Learning on Rails

This is the first in a couple of posts that share a theme and discuss ideas that relate to agency and autonomy in education. Some have been half baked drafts sitting in a folder – others are newer – but all seem to share some commonality that has been made more concrete by the Indi Ed-tech meetup.

If you’ve ever been inside a video arcade or bowling alley you would have seen those video games. You know, the ones with a the physical guns on them? Well I think learning is often like them.

(Not in the slaughter of innocents way, this isn’t that kind of post!)

These games deploy a type of gameplay often referred to as a Rail Shooter. The player effectively cedes control over movement in order to concentrate on a singular task – shooting wave after wave of aliens, zombies or whatever the faceless “baddies” the weak narrative is premised around. Surrendering control of movement means that the action tends to take place “on rails”. It follows a predetermined path through the game environment where the only parameter the player has any input on is the completion of the set task. Did they kill all the zombies? Yes, move on. No, game over. There is never an opportunity to diverge from the path that’s been hard coded into the game. Players can’t explore the created environment in any way. They are herded through the game facing predetermined scenarios completing set tasks and objectives.

I’m going to generalise here but I’m going to suggest that this is most people’s experience of education most of the time.

Of course there are exceptions, but they are that, exceptions. The rule is that learning occurs on rails.

Learning on Rails

Over the last decade or so there has been a greater push to standardise learning. This has led to the broad development, articulation and implementation of graduate and learning outcomes across our educational institutions. Having those goals and aspirations are a good thing for the sector – we should be able to articulate what we are trying to achieve. What has tended to be done poorly is the implementation – how are we going to achieve them?

What I think has happened is that learning has along the way been defined as a linear exercise which has led the system of education down a certain path. This exercise implies a simplicity and linearity that isn’t inherent of learning and led to the constructivist model, where learning is assembled according to instructions from elements that are designed accordingly. Learning becomes something that is linear, programmed and hard coded rather than something that is discovered, experienced or explored. This approach sees learning as a mechanised and industrialised process that paves over our organic, biological and experiential human nature.

Students are herded through the course facing predetermined scenarios completing set goals and objectives.

There is little opportunity to move beyond the defined path. Student’s can’t opt out of the tasks assigned, choose a different track or be and do anything that looks remotely like an autonomous action. No, learning in this sense is binary – you either pass or fail, graduate or drop-out. Learning is an act of consumption and not participation. Accountability and the associated metrics have come to represent success, which have become less about capturing or measuring learning and more about a complicated process being boiled down to a number. Abstraction rather than qualification. While the educational experience may seem more immersive – rich media, real time communication, mobile, apps, virtual reality – the underlying model of the students role one of passive spectatorship. They are not creators. They do not decide. They do not choose. They do not explore. “Learning” has become a process divorced from the participants.

Learning as a System

The problem with Learning on Rails as opposed to the Rail Shooters is that there is no alternative. Rail Shooters are merely a genre of games, not representative of the gaming universe. In fact what they represent is the shallowest of gaming experience, designed not to engage a player in deep and pervasive ways, but to suck coins from their pockets. They are cheap thrills and nothing more. And I wonder what does that mean for learning? Has it been reduced to just cheap thrills? Engagement in the most shallow of ways? There’s a reason Rail Shooters rarely make it to the home console where players have the time and space to dedicate – because there’s nothing really there. Nothing to explore, nothing to really achieve.

I bemoaned this kind of vision of education and the one currently being promoted in the popular media. Mainly because what it does is reinforce this passivity on the students behalf. Removed from all the choices and decisions, and despite all the whizzbang immersive technology, they are thoroughly unengaged from the learning. Why? Because in this vision learning is still seen as an exercise, a step-by-step program that any idiot can do. Learning is something you can consume. Learning comes almost via osmosis or proximity. Learning is a passive thing done to you.

Expanding the System

All this comes back in many ways to the conversations around Indie Ed-Tech and what I believe to be the underlying drivers of it – agency & autonomy.

Indie Ed-tech is infrastructure that supports scholarly agency and autonomy.

Indie adds another genre to the mix. It supports the more active approaches to learning – connectivist and rhizomatic models for example – that involve both teachers and students as participants of the learning.

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2 thoughts on “Learning on Rails

  1. Pingback: Embedding Activity in Online Learning | Heart | Soul | Machine

  2. Pingback: Soylent vs Self Regulated Learners | Heart | Soul | Machine

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