Digital pedagogy: diesel trains or aeroplanes?

The ETF Thinks… article by David Russell, Chief Executive of the Education and Training Foundation. Under the theme of quality of teaching, training and leading, The ETF Thinks… offers articles by experts at the ETF and celebrated sector colleagues that aim to get the sector thinking and discussing specific sector topics for the benefit of the FE workforce and their learners.

Digital pedagogy: diesel trains or aeroplanes?

Most of the FE sector has always had one shared pedagogical paradigm: “face to face first”.  Even when we have online learning elements to our provision, they tend to be part of the wrap-around not the core: for homework, for research, for organising work and coursework, maybe for flipped learning in more adventurous institutions.   This is especially true of providers that have significant premises, like colleges: the physical space and interaction within it is at the heart of the teaching and learning experience.

But right now it’s all about online teaching and learning.  So how different is it really, teaching face to face compared to teaching virtually?

From one angle it’s not so different.  The principles of good teaching and learning remain the same, it’s just the medium that has changed; and indeed the Education Endowment Foundation’s survey of the evidence seems to broadly support this.

But from another angle it’s fundamentally different.  Lots of teaching practices when lifted into an online space are hard to transfer.  To take one example: as any teacher knows, the ‘performance’ element of teaching is like the performance of a theatre actor or a live singer, not like a film actor or recording artist.  In other words, the performance depends a lot on the audience response.  Learning to transfer your performance skills from stage to studio is a big deal and takes a lot of practice.

And equally, some of the fundamental characteristics of how we normally teach are dictated by economics, not pedagogy.  We have 20 or 30 people in a classroom because it’s optimal economically, not educationally.  But when learners don’t have to fit in the same space (to see and hear the teacher), and don’t have to all be there at the same time (because the learning space is a constrained resource), what new possibilities open up?

And for those who are engaged in teacher education and training – either Initial or Continuing – this is part of a huge question.  That huge question is this: how different is the new job that we must train people to do now?  How much difference does the flip to online pedagogy make to the role of teacher or trainer?

A thought experiment

Imagine you teach in Acme Drivers’ School: your job is to teach people how to drive steam trains. (Nice, maybe?)  Now imagine the diesel train is invented. How different does your driver training course need to be now?  Sure, the technology is different, but the train still runs on tracks.  The signalling system is still the same.  You still have stations, and platforms, and junctions, and carriages.

What makes the train go has changed a lot, but then there was always another guy who shovelled the coal in, that’s not really the driver’s job; and the team of engineers who maintain the train all have to learn new skills, but that wasn’t the driver’s job either.   You probably want your drivers to learn the basic principles of what makes the train go, but ultimately it’s not fundamental to the job of being a train driver.

Put a steam train driver in the cab of a diesel and they would probably start 70-80 per cent of the way there in terms of competence, and would quickly learn the new knowledge and skills they needed. This is because, as we now know, new knowledge sticks to old knowledge in relevant schema, and experts learn faster and more effectively than novices within their subject domain.

Now imagine that instead of the diesel train being invented, it’s the aeroplane.  Your old Steam Train Driver course (Level 6?!) must now become a Pilots’ course!  Some very basic things remain the same – your ‘drivers’ still have passengers, they still have to take them from A to B safely.

But pretty much everything else about the job has changed.  What your ‘drivers’ need to know, how the vehicle can move, what the risks and dangers are, the routes you can take, the controls you must master, even the destinations that have become accessible and inaccessible. It’s really a whole new curriculum you need at Driver School to produce aeroplane pilots. Put a steam train driver in the cockpit of a plane and they might have a 5% start on a non-driver, but nothing more.  They might learn a bit faster too – because they understand very fundamental things about forces and navigation and control/response and feedback systems.  But you sure wouldn’t want them taking off without a whole retraining programme!

So this is one thing we are thinking about in the ETF right now: how different is teaching online really?  Superficially different? Or fundamentally different? And how deep does the training and development need to go to equip teachers well for it?  In other words: Digital Pedagogy – is it more like the coming of the diesel train, or the advent of the commercial aeroplane?

The article was published in Tes on 2 June 2020 under the title ‘How different is teaching online from the classroom?‘.

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