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An Attempt to Reframe Our Active Learning Debate
May 14, 2014 - 9:00pm

We Inside Higher Ed folks are a cantankerous bunch. That is good, as open and respectful debate is one of the hallmarks of academe.

Our penchant for forceful and well-articulated disagreement was on full display in the discussion (DISQUS) section of Doug Lederman’s article on 5/13 A Boost for Active Learning.

Your comments on the PNAS paper, Active Learning Increases Student Performance in Science, Engineering, and Mathematics ranged from supportive of the findings to critical of the paper's methodology and conclusions.

Without diving into this specific debate about this particular research, I’d like to float a trial idea around how we think and talk about active learning.

What if substituted “active learning” for “investing in learning”?

What if we stipulated that the instructor is in the best position to describe what sort of investments are needed, and what the desired teaching outcomes will be?

Are there aspects of your own teaching that you think would benefit from some additional resources?  

Any push towards active learning should start with the understanding that, by and large, higher ed has systematically under-invested in teaching and learning.

The causes and contours of this under-investment are too well known and too numerous to go into here.  Here I am not talking about larger labor market and compensation issues around contingent faculty.  What I am talking about are the resources available to instructors once they have been slotted to teach a particular course.  

Courses are complicated productions, and in my experience the larger the enrollment of the course the more resources that are necessary to improve the learning (and teaching) experience.

We should recognize that the push to active learning methods is being driven by the proliferation of free open online content.   

What does it do to the value proposition of traditional classroom lectures if a student can view a high quality lecture on their computer or tablet or smart phone for free, while simultaneously experiencing many of the elements of a traditional lecture class like online assessments and discussions?  

If the difference is only that the traditional lecture class is attached to credit, and the open online class can at best result in a certificate, then the traditional lecture class (and the institution that offers that lecture class) will be in trouble.

When there was little competition or alternative options for content based courses there was little incentive to offer any alternatives.

Today, the competitive landscape has changed. Courses need to offer more than content. 

It is therefore as much an economic as a pedagogical imperative that colleges and universities move towards active learning.

I like MOOCs largely because I think they will force investments in traditional classes.

The right way to do this, to invest in active learning, is to invest in the instructor.  

To trust the professor to decide what he or she needs, and then to the extent possible get them those resources.  

This does not mean that there will not be a role for learning designers and the people on campus that work on faculty development.  Faculty may seek these folks out.  They may want some assistance.  I hope that they do.

Many faculty will recognize that they were not trained in grad school in learning theory, and that they could use some help in leveraging technology to reach their teaching goals.   

Will any of you object if we reframe active learning to investing in learning?

Help me find the flaws in this reasoning.

 

 

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