Recently I have grappled with the problem of developing an online course within my VLE that uses modern thinking on pedagogy for 21st Century skills. The course I am developing is called the Design Workshop and this is the pedagogical design which underpins it.
Most online courses are attempts to provide the equivalent of classroom learning experience in an online environment. The design Workshop takes the opposite approach and seeks to use the unique features of an online environment to bring a new style of learning to the classroom.
In proceeding through the 5-6 week course students are taken through the design process towards a goal of their own. At each stage they share their progress with other participants within the online forum. After the introduction there are 5 modules representing 5 stages in the design process.
The purpose of this discussion, however, is to focus on the pedagogy. This approach could be applied to any online course.
The Design Workshop explores a pedagogy and assessment that are not practical in a traditional classroom. The pedagogy is based on a concept called ‘participatory pedagogy’, while the assessment is based on the principles of ‘assessment for learning’ and digital badges.
The pedagogical theory that the Design Workshop is based on is called Participatory Pedagogy (PP).
PP uses a collaborative and reflective process to formalize knowledge. It aims to develop transformative learning (changes in how we know) rather than informative knowledge (changes in what we know).
Successful PP contains three main elements:
1. providing choice and flexibility in learning activities and assignment work.
2. navigating the balance between challenge and risk.
3. creating contexts for critical reflection.
Students will have had little experience in learning like this. Most of their experience will be with informative learning. Given information, learn information, reproduce information.
Students familiar with the PP approach have reported that the teacher using a participatory pedagogy approach needs a range of features (quote from reference):
- Be open to the interaction thereby enabling the students to have a voice.
- Be willing to commit to the style and be an active participant yourself.
- Have courage and be willing to go outside of your teaching safety zone into new unexplored domains.
- Be frank, up front with the format, and provide encouragement to the students so they feel supported during this new learning format.
- Plan learning based on student interests and choice, and do so by collaborating with and guiding learners as opposed to informing them.
- Create an atmosphere of learning where expectation of learner action is high and modify the activities/plans to meet their needs.
- Be open, willing, and supportive to students if you are trying creative adventures because it can be a risky thing for adult learners to engage in.
- Be very comfortable with awkward pauses and strange looks, and be willing to walk students through their discomfort.
- Be humble but have a good depth of experience, both human and professional.
To be successful, therefore, a participatory pedagogy needs to be well supported by a mentor style teacher who demonstrates these qualities.
Choice and Flexibility
In the Design Workshop students will choose the design task they wish to embrace. This provides for choice and flexibility. As a result:
- They will have ownership of the task
- The task is in a context they are interested in
- Within the design process they are able to work at their own pace
- Can go into as much depth as they wish.
- Assessment/success is based on reflection and collaboration rather than comparison with external standard
Other courses using PP will need to find their own way to provide for choice and flexibility, but allowing (or forcing) students to set their own goals or topics will be one way of doing that.
Challenge and Risk
In the Design Workshop students will set their design brief/task before they embark on the solution. This has inherent challenge and risk.
- Can the task be completed?
- Do they have the skills of ability to effect a solution?
- Resilience needed to overcome problems and stalled development.
Students share their work for comment by others and comment on the work of others.
- This is a risk for students.
- Also a challenge.
- What do they say, how do they evaluate the work of others?
- This evaluation process is closer to that which they will face in the real world. Students need to feel comfortable with putting their work and opinions out there for others to see and comment on.
- Risk involved in not knowing what basis others will evaluate the work.
The higher the challenge the higher the risk. Structure provided by the design process gives a paradigm for managing the development of the solution to the design task. It provides an intellectual safety net to allow for a higher degree of risk than normally attempted.
Use of mentor or sponsor also provides for support with managing challenge and risk.
Once again other courses will need to incorporate risk, but using a forum is a method which could apply in almost any situation.
Students share their work for comment by others and comment on the work of others. This is a powerful driver for critical reflection.
- What do they say, how do they evaluate the work of others?
- Is their work ready for criticism?
- How do they respond to the criticism?
- This evaluation process is closer to that which they will face in the real world.
This process is closer to a ‘real world’ process and the structure encourages the students to reflect on their own work and provides the tools for them to do that. They begin to see their work through the eyes of others.
The use of a forum is therefore central to this pedagogy.
Assessment for Learning
Assessment can be formative or summative (or even both). Formative assessment can best be defined as an assessment which moves learning forward, while summative assessment measures learning.
The assessment used in the Design Workshop is intended to be strongly formative and is developed from principles collectively referred to as “Assessment for Learning”.
When considering formative assessment we need to think about where the learner is going, where they are now and how they will get there. This needs to be considered along with the joint responsibilities of the teacher, peers and the learner.
Leahy et al.  uses this framework to identify 5 key strategies of formative assessment.
The teacher in traditional classrooms spends a significant amount of time on content delivery, lesson planning and assessment. When a course is delivered through a VLE these roles are filled by the VLE. As a result a teacher has more time to spend in a mentoring role.
The teacher/mentor does not need to be expert in design or the skills the student requires, but they do need to fulfill some of the roles of the teacher in the formative assessment structure described above. The mentor is responsible for providing encouragement, support and advice. Clarifying the goals of the course and monitoring progress through the course. The mentor needs to be prepared to intervene as necessary to keep the learning moving forward.
The roles of peer and learner are also key in the Design Workshop. In a traditional classroom it is not easy to effectively activate peers and learners as owners and resources of learning. On the other hand educators agree that these are important steps towards students being independent learners and therefore life-long-learners. The Design Workshop makes use of the online forums throughout the course to activate students in this respect and it is important for the mentor to monitor this activity and intervene as needed to ensure that the forums are working effectively.
So what is the assessment for the Design Workshop? In a typical course there are defined outcomes which students are assessed against. But Wiliam and Leahy  point out that often a specific learning outcomes cannot be identified, rather a horizon of outcomes exist and
“…sometimes it is appropriate to do things not because they are guaranteed to result is specific learning outcomes but because they are important experiences for students”
The Design Workshop fits into this category of learning experience. Every student will be working on something different and taking a slightly different path through the course. The value of the course is the experience of designing and collaborating, so success is measured in terms of the degree to which they have engaged in that process.
For this reason, while some teachers may decide to assess the final design, it is intended that assessment focus on completion of the 5 modules and effective engagement in the forum discussion.
The primary assessment for this course is through earning digital badges. Many students are familiar with these in the context of computer gaming. A badge or trophy is awarded to the player in recognition of an achievement. The badge is designed to provoke engagement and reward success, but it is not necessarily an indication of completion. There is more discussion of how badges work at https://doncollegegrant.wordpress.com/2014/07/05/getting-started-with-digital-badges/
Badges differ from marks in that a mark is seen by students as final. If a student gets an unsatisfactory mark then they are likely to just move on. If a student does not qualify for a badge, however, they are more likely to go back and make another attempt. The badges also have clearly defined criteria for earning them, so students know exactly what they need to do to succeed.
Digital Badges are more formative than a traditional assessment and more in line with the principles of ‘assessment for learning’.
Through this discussion I have used a specific course as an example, but the principles can be applied to any online learning environment.
Technology provides for new and better ways of doing things, but in education many (most?) teaching is essentially the same process when moved online. This discussion is an attempt to describe a new pedagogy which is specific to the online environment.
 Leahy, S., Lyon, C., Thompson, M., & Wiliam, D., (2005). Classroom assessment: Minute-by-minute and day-by-day. Educational Leadership, 63(3), 18-24
 Wiliam, D., Leahy, S., (2015). Embedding Formative Assessment: Practical techniques for K-12 classrooms, pg. 29, Learning Sciences International, USA