Getting to the Level of Social Learning

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"The Cognitive Science Behind Learning" is an article that discusses the idea of viewing different levels as a way to approach the study of cognitive science and learning.

It views cognitive science as an "umbrella term to incorporate all levels of human behavior from neural to social, and it includes contributions from many disciplines including philosophy, anthropology, neuroscience, psychology, sociology and more."

It is widely accepted that at the most basic level we have the neural level. That is looking at learning as something that is about forming and strengthening the connections between neurons in our brains. There is not a lot that an educator can do about that level in the classroom.

As educators, we are more concerned about what we might see at the next two levels. The main one we always discuss is the cognitive level, where "learning and instruction is about designed action and guided reflection."

For me, the importance at this level is that human learning is very connected to pattern-matching and meaning-making. Though some of those abilities are formed through some ability to perform by rote repeatedly and accurately, that is not the key to learning. Of course, it is the main thing we do in classrooms and it is generally what we assess in our grading. There are certainly courses that require learning a lot of information, but I agree with the author, Clark Quinn, that "Too often learning leaders make courses when the information doesn’t have to be in the head, it just needs to be on hand."

Quinn spends much less time on a higher level that I believe we should spend more time examining - social learning. Social learning theory is something I associate with Albert Bandura. It considers that learning is a cognitive process that takes place in a social context. It can occur purely through observation or direct instruction, even in the absence of motor reproduction or direct reinforcement.

In the early 1960s, Albert Bandura conducted what is known as the Bobo doll experiment. In the experiment, he had children observe a video of an adult aggressively playing with toys, including a Bobo doll. The large blow-up Bobo doll looks like a clown, and the adult hit the doll, knocked it down and even jumped on it while yelling words like 'pow!' and 'kick him!' When the children were subsequently allowed to play with a variety of toys, including the Bobo doll, more than half of the children modeled the adult and engaged in the same aggressive behaviors with the Bobo doll. This modeling was called Bandura's social learning theory.

Some of social learning occurs naturally in social classroom settings. Some of this theory has also been adopted by advertisers and marketers in social media settings. Social learning theory is most effective when four processes occur. Let me end here by just suggesting that every educator should consider their use of these processes intentionally and unintentionally in their teaching. The four processes are attention, retention, reproduction, and motivation.


Popular Courses and Skills

I keep getting emails from course and training providers (most are what we can call MOOCs) like edX and Coursera, and also from job sites like Glassdoor telling me about the most popular courses and skills on their sites.

Without comment, here is a partial list of ones that have been sent to me. I leave it up to you to draw conclusions about what this says about current learning trends.

The Science of Happiness

Conversational English Skills

Introduction to Project Management

Introduction to Linux

Introduction to Java Programming

The Science of Everyday Thinking

Introduction to Computer Science and Programming Using Python

TOEFL® Test Preparation: The Insider’s Guide

Analyzing and Visualizing Data with Excel

Introduction to Computer Science

Python for Everybody

Python Programming  

Data Science

R Programming

Introduction to Project Management

Project Management

Analytics Management

TESOL Certificate: Teach English Now!

English Instruction

Business Analytics

Software Product Management

Product Management

Big Data

Hadoop

Digital Marketing

SEO Marketing

Social Media Marketing

Social Media

Social Marketing

Data Warehousing for Business Intelligence   

Business Foundations


The Information Literacy of Fake News

fake news

Pre- and post-election last fall, there were many stories in all types of media about "fake news." An article in The Chronicle asks "How Can Students Be Taught to Detect Fake News and Dubious Claims?" but I would say that non-students need even more education in this area. Of course, the real question is whether or not this is a teachable skill.

If you had asked me last January to define "fake news" I would have said it was a kind of satire or parody of mainstream journalism. The Onion online, or Saturday Night Live's news segment would fit that definition. Satire always has a bit of truth in it or it doesn't really work.

The Daily Show and Last Week Tonight with John Oliver and other shows and sites have blurred the line. They use real news and sometimes parody it, but sometimes they are closer to investigative journalism. They can edit together clips of a persons inconsistencies in views over the years and create a montage that shows someone who either has a terrible memory or is a liar. It may frighten some to hear it, but many young people and adults list shows like these as their main source for news.

The fake news that is really the focus of attention now are ones (almost exclusively online) that produce wholly fictionalized news stories. Those non-journalistic entities have a very powerful delivery system via social media like Facebook and twitter.

A Stanford University report published last year concluded that many students could not detect fake or misleading information online. They gave students from middle school to college tasks to see how well they could tell a native advertisement from a news article or identify a partisan website as biased or separate a verified social-media account from an unauthenticated one

A larger conclusion I see here is that faculty often assume that young people are fluent in or savvy about n social media in the same way that it is assumed that digital natives know how to use smartphones, websites, photos, video and other digital technology. Bad assumption or expectation.

I remember teaching lessons on determining the veracity of research sources before there was an Internet and after. That has been a part of literacy education since the time when books became more common. I'm sure it was a teachable moment pre-print when a parent told a child to ignore gossip and stories from certain people/courses.

The Stanford researchers said that we need to teach "civic online reasoning" which is something that goes beyond its need in academic settings.

In whose purview is this teaching? English teachers? Librarians? I would say it would only be effective if, like writing in the disciplines, it is taught by all teachers with a concentration on how it occurs in their field.

The science instructor needs to teach how to determine when science is not science. An easy task? No. Look at teaching the truth of climate science or evolution. It is controversial even if the science seems clear.

Napoleon Bonaparte is credited with saying that "History is a set of lies agreed upon." If that is true, how do we teach the truth about history past and the history that is unfolding before our eyes?

But we can't just say it's impossible to teach or assume someone else will take care of it. Information literacy is still a critical, difficult and overlooked set of skills to teach.


Animating Hair Is a Lesson in STEAM

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I am a proponent of the concept of teaching in a STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art, math) framework that goes across disciplines. I have seen many attempts to use science and math in teaching art - some successful, some not.

A new project that does this in an engaging way is a collaboration between Pixar Animation Studios and Khan Academy that is sponsored by Disney. Called "Pixar in a Box," it gives a look behind-the-scenes at how artists at Pixar need to use STEM to make art.

To make balls bounce, leaves in trees move in the wind, fireworks explode or realistic rippling water takes more than drawing skills. It requires computer skills and considerations of math, science such as physics and digital humanities.



In this learning series of videos on simulations, the Pixar artists use hair as an example of an animation problem that needed to be solved. Using examples from their films, such as the character Merida in Brave with her bouncy and curly hair, you learn how millions of hairs can be simulated if you think of them as being a huge system of springs.

As the lessons progress, you can learn about animation roles and will discover what a technical director does in the animation process.

The lessons are appropriate for grades 5 and up - though I can see many adults and younger kids interested in animation from a technical or artistic side enjoying the free series.


LinkedIn Learning

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Back at the start of the new school year in September, LinkedIn announced on their blog the launch of LinkedIn Learning, an online learning platform. I first heard about it via some panic posts about it being something colleges should fear. 

With goals of "enabling individuals and organizations to discover and develop the skills through a personalized, data-driven learning experience," schools should welcome the help. Correct?

LinkedIn Learning is really an extension of what the company did when they acquired content from Lynda.com. Combining that content with LinkedIn’s professional data and network gives them 450 million member profiles. If you use that big data, you can view how people, jobs, industries, organizations and even skills evolve over time.

LinkedIn Learning provides a dashboard that someone can use to identify the skills someone might need and then deliver "courses." I never viewed Lynda.com as a threat to the university. My school subscribed and we used it for a time as a way to bring students and faculty up to speed on specific software.

I don't see their new platform as a threat to the college degree either. In fact, I would guess that professionals out in the working world (and probably already with at least an undergraduate degree), job seekers and corporate trainers would be be the main audience.

The platform could be more of a threat to the MOOC approach to learning. So, why would I choose to pay for a course at LinkedIn rather than take a free course from a MOOC provider? As with any online course, the anytime, anywhere convenience is appealing. I might do it if the courses were smaller in enrollment and therefore more personalized. I would find some kind of certification or other way to use successful completion towards advancement in my organization. I would want a reasonable price. The ability to tie together a sequence of related courses into a concentration would also be appealing.

I saw this expansion of their lynda.com purchase described by those panicked and critical educators as a recommendation engine to courses or even a "Netflix for learning." I get that, but I could also compare it with Amazon's recommendations and those of many other websites that use AI to mine users to see trends. That is not a bad thing, and it is not something college allow or do very well now.

LinkedIn has of 9,000+ digital courses, most taught by industry experts. They cover a wide range of business, creative and technical topics, from leadership “soft skills” to design principles to programming. They claim that they add at least 25 courses a week. They offer courses in German, Spanish, Japanese and French.

I suppose it is the data-driven personalization that really interests me. Imagine a college where your personal "guidance" was better designed, but also where the department, majors and degrees were better designed. Do you know how long and how much time and work would be required to add 25 courses to a college catalog?

What LinkedIn Learning has on its side is that their recommendations are positioned within a familiar online space where employees and employers already feel comfortable.

This will not displace higher education any more than MOOCs or online education. Like those trends, it will disrupt, if it is successful. And perhaps higher education will be forced to adapt sooner than later. I think LinkedIn will view higher education as a secondary market.


Feedback on Student Writing and Using Mimesis to Teach Plagiarism

thumbs upInstructors, especially those who do not teach writing as a subject, often struggle when it comes to making suggestions to students about what they need to do to improve their writing. I saw a survey done by Turnitin.com of 2400 students in bachelor or graduate programs that asked what types of feedback they felt were most effective and what types of feedback they received most regularly.

The results can either be seen as encouraging or inconclusive. All types of feedback were seen by over half of the students as being either very or extremely effective. Even the lowest response, for general praise or encouragement, got a 56% positive response. 

The responses to the types of feedback were more interesting. 68% said that they received general comments regularly while only 36% said they received examples regularly. Suggestions for improvement, the type of feedback rated most effective by students, was only seen regularly by 58% of students.

It is also interesting that across every category students rated feedback as being more effective than educators rated it. That lack of belief in feedback is certainly connected to the students in the majority saying that they didn’t regularly receive any feedback at all.

So the concern here for teachers is not as much what type of feedback they give, but whether they are giving enough feedback.

During the years that I directed a writing program, it was made clear to me that, just like teachers in all the lower grades, professors dreaded having to decide and deal with writing that you believe it is plagiarized. Of course, that is why Turnitin.com has become a successful company.They suggested in a blog post a very unusual approach to teaching about plagiarism. Have students copy. Intentionally. 

copying the masters

Mimesis refers to the ability to copy. Mimicry is the practice of imitating. We often encourage students to mimic as a way of learning. We discourage students from copying. We should make the distinction clear to students.

I spent a few years on an academic integrity committee at a university. One of the most sensitive issues that came up in those meetings was about the perceived cultural differences when it came to imitating or copying by students. 

The university has large numbers of international students, most in STEM fields, and many of them have their greatest academic difficulties with academic writing. The Turnitin.com post says that "To many educators, there’s a belief that students in eastern countries learn through rote memorization and copying while those in western countries focus more or original work and creative thought. Though the stereotype is obviously not the complete truth, there are cultural differences between educational approaches in countries with an eastern cultural background and those with a western approach."

They point to research by Anita Lundberg who teaches for Australia's James Cook University at a satellite school in Singapore. Lundberg, a cultural anthropologist studying ethnography, the study of customs and cultures, says that the biggest lesson learned is that copying and imitation is a key part of the learning experience in all cultures and in nearly all areas. Mimesis can be found in all fields including writing and art, where great masters often start mimicking the works of those who came before.

With writing, it is a good idea to give students model papers for the students to work from and even mimic. Separate mimesis from plagiarism. Teach referencing and citation skills.