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The Writings of Guy
Many of us have followed the writings of Dr. Guy Bensusan for a
long time. Others are just discovering him. He is a frequent contributor
to listservs, and freely shares his rich experience. Over the years,
Education at a Distance has published many of his articles.
His philosophy and practice have continued to grow with the advent
of new technology and the acceptance of distance learning as a viable
and effective alternative to traditional methods of teaching. He
is the master teacher, leading us into new paradigms of teaching
and learning. Through his writings he takes us on a journey of exploration
and discussion. He shows us how to motivate students and achieve
results with anywhere-anytime collaborative learning that are the
envy of most classroom teachers.
The Bensusan Method is enriching the lives of tens of thousands
of students. Education at a Distance is grateful to have Dr. Bensusan
present articles each month so that you, your colleagues, and your
students can enjoy and benefit from his experience.
Thoughts on How
Thinking about why we should do something is very different than
moving into How to Go About It. The former is more conceptual and
theoretical, a matter of philosophical questions and relationships. The
latter is nuts and bolts, hammer and nails; we shift from postulate to
formulate, and become constructivists, building activities for the classroom,
not for us teachers, but for all the learners. We assemble assignments,
tools, exercises, reinforcement activities plus assessments to prepare
the learning pasture.
Pasture is a good word: an expansive field where everyone can do what
needs doing, where the cheerful wrangler makes sure food and water abounds,
and lets the rest happen. A learning field has four traits:
- The learners themselves must do the reading, talking, writing, interacting,
revising, arguing, and so on. The teacher cannot and should not try
to do it for them because that will hinder the process. The teacher
should be accessible for help when asked, but otherwise should just
be there for support, encouragement and frequent smiles.
- Learners must interact. They have done it for years and need to continue
in a safe, competition-free place, with minimal regulation and control.
The pasture is fenced, so let them roam across it to do what they need
to do in the space and time they need.
- Learners will learn at their own pace, which comes from within. They
will do so when allowed to and will often help each other through tough
spots. Efforts to hurry them along will not improve what they do, and
trying to drive the herd means you will lose many of them.
- Learners are not equals and the pasture is uneven. Let them forage
where they are most comfortable. Learning takes time, perhaps the whole
term to learn, build, make mistakes, recast and fine-tune. They can
be judged and weighed after the term is over. What counts is at the
These four guidelines lead us to The Twelve Pillars:
1. Use various out-of-class alternatives for transfer of course content
2. Create useful tools and visual models to awaken ideas and connections
3. Help students investigate; ask questions to denote/explore relationships
4. Use many revisits for idea reinforcement rather than a single immersion
5. Design learning experiences for students to engage in during class
6. Formulate individualized assignments in several ascending steps and
7. Organize and implement multi-level, cooperative, mutually helpful
8. Develop after-class exercises where students can interact, build and
9. Use portfolios so students accumulate evidence of their learning growth
10. Establish options to help students cope with access limits and inequities
11. Reward GROWTH; convert misdirection into beneficial learning moments
12. Build grading on personal effort, persistence, evolution and enlightenment
The underlying purpose of the pillars is to shift the emphasis away from
us as experts and away from the ever-larger volume of content in our respective
disciplines, to focus more attention on how to help learners of varied
abilities to move forward and upward successfully in their power to LEARN.
Based on more than four decades of teaching, including seventy fully-interactive
comparative arts and humanities courses over television to multiple sites,
I have concluded that if each of us would include our own adapted version
of all of the above steps in our courses, traditional or innovative, we
would help bring about a genuine learning revolution. It would mean some
hard struggle on our parts to throw out many habits we are comfortable
with, but which are in truth inconsistent, contradictory and counterproductive.
It has taken me over ten years to get to where I am now; I had to invent
all of my own practices and then test them for each course. There is clearly
no "quick fix" for the process, but it may be that each teacher
who wants to make this transformation will no longer have to invent the
whole wheel. What has been done here may serve for individual adaptation.
The first step in class is to get away from trying to give them only
what we know; we can describe milestones and provide maps and travel
hints, but they must make the journey for themselves. As brilliant as
our lectures may be, they are ineffective with unsophisticated or inexperienced
lecture-listeners; students need to read, to see, to hear, to gain the
necessary information before they come to class, so that they are
pre-prepared to interact in several levels of comprehension beyond data
We need to give them smaller chunks or bytes of information, and even
more important, adequate time to "let it all soak in."
This does not mean that students are to learn less --- it is clear that
in our world we need to know MORE, and it is also clear that the US is
no longer the "world leader" as regards subject matter. However,
the point is that learning is a process and not a quantity, which means
that, for better digestion (as Mother used to say) you must take smaller
The teacher is already familiar with the material by having learned it.
Students must be given the opportunity to go through the same process
to gain familiarity, to learn how and why this is more important than
that, to see how the taxonomies and categorizings exist and work. Students
cannot learn to avoid mistakes or learn from them if they are not allowed
to make them --- the function of the learner-helper in that situation
must be to help with analysis and formulation of coping tactics and methods.
Nor will they learn it all in one sitting. We have to revisit and reinforce,
and they must go through the same kind of thing, climbing the ladder a
rung at a time. Nor will they learn in the precise order you might want
them to; what is logical and reasonable to one person does not work for
another, and it may be a bit difficult and frustrating to stand and watch
a learner do what needs to be done in a way you think is inefficient and
But they can do it, they can get beyond where they are,
all of them, in their own ways. They will each be starting at a different
place, and none will finish the course at exactly the same spot. But each
will have grown, and that is what counts, both for them and for you.
If they have been given the tools and experience in using them, they will
have been affected for the rest of their lives. An analogy might be a
bicycle with training wheels; first they ride with them, then without
them, and only at that point does it become useful to start talking about
alternatives for and improvements in efficiency.
If the idea of no numerical benchmarks for grading evokes uneasiness,
design a pre-test, or present a significant concept on the first day,
and ask them all to write down their thoughts about it immediately, sign
it, date it, and put it in their portfolio. Do it again with the same
concept at mid-term and at the end. Just before the course is over, ask
the students to read them in sequence, analyze and compare how the later
ones differ from the first. That helps them learn to evaluate themselves,
which is vital in their quest for independence. As teacher, when you read
them, you will perceive what they have seen, and it gives you another
area of common ground for discussing their growth -- one they clearly
With traditions across the disciplines being overturned by new evidence,
with countless new meanings and interpretations becoming part of scholarship,
and with multicultural, international and gender perspectives giving us
new ways of looking, we are entering new frontiers and we will never again
be the way we were. Our measuring sticks are changing, if they have not
already changed without our being aware of it. I doubt any of us can predict
the future of our disciplines and technolinks with accuracy.
In the classroom, it becomes valuable to indicate many alternative paths
and allow learners to choose what they want, and then encourage them to
move along at their own rate of comfort, ability and style. Here is where
patience and pre-prepared learning tools for them pay off. Many of the
ones I have used are described in Chapter A-2. You can expect reluctance
at first --- many students are deeply conditioned to dependency on the
pulpit and its attendant expectations. Do not be surprised when they beg
to be told the specific rules and formulae to follow. They'll even
ask for the answers they should memorize for a test!
They will work much harder for themselves than for you. When you
turn the learning over to them instead of controlling it yourself, they
will not fully believe you for awhile, because they have heard promises
before. They will keep watching and waiting for a display of authority,
a "pop quiz," or some symbolic act betraying your deception.
They will also struggle and curse as they abandon the traditional highway,
and may get lost without some alternative "sketches and structures."
As you smile, support and encourage, some will traverse the unknown, gain
reward and elation, returning with eager stories of their odyssey to pass
on to the rest; it is worth class time to hear and talk about these.
Students will help each other, share materials, read each other's
work and offer suggestions, especially if the grading policy focuses upon
individual growth, making it clear that helping others does not reduce
one's own chances for a top grade. Asking several students to discuss
aloud their responses to the changing "truths" and schools of
thought is very valuable. It helps them see alternative views, and keeps
you in constant touch with where they are in their learning.
A most important key to success is to refrain from saying, "you
are wrong." The minute that is stated in the classroom by an authority
figure, open discussion will taper off and may even cease. In an ambiance
overshadowed by grades, it is important to provide a safe harbor. Wherever
they may have gone astray, it is important for them to discover
it. It is far more useful for all of the learners if you respond instead,
"that is one view of it; what assumptions do you think it is based
on?" --- followed by, "do you see any implications in that interpretation?"
This idea of not letting grades get in the way of learning is vital.
The portfolio system works best if you can lay out a series of steps (with
BROAD guidelines) for them to follow. Set things up so each assignment
builds on the previous one and anticipates the next, suggesting of course,
that you have thought these out, built them into your syllabus, and structured
your assignments so the students can go off on their own. Then move aside,
out of their way --- though not too far! As the cook says, "if you
hover over the soup, it will convey the taste of your anxiety."
When I started back in 1950, I thought my job was going to be that of
teacher, instructor and professor. I find instead that I am a guide, planner,
foreshadower, and fellow-inquirer with many questions that always evoke
more questions, instilling in the learners a set of habits relating to
their individual way of moving ahead, forward from where they were. Whereas
I used to find pleasure in the applause that followed my finely-honed
lectures, I now gain far deeper reward and satisfaction in being the helper
--- organizing the field of play, watching the meandering plots unfold,
keeping them from going out-of-bounds, enjoying the successful creation
of the students' projects for which, believe it or not, they try to
give me the credit!
Finally, I offer this mnemonic device for learner-helpers: I call it:
OUT OF THE WAY
Thoughts on Why
One of the longest-standing educational traditions that I can remember
is of the teacher walking into class with his manila folder of lecture
notes, writing some appropriate terminology on the blackboard (which has
changed colors and has even now become an electronic pad!), wait for the
bell (which dates me), and then say, "Good Morning," and begin
his lecture. I watched the scene for many years and then did it myself
for many more.
So just as in the old days, the still-Pavlovian (Neo-Post-Pavlovian?)
students chatter away until it is time for the lecture, as noted by the
beeps on their watches, at which time they fall silent in their designated
seats in neatly arranged rows, with notebooks open on the desk and pens
or pencils in hand, poised and ready to record the information.
Of course, with student life being theater, just like most of real life,
an occasional bountiful and bedecked beauty (or sartorially substantial
stud) will make the grand entry, upstaging the lecturer for a moment ---
pausing at the doorway long enough to make a splash, but not so long as
to irritate the teacher (unless, of course, his or her mood was overcast
to begin with). A few more late arrivals will slip in the back door, take
their seats unobtrusively and begin to write. Modernizing technologies
have replaced paper, pens and pencils with audio-cassette recorders, laptop
computers and even videocamera, but apart from that, conventionally-expected
actions will occur in the habitually-expected manner, and with routinely-expected
In one sense, there is nothing really new and unusual here. I recall,
back in 1950, being the proud possesser of a brand-new Webcor wire recorder.
It was the size of a portable typewriter (assuming one can remember what
that was) and weighed about twenty pounds. It used half-hour spools of
wire, which meant carrying the extras around in a bag (since matched carry-cases
had not yet appeared as part of the purchase package), and an attached
ceramic microphone with a long cord.
The microphone had to be held up by hand, facing the lecturer, and one
had to sit within the first two or three rows to be sure to pick up the
words being spoken. The recorder operated on alternating current which
meant I always had to be one of the first students into that classroom
in order to sit close to the wall-socket (which additionally meant that
I needed to carry an extension cord around, just in case). Ah, with Energizers
and Duracells, the primitive days of yore are gone forever!
At the time, only two of three of us had such futuristic (though pre-space-age)
equipment, and it made us the center of peer attention. Students would
gather around us after class in the dormitory lobby (was that our motive?)
and we would listen to the lecture and marvel, "what will they think
of next?" I am certain the content of the lecture was not the attraction,
but rather the novelty and faint potential of liberating us enslaved students
from the onerous, demeaning task of taking notes by hand. Even then I
wondered why the professor did not have his lectures typed out or printed
in outline with factual details, so that we could really listen, think
about and follow what he was saying while he talked, and afterwards in
Today, though, the world has modernized, miniaturized, materialized and
methodologized. We can sympathize with the lecturer, since with our new
battery-operated appliances, we can experience the conditions in a large
group of students in an amphitheater classroom. There may be as many as
four hundred cassette recorders from all over the globe, or four hundred
laptop computers, each with its keyboard clicking away. The noise level
they generate now forces the teacher to use a public address system so
that his lecture, often assisted visually by PowerPoint or some other
presentational software, can be heard over the clackety racket.
In their search to avoid "unnecessary" work-time, the more
creative students have already figured out that if they establish collaborative
groups, they can send one member to class each day to record the information
while the rest sleep, work on projects or attend to other duties. After
class, the student returns to make copies for the others, either by printing
them out, dumping the contents on floppy discs or, if s/he has a cellular
phone, modem and the proper connections, can even transmit the information
to everyone else's laptop by e-mail.
When test time comes, of course, the hall fills up as everyone (plus
a ringer or two) comes to make their marks in appropriate places on the
bubble sheet, while proctors check identifications and hover. Would this
behavior system not make an amusing study for an anthropologist, if only
to demonstrate the tragic waste of time, effort and money?
Class time is of extremely high value. If, as has previously been suggested,
we consider class time from an accountant's perspective, we can calculate
how much travel and energy (both fossil fuel and human, plus wear and
tear on cars and the contribution to pollution) and number of hours (even
if only at the minimum wage), have actually been expended to bring all
the students, helpers and teacher into one classroom at a specific time.
Add these up and the total number of dollars is astronomical! And what
purpose does this ritual serve? Yes, each student can take notes --- a
practice based on the theory that the act of writing something down commits
it automatically to memory. Now however, the new technology can be used
to fly far ahead of the old ways, somewhat like the astronaut on the old
Students have taken the bit in their teeth, so to speak, and found ways
collectively to magnify their learning efficiency and capability, almost
as if there is a cumulative effect. That is, burgeoning technology is
eagerly sought after by so many, and is so easily assimilated, that self-learning
seems to expand much faster and in more directions as technology becomes
more and more accessible. The contradiction is that they must wait, sometimes
impatiently, for the old nag and rider to catch up, before they can take
their next major leap into learning!
A certain truth exists about writing, nonetheless. If we want to memorize
factual information, it certainly does help to put it into the appropriate
portion of the brain if you look at it, say it, think it, write it, hear
it, and then revisit those steps several times. When I was first learning
my Latin American History dates back at UCLA, that was the process I used.
However, the memorization is only one small part of the larger picture.
During the past fifty years, many aspects of life have changed. There
are more facts now, and we have rapidly moved to deconstruct disciplines
like history into a variety of sub- and allied fields, each dependent
on a particular set of assumptions or way of thinking.
Thus while the facts, or at least some of them, remain important for
certain aspects of study, many additional levels of comprehension beyond
factual knowledge are more important for students today as they move along
the path of awareness about perspectives, ways of seeing, slants of interpretation,
purposes for guiding thought, and ultimately, some sort of wisdom about
life. The real snag is that our institutions and faculty are so totally
integrated to the historic rites of a teacher providing information to
the students at a specific time and in a specific way, that we fail to
examine the actual effect and implications of what we continue to do,
and thus do not seek out alternatives which might revolutionize learning
Various studies by sociologists and educators do call attention to this
dilemma, while alternative educational institutions (often private) spring
up to attract large numbers of students dissatisfied with current workings
of the system. Guides to degrees by non-traditional paths via correspondence,
e-mail, virtual universities, computer networks and other new technologies
abound --- for instance, Bears' Guide to Earning College Degrees
Non-traditionally by John and Mariah Bear --- and many institutions
are slowly becoming aware that in the emerging market of consumer or client-driven
education, it will be necessary to change procedures and tactics if they
wish to survive the next decades. But institutional change is painfully
slow, and the outcry that blasts out at any cyber-learning innovation
that offers non-traditional courses toward degree programs is, "Are
they fully accredited?" Perhaps in the forthcoming age that will
not be a significant matter.
If we summarize these, we can compile them into an interesting list of
practices that, in the eyes of many, are counter-productive to learning
and only serve to reinforce tradition. The traditions are:
- The teacher performs regular lectures, defines, makes assignments
- Data is dumped in class; students take notes, ask occasional questions
- Emphasis is on information, content, as told by the teacher or text
- Teacher organizes the flow, substance, schedules, priorities and pace
- Periodic tests given (usually objective, and on information accuracy)
- Students do "all-nighters" for short-term memorization of
- Everyone takes same test, same time; proctors hover to detect cheating
- Points accumulate, extra-credit, the curve emphasizes competition
- Factual approach outweighs author-bias, analysis, comparison, concept
interpretation and evolution of viewpoints and meanings
- Minimal flexibility, deadlines, dependencies, equal treatment of unequal
individuals of varying majors, cultures, learning styles
Some of the unfortunate consequences of this decalogue can be listed
in the following manner:
- Perpetuates the didactic hierarchy and also the authority and control
of the teacher
- Students remain passive, recipients rather than participants
- Grade competition discourages cooperation, networking. exploring
- Scores are emphasized over learning and long-range growth
- Information and data transcend contexts and perspectives
- The course is a challenge to surmount, not a building block
- Internal focus is stressed, rather than lateralization, extension
- De facto course goals tend to be short-range and immediate
- Student waits dependently on the teacher for all activities
- Little attention is given to useful, transferable principles
All of these devaluate the basic purposes and foundations of lifelong
learning; they diminish the opportunities for independent growth by students,
they negate (or fail to point to) many connections among all areas of
human-environmental existence, they diminish the individual and his/her
growth potential, and in their emphasis on one or two particularist points
of view, they depreciate the validity of the multiple cultures which we
claim so piously to value, and which are important to the members of those
groups in our civilization who are also citizens, pay taxes and should
have equal rights and responsibilities to all of society's benefits
Combining testing with learning begets unclear goals; the goals are unclear
to the students and also to the teachers, administrators, parents, employers
and onlookers. When learning and grades compete, grades win! Does a fundamental
conflict of interests eventuate when teachers are responsible for the
grading as well as for helping with the learning? Somehow, this overlap
is similar to the fox guarding the hen house.
But let us change our focus and our intentions. Let us go back to our
teacher in the classroom with the four hundred student laptops, and see
if we can brainstorm some options that might lead us in other, more productive
directions. One would be for the teacher to put the lecture on a floppy-disc
and provide it to students as part of the course-pack. Another is to have
all or as many as possible of the students on-line, so that the lecture
can be given from the teacher's office at the university or even from
his or her home. Oh, but that infringes on two other old traditions ---
the teacher is supposed to be "at work" from eight to five!!!
And, all students are supposed to do the same thing, except for night
Is the effort to change our educational system confronting a huge "house
of cards," of interrelated cards? Is it that we cannot change one
thing without changing a whole series of laterally dependent other things?
Each item relates and in some cases hinges on many others --- which is
clearly part of the problem. If we stop giving the lecture by delivering
the information in another fashion, then what happens to the lecture hall?
Does it sit idle, or do we use it for another course or turn it into a
theater? And what about all of the related services, textbooks, photocopy,
custodial, maintenance, building security, traffic flow and parking lots,
and so on. Everything is related to everything else.
Regarding the requirement that all students do the same tasks, as for
instance taking tests or being on line; if any students cannot have access
to computers, then should we not use computers? Why? Or rather, why not?
If the students are all learners and the teacher has managerial skills
or helpers with those capabilities, then why can't each group of learners
function in whatever way they can, to get access to the learning-centered
teacher? The lock-step mentality fits the teacher-centered model or the
content-centered model. If learners want to learn, let them do so, and
grade them on their individual growth in understanding and application
rather than on some arbitrary percentage of memorized material.
Many of our cultural assumptions and traditions clearly get in our way.
We have always assumed, have we not, that students must be watched? They
will cheat, won't they? Can we trust them to work unsupervised? We
proctor their tests, assuming they will get the answers from each other.
We prove their untrustworthiness by continually finding and publicizing
incidents where such things happen. It is interesting to me that it is
always the students who are blamed in that situation. It is their lack
of morality and impatience for instant gratification, without performing
the necessary hard work of learning that is criticized for the incident.
Maybe the sword has more than one edge. When competitions are established
on a win-lose basis and the value of winning is so very, very high, incentives
to seek short cuts and devious tactics are sure to be tempting. Perhaps
we should look at some other sides of the picture, and possibly we can
individualize the assignments and construct them in steps and stages to
produce a special assemblage of learning which they can take ownership
of, as well as pride, first in creating them and then in sharing them
with course-colleagues. I have now done this for almost two decades, and
have found no cases of cheating --- laziness perhaps, but not dishonesty.
Does not the same hold for the teacher? The current clamor over accountability,
competence, tenure and abuse by teachers perhaps reflects the same major
distrust of humankind. Can we really trust teachers to truly "work"
from home rather than be at the office where schmoozing, sleeping or goofing-off
will be overtly visible? Is it not ludicrous? We live in a day when businesses
utilize various forms of flex-time for a wide group of reasons, some of
them related to the changing demography of employees, the changing nature
of the market, the effort to move into post-industrial thinking as well
as concerns for the environment and the fact that new technologies make
new methods possible. Can that not work just as well for students, teachers
We seem to be headed in new directions, and based on the predictions
of futurists, tomorrow will differ greatly and ever faster from yesterday,
while our emerging culture, always following way behind the technology,
will have to bring up the rear. Old and unchanging institutions may decline,
but also may be a haven for those who do not wish change. New ways of
organizing and helping learners will come into existence and will have
impact on large numbers. Where we are headed, exactly what life will be
in twenty-five, fifty or even a hundred years from now is argued ferociously,
and no one really knows for sure. We in colleges and universities need
to formulate, develop and fine-tune a batch of new learning paths.
About the Author:
Guy Bensusan holds a Ph.D. in History from UCLA and teaches History,
Art and Culture at Northern Arizona University. He is published extensively
in the history and humanities of Latin America. In the mid seventies,
he developed learning programs via radio, then videotapes for teaching
at a distance. He was the first NAU professor to teach to multiple sites
over Interactive Television.
In the past decade he developed peer-to-peer learning online with continuing
online communities of practice. Thousands of students have contributed
to the development of his Collaborative Online Learning Algorithm. His
system is integrated into Geneva Software (the Learning Trust) and Roadmapping
courses for Motorola, as well as the learning tools of his former students
who now teach at many levels. USDLA regularly publishes his writings on
collaborative online learning.
Dr. Bensusan is Senior Faculty Associate for NAUNet, Online Learning,
and Interactive Television and Professor, Department of Humanities, Arts
and Religion at Northern Arizona University, Mojave. Email him at: firstname.lastname@example.org.