Tuesday, September 22, 2015

My HERGA 2015 (Higher Education Research Group Adelaide) paper

herga I spoke at HERGA 2015 (Higher Education Research Group Adelaide) today. It was a well run, high quality event, from the free coffee cup and conference bag, to the excellent catering, to the range of intensity and passion brought to bear on education in higher education.

The room was packed for my presentation, although I think it was for the presentation after mine. Here is my spoken paper, titled – A class above: Evidence based action research into teaching that is connected, mobile and accessible in a higher education context

Keywords: flipped learning, e-learning, higher education

The Brave New World of higher education faces an inherent conflict. Standardised frameworks encourage one-size fits all. At the same time, the student body is increasingly diversity.

In 2014, I participated in a Flinders University Community of Practice. The focus was on learning that is connective, mobile and personalised. I made changes to what was a core Bachelor of Theology topic. It had historically been taught in traditional ways that focused on the technical language of systematic approaches to the theology. I made 5 changes
• Changed assessment to expect student to student interaction outside the gathered lecture (connective)
• Placed all lecture content online (mobile)
• Introduced students to Blooms taxonomy as a theoretical frame to negotiate the change with students
• Shifted the contact time from lecturer-driven to student-choice of small group activities linked to Blooms taxonomy (personalised)
• Introduced indigenous voices to enhance diversity (illustrations on personalised)

This can be theorised using Garrison’s community of inquiry model, which argues that communities of inquiry are built using social, cognitive and teaching presence. Social presence requires me to cultivate within myself and the class effective communication and group cohesion (in this case via the change to the assessment). Cognitive presence involves, through exploration, assignment and evaluation, integration and confirmation of understanding (in this case through student choice group work and through indigenous voices). Teaching presence includes course design, facilitation and direction (in this case through the use both theoretically and pedagogically of Blooms taxonomy)

The Community of Practice sought learner feedback by asking the same four questions start, middle and end of our diverse topics. What are you most interested in learning? What resources will best support your learning? How valuable is it to have choice? What aspects of the topic are you concerned about (if at all)?

At the start, students identified that they were most interested in the content of the subject – the theology of Jesus. They were excited about choice. Some had concerns, not in relation to “flipped learning” but with their ability to master the online technologies.

At the mid-point, three significant shifts had occurred in the class. First, students had moved from a 100% anticipation of content, to a 50% content and 50% consideration of how they were learning. This was evident in comments focused on the learning dynamic of the class and the diversity of their peers. Second, students felt supported in their learning by the resources and through the lecturer engagement (teaching presence). Third, choice continued to be seen as positive, in extending learning and enhancing motivation.

By the end of the course, the mid-point patterns remained. Student responses continued to indicated not only appreciation of content but also included reflection on how they were learning. The role of fellow students remained significant with the diversity of the class named as a significant factor in learning. (“It has helped me be able to see different points of view and helped me to realise that we all are able to “do” Christology from our own background.”) Choice continued to be seen as a positive. It was perceived to increased engagement and have a positive impact on learning. In analysing the responses linguistically, theology was not only being used as a word linked to content. It was also being used as a verb, a “doing,” an active, engaged process in which students participate, in contrast to what is contained in set texts. Students made links between personalisation, diversity and this “doing” of theology. (“Yes it has helped me to understand Jesus in a more relevant way for a 21st century setting.)

Haythornthwaite and Andrews, E-learning Theory and Practice argue that students fill three roles in an on-line community.
• E-facilitators provide interim summaries and influence the trajectory of the discussion.
• Braiders reinterpret the online debate in different styles.
• Accomplished fellows take initiatives that invite participants to explore a subject in more depth.

This provides a way to theorise my data. Take this introduction to a final assignment by one student. “I … was inspired by the presentations of [two indigenous church ministers] …. This stemmed from the group activity, where … I was asked by one of my classmates to connect liberation theology to my culture.” Using Haythornthwaite and Andrews’s theoretical categories, the learning begins because of two accomplished fellows (two indigenous church ministers). Challenge came from the group activity, in which a classmate (not the lecturer) acts as both a facilitator, influencing the discussion and a braider, re-interpreting lecture material during a group discussion and inviting a different style, in this case of application.

Haythornthwaite and Andrews also argue that e-learning is “an inextricably social act.” It increases connection with the local, as “learning gets re-embedded.” It expects a greater focus on “learner agency.”

“In conventional learning and scholarship, there is an authoritative, hierarchical power system at work. The teacher acts as mediator for the student between the body of knowledge … In e-learning the canonical texts are themselves committed to digital format and thus become at once more malleable, more open to critique … The ‘voice(s)’ of the original author can be placed alongside the student voice or voices. The learning process becomes … more democratic .. less hieararchical.” (E-learning Theory and Practice, 57-8)

This is certainly consistent with my data. Teaching theology involves engagement with significant texts – including the Gospels, to the Christological debates of the Early Church, the challenges of modernity and post-colonial critiques. For an individual student to engage a lecturer in a traditional lecture setting requires speaking in front of their peers, with the expectation of being knowledge in front of a more experienced academic. However, if engagement with lecture material and readings is shifted to group activities, students have space to process among peers.

This makes sense of the student assignment. It is one thing for a lecturer to ask a student to apply what this means. There is a different weight altogether when a student asks their peer to “connect [their] own culture and Christ.” In this moment, another student has become the “learner agency” that invites a “re-embedding in new local environments.”

My research is a limited sample – of one class in one semester. But it provides evidence that the use of teaching that is mobile, accessible and connective reshapes the student learning experience. Flipped learning enhances student agency and increases appreciation for diversity among the student cohort. It can turn the entire student cohort into teachers, inhabiting different roles in the “conditions” of learning. In other words, students as well as teachers are essential to the learning processes.

Garrison, D. R. (2007). Online community of inquiry review: Social, cognitive, and teaching presence issues. Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks, 11(1), 61-72

Haythornthwaite, C. & Andrews, R. (2011). E-learning Theory and Practice. Sage: London.

McInnis, C. (2005). “The Governance and Management of Student Learning in Universities.” In Governing Knowledge. A Study of Continuity and Change in Higher Education. Edited by Ivar Bleiklie and Mary Henkel. The Netherlands: Springer. file:///C:/Users/jong0009/AppData/Local/Downloads/0deec520376135d76b000000.pdf.

Preston, C. J. (2008). Braided Learning: An emerging process observed in e-communities of practice. International Journal of Web Based Communities, 4 (2): 220-43).

Posted by steve at 11:04 PM


  1. Thank you Steve for this exciting report on your HERGA presentation; great stuff.
    Tremendous to read this self-report on the impact on your learning too.
    And what an important conclusion, especially the second last sentence: “It can turn the entire student cohort into teachers…”
    That would be my vision for parish learning, to experience the entire parishioner “body of Christ” as teachers and learners…
    Kind regards, John.

    Comment by John Littleton — September 23, 2015 @ 3:54 pm

  2. Thanks John. This raises for my the assessment question. If students are teachers; could this in some way be part of the assessment? Could these teaching behaviours be named, in the hope they they strengthen the learning community, both in the class, but also in ongoing ways, into life-long learning? I’m not sure how to do this. But it’s a concept that has got me thinking,


    Comment by steve — September 23, 2015 @ 6:38 pm

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