Mott & Wiley, 2009 – About that last paragraph…

by ajc

January 3, 2010

I spent 3 months tutoring a middle school student during my senior year of high school, and ever since I’ve believed that the one-on-one, face-to-face environment is uniquely suited for instruction. These feelings have been reinforced, my interest piqued once more, as I have read about cognitive apprenticeship and Rogoff’s Apprenticeship in Thinking. Vygotsky, in his work Thought and Language is fairly direct in his criticism of society’s disregard for what students might be able to accomplish with others

…even the most profoundest thinkers never questioned the assumption; they never entertained the notion that what children can do with the assistance of others might be in some way more indicative of their mental development than what they can do alone (p. 85).

He then instructs the reader as to the qualities of what he deems “good instruction”.

Therefore the only good kind of instruction is that which marches ahead of development and leads it; it must be aimed not so much at the ripe as at the ripening functions (p. 188).

Here he alludes to his well known Zone of Proximal Development, and the fact that students need to be pushed just beyond what they are able to do on their own. Daniel Willingham makes a similar point early in his new book Why Don’t Students Like School.

Working on problems that are of the right level of difficulty is rewarding, but working on problems that are too easy or too difficult is unpleasant (Kindle Edition, 310).

Recently, I’ve made the point that monitoring this sort of thing in a classroom of 20-30 students requires that we classify instruction as complex in nature. My reverence for the tutoring paradigm is so great that I’ve focused my inquiries on ways of using technology to generate time for teachers and students to meet face-to-face. Today I read Open for Learning: The CMS and the Open Learning Network, an article in the first edition of the open journal in education written by Jon Mott and David Wiley. They suggest that social networks might be able to replicate Bloom’s 2-Sigma Effect, which demonstrates that tutored individuals outperform their peers by +2 standard deviations. They begin with a critique of course management systems, predicated on three assertions.

  • CMSs reinforce artificial time constraints
  • CMSs are teacher-centric, as instructors control both content and direction
  • CMSs isolate students from the outside (real) world

Instead of relying so heavily on CMSs, Mott et al. suggest that universities utilize open learning networks, described as the middle ground between PLEs and CMSs. In an OLN,

faculty, students and support staff would reap the benefits of enterprise, networked software for authentication, identity management, integration with SISs, etc. Additionally, they would be able to use a vast range of Web 2.0 apps, integrated into the OLN via web services and other sorts of integrations.

I find this to be a practical, if evolutionary, suggestion. The authors’ argument that students understand that their work within the CMS environment will not be added to or viewed after their course, and that this knowledge depresses the desire to contribute is believable. There is no question that CMSs act primarily as a conduit for the transmission of content, and that teachers make the majority of the instructional decisions. Their failure, however, to acknowledge the existence synchronous/asynchronous forms of communication, collaborative writing modules (wikis), and the ability to share/comment on files, is unfortunate. However, it is their second-to-last sentence that I find most surprising. (The entire paragraph is included for context.)

While the CMS tends to reinforce the knowledge-transfer model, long deemed the best and only way to teach large groups of students, the OLN poses as an intriguing alternative. Instead of limiting ourselves to knowledge transfer, we can leverage the affordances of the web to uncover content, to help students become more than just temporarily knowledgeable about a subject. We can do so by approximating — and perhaps even surpassing — the efficacy of one-to-one learning relationships. As the tradition-preserving CMS gives way to the OLN and the learning affordances it brings with it, Bloom’s challenge may finally be met.

In general, research tells us that tutoring is not homogeneous in application (some tutoring is better than others), that the act of tutoring is beneficial (one learns as they teach), and that tutoring is a skill (it can be learned and improved upon). Yet, here – one sentence from the end of their paper – Mott & Wiley suggest that implementing OLNs will “approximate – and perhaps even surpass – the efficacy of one-to-one learning relationships”? Isn’t this a rather bold statement?

Tutoring’s ability to produce positive results might be attributed to a variety of features. From a behavioral perspective, one might point to the benefits of being able to interpret both verbal (inflection, hesitation) and non-verbal cues as a session unfolds. A cognitivist might suggest that the intimacy of the environment requires that each participant is attentive, this facilitating thought processes (activation of long-term memory, combination of new information with activated LTM in working memory). The teacher might simply say that they are able to monitor the learner’s ability and knowledge more closely and accurately. Regardless of the perspective, tutoring remains unique; a simple and uncommonly effective instructional technique, rooted in the history of the apprenticeship, but generally impractical.

As I said initially, I agree with much of what the authors have to say. I don’t like CMSs, and my vision of what online learning should be is even more liberal than what they suggest. I don’t have a answer to the 2-Sigma question. (I don’t know if there is an answer.) That doesn’t mean that replacing CMSs with OLNs is unwise, or would not be beneficial. But, introducing such a bold, unsubstantiated prognostication two lines from the end of a scholarly work serves no purpose.

Comments and/or critiques are welcomed.