Tag Archives: Contexts

Contexts for Learning, and Positive Changes

Context: Library or Classroom-based, but not formally assessed

Looking at my own practice, I am trying to think about the context in which ‘my’ students are learning.  This has always been slightly problematical in library teaching, because attendance is not mandatory.  Until a couple of years ago, new students had a tour of the library and a hands-on demonstration of how to use the catalogue.  A lecture was also provided for music students, to introduce them to key e-resources, such as Oxford Music Online (the world’s most prestigious music encyclopedia) and the streamed music services. (There are also a number of leaflets offering guidance to different aspects of the library service.)

Realising that for most students, this was too much, too soon, the library induction package was un-packed, so that new students got a basic library tour in the first week, and then we liaised with course-leaders to provide more detailed, tailored instruction later.  The theory behind this was that students would be better able to take in what they were being shown, if it wasn’t all thrown at them at once; and when they were beginning to need more resources, they’d be more motivated to come and listen.

Some course-leaders were admirably pro-active, whilst others didn’t take up the offer, or provided informal tours of their own, quietly ignoring the e-resources offer.  Moreover, we have no control over whether individual students attend or not.  The context, then, is basically on-site provision of training (we’ve no way of knowing whether students found their way to the Moodle podcast that Gordon made for us a couple of years ago), but without the formality of a fully academically endorsed (or assessed) course component.  We get the impression that library induction and training is viewed by the students as “not really part of the course”, and “not really necessary”.

With the seminars I provide for research students, it’s a smaller group.  Students are encouraged to attend, but are not always available to attend on the day/time allotted by Research Dept staff.  However, those that do attend are always keen to participate and share their opinion, so although it’s still not mandatory, there’s more enthusiasm and appreciation!  By this stage, students have realised that proper academic discourse requires them to read widely and cite correctly, so there’s an awareness that the instruction I provide may be useful to them as they write their dissertation.  (Also, strangely, there’s respect for me amongst researchers who know I’ve ‘been there’ and am now engaged on postdoctoral work, whereas I guess undergraduates perceive me as ‘just a librarian’, and not to be taken as seriously as their tutors.   Librarians universally hate their fuddy-duddy stereotype!)

So, what positive changes could I make?  For new students, I still think the library tour is worthwhile. It’s quick and cheerful, and just tries to convey the most basic information about the library, but more importantly, it introduces students to the subject librarians.  For the more detailed e-resource instruction,  I still think these resources need to be demonstrated, much as an experiment might be demonstrated in a science lab.   By way of a parallel, you don’t say, “here’s a bunsen burner and few chemicals, do try them out!”, but after demonstrating them, pupils might then try them out under supervision.  Similarly, our new undergraduates need to be shown WHAT is available and how they work, and then invited to try them.  Unless each entire class of new students is allocated time in the IT suite, though, we have to content ourselves with telling them about the resources, giving the handouts, and hoping that some of the information will be remembered.

I’m beginning to wonder if there might be any mileage in emailing student groups later, to follow up the session and get some kind of feed-back. I am uncertain about mounting quizzes etc, because not many students will do a quiz that is not part of their assessed work.  (Backwash, as Biggs says.)  How does one constructively align teaching that is not assessed, but regarded as supplementary and optional?   One is informing the students about what is on offer, and directly pointing out resources that are likely to be useful.  Tasks can’t be set for later submission – it is all rather frustrating!

With the research students, there are fewer individuals, and the direct email follow-up might be even more effective.  I could also use social media, though I’d first have to persuade students to “follow” the library on Twitter, or subscribe to the Whittaker Live blog. Only two people have ever bothered to subscribe (though the blog has plenty of drop-in traffic) – this doesn’t look a very effective way of getting targeted information to them.  I would need more advice before I ventured to start discussion on Moodle or Mahara.  It seems a sensible idea, but if research students don’t “hang out” there, then it wouldn’t have much practical effect.  our Teaching Artist collaborative space works so well that it would be great if all the research students had a space like this of their own.  Maybe Marius could advise me if they do?

Tonight’s Reading: Contexts for Learning

Mary has just blogged about this abstract, so it can be my reading for this evening:-

Edwards, Richard; Biesta, Gert and Thorpe, Mary eds. (2009). Rethinking contexts for learning and teaching: Communities, activities and networks. London, UK: Routledge. http://oro.open.ac.uk/17118/  – Mary’s the link is just to the abstract.   However, a preview of the book – the Introduction – can be read in Google Books, here:- http://tinyurl.com/phm7gqb.

Richard Edwards’ Introduction begins by defining contexts for learning and teaching, explaining that we can imagine “context” as soup in a bowl – where the text (the soup) is confined within the bowl.  Thus, we extrapolate that learning takes place in different formal and informal contexts, particularly in the present emphasis on lifelong learning.  We can imagine the learning context as being various strata, or levels, and it follows that learning can be formal or informal (along a continuum), personal or in an educational system, and perhaps situated in communities of practice.  The boundaries can be fuzzy, of course.  When my mother hosts a gardening club or attends a patchwork club, it’s not a strictly educational setting, but learning (and teaching) certainly take place – the passing on of information between individuals or small groups.  Members of such groups may also learn at home, whether by books and magazines, broadcasts or internet searching.   If one of these individuals then chooses to attend evening classes or a college course, then obviously the context will have changed again, as indeed will the homework or self-directed learning taking place between formal classes.

Reading on, I am introduced to the notion of purification (separating out practices), translation (‘relating together’) and naturalization (both purification and translation:-

Purification, Translation, Naturalizing Contexts

I have to confess that this is getting a little complicated!  For my practice, I’m inclined to think that I don’t really need to know about the metaphors of purification, translation and naturalization.

Let’s think about Mary’s questions to us, then:-

  1. What constitutes a context for learning?  Very many different situations can be perceived as a context for learning, as I’ve suggested above.  It follows that our learners will probably be learning in many of these contexts, and as lifelong learners in particular may be learning in a variety of less formal situations in addition to, or in place of, the classroom environment.
  2. How do we engage the full resources of learners for learning? This is dealt with in Part 2 of the book (as we find on p.10 – still the Introduction).  Google books doesn’t allow me to find Part 2, so I am left asking myself whether by ‘resources’, we mean learning resources, or mental capacities and learned educational skills.  Amazon also offers previews, so I move across to Amazon at this point:- http://tinyurl.com/oedmf8s.  I deduce that the resources alluded to are texts in all their variety and differing presentations, whether a book, article, web-based resource or whatever.  My instinct tells me that we need to engage learners with a variety of different resources, since we know that different learners prefer different learning resources.
  3. What are the relationships between different learning contexts?  I wasn’t able to find the part of the book dealing with this area.  I imagine the relationships between them can be many and varied, and that boundaries are perforce blurred.  If I am studying at home for a course like this, then the relationship between my “home, internet” context and the classroom physical context is fairly clear-cut.  However, if I were studying at home but with no formal learning structure, then this would be a different context.
  4. What forms of teaching can most effectively mobilise learning across contexts?  A multimodal approach involving different kinds of texts and activities would, I imagine, offer the widest opportunities for the learner to make the connections between different resources, but it behoves the teacher to ensure that texts and resources are chosen specifically to allow these connections to be discerned.  (Eg, it would make no sense to offer a music student a book about Wagner, and a CD of music by Debussy, expecting them to make the comparisons between these composers, if no comparisons were made by the author of the book, and the CD was of Debussy’s piano music – a genre not generally favoured by Wagner.  Conversely, a selection of books and audiovisual resources about orchestral music by both composers would afford the learner opportunities to detect or make connections for themselves.)
  5. How do we methodologically and theoretically conceptualise contexts for learning?  I cannot read the initial chapters which seem to cover this topic, but I have glanced at the contents pages in Part 1 of the book, and the answers to these questions would appear to lie in ‘theorizing learning by looking at genre and activity’ (David R. Russell); ‘taking an actor-network view of the classroom’ (Steve Fox); ‘looking at learning and context from the perspective of complexity theory’ (Tamsin Haggis); whilst Gert Biesta writes about the value of pragmatism in understanding ‘learning in context’.    However, I feel handicapped here by my lack of knowledge of the psychological and philosphical vocabulary employed in educational theory.  Perhaps, in a course of this length, it suffices to get an overview; clearly I can’t absorb and assimilate this theory to the same depth as I have studied within my own subject speciality.