A conversation around the Digital University – Part 5

Continuing our discussions around concepts of a Digital University, in this post we are going to explore the Learning Environments quadrant of our conceptual model.

MacNeill, Johnston Conceptual Matrix, 2012

MacNeill, Johnston Conceptual Matrix, 2012

To reiterate,the logic of our overall discussion starts with the macro concept of Digital Participation which provides the wider societal backdrop to educational development. Information Literacy enables digital participation and in educational institutions is supported by Learning Environments which are themselves constantly evolving. All of this has significant implications for Curriculum and Course Design.

Learning Environment
In our model we highlighted three key components of a typical HE institutional learning environment:
*physical and digital
*pedagogical and social
*research and enquiry

1 Physical and digital
A learning space should be able to motivate learners and promote learning as an activity, support collaborative as well as formal practice, provide a personalised and inclusive environment, and be flexible in the face of changing needs.Designing Spaces for Effective Learning, a guide to 21st learning space design.

One of the key starting points for this series of blog posts was the increasing use of “digital” as a prefix for a range of developments (mainly around technology infrastructure) which seemed to have an inherent implication that the physical environment, and its development was almost defunct. However, any successful learning environment is one where there is the appropriate balance between the physical and the digital. Even wholly online courses the student (and teacher) will have a physical location, and there are certain requirements of that physical location which will enable (or not) participation with the digital environment e.g. device, connectivity, power etc. Undoubtedly the rise of mobile internet enabled or Smart devices is allowing for greater flexibility of physical location; but they also create extra demands in the physical campus e.g. ubiquitous, freely available, stable, campus wide wireless connectivity; power sockets that aren’t all at the back of a classroom?. If students and staff are using and creating more digital resources where are they to be stored? Who provides the storage – the institution or the student? If the former how are they managed? How long do they stay “live”? Can a student access them once they have left the institution? Technology is not free, and providing a robust infrastructure does have major cost implications for institutions. For campus based courses, blended learning is becoming increasingly the norm. Which leads to questions around the social and pedagogical developments of our learning environments.

2. Pedagogical and Social
Vermut has summarized a number of patterns of what he refers to as teaching-learning environments which influence effective student learning . From his analysis of these patterns, and their components he has suggested a set of key features for powerful learning environments:
*They prepare students for lifelong, self-regulated, cooperative and work-based learning;
*The foster high quality student learning
*The teaching methods change in response to students’ increasing metacognitive and self-regulatory skills and
*The complexity of the problems dealt with increases gradually and systematically. (Vermut, Student Learning and University Teaching 2007, )

Of course to create these powerful environments requires a shift in terms of what he describes as “a gradual shift in the task division in the learning process form educational ‘agents’ (e.g. teacher, tutor, book or computer) to students”. This shift creates a culture of increasing self regulation and thinking from students. Curricula are developed with an increasing set of challenges which foster key lifelong learning skills that become common practice for students beyond their formal education and into the workplace. Vermut et al refer to this as “process-orientated teaching” as it is targeted at the “processes of knowledge construction and utilization”.

This style of teaching and learning requires an increasingly complex mix of skills including diagnostician, challenger , monitor, evaluator and educational developer. Technology can provide a number of affordances to create the learning spaces for to allow more self regulation for students e.g. collaborative working spaces, and personal reflective spaces. However, there needs to be support from all levels of the institution to continually provide the wider environment which effectively develops the skills and knowledge to allow this type of student as self regulating researcher culture.

3 Research and Enquiry
There is a growing discourse emerging around effective research practice in the digital age, and the notion of the digital scholar is increasingly recognised. Martin Weller’s recent book “The Digital Scholar How Technology is Transforming Scholarly Practice” explores key themes around digital practice, and what the increasing role of networks and connections, the disconnect and tensions between traditional and new forms of increasingly self publication platforms and formal recognitions within Universities and the role of open scholarship. This blog post summarises his top ten digital scholarship lessons.

What is crucial now is that institutions and funders begin to recognise and more importantly not only begin to reward these different types of digital scholarly activities, but also ensure that staff and students have the relevant literacy skills to exploit them effectively. Information literacy has been recognised as having an impact on effective research practice, but we would argue for that more research needs to be done in this area to make explicit the link between effective information and literacy skills and effective research and scholarly practice.

There is a growing backlash against traditional academic publishing models which was recently highlighted by John Naughton’s feature in The Observer “Academic Publishing Doesn’t Add “Up”. Open access and open publishing can again be seen as being key to digital scholarship.

Early findings from the JISC Developing Digital Literacies Programme are showing the impact of undertaking a digital literacy audit to enable institutions to define (and therefore develop) their expectations for and to students. There are differences between disciplines which again need to be understood and shared between staff across institutions. Digital literacies are becoming more prevalent in institutional policies, and need to be supported by relevant provision of services and shared understandings if there are to be more than token statements. We think our matrix may play a role in forming and extending strategic discussions.

In the next post we will try and pull together key points from the series so far and the comments we have received and frame these in terms of some of the wider, societal contexts. As ever we’d love to get feedback on our thoughts so far, so please do leave a comment.

*Part 1
*Part 2
*Part 3
*Part 4

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