Capturing the Visible Evidence of Invisible Learning

by Randy Bass and Bret Eynon

Note: This is a synthesis essay for the Visible Knowledge Project (VKP), a collaborative project engaging seventy faculty at twenty-one institutions in an investigation of the impact on technology on learning, primarily in the humanities. As a matter of formatting to the Academic Commons space, this essay is divided in three parts: Part I (Overview of project, areas of inquiry, introduction to findings); Part II (Discussion of findings with a focus on Adaptive Expertise and Embodied Learning); Part III (Discussion of findings continued with a focus on Socially Situated learning, Conclusion). A full-text version of this essay is available as a pdf document here.

Here, in this forum as part of Academic Commons, the essay complements eighteen case studieson teaching, learning, and new media technologies. Together the essay and studies constitute the digital volume “The Difference that Inquiry Makes: A Collaborative Case Study of Learning and Technology, from the Visible Knowledge Project.” For more information about VKP, see https://digitalcommons.georgetown.edu/blogs/vkp/.

Déjà 2.0
Facebook. Twitter. Social media. YouTube.Viral marketing. Mashups. Second Life. PBWikis. Digital Marketeers. FriendFeed. Flickr. Web 2.0. Approaching the second decade of the twenty-first century, we’re riding an unstoppable wave of digital innovation and excitement. New products and paradigms surface daily. New forms of language, communication, and style are shaping emerging generations. The effect on culture, politics, economics and education will be transformative. As educators, we have to scramble to get on board, before it’s too late.

Wait a minute. Haven’t we been here before? Less than a decade ago, we rode the first wave of the digital revolution–email, PowerPoint, course web pages, digital archives, listservs, discussion boards, etc. As teachers and scholars, we dove into what is now called Web 1.0, trying out all sorts of new systems and tools. Some things we tried were fabulous. Others, not so much. Can we learn anything from that experience? What insights might we garner that could help us navigate Web 2.0? How can we separate the meaningful from the trivial? How do we decide what’s worth exploring? What do we understand about the relationship of innovations in technology and pedagogy? What can we learn about effective ways to examine, experiment, evaluate, and integrate new technologies in ways that really do advance learning and teaching?
The teaching and research effort of the Visible Knowledge Project (VKP) could be a valuable resource as we consider these questions. Active from 2000 to 2005, VKP was an unusual collective effort to initiate and sustain a discipline-based examination of the impact of new digital media on education. A network of around seventy faculty from twenty U.S. colleges, primarily from American history and culture studies departments, gathered not only to experiment with new technologies in their teaching, but also to document and study the results of their inquiries, using the tools of the scholarship of teaching and learning. In this collaborative and synoptic case study, under the title The Difference that Inquiry Makes, we try to capture and make sense of the visible evidence of this relatively invisible learning as it emerged over five (and more) years of collaborative classroom inquiry. We share participants’ reports on key elements of the VKP inquiry, and integrate their reports into a framework that can help us learn from this experience as we navigate a fast-changing educational landscape.

Invisible Learning
What do we mean by “invisible learning?” We use this phrase to mean at least two things. First, it points us to what Sam Wineburg, in his book Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts, talked about as “intermediate processes,” the steps in the learning process that are often invisible but critical to development.1 All too often in education, we are focused only on final products: the final exam, the grade, the perfect research paper, mastery of a subject. But how do we get students from here to there? What are the intermediate stages that help students develop the skills and habits of master learners in our disciplines? What kinds of scaffolding enable students to move forward, step by step? How do we, as educators, recognize and support the slow process of progressively deepening students’ abilities to think like historians and scholars? In VKP, from the beginning, we tested our conviction that digital media could help us to shine new light on–to make visible–and to pay new attention to these crucial stages in student learning.

Second, by invisible learning we also mean the aspects of learning that go beyond the cognitive to include the affective, the personal, and issues of identity. Cognitive science has made great strides in recent years, scanning the brain and understanding everything from synapses and neurons to perception and memory. Educators are still struggling to grasp the implications of this research for teaching and learning. However, perhaps because it is less “scientific,” higher education has paid considerably less attention to (and is even less well prepared to deal with) the role of the affective in learning and its relationship to the cognitive. How does emotion shape engagement in the learning process? How do we understand risk-taking? Community? Creativity? The relationship between construction of knowledge and the reconstruction of identity? In VKP we explored the ways that digital tools and processes surfaced the interplay between the affective and the cognitive, the personal and the academic.

Visible Evidence
Education at all levels has largely taken on faith that if teachers teach, students will learn–what could be seen as a remarkable, real-life version of “If you build it, they will come.” In recent years, calls for greater accountability have produced a new emphasis on standardized testing as the only appropriate way to assess whether students are learning. Meanwhile, growing numbers of faculty in higher education have taken a different approach, engaging in the scholarship of teaching and learning–using the tools of scholarship to study their own classrooms–to deepen their understanding of the learning process and its relationship to teacher practice. Spurred by the ideas of Ernest Boyer and Lee Shulman of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, faculty from many disciplines have posed research questions about student learning, gathered evidence from their classrooms, and gone public with their findings in countless conference presentations, course portfolios, and scholarly journals. This movement, with its focus on classroom-based evidence, provided key tools and language for the Visible Knowledge Project. It allowed VKP faculty to study the impact of new technologies on learning and teaching, and it also helped us frame questions about problems and practice, inquiry and expertise that remain critical as we move into a new phase of technological innovation and change.2

The Visible Knowledge Project
The Visible Knowledge Project emerged in 2000 from the juxtaposition of these two powerful yet largely distinct trends in higher education–the scholarship of teaching and learning movement and the initial eruption of networked digital technologies into the higher education classroom. Responding to a dynamic combination of need and opportunity, faculty engaged in multi-year teaching and learning research projects, examining and documenting the ways the use of new media was reshaping their own teaching and patterns of student learning. Participating faculty came from a wide range of institutions, from community colleges and private liberal arts colleges to research universities; from Georgetown and USC to Youngstown State, the University of Alabama, and City University of New York (CUNY). Meeting on an annual basis, and interacting more frequently in virtual space, we formed our research questions representing a broad spectrum, shared ideas about research strategies, discussed emerging patterns of our evidence, and formulated our findings. The digital resources used ranged from Blackboard and PowerPoint to interactive online archives and Movie Maker Pro. The VKP galleries (https://digitalcommons.georgetown.edu/blogs/vkp/) provide a wealth of background information, including lists of participants, regular newsletters, and reports from more than thirty participants, as well as a number of related resources and meta-analyses.3

The VKP ethos was formed by a belief in the value of messiness, of unfolding complexity, of adventurous, participant-driven inquiry that would inform the nature of the collective conversation. A few scientists and social scientists entered the group and helped create exciting projects, but the vast majority of the participants were from the fields of history, literature, women’s studies and other humanist disciplines. While technology was key to our raison d’être, our inquiries often evolved to focus on issues of pedagogy that transcended individual technologies. We wanted to learn about teaching, to learn about learning. We wanted to go beyond “best practice” and “what worked” to get at the questions about why and how things worked–or didn’t work. In some cases, we went further, rethinking our understanding of what it meant for something to “work.” Our questions were evolving, shaped by the exigencies of time and funding as well as our on-going exchange and new technological developments. We struggled with ways to nuance and realize our inquiries, to come up with workable methods and evidence that matched our changing and, we hoped, increasingly sophisticated questions.

Over the course of the Project, we found that participants’ teaching experiments started to group in three areas:

  1. Reading–Engaging ideas through sources/texts: As VKP took shape at the end of the twentieth century, the great museums, universities, and research libraries of this country were mounting their collections on the Web. Web sites such as the American Memory Collection of the Library of Congress vastly expanded the availability of archival source materials on the Web. It was a time, as Cathy Davidson put it recently, of digitally-driven “popular humanism.”4 Responding to this opportunity, VKP’s historians and culture studies faculty explored the effectiveness of active reading strategies using primary sources, both textual and visual, for building complex thinking. Introducing students to the process of inquiry, faculty tested combinations of pedagogy and technology designed to help students “slow down” their learning, interpret challenging texts and concepts, and engage in higher order disciplinary and interdisciplinary practices.

    For example, Susan Butler, teaching an introductory history survey at Cerritos College, had her students examine primary sources on different facets of the Trail of Tears, made available online by the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, PBS, and the Cherokee Messenger; as students grappled with perspective and the evolving definition of democracy in America, Butler examined evidence of the ways that scaffolded learning modules that incorporated online primary sources could expand students’ capacity for critical analysis. Meanwhile, Sherry Linkon at Youngstown State used online archives to help students in her English course create research papers that contextualized early twentieth-century immigrant novels. And Peter Felten at Vanderbilt integrated online texts, photographs and videos into a history course on the 1960s, analyzing the ways students did–or didn’t–apply critical thinking skills to visual evidence.Across the board, the focus was less on “searching” and “finding” than on analyzing, understanding, and applying evidence to address authentic problems rooted in the discipline. Testing innovative strategies, faculty asked students to model the intellectual behaviors of disciplinary experts, focusing earlier and more effectively on the learning dimensions that characterize complex thinking. (For sample projects addressing these questions, see http://cndls.georgetown.edu/crossroads/vkp/themes/poster_showcase_reading.htm )

  2. Dialogue–Discussion and writing in social digital environments: As VKP faculty moved into the world of Blackboard and Web-CT, they explored ways that discussion and social writing in online environments can foster learning. Projects explored strategies for using online communication to make the intermediate processes of learning more visible and to provide opportunities for students to develop personal and academic voice. For example, Mills Kelly, teaching a Western Civilization survey at Virginia’s George Mason University, focused on the possibilities of using online tools, including the WebCT discussion board and a special GMU Web Scrapbook, as tools for enhancing collaborative learning. Meanwhile, Ed Gallagher at Lehigh University tested the impact of his detailed and creative guidelines for students in prompting more interactive and substantial discussion in an online context.In general, carefully structured online discussion environments provided students and faculty a context in which to think socially; they also allowed discussion participants to document, retrieve and reflect on earlier stages of the learning process. This ability to “go meta” offered a new way for students and faculty to engage more deeply with disciplinary content and method. Highlighting the scaffolding strategies that might maximize student learning, these projects gathered evidence of learning that reflected the social and affective dimensions of these digitally-based pedagogical practices. (For sample projects, see http://cndls.georgetown.edu/crossroads/vkp/themes/poster_showcase_discussion.htm)
  3. Authorship–Multimedia construction as experiential learning: As multimedia authoring became easier to master in these years, faculty became interested not only in creating multimedia presentations and Web sites; they also sought to develop ways to put these tools into the hands of students. Many VKP scholar-teachers were guided by the constructivist notion that learning deepens when students make knowledge visible through public products. In the projects clustered here, student authorship takes place in various multimedia genres of the early twenty-first century, including digital stories and digital histories, Web sites and PowerPoint essays, historically-oriented music videos, electronic portfolios and other historical and cultural narratives. The emergent pedagogies explored by these scholar-teachers involve multiple skills, points of view, and collaborative activities (including peer critique). For example, Patricia O’Connor had her Appalachian literature students at Georgetown University create Web pages about Dorothy Allison’s Bastard Out of Carolina, annotating particular phrases and creating links to historical sources and images, while she investigated the ways that “associative thinking” shaped students’ ability to make nuanced speculations about literary texts.
    Meanwhile, Tracey Weis at Pennsylvania’s Millersville University and several faculty at California State University at Monterey Bay gathered evidence on the cognitive and emotional impact of student construction of short interpretative “films,” or what we came to call “digital stories.” Examining the qualities of student learning evidenced through such assignments, these projects spotlight issues of assessment and the need to move beyond the narrowly cognitive quiz and the critical research essay to find ways to value creativity, design, affect, and new modes of expressive complexity. (For sample projects, see http://cndls.georgetown.edu/crossroads/vkp/themes/poster_showcase_writing.htm )

Naturally, these three areas of classroom practice–critically engaging primary sources, social dialogue, and multimedia authorship–converged in all kinds of ways. Some of the richest and most intriguing projects engaged students in a scaffolded process of collaborative research and writing, laying the groundwork for multimedia-enhanced performances of their learning. Our fluid categories were defined and redefined by the creativity of our faculty as they experimented within them.

The key to faculty innovations in VKP was not merely trying new teaching strategies but looking closely at the artifacts of student work that emerged from them, not only in traditional summative products such as student writing, but in new kinds of artifacts that captured the intermediate and developmental moments along the way. What did these artifacts look like? They included video evidence of students working in pairs on inquiry questions, as well as student-generated Web archives and research logs; they included careful analysis of discussion threads in online spaces and student reflections on collaborative work; they included not only new forms of multimedia storytelling but evidence of their authoring process through interviews and post-production reflections about their intentions and their learning. One of the consequences emerging from these new forms of evidence was that, as faculty looked more closely and systematically at evidence of learning processes, those processes started to look more complex than ever. The impact of transparency, at least at first, seemed to be complexity, which can be unsettling in many ways.

Pieces of Insight
This phenomenon had a significant impact on the kinds of findings and claims that emerged from this work. We set out looking for answers (“what is the impact of technology on learning?”) and what we mostly found were limited claims about impact, new ways of looking at student learning, and often dynamic new questions. In fact, the VKP projects followed a pattern typical in faculty inquiry.  Whatever the question that initiates the inquiry, it often changes and deepens into something else. For example, Lynne Adrian (University of Alabama) started off investigating the role of personal response systems (“clickers”) in a large enrollment Humanities course to see if the use of concept questions would increase student engagement, but was soon led to reflect much more interestingly on the purpose of questions in class and the very nature of the questions she had been asking for more than twenty years. Similarly, Joe Ugoretz (Borough of Manhattan Community College), in an early inquiry, hoped to study the benefits of a free-form discussion space in an online literature course, but got frustrated because the students would frequently digress and stray off topic; finally it occurred to him that the really interesting inquiry lay in learning more about the nature of digressions themselves, considering which were productive and which were not. The changing nature of questions, and the limited nature of claims, is not a flaw of faculty inquiry but its very nature. John Seely Brown describes the inevitable way that we build knowledge around teaching: “We collect small fragments of data and struggle to capture context from which this data was extracted, but it is a slow process. Context is sufficiently nuanced that complete characterizations of it are extremely difficult. As a result, education experiments are seldom definitive, and best practices are, at best, rendered in snapshots for others to interpret.”5

Here is where the power of collaborative inquiry came into play. That is, what emerged from each individual classroom project was a piece of insight, a unique local and limited vision of the relationship between teaching and learning that yet contributed to some larger aggregated picture. We had, in the microcosm of the Visible Knowledge Project, created our own “teaching commons” in which individual faculty insights pooled together into larger meaningful patterns.6 Each of these snapshots is interesting in itself; together they composite into something larger and significant. What follows below is our effort at putting together the snapshots to create a composite image in which we recognize new patterns of learning and implications for practice.

A Picture of New Learning: Cross-Cutting Findings

Collectively, what emerged from this work was an expansive picture of learning. Although we started out with questions about technology, early on it became clear that the questions were no longer merely about the “impact of tools” on learning; the emergent findings compelled us to confront the very nature of what we recognized as learning, which in turn fed back into what we were looking for in our teaching. Over the years, faculty experienced iterative cycles of innovation in their teaching practice, of reflection on an increasingly expansive range of student learning, and of experimentation shaped by the deepening complexity (and at times befuddlement) that emerged from trying to read the evidence of that learning. From this spiral of activity developed a research framework with broad implications for the now-emergent Web 2.0 technologies. We have come to articulate this range of cross-cutting findings under the headings of three types of learning: adaptive, embodied, and socially situated.

Briefly, by adaptive learning we mean the skills and dispositions that students acquire which enable them to be flexible and innovative with their knowledge, what David Perkins calls a “flexible performance capability.”7 An emphasis on adaptive capacities in student learning emerged naturally from our foundational focus on visible intermediate processes. What became visible were the intermediate intellectual moves that students make in trying to work with difficult cultural materials or ideas, illuminating how novice learners progress toward expertise or expert-like thinking in these contexts.

Our recognition of the embodied nature of learning emerged from this increased attention to intermediate processes–the varied forms of invention, judgment, reflection–when we realized that we were no longer accounting for simply cognitive activities. Many manifestations of the affective dimension of learning opened up in this intermediate space informed by new media, whether it was the way that students drew on their personal experience in social dialogue spaces, or the sensual and emotional dimensions of working with multimedia representations of history and culture. In these intermediate spaces, dimensions of affect such as motivation and confidence loomed large as well. We have come to think of this expansive range of learning as embodied, in that it pointed us to the ways that knowledge is experienced through the body as well as the mind, and how intellectual and cognitive thinking are embodied by whole learners and scholars.

Inasmuch as this new learning is embodied, similarly is it socially situated. Influenced by the range of work on situated learning, communities of practice, and participatory learning, our work with new technologies continuously brought us to see the impact new forms of engagement through media had on the students’ relative stance to learning. This effect was not merely a sense of heightened interest due to the novelty of new forms of social learning. Rather, what we were seeing was evidence of the ways that multimedia authoring, for example, constructed for students a salient sense of audience and public accountability for their work; this, in turn, had an impact on nearly every aspect of the authoring process–visible in the smallest and largest compositional decisions. The socially situated nature of learning became a summative value, capturing what Seely Brown calls “learning to be,” beyond mere knowledge acquisition to a way of thinking, acting, and a sense of identity.

These three ways of looking at pedagogies–as adaptive, embodied, and socially situated–together help constitute a composite portrait of new learning. Each helps us focus on a different dimension of complex learning processes: adaptive pedagogies emphasizing the developmental stages linking learning to disciplines; embodied pedagogies focusing on how the whole person as learner engages in learning; and socially situated learning focusing on the role of context and audience. In this sense, the dimensions are overlapping and reinforcing in any particular set of practices. For example, consider Patricia O’Connor’s work making use of Web authoring tools to lead students to engage in close reading of print fiction. Calling the activity “hypertext amplification,” O’Connor asks students to make increasingly sophisticated “associational” connections, to move from novice reading encounters with texts to more expert ones. She wants them to experience “associational thinking” on multiple levels, from the personal and emotional to the definitional and critical. Ultimately, students’ ability to engage fully along a continuum of expert practice is shaped by their knowledge that their Web pages will be public, and their presentations to their peers a social act. All three key dimensions are in play in her teaching practices, as in so many of the case studies coming out of VKP.

Nevertheless, we believe it is a valuable exercise to slow down and look closely at each of three areas, and to begin making sense of how each dimension might be better understood for its shaping influence on learning. We now explore each of these areas more fully below.

A Note on Findings
Because faculty inquiry lives at the boundary of theory and practice, we have chosen to present the findings in two forms: as conceptual findings (representing the way theory informed practice, and vice versa) and design findings (representing some of the key claims on practice made by these concepts and values about learning). As a further response to the challenge of representing collective findings in a messy research environment, we also present each area with a set of “tags,” keywords that help associate the findings with various trajectories. Finally, at the end of each finding description we link to several relevant case studies within this volume.

[jump to Part II]

Notes
1. Sam Wineburg, Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2001). [return to text]
2. Many good resources exist on the scholarship of teaching. Two essential resources can be found at the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching (http://www.carnegiefoundation.org/CASTL/) and the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning tutorial at Indiana University, Bloomington (http://www.issotl.org/tutorial/sotltutorial/home.html). [return to text]
3. In all, more than seventy faculty from twenty-two institutions participated in the Visible Knowledge Project over five years. Participating campuses included five research universities (Vanderbilt University, the University of Alabama, Georgetown University, the University of Southern California, Washington State University, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology), four comprehensive public universities (Pennsylvania’s Millersville University, California State University (CSU)–Monterey Bay, CSU Sacramento, Ohio’s Youngstown State University, and participants from several four-year colleges in the City University of New York system, including City College, Lehman, and Baruch), and three community colleges (two from CUNY–Borough of Manhattan Community College and LaGuardia Community College, and California’s Cerritos College). In addition to campus-based teams, a number of independent scholars participated from a half dozen other institutions, such as Arizona State and Lehigh University.  The project began in June 2000 and concluded in October 2005.  We engaged in several methods for online collaboration to supplement our annual institutes, including an adaptation of the digital poster tool created by Knowledge Media Lab (Carnegie Foundation), asynchronous discussion, and Web-conferencing.  For more detailed information, see the VKP galleries and archives at http://crossroads.georgetown.edu/vkp/. [return to text]
4. Cathy N. Davidson, “Humanities 2.0: Promise, Perils, Predictions,”  PMLA 123, no. 3 (May 2008): 711. [return to text]
5. John Seely Brown, “Foreword,” in Opening Up Education: The Collective Advancement of Education through Open Technology, Open Content, and Open Knowledge (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2008). [return to text]
6. For a broader discussion of the “teaching commons,” see Pat Hutchings and Mary Huber, The Advancement of Learning: Building the Teaching Commons (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2005). [return to text]
7. David Perkins, “What is Understanding?” in Teaching for Understanding: Linking Research with Practice, ed. Martha Stone Wiske (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1998), 39-58. [return to text]