Transforming Business Education Through Connected Learning – Part 2

Part 1 of this blog series posed several critical questions for business educators: How do designers and educators move away from the didactic pedagogies that teaching-at-scale can privilege and towards a more social, connected pedagogy? How do we design an education that counters the pedagogical influence of institutional space, systems, and expectations that ‘rust on’ one-to-many teaching models? How do we design experiences that help students to make, use and leverage connections to develop employable graduates and leaders for good?

A connected learning ecosystem

This post will look at the approaches taken by the University of Sydney Business School (USBS) over the past three years and accelerated by the hybridisation, online delivery, and rapid pivoting of the pandemic to design a connected learning approach at scale, through the deployment of challenge-based curricula and assessment and a deeper understanding of what we mean by connected learning in the context of business education. Part 3 will explore the pedagogical, delivery and assessment strategies that have been implemented as part of our Business School model of connected learning.

Business education at scale pre-2020

Pre-pandemic, our largest group experiences were essentially didactic, delivered one to-many in cavernous lecture theatres and repeated asynchronously as lecture recordings. Teaching at scale was by necessity a function of both magnification (how do we get more people to hear the same single source, engineered through bigger lecture theatres, passive recordings, and better audio-visuals) and multiplication (can we repeat the same thing over and over, maintaining a consistent quality of delivery across x number of repeated instances?). This is how we coped with scale. It was a quality education that produced excellent graduates with positive employment outcomes.

But it exposed risks: at what point do magnification and multiplication approaches dilute the learning experience to the point of consumption rather than engagement? Does business education delivered at scale, however revenue positive, reach a point where it risks the impacts of diseconomies of scale? Diseconomies of education at scale can take the form of decreased engagement with learning activities, performative rather than educative conduct of assessment, decreased student attendance, increased appeals and other challenges to the schema of grading and feedback, decreased student satisfaction across unit level and national metrics and in the longer term less connection and sense of community with the institution impacting alumni participation and student recruitment. Diseconomies of education at scale are existential threats to the critical factors of revenue generation and market share, being student recruitment, retention, attainment, and completion.

And then the pandemic…

Like many universities, the pandemic forced us to move most of our teaching model online, with group work undertaken in breakout rooms and lectures pre-recorded with varying degrees of asynchronous interactivity. Student participation in active learning opportunities (such as those in tutorials) were as variable as they were prior to the pandemic, made more complex with the challenges of learning through Zoom, the quality and appropriateness of students own learning spaces, the increasing pressures of balancing full-time work and full-time study and reduced extra-curricular, self-directed study and social opportunities. With students locked down through public health orders or border closures, the bonds between the students work, life, play and learning were essentially shattered, compartmentalising activity into manageable and limited chunks, in part because the spaces, devices and platforms used for learning were the same as those used for play, for work and to live their lives. The pandemic compressed choice and agency over how learning activities bled into other aspects of both students and staff lives. It also dramatically reduced mobility, with all the benefits of incidental communications, interactions, and the buzz of being in a new, different, and exciting environment replaced with dreams of what could be, what could have been and what might be.

Designing for connection

Connection is a complex human behavioural concept defined differently dependent on the context it is applied to. Connected learning is equally contextual term, used across a range of epistemological and pedagogical actions, strategies, and practices. As the Business School sought to redefine and transform business education at scale, we needed to extend connected learning past the relationships and collaborations between students activated by group work and informal classroom interaction. These are powerful and transformative experiences but bind learning to formal teaching spaces and structured assessment tasks. Whilst philosophically influenced by the works of Siemens and Downes, in our opinion connectivism as a theory struggles at scale, especially where the formation, nurturing and application of the networks are brought to bear on complex learning tasks and ambitions. For the ongoing pedagogical challenges the Business School continues to face (the pervasive impacts of scale, the unique skill sets required by business graduates to navigate a career (and not just that first job) and the lasting disruption of the pandemic) a different framing of connected learning was critical to inform our ambitions of wide-scale pedagogical change and deeply impactful transformations of the student experience.

Connected Learning. At Scale.

Connected Learning at Scale is a Business School strategic project that commenced in 2018 to transform the largest units of study in our major programs. It defines and embraces the influences, challenges, and opportunities that scale has brought to business education. Our definition of connected learning recognises the powerful affordances that come from designing a teaching and learning experience that supports students to engage, create, critique, reflect and learn in social settings across a complex ecosystem of networks and engagements. Knowledge is not simply observed or consumed. Individuals are active and collaborative participants in the construction and understanding of their knowledge through how they interact and be social with others.

Learning comes from the social acts of making, doing, and sharing actions. The knowledge and skills acquired and applied through our connected learning at scale model can be lasting, transdisciplinary and trans-contextual. The contexts in which they are applied during an education will evolve and change over the duration of a learner’s career (lives) and with it, the skills should equally adapt to new and different challenges. The Connected Learning at Scale model is a template for resonant lifelong learning in that it builds capabilities that go beyond grades and beyond the transactional nature of modern higher education. It is deeply rooted in the notion that learning is not limited by the 13-week semester and learning outcomes constructively aligned within each unit. Learning builds on the ecosystems of experiences, relationships, linkages, emotions, knowledges, and practices we engage in every day. Connections are not bi-directional or even networked, they are constantly intersecting, and the skills in navigating and leveraging that are critical to business (or life) success.

Connected Learning Ecosystem – Peter Bryant

Making, maintaining, and learning through connection is not a simple process to enable, as sociality is a complex, individual and emotional construct. Our Connected Learning at Scale model disentangles the relatively abstract notions of connection as a manifestation of sociality, network formation and at a practical level, group work on assessment and affords designer the building blocks to redesign the teaching and learning experience at scale. It locates connected learning within an ecosystem of actors, axis and actions that when embedded on curriculum, delivery and assessment support connection as sites of learning.

1. Actors – The actors in the Connected Learning at Scale model represent both the human and structural members of the network. The actors reside both inside the institution and in the communities and social structures of the members. Connection can be made within and between students, the university community, disciplines, and society. They are equal in terms of capability for learning but often unequal (and silent) regards status, power, authority etc.

2. Actions – The actions taken by the actors are the means by which learning is enacted and the network of connections is expanded inside and outside the University. The actions are both curricula, occurring through learning experiences designed and deployed in the classroom and extra-curricular, occupying the interstitial spaces of activity outside the classroom and the academy. The actions extend the network of the actors into the cascade of networks held by other actors.

3. Axis – There is not a single form or mode of connection that are made through teaching and learning. The Connected Learning at Scale model recognises the heterogeneity of how students connect with the other actors. Modes of connection extend across three different axes in the model, but these are not absolute nor are they exhaustive. Connections can be personal, where emotion and resonance inform the type of relationships being built, whilst learning can also occur where the connections are abstract, distant, and focused on a single purpose or motivation. The duration of the connection is another mode, with some connections being lasting, extending past the unit of study or the University experience and others fleeting, lasting a few minutes in a group activity or a few weeks during a semester. The final axis is the localness of the connection, whether proximity of space or interest is critical for the connection, or whether the connection resides in wider spheres, extending from the local out to the global.

The three dimensions of the Connected Learning at Scale model intersect in organic and personal ways through the design and delivery of teaching at scale. The capacity to enact these connected dimensions is limited the more didactic and one-to-many the teaching becomes. Large lecture theatres of students listening to an academic present content allows for limited (if any) capability to make connections. When reduced to smaller groups, tutorials and workshops facilitate connection effectively, curating activity undertaken collaboratively but underpinned by the necessity to replicate this activity over and over to cope with scale. The Connected Learning at Scale ecosystem extends through curriculum design in traditional programs into the design of student life projects, engagement with careers and wellbeing programs, transdisciplinary opportunities and most importantly, into and through a post-university life.

Feature image by Umberto on Unsplash

Published by Peter Bryant

Associate Dean Education and Co-Director of the Co-Design Research Group

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