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Flexible Autonomy: How online resources and live tutorials have been used successfully to develop and enhance subject knowledge in trainee teachers

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The UK needs more teachers, particularly in shortage subjects. One way in which this shortage is being addressed is through subject knowledge enhancement (SKE) courses; aspiring teachers lacking enough degree-level knowledge of their chosen curriculum subject can complete a fully funded course before commencing their initial teacher training. Canterbury Christ Church University (CCCU) was the first university provider to offer a fully online SKE course, using computer-based assessments and gap analyses, access to high-quality digital materials and live group tutorials to provide a supportive and flexible environment in which students work autonomously. This article outlines the mechanism and impact of our ‘flexible autonomous’ approach through the lenses of course designer, tutor and student. Three theories of learning inform our thinking: social constructivism, emergentism and connectivism.

Social constructivism, emergentism and connectivism as theories of learning

The best known of these theories is social constructivism, particularly Vygotsky’s (1980) zone of proximal development, which describes how students learn through interaction, engagement and communication with their peers and a more knowledgeable other, such as their tutor. This approach recognises the importance of social interaction within the development of understanding, but has limited application in a context where students study autonomously. Critics note that this approach can lack rigour, as students are free to learn what they can and the teacher stands to the side as facilitator. Flexibility and autonomy must not neglect the importance of collective knowledge.

Connectivism is a pedagogy for digital learning and posits that learning takes place across a series of online networks (Downes, 2012). Here, knowledge is not the outcome of social engagement; it is the connections formed by networks of distributed knowledge within online environments. MOOCs (massive open online courses) are examples of connectivism in practice, in which learning takes place exclusively online. In this method of learning, there is no requirement to engage with resources, students or tutors within traditional physical learning spaces. It is therefore often virtual, asynchronous and non-proximal. MOOCs typically consist of a variety of interactive digital resources to support learning, including forums, blogs, collaborative spaces, electronic documents, interactive assessments, virtual spaces, videos and audio files. A connectivist model of learning has the advantage of allowing the autonomous learner to generate their own connections and develop their own knowledge and understanding within a network of information. It both recognises the unpredictability of the learning process and necessitates the provision of learning spaces in which connections can be made. This model is limited in that it does not provide an adequate space in which learning is confirmed, challenged and enhanced – features that are required to provide effective development and are largely facilitated by social interaction.

The emergentist model (Osberg and Biesta, 2008) places the responsibility on the educator to maintain a space of emergence in which they assume the role of provocateur. While acknowledging the unpredictability, creativity and messiness of the experience of learning, as educators we challenge and provoke our students so that they develop their own understanding, allowing their own meanings to emerge. This model supplements the otherwise connectivist approach of our autonomous student, providing space in which connections that students have made can be challenged in order to move their knowledge forward. A bridge is made whereby student autonomy has the opportunity to experience the challenging interactions that scaffold learning within social constructivist models. Kop and Hill (2008) outline the necessity for this supplement and highlight the fact that learners ‘might miss out on a layer of critical engagement’ within a purely online model that could ‘confirm rather than challenge views and opinions’ (p. 77).

A connectivist theory of learning, informed by social constructivism and emergentism, is therefore appropriate to provide the flexible, autonomous learning environment necessary for our students. This model fits with our chosen model of course and allows students to access the course with different needs, levels of understanding and objectives.

While it is CCCU’s intention to provide a SKE course that allows flexible autonomy, it would not be valid to assume that this is what students experience. In order to reflect critically on the course, we will engage in ‘the sustained and intentional process of checking the accuracy and validity of our teaching assumptions’ (Brookfield, 2017, p. 3). Taking the CCCU SKE course as a case study (Yin, 2009), we can explore our assumptions through observing the course through complementary lenses. In an adaptation of Brookfield’s lenses, we will look at the course through the lenses of the course designers, the course deliverers (the tutors), the students and through the theoretical framework that has already been developed above. As the SKE course is a contemporary phenomenon within a real-life context, the case study is an appropriate strategy (Yin, 2009). From the three remaining perspectives, including the three case-studies, we ask the questions, how does the CCCU online SKE course provide flexibility and autonomy, and how does this develop and enhance subject knowledge in trainee teachers?

How does the course design promote flexibility and autonomy?

Our course is online and non-linear; students join the course at different times and can study from a choice of materials suitable for their needs. It has both synchronous (students learning together in real time) and asynchronous (independent self-study, accessible at all times) elements. Students take initial and final audits: timed, computer-based, multiple-choice assessments. The final audit is a summative measure of progress. Students use the initial audit to identify strengths and areas of development. A gap-analysis spreadsheet and tutor support is provided to aid this. This process directs them towards the most appropriate materials in the two main elements of the course: a suite of on-demand subject knowledge sessions and weekly live group tutorials. The form that the live tutorials take develops from each unique combination of tutor and students, and will be addressed through the use of case studies (Thomas, 2011) in later sections.

In each subject area there are up to 50 individual on-demand sessions, and students select and study whichever sessions meet their needs, in any order. Most on-demand sessions consist of:

  • four brief lectures (usually less than 10 minutes each)
  • recommended readings and resources
  • end-of-session task
  • self-assessment grid.

The flexibility for students to personalise the course is deeply embedded in this structure. The course designers were keen to develop flexibility and autonomy within each session itself. In the mathematics session entitled ‘Massive and miniscule numbers’, students start by considering how we represent numbers using standard form, thus exploring Key Stage 3 content of the National Curriculum, but by the end of the lecture have explored logarithms and concepts of infinity associated with Key Stage 5. The course designers understood knowledge not to be an object in itself, but ‘rather, to “emerge” as we, as human beings, participate in the world’ (Osberg and Biesta, 2008, p. 313). Students cannot engage in debate when interacting with asynchronous materials, so the design team attempted to internalise this debate. Lectures include thought-provoking explanations, questions and tasks, such as challenging students to model the mathematics behind flying gravel and chipped windscreens.

How do tutors interact with students and the course materials to develop flexibility and autonomy?

Each month there is an online induction session for a new cohort, where students meet their tutor and plan their live tutorials. This is at the discretion of the individual tutor, negotiated to meet individual and group needs.

Throughout the course, tutors interact with their students in the following ways:

  • multimodal live group tutorials (audio, visual, and text), usually one per week
  • formative and summative assessment of students’ ePortfolios
  • email contact.

Therefore, there isn’t one single ‘tutor lens’ and we offer a series of case studies, to illustrate how tutors interact with students and the course materials to develop flexibility and autonomy.

  • In a mathematics tutorial, students were presented with mathematical statements and asked to use them to exemplify key terms such as identity, expression, variable and inequality. Students used the pen function to draw lines connecting words to symbols. A lively debate ensued, with students questioning and justifying different responses. Acting as provocateur, the tutor worked to drive a collaborative process by maintaining a balance between ‘an unwarranted domination’ of excessive teacher input and a silence that may inadvertently ‘bolster wider social inequalities’ (Brookfield, 2005, p. 358).
  • After engaging in separate conversations with a number of students about the end-of-session tasks, a tutor established a fortnightly workshop for students to discuss problems and solutions with the rest of the group. Sessions often led into unexpected areas of the subject, deepening and broadening students’ subject knowledge.

How do students interact with the online resources and multimodal tutorials flexibly and with autonomy?

Students taking the SKE course come from a wide range of backgrounds. Some are recent graduates in associated degrees – for example, a scientist with a chemistry degree taking the physics course. Others graduated many years ago and need to refresh their knowledge, while some have a degree in a completely different subject but hands-on experience with their teaching subject. Again, there is no one ‘student lens’ through which to analyse the course. Instead, we offer three case studies.

  • C attended four live tutorials every week, including those intended for other cohorts. Over the 20-week course, this meant that she attended tutorials with the same content more than once. On the first iteration, she was generally silent. On the second, she submitted answers and asked questions to understand her errors. On the third, she would volunteer to explain concepts to the rest of the group. The emergentist model provided C with the space of emergence she needed in which to grow in confidence.
  • D felt intimidated by the knowledge of other students in live tutorials, and his dyslexia made it difficult for him to interact with the slides and commentary in the on-demand sessions. He worked with his tutor and university support services to find resources that covered his areas for development through a medium he could access. In his final reflection, he notes how he will be better placed to build relationships with his students and understand how to help them to learn.
  • B found the on-demand sessions very useful. She worked at her own pace, going back over information again and again until she had a deep understanding of the concept. However, she found the social isolation difficult and wanted confirmation that her solutions were correct. She used the live tutorials to address this by asking for specific questions from the on-demand sessions to be addressed in the live tutorials, and by making email contact (via her tutor) with students whom she observed in tutorials to have a similar level of understanding but greater confidence.

Conclusion

Flexibility and autonomy are fundamental to connectivism, and digital learning provides the perfect environment in which to support learners in making their own choices. Our evidence suggests that the Canterbury Christ Church University subject knowledge enhancement course successfully utilises the opportunities provided by the online learning environment. The learning materials are designed to provoke interactive dialogue, the audits and gap analysis support students in making choices to personalise the course to their needs, and the content of on-demand sessions creates an interactive dialogue within an asynchronous context. The role of tutor is changed from didactic pedagogue to challenging provocateur, through the environment provided by the online tutorials and other communication with students, and they provoke internal and group debate (addressing issues such as the isolation experienced by student B) and develop students’ subject knowledge and confidence (such as the way in which student D was able to turn his initial feelings of intimidation into a professional asset). This development of confidence stands out in the examples of how students have taken advantage of the flexible autonomy provided by the course to develop their subject knowledge.

Certain aspects of our course design remain challenging, and some students still report a sense of isolation (suggesting not enough group or tutor contact) or intimidation (suggesting too much or an overly instructive contact). Understanding the diverse nature of our students’ views on this environment and continuing to personalise their learning experience is thus something we can continue to reflect on.

References

Brookfield S (2005) The Power of Critical Theory for Adult Learning and Teaching. Maidenhead: Open University Press.

Brookfield SD (2017) Becoming a Critically Reflective Teacher. London: John Wiley & Sons.

Downes S (2012) Connectivism and Connective Knowledge: Essays on Meaning and Learning Networks. Ontario: National Research Council Canada.

Kop R and Hill A (2008) Connectivism: Learning theory of the future or vestige of the past? The International Review of Research in Open and Distributed Learning 9(3): 69–81.

Osberg D and Biesta G (2008) The emergent curriculum: Navigating a complex course between unguided learning and planned enculturation. Journal of Curriculum Studies 40(3): 313–328.

Thomas G (2011) A typology for the case study in social science following a review of definition, discourse, and structure. Qualitative Inquiry 17(6): 511–521.

Vygotsky LS (1980) Mind in society: The Development of Higher Psychological Processes. USA: Harvard University Press.

Yin RK (2009) Case Study Research: Design and Methods (Applied Social Research Methods). London and Singapore: Sage.

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