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And We’re Building Some Stairways to Heaven
January 6, 2014 - 6:41pm

I am, by training, a cognitive psychologist with research credentials related to the human memory, and the distinction between conscious versus unconscious cognitive processes. Over the last decade though, my love of lecturing has herded me towards a desire to apply my research training to the goal of providing an optimal educational experience of which quality lecturing is but one component.

This, in turn, has resulted in my consorting with, and learning a great deal from, “teaching and learning” types. Thus, over time, I have evolved into an educational psychologist, and have developed a passion for creating and/or assessing educational technologies; educational technologies of a specific type, a type I now refer to as “Stairways to Heaven”.

What analogy could justify such a blatant rip off of a band as respected as Led Zeppelin you ask? Well, here goes. Recently government officials, educational administrators, and educators themselves have taken to describing “heaven”, at least in terms of the skills and knowledge our students will possess when they graduate from our program.

The descriptions come in many specific forms, more generally known as “learning outcomes” and, in addition to general content knowledge related to a specific program of study, they always include high level cognitive skills such as critical thought, creative thought, receptive and expressive communication, self-reflective thought, and collaboration. These are the skills that define leaders and world changers, and in our version of heaven, all our students will be prepared for just such fates; a beautiful vision indeed.

Of course, the problem is that while describing one’s conception is easy, being clear on how to get there is much more difficult. What’s more, the purgatory of the current education system includes many constraints that make getting to heaven seem a challenging task indeed. Content aside, this vision of heaven is defined by skills, and as all cognitive psychologists know, skills can only be obtained by repeated effective practice.

To get to heaven then, we need to be “religiously” giving our students structured and repeated practice with these skills, preferably across varying contexts, and we must do so despite ever increasing student to faculty ratios and ever decreasing budget lines. Practice in cognitive skills must become a well worn ritual for the skills to develop well. It’s no wonder that so many educators working day to day in our current purgatory see heaven as unobtainable, and those preaching its virtues as completely divorced from the realities of earth.

What we badly need then are stairways to heaven; concrete tools or processes than can take us from earth to heaven despite the current constraints and in ways that differ from those that evolved in a world of small well-funded institutions. I want heaven to be a reality, at least in the educational sense of the concept, and thus I and my students have taken up the task of creating these stairways to heaven.

But if we’re going to spend our time and effort building such stairways, it’s important to be clear about what characteristics they must have. In our view, these characteristics can be summed up via two terms; purpose built and research backed.

By purpose-built I mean that the optimal stairways are not re-purposed technologies that were originally created for some other reason but, instead, are built in a way that is based on our scientific understandings of optimal learning contexts.

For example, we know a great deal about the proven benefits of such processes as peer-assessment, self-assessment, authentic assessment, assessment for learning, and active learning. The stairways we build should incorporate these processes, using technology to make the logistics smooth, the resource demands minimal, and the usability very high, in part because it is created with teachers and students in mind.

Once created, and preferably as early as possible, the stairways should be tested via the best possible empirical research. The findings obtained can be used to both verify, and maximize, the effectiveness of the stairway, perhaps by tweaking the technology itself across instantiations, or by arriving at best practices that have been show to maximize learning.

This research can also document and maximize usability - for educators - and engagement - for students. Educators do not have the time or resources to implement new approaches without knowing that what they are implementing works and works well, and they when they do take the time to add in new processes, they would like to think students will see the value of the addition and view it positively. Honing a stairway via research allows these goals.

So suddenly I find myself a carpenter of sorts, working within our Advanced Learning Technologies lab at the University of Toronto Scarborough, building stairways to heaven. We’ve developed three technologies thus far (i.e., peerScholar, mTuner and Digital Labcoat) and have implemented them in the context of my 1800 student hybrid Introduction to Psychology class, and in the Introduction to Psychology Coursera-Based MOOC course that had 15,000 active students. These technologies allow me to bring cognitive practice to contexts that might otherwise be the dreaded “lecture and multiple choice” learning environment.

The technologies are also spreading through the University of Toronto, and beyond, meaning that our students are getting this practice in an ever increasing number of courses; the sort of ritualistic practice that makes this practice most effective. It turns out that being a carpenter of learning is highly rewarding to the soul!

One last point about these stairways to heaven. While we work in earnest to create the stairways, the stairways are not really the focus. Stairways can be simple or complex, beautiful or plain, and at many levels the details of the stairway are irrelevant, because ultimately it is not about the stairway, it is about where it takes you.

Steve Joordens is Director of Advanced Learning Technologies Lab at the University of Toronto Scarborough

 

 

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