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Adventures in learning

Turn students into explorers and take learning past recitation and recall, says education expert

March 7, 2011

Let’s say you have to teach a dozen college freshmen how to whip up a batch of chocolate éclairs, and the extent of their culinary experience up to now has been stirring Honey Nut Cheerios into lowfat yogurt.

You can stand in front of the group and tell them how to do it while they sit at their desks and copy it down. Then you can give them a multiple choice test to see if they remember the recipe.

George Veletsianos

Dr. George Veletsianos

Or you can provide computers with Internet access and have them search for éclair recipes, choosing one that seems promising based on cooking principles they’ve learned from a cooking science scholar who spoke to the group. They also could use the computer to watch Parisian pastry chefs demonstrate classic cooking techniques and ask the experts questions during the demonstration.

Then the students could go select the cooking ingredients and try their hand at preparing the dish while they receive instant feedback, via the Internet and a webcam, from chefs who’ve successfully made the dessert.  After making the dish, the budding chefs could blog about their experiences and communicate online with cooking school students around the country, sharing some of the éclair recipes that were successful, as well as tips on how to tweak and improve the recipes that more or less went down in flames.

Notice how, with that second approach, the students are likely to learn more than just the recipe and the teacher doesn’t put a cap on what they learn? That’s actually a good thing.

According to University of Texas at Austin Professor George Veletsianos and other top education scholars, the most meaningful learning occurs when students become an active part of the whole process and become investigators and explorers, collecting data and searching for answers and solutions. In a class where this is happening, the instructor designs learning environments that are supported and amplified by technology. There aren’t restrictions on how much can be learned and the teacher’s more of a very skilled guide and supporter than disseminator of bite-sized, pre-packaged factoids.

Aaron Doering sits in a tent working on his laptop during a GoNorth! Arctic expedition
Veletsianos was introduced to adventure learning when he worked with Dr. Aaron Doering, the architect of adventure learning, on a GoNorth! Arctic expedition. GoNorth! links up explorers, teachers and students from around the world to answer a ‘big’ science-related question such as “Why are the world’s oceans important to us all?”.

“I’m very interested in how to use emerging technologies and pedagogies to design engaging and powerful online learning experiences,” said Veletsianos, who’s an assistant professor in the College of Education‘s Department of Curriculum and Instruction. “We know that technology’s often used in familiar ways in education, in ways that support the status quo.

“But in my work, I try to break away from that mold and rethink the role of technology, role of the teacher and role of the student. The teacher becomes someone who orchestrates rich, exciting, challenging learning situations and is adept at tapping the potential of online networks and contemporary technology. The student generates valuable knowledge and participates in worthwhile activities. And technology transforms and extends the work that these individuals do.”

Back in 2004, when Veletsianos was a graduate student at the University of Minnesota, he had the good fortune to be introduced to a new educational approach called “adventure learning,” which is one approach to inquiry-based, hands-on, technology-supported education. It’s the kind of learning that teaches students how to think rather than simply how to recite, report and recall. Veletsianos was able to work closely with the pioneer of adventure learning and has over the last decade become a well-known national expert on the topic himself.

“I had a really dramatic first experience with adventure learning,” said Veletsianos. “I was able to join Dr. Aaron Doering, an architect of adventure learning, and a program called GoNorth! to research online learning environments that are based on and built around Arctic expeditions. These expeditions are followed, via technology, by students and teachers around the world.

Screen grab from George Veletsianos' blog
To demonstrate the ease with which adventure learning can be implemented as well as some of the technology resources that can be used, Veletsianos turned his blog post about biking around Austin on a Saturday into an adventure learning experience.

“It’s not that there weren’t any teachers offering active learning experiences or instructors using technology in creative ways before the dawn of adventure learning, but adventure learning represents the first time the process was formalized and informed, down to the last detail, by scrupulous research. Adventure learning requires a well-researched, inquiry-based curriculum, collaboration between all of the participants, media and materials that students receive regularly and at frequent intervals from scientists and researchers in the field, and specific pedagogical guidelines.”

In the case of GoNorth!, which has arranged annual educational expeditions to remote Arctic locations since 2004, the learning takes place around a few central “big” questions that relate to the travel destination. For example, a few years ago, scientists, teachers and students set out to answer the question, “What is climate change?” through a GoNorth! adventure.

Teachers, students and experts around the world collected data from their own regions and used authentic, real-time reports from the explorers, as well as the adventure learning curriculum and resources, to learn natural and social sciences. The participants were able to share their findings with one another in online photo albums, webcasts, blogs, movies and interactive maps. One team from the circumpolar Arctic even paddled along the shores of British Columbia and Washington State, reporting daily in journals and with audio and video on the sights and sounds that they encountered as they investigated climate change.

“This sort of large-scale version of adventure learning typically includes exploration and inquiry by an expedition team to some remote location -– Alaska, Australia, wherever –- and the experts share their findings as they happen,” said Veletsianos. “Along with the students, they predict and investigate outcomes.

“Teachers interested in using adventure learning will want to have the option of doing it in a more modest way and implementing it with more ease and frequency, so I’ve begun to study how it can be scaled down and still deliver the same benefits. In the fall of 2010 I and a small group of instructional technology graduate students teamed up with a large, introductory sociology class -– the Study of Society — here on campus to see if the adventure learning approach could help the students experience what it’s like to be a sociologist.”

Veletsianos and instructional technology graduate students Gregory Russell, Cesar Chavez Navarrete and Janice Rios ventured out into Austin to ask the man -– and woman –- on the street, “What’s the role of the teacher?” and collect anecdotes from interviewees about some of their most memorable teachers. Veletsianos named the project “YoTeach.Us,” and he and his team designed and developed a set of online environments where YoTeach.Us data were gathered and posted over three weeks. The sociology students watched and commented on the interview responses, while also collaborating on related tasks assigned to them.

“The goal was to give the sociology students an accurate approximation of authentic sociology field research,” said Navarrete. “In addition to gathering interviews in Austin, we also solicited responses from instructors around the country. We received a substantial number of audio and video submissions, ending up mainly with YouTube interviews -– and we’re still taking responses. The result was an impressive collection of sociological perspectives gathered around one ‘big question’ that a real sociologist might actually address, and this body of data will likely continue to grow.”

Even though online education tends to be associated with passive instruction, our work and research show how you can capitalize on the power of creative pedagogies and social-oriented technologies to design incredible, lively learning opportunities, whether these are for kindergarten through high school classes or for higher education. George Veletsianos

Next, the sociology students broke up into teams to launch independent explorations of a sociological issue of their choice. They conducted interviews, analyzed print and digital media, created video recordings, researched, blogged and produced digital analyses of their research.

Navarrete, Russell and graduate student Anita Harvin assisted the sociology students by developing and sharing a set of tutorials for online technologies like Bubblr, GoAnimate, Pixton, StoryBird, VoiceThread and BlogSpot. They also worked directly with each team to help the amateur sociologists figure out how best to integrate the technology.

Veletsianos hopes to build a substantial online portfolio of adventure learning projects, similar to YoTeach.Us, that any kindergarten through 12th grade or university instructor can access, use or replicate. Also, university instructors will be able to use the YoTeach.Us videos to lead their pre-service teachers in a study of instructors’ roles in the classroom.

“Even though online education tends to be associated with passive instruction,” said Veletsianos, “our work and research show how you can capitalize on the power of creative pedagogies and social-oriented technologies to design incredible, lively learning opportunities, whether these are for kindergarten through high school classes or for higher education.”

Students tend to share Veletsianos’ enthusiasm for interactive technology and for adventure learning, using words and phrases like “real-life,” “meaningful” and “engrossing” to describe adventure learning. The word “fun” crops up an awful lot, too.

“I hope adventure learning eventually just becomes synonymous with ‘good teaching’ and that at some point it’s what everyone is doing,” said Dee Davis, a middle school science teacher. “It’s not unimportant that our students remember the War of 1812 was in 1812 and can repeat a two-sentence definition of photosynthesis, but, honestly, if I were looking to hire an engineer, computer scientist, teacher, marketing consultant –- whatever –- I’d want the adventure learner. I’d want somebody who’d learned how to think, solve problems and create things that didn’t exist before.”

For more information, contact: Kay Randall, College of Education, 512 471 6033;
Photo of George Veletsianos: Marsha Miller