Student-Centered Learning | Viewpoint

Student-Centered Learning: Target or Locus for Universities?


As information technology brings us a mind-numbing array of options for mobile learning experiences and communications, an age-old tension between two different visions of learning--content delivery versus discovery learning--intensifies. Along with this, our modern discussions of “student-centered learning” are moving into a more strategic realm.

Student-centered learning has been largely a rhetorical distinction for decades--e.g., more group work or less group work--because, practically speaking, everything happened in the classroom. But now, student-centered learning has, as a concept, particularly in the past five years, come to encompass a vastly wider variety of choices, about how to design and plan for it.

Now, the distinction is not just rhetorical, but a life style distinction: scarcity learning (content delivery) in the classroom or abundance learning (discovery) often out in real-world situations. In scarcity learning, the student is the target for delivery systems, while in abundance learning the student is the locus, the starting point, of learning.

While both scarcity learning (predictable, more controlled) and abundance learning (discovery, inventiveness) have their values, the confounding factor is the question, not about what students or faculty members simply like, but instead: What kind of approach best prepares students to become life long learners, always curious, not afraid of the inevitable changes that will occur in their lifetime (7 different jobs, on average, by the time they reach 38), best able to write (oh, how crucial this skill has become in this world now!), best able to work in teams, and most technologically adept?

I just read a scary statement by Sridar Vembu, CEO of Zoho, a startup that has succeeded quite impressively and now has 1,200 employees on 3 continents. In response to a question about recent college graduates working at Zoho: “People complain that kids come out of college and don’t have the right background, and I say they haven’t really been challenged. A lot of education today takes a kid who’s 18, 19 years old and asks them to focus on something really boring. [They’re] not treated as the responsible young adults that they are. So they stay as kids and fulfill our expectations.” (ComputerWorld, Aug 9, 2010, p. 10).

As I read this, I thought how college seems like a game to many students. When I was a student, I was good at the game but when I was a professor, I quickly tired of the game. A few years ago, I heard one well-regarded professor explain why he wouldn’t see a student during office hours: It would not be fair to other students if this one student had extra time with the teacher! I was astonished. To this professor, it seemed that teaching and learning was a game and no one should get an unfair advantage.

My own response to the tacit belief that classroom work is a game was to change the rules of the game so radically that my students no longer recognized it as the game they knew. Each semester, I would think of some new ways to confuse the game that my students knew only too well how to play.

The U.S. is, as President Obama just reiterated, graduating a shrinking percentage of matriculated students from college. We hear from industry that grades do not relate to performance in a career. It would seem that higher education has not adjusted to the realities of a radically different economy and knowledge construction process; or even to the fact that our collective perception of knowledge and truth is changing rapidly.

Still, higher education in the U.S. remains one of the strongest enterprises in our economy, and still stands tall from the viewpoint of the world. To remain so, it must become different.

Crucial issues (e.g., Is college worth it?) are coming to the forefront that continue to be ignored or not dealt with in any serious way. We now have the technology to address many of the challenges facing students in our radically altered economy. But this technology is being used overwhelmingly to reinforce the status quo, not to change. That is, it is largely being implemented in the form of management tools that simply make current practice easier.

Higher education has unwittingly chosen to use the very technologies that have changed our broader economy to resist change in education. In the free market, in society, people are choosing to use technology inventively and boldly, but in the controlled market of the academy, administrators limit the technology options and proceed without imagination or courage, except in rare cases.

So, here’s the opening question if we want to begin to address all this differently: Do we all believe in “student-centered learning” or not? My guess is it would be hard to find anyone in higher education who would say “No, I don’t’ believe in student-centered learning.”

Next, assuming we agree about student-centered learning, let’s look at what that means, or can mean, or should mean, in today’s world. While it has been easy to talk the talk and even to walk the walk up until recently--because the logistical limitations on practice were so severe--walking the walk has now taken on entirely new meanings. Now there are many more concrete ways to support a student-centered learning design, ways that truly are student-centered. So let’s revisit these choices, and include them in our institution’s top-level technology strategy discussions.

Finally, if everyone is still on board for walking the walk even as that means radical departure in how they have designed courses and programs up until now, here’s another related question we must consider: Can the education enterprise, and the technology vendors who sell technology to us, focus on student management tools instead of just institutional management tools? And if faculty have their course management tools (Blackboard in most cases), can students have their own learning management tools that persist over time, are owned by students, for which content is controlled by the students?

I’m talking about technology that is sold directly to students but which interacts with institutional management tools such as the SIS and the ERP. I’m talking about tools such as ePortfolios that have robust search, tagging, and export capabilities and that are not just a module in the institutional assessment management system, but a separate application. I’m talking about supporting the student in her learning before, during, and after enrollment in a course of study.

At one of the campuses where I taught years ago, even first-year students had business cards and many of those cards referred to an actual business undertaking of some sort. Those cards, to me at the time, seemed to be a powerful symbol indicating those students took their learning seriously: College was not a game but the beginning of life as an adult.

Student-owned technology takes this can-do attitude and willingness a step farther: Treat students as their own agents in learning through their ownership, literally, of their own technology and the resources managed by that technology. Institutions and industry need to collaborate on making these student-owned technology applications available and usable on campus.

Choices about student-centered learning are now strategic, institutional issues. Challenging students to manage their own learning record over time, using technology that they maintain, and which persists between courses and after graduation, and used with proper guidance, makes the student not the target but the locus of learning.

[Photo by Trent Batson]

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