Blended learning as a Social Process, Sugata Mitra at Iatefl and the Aftermath

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Blended Learning: face to face interaction with support from the digital world.

If you look at this image, you will see the essence of what I think of as learning in action. It isn’t a mill drill, it is meaningful discussion going on in the F2F component of a blended learning approach to teaching.

Learners interact with each other and with the teacher who encourages them to find their own paths and is there providing encouragement and direction where needed. I’m not going to cite all the people who advocate learning as a social phenomenon but I’d just like to mention Mike Harrison, who, in a recent blog post, reacted to Sugata Mitra’s vision of children huddled round computers interacting with machines in a wounded but dignified way and  said that the social interaction is one of the major aspects of what he thinks of as teaching, and I agree completely with this.

This is not a new idea, it is the essence of constructivist views of learning where knowledge is built socially and in my classrooms, at any rate, learners and the teacher work together to develop the process building a community which acts as a framework within which meaningful communication and learning may, hopefully, take place.

Why was there such an outcry after Mitra’s plenary?

The Plenary

The Interview


Sugata Mitra’s plenary, on Saturday 5th April at the end of the Iatefl conference, seemed to be suggesting that the teacher was an element that was no longer necessary. In his question and answer session that was held yesterday (April 19th) it seemed clearer to me that he was focusing on the learning process and was particularly concerned with areas of the world where teachers are not available, and how to promote learning in these places, rather than saying that teachers were obsolete, although his implication was that in the future the role of teachers must change. He advocates children organising their own learning with challenging question being asked that they can then answer or not, and with “granny figures” who provide support and admiration from afar. A key element, he said, was that the grannies should be amazed by what the children tell them and what they have learned. The teachers, then would become the grannies, as far as I can see, which is not too far removed from the role of “facilitator” which has already been widespread for quite some time.

Although there has been the whole gamut of emotions in the outcry to his presentation the question and answer session yesterday, which should soon be available as a video for all those who missed it, was interesting both for the answers Mitra supplied to the questions we asked him and for the discussion that went on in the chat box, which raised other issues.

I still have a few qualms about all this which I’d like to share with you. I’ve left it until now to publish as I wanted to hear what he had to say in the webinar first 🙂

Watching the Sugata Mitra video and the interview made me think that:

Do Learners need or want direction or not?

Actually, he isn’t an educator and doesn’t claim to be (although he is Professor of Educational Technology…). In the interview he said that the role of teachers was something he was thinking about. However, he compares a SOLE  (self organised learning environment) session with a ‘lecture’ and the key word here is lecture, as this seems to be his impression of what teaching is. This may be true in some contexts but not all, and there are many educators who already work with both Internet- webquests and group work.

My thoughts on Non directed Learner Autonomy

In the webinar he said that a SOLE differs from a webquest because a webquest is learners interacting alone with computers to go to specific web sites provided by teachers, but this is quite a narrow view of what a webquest is. Guidance may be provided, but there is no reason why webquests cannot be done in groups and sites provided when asked for but learners do not need to be limited to these sites. I mentioned, in the webinar, my experience with learners who, when left to their own devices, are not necessarily autonomous, and may, in fact, be directed by the materials they find.

They often, for instance, stop at the first online dictionary they find, rather than comparing different ones, and yes, I admit it, they are the ones that I suggest to them. I have quite a lot of experience of online dictionaries and can tell them what I think is good or bad about them, and then leave them to make up their own minds.

It is also, I think,  something of a utopian view to think that everyone, when provided with materials, will magically become a successful independent learner. In fact, in the ELT world we have seen after years of experiments with such things as self access centres, that most learners are NOT able to direct their own learning as successfully as Mitra implies. Learners will go into a self access centre and their learning will be determined by the materials, which is a completely different thing from using materials in the guidance of an expert teacher in a supportive classroom, where learners can experiment, ask questions and teachers can adapt the materials, tasks, topics etc. to the needs of their learners.

I realise that this is not what happens in many classrooms, unfortunately, and I feel that my own context in Italy is a long way away from the experiments in India, where there were few, or even no, teachers available, but I simply don’t think that findings from contexts like these can then lead to generalised statements about teaching. What we need to do is to ask ourselves what the components were that “worked” and how these elements can be adapted and combined with successful teaching in ELT contexts, if we are not already doing this, albeit in different ways.

What are the Key Ingredients in Mitra’s SOLEs ?

The key ingredients are directed peer learning, with challenging questions and affect both the fun the learners are having, their motivation and curiosity and the support provided in the admiration that comes from the granny figures. This all seems, dare I say it, fairly standard for the elt world, but is it standard for mainline schools? The emotive comment of “factoring out the teacher” could perhaps, and I say perhaps, because I’m trying to be objective here, mean factoring out traditional top down teaching and the cognitive focus on lower order skills, or dumming down of learners, which has been changing in our field for many years. This is not true, however, of education authorities who insist on, as Mitra says, ignoring the Internet and banning its use from the classroom.

There are, of course, reasons why this is done too, and working s a teacher who has to juggle institutional constraints, aim for good exam results and promote motivated learning as well is no easy task. The criticism, I feel, however, should be aimed more towards the ministerial programmes, the systems that look at learning as a matter of ticking the boxes, and testing systems which are archaic and do not perhaps meet the needs of learners in many parts of the world.

So… I conclude that what he is saying, as many people have protested over the past two weeks, is not particularly new, on the one hand and an emotive response driven by fear for our jobs may well make us throw up our hands in horror, when what we need to do is think about how to organise our own systems and in particular our testing systems as the washback from these inevitably affects our teaching.

Finally, I still think Mitra was speaking more as a researcher, even though he said he was ‘trying to find a way for children to learn where there would not be a teacher’ so he did not give the children in India any help, but we are educators and we can give our learners help. We, as educators can focus on how to direct their learning so that it is fun, constructive and challenging, just like the image at the top of this post, where learners experiment with different ways of learning until they find what suits them best, in a supportive, meaningful community that is created in the classroom…. I think that’s the positive message, and many of us already do this, don’t we?

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