Unfold Learning

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‘Cubic’ ELM Assessments 1: Traditional Lecture…


Scattered cube

In my last post, I described the ways the “cubic” model could be used to evaluate  learning approaches and described a method for calculating “engagement and learning multiplier” (ELM) scores. If you aren’t familiar with these concepts, you might want to review that post before continuing…

Over the next several posts, I’ll perform cubic ELM assessments of several common learning approaches. For each, I’ll set the learning scenario and then present analysis about why that approach has a given “cubic” shape and why it receives a particular ELM score. Hopefully, these posts will provide useful examples and guidance as you evaluate your own learning approaches and as you make your own teaching and technology choices.


A traditional lecture course


In this course, the teacher presents information most days through a combination of lectures and presentations — some conducted using an “interactive” white board. The teacher also incorporates materials from the course textbook in her lectures, highlighting the points learners will have to know for exams. Learners are expected to take careful notes, and exams and other assessments come largely from material the teacher has covered in lecture, though some also comes from exercises and readings in the course text. During class, learners are encouraged to ask questions if they don’t understand a concept, and the teacher organizes weekly discussions where she probes learners’ understanding of course topics. In addition to homework exercises, learners are expected to complete a major research project. This project is designed to introduce learners to important books and journals in the discipline, and they must use materials from the school’s library, including the library’s online, full-text database, to complete it successfully. Learners choose from a list of topics furnished by the teacher, who has ensured that library holdings are adequate to support each topic. Assessment of these projects (as with exams and homework) is completed by the teacher, who writes comments designed to correct errors, to help learners acquire disciplinary literacies and conform to disciplinary norms, and to praise particularly insightful or advanced responses. The teacher periodically presents exceptional or noteworthy homework exercises, exam responses, and final projects to the class, being careful to protect the authors’ anonymity, in order to encourage dedicated, thoughtful work. She makes herself readily available outside of class to discuss course concepts and encourages learners to come by her office or contact her by email if they have questions or difficulties.


Content: While this teacher is using many strategies to ensure that learners can access and understand the course material, she is still the primary conduit of that material and the sole informational contact for most learners. Her delivery of material in lectures takes precedence over all other forms of information in the course. Although learners are expected to perform research for their final projects, the teacher has both chosen the topics and confirmed the adequacy of sources, once again underscoring her role as the central deliverer of information. While the research project might suggest a move toward the “directed” level, the majority of the course still functions at the “delivered” level, with few opportunities for discovery or creation. Overall content score: Delivered (n1).

Community: Although the teacher uses “discussions” regularly, these are more opportunities for her to correct errors in delivery of course content than discovery sessions. Once again, she remains the primary contact for the learners, and there is little here to suggest any sort of productive contact between learners and their fellow classmates, let alone outsiders. Her encouragement of office visits and email contact simply recapitulates and extends the primarily informational role she plays in class. The structure of the final project discourages collaborational connections, and students are each responsible only for their own work. The teacher’s anonymous use of materials produced by learners, while protecting their authors’ identities, also stymies in-class networking since learners aren’t able to locate expertise in particular classmates. Despite the presence of an “interactive” white board, this technology doesn’t become a site for collaboration and is only used by the teacher for the presentation of information she thinks is important or relevant. In general, the course encourages learners to work in isolation and its structural choices work to discourage connection and collaboration. Overall community score: Isolated (m1).

Context: The course functions as a self-contained stage for information transfer and doesn’t leverage any external contexts. Homework is derived exclusively from the textbook and course materials and may have little connection to learners’ everyday experiences, to the local environment, or to available contexts outside of the course. Projects, similarly, don’t have a life outside of the course and all enterprises are undertaken primarily for academic assessment — exam scores and grades. Even exceptional projects only serve to encourage instructional goals and behaviors, with no extension to larger contexts beyond. The teacher relies exclusively on her own experience and expertise in assessments and doesn’t take advantage of any outside resources that might extend the context of the course’s production. Learners operate within clearly established rules, and their exclusive status as learners is constantly underscored by the hierarchically constructed teacher-learner relationship. All course success is based on informational proficiency, which displaces other areas of assessment and evaluation. Overall context score: Generic (x1).

Overall ELM assessment: n1 · m1 · x1 = 1

ELM Traditional Lecture

For many of us, our educational experiences were built on courses very much like this one. In fact, this is probably an example of one of the better courses we experienced. This teacher’s availability in and out of class, emphasis on regular discussion with her learners, and use of positive homework and projects to illustrate classroom expectations all once represented exemplary practice — elements often included only by better teachers.

However, despite all of this, the course receives the lowest ELM score possible. What would have been commendable in an age before many modern technologies — especially those related to discovery, collaboration, content creation, and publication or broadcasting —  simply can’t compete in a world where these are readily available. Even the technologies integrated in the course, like the “interactive” white board, are not used to extend any of the dimensionalities (though they could be, if used with a different teaching model). In Ruben Puentadura’s terms, these technologies are entirely substitutionary, functioning only to extend the teacher’s ability to deliver content, something she was already doing and could still do without them.

Still, the chief problem with the course is one of design, not execution. The emphasis on content delivery, once a way for teachers to solve a significant challenge for learners, now exacerbates rather than solving a problem. Learners have pervasive and nearly instantaneous access to more content — in any disciplinary area — than they could process in a lifetime. By designing her course to deliver information to her learners, this teacher becomes simply one voice in a cacophony of other voices. And in seeking to control that cacophony by making herself the primary, or even the exclusive, voice — limiting access to others — she can actually make her course appear less relevant to her learners. In fact, this emphasis on limiting access to other voices is one of the characteristics that minimizes the context dimension, and this practice does nothing to prepare her learners for the world in which they’ll be expected to perform. Further, the emphasis on delivery, receipt, and repetition of content expects only the most minimal forms of engagement and development on the part of learners, effectively doing a disservice rather than a service to the content itself. Having learners use the course material — and not just so they can practice decontextualized repetition or learn some informational and research resources — would start them on a much more fruitful path, one more likely to lead to disciplinary resilience. Finally, the course’s emphasis both on a limited collection of course textbooks and on traditional library research ignores the much broader and more dynamic informational world that now exists pervasively in all disciplines. Sources that either didn’t exist previously or that were out of reach of most learners — blogs, audiovisual media, direct contact with experts from around the world, and a host of other forms and possibilities — are all much more likely to represent current developments in a field and to provide a much more robust and fruitful learning environment than the resources included in this course’s design.

In other words, though it might once have been exemplary, this course doesn’t even do justice to serving content today.

Does all of this, including this course’s low ELM score, mean that learners won’t learn? Of course not. But this course makes many choices that stand in the way of learning rather than supporting it. It fails to take advantage of almost all of the strategies and elements now available to deepen learning and make the course content applicable to a broader community of learners. And it does so for reasons — intentional or not — largely associated with outmoded problems, outmoded technologies, and outmoded understandings of the teacher-learner-learning relationship. As it’s been designed, this course’s lack of dimensionality is far more likely to produce semantic memory rather than one of the more robust forms of explicit or implicit memory. Put another way, it’s far more likely to produce learning that fades rather than learning that persists.

Is all lecture bad? No. Lectures can inspire learners and make them want to learn more. But the notion of lecture as a delivery-oriented content tool is problematic. There was a time when lecture was one of the few feasible strategies for conveying information broadly to a group of learners. This is no longer the case — especially as digital search and digital access have grown in speed and pervasiveness. And as anyone who participated in lecture as a mode of information transfer can attest, the drawbacks of this strategy — information loss because learners either misunderstood or weren’t able to keep up with the speed of the presentation — meant that its purported effectiveness wasn’t always borne out by actual results.

Given a choice, why would any teacher who genuinely cared about the course content — or the field of knowledge — not want to do everything possible to help learners grow and achieve? Given all that we now know about neuroscience and learning, and given all of the tools and resources we have available, why would anyone design a course focused on this sort of information delivery today?

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My next post discusses the ELM score of a laboratory course… Click here to see it.



©2017 William Rankin

Author: williamrankin

Explorer in emerging pedagogies, mobile learning activist, digital book prospector, information designer, medievalist