We Shape our Learning Environments, and then our Learning Environments Shape Us

While studying recently I came across a paper that was discussing the paradigm shift that has taken place in education. Previously pedagogy has focussed on the teacher: the scholarship of teaching. This lead to a behavioural focus, under the understanding that all learning would be an associative process and that controlling the teaching (cause) would affect the learning of all students similarly (effect) (Hannafin & Land, 1997).

The shift has brought us to a cognitive perspective, wherein the outcome of the educational experience is determined by the student, as an information processor. The emphasis has changed from cause and effect directed by the teacher to finding better ways for the student to process, elaborate and find meaning in the work they are doing. This is in line with Craik and Lockhart’s (1972) depth of processing model, as well as other frameworks such as the MUSIC model of academic motivation.

As I read about this, I thought about the processing vehicles that I use. I think this goes far beyond social media sites or the use of tools such as iPads. I believe the whole room in which you work affects your ability to process information. I struggle to work in the computer lab at the university. However, when I am at home I find I work a lot more effectively. This is due to the information processing devices I have set up in my room. I have a dual screened computer, a large desk and a whiteboard. There is space to lay out the paper and electronic material. Upon the white board there is space to jot down my thoughts as they come, and link them together. Perhaps most importantly of all, there is space to pace. I love to pace around my room, and to look out of my window at the sea and the cars below.

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It all fits together for a much more enjoyable and productive time. I contrast that with the university computer lab where there is often joking and laughter (often caused by me!) Where I have limited desk space, no white board and nowhere to pace. It is as if the emphasis of processing information lies completely inside the mind, wherein it bottlenecks, and is so fragile that small interruptions can cause ideas to disappear completely.

So there we have it. Humans are information processors. We learn through processing information that is meaningful to us. Perhaps universities could change their learning environments in this direction, however a setup like I have just described for each individual does seem unrealistic. They can certainly provide social learning environments for groups, however given that information processing is a student centred process, perhaps we the students should be building that for ourselves.

You can Transfer Information, but you cannot Transfer Skill

Photo Credit: See Image

Today I worked providing I.T. assistance during some research methods exams that were taking place in the university. The first exam session was a little chaotic. We had numerous issues for which we had to call in additional support. We tried all sorts from moving both people and computers around, trying out the use of different network locations with different folder access privileges and so forth. By experimentation I finally worked out what the issues was, and all subsequent sessions ran smoothly and uneventfully.

In theory that makes me indispensible, but should it? One of the plus points of networked learning is that it removes hierarchies and empowers individuals horizontally. However it would be very inefficient practise to restrict the information to the brain of the individual who thought it up. That is when social media and web 2.0 jumps on board. A decent crowd sourced knowledge base could carry that information for the future users of a system, whether that be administering an examination, setting up a software platform, or whatever.

In fact, yesterday I was installing a software platform. Or at least trying. Now it is a common case that when we are having issues with IT, we draw to their online wiki/knowledge base or whatever. The problem can be that these are often quite flat in their design. They contain a number of linked articles, which when you get down into the depths of computer programming languages are both so specific and so many that searching or browsing just doesn’t take you to the help.

We live in the world of information abundance. The generation where ‘knowledge is power’ is rapidly departing our midst, and I might go as to say that for the current generation, the power lies in wisdom. That might be wisdom to think as the end user would, and sort/present knowledge base articles in a layout coherent to the task they are doing.

In terms of learning, the learning that we can do for which our networked position adds value, is experiential in nature. I would be quite anti-competitive to sit in the information I hold, but my skill to solve the future problems cannot be transferred. Any new candidate for the job must learn through their own experience and interest, to gain their own perspectives and thought processes. Since everybody is different, networked experts benefit more from working together and thus social learning perpetuates.

The skill here is relaying that information in a genuinely useful manor to the poor geezer who has to use it next. How often when trawling the internet for solutions do we wish that somebody had that job?

Dead Salmon Social Perspective Taking

I read a paper today in the British Medical Journal presenting a compelling case for a randomized controlled trial to measure the effectiveness of parachute use as a medical intervention to prevent injury when jumping from an aeroplane (Smith & Pell, 2003).

Their reasoning was as follows:

  • No such trial has been done before
  • The perception of the success of the parachute is based solely on anecdote
  • Natural history studies show that free fall without does not always result in an adverse outcome, therefore there is not a 100% chance of mortality when not using a parachute
  • There is also not a 100% chance of survival when using a parachute
  • In all other medical interventions not having a randomized controlled trial would be unacceptable
  • Current industry trials are subject to selection and reporting bias, as well as conflicts of interest.

All in all, there seems to be plenty of reasons why a randomised controlled trial should be carried out, so as to determine more appropriately the efficacy of the parachute… Except for the fact it would be stupid. And that, leads me on to the post-mortem Atlantic salmon.

Bennet, Baird, Miller and Wolford (2009) compared fMRI results of a dead Atlantic Salmon to a group of normal participants in a social perspective taking task.

Image Credit: Bennet, Baird, Miller and Wolford, 2009

The blood-oxygen-level-dependent (BOLD) signal experienced a significant change during the presentation of stimuli compared to at rest (t(131) > 3.15, p(uncorrected) < 0.001). An 81mm3 cluster of active voxels was identified on the Salmons brain cavity, and another smaller cluster was identified in the Salmons dorsal spinal column.

After the same t-tests were done using Benjamimi-Hochberg and family-wise corrections, both with a type 1 error rating of 0.05, no significant results were found. With those error ratings adjusted to 0.25, there was still no brain activity in Mr Salmon.

So, we have two daft studies here, both of which tickled me. It shows the importance of the correct use of advanced (and less advanced) statistics. It’s important to have a firm grasp of the statistical techniques you are working with, or you can very easily end up with errors. This is especially so in the case of the Salmon where such a large number of fine readings are recorded that without an element of realism being considered during the analysis, obvious statistical errors pop up.

And of course, the same level of realism is required at the opposite end of the spectrum, when you ask if we really need experimental control at all. I am impressed with how statistics allow researchers in the social sciences to measure population variables with precision. I don’t even pretend for one minute that I have an in depth understanding of all the methods covered even at undergraduate level, but I have learnt the value of getting stats right. It is important to properly reflect on what statistical tools are genuinely necessary to answer the research question, and of the ones you choose to use, it is important to understand the intricate details.