The Emerging Pedagogy for 21st Century Learning


In 2014, we are still discussing “blended learning” and “e-learning” as if these were new and emergent trends. They are not. They have become so commonplace as to be normative part of the repertoire of a faculty member or institution seeking to increase access to and success in learning. Whether the focus is on skills development, advanced knowledge or research, learning using technology is “standard” not “deviant”. Learners are using e-learning, whether the course requires it or not.

We have also been distracted by Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), learning analytics and “flipped classrooms”, as if adding complexity and additional layers of cost  and administration will significantly improve learning outcomes and change the dynamics of teaching. The real change in teaching and learning in universities and colleges is, in fact, quite different from a focus on “technology enhanced learning”. It’s about giving meaning to learning.

We need to revise our understanding of teaching and learning – what we refer to as pedagogy – so that it embraces an understanding that teachers do what it takes to engage learners, enable learning and ensure the achievement of learning outcomes. In some courses, this may involve intensive laboratory study, field work, projects, researching using original manuscripts available online or in a library. In others, learners may network with learners elsewhere in the world so as to gain the lens of different cultures or connect to others pursuing similar interests. Teaching is rarely just “sage on the stage” anymore – it is what it takes to secure learning outcomes that matter.

We also need to revise our understanding of pedagogy, given what we see in student behaviour. In recent visits to Caribbean and African countries, for example, students could be found working together with cell phones and lap tops researching the topics due for study that day. Some of the most successful agricultural education for farmers in the world is based on Smart Phone text messages, community radio and print learning materials (see here for details).

In this short paper we describe the new pedagogy of engaged learning for outcomes and suggest that it is time to stop thinking of e-learning, blended learning, and “traditional” teaching (sic) as if these were competing pedagogies. They are not. They are all part of the armoury of the 21st century teacher.


Drivers for a New Pedagogy 

An earlier paper looking at the changing nature of pedagogy (available here) suggested that there were three major patterns of change which were driving the new pedagogy. These are:

  1. Opening up learning, making it more accessible, flexible, and more meaningful. The classroom is no longer the unique centre of learning based on information delivery through a lecture. Learners can acquire learning resources, collaborators, and insights as well as quality learning processes from all over the world. What faculty and students are looking for is meaning and engagement – what Michael Fullan calls “deep learning”;
  2. An increased sharing of power between the professor and the learner. This is manifest as a changing professorial role towards more support and negotiation over content and methods, and a focus on developing and supporting learner autonomy. On the student side, this can mean an emphasis on learners supporting each other through new social media, peer assessment, discussion groups, even online study groups but with guidance, support and feedback from content experts. We can see this as a new kind of learning partnership between the faculty member and learners and amongst learners themselves – a community of practice for learning;
  3. An increased use of technology. Not only to deliver teaching, but also to support and assist students and to provide new forms of student assessment, collaboration, and global resources.

The underlying focus is on improving learning outcomes through effective student engagement – doing what it takes to engage the hearts and minds of students in their work so that the learning outcomes can be achieved and be transferable.

Student Engagement and Meaningful Learning – Deep Learning for Learning Success

Student engagement is now a well defined area of study for educators. It involves four critical components, according to the US National Survey of Student Engagement, which also involves several Canadian universities and colleges:



  Academic Challenge
  • Higher-order learning
  • Reflective and Integrative Learning
  • Developing Learning and Coping Strategies
  • Quantative Reasoning
  • Effective Writing and Communications


 Learning with Peers
  • Team Work, Project Work
  • Co-Creation of Knowledge
  • Collaboration with Diverse Others – including developing global networks
  Experiences with Faculty
  • Quality Student:Faculty interactions
  • Effective teaching
  • Teacher as coach, mentor and guide, as well as, instructor
  • Teacher as a resource
 Campus / Online Environment
  • Supportive environment
  • Strong resource related services – library, e-books and journals, effective online resource centres and learning management systems



















Table of Engagement Indicators Based Largely on the National Study of Student Engagement (US)

Faculty members seeking high levels of engagement – known to be a strong predictor of learning outcomes – design learning experiences, courses and programs to maximize learning outcomes through these four themes and related activities. These activities enable deep learning, highly committed learners, and the development of learning and coping skills.

This is worth emphasizing: Student engagement is linked positively to desirable learning outcomes such as critical thinking, knowledge retention and transfer, and academic performance (Carini et al., 2006; Ewell, 2002; Klein et al., 2005; Pascarella and Terenzini, 2005). Indeed, amongst a range of variables, it is amongst the best predictor available. It is a much different measure than student satisfaction (Korobova, 2012) and a stronger predictor. Indeed, student satisfaction is an outcome measure. In contrast, student engagement is a measure of learning processes.

Faculty members use all of the available resources in which they have confidence and experience in to facilitate student engagement.

Learning Partnerships and Communities of Practice

A course is studied by students with the support of a faculty member acting as a coach, guide, mentor and instructor. They may also engage with others – locally, regionally, nationally and globally – to help with their understanding, knowledge acquisition, and skills development. In essence, a course is a community of practice – collaborating to develop and enhance their knowledge, skills and understanding.

There is substantial literature on the best practices associated with communities of practice for learning (see here and here).  The key elements of such a community for learning are:

  • Connect people through meaningful activity, tasks and challenges – student to student, student to faculty, student to others around the world, students to knowledge resources.
  • Provide a shared context for people to communicate and share information, evidence, cases, and personal experiences in a way that builds understanding and insight.
  • Enable dialogue between people who come together to learn, explore new knowledge and skills, solve challenging problems, and create new, mutually beneficial opportunities.
  • Stimulate learning by serving as a vehicle for authentic communication, mentoring, coaching, formative assessment and self-reflection.
  • Capture and diffuse existing knowledge to help people improve their practice by providing a forum to identify solutions to common problems and a process to collect and evaluate best practices.
  • Introduce collaborative processes to student groups as well as between students and other organizations to encourage the free flow of ideas and exchange of information.
  • Help students organize around purposeful actions that deliver tangible learning outcomes.
  • Generate new knowledge to help people transform their practice to accommodate changes in needs and technologies.

Making Good and Appropriate Use of Technology 

“If technology is the answer, we had better understand the question!” Times Educational Supplement, November 2013

Learning is a complex process. Different kinds of subject matter require different approaches –  critical text analysis is a very different process from an environmental impact assessment, understanding the relevance of the law to a particular circumstance requires similar but very different skills from deciding how best to undertake a statistical analysis of a data set.  Our capacity to learn appears to be much as it was before digital technologies were prevalent, meaning that the extensive, and growing, evidence based on what good learning looks like can be used to help us get the most out of new technology.

The idea that today’s students – the “net generation” – learn differently from older people is a popular one, but it is unsupported by evidence. Some seniors are more tech savvy than some first year college and university students.

Where technology can support learning is in providing:

  • Access to quality learning materials, including online course materials, open education resources which can be used as part of a course design, simulations, serious games and online “labs” and activity learning centres.
  • Access to e-books, journals and massive research libraries (more than Wikipedia, which remains the most cited in university and college assignments, thesis and research studies).
  • Access to peer and expert networks through social media, specialist networks (e.g. within LinkedIn) and experts.
  • Access to structured assignment support resources.
  • Access to peer networks  for student to student and student:student learning.
  • Access to evidence data bases – data repositories and other sources.
  • Linking to communities of practice and global networks.
  • Links to news feeds and custom article feeds , such as Zite.
  • Access to formative and summative assessment tools and competency assessments where these are provided by the faculty member.
  • Access to project support tools and statistical analysis tools.
  • Access to writing and communication support tools.

The issue is not, “which LMS shall we use” or “which is the best web-conferencing system shall we use”, but how can we use technology as part of our strategy for student engagement and deep learning? This is the question to which technology is a part of the answer.

But this is the key: Technology is part of the armoury available to a faculty member. So are workshops, labs, moots for law students, simulations, project, field work and many other devices. Online learning can increase flexibility, but only if it is a part of learning design – part of the pedagogy.

Faculty Capacity

In some institutions, the administration will lament the low number of “fully online” programs and “fully online courses”. They see these as attractive since, once developed, they can be offered frequently. They also see online as increasing access and potential reach without the need for capital expenditure.  For administrators, online is about access, revenue and reach.

Faculty see fully online courses as one option amongst many in the armoury of resources to achieve successful learning outcomes. They generally, if we take their behaviour as the basis for understanding, prefer blended learning – a mixture of online, in class, and self-study. No one has any reliable estimate of how extensive the practice of blended learning actually is, but most commentators would suggest that it is the dominant paradigm for learning, at this time, in the developed world and is also a substantial component of learning systems in the developing world.

What does blended learning entail? It entails the Faculty member, often in collaboration with his or her peers, designing a learning program for their students for a course which enables a variety of learning experiences, some of which are in vivo (in person) and some online. Some of the experiences may involve student groups co-creating knowledge in response to a challenge. Others may involve individual research, using simulations, using serious games to explore the limits of the students understanding, some may involve collaboration with others around the world.

The limits to learning designs are determined by the nature of the content and the skills and understanding which students are required to master, the nature of the learners background and knowledge, and the experience and willingness of the Faculty member to take risks. That is, the experience of a courses is determined by the student’s skill level, the demands for skill and knowledge and the capacity of the Faculty member to imagine different ways of ensuring that their students have the opportunity to be successful.

Faculty experience and imagination shapes this design work. The difficulty most faculty report is that they are not aware of all that is possible for their discipline and their kinds of students. While reports reach them, of significant achievements in other disciplines and for other kinds of students, what they need is examples of their own work done differently by others. This is why a community of practice portal for faculty members is so important – they need to be able to see what is possible and to connect to those who “go before them” so that they can find out what works, what didn’t work, and what were the lessons learned. Some work towards such portals exist (see here, here and here for examples). They also need instructional design and technology support and support for quality assurance and for finding relevant, appropriate open education resources.

Most of all, faculty need to be supported for excellence in teaching whether or not technology is used. If a faculty member wants to increase student engagement, pursue deep learning, create effective communities of practice for his or her students, and leverage technology and open education resources for improved learning outcomes, who do they turn to? Who offers coaching, guiding and mentoring to the faculty member? Too often, they are left on their own to “figure it out”. Faculty support for innovation in, learning whatever that innovation, is a key resource required to enhance teaching and learning.

The Current State of the New Pedagogy

Teaching and learning is alive and well in our colleges and universities and there are a great many innovations and new approaches being taken (see here for some examples).  More students than ever are studying at the college and university level and more students are finding ways to leverage peer networks, social networks, and technology to enhance their learning. Innovative pedagogy is alive and well.


What holds widespread adoption of innovative pedagogy back is the lack of a requirement for training for college and university faculty in the art and science of teaching, the lack of investment in support for faculty for innovation, and the lack of collaborative sharing networks linked to disciplines of study. We could do much more to advance the new pedagogy by being better ourselves at faculty engagement, deep learning about teaching and learning, and the smart use of technology to support this agenda.


Carini, R.M., Kuh, G.D. and Klein, S.P. (2006). Student Engagement and Student Learning – Testing the Linkages. Research in Higher Education, Vol. 47, No. 1, February.

Ewell, P. T. (2002). An Analysis of Relationships between NSSE and Selected Student Learning Outcomes Measures for Seniors Attending Public institutions in South Dakota. Boulder, CO: National Center for Higher Education Management Systems (mimeo).

Klein, S. P., Kuh, G. D., Chun, M., Hamilton, L., and Shavelson, R. (2005). An approach to measuring cognitive outcomes across higher education institutions. Research in Higher Education 46(3): 251–276.

Korobova, Nadia, “A comparative study of student engagement, satisfaction, and academic success among international and American students” (2012). Graduate Theses and Dissertations.Paper 12367.

Pascarella, E. T., and Terenzini, P. T. (2005). How College Affects Students: A Third Decade of Research. San Frscisco: Jossey-Bass.

By Stephen Murgatroyd -