Reconsidering teachers’ roles – how to do it without hitting the system wall?

I’m so happy to be writing this in one of my favorite cities in the world: Barcelona!

The UOC UNESCO Chair in e-Learning VIII international seminar with the theme of teacher training has just ended today. For two days, we’ve been hearing presentations and engaged in discussion about teachers. Quite aptly, the seminar started just after the 5th Teacher’s Day. The message of the seminar is clear: the role of the teacher has to change, the old practices and methods invented for the needs of the industrial society are not working anymore. This is 21st century, knowledge society, network age, participatory economy – there are many definitions.

But of course we know this. You know this. We all know this. Anyone who has attended any education events or read any publications – scholarly or not – about the topic must have heard all this before. For a few years already, this has been the topic of keynote presentations, editorials and opening ceremonies at the beginning of the semester in different educational institutions.

I believe we’ve reached the point of awareness that leaves us with the question: now what? Yes, we know things need to change. We need to educate students for the future, not for the past. We need to cultivate innovation, creative thinking, problem solving and collaboration. It’s no longer news to us. Just tell us, how do we do it? Sometimes we get the feeling that we teachers are just supposed to teach ourselves a whole new paradigm, a bunch of new literacies and the corresponding pedagogies, just like that, on our own and preferably yesterday. It doesn’t work like that.

Ferran Ruiz Tarragó, expert in and author of books on ICT and Education and currently President of the Education Council of Catalonia, gave a great presentation at the seminar with the title “The Usual Suspects? Teachers, Their Challenges and Development“. He pointed out how teachers are the ones getting all the blame on all kinds of shortcomings, from low student performance to bad employability. Most critics don’t realize that teachers are unrealistically being required to be excellent in a totally outdated system. An education system, after all, is only as good as its managers.

The crazy thing is that “the system” is doing the wrong thing and taking a u-turn to the wrong direction instead of accelerating towards the knowledge society. Or what do you say about the incredibly ignorant trend of increasing control in the form of standardized tests, standardized curricula and standardized teaching methods when the right way would be increased flexibility, increased trust and collaboration and increased personalization? If we wish to promote 21st century skills, that is. Stephen Downes shared a post today where he discusses this, referring and linking to Joe Bower’s recent blog post, Paradoxes of the Finland Phenomenon (and no, I’m not sharing this because I’m from Finland but because Joe is making such an important point!). The standardization serves as a bad excuse for quality assurance. A friend of mine and a great innovative educator pointed out that it’s the “McDonalds quality assurance” – everything standardized to the point where there is no variation and absolutely no gourmet meals.

Julià Minguillón, Academic Director, UNESCO Chair in e-Learning and UOC listed barriers education has to overcome in his conclusion of the seminar. Among these are school and university structures and bureaucracy, assessment and testing, coping with the ongoing change, isolated and fragmented knowledge and poor transfer of education research into practice. His list did not emphasize teachers’ bad motivation, ignorance or unwillingness to change – the reasons that we often get to hear.

My feeling after the seminar – and already before it, resulting from discussions with hundreds of educators all over the world – is that the greatest obstacle on the way of education to the 21st century is that teachers are not given their well-earned status as knowledge workers. For many a system, they are unpredictable variables in the perfectly standardized “McDonalds Quality Assurance Process” and thus they need to be controlled. The culture of control is then repeated in the classroom. And we all know what control and surveillance do to innovation, don’t we.

The bright side here is that the system didn’t just fall from the sky or emerge from the ground. People created it. Therefore, people can also change it. Let’s get started with it today.



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Are teachers hiding behind computers?

I can’t believe it’s been such a long time without a blog post! I’ve had many ideas I’ve wanted to share but I’ve also had the busiest spring term ever and I guess it has something to do with the radio silence here.

But now I’ve just read something that I really need to comment on and hopefully also discuss with you. Here it comes.

A recent study revealed that the writing skills of school children in Finland have deteriorated, especially among 9-grader boys (they are 14-15 years old in Finland). Moreover, children don’t like school and their motivation is on a lower level than before. This, of course, is bad news for us Finns, who have just learned that our school system is one of the best if not the best in the world! What has gone wrong?

Today’s editorial in Iltalehti, a major Finnish tabloid (in Finnish, sorry!) suggests a reason that, unfortunately, many are likely to buy without criticism. The writer believes that computers in schools are the problem and that instead of offering a healthy relationship with an adult, the teachers are hiding behind their computers. And I’m reading this just minutes after I’ve read a student of mine, an in-service vocational school teacher, write about his worries that vocational schools are being left behind in the knowledge society as they are not providing computers to all the teachers. The editorial says schools should offer a stable alternative to the chaotic Internet world. The vocational school teacher says there’s a gap between the real world and school’s working methods.

Which one of these stories is right? Are there too many or too few computers? What do computers have to do with this anyway?

The Iltalehti editorial suggests that the most important thing is school is a good relationship and cooperation of the teacher and the pupils. This I can agree with. But as I think back to my own school years, it becomes less straightforward. There were no computers in the early 80s when I went to school. Of course not. But, let me be quite honest with you, there was no good relationship and cooperation with the teacher either. In other words, the absence of computers didn’t guarantee a good relationship with the teacher. We were sitting in neat rows, obeying orders and being quiet. How was that a warm, close relationship with the teacher? I can’t avoid the feeling that the writer of the editorial is one of the people who find “the good old days” the best solution to just about anything. There’s a lot of that going on in Finnish politics these days as well.

The world has changed in many ways, and it’s true that the attention span of children is not what it used to be.  I’m not saying it’s a thing to celebrate, but I don’t think we can stop the world from changing by “offering an alternative to the Internet” and sticking to traditional teaching methods.  Shouldn’t we rather try and find new, innovative methods and ways of teaching, learning and collaborating in a meaningful way that doesn’t feel completely detached from the real world? With and without computers.

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IEC2011 in Bangkok: kickstart for the new year

Keynote & invited speakers and organizers at IEC2011

On January 13-14, I attended the IEC2011 in Bangkok. The crossing theme of the conference was empowering human capital through online environments. The keynote speakers included Markku Markkula, Advisor to the Aalto Presidents (Finland), Professor Denise Kirkpatrick, the Vice-Chancellor of Learning, Teaching and Quality at the Open University UK, Professor Carol Yeh-Yun Lin from National Chengchi University (Taiwan), Joanne Kossuth, Vice President for Operations at Olin College of Engineering (USA), Professor Dae Joon Hwang from Sungkyunkwan University (Korea) and Lucifer Chu (Taiwan), founder of the Foundation of Fantasy Culture and Art and the Chinese translator of more than 20 fantasy novels – one of them being Lord of the Rings.

Markku Markkula’s presentation, titled “Inventing the Future Through Digital Agenda and Other European Flagship Initiatives”, discussed the rapid changes business and public sector are facing through digitalization and globalization. The points Markkula made are exactly the same that have influenced our work at the School of Vocational Teacher Education: the knowledge society imposes entirely new requirements on learning, working methods and working cultures. He addressed this issue by introducing three approaches: EU 2020 strategy, lifelong & e-learning and e-skills for innovation. Markkula also pointed out that new generation innovation activities are getting increasingly complex and international; they must be created within collaborative global networks and communities. Also the role of universities needs to change radically; instead of providing information, learning to learn and learning to create new knowledge and expertise must be in focus.

Our own presentation continued with the same theme, from the point of view of 21st century teachers’ professional development. Our paper, written with Dr. Marjatta Myllylä and Marko Teräs, was titled “Empowering Teachers to Meet the Digital Native Learners”. In the new era that Markku Markkula also described in his keynote, graduating students need new, 21st century skills in order to be successful in the new world of work. Traditional teaching methods and learning environments don’t support them in acquiring these. On the contrary – we’ve found that even the generation of “digital natives” who are supposed to be collaborative, innovative and globally oriented (see Tapscott 2009), become passive learners when they go through the process of formal education. Educational practices are rooted deep; even young teachers often tend to repeat the methods of their teachers, who in turn have learned from their teachers, and so on. It doesn’t take very many teachers to go all the way back to the industrial revolution. A completely new approach to teacher education using social media and team learning seems promising in empowering new teachers to build a 21st century professional identity and working culture. You can find more information about the teacher training program in my previous blog post. The slides of our IEC2011 presentation are here.

All in all the conference was very useful and interesting. The emergent trends and crossing themes throughout the conference seemed to be personalized learning and personal learning environments, teachers as facilitators (and how hard this seems to be in practice), the use of social media and smart technology, and getting the fun and engagement of gaming into learning. The latter was especially the message of Lucifer Chu who demonstrated in a visually captivating way that the world that we live in has changed irreversibly.

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Introducing social media assisted teacher education in Berlin

I and Timo @School Forum / Online Educa Berlin 2010

I have recently returned home from Berlin where I was talking about our new approach to teacher training. I and my colleague Timo had a stand at School Forum, which was one of the pre-conference events at Online Educa Berlin 2010. We enjoyed many great discussions and met great people – hope to work together with many of you in the future! I gave the address to this blog as reference, so I’d better fulfill my promises and explain here what exactly we were talking about! So, here we go:

We at TAOKK (School of Vocational Teacher Education at Tampere University of Applied Sciences) have been offering pedagogical teacher qualification studies through a distance learning program for many years now, but what’s different and new is that we’ve given up on using Moodle and moved completely to open social media environments. The studies are directed to teachers of vocational subjects, and most of the participants are already practicing teachers on secondary or higher education. They just haven’t had the pedagogical qualification yet. This is something you need to have in Finland in order to be a teacher of a vocational subject. The studies take 2 years when completed alongside work, and we also offer them f2f supported by Moodle. But what we introduced in Berlin was the new approach using social media.

So, why social media instead of Moodle? There are two big reasons for that. First of all, Moodle is not necessarily the best tool for non-linear, open-ended, learner centered, inquiry-based, collaborative, team-based, authentic e-learning. Now that’s some definition, but that’s basically the approach we use. 🙂 Two more questions arise: 1) why is Moodle not suitable for this; and 2) why are we using such an approach?

We’ve found out through experience and research that, being the learning management system it is, Moodle is rather teacher-centered. The participants don’t have the same privileges as the instructor. They can’t upload new material, start new discussion forums or change anything in the process. What we get is a traditional classroom setting: expertise on stage, delivering a one-way message to the audience. We didn’t want that. We wanted to get rid of hierarchies. Moreover, we had found out earlier that this setting also made the formation of teams and the sense of community very slow and sometimes difficult. The participants didn’t feel they formed a community of practice, rather they felt they were in school. This was again something we had to change.

The reason for the approach described earlier is that we want to promote the acquisition of 21st century skills. Have you read the book of the same name by Trilling & Fadel? If not, read. At least open the link and read what’s there, you’ll get the picture of what we too have had in mind. We didn’t feel that a traditional, hierarchical e-learning approach would serve the purpose. This is how the social media assisted approach was born.

So, what does it mean in practice? I’ll try to summarize it here:

  • We use Second Life, blogs, Twitter and Skype, and there are also a few f2f meetings.
  • The students work in small teams throughout their studies.
  • We have our own learning café in Second Life. The teams use that as a meeting place and starting point as they leave for excursions. They observe teaching in SL, participate in events and meet people.
  • There’s a lot of reflection, discussion and sharing. That’s what the blogs are for.
  • Networking outside the university is important. The participants follow interesting people on Twitter, find resources way beyond the ones provided by the university and stay on track with the latest research results. They learn to find and process information and create knowledge together, instead of reading set books and memorizing facts.
  • We don’t have set books. We have learning goals. The students define them, not just the teacher.
  • There are no traditional exams.
  • There is no numeric evaluation.
  • Instead, there’s dialogic evaluation. It’s ongoing, reflective and it helps students learn and internalize. The students also write digital narratives in teams to reflect on what they have learned.
  • The students get to decide for themselves where they wish to publish their narratives. No tools are determined by the teacher.
  • There is no central place with a linear learning process described. There is no linear learning process.
  • There is no instructional design.
  • The teacher’s role is to be a facilitator. This doesn’t mean she’s invisible, far from it. She has just given up on her role as the expert on the stage and become a guide and a coach instead.

So far, the results have been incredibly encouraging. The sense of a community has been created faster than ever. The students say that after just a couple of months they have established networks and found resources they could not have imagined possible. They have been very happy with the support they have got from the teacher. What’s remarkable is that they say their idea of teacher’s work has changed.

This has only just started some 5 months ago, so unfortunately I can’t give you any research results yet. But I definitely will! If you’re interested in hearing more about this, you can always ask me. We’ll also be talking about this in a few international conferences in the near future, you’ll see the details on the publications page.


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AACE E-Learn: thoughts on blended learning

Image: Terriseesthings

Wednesday’s keynote speaker, Dr. Michelle Selinger from CISCO, made me remember all the steps and stages of development with education technology I have experienced during the 11 years I’ve been working with it. She talked about a new blend of learning, where diverse collaboration tools are available to enhance social learning. Bulletin boards, threaded discussions and email – the dominant collaboration tools during 1995-2005 – have been replaced or supplemented by telepresence, web conferencing, audio conferencing, virtual campuses and other applications that enable real-time social interaction.

Still one of the main arguments from the opponents of education technology is the supposition that using technology reduces human interaction and impoverishes the social skills of learners. Interestingly, the very same people don’t see a problem in mass lectures or book exams, the traditional approaches to higher education. Just exactly how do these promote social interaction?

It’s sad but true that e-learning is still widely suffering from the same problems as ten years ago. On one hand the problem is administrative: there are many ignorant decision-makers who have the misconception that using e-learning will enable major savings as one teacher can have a virtually unlimited number of students attending their online course. This is not true. Of course, this can be done, but I claim in most cases it ceases to be e-learning. It’s just e-delivery of content. Learning is something that the student does. Delivery of content is usually done by the teacher, but it’s not yet teaching. Correcting assignments is not teaching either. Learning cannot take place if students are treated like products on an assembly line.

On the other hand, the problem is pedagogical. Linear, teacher-centered methods of the industrial age are easily reproduced in the online environment. In this case too, e-learning is in the danger of becoming e-delivery of content and e-assessment. It’s hard to think outside the box, but it’s about time to do that. Both our students and the environment they will work in have changed, and they’ll never learn the skills they need in the 21st century environment with methods that were created to produce skills for the industrial age.

What do students themselves expect from blended learning? Michelle Selinger discussed at least the following:

  • choice
  • coherent learning experience
  • exposure to experts
  • communication
  • collaboration
  • “just learning” (Just in time, just for their needs)
  • easy access to faculty and peers
  • support
  • they expect blended learning to be as good if not better than traditional, on-campus learning!

These things are not impossible (or, in my opinion, even very hard) to achieve. It just requires we stop thinking about e-learning strictly as learning management systems and content delivery, and actually start to blend creatively. Blend good-quality f2f tutorial sessions, video resources, social media elements, books, web conferencing or telepresence, expert lectures… you name it. Blend synchronous and asynchronous, online and offline live, team and individual work, formal and informal. And make the blend with best possible ingredients. Artificial flavors or just adding water to make the same soup serve more people will not do the trick if the blend is actually supposed to create some learning.

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AACE E-Learn 2010: Day 1

Image: Two Ladies and Two Cats

I’m currently attending AACE E-Learn 2010 in Orlando, Florida. It’s great to meet colleagues from all over the world and share thoughts on what’s going on in education. Today we had a very good chance for sharing and discussing as I and my colleague Timo Nevalainen hosted a roundtable session with the title “Teacher training in the knowledge society – Web 2.0 and new professionalism”. What we did was that we asked everyone to write down on a piece of paper what they thought were the most important skills of a 21st century teacher. After that the papers were passed on to the next person who built new ideas on the ones already listed. And so on, for several rounds.

The most important things that came up were

  • Facilitation skills: facilitating online learning & self-directed learning, “Guide on The Side” vs. “Sage on The Stage” .
  • Trust: focus in learning, not teaching; student-centeredness.
  • Ability to use technology in a pedagogically meaningful way.
  • Eco-awareness, cultural awareness
  • Accurate world view and authenticity: not hiding the complexity of real life problems.
  • Shared expertise and learning from others.

All these observations are in line with the day’s keynote speaker, Dr. Paul Kim from Stanford University, who was talking about educational evolution. All living things evolve; so should education. No business can stay the same forever and flourish; why would education make an exception? Just about everything about the context has changed, what makes us think education could – or should – remain intact? Paul Kim also emphasized the importance of the global community and value-based evolution. It’s not about me or about our school anymore. It’s about the global community.

The school system as we know it was designed for the industrial age purposes, aiming to produce workforce for assembly lines. Issues like self-direction, global responsibility or solving complex problems in teams were not a part of that reality. The industrial age idea of a teacher is rooted very deeply in our minds; young teachers are influenced by their teachers who were influenced by their teachers who were influenced by their teachers – and it doesn’t take much longer to track it back to the industrial revolution. Everyone has been taught one day. Therefore everyone has an idea of a teacher – and that idea is rooted extremely deep in our mindset.

What we don’t necessarily come to think of is that there’s a new revolution going on already. The emergence of knowledge society is at least as groundbreaking as industrial revolution was. We’re in a desperate need of a new mindset in what comes to teaching, learning, and assessment.

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Is Facebook students’ tool for mental outsourcing?

Image: Colton’s Photography

I happened to overhear a group of students in the bus the other day. They were students from our university and they were talking about the day’s lecture. The conversation went on something like this:

Student 1: I SO wasn’t able to concentrate on the lecture. At least half of the time I was just facebooking.
Student 2: Me too! Well, at one point I really tried to concentrate; I logged off Facebook and forced myself to stare at the lecturer. But I didn’t understand anything and after some time I realized I wasn’t really in the classroom, my mind was wandering somewhere else. I just couldn’t follow it!
Student 3: These lectures are so useless! And what really strikes me is that there’s a lecture after the exam! Why would anyone go there after the exam? What good would it do?
Student 1: I know! It’s so stupid! There’s just no point!

After this they went on talking about parties and free time activities.

The old-school teacher in me was annoyed. Students! They’re always like this! They just don’t bother to work hard enough! Facebook should be banned in schools! (Well, not that one. Not even at that stage of annoyance. But I know people who would have thought that.).

But then I calmed down and reconsidered what I had just heard. After all, this brief conversation was like a mirror that sharply and mercilessly revealed some great flaws in our education. Interestingly, they are very similar to the greatest flaws in management at workplaces.  Finnish Business and Policy Forum EVA has recently published a report (in Finnish only, sorry!) discussing the need for change in management and leadership at workplaces, composed by researchers Ilkka Halava and Mika Pantzar.

According to the report, employees have changed. They are not as committed to a certain workplace anymore, instead they are interested in personal growth, meaningfulness of the work and possibilities for self-realization. If they don’t find this in the work, they either find another job or concentrate on finding these things outside work. Old type of management with orders, regulations and traditional sticks and carrots won’t do any good. The new employees don’t respond to dictatorship. Instead, the respect for natural authority and interest-based team organization are current and future trends.

Moreover, a system based on regulations, directives, surveillance and control creates “mental outsourcing” of work: the employees are physically present but mentally absent, not committed and unable to create or innovate. Companies are busy finding new indicators to measure the performances, but these are often forced at the employees and they in return tend to find them useless and irrelevant.

On top of it all, there’s process thinking – or process (wishful) thinking, as Halava and Pantzar call it. Process thinking tries to tame everything that is creative, non-linear, contradictory or surprising into a clearly defined process. This is supposed to be a part of quality control, but from the employee’s point of view the purpose of a process is to systematically prevent seeking alternatives, trying, disruptive thinking or challenging status quo. The management wants to ensure that everyone does the same thing in the exactly same way, according to the instructions.

According to Halava and Pantzar, the great challenge for working life is to recognize and replace the practices that make work a dull process that the employee can tolerate only by mental outsourcing. Rethinking leadership and management are in a key role. Hierarchies must be replaced with teams and networks. Work should be meaningful.

Now, what does all this have to do with the students talking on the bus? Interestingly enough, everything.

The traditional, teacher-led and teacher-controlled learning situations are dull to the learners who don’t find the meaningfulness or possibilities for self-realization in them. However, they are required to be present and there are indicators to measure attendance. Just like the uncommitted employees, the students tolerate the situation by mental outsourcing (= in this case facebooking). Stricter regulations (e.g. banning Facebook) won’t help, these people don’t respond to dictating. They’ll find their means of mental outsourcing.

Moreover, the indicators for measuring performance (exams) feel irrelevant and detached from reality. Students study only to pass the exam (=memorize enough things and keep them stored in their short-time memory on a given day) and fail to see the connection with real life. Why else would they find it useless to attend the lectures after the exam? Process thinking is prominent in education, no matter what we say. Everyone must behave in a similar way, complete the same tasks with similar outcomes.

Just like management, we must rethink educational practices. Halava and Pantzar point out that there is no way to change the employees, it has to be the work that adapts to the values of the 21st century citizen. The same goes for education. We must find new ways of making learning more meaningful, the connections to reality more crystallized, the opportunities for personal growth and self-realization more frequent. There must be more room for questioning, challenging, alternative ways of doing things, discovering, trying, failing and innovating. It’s sad and plain harmful if the role of social networking and sharing in education remain that of a tool for mental outsourcing.


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