Tuesday, 26 April 2016

Online courses and Zones of Proximal Development

I've been doing some analytic work on some large-scale online courses. As with most online courses, the forum is the central area of learner engagement, and like most online courses, what actually happens in the forums isn't conversational in the way that we would think about conversation in a face-to-face sense. If an online forum was a face-to-face event, it would be like a 'show trial': witnesses would be wheeled out one after another, after the main evidence has been heard, and each would testify that this evidence was what they personally experienced (agreeing with previous witness statements as they go). Occasionally, a witness brings new evidence to the attention of everyone else, but this hardly causes any kind of radical shift in everyone else's mindsets.

These courses are successful, and learners pay a lot of money for them. The content they are given is well-produced and presented, and the quality of information, and the quality of staff is very high. Typically, if a course has a lot of posts where learners have written a lot, most people are happy to say that the course is successful. But we should ask how the teacher would know if the learners have really 'got it', or how learner capability has been transformed. In the face-to-face environment teachers get a feel for this. Online it's much harder.

It's harder because the 'feel' that the teacher has about face-to-face learners is a sense of how they might intervene with a learner in new ways, and how the learner might respond. As the learner develops, so the teacher feels freer to try more ambitious things - not because it is determined by the curriculum, but because the teachers knows the learner will respond to it. And the teacher knows who to try this with, and who not to. It's never about only the learner's capability - it's always about the relation between the teacher and the learner.

The relational focus is significant and something that's missed in most education. The teacher's intervention in learning can be thought of as a way of increasing the maximum possible uncertainty that both learner and teacher have to deal with. It's introducing a degree of confusion into a situation which causes development. Surprisingly, this increase in uncertainty takes the form of increasing the constraint on the learner's behaviour. So the music teacher will say, forget about playing pieces - practice your scales! The learner is disrupted from routine, and (in this case) torn between practising pieces and playing scales. All of us settle into our environments - albeit uncomfortably - and find it difficult to step outside them. Teachers impose new constraints which disrupt patterns of practice and cause the need for new adaptation.

Vygotsky's notion of the Zone of Proximal Development is closely related to this. Essentially, the ZPD is a domain of interacting constraints, where one of those constraints is imposed by a teacher. It has a mathematical analogue in the relationship between the uncertainty which people live with, and the maximum uncertainty which is possible within an environment. In any environment, skill and mastery reduce uncertainty we live with: our behaviour become regularised and less erratic. The maximum possible uncertainty is dependent on the environment, which is changed by the addition of the teacher's intervention. The ratio between lived uncertainty and maximum uncertainty is an index of constraints within which learners self-organise. If teachers intervene to increase constraint in one dimension ("practice your scales"), the effect is to decrease constraint in others: learners become less certain of what they were doing. Importantly, teachers can overdo it: an intervention can increase uncertainty to the point that everything falls apart: this is why the ZPD is a 'zone'; equally it can be 'underdone' where little development is achieved.

Most of our learning technologies have been built around an idea of conversation as a pedagogical foundation. This model does not fit what we actually see in online learning environments. Perhaps we shouldn't exclude the possibility that a radically different kind of online environment is needed to help teachers acquire the same feel for the effects of the constraints they impose of learners at a distance as they have in a face-to-face environment. The deficiencies of our current online environments have almost persuaded us that an alternative isn't possible. 

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