The impact of learning styles on the development and accession of educational modules across the internet
No doubt you are familiar with some of the different ways of being a passenger in a train. You may be a commuter on your way to work. You want the train to take you to your destination without troubles, without delay and, preferably, without stopping. You would probably prefer a seat - clean; sufficient legroom for comfort and, possibly, time to read your book. Or you may be using the train to visit relatives. You are impatient for the journey to end before it has begun but the purpose of the journey makes it less likely that you will want to read your book. You are more likely to be travelling in anticipation of the reunion. Then again, you may be using the train as a means of transport for an extended holiday. You are passing through country you have not seen before. You are content to ride for leisure. Time is of less consequence. You may wish to break the journey for information, for rest or to take in a site along the way.
In this paper, I want to draw together a number of threads which have been gaining minimal attention in educational planning, I believe, for two reasons: because we are under pressure to perform in the public domain against minimalist standards of public accountability (consider the 'literacy and numeracy' debate) and because we stick doggedly to the belief that education is a linear exercise in knowledge acquisition. "Pinned and wriggling", we tend to deny these - both rigorously, rightly and even righteously - because, of course, we are frustrated at the extent of their truth. More importantly, however, we may be frustrated by a dawning recognition that they are preventing us from addressing emergent opportunities which might actually solve some of our immediate concerns.
At this point in the history of Education, we are pre-occupied with political trivia. We are open to attack from an ill-informed and partisan media on an international scale and we are prioritising short-term relief at the expense of long-term educational planning.
Information technology and education
In particular, this paper focuses on our up-take of information technology in the pursuit of educational opportunity. As educators, we are particularly vulnerable to criticism because we tend to wait for technology to happen to us before we react rather than seizing the opportunity to drive the experience to our own benefit. The five threads of my thinking - and it is still in quite early stages so I am offering this paper as a point for discussion rather than a pat set of answers to all of our problems - are these:
• While learning styles may be simply considered as oral, visual and kinaesthetic, they may also be viewed as field dependent and field independent
• The development of any particular learning style appears to be grounded, at least in part, in personality
• The development of institutional education, of 'universal education' is a product of the Industrial Revolution and its implementation has been predicated on the mass productive capacity of the printing press
• The success of any educational undertaking depends on the motivation of the learner which is predicated in their intention and motivation for engaging in the educational process
• The computer does not, any more, operate from the basis of a linear programming model
Schooling and learning
These five observations provide a bewildering array of possibilities for educators who would use information technology to the advantage of their students - or themselves. Fundamentally, they demand that we state our purpose as educators: are we commuters on our way to work; are we visiting well-loved relatives or are we on an adventure which will take us where we may care and provide us with the flexibility to detour and return as we wish?
As I implied earlier, the need to come to school has no necessary connection with the need to learn. Nor does the need to learn have any necessary connection with the direction, structuring or pace of the program available to me as a student. Returning to my original metaphor: the path of the train, the stations it stops at, its internal configuration and the speed it travels are variables which I, as a passenger, must learn to live with - even if they do not necessarily suit my purposes for a particular journey.
Schooling - any formalised educational undertaking, in fact - must suffer these limitations to its intended effectiveness. The effective implementation of information technology in schools, however, has the potential to reduce much of the waste. Not because it is intrinsically better than any other technology we have ever had available to us - it is - but because we know more about how we learn than we have ever known before - and this particular technology provides us with the potential to match that knowledge with the construction of the technology itself.
Bill Gates did not become wealthy by inventing new technology, he became wealthy by allocating the time needed to configure existing technology to the needs of the market-places he understood. Seymour Papert did not spend a decade developing Logo for schools to supplant Basic as a programming language, he did it because he wanted people/kids to be able to use computers to do the hack work while they, themselves, used their intelligence to harness their own learning potential. Papert also spent ten years working on the development of artificial intelligence for the American 'Star Wars' program before he dismissed it as a waste of physical and intellectual resources. We should forget at out peril that it is back on the ICT research and development agenda.
As educators in the second decade of the twenty first century, we have the potential to harness information technology through computers to assist students. We are not setting out to replace their intelligence or to do the learning for them, but to provide them with the fundamental tools available to harness and utilise their own intelligence in the most efficient ways possible. In fact, this is already happening in schools across the world. More importantly, it is happening during every lesson break of every day. Our students can check a mere presentation of facts faster under their desks than we can present them from the front of the room- so are we still at the front of the room?
We are already taking advantage of the political climate which sees the computer as a magic box that will somehow solve our economic ills while curing illiteracy, innumeracy and probably overdue library books as well. That has been useful, there are some great resources being developed. However, to maximise the opportunity, we must look to designing educational programs which support the way we think and the way we want to learn rather than controlling knowledge acquisition and learning rates to control society.
So how does all of this come together in the name of independent and life-long learning?
Learning Styles - Oral, Visual and Kinaesthetic
In identifying Oral, Visual and Kinaesthetic learning styles, we enter a quite fundamental realm of teacher presentation which, to this day, has been paid insufficient attention. Just as we know that boys tend to claim the majority of teacher attention in a co-educational classroom, we also know that learning by hearing is the most ineffective way of learning - even if we are not hearing-impaired to begin with! To this extent, then, we already know that we are likely to learn more effectively, and more lastingly, from the visual presentation of the computer screen or the television screen, or the phone or the i-pad, than we are from the talking head of the teacher in the classroom, the boardroom or the lecture hall. And more importantly again, we are even more likely to learn from interaction with someone at the other end of a computer connection.
We also know that physical involvement in our own learning is a very powerful element in the learning process. Those with experience of hyper-active students will be familiar with short attention spans. They don’t have to be ADHD to recognise their need for variety in presentation and the value of guided physical interaction in the learning experience.
10% of what we read
20% of what we hear
30% of what we see
50% of what we both see and hear
70% of what we discuss with others
80% of what we experience personally
95% of what we teach someone else
Learning Styles - field dependence and field independence
In effect, then, we know that we learn best by doing, less well by only seeing, and least well by only listening. Learning style is more complex than this, however, because some of us learn better when we are working within 'the big picture', as Kaplan described it. We are described as 'field dependent'.
Becoming lost within 'the big picture', others of us learn best as we step incrementally from task to task. We are 'field independent'.
All of us range between these styles depending on the task we have set ourselves and our confidence in achieving our goals within the time we have ascribed to it.
I am happiest when someone contextualises a problem for me, I prefer to have 'the big picture'. Pressed for time, however, I am impatient and 'I just want the bit that will solve the immediate problem thank you'. Like my train passenger, I have different reasons for my journeys into learning and I want to make each as efficient is possible. As a teacher I now know how to do this. Many of my students are learning more rapidly than the syllabus prescribes and, as they do so, they are learning to by-pass the tedious linearity of the schooling system.
Learning styles and personality
Most people now have at least a passing acquaintance with personality inventories of the type set up by Katherine Myer-Briggs and her co-workers. Our leadership potential, indeed our potential to survive the rigours of a weekend away with the family can be predicted from a serious analysis of our response to a battery of carefully calculated questions which plumb our innermost psyche. We have been moved to the four corners of rooms to discover that we are essentially among people who tend to act and think like us; or we have found ourselves alone in the corner and, perhaps, pondered the dubious social rank thrust upon us for our troubles. Whichever way have come to understand the principles of personality measurement, we have come, individually, to recognise that we think differently to others and that our needs and demands are best met in different ways.
Put simply, our personality - however it is formed - has a strong propensity for determining the way we approach our lives. More particularly, for our purposes as educators, it has a strong influence on the way we approach learning and, consequently, on the way we learn most effectively.
As extroverted, field-dependent visual learners, we will approach our education with substantially differing needs from the introverted, field-independent oral learner.
I do not intend to expand on - or to debate this point any further at this stage. Rather, I am going to switch - in apparently erratic fashion - but in full knowledge of your facility with hypertext (that word is in blue on your screen of course) to a consideration of the information technology which I have access to in schools, in my home and in my work-place
Information technology and the individual
As we are becoming increasingly aware, the computer attached to the internet - or whatever we wish to call it - is not a passive object. It does not sit idly on our desk awaiting our next command. No. It is somewhat more like the recording angel of Judeo-Christian mythology - a conduit to higher powers but a recorder of our every action. It can receive messages without our permission, it can even catch a virus. It can limit the paths of our thinking and it can, it does, record the paths of our thinking.
It is this feature of the computer on line into the internet and, with almost infinite mobility now, out of thecomputer to our phone or i-pad which probably still provides many teachers with their greatest paranoia - and with our greatest hope for the educational future.
Every contact we make through the computer is recorded by our own computer and within the system across which we are communicating. What this means is that the way we think is actually recorded through our computer every time we contact another site. Many unwise Facebook and Twitter users have discovered this to their everlasting embarrassment but they are the new slow learners of our technological age.
The immediate, and some would say negative, side of this tracking capacity is that a student accessing a pornographic site leaves a record of their access [a point which all students should be made aware of – and many are] . It also means that every time we access some new site, the owner of that site has a record of our visit (or, at least, the potential for a record). If we carry our address, they have the capacity to access that address [another security detail which people engaging in 'virtual naughtiness' have increasingly come to consider - for their personal safety as much as any other reason].
But these are minor features - great discussion points but minor features - when compared with the educational capacity represented by the inherent tracking features available through a positive use of current information technology.
Let me return to the train and add a tracking device to my passenger. Now, if my passenger alights, I can follow their path (within some few limits). I can determine when and where they leave the train, how frequently and for how long. If I am determining passenger usage patterns, I can determine who are tourists, who are serious travellers, who are commuters and who are occasional visitors.
And how does this affect my role as an educator?
The non-linearity of information technology
Walter Ong, in his fascinating but horribly titled book, Oracy and Literality, traces the development of information technology from a pre-literate, pre-printing press period where aural memory and repetition were essential to both survival and cultural transmission through to the post-industrial, MacLuhanesque period of linear, literate, text-driven memory -retention by library. As Clanchy (1993) observed, literacy in the pre-Gutenberg era grew out of bureaucracy rather than any essential need for education or literature. The same could be quite reasonably be argued for the post-modern period. We have no greater need for literacy now than we had then. But we have a bureaucratic education system which is currently driven by fact acquisition and regulated by fact regurgitation - both of which are far more efficiently achieved with a computer and a quick google search - humans need not bother to apply to many of the factories of the present - let alone those that may remain in the future.
The internet is already a fundamental feature of many of the classrooms across Australia. Entry-age students are already in daily contact with peers and adults from Finland to Peru, from Israel to Antarctica. Teenagers in isolated Australian sites are already enrolled in Masters level courses in Europe and America. How do we know? We can track them - where we can access their internet addresses - or where they apply for advanced standing in Australian universities and colleges on the basis of their success overseas.
As educators, we can bury our heads in the sand - as we have done with the motion picture machine, the radio and the television -or we can recognise that current advances in information technology have provided us with the greatest educational opportunity we have had in the history of institutionalised education. We may not, as Ivan Illich suggested, have to de-school society after all. The decision may not be ours to make.
Instead, recognising the diversity with which we think, knowing the paths along which, as active learners, we may wish to travel, and freed from the need to proceed in linear, pre-paced and externally examination-censored patterns of paternalistic (or is it maternalistic) syllabi, we have the option and, undoubtedly, the public support to take advantage of the flexibility which current information technology is offering.
As passengers on the train, we can take an express, read a book while we travel, anticipate a reunion or step off and explore as our educational fancy takes us. This is the potential of early twenty first century information technology – though we are already more than a decade into cloud technology. E-Learning offers the potential for the most significant leap forward in formal education in the history of humanity. And it is possible because we have a technology which can easily exceed the hardly-global intellectual demands we are still accepting from too many classroom-bound teachers.