Much of the stress in earlier education was on the need of an individual to acquire knowledge by his or her personal efforts. The acquisition of knowledge was pursued by attending to lectures and reading books. Knowledge was 'transferred' from the teacher or the book to the head of the student.
Effective education however is a much wider and deeper process.
The model of dynamic education that we use for our courses requires four elements:
Activity: students have to think for themselves, puzzling, reformulating, rethinking previous views.
Autonomy: as much as possible we reduce the dependence of students on teacher/material/support.
Higher thinking: students engage in 'metacognitive thinking', i.e. thinking about what they know and do not know/understand, planning what to do, evaluating what they are doing, introducing changes when necessary.
Collaboration: students discuss issues and achievements, work jointly on projects, agree on goals, produce common outcomes.
Students who enroll for our courses should recognise the importance of such elements and take a full part in all activities. This will ensure that they profit from the whole process.
'Engagement' in the learning process
Another aspect of dynamic learning is that it should be 'engaged'.
By engaged learning, teachers mean that all student activities involve active cognitive processes such as creating, problem-solving, reasoning, decision-making, and evaluation. In addition, the topic matter of the courses is such that students are intrinsically motivated to learn due to the meaningful nature of the learning environment and activities.
Engagement theory is based upon the idea of creating successful collaborative teams that work on ambitious projects that are meaningful to someone outside the classroom. These three components, summarized by Relate-Create-Donate, imply that good learning activities:
Occur in a group context (i.e., through collaborative teams). The emphasis is on team efforts that involve communication, planning, management and social skills. Modern society demands proficiency in these skills, yet historically students have been taught to work and learn on their own. Research on collaborative learning suggests that in the process of collaboration, students are forced to clarify and verbalize their problems, thereby facilitating solutions. Collaboration also increases the motivation of students to learn. Furthermore, when students work in teams, they often have the opportunity to work with others from quite different backgrounds and this facilitates an understanding of diversity and multiple perspectives.
Are project-based. Project orientation makes learning a creative, purposeful activity. Students have to define the project (problem domain) and focus their efforts on application of ideas to a specific context. Conducting their own projects is much more interesting to students that answering sterile textbook problems. And because they get to define the nature of the project (even if they don't choose the topic), they have a sense of control over their learning which is absent in traditional classroom instruction.
Have an outside (authentic) focus. This principle (also called the "Donate" component) stresses the value of making a useful contribution while learning. Ideally each project has an outside "beneficiary" that the project is being conducted for. The beneficiary can be a local group, community organization, school, church, library, museum, government agency, local business, or needy individual. The authentic learning context of the project increases student motivation and satisfaction.
These principles have been worked out more fully in: Shneiderman, B. (1994), Education by Engagement and Construction: Can Distance Education be Better than Face-to-Face? and Kearsley, G. (1997), The Virtual Professor: A Personal Case Study.
Special factors affecting our methodology
Apart from incorporating such elements of modern education, Catherine of Siena Virtual College offers other benefits.
A special feature of our courses is that they focus on matters of great importance to women. Learning is undertaken in collaboration with (mainly) other women. This gives the edge of relevance to all our course material.
Most of our courses are also interdisciplinary and intercultural. Our Gender Studies borrow from and contribute to a number of associated disciplines.
Finally, our courses are crafted so as to build upon and enlarge what students already know and experience about themselves, their church or religion, and their society. At the same time, all deep learning is transformative--offering a new freedom, a new discernment, and a new responsibility for bringing one's wisdom and one's calling to bear upon the society one lives in.
In an environement of taking charge of their own learning
and of discovering things for themselves, women invariably find that they
learn more easily, more enjoyably, and more deeply. For more details,
"Aaron Interviewed by Stephanie Gould."