Reflections on the 21st Century Learner (2014.03.02)
When I and my siblings were at school, exercise books and loose-leaf folders were the primary medium in which active learning took place. You attended lessons; you did required reading; or for an extended piece of work, you did further reading on your own. Exercises, whether maths, a language, social sciences or creative writing – or, in my case, music – were written down and handed in. Once marked, they came back to you with comments and a grade.
No pictures – or very seldom. No attachments of other text documents or media. And above all, no weblinks, because the internet hadn’t yet been invented.
Indeed, only grown-ups had typewriters. When, as an undergraduate, I acquired a manual typewriter, I was avant-garde, and if you think that was advanced, then my attendance at typing classes as a postgraduate was way ahead of my time. I went to the local FE college for night-classes to do that, entirely on my own initiative.
However, the approach to learning was different, too. I don’t recall ever having to write a reflective journal, for a start! What happened between the teacher, the lesson and the finished assignment was pretty much up to the learner. Sure, I was a frequent library user, but I don’t remember ever logging my own progress, let alone reflecting upon it.
Let’s go back to the ‘no internet’ aspect. I started a PhD in 1981. For perfectly valid reasons, I didn’t complete it – it took another quarter of a century before I started again on a different subject. But it’s the comparison that is interesting. I am in the fairly unusual position of being able to compare pre-internet doctoral studies with doctoral studies today.
- No email
- No drafting and redrafting
- No saving different versions of a document electronically
- No digital files, whether audio, audiovisual, image, pdf
- No internet searching, no full-text databases
- No online bibliography, whether commercial software, social bookmarking or even a simple online list.
- No online journals, books – no online anything!
Characteristics of the 21st Century Learner
Today’s learner has a huge range of electronic resources, requiring them to make critical choices. Is this website good? Who’s the author, what authority do they have? (What else have they published?)
They have the potential to produce work which is visually and technically much more proficient, though the content itself will of course reflect the level of their understanding. However, they can store vast quantities of data, edit and re-edit their own work, use spell-check, and incorporate a whole range of media not available in the pre-internet age.
Moving away from the written (or multi-media) work, today’s learner in the performing arts can record and share their performances, and can participate in peer-review of each others’ practice. Their portfolio can include not only a digital CV, but also performances and perhaps links to online reviews.
21st Century Learners’ Aspirations
No matter what learning takes place, or when it takes/took place, the prime motivation of learning is surely to gain in proficiency at the chosen subject or skill. However, today’s digital world makes it possible, and indeed likely, that the learner will have their work mediated in the public sphere at a much earlier stage. Learning can be purely for enjoyment, of course, but ambitious performers will want their best practice to be visible to others, not only to share amongst their peers, but also to assist employability by demonstrating their skills.
My Aspirations for my Learners
I am not in the position where I require written or recorded work from the people I teach, and my sessions with students are generally one-off occasions, whether in large or small groups, or one-to-one. If I’m giving a musicology lecture or presentation, then my aspiration is to share my enthusiasm for the subject; to pass on knowledge; and to enthuse my listeners to go and find out more for themselves.
I also give talks on aspects of research methodology, bibliography, or career paths; in these instances my aim is to encourage and pass on helpful advice without patronising my audience. The same can be said in my role as a subject librarian, because I hope to encourage students to become proficient in using library resources, whether the catalogue, printed or online bibliographies, or more complex databases. These are all key skills that will stand our students in good stead in their future careers, when they will have to spend time searching both for performing materials or background information, to help them in interpreting their repertoire, or in writing programme notes.
I want to go beyond finding materials for our students, and to help them learn to do this themselves, encouraging them to have a critical eye and learn to identify good authoritative editions of the music they perform; and furthermore to encourage them in good practice as regards keeping records of useful resources for future reference. You could call this future-proofing their careers. I can’t tell them how to play their instrument, but I can teach the essential background skills to keep organised records; save weblinks; interrogate databases or download an e-book, for example.
When I’m taking choir-practices, on the other hand, then my aim is to teach first the notes, and then the interpretation of the notes, so that my singers will know their parts and how they interact with one another; and will feel confident enough to perform in public.
As I explained, I do not have the opportunity to set assignments of any kind, and am often not in a position to assess understanding afterwards, except when I’m working with my choir! However, I’m hoping that this course will give me some pointers as to how to maintain the attention of a class; and how to make a lecture/seminar/training session more interactive without losing control of the class.