Can academic learning be experienced directly?

I have just started to read Laurillard’s ‘Rethinking University Teaching: a framework for the effective use of learning technologies’ (2nd Edition) and although it was written 10 years ago (2002), I feel that many of the points made in this book are still relevant today. However, one of the ideas underpinning Laurillard’s work raised a few questions in my mind. She suggests that ‘…academic learning is different from other kinds of learning in everyday life because it is not directly experienced, and is necessarily mediated by the teacher.’ (p.4).  It seems to suggest undergraduates are not learning about the world directly, but through others’ descriptions/experiences of it and that teachers are responsible for conveying information to their students in a way which enables them to learn effectively.

My initial reaction to this idea was to shake my head. Surely, academic learning can be experienced? Is the application of the skills and knowledge gained by the student during their study not academic learning? Or can academic learning only be the learning of other people’s ideas and descriptions of the world? I think that what I consider to be ‘academic learning’ and what Laurillard sees as ‘academic learning’ must be two very different things.

Laurillard, D. (2002). Rethinking University Teaching: a framework for the effective use of learning technologies. (2nd Edition). Abingdon, RouteldgeFalmer.

3 thoughts on “Can academic learning be experienced directly?

  1. Coincidentally today I have been working on the issue of how to express and conceptualise how myself and my students need to think about working together on practice based modules.

    The context is that the programme of study is a postgraduate programme for counsellors and psychotherapists. We will be employing blended learning, which will include some face to face work some elearning packages and some recordings of clinical practice which will be analysed by students and academic staff. So very clearly in this instance learning is very much experienced. Indeed if it wasn’t we would have problems!

    I began with the problem that I have experienced when working with postgraduate practice based students is that despite the fact that they are often well qualified academically as well as clinically experienced, it appears that the minute they enter the university they behave and perhaps think in ways that they learned from earlier learning experiences. In that possibly they may believe that the academic staff are there to teach them and they are passive recipients in the process. Thus I have experienced their sense of frustration and disappointment when they are asked to read reflect analyse and discuss their views on things or to role play skills.

    So I am wondering whether to begin by sharing wider notions around the concept of learning. So far my thinking has been influenced by two themes.

    1. The concepts of life long learning and life long education
    2. The notions of a community of practice

    The notion of life long learning is defined by the European Commission as


    This wide ranging definition illustrates the the variety of motivations, reasons and contexts in which learning takes place. The problem then becomes one of clarifying whether it is possible to make a distinction between formal learning and informal learning in order to inform what the boundaries of learning are within an educational setting such as an HEI and how fruitful being able to make connections between boundaries may be.

    Billett (2010) argues that there needs to be a distinction between ” life long learning as a socio-personal process and personal fact…as such it is conceptually distinct from an educational provision” p401 He suggests that the emphasis on educational provision rather than the individual learner and the diversity of settings in which individuals learn represents learning as an institutional rather than personal process.

    (indeed coming from a psychotherapy background I would certainly support this notion. We are biologically programmed as a species to learn)

    The second theme I have examined which expands on this notion and offers a practical framework for how this may be achieved is via the concept of communities of practice. Tuomi-Grohn et al( 2003) make the point that

    “Practice and learning are not bounded by context but emerge relationally and have the potential to be mobilised in a range of domains and sites based upon participation in multiple communities of practice.”

    The challenge is to explore ways to work across boundaries. Some of the most interesting and developed ideas around communities of practice has come from Etienne Wenger and Jean Lave. Please see the link below

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