The Relationship Assumption

Joshua Kim’s latest post on 7 EdTech Assumptions has a lot of fodder for discussion, but one of the assumptions that really struck a nerve for me was “the relationship assumption.”

He writes,

This is the idea that authentic learning is inherently relational. That a valuable learning experience is one based on personal interaction, mentorship and coaching between an educator and a learner. … what is valuable is not information (which has become commoditized), but the degree to which learning takes place in the context of relationship between educators and learners. Embedded in this relationship assumption is the twin idea that postsecondary education is valuable beyond the credential, and that authentic education does not conform to the economics of the Web.

I think what Joshua writes rings true– that this is a implicit and unexamined assumption, but it feels so true. I think a challenge that we all have when talking about broad assumptions is that in higher ed we tend to group “educational experiences” as a monolithic construct when, in fact, post-secondary education can include remedial courses, introductory courses, courses for professional licensure, graduate courses (which may or may not lead to licensure), seminars, professional development workshops, etc etc.

Not all of these educational experiences serve the same purpose. I often think of my brother’s stated expectations of why he went to law school instead of studying for the bar independently. To really loosely paraphrase (since this exchange occurred years ago), he explained that he expected the law school to provide a rigorous curriculum that laid out for him the critical components that would be necessary for success and that he would receive regular feedback throughout the program. This stuck with me because, although it may seem obvious to many who have worked in education, at the time that he shared this years ago, it resonated that central to what defines an educational experience is opportunities for feedback and an expectation that the feedback will align with external measures (e.g., employers’ level of skill expectation, professional organization standards). And, at the time, particularly in instructional design, much of the focus is on the preparation of the instructional materials from learning objectives to assessments. However, we don’t spend a whole lot of time on what comprises good feedback and very little of it when we do is based on research on feedback. (A go-to article for a helpful framework for thinking about the role of feedback in instruction is Nicol & McFarlane‘s piece). This is a problem.

There is also something challenging about the term “authentic education.” Certainly, a lot of education is about developing critical thinking and specific cognitive subject area expertise, which can occur anywhere– it doesn’t need to happen sitting in a classroom. I’m not sure I would characterize the majority of classroom-based learning “authentic” where there is complex performance skill that is being learned, by its very essence or removing learners from the context of practice in most cases. And “authentic” learning experiences, such as internships or residencies, come with their own challenges– they are expensive and they are imperfect in the feedback loop to learners, as experts are often not the best teachers, as tacit knowledge is often hard to articulate to others.

Also, for plenty of instructional contexts, computer-based learning IS the authentic context. It’s not an accident that the first MOOCs were connected to developing computer science based skills. And one of my favorite simulations that I worked on in grad school was a simulation for medical residents to practice performing laparascopic surgery. What was most relevant and authentic was that that the simulation was the context since the simulation mirrored the experience in the operating room, which would be conducted using the same type of visual display.

The part of this that feels the most true is that there is a human element to education and learning and that wherever that is leveraged–whether in a classroom experience where the social value is as much in the relationship between peers as it with experts, mentors, and instructors or on the internet where there is an overwhelming availability of “community” and finding meaningful relationships takes a different kind of work. Technology creates different boundaries and mediation of these relationships, but behind the bytes there are real connections. The technologies we have created are placing new demands on relationship, presence, interaction, and communication. Also, the traditional conceptualization of what “works” in learning is protected by those for whom it served their needs quite well. There are a lot of people out there in the world, though, for whom traditional education has not resulted in any authentic learning at all– and what we really should be striving for is a multiplicity of opportunities that feel authentic to a variety of learners.

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