Friday, 17 September 2010

Activity-Based Learning

the VCILT has been since 2003 an active promoter of the pedagogical concept of activity-based learning where the students is provided with a number of learning scenarios rather than e-book versions of paper-based manuals. As mentioned the real drive at the VCILT to engage in such approaches came from the interactions that the academic staff engaged with high-profile researchers and practitioners like Daniel Schneider of TECFA, Pierre Tchounikine of LIUM and Gilbert Paquette of TELUQ , just to name a few, in the field of educational technology. The VCILT was also very fortunate to have the visit of people from the Center for Activity Theory and Developmental Work Research of the University of Helsinki who are involved in transformative pedagogies and work intensively on activity theory. Consequently, the academics of the VCILT embraced that approach which proposed a clear demarcation from the use of the web as only a new delivery medium for learning materials. It was clear that this concept would bring about a new paradigm in the teaching and learning of the University of Mauritius.

The two educational philosophies that influenced the VCILT's pedagogical approaches mainly came from the activity-theoretical method of conceiving the learning process together with Schneider's definition of project/activity-based learning. In one of the presentations that Daniel Schneider made in Mauritius, he argued that new pedagogies alone including project-based and collaborative learning do not guarantee automatic results. The role of the teacher was therefore still very crucial for meaningful and successful learning to occur. However, the teacher was not the same "know-it-all" version that we are accustomed to but mainly with a redefined role mainly that of a facilitator, orchestrator and manager of the pedagogical scenarios that he elaborates for the students. As orchestrator, the teacher can be seen as the one who is the author of the pedagogical scenarios and learning content. As facilitator, he is the one who is the pivotal point for learner support as he needs to be there to clarify concepts, resolve students' perceived deadlocks, and helping in the fuzzy parts of the learning activity. While the role of the teacher as manager is described by Schneider (2003) as "make sure that such loops are productive, e.g. that the students produce something, that it is task related, that they engage themselves in meta-reflection (look critically at their own work) and that they discuss and share with others", it is also important for the teacher to manage the affective side of the students' engagement in the learning activity.

The first problem which is of pedagogical nature, that can arise in such situations are the possibilities of over-structuring of the scenarios that result in the same 'spoonfeeding' technique that is so much criticized by proponents of socio-constructivism. It is this lack of too much structure in the learning activity steps that creates the fuzzy element to foster original thinking as well as unique and different solutions from the learners. The idea is to have semi-structured learning activities or scenarios to prevent learners to propose stereotyped work that look similar to each other.

Learners should have the freedom to propose their own solutions but in a negotiated way with the teacher. Daniel Schneider also concurs with this by highlighting the need for equilibrium between liberty and guidance (figure 3.1). 

The second issue is more complex, given that the teacher no longer performs one single role, but panoply of roles from orchestrator and facilitator to the management of the learning process. From experience, this can be a really difficult situation for the teacher who is more and more solicited by the students and at any time. The time that a lecturer has to devote with respect to project/activity-based learning also increases drastically with respect to the number of students and/or the number of learning activities to be monitored. It also depends on the number of courses being taught by one academic. While the first implementations of activity-based learning at the VCILT were within the Masters in Computer-Mediated Communications and Pedagogies course, the number of students was less than twenty and it was perfectly manageable for the academic. However, as the number of students started to grow and the VCILT started to diversify its courses, the workload of academics involved in activity-based pedagogies increased to a great extent. At some point, taking into account the constraints, the exigencies of service and other professional commitments, we tend to realize that having recourse to such efficient, innovative and competencies-based pedagogies are not affordable and sustainable by institutions in developing countries with limited resources.

On the other hand, after going through this painstaking process, the results are more than comforting for the practitioners when students are able to demonstrate the competencies they have developed. For instance, some years ago the VCILT offered a module on "Educational Technologies" which was offered as a general elective module. The course had three main learning activities and the outcome that students had to achieve was the production of an educational website. In the first learning activity they had to use concept mapping tool to devise an appropriate structure for their course. The second activity was based on presentation software to model a prototype of the final web based learning environment while the third activity was to actually learn to use a web authoring software to develop a small educational website. While the students came from different fields and with different levels of exposure and skills with respect to computers and information technology, they all (those who submitted their work) managed, in successive cohorts to achieve well above average in the course. The illustrations below (Fig 3.2) are sample of the outcomes of activity-based approaches to learning.

figure 3.2
This leads us to the third important issue related to the implementation of activity-based pedagogies. While teachers need to have the right mindset to be able to keep up with their new roles, students need to also understand their new responsibilities and tasks. In an e-learning environment focused on the development of skills and competencies, students are no longer mere recipients for 'pre-cooked' knowledge. Students need to be equipped with the relevant techniques of methods of inquiries, information search, retrieval and classification as well as application in context-dependent scenarios. Therefore, students need to show a more entrepreneurship culture and independence in the learning process. An entrepreneurship culture would therefore mean more autonomy, development of self-management and self-regulation abilities in terms of commitment, time management and work rate.