Understanding Virtual Pedagogies For Contemporary Teaching And Learning


How might we best describe what contemporary teaching and learning looks like? We need a theoretical model that allows us to better understand our students’ use of technology and be much more discriminatory in our use of technology for learning. Now that our students are living and learning in a technology-rich world, it is important that we are able to more critically discuss and evaluate our practice to ensure our students are getting the most from their online experiences, that they are exploring a whole new array of opportunities for higher order thinking and learning, and that we fully understand the real value and impact of what is being learnt.

The purpose of this series of articles is firstly: to use the Collective Knowledge Construction Model to identify strategies by which knowledge construction is facilitated when learning online. and, secondly: to encourage teachers, school leaders and other stakeholders to re-imagine the pedagogical, technical and contextual consequences that arise from teaching and learning in technology-rich environments.

There are four strategies influencing how we learn and the way we behave online that this series explores: Connecting, Communicating, Collaborating and Learning Collectively.

For each strategy we ask:

  • What are the distinguishing features of the strategy?
  • What pedagogical approaches are suitable?
  • What are the defining learning activities?
  • What does the strategy challenge educators to rethink?


The web makes it easy to find almost any information. It has dramatically changed how people learn.

Quality content, passionate experts and co-learners are all abundant. Using the Connecting strategy, learners use the web for research, just in time learning and to stay up to date with current developments. These learners may be learning on their own or as part of a formal or informal offline learning community. Learners access archived and broadcasted content and seek tailored content from both machines (smart software) and people.

The pace and depth at which learning happens at this stage can vary. Learners can learn episodically, dipping in as needed, finding what they need and then moving on. They also learn via immersion, developing a daily reading habit by subscribing to content feeds from a variety of sources and containing a wide range of views and opinions. They pursue sidetracks, when their interest is piqued, sometimes noting for later investigation, other times postponing what they were doing to follow this new learning.

While this strategy is more likely associated with active information seeking, learning can also be passive. Learners can ‘follow’ experts and other learners, using a range of social media, where streams of information are presented to the passive learner who in turn can choose to respond or ignore. Additionally, the content and information is not always sourced from others. Smart software can provide facts and guide learners through self-paced tutorials, while service applications provide answer-based user inputs, such as maps and directions.

The type of learning content can take many forms from text, audio and video through to specific purpose-built applications, delivered either in real time or on demand. The length of this content also varies from complete high quality lecture series from the world’s leading educational institutions through to smaller chunks of learning content which teach a specific skill or concept. Applications can also deliver content, from simple applications that deliver information based on user inputs data through to rich interactive applications that walk a learner through a series of learning activities, all of which provide feedback and support. This is the only strategy discussed that has a place for commercial content and curriculum providers, therefore, it is understandable that it is also the approach that dominates much of the discussion around providing opportunities for learning in a technology-rich world.

Pedagogical Approaches

The Connecting strategy is complementary to the learner’s offline learning community and activities. Learners who operate solely in this phase will most likely have access to other learners with whom they can share their ideas and understandings and engage in other learning conversations. The role of the teacher in classrooms operating in this phase will usually not radically change, with the teacher still authoritative regarding instruction and assessment.

This strategy is also appropriate for offline learning communities that require additional access to experts and expert content. Experts can be accessed synchronously or asynchronously. Synchronously online video, audio, or text chat can be used to beam the expert into the offline learning community, allowing learners to interact directly with the expert.

Additionally the internet can provide access to an extremely diverse range of ideas. Diversity may be found by implementing a daily reading schedule, by exploring hyperlinks or by following learning attention data of experts in the field.

Flipped Learning occurs in classes where teacher instruction is provided before the class instead of during the class. Typically, the teacher creates or sources lesson materials from online experts, which the students access shortly before attending the class. By providing the lesson instruction online and before the class, time is freed up in class for discussion, reflection and learning conversations. Additionally students can return to the lesson materials for revision as needed.

Learning Objects are reusable packaged content that teach a single idea or concept. They can take on many digital formats including text, video, sound, and simulations. Learners are able to use both individual and a sequence of learning objects for specific learning needs. Learning objects are often located in educational institution repositories, but they could also be built into tools and equipment where the equipment itself teaches the user how to use it and provides diagnostic feedback. Mobile devices either with custom applications or web access, allow learners access to a vast amount of ‘just in
time’ knowledge.

Smart Software enables learners to undertake computer-based learning activities in which teacher support is usually required. Smart software might be stand-alone software applications or activity-based web content usually involving self-paced activities or games and often concluding with a post-learning test. Smart software might be used in isolation, designed to teach a whole concept, or may be used as a learning activity as part of a larger learning sequence.

Learner Online Activities

Over time, internet connected learners can develop a large network of high quality content sources. When drawing on these, they can feel confident that they will supply a breadth and depth of information about the topic of interest while also capturing any new information or breakthroughs in the field of study.

Teachers and schools make a conscious design decision about how their students access content and resources. Some schools choose a highly directed environment where it is the teacher’s role to direct their students to appropriate resources and content while other schools encourage their students to individually identify reliable information sources.

With this strategy, classes begin to use online spaces to complement their classroom program. This may have a forum where students can interact with each other and continue learning conversations out of school hours. Additionally, teachers may make themselves contactable via instant messaging or other technologies so that important questions can be answered immediately.

Archiving Content And Information

Online learners can quickly and easily access information and then save the content for retrieval at a later time. They do this by accessing known trusted sites and learning communities, and using search engines to find content on previously unknown sites. Learners may choose to organise their downloaded content in ways that make later retrieval possible, such as using folders and naming conventions. Other learners use browsers with bookmarking facilities or web-based social bookmarking services like Delicious to organise learning content.

Learners use tags and keywords that they associate with their content in order to easily retrieve information and, over time, a personal knowledge base is built up that can be drawn upon. While most tags describe the content, other tags such as “toread” identify the function, that is: “to be read at a later date.”

Exposure To Ideas

In order to locate required content, learners need to have developed search skills including expanding searches, narrowing searches and pearl harvesting.

Learners in this phase may also begin to subscribe to RSS feeds and keyword searches so that they are notified when new content is produced rather than having to search for it.

These learners begin to develop strategies beyond using search engines, such as using tags and keywords to find and monitor content. They identify online communities that are useful for finding specific information.

They subscribe to RSS feeds and keywords searches, and begin using additional social media tools that aggregate content in real time. They follow experts in the field, and follow others who the experts recommend. They utilise recommendations to identify which content to investigate and which content to filter out.

Seeking Answers

Websites and other social media are used to ask questions and seek answers. In seeking information learners move beyond searching and use forums and other social websites and services to ask questions and engage with other learners. This is usually necessary only when previous attempts to access content knowledge have failed. Learners seek opinions, advice and clarification, and begin to develop the skills necessary to participate in online learning communities.

Learners use social media, asking questions, either as a broadcast or directly to specific individuals. They use subject-specific web communities to ask general questions, and follow up questions on topics of interest in response to existing discussions.

Experts are also accessed through live video meetings and archived presentations. These presentations may be accessed during a formal class or out of class to complement teaching.

Does anyone know how to…

If I did this would it work?

This isn’t working can anyone tell me why?

Rethinking Quality

Schools (and others) who try to compete with the internet on creating quality content are destined to fail.

If the ‘Connecting Strategy’ relies on having instant access to high quality online information, whose job is it to provide these and ensure we have quality resources?

Schools and individual teachers who try to create their own tailored content for their students will find it impossible to compete with the internet that provides access to an increasingly diverse range of high quality learning content. Additionally, as knowledge changes over time with new information coming to light, and as best practice evolves, schools are much better placed to facilitate and encourage students in sourcing external content.

Schools who create quality control learning repositories are doing their students a disservice.

While it might be tempting for individual teachers and educational institutions to pursue the creation or procurement of a quality-controlled repository of trusted learning objects, it should be resisted. Even if such a task was possible, the rate of change of new information means that ensuring the diversity and quality of the repository is extremely difficult. Similarly, Eli Pariser1, warns of the filter bubble, where content is potentially so personalised through recommendation engines that tailor ‘perfect’ content for a user, that they are shielded from diverse ideas and opinions, leaving them poorer as a result. Unfortunately this is the climate that our students are often exposed to, as the students’ exposure to quality content is dependent on their teacher.

Critical consumption is a key competency of the 21st century learner.

If specifically selected or created learning content is all that students encounter, will an ability to critically assess the quality of the information be developed? Evaluating whether information accessed is accurate and identifying which content or content providers to subscribe to is critical at this phase. Traditional critical consumption methods, such as examining the qualifications of the author, are often not applicable where authorship is missing or misrepresented, nor can we dismiss the rise of the passionate and knowledgeable amateur. Instead, schools need to help develop online learners who are highly critical consumers, using multiple sources to verify information, or better still leverage networks to help identify quality.

Rethinking Access

Providing a device for every student and minimally filtered access to the internet is vital.

Having student access to online information is critical. Many educational institutions are simply not prepared for students for whom ‘searching for the answer’ is the first problem solving strategy. Schools need to provide access to devices, with mobile devices particularly useful for the quick look up of information. They must allow their students to access their devices whenever they are required.

Schools need to respond to the fact that being able to quickly retrieve information is the same as knowing it.

Schools need to respond to the nature of knowledge: what needs to be known, and how knowledge is stored needs to re-imagined in our 21st century world. As Clark and Chambers argue with their concept of the ‘extended mind’, knowing something is the same as being able to quickly and accurately find the same information. The catch-cry of the personal learning network evangelists, “I store my knowledge in my friends,” echoes similar sentiments that being able to find information is virtually indistinguishable from being able to instantly recall it. Mark Pesce argues that we are at the point of mid-singularity, where the influence of ubiquitous smart technologies on our lives is irrevocably all pervasive and its impact so profound, with the only certainty being that we will become more dependent on them.

Rather than banning mobile devices, schools need to respond to a life profoundly and irrevocably influenced by them.

Schools routinely ban student mobile phones, requiring students to hand them in at the start of the day and collect them at the end of the school day, as if school was some bastion that ubiquitous smart technologies had not yet breached. Schools not only need to allow students to use their mobile devices whenever they are needed, they need to ensure that every student has a device and they need to move away from content-centric learning, namely learning activities and assessment that involves collection, memorisation and recall. Concern about the effective use of devices, and the appropriate behaviour that underpins such use, should not distract teachers from the possibilities they provide for creating powerful learning opportunities.

In the next issue of Education Technology Solutions, we will continue our discussion on Understanding Virtual Pedagogies for Contemporary Teaching & Learning by looking at communication, the second of our four strategies that influence how we learn and the way we behave online.

Understanding Virtual Pedagogies for Contemporary Teaching & Learning by Richard Olsen, Assistant Director of ideasLAB was presented at the 2011 VITTA conference. It can be downloaded free at www.ideaslab.edu.au

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Richard Olsen

Richard Olsen

Assistant Director at ideasLAB
Richard Olsen

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