In the past, you may have interacted with educational content within a technological setting, whether it be a pre-recorded lecture, online course, or YouTube video. Any digital content of this nature fits into Student-Technology paradigm, an attempt at scaling the teaching process by removing the instructor from being a prominent figure in the educational process. However, what are the implications of redefining the teaching-learning experience in this fashion? Does it have an impact on the purpose and function of education?
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In previous posts, we explored the features of two online course hosting platforms, Teachable and Udemy. We assessed their benefits and drawbacks for instructors wanting to create their first online course.
The approach to course creation and delivery used by Teachable and Udemy fits into the Student-Technology paradigm. These platforms scale the teaching process by removing the instructor from being a prominent figure in the educational process, thus allowing any learning content to reach millions of students. However, this comes at the cost of removing any element of contingent interactivity.
The Student-Technology model was the first breakout educational technology paradigm. We can trace the model’s origins back to the MIT OpenCourseWare project, which started in 2001 to make university course content freely available online. Over time, advancements in internet connection speeds and browser technology have improved this paradigm for both instructors and learners.
The three tenets
“There is the content piece — can I get the material? And the pedagogy piece — what are the ways we can teach each other using the Web? How can we make this better for learners and teachers? And finally, there is the question of accreditation and certification.”
Mark Surman, Executive Director of the Mozilla Foundation
From Surman’s abovementioned statement, we can argue that the Student-Technology paradigm has three distinct tenets to explore:
1. The creation and curation of learning content
As mentioned formerly, the Student-Technology paradigm has the benefit of being able to scale efficiently to accommodate the needs of a growing audience. In most cases, the paradigm involves an instructor pre-recording their learning content in video or audio format. Following this, the instructor’s learning content becomes part of a platform’s technology layer, which acts as a global delivery channel.
In the early days of the paradigm, online course platforms took advantage of this feature to equalise access to high-quality knowledge. As a result, for the first time, students from Puerto Williams to Longyearbyen could freely access learning content from Harvard, Stanford and MIT, provided they had an internet connection.
Over time, more individuals and enterprises started taking advantage of this feature. Both groups did so to facilitate the productisation of specialised knowledge. Driven by commercial incentives, individuals and enterprises became a ruthless embodiment of what Biesta describes as the new language of learning in his Against Learning essay.
Biesta points out that this new language of learning allows for a re-description of the process of education in terms of an economic transaction. As a result, the creation and curation of learning content can resemble “a marketised discourse emphasising demand, supply, efficiency, effectiveness and consumer need”. For example, in an attempt at cross-channel productisation, savvy micro-influencers often structure their timeline feeds as a sales funnel to any courses they have on sale.
Biesta’s premise still holds when applied to academic institutions. A desire to improve a key metric such as engagement or enrolment can drive the creation and curation of learning material for the digital domain. As the Student-Technology paradigm divorces teachers from assuming direct responsibility on the learning process, they can only play a supplemental part as a component within the technology layer. The teacher can no longer be responsible for a “student’s subjectivity” or what allows them to be a unique being.
From Biesta’s argument, we can deduce that scaling learning content often results in a one size fits all approach to teaching, which caters to market need instead of individual want.
In future articles, we will explore the implications of Biesta’s ideas within the Student-Teacher paradigm.
2. The packaging and delivery of learning content
Any learning content produced using the Student-Technology paradigm leverages basic spaced repetition algorithms and interaction design patterns.
Spaced repetition refers to a learning approach performed with flashcard apps. In this context, a student creates a set of flashcards, each containing a question and answer on an app. On the next day, the app asks you this question. If you answer it correctly, then it will ask you this question again in 1 week, then in 3 weeks, then in 2 months and so on. Each time your answer is correct, the app will ask you the same question again with increasing intervals.
Given the asynchronous approach to teaching employed by platforms using the Student-Technology paradigm, a course creator needs to account for the reality of the “forgetting curve”. The forgetting curve asserts that learners will forget 75% of what they learnt within six days unless they can use and recall the information. Spaced repetition can reduce the forgetting curve’s impact by spacing out the practice of learned content over time, instead of grouping them all in one chunk at the end.
Watching pre-recorded multimedia content is akin to passive learning, where the forgetting curve reigns. As a result, online course creators have to incorporate “spaced repetition” exercises such as quizzes or simple questions that help learners recall any information. We also see such an approach in classroom-based learning, where periodically a teacher has to test a student’s recall of knowledge to determine if they have met learning outcomes.
In future articles, we will assess the efficacy of using spaced repetition patterns, along with any key interaction design patterns.
3. The end-user reward of learning content
When Udemy raised $1 million in seed funding back in 2010, the headline of a TechCrunch article stated that they wanted to democratise online learning. The number of free and inexpensive courses that instructors have published in the last ten years shows that we have made significant progress towards the goal.
However, in the same period, we have transitioned from the Age of Information to the Age of Information Overload. There is a vast amount of free information online via social media posts, blogs, podcasts, YouTube videos, ebooks and webinars.
As a result, online course creators operating within the Student-Technology model have realised that information alone is not a value proposition. It is the last thing we have a shortage of today, so your typical learner needs no more.
Learners who profitably make use of the Student-Technology model are looking for a way to get from Point A to Point B — from their current reality to their desired reality — quickly and efficiently. Such learners need transformation and view online courses as their shortcut.
In response, online course creators sell the result they know their customers want to achieve. On platforms like Udemy and Teachable, instructors can also create course completion certificates that a student can add to their social media profile. Instructors who have opted to take this market-driven approach have seen more sales, increased engagement and better feedback on their courses.
This tenet re-crafts education further within the terms of an “economic transaction”. Education becomes a means of meeting the pre-defined needs of learners. Such a position, for Biesta, is problematic as it does not consider the actual needs of learners. There are layers of social and material complexities that converge to construct this “actual need” which the Student-Technology paradigm erases.
Should we keep using the Student-Technology paradigm?
Perhaps the Student-Technology paradigm prevents us from asking critical questions about how an instructor and student should negotiate educational goals between themselves. Over the last two decades, we have created digital platforms that democratise learning by making content accessible to millions of students worldwide. However, in doing so, have we also inadvertently created authoritarian and inflexible models of education?
I’d argue that because of this, products built on the Student-Technology paradigm are not complete learning experiences. We should view them as supplemental products, and this is sometimes what they aspire to be. For example, despite the existence of products such as Codecademy, aspiring developers will still explore the viability of teacher-led solutions (like Lambda School) to increase their likelihood of successful self-education.
Even with strong engineering, this paradigm remains limited. Technology alone cannot act as a comprehensive substitute for the role of a teacher.
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