Transforming Business Education Through Connected Learning – Part 1

In both campus and online environments, the massification of business education has privileged didactic forms of teaching (Hornsby and Osman, 2014), both for the economies of scale they generate (magnification) and their capability to be repeated at scale to ever increasing cohort sizes (multiplication). The deployment of didactic teaching and learning through pedagogical approaches such as large-scale lectures, the use of casualised tutors and auto-marked assessment is cost-effective for universities looking for financial strategies to maximise margin and enhance throughput (Msiza et al., 2020). Technology has exponentially enhanced the capabilities to deliver business education at scale, supporting the increase in class sizes, expanding the deployment of asynchronous pre-recorded lectures, and delivering larger scale small-group tutorials delivered through social media-like platforms. These methods became de rigueur during the pandemic, first as emergency response teaching and then as the pandemic continued to disrupt higher education, through the emergence of hybrid or hyflex learning.

Learning spaces and scale

Delivery at scale is not a simpler or cheaper way to deliver education, as some of the public political discourse suggests (see the January 2022 statements made by the Secretary of State for Education, Nadhim Zahawi in the UK, inferring that online learning might be perceived through the lens of value for money by students). The technology required comes at significant cost and rests on the functions required of physical teaching spaces and their virtual LMS cousins. Lecture theatres grow bigger, with considerations such as sight lines, effective voice reinforcement, ceiling to floor ratios and people movement in and out of the space trumping (or defining) the pedagogical imperatives required of the rooms. The technology and the spaces they inhabit, design out variation of experience, compromise the capability to be interactive over didactic and by virtue of their architecture, focus attention and status on the teacher at the front of the room (or on the stage). Smaller rooms used for seminars and tutorials replicate the same architectural framing through clear identification and privileging of the spaces for teachers, leaving both the voice and the presence of students lost in the amorphous audience. Virtual spaces use roles such as moderator, approver, and teacher to create lines of separation and demarcation between the teacher and the student which don’t explicitly curtail interactivity or co-design but set out expectations and power relationships that influence their effectiveness.

This complex ecosystem of massified business teaching and learning design and delivery practices can limit the social experience of learning and the materiality of the experience, re-locating it to learning spaces inside and outside the campus, where self-directed learning, and the intersections of life, work, play, and learning reside. Some students experience a profound sense of social isolation in this at-scale learning environment (Gibbs et al., 1996). The limitations of space on campus, the commercialisation of learning commons and the fragmentation of the timetable can shatter their exposure to and connection with other students. The teaching at scale classroom becomes a site for passive reception of knowledge and fleeting connections in large groups, focused on the teacher, with their social media networks becoming the place for the creation of personal ecosystems of engagement and relationship building.

Photo by Clay Banks on Unsplash

What is connected learning?

Connected learning has emerged in the literature and in practice as a way of embedding the social engagements and networks of teaching and learning within a classroom or facilitated by technology and motivated by the interests of the students (Ito et al., 2013). Meaningful and lasting learning is derived from the shared interests or enthusiasms of the connected learner having opportunities to build and sustain relationships (Ito et al., 2020). Siemens (2004) extends the creation and fostering of relationships (through connectivism) by clustering these areas of interest into a community of shared dialogue and thinking. Unlike didactic learning, connected learning is a not a passive form of learning. Connected learning requires students to have choice and agency over the connections they make, how they will leverage those relationships and how they hybridise space to support embodied learning (Bilandzic and Foth, 2016; Fung, 2017).

Connected learning requires business students to engage actively through teaching, learning and assessment, motivated by both the engagement in interpersonal networks and seeding of the intrinsic benefit of learning through them. Learners take those networks out of the classroom and into their informal learning spaces, their life and work and their learning outside of the classroom (Dillenbourg et al., 2009). These types of connected learning experiences intersect personal, professional and educational lives in complex and personally defined and managed ways affording students the opportunity to make and share identity and to tell the stories of their lives to who they choose (Clark and Rossiter, 2008). Connected learning inhabits conversations, reflections, casual and fleeting connections, ambitions and expectations that are not always located in the classroom or even on campus (Bryant, 2015, 2019; Hare, 2018). Students make choices about the complex relationships they enter into informed by how academic endeavour and activity shapes personal and professional identity within the interconnectedness of life, work, study and play (Lairio et al., 2013).

How does connected learning enhance critical outcomes for business students?

Connections are critical for a business education. They have been at the core of successful MBA programs where the networks formed during the program are lasting and are valued by the students involved (Konrad et al., 2017). Group work is a common form of assessment, as it replicates work-like interactions, and at scale provides for the effective use of resources for marking. The use of methodologies like problem-based learning are enhanced where students find connections and commonalities to solve the problems posed. But these connected experiences do not directly determine how the curriculum should be designed, the teaching and learning approaches or the efficacy of the assessment and feedback. There are significant challenges to designing and delivering a fully integrated connected learning approach, that if cracked provide deep, lasting and productive benefits to students, and enhance the capabilities and capacities of teachers.   

Back in 2010, Tapscott and Williams argued that students were boycotting the traditional pedagogies of university, arguing that the university of the 21st century will not be a tower, but rather a network, comprised of learners, academics, the community, industry and more broadly those who generate and make content and knowledge. Employers are equally seeking job-ready graduates with a range of trans-disciplinary skills including collaboration, teamwork, resilience and being able to work with others (Bratianu et al., 2020). Business education also rewards students for engaging in learning that develops critical transdisciplinary skills, that resonate longer than the acquisition of that ‘first job’ and through into a successful career, capable of being applied to different contexts and shared with others. John Seely Brown noted that:

‘…it’s through participation in communities that deep learning occurs. People don’t learn to become physicists by memorizing formulas; rather it’s the implicit practices that matter most. Indeed, knowing only the explicit, mouthing the formulas, is exactly what gives an outsider away. Insiders know more. By coming to inhabit the relevant community, they get to know not just the “standard” answers, but the real questions, sensibilities, and aesthetics, and why they matter.’ (Brown, 2001, p.68)

The challenge for designers of business education curriculum and teaching/learning is to design experiences that embed the opportunity to build and leverage connections to engage in learning through collaboration, develop critical skills of network formation inside and outside the classroom and shift the dynamic away from a singular didacticism where networks are formed around and through the teacher. Successful connected learning requires learner-centric teaching at scale that leverages sociality and connection and increases student achievement of higher order skills, whilst maintaining the economic and institutional benefits of scale.

Key question leading into part 2

How do educational and learning designers transition didactic pedagogies, reliant on content delivered one -to-many, with often singular student participation, delayed from the point of delivery into fragmented and remote spaces that can be consumed in a disengaged and distant way, to connected learning approaches, where information is interactive and engaging and creates opportunities for learning that is collaborative and connected and agnostic of the spaces where learning resides?

Feature image by JJ Ying on Unsplash

Published by Peter Bryant

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

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