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Tasks, practices and curriculum design

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Joe Nicholls
13 January 2013

A rather long stream of thought I'm afraid - I felt the need to do a bit of a brain dump…

The approach we're exploring, within the context of the Digidol Project at Cardiff University, is to focus on tasks and practices as potentially useful constructs  for anchoring applicable services (content, tools, people, processes) and relevant educational opportunities.

Educators tend to make assumptions about the learning literacies students are able to apply, for example, the extent to which they know how to find and retrieve relevant content, are able to manage and work with different kinds of data, can author appropriate kinds of documents and create different types of media, and so on.

I think it's safe to say that it's most commonly the case, when presenting students with learning opportunities, that lecturers rarely specify or provide direct support for the kinds of the tasks (other than those that are discipline/subject specific, e.g., using laboratory equipment or bespoke experimental software) learners should perform in their pursuit of subject knowledge and skills.
For a conventional course, it is the body of knowledge and skills that the domain/discipline expert wishes to enable students to develop that is the primary driver and motivation for teaching and learning. It is this knowledge domain that creates the substrate and contexts (stimulating interest in and catalysing motivation for study) that shapes the design of learning opportunities. The development of learning literacies isn't something at the forefront of a student's mind, or of staff for that matter.

By making more explicit the kinds of tasks people perform in the course of their learning it should be possible to make the learning literacies that could/should be developed more obvious. Well that's the germ of the idea anyway.

The rational for taking this approach is the belief that the development of learning literacies (encompassing digital literacies, information literacies and academic literacies - as well as acknowledging that there are many other kinds of literacy constituting a broad spectrum of interrelated knowledge and skills) is highly specific to an individual and the contexts in which they learn and work.

With this in mind, I don't think it makes sense to try and review or assess individual performance by reference to some kind of standard description of 'level of skill' or make comparisons with the practice  or judged competence of others who are learning/working in a quite different area. What works well for one person for a given situation/purpose, won't necessarily be the case for someone else, let alone a whole class or cohort or students. The challenge is how best to create flexible opportunities and present people with choice in way they can go about learning their learning literacies - I'd like to know more about how curriculum and learning design methodologies might accommodate this.

For me, the issue is to what extent a prescribed curriculum will work to cater for a broad range of people who all differ in the degree to which their literacies are developed and the range of contexts in which they might be developed and applied.

So, what if there isn't any single overarching knowledge domain that all learners have a vested interest in? This is precisely the situation facing Professional Services staff. There is no single all encompassing topic or issue that everyone identifies with and that would provide a unifying theme or bring cohesion for to curriculum and at a stroke provide everyone with a sense of common purpose and motivation.

A suggested approach is to identify tasks/practices that are meaningful and commonly performed, such as meetings, presenting, team and group working, writing, task/time management, synchronous communications, etc. and use these as the basis for introducing learning opportunities geared towards developing learning literacies - and the challenge would be doing this across many varied contexts.

For example, how might we go about developing appropriate  digital, information and academic literacies to improve practices associated with presenting for a group of people drawn from Human Resources, Research Support, IT Services, Library Services, Careers and Employability service, and a Lecturer in undergraduate Chemistry? The learning activity would have to be designed flexibly enough to allow participants to incorporate pertinent aspects of their own context of work/learning.

It's possible to consider tasks/practices at a high level of abstraction, for example, searching for data and information, managing data/information, manipulating data/information, producing data/information, sharing data/information, and then at a greater level of detail and granularity, for example, searching for copyright free images, managing meeting minutes, manipulating social media usage data, creating a video, and sharing presentation slides, etc. As the degree of task specificity increases the need to contextualise and make it meaningful increases. For example, enabling someone to develop their knowledge and skills to be able to locate, select and retrieve copyright free photos and utilise them appropriately as a visual for a presentation, needs to be facilitated in a manner where the learner to able to bring their own challenge and context.

At these various levels of description it should be possible to represent aspects of common work and learning tasks that we all perform at sometime or other. The question is whether it is possible to create a comprehensive framework of tasks that link through to illustrative practices, that can then be used to explore and try out new ways of thinking and doing through exploring available services and educational activities mapped to them.

I'm interested to explore to what extent this approach might be accommodated by curriculum and learning design methodologies, i.e., where there isn't a clearly identifiable subject area to create a course structure.

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