Many would argue that hands-on, experiential learning is the ideal way to help people acquire new knowledge and skills. It’s certainly how most of us have obtained much of the valuable knowledge we use daily. And, it seems particularly valuable as we look at teaching the skills and literacies required for the modern workforce.
In this podcast, I explore the potential of experiential learning as well as the challenges it can present. I also discuss briefly a new initiative at TEL to provide openly licensed experiential learning curriculum for general education courses.
Education Futures Episode 5: There's No Substitute for the Right Ingredients
I still remember well my first college teaching experience. I was a 20-year-old junior at Abilene Christian University and had been asked to teach the lab section of a first-year Spanish class. The section met twice a week for 45 minutes, and my job was to engage students in speaking and conversation practice in Spanish. The professor in charge of the course gave me a list of activities for each session so there wasn’t really much preparation for me to do.
That instructional experience morphed rather dramatically two years later when I entered graduate school at Texas Tech University. After a two-day orientation, I was given a textbook and my first class to teach. Suddenly I was responsible for everything.
I’d like to think the experience wasn’t as bad for my students as I’m afraid it was but, to be honest, I was just trying to keep my head above water in that first year. There was so much I didn’t know.
Over the next twenty years, I taught a wide range of courses at a variety of levels, from high school to graduate school. I taught courses in languages, civilization, literature, and philosophy. I taught courses in open-admission faith-based universities like Oklahoma Christian University, and in elite private universities like Yale University. I taught in large, research-based public universities and in community colleges. I taught small classes and large classes. I taught face-to-face and online.
Through those experiences, I gradually became aware of all the things a typical instructor or teacher is actually responsible for. I was supposed to be a domain expert, responsible for information design and presentation. I was also supposed to be a course designer, a classroom manager, an administrator, a performance evaluator, a mentor, and a support specialist. And, toward the end of my classroom teaching career, being a support specialist meant being a technology support specialist.
Of these different roles, I feel like I was a pretty good domain expert and a better than average presenter. As for the rest, well, let’s just say I made a promise at the end of every semester to do a better job the next time around.
Good intentions aside, or years, I assumed there was something wrong with me. I figured that others were way ahead of me, that they had found a way to master all the roles required of a great teacher.
However, as I observed my colleagues and began talking to other instructors and teachers, I soon came to a realization. Few, if any of us excelled in all of our instructional roles. Some were great administrators. Others were outstanding course designers. Still others were excellent evaluators. But hardly anyone was good at everything or even a majority of the roles.
Not that this really should have surprised me. We were all trying to excel at what had become, over many years, a complex, multi-layered activity that involves multiple specializations and functions. What had once been a profession that consisted primarily of a single role — being a domain expert or repository of knowledge — had taken on many other facets as both education and information evolved dramatically. This change became even more pronounced with the advent of the Internet.
And while the early version of our old instructional model may have worked well in previous eras of societal expansion, in the 21st century this model impedes optimal instruction and learning and imposes unnecessary constraints.
- It forces specialized domain experts to become education/learning experts.
- It constrains institutional learning to a centripetal activity that is dependent on individual instructional resources.
- It also promotes an institutional economic model that is limited both geographically and economically by the number of qualified local domain/learning experts that can be hired to fulfill the entire set of defined roles of instruction.
These limitations are even more pronounced and problematic when it comes to online learning, particularly self-paced online learning where much of the instruction is integrated into the curriculum design itself.
So, what’s the solution? Whither should we go now?
At TEL, we recognize that instruction, as a holistic activity to support learning (demonstrable mastery), is a complex, multi-layered activity that involves multiple specializations and functions. Understanding this complexity is allowing us to rethink and redesign course instruction as a complementary, scaffolded set of functions and roles that work together to provide the best student learning experience.
Our overarching goal is to implement a new instructional model, one designed for the 21st century. We believe this model this model will encourage higher levels of student understanding and promote greater levels of student engagement and agency.
More specifically, here are four outcomes we hope to achieve with a redesigned model for instruction.
- Provide improved, more focused use of instructors with domain expertise.
- Offer improved elaboration and explanation of course concepts using multiple content types and offering different instructional perspectives.
- Deliver improved instructional support, both through the increased integration of instructional guidance into course design, and via more consistent, informed, and empathetic instructional support from instructional support specialists.
- Present students with more frequent and useful feedback and evaluation related to their course progress and understanding of course concepts.
One way to achieve these outcomes is to distribute traditional instructional functions across multiple roles to foster a more scalable instructional model that fleads to increased specialization, more consistent and impactful student engagement, improved performance feedback, and greater learner agency.
To do this, we must begin by identifying our desired set of instructional “functions” in a course. At TEL, we see these functions as:
- Course design, including the course scope and sequence, content weighting, learning activities, and performance evaluation criteria and tools;
- Content presentation, from traditional classroom lecture to video overviews of course content;
- Content elaboration or explanation, including course readings, video explanations of key concepts, and external resources;
- Content relevance, via real-world and local examples using course concepts;
- Content personalization and student agency, by helping students apply course concepts in personal ways that allow them to take ownership of the information;
- Course communication, in the form of class discussions, one-on-one dialogue with an instructor or instructional specialist, and email regarding course and performance progress;
- Performance evaluation and feedback, ranging from grading by subject matter experts to peer feedback and self-evaluation;
- Course support, related to course information and concept,s as well as course policy questions and technical issues.
The next step is to map these instructional functions to specific instructional roles and the responsibilities of each.
1. Curriculum — In a 21st-century model, curriculum and course design should be an integral part of the instructional model. Content should be designed and presented in a way that facilitates self-directed learning.
The Curriculum role contributes to Content Presentation, Content Elaboration, Content Relevance, and Content Personalization.
2. Instructor — A major benefit of the traditional instructor of previous centuries is that this role provided students a personal, human connection to the content they were trying to master. In the 21st century, with our emphasis on the ubiquitous and abundant flow of online information, having a personal face and voice in online courses is more important than ever.
The Instructor role contributes to Personal Connection, Content Presentation, Content Elaboration, and Content Relevance.
3. Instructional Support Specialist — The Internet and the online experiences it affords have created a revised set of student expectations and needs with regards to learning. This includes the expectation for frequent, consistent, and constantly available instructional support. We view this as complementary to the Instructor role but requiring different skills and competencies than those of the Instructor.
The Instructional Support Specialist role contributes to Course Communication, Content Elaboration, Content Relevance, Performance Evaluation and Feedback, and Course Support.
4. Performance Evaluator (Human) — Student performance evaluation should be constructive and as objective as possible. It should also serve to help students address personal learning goals and needs. These requirements necessitate clear learning outcomes, the consistent use of rubrics, and subject matter experts who are trained as performance evaluators.
The Performance Evaluator role contributes to Content Personalization, Content Relevance, and Performance Evaluation and Feedback.
5. Learning Technology System — The need for frequent, rubric-based feedback related to learning outcomes can be facilitated by the learning technology platform. Useful system feedback includes automated grading of formative assessments and automated, just-in-time suggestion of personalized resources based on performance.
The Learning Technology System role contributes to Performance Evaluation and Feedback and Content Elaboration.
6. Peer — Student peers can serve as a source for both collaborative learning and performance feedback. Depending on the course, peer feedback may be both formal and informal.
The Peer role contributes to Performance Evaluation and Feedback and Course Communication.
7. Student –In addition to being the audience or passive consumer of course material, the student plays an active role in the 21st-century instructional model. In this capacity, the student provides guided (rubric-based) self-evaluation of their performance. This activity serves the dual purpose of augmenting the performance feedback for a course as well as preparing the student for the types of evaluation they will face in their professional career.
The Student role contributes to Performance Evaluation and Feedback, COntent Relevance, and Content Personalization.
Rob Reynolds, Ph.D.
Executive Director, TEL Library