Advances in education theory for a digital world
This article is abbreviated from:
Whether implicit or explicit, everyone has a theory of teaching and learning. This gets expressed and enacted by how we engage with others, whether as instructor or student. Traditional theoretical frameworks can be broadly grouped into four domains: instructivism, critical theory, constructivist approaches and andragogy (or adult learning). However Web 2.0, characterized by many-to-many, decentred and non-linear networking and communication, has given rise to corresponding advances in conceptualizing teaching and learning in the global classroom. Emerging frameworks – heutagogy (learning as self-determined and non-linear) and paragogy (peer-to-peer and decentred learning) – have important implications for practice in the 21st Century.
Education theory has seen a trajectory from teacher-centred (instructivism) to learner-centred approaches (constructivism and andragogy), incorporating broader contextual issues and dynamics of power, privilege and community (critical pedagogy). However, these theories were all developed prior to the rise and ubiquity of Web 2.0 and social media. Integrating emerging models can extend constructivist, critical and andragogical frameworks towards a kind of “andragogy 2.0”.
Heutagogy and paragogy represent potentially useful extensions of constructivist, critical and adult learning theories; that is, androgogy 2.0. Both heutagogy and paragogy offer models of learning that are (1) self-determined, (2) peer-led, (3) decentred and (4) non-linear. These characteristics map onto social media applications and the democratization of knowledge and information. Heutagogical and paragogical approaches also extend traditional andragogical and adult learning frameworks through their emphasis on meta learning, or learning how to learn.
Andragogy, as self-directed learning focused on competency development, is reconceptualized in heutagogy as self-determined learning focused on developing capabilities. As our rapidly-changing occupational terrains continuously advance and expand workforce competency needs, today’s workforce requires lifelong learners who are both competent and capable. No post-secondary program of study can ever really prepare students with all of the knowledge and skills needed (competencies); rather, it is one’s capability in determining what knowledge and skills need continuous development, and how to access/master them (capabilities). The skills associated with locating and interrogating information to inform decision-making, what we might call “knowledge curators”, are paramount in a knowledge economy.
This in turn implies access to knowledge and skills in a non-linear fashion by today’s “hyperlearners” (derived from the hypertextuality of the web, where information is hyperlinked with no beginning-, middle- or end-point). The process of knowledge construction is itself non-linear, and non-linear curricula would mirror real-world knowledge retrieval and construction. Similarly, shifting from instructors and learners collaboratively co-creating curricula, towards a learner-directed approach, may better prepare learners with the skills needed for lifelong learning via personal learning networks (mapping onto autonomous digital communities).
Finally, heutagogy and paragogy address process over content – the “how” as opposed to the “what” – or meta-learning (learning how to learn). Through networked community and crowd-sourcing, “the whole may be greater than the sum of its parts”. This is illustrated by the elegant solutions to complex problems yielded via crowd-sourced distributed networks. For example, in 2011 crowd-sourcing was used to successfully solve a protein structure (retroviral protease of the Mason-Pfizer monkey virus, the cause of an AIDS-like disease in monkeys) that had puzzled scientists for over a decade (Akst, 2011). The crowd-sourced solution was published in the peer-reviewed, academic journal Nature Structural and Molecular Biology (Khatib et al. 2011).
An emphasis on developing capabilities in a learner-directed, non-linear and process-oriented way makes it particularly well suited to today’s digital generation, where connectivity, creativity and reflexivity are foundational to global citizenship and collaboration.
These models represent a departure from mainstream structures of higher learning. Just as social media and Web 2.0 turned a “one-to-many”, broadcast model of Web 1.0 on its head, the notion of peer-to-peer, self-determined, decentred learning within the context of a learning community characterized by principles of social justice, equity and inclusion may sound utopian: “It is […] no easy task to adopt a decentralised model, since it will require massive procedural, economic and professional change in higher education” (Weller, 2009, in Corneli and Danoff, 2011). Yet in many ways, heutagogy and paragogy simply extend constructivist and critical frameworks, reimagined for a digital generation and a global community.
A provocative 2003 article by Carol Twigg references higher education as largely a “handicraft industry”, with most courses developed by individual faculty for unique cohorts of students:
Currently in higher education, both on campus and online, we individualize faculty practice (that is, we allow individual faculty members great latitude in course development and delivery) and standardize the student learning experience (that is, we treat all students in a course as if their learning needs, interests, and abilities were the same). Instead, we need to do just the opposite (Twigg, 2003, p.38).
Globalization has led to global classrooms, where difference among learners is the rule rather than the exception, spanning culture, language, gender, sexual orientation, faith, ability, social location, migration history and standpoint. It is unsurprising that educational institutions struggle with students’ accommodation needs and demands: it is hard to reconcile standardized curricula with learner heterogeneity along multiple intersecting dimensions.
An analogous example can be seen in advances in chronic disease management. Like education, medicine has traditionally delivered care via an expert model, where treatment is provided based on clinical diagnoses and evidence-informed interventions. In acute settings this works well, however the highest costs and challenges to health care today relate to chronic disease prevention and management. Unlike acute medical problems, chronic diseases like diabetes and hypertension are, by definition, ongoing and rely on patients’ own decisions and motivation regarding health behaviour change. New models of medicine are now focusing on patient self-management and enhancing motivation for change, whereby the system of care (both formal and informal) surrounds – and is largely directed by – each patient for him or herself (Frenk et al., 2010).
Similarly, while instructor-led curricula may be effective for brief episodic and “acute” educational needs, programs of study to prepare students for “chronic lifelong learning” demand student self-management and motivational enhancement. Just as chronic disease prevention supports patients in becoming their own health care leaders, our increasingly complex and digitally connected world places a demand on higher education to shift focus towards more effectively helping learners to become their own teachers within formal and informal networks of guidance and support. This does not negate our role as subject matter expert, but it does place the onus – quite rightly – on supporting students’ capacity for nuanced critical reflection, judgment and decision-making.
Radically self-determined and networked learning approaches (like heutagogy and paragogy) affirm individuals as experts in their lives and learning trajectories. As Stuart Brand famously said, “information wants to be free”. So does learning.
View the June 3, 2013 presentation for the College and Degree Operating Group (CDOG) conference on the topic of “Andragogy 2.0? Introducing emerging frameworks for teaching and learning: Paragogy and Heutagogy” on Slideshare.