Revisiting learner-centredness with online provision: A personal view from Simon Sweeney

These are difficult times for learners and challenging for educators too. The coronavirus epidemic has driven us into the technological maelstrom of online provision and for many it will have been a steep learning curve and a disorienting experience. For others, already used to extensive e-technology or online learning platforms, perhaps the transition has been easier. Here I offer some casual observations on what is going on, and what this means for our guiding principle of learner-centred practice.

My career began in English Language Teaching. ELT adopted methodologies and approaches very different to the traditional grammar-based or behaviourist principles applied to much modern foreign language teaching in schools. ELT was influenced by linguisticians like Chomsky (yes, Noam), Widdowson, Munby, and Krashen. 

Stephen Krashen was immensely influential: he insisted that language teaching ought to provide exposure to real communicative content, real-world experience, and a reflection of how humans learn their native tongue (Krashen, 1982). The principle of communicative language teaching became embedded in ELT methodology. Munby preached the value of needs analysis. What do learners need to know? To find out, we should ask them and then filter the responses based on our own professional judgement. Curriculum and course design follows.

Fast forward a few decades and switch to our own context and our individual disciplines in higher education and what is different? The technology has certainly changed: the instruments available are more sophisticated and more enabling. The world is literally at our fingertips via a mouse and a keyboard. But learner-centredness remains fundamental. What we do as educators, as facilitators, should be determined by what students need, and we can ask them, and filter the responses according to our expertise and judgement as professional educators. 

Students need knowledge and they need skills, including the ability to engage in informed critical analysis. They will also tell us that they want the skills employers demand because they have debts to pay off thanks to the marketisation of higher education (HM Government, 2010; Molesworth et al, 2009; Warner, 2015). Employability has become a watchword for us all, university staff and students alike.

Just to be controversial (no point in a blog without controversy), is it the case that many academics inhabit rather exclusive knowledge silos? There is something inevitable about this. But the unifying factor ought to be that as members of the community we share a concern for the needs of global society. This should be the common denominator among universities and all who work in them. 

There will always be controversy. The political scientist Matthew Goodwin is a polemical figure because he stands accused that his studies of right-wing populism ‘normalise’ racist sentiment (Eatwell and Goodwin, 2018; Shaw, 2018).  In the debate over ‘no platforming’, issues around freedom of speech present important challenges. Not having a position is weak. We should engage with this argument since it goes to the heart of what universities are about.

We expect students to read the literature and develop their knowledge from multiple sources. We train them to go through a filtering process to sort out valuable knowledge from what is tendentious or false. We facilitate learners’ strategies to this end, and the institution provides access to multiple, and even limitless resources. That is also what students pay for.

We impart our expertise to our students, and we assist them in self-reliance, the ability to discover expertise for themselves. We seek to prepare autonomous learners. The typical grading process requires testing students’ learning through various means of assessment. They are then released into the world as graduates, as trained and educated soon-to-be professionals, we hope, to do good.

How does coronavirus impact on all this? The opportunities for learning have never been greater because the distractions are fewer. Ultimately, hours of Netflix or YouTube get dull, so our students (and ourselves) may as well do some work instead. Throughout the comparative seclusion of lockdown, we and other homeworkers have been extremely lucky: we have work to do, we get paid, and there’s food on the table at the end of the day. Many are not so lucky.

So, what of learner-centredness? The purpose is to promote student engagement to better facilitate learning (Milburn-Shaw and Walker, 2017). With all the technology available, we can adopt a Krashen principle of reflecting the real world: using what we have in myriad forms, boosting exposure and learning opportunities through mixed methodologies. Within our IT-assisted teaching, are multiple instruments to attract students’ attention. 

We may prepare purpose-built tailored texts, podcasts, and videos. We offer selected readings from recommended sources, highlight websites, YouTube clips, TED talks, content from BBC Sounds App, membership organisations’ resources, think tanks, Op-Eds, reports from international and national Non-Governmental Organisations, as well as governmental organisations like the WTO, OECD, World Bank, or IMF. We may use UN-linked bodies, arguably foremost among them at this time is the WHO. We can place on the VLE material that equates to an almost entire module reading list, and links to everything. The VLE becomes a one-stop shop.

This is problematic: if everything is VLE-enabled, we end up limiting the students’ need to do their own research. This risks a kind of intellectual laziness. The tutor has done all the groundwork, and subjectively. The tutor may be guilty of prejudices, unknowingly, even with the best of intentions. The social sciences are often accused in the popular press of left-wing bias. Well, if describing climate change as an existential threat to humanity is left-wing bias, I will take the criticism on the chin.  

So, in conclusion, I suggest that learner-centredness needs stretching. It does involve asking learners what they want. It also involves giving them what they need and using strategies and instruments to prepare them to better understand the world and to confront contemporary challenges. That, surely, is learner-centeredness. Not so far from Krashen.

References

HM Government (2010). Browne Report: Securing a Sustainable Future for Higher Education. London:  Department of Business, Innovation and Skills. Online: 

https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/

422565/bis-10-1208-securing-sustainable-higher-education-browne-report.pdf.

Eatwell, R. and Goodwin, M. (2018) ‘National Populism: The Revolt Against Liberal Democracy’ Pelican Books.

Krashen, S. (1982) Principles and Practice in Second Language Acquisition. Pergamon Institute of English.

Milburn-Shaw, H.  and Walker, D.  (2017).  ‘The Politics of Student Engagement’. 

Politics 37(1): 52-66. https://doi.org/10.1177/7026339571562615.

Molesworth, M., Nixon, E. and Scullion, R. (2009). ‘Having, being and higher education: the marketisation of the university and the transformation of the student into consumer’. 

Teaching in Higher Education, 14(3): 277-287. DOI: 10.1080/13562510902898841

Munby, J. (1978) Communicative Syllabus Design. Cambridge University Press.

Shaw, M. (2018) ‘Going native: Populist academics normalise anti-immigrant right’ Comment & Analysis. Politics.co.uk. https://www.politics.co.uk/comment-analysis/2018/10/31/going-native-populist-academics-normalise-the-anti-immigrant-right/?cmpredirect 

Warner, M. (2015). ‘Learning my Lesson: Marina Warner on the disfiguring of higher education’. London Review of Books, 37(6): 8-14.

Dr Simon Sweeney York Management School

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