learning is no difference to any kind of learning fundamentally, we must not let the seemingly logical approach of digital learning deceive us into thinking that it is any less ambiguous.

Time and time again, people who have written about liminality often compare it with the rite of passage that many African tribes still put their adolescents through before they are accepted as adults.  What they must do is to be exposed to some forms of intense endurance elements, whatever these might be.  It can be uncomfortable, it can bring on uncertainty and you probably will want out as soon as possible, but it is an necessary evil, it is a means to an end.  We ought to prepare our students that once they have entered the liminal space, there might well be more than one rite of passage awaits them, but the more they have experienced first hand, the better they are prepared for the next one.

References:

Carr, J. (2017) ‘Student transitions and liminal spaces’, LSE The Education Blog, 29 Sept. Available at: http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/education/2017/09/29/student-transitions-and-liminal-spaces/ (Accessed 10 Oct 2017)

– LSE (2017) ‘Threshold concepts’, LSE The Education Blog, 11 Oct. Available at: http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/education/2012/10/11/threshold-concepts/ (Accessed 10 Oct 2017)

Land, R., Meyer, J.H.F. and Flanagan, M,T. (2016) Threshold Concepts in Practice. Rotterdam: Sense Publishers.

 

 

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