Increasing Teachers’ Capacity for Innovative Learning Pedagogies
By Professor Peggy A. Ertmer, Learning Design and Technology (Purdue University

Professor Peggy A. Ertmer gave a prestige lecture on April 27, 2016, at the University of Canterbury’s College of Education on innovative pedagogies, and I was pleased to attend and hear her reiterate several of the points I have been encountering in my research on changes in education. Here are some notes from her lecture (available online).

Professor Ertmer opened by explaining that her background was as a former primary school and special education teacher. She now looks at case-based and problem-based learning and Web 2.0 technologies. She said that New Zealand is currently interested in learning spaces and how they impact on learning. The Ministry of Education in 2015 stated that good spaces enable but do not guarantee good educational outcomes.

Fullan and Langworthy (2014) refer to the mindset of Deep Learning, “irresistibly engaging learning” and a “learning partnership between and among students and teachers”. Who wouldn’t want to have learning described as irresistibly engaging? But she said that changes must come in the context of Evolution not Revolution. It’s difficult and takes time. Teachers are often overwhelmed by the magnitude of changes required, even teachers who want to change. Those who don’t want to change are presumably even more overwhelmed. Ertmer emphasized that it is about baby steps and helping teachers develop teaching ‘moves’ that support inquiry-based learning. Speer (2008) looks at focusing professional development at the strategy level rather than the philosophical or belief level to increase effectiveness.

Example 1: Questioning Strategies looked at the different types of questions that teachers can ask and how they affect learning. Teachers’ questions serve as a model for students, so asking questions that are at higher levels on Bloom’s taxonomy can be an effective strategy for deepening learning. In a case study on middle school and digital literacy, 35 teachers were hired to serve as digital literacy coaches to improve the questioning/thinking skills of both teachers and students. It moves the classroom discourse away from IRE (initiate-respond-evaluate) pattern and teachers in positions of authority to more of a facilitative interaction. Higher-level questions tend to be more open (McNeill and Pimentel 2010).

Example 2: Impact of Question Prompts looked at question prompts in online discussion forums. Research shows the dominance (75-80%) of low-level discussion posts among students in online discussions. Her co-authored article “Designing effective question prompts to facilitate critical thinking in online discussions” (P. Ertmer, Sadaf, & D. Ertmer 2011) examined higher-level questions and responses and the need for additional coaching or scaffolding to support students’ thinking. It is not enough to put a higher-level question online and expect students to give higher-level answers.

Example 3: Being an Engaged Facilitator drew from her co-authored article “Facilitated vs. non-facilitated online case discussions” (Ertmer & Koehler 2015) and looked at the difference it can make when an online discussion is facilitated well. Yew & Schmidt (2012) support the idea that active facilitator participation supports deeper comprehension on the part of students. There is a need to ask probing questions, to clarify questions or misconceptions, and to prompt students to go beyond simple solutions and surface interpretations. Ertmer admitted that she sometimes assumes that everyone in a teaching role knows how to best facilitate discussions, but in reality they may lack these skills (whether that be new adjuncts who don’t have experience or seasoned teachers who do not believe it is necessary for them to monitor or interfere with online student discussions). But she has found that when discussion is facilitated in an intentional and active way, it occurs on a deeper level, is of higher quality, and includes more details.

There is another issue and that is that teachers have different ideas about what active facilitation looks like. She referenced Lewandowski et al. (2016) in “Posting with intentionality in online instruction”. When asked, teachers talked about logistics, that is, they mentioned lots of posts about due dates and reminders as connoting activity. However, it seems counter to the aim of education that the least frequent posts on the part of the teacher were about content. Teachers were varied in their participation as well, with some doing it based on a set quantity (ex. I will post twice a week or will respond once to every student) or other sometimes arbitrary measurement. Some of the strategies seemed to be more about creating a certain feel of online community, but were not necessarily deepening the learning.

Example 4: Types of Facilitation Prompts dealt with several different kinds of prompts that an instructor might use in an online discussion: logistical, process, subject matter, application, and affective. Ertmer only had a brief amount of time to go over these, and it would be worthwhile to look more in depth at when each type might be effective for increasing learning and engagement with the material. She discussed her co-authored digital tutorial (“Post with Intentionality: A tutorial for online instructors” openly available online) to support intentional use of specific discussion prompts by instructors. It was developed with Articulate Storyline and designed to be short and simple to increase uptake and use.

Her conclusion was that changing teachers’ practice is a slow process that depends on early small successes. She reminded us that her experiences have largely been in small sections with 15-20 students and might need adjusting for larger groups. When asked about the impact of the digital tutorial, she said that it was hard to measure beyond anecdotes, but some instructors said it was reinforcing what they already knew (so it is good they are picking up the information somewhere else previously). She said that online education is in the strategic plan for something around 70% of universities, so it makes sense to look at how instructors are teaching online and what they need to be prepared to translate activities to the digital sphere.