Continuity of Learning | Viewpoint

Continuity of Learning: The Web Sweet Spot


Despite extensive efforts to better integrate the learning experience during the college years, systemic institutional structures work against such integration--as does only an incipient understanding among educators of the integrative potential of the Web technologies our culture has fully adopted but which educators distrust and even ban.

Cafeteria curriculum in general education programs, discontinuous learning experiences throughout the curriculum, discreet units in a course, inexplicit conceptual connections to the campus life experience of undergraduates, tests that ineffectually attempt to create cohesion among the scattered experiences of undergraduates by just asking for it instead of designing for it: Learning in higher education--formal, informal, and social--is constantly disrupted and almost always scattered during the years of undergraduate education. Learning experiences during those years are discontinuous and vertically organized because of an over-arching business model that undermines the continuity of learning by making knowledge into separate chunks instead of recognizing it as flow. But, there is an alternative.

The Web is a web. The Web is a web (this needs repeating). The Web is an outward manifestation of an inner reality: Humans exist in a social context. That the Web has been so eagerly taken up by humanity shows that it filled a void: Human craving for the social connections that supersede the urbanized culture in which most of us now live. Campus life itself is highly social except in the classroom, where students are pitted against each other as if learning is individual and not social and as if learning is stop-and-go and not a continuous process.

Higher education is discontinuous and, oddly, formally recognizes only individual learning, albeit with incremental concessions to human reality--collaborative learning and a whole range of alternate learning experiences such as George Kuh wrote about in "High Impact Educational Practices" in 2008. Some examples of these practices are: internships, service learning, community-based learning, undergraduate research, collaborative assignments and projects, learning communities, writing-intensive courses, and others. All of these are active learning designs, student centered, and out of the classroom.

Yet, each of these high impact practices still start and end usually without providing an explicit conceptual or practical bridge to the next learning experience or even to a previous learning experience. Connections between the ideas of one course and another are mostly left implicit. Moreover, even high impact practices are still subject to the counterproductive credit system based on selling discreet pieces of knowledge, a strange system devised in 1903 to monetize the distribution of knowledge and knowledge production (David Shupe, presentation at AAC&U San Francisco, January 26-29, 2011).

Even with the best of these current learning experiences, then, continuity of learning is disrupted. Continuity between one course and another during the same semester, continuity within the course from one unit to the next, continuity over time (over spring break, over the weekend, over the summer), depends almost entirely on the learner making connections in their heads in an intellectual realm where they are novices.

And again: The Web is a web, an active web, connecting people to people and people to educational resources. Students in college have no difficulty sustaining continuity in their social lives outside of the classroom because they are constantly in touch with each other and with their families and friends at a distance, even creating new filaments in their web by meeting friends in social sites. They also may, with or without direction, create continuity on their own in an internship experience or collaborative assignment or any of the other high impact educational practices that Kuh listed.

On the one hand, the Web has partially healed the human Diaspora, allowing spontaneous tribes to emerge and function even over distance, potentially re-weaving humanity into a global village (yeah, I know…), but on the other hand, American higher education persists in enforcing a flawed and antipathetic structure hindering good human development when there is no reason to do so other than habit and lack of courage to change.

We see flashes of brilliance here and there to redesign for continuity, for example at Brigham-Young University-Idaho, or at University of Michigan's graduate program in dental hygiene, or in MIT’s Geosphere courses, or in any number of other intelligent learning designs that beckon toward continuity. Still, the fact remains that learning is always horizontal (connections over time, recursion, reintegration, synthesis) while undergraduate curricula and the higher education business model are vertical (knowledge as a product to be purchased). This vertical structure not only makes students swim upstream to make connections in their learning but it suggests that students are like machines with an off and on switch: off at the end of the semester and back on at the beginning of the next.

Even more poignantly, learning designs within courses most often do not recognize the continuity of student learning, but instead are based on organizing knowledge chunks in a sequence. These knowledge chunks are initially only related in the instructor’s mind but, good teachers do try valiantly to help the students see those relationships through discussion, assignments, group work, and in other ways.

Years ago, I was lucky enough to have a graduate American literature course with a legendary professor at Michigan State University, Russell B. Nye. I still recall a question he posed for a test: "Why did I say that Whittier is a poet of the interior?" In this question, Nye did not ask "Why is Whittier considered a poet of the interior?" With that second question, I would have had to adopt the pose of a literary expert because the question would seem to be directed to disciplinary consensus. Instead, his question was self-referential. I could actually remember Professor Nye talking about Whittier, so the question referred not to disciplinary consensus but to our own classroom conversation a few weeks earlier.

This was a subtle but important reframing. He could just as easily (as I did later in emulation of this question structure) have asked why a classmate, and not he himself, had said something during class discussion weeks earlier.

Referring back to earlier moments during a course requires reconstructing the social context of those moments. Who was saying what to whom and why? Placing knowledge in a social context this way makes the knowledge more palpable and accessible within the time frame of the course. Students are being asked to be experts not on disciplinary knowledge, but experts on something they all experienced a few weeks earlier.

Luckily for us now in 2011 we can create digital records of course activities and student work. The opportunity for greater self-referential integrative thinking has increased exponentially: Any student smart phone of 2009-2011 vintage can capture high-quality photos, videos, and audio clips. These files can be uploaded to applications on the Web and then re-visited later. And many other technologies now allow us to retain evidence of learning over time, to organize that evidence, and to create methods to revisit earlier learning moments to form a recursive chain, reinforcing learning and creating an integrated whole.

With a self-referential learning design in mind, the opportunities for recursive epiphanies, those looking-back and seeing-with-new-eyes experiences, are readily and easily available. Striving not only to "cover" the teacher's material, but also to work with material that was created during the course (and from the whole of the social time that the teacher and students shared) and to discover new ways to understand all the material, changes the nature of a course experience.

This principle applies not only to one course, but also to a series of courses, or to the entire college curriculum, or--to keep in step with what the rest of the connected world outside the U.S. is doing--to one's entire life. Higher education now has the opportunity to consistently and broadly build continuity of learning into the college experience.

Two Fipse-funded ePortfolio projects, one at LaGuardia Community College's Making Connections National Resource Center entitled "Connect to Learning," directed by Bret Eynon; and one at the University of Michigan entitled "The Integrative Knowledge Collaborative," directed by Melissa Peet, both focus on continuity of learning. In each case, the projects involve electronic portfolios, but continuity of learning can be incorporated without using electronic portfolios specifically, and, more importantly, the really crucial step is grasping the principle and trying out self-referential continuity of learning well before attempting to use a digital application.

But, ultimately, we can see within the move toward continuity of learning a move away from sole reliance on grades and toward a dual transcript, as David Shupe posits, one the traditional transcript and one an "Outcomes Transcript" that provides a much fuller picture of student work over time and therefore a much more valid and informative record of achievement.

The movement toward high impact educational practices combined with the tools now available to record elements from those practices--affording educators the opportunity to design continuity of learning--is a galvanizing convergence for all educators and all learners.

[Photo by Trent Batson]

[Editor's note: Trent Batson will present "A Portrait of the Portfolio as a Young Movement: A Surprising Development," a live session including Q & A with the Web audience during CT Virtual 2011 on May 12, 2011. There is no charge to register for the event.]

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