What’s in a name? An exploration of the implications and potential impact of definitions in teaching and learning.
The unprecedented adoption of technology in education over the last year has seen a corresponding growth in the ways the sector tries to define and measure these ‘new’ ways of teaching and learning. But has it helped? Or has it been detrimental to the learner experience and distanced staff from their profession?
During a long career as an educational technologist I have encountered many names for the adoption of digital technologies in teaching and learning.
From the clear-cut electronic learning (e-learning, e-books, e-commerce) back in the early 90s when staff took their first tentative steps on the ‘world wide web’ - to learning styles marketed around the concept of fruit smoothies; used to promote digitally enhanced differentiation at universities these involved ‘blends’ of lectures, practical assessments, in-classroom experiences, and virtual learning environments. Right up to the current pandemic and the repeatedly used emotive terms of ‘remote’ and ‘distance’ learning which have defined how schools, colleges, and universities have done their utmost to ensure the continuation of teaching and learning during the most challenging of times.
Whilst exploring the possibilities of ‘doing what we never thought we would’ and engaging with teaching staff to look beyond current practices, issues, and perceptions, I found myself questioning the need we have in the sector to define and name a practice, as well as having to see empirical evidence that it is successful before we are comfortable with adopting it.
A more complex conversation for another day perhaps. But more importantly, I found myself noticing the language used across the sector to define learning; its meanings and context, and the implications it can have on the student and staff experience.
Just ask Google
Have you ever Googled the word remote?
'Having very little connection with or relationship to. (of a chance or possibility) unlikely to occur. aloof and unfriendly in manner.'
Not the most positive of associations! This contrasts with Scott Hayden speaking at Digifest 2021 who quoted Bob Harrison:
"Carefully and skillfully designed combination of content, creativity, co-construction, collaboration, communication, context, and community supported by caring, capable, confident and compassionate teachers."
Nor does using the term ‘remote’ do justice to the ways in which we have seen whole institutions, from teaching staff to support, enrolment, and welfare teams rise to the challenges and embrace the benefits of digital technologies to positively engage with and support students pre, during and now hopefully post pandemic.
Video killed the radio star
Very recently it was suggested to me that ‘remote’ has killed teaching, in the same way that “video killed the radio star”.
This was very colourfully accompanied with the original video track to make the point that teaching staff who had previously been observed as having outstanding or excellent practice in the classroom, now felt far removed from teaching and learning by these remote practices and technologies.
- Remote education: a broad term encompassing any learning that happens outside of the classroom, with the teacher not present in the same location as the pupils.
- Digital remote education: often known as online learning, this is remote learning delivered through digital technologies (Read Ofsted's 'What's working well in remote education' guidance)
I was of the view that digital technologies and practices had been essential to the continuation of learning, and without them schools, colleges and universities would have closed their doors or regressed fully to pre-technology practices.
However having spent many hours, on a daily basis, supporting teaching staff during the initial months of the first lockdown, this made sense having seen tutors question what they could, or couldn’t, do digitally; often moving further away from their practices and confining them to hours spent on the screen of a laptop or PC, and institutions themselves reaching for definitions of excellent/outstanding ‘digital teaching and learning’, and the criteria they could use to observe, assess, measure, and report on successful outcomes.
Going back to the rabbit hole of Google. Distance learning?
'The length of the space between two points, the condition of being far off; remoteness, a far-off point, the more remote part of what is visible or discernible.'
Even here, when we consider the many ways in which distance learning happens - online portals and social apps, with a dedicated one-to-one tutor or tutors, student forums and collaboration, learning events and video calls - does distant seem like the appropriate definition for the ways in which we are all encouraging students to collaborate, co-create, and learn?
Fit for purpose
As colleagues will tell you, I often obsess over language in policies, procedures, and strategies. Hence becoming increasingly frustrated with media sound bites reporting the inadequacies of remote and distance learning, and the lost generation of learners.
But maybe the education sector isn’t helping by defining teaching and learning with terms that do not sell.
As the London advertising agency HHCL once wrote, “it does exactly what is says on the tin”, and far from wanting to cause offence or start a heated debate around pedagogy and learning styles by oversimplifying this, I wonder if these adjectives are needed.
After many years of providing staff development programmes, I fully appreciate the different skills and capabilities required to teach and swap between various platforms and methods of communication when these are continually changing and improving at a fantastical rate.
- Teaching: impart knowledge to or instruct (someone) as to how to do something. The occupation, profession, or work of a teacher
- Learning: the acquisition of knowledge or skills through study, experience, or being taught
The power of…words
When we look closely at ‘teaching and learning’, which I would say is a pretty accurate description of its qualities and expectations, do we need to precede these with terms? Especially terms that aren’t particularly ‘magical’ or visionary. Could they actually imply a poor service or experience - placing a void or space between the tutor and student - and make us ‘think different’ in negative ways?
We all know how powerful language can be. From political and environmental campaigns to adverts for the latest smartphone, words can rally support, infuriate us, or entice us to purchase the next must have technologies.
So, let’s not blind ourselves to the potential effect these terms could have on the motivations of teachers, and the perceptions of learners in relation to the experiences they might expect from the sector. Let’s take the time to reflect on how these terms make us feel, and if they’re needed at all.