For thousands of years, humans have learned by making personal meaning and by confirming that meaning with those around them – there weren’t always dedicated classrooms, teachers or classmates as there are today. We learned within our community. We learned by watching, listening, thinking, trying and, most of all, by having conversations with those around us – conversations with our contemporaries and conversations with the older and wiser ‘teachers’ in the community.
Outside the classrooms and lecture halls of the 21st century, we still learn in this way. We still watch and listen and read – we consume. And then we reflect, we think, and we have ideas that we subsequently share. It is this process of sharing that helps us to confirm our knowledge. So, why is formal education so different? Why do we have a one vs. many approach – a lecturer standing in front of a lecture hall, or a teacher standing in front of a classroom? Why must we get our information from one person, when an abundance of information is freely available? Why must we all attend class at the same time and in the same location? The truth is, this industrialised model of the educational experience operationalised the scaling of mass education. Though it was arguably effective when measured against its purpose, it is not necessarily our natural way of learning, and its time is up.
The future of learning
Advances in information and communications technology (ICT) have afforded us the opportunity and capability to return to our roots – that is, to learn in communities by constructing personal and shared meaning (or knowledge) collaboratively. Humans don’t learn in a vacuum; we learn through inquiry in a community. It is our most natural way to learn – it is in our DNA; it is how we have always learned.
This ‘collaborative constructivist’ pedagogical approach for teaching and learning has its roots in the theories of John Dewey and Lev Vygotsky, who both contributed to the ‘socially situated transactional view’ of students transforming acquired information into knowledge (Garrison, 2017). The Community of Inquiry (CoI) framework for an educational experience, is an operationalisation of collaborative constructivism. It is a way to ‘make it work’. The seminal article by Garrison, Anderson and Archer (2000) is the most cited article for the CoI framework and has received broad empirical support in the literature. The CoI framework promotes consumption of information, reflection and conversation. The beauty of technology is that it has enabled us to do this, traversing both geography and time.
One of the primary realisations gained from my research has been the superimposition of the learning activity (or engagement) onto learning materials (or information) in 21st-century teaching and learning. The separation of the lecture and the textbook will seem arbitrary in the decades to come – especially a lecture where the educator was simply delivering information. More and more, we will teach and learn by engaging with our peers and educators through purposefully designed content.
COVID-19 has accelerated this future of learning. Much of the institutional resistance to online learning has fallen away due to necessity. What has emerged is ‘emergency remote learning’ or ‘online schools’. Although these deployments are a step in the right direction, they are a far cry from what online, remote or ‘blended’ learning can be. In the words of Professor D. Randy Garrison (2017): “To lecture online is to negate the power and capability of the technology and, most detrimentally, to turn students into passive receptors of information”.
Over the past two decades, we have witnessed a plethora of further and higher online education offerings – from short courses to postgraduate degrees. As society changes evermore rapidly, our accepted methodological bastions of learning (such as face-to-face classrooms and universities) will come under greater pressure to change. What will emerge will more than likely be a blend of onsite and offsite learning, designed to be pedagogically sound and quality-assured. This will include a myriad of educational structures, approaches, methodologies and business models, arising from the ‘remote’ and ‘digital’ societal shift that has been accelerated by COVID-19. Whether students are onsite or offsite, they will engage online. Central to all of this will be the use of technology, empowering humans to learn in their most natural way – that is, to learn in communities by constructing personal meaning collaboratively.
This journey of research and discovery is producing EDGE’s vision for the future of learning – namely, the EDGE Learning Ecosystem as a data-conscious social learning platform, delivering interactive and multimedia-rich Digital CourseBooks that drive student success through increased engagement with content, peers and educators, via the creation of a Community of Inquiry with cognitive, social and teaching presence. Think of the CourseBook as a fusion of a textbook and an online course. They provide all the foundational content for collaboration with peers and educators. The vision for the EDGE Learning Ecosystem is for it to become the world’s leading social learning platform.
Garrison, R. (2017), E-Learning in the 21st century: A framework for research and practice. 3rd edition. Routledge.
Garrison, D. R., Anderson, T. and Archer, W. (2000), ‘Critical inquiry in a text-based environment: Computer conferencing in higher education’. The Internet and Higher Education 2: 87–105.