Learning Styles, Mindsets, and Adaptive Strategies

Felder-Silverman Learning Styles InventoryDo learning styles promote learning? Are they helpful for learners at the various stages/levels of their development of understanding in their subject areas? Should learners use learning styles psychometric tests to determine how they should view their study habits and how they approach studying? In this article, I argue that far from being helpful, the fixed mindset that learning styles promotes acts to hinder learners’ cognitive and metacognitive development and can be counter-productive in the longer term. I describe how learning styles encourage learners to use the same study strategies regardless of context, as personal rules of thumb, and that this encourages learners to ossify their study habits rather than to allow them to develop and grow.

I argue that encouraging learners to think of their preferences as strategies that they adapt according to their current knowledge, skills, and abilities in a particular domain/topic will put them on a growth trajectory where they see themselves on trajectories of learning and development, from novice learner to expert learner, as they learn to think and study in new ways.

What are learning styles?

The basic idea of learning styles is that different learners have intrinsic personality traits that predispose them to particular media, modes, and strategies for learning. The learning styles hypothesis claims that if the concepts and subject matter are presented according to a learner’s preferred media, modes, and strategies, learners will learn more effectively and efficiently; a concept that learning styles proponents call meshing. Much has been written and debated about the learning styles hypothesis and there have been at least two major meta-studies which outline the research evidence available for their validity and reliability (Hayes, 2005; Pashler, McDaniel, Rohrer, & Bjork, 2008).

Rather than discuss the validity and reliability aspect, I propose that learning styles are not intrinsic personality traits but strategic adaptations for learning concepts and subject matter that learners use according to how experienced and knowledgeable they are in a particular domain. In this sense, the conventional assumptions of what learning styles are and how they work fall under the fundamental attribution error; a form of cognitive bias where we interpret someone’s actions as being intrinsic to them as a personality trait, and disregard the situation and context in which they are acting and responding to.

So, rather than being psychometric tests which diagnose our intrinsic personality traits, learning styles preferences can be better understood as indicators of our levels of cognitive development within particular domains of knowledge, i.e. where we are on the spectrum between novice and expert. They may be useful for adapting our learning strategies in appropriate ways. For example, rather than learners thinking of themselves as sequential or global thinkers, they should consider their current level of knowledge and understanding and which strategies will help them best, i.e. Novice learners should use a sequential strategy to learn the basic concepts with related concepts presented close together (in time and/or space) and with authentic examples (observational learning) and/or authentic experiences (experiential learning) which can be used by learners to see how they relate to personal subjective experience, while more experienced learners should take a more global approach and make more abstract generalisations in order to situate and connect the concepts they have already learned together in a coherent framework.

A Hypothetical Example: Novice vs. Expert Musicians

Let’s consider a hypothetical example scenario. When a novice musician is presented with the task of learning a new song, she will normally proceed to pick up her instrument and read the music notation on the page, playing the notes sequentially and listening to how they sound in terms of harmony, rhythm, and melody. A novice will need to play through the song a great number of times in order to develop their knowledge and understanding of it, hearing how the harmony, rhythm, and melody fit together and complement each other, and hearing any musical devices that create and release tension, i.e. what makes songs interesting and catchy, before the song “sticks” and she can perform it well without the aid of sheet music. A novice may or may not know how or why the song “works” and typically arrives at a superficial understanding of it, i.e. “It just sounds good.” This is a perfectly legitimate and appropriate strategy, considering the levels of development of her knowledge and experience of music and what she is capable of understanding.

In contrast, an expert musician will read over the whole song, usually without picking up her instrument. She will analyse any harmonic progressions, rhythmic patterns, divide and group the song into sections, e.g. verses and chorus’ or head and bridge, and will immediately draw upon her experience and knowledge to relate it to other similar songs, structures, and musical devices used to create tension and resolution. It takes considerably less time for an expert to learn to perform a song well than a novice because she is able to quickly and effortlessly situate the song in conceptual and contextual frameworks. While it may take a novice musician one or two weeks to learn a new song, an expert can do it in as little as half an hour.

Drawing from this example and according to Bransford et al (2000), we can say that experts differ from novices in that:

  • Experts notice features and meaningful patterns of information that are not noticed by novices.
  • Experts have acquired a great deal of content knowledge that is organized in ways that reflect a deep understanding of their subject matter.
  • Experts’ knowledge cannot be reduced to sets of isolated facts or propositions but, instead, reflects contexts of applicability: that is, the knowledge is “conditionalised” on a set of circumstances.
  • Experts are able to flexibly retrieve important aspects of their knowledge with little attentional effort.
  • Though experts know their disciplines thoroughly, this does not guarantee that they are able to teach others.
  • Experts have varying levels of flexibility in their approach to new situations. (Bransford, Brown, Cocking, Donovan, & Pellegrino, 2000)

A Strategic, Adaptive, Growth Mindset

So we see that novice and expert musicians use very different strategies to learn new songs, according to and dependent on their knowledge and experience. A novice does not have the necessary knowledge, skills, and abilities (KSAs) to examine, deconstruct, and understand songs in the same way that an expert does, so she tends to use strategies that are more hands-on, experiential, experimental, and sequential. She tends to learn by rote, repetition, and memorisation and follow rules and procedures that she can understand, given the KSAs she has developed so far. With time, practice, experience, guidance, and reflection she will be able to develop her own coherent conceptual and contextual frameworks for learning and understanding songs. A well-guided novice understands that, with effort and perseverance, she will be able to learn new songs in different and more efficient ways and understand them more deeply. In effect, what we are describing is a “growth mindset,” i.e. that learning styles are actually strategic, adaptive strategies that are developmental and modifiable (Chiu, Hong, & Dweck, 1997; Dweck, 2010; Hong, Chiu, Dweck, Lin, & Wan, 1999).

The Learning Styles Fixed Mindset

Now let us contrast this developmental, growth mindset view with what the various learning styles propose. In his review, (Hayes, 2005) identified 71 different schemas of learning styles but for the purposes of this article I am going to focus on one of the more popular schemas in use in higher education, the Felder-Silverman Inventory of Learning Styles (Felder & Silverman, 1988; Felder & Spurlin, 2005), for which they provide a web-form questionnaire for learners to self-assess their own learning styles according to this schema (Soloman & Felder, 1991a) and for which they offer study strategies advice to learners (Soloman & Felder, 1991b).

Learners complete the Felder-Silverman psychometric style questionnaire in order to be automatically assessed and categorised into balanced (1 – 3), moderate (5 – 7), and strong (9 – 11) learning styles preferences on four scales from 11 – 1 – 11 like this:

Active

11 – 10 – 9 – 8 – 7 – 6 – 5 – 4 – 3 – 2 – 1 | 1 – 2 – 3 – 4 – 5 – 6 – 7 – 8 – 9 – 10 – 11

Reflective

Sensing

11 – 10 – 9 – 8 – 7 – 6 – 5 – 4 – 3 – 2 – 1 | 1 – 2 – 3 – 4 – 5 – 6 – 7 – 8 – 9 – 10 – 11

Intuitive

Visual

11 – 10 – 9 – 8 – 7 – 6 – 5 – 4 – 3 – 2 – 1 | 1 – 2 – 3 – 4 – 5 – 6 – 7 – 8 – 9 – 10 – 11

Verbal

Sequential

11 – 10 – 9 – 8 – 7 – 6 – 5 – 4 – 3 – 2 – 1 | 1 – 2 – 3 – 4 – 5 – 6 – 7 – 8 – 9 – 10 – 11

Global

Felder et al (1998; 2005) claim that these preferences are consistent for each learner across domains and disciplines. When learners complete the Inventory of Learning Styles questionnaire it automatically informs them that the strategies they declare their preferences for are learning styles that are intrinsic personality traits to which they should adapt their studying habits. They are then referred to a document recommending study strategies that would best accommodate their learning styles preferences. In this sense, the Felder-Silverman, as well as many other learning styles schemas, promote a “fixed mindset,” i.e. that learning styles are fixed personality traits and not developmental or modifiable (Chiu et al., 1997; Dweck, 2010; Hong et al., 1999).

A Fixed vs. Growth Mindset

What’s wrong with a fixed mindset? It is tempting for musicians and practitioners in any field to view themselves as intrinsically capable or talented. However, Dweck (2010) informs us that for the purposes of learning and development:

“Individuals with a fixed mindset believe that their intelligence is simply an inborn trait – they have a certain amount, and that’s that.” “…when students view intelligence as fixed, they tend to value looking smart above all else. They may sacrifice important opportunities to learn – even those that are important to their future academic success – if those opportunities require them to risk performing poorly or admitting deficiencies.” (Dweck, 2010)

So, far from helping learners to develop the necessary knowledge, skills, and abilities (KSAs) through practice and perseverance, the fixed mindset, which I propose is at the foundation of learning styles, actively discourages learners who perceive themselves as less capable and talented; because their KSAs are not yet as well-developed as their peers; and discourages learners who perceive themselves as more capable and talented to not expose their shortcomings and instead encourages them to present a wall of (insecure) perfection to their peers. Have you ever noticed how some people feel intimidated and reticent when working with peers who they perceive to be more talented and capable than themselves?

Redefining learning styles in terms of a strategic, adaptive, growth mindset

In order to identify the differences between the fixed mindset promoted by learning styles and a strategic, adaptive growth mindset, let us take a closer look at the Felder-Silverman Inventory of Learning Styles schema, although this could equally apply to many of the many other learning styles schemas. When presented with a learning activity or opportunity, rather than a learner recalling her learning styles diagnosis from the psychometric test (fixed mindset), I argue that it would be advantageous for her to ask herself about how much she already knows, what experience she has, and to think about where she stands on the novice – expert learner scale, and which strategies are likely to help her most (growth mindset):

Active vs. Reflective Learning Styles Fixed mindset

According to the Felder-Silverman Inventory of Learning Styles:

Active

vs.

Reflective

Active learners tend to retain and understand information best by doing something active with it – discussing or applying it or explaining it to others.

Reflective learners prefer to think about it quietly first.

“Let’s try it out and see how it works” is an active learner’s phrase.

“Let’s think it through first” is the reflective learner’s response.

Active learners tend to like group work more than reflective learners.

Reflective learners prefer working alone.

Strategic, Adaptive, Growth Mindset

Novice learners’ developmental need: To gain basic, first-hand, experiential, implicit, procedural KSAs.

Experienced learners’ developmental need: To situate and connect already learned KSAs and relate them to each other.

Novice learners

to

Experienced learners

Make up the shortfall in basic KSAs in some way. A good strategy is to get some hands-on experience and active engagement with it.

Describe and analyse the context/situation we find ourselves in and reflect on how our KSAs apply/relate to it.

Sensing vs. Intuitive Learning Styles Fixed mindset

According to the Felder-Silverman Inventory of Learning Styles:

Sensing

vs.

Intuitive

Sensing learners tend to like learning facts.

Intuitive learners often prefer discovering possibilities and relationships.

Sensors often like solving problems by well-established methods and dislike complications and surprises

Intuitors like innovation and dislike repetition.

Sensors are more likely than intuitors to resent being tested on material that has not been explicitly covered in class.

Sensors tend to be patient with details and good at memorizing facts and doing hands-on (laboratory) work. Intuitors may be better at grasping new concepts and are often more comfortable than sensors with abstractions and mathematical formulations.

Sensors tend to be more practical and careful than intuitors.

Intuitors tend to work faster and to be more innovative than sensors.

Sensors don’t like courses that have no apparent connection to the real world.

Intuitors don’t like “plug-and-chug” courses that involve a lot of memorization and routine calculations.

Strategic, Adaptive, Growth Mindset

Novice learners’ developmental need: To learn the parts than make up the whole. To deepen understanding of KSAs to make them more explicit, i.e. make KSAs available to consciousness in order to develop more abstract and general hypotheses about them.

Experienced learners’ developmental need: Develop their conceptual frameworks further, locate gaps in KSAs, and situate new KSAs within their frameworks.

Novice learners

to

Experienced learners

Learn the basics, follow linear procedures, memorise information and methods, etc. Hands-on experience helps to put abstract concepts into context and is useful for testing/exploring boundary conditions, i.e. when methods, procedures, etc. start to fail/become inappropriate.

More experienced learners in this field can think more abstractly, can explore bending the rules, testing boundary conditions (i.e. where/when they break down/fail), and finding new ways to apply the knowledge.

Visual vs. Verbal Learning Styles Fixed mindset

According to the Felder-Silverman Inventory of Learning Styles:

Visual

vs.

Verbal

Visual learners remember best what they see – pictures, diagrams, flow charts, time lines, films, and demonstrations. Verbal learners get more out of words – written and spoken explanations.

Strategic, Adaptive, Growth Mindset

Novice learners’ developmental need: To develop an awareness of “the big picture,” that there are frameworks they must develop an understanding of, with gaps/spaces in which to situate new KSAs.

Experienced learners’ developmental need: To deepen understanding and develop more abstract concepts that they can generalise and use in novel situations and other domains.

Novice learners

to

Experienced learners

Are helped by having simplified, graphic overviews and illustrations of concepts and ideas; pictures, diagrams, flow charts, concept maps, time lines, narrative films, and demonstrations. They may need to see conceptual structures and frameworks in order to develop their understanding of them more fully.

Already have overviews and can map out the subject area. They are ready to go into greater detail and depth and reflect on the relationships and implications of the concepts.

Learning Styles Fixed mindset

According to the Felder-Silverman Inventory of Learning Styles:

Sequential

vs.

Global

Sequential learners tend to gain understanding in linear steps, with each step following logically from the previous one.

Global learners tend to learn in large jumps, absorbing material almost randomly without seeing connections, and then suddenly “getting it.”

Sequential learners tend to follow logical stepwise paths in finding solutions.

Global learners may be able to solve complex problems quickly or put things together in novel ways once they have grasped the big picture, but they may have difficulty explaining how they did it.

Strategic, Adaptive, Growth Mindset

Novice learners’ developmental need: To situate, relate, and connect concepts to theories and in frameworks, i.e. “the big picture,” and develop a deeper understanding.

Experienced learners’ developmental need: To sufficiently develop and build their KSAs into more abstract concepts so that they can easily transfer them across domains.

Novice learners

to

Experienced learners

Need structured, guided learning where they encounter related concepts close together (spatially and/or temporally) so as to emphasise their relationships/connections to each other. They need to understand some concepts before they can learn others in order to build a coherent picture of the subject/topic area.

Can connect the dots, have constructed larger, more complex, more abstract concepts and so can think more globally, taking the bigger picture, and the complex relationships between them into account. Much of their basic thinking has become automatic and barely registers in their consciousness (working memory). They are also more able to transfer those more abstract concepts into novel domains and adapt them accordingly.

Summary

I have proposed this alternative interpretation of learning styles, rethinking them not as fixed, psychometric attributes and personality traits, but as adaptive, strategic responses to the challenges that learners frequently face when acquiring and developing KSAs. By understanding learners’ preferences as indicators of their current levels of cognitive and metacognitive development, somewhere between novice and expert, we can help learners to develop learning strategies to situate themselves on trajectories of personal growth and to identify and prioritise the specific areas and aspects where they need to develop their KSAs further. In other words, to be balanced, self-aware, self-directed, strategic, adaptive, and well-rounded learners.

References

Bransford, J. D., Brown, A. L., Cocking, R. R., Donovan, M. S., & Pellegrino, J. W. (Eds.). (2000). How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School: Expanded Edition (2nd ed.). The National Academies Press. Retrieved from http://www.nap.edu/catalog/9853/how-people-learn-brain-mind-experience-and-school-expanded-edition

Chiu, C., Hong, Y., & Dweck, C. S. (1997). Lay dispositionism and implicit theories of personality. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 73(1), 19–30. http://doi.org/10.1037/0022-3514.73.1.19

Dweck, C. S. (2010). Even Geniuses Work Hard. Educational Leadership, 68(1), 16–20.

Felder, R. M., & Silverman, L. K. (1988). Learning and Teaching Styles in Engineering Education. Engineering Education, 78(7), 674–81.

Felder, R. M., & Spurlin, J. (2005). Applications, Reliability and Validity of the Index of Learning Styles. International Journal of Engineering Education, 21(1), 103–112.

Hayes, D. (2005). Learning Styles and Pedagogy in Post-16 Learning: A Systematic and Critical Review. Journal of Further and Higher Education, (3), 289.

Hong, Y., Chiu, C., Dweck, C. S., Lin, D. M.-S., & Wan, W. (1999). Implicit theories, attributions, and coping: A meaning system approach. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 77(3), 588–599. http://doi.org/10.1037/0022-3514.77.3.588

Pashler, H., McDaniel, M., Rohrer, D., & Bjork, R. (2008). Learning Styles: Concepts and Evidence. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 9:3.

Soloman, B., & Felder, R. M. (1991a). Index of Learning Styles Questionnaire [Institution Website]. Retrieved August 4, 2015, from https://www.engr.ncsu.edu/learningstyles/ilsweb.html

Soloman, B., & Felder, R. M. (1991b). Learning Styles and Strategies. North Carolina State University. Retrieved from http://www.cityvision.edu/courses/coursefiles/402/STYLES_AND_STRATEGIES.pdf

How prepared are learners for elearning?

distance educationWhat makes a learner ready to study online? How do they know? How do they find out?

In an attempt to address the issue of the higher student attrition (drop-out) rates in distance education (DE) and elearning than in face-to-face classes, it’s becoming more common for educational organisations to try to evaluate learners’ to find out who are unlikely to succeed on their courses and programmes and may require extra support and guidance. In other words, to assess learners’ preparedness for DE and elearning.

I think one of the biggest issues with self-assessment of readiness to study online is that learners often don’t know what the questions and ratings scales they’re presented with on questionnaires and application forms mean. Additionally, according to the Dunning-Kruger effect (Kruger & Dunning, 1999), learners with lower knowledge, skills, abilities, and experience tend to rate themselves proportionately higher than more experienced and proficient ones. In other words, the less they know, the less they know what they don’t know and the poorer they are at judging their own proficiency. In more exaggerated cases, we may actually be turning away more suitable learners and accepting less prepared ones.

In my attempt to address this issue, here are some qualitative questions that I feel are more likely to elicit responses that reflect a learner’s knowledge, skills, and abilities (KSAs), as well as their experiences, beliefs, attitudes, and values, that are relevant to distance education (DE) and elearning and to identify areas of strength and weakness rather than simple binary “yes or no”, or ratings scale responses. In other words, to encourage learners to describe their preparedness and have the interviewer decide how they compare to the minimum necessary KSAs defined in our learning organisation’s policies. It would also be possible to provide learners, whose KSAs may currently be insufficient or borderline, with personalised plans of action that they can use as a guide to “bring themselves up to speed” for successful DE and elearning.

Technical IT and Practical Requirements

What levels of technical and IT KSAs, practical facilities, and experience, beliefs, and attitudes, which are necessary for successful participation in DE and elearning, does the learner have?

  • Why does the learner want to take this course or programme? Is it for personal enrichment, professional advancement, retooling, retraining, or changing careers?
  • How many hours per week is the learner willing to commit to studies? How will the learner manage their time to prioritise and dedicate to uninterrupted periods of study without distractions from colleagues, family members, friends, and/or associates?
  • What tools, services, and technology does the learner have sufficient access to to support their learning, e.g. sufficiently powerful and useful computer, webcam & microphone, reliable high-speed internet, and appropriate software necessary to read digital files and formats?
  • How technology literate is the learner? How proficient and experienced is the learner with communication tools such as email, discussion forums, chat, and video web conferencing? What online websites, discussion groups, etc. has the learner participated in? What can they tell you about their experiences?
  • What support structures does the learner have at home or in the workplace? How understanding and supportive are their colleagues, family members, friends, and/or associates?
  • What are the learner’s previous experiences of education and learning at school, college, university, and/or the workplace?
  • Has the learner taken distance learning courses in the past? If so, what were the learner’s experiences?
  • What beliefs, attitudes, and values does the learner express that are necessary and compatible to participate in their proposed programme of study? How much direction and support will they need? How well developed are their metacognitive/self-directed learning skills?

Although more time consuming and labour intensive to conduct and administer, I think these more descriptive, open ended questions should be more helpful in allowing organisations to assess learners’ preparedness for participating in DE and learning courses and programmes effectively. Also, they can be adapted and made more specific so that they more accurately reflect the requirements of specific courses and programmes.

Reference

Kruger, J., & Dunning, D. (1999). Unskilled and unaware of it: How difficulties in recognizing one’s own incompetence lead to inflated self-assessments. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 77(6), 1121–1134. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.77.6.1121 Retrieved from: http://psych.colorado.edu/~vanboven/teaching/p7536_heurbias/p7536_readings/kruger_dunning.pdf

A limitation of direct instruction and what we can do about it

ZPD among learners

ZPD among learnersTeachers in professional development sessions, discussion forums, and informal conversations often recognise that there are issues affecting their learners’ attention and learning, despite their best efforts to design and plan clear, concise, interesting, engaging, purposeful, and meaningful lessons. I’ve frequently heard teachers, novice and experienced alike, searching for ways to make their classes more engaging and for more of their learners to make sense of more of the concepts presented to them at a time. Personally, I think that most teachers are very good at directing, instructing, describing, demonstrating, and explaining, and they’re often skilled, likeable, and entertaining presenters. I don’t think that teachers’ presenting abilities are the problem… …let me explain why.

Variations in learners’ Zones of Proximal Development (ZPD)

Among any cohort of learners, even when they’re grouped according to their prior knowledge and abilities, there’ll be what Daniel Willingham terms variation in preparation (Willingham, 2009), i.e. that some learners know and can do more than their peers on particular tasks and problems. This is particularly clear in subjects such as Mathematics where concepts (facts and procedures) are logically extended from others; understanding calculus requires understanding trigonometry, which requires understanding geometry, which requires understanding algebra, which requires understanding arithmetic.

For example, when a learner has understood and proceduralised the concepts in arithmetic (i.e. acquired a working knowledge of arithmetic), then she is ready to learn algebra but she hasn’t yet proceduralised the concepts in algebra which is necessary to make sense of geometry. What’s more, she will require some kind of instruction and/or guidance in order to make sense of algebra, what it is, and how it works. Trying to learn geometry at this point would be beyond her abilities and knowledge and more than likely result in her being confused, frustrated, and eventually disengaging from the learning activities. Thus we have Lev Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD) model for any given concept (fact or procedure). In this case, she can already do arithmetic independently, can do algebra with guidance, but cannot do geometry, even if guided:

Zone of Proximal Development
Fig. 1 Lev Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD)

However, it’s more complicated than that. The learner also has to have a sufficient grasp of the language and linguistic reasoning concepts that we use to reason our way through and make sense of mathematical concepts and ideas. Children can only manage the complex, logical reasoning required for areas of mathematics when they’ve acquired the linguistic skills to manage and direct their thinking in this way. In this respect, language is the tool that we use to think with. New Dorp high school, New York, apparently demonstrated this  when they raised their learners’ previously poor performance on math and science tests by emphasising developing their linguistic skills in math and  science classes², the researchers cited learners’ linguistic development as a strong contributor to their improvements in academic performance. (A well known aspect of task and test preparation is to draw attention to the “wording” of questions, tasks, explanations, and descriptions). Therefore, to tackle a maths problem, learners not only need prerequisite math skills and knowledge, they also need sufficient literacy skills and knowledge.

The traditional teacher-led classroom

ZDP among learners and their variations in preparation for a particular concept
Fig. 2 A traditional present-practice-produce classroom dynamic and their variations in preparation for a particular concept

In the traditional teacher-led classroom, the teacher directs, instructs, describes, demonstrates, and explains concepts to a cohort of learners. Those directions, instructions, descriptions, demonstrations, and explanations that the teacher presents to the learners are the raw materials that they have to work with in order to build their understanding of concepts (facts and procedures). For any concept that’s presented, there’ll be an inevitable variation in learner preparedness from learner to learner:

  • Some learners will already understand the concept and be able to complete any tasks and solve any problems that they may be assigned; for them, the class is, at best, further practice and consolidation but more than likely unproductive time.
  • Other learners may not be prepared to make sense of the concepts being presented; for them, the class is confusing, frustrating, and not engaging.
  • For those that are left, often a minority, find that the presented concept is within their Zones of Proximal Development (ZPD), and the class is a valuable, rewarding, and productive learning experience.
ZDP among learners
Fig. 3 The same cohort of learners may have different variations in preparation between different concepts

Given another concept in the same class, the variations in learner preparation may shift in unpredictable ways. A learner that was previously in their ZPD can find themselves suddenly confused and frustrated. Taking our math examples, they may understand the prerequisite math concepts but not have the linguistic skills to tackle the next one being presented, or vice versa. Clearly, the teacher-led approach only usually serves a minority of the learners in a class at any given time; it’s an inefficient, hit-and-miss way of helping learners to understand and make sense of concepts that tends to result in boredom, confusion, frustration, and deficits in attention in most classes.

Clearly, preparing one lesson to present, in a one-to-many fashion, to a whole cohort of learners which are at different levels of preparedness for any given concept, will inevitably give many, if not most, learners an unrewarding learning experience at one time or another. That the teacher is teaching a concept, and I’ll assume that the teacher is doing it well, doesn’t necessarily mean that her learners are learning it, and it’s not necessarily because of any failure on the teacher’s or learners’ part.

So why do most learners stick with their courses and programmes if they aren’t learning much? Possible reasons why learners tend to persevere in traditional, teacher-led classes, despite the boredom, confusion, and frustration that they may feel, are:

  • low expectations – A lifetime of teacher-led present-practise-produce classes doesn’t inform learners that there are other approaches, methods, and strategies that are more effective and appropriate for many learning objectives so they believe, “This is how learning should be.”;
  • extrinsic motivators – Rewards and punishments or sticks and carrots;
  • delayed gratification and self-regulation – They need to pass this test or complete this course for one reason or another;
  • and/or social reward – They like their teacher and/or their classmates and enjoy spending time with them.

In any of these cases, the main motivators to come to class and participate may or may not include learning in and of itself. It can be stressful, time consuming and is frequently cited as a major contributor to teacher “burnout.”

What can we do about it?

A one-to-many, expository approach is just one way to teach. It places the teacher not only in the role of “class leader” but also in the role of supervisor. Not only must she lead her learners and inspire them to learn, she must also direct their learning activities, step by step according to her lesson plan. At each step of the way, learners are dependent on their teacher’s direction and instruction of what to do next. There is little or no time for her to attend to the individual needs of learners and they have to either follow the lesson plan or get left behind and perhaps try to catch up later. They don’t even need to know why they’re doing it or what it means, as long as they follow the instructions correctly. Unfortunately, facts and procedures can be memorised by learners and repeated in tests without ever bringing them to life, giving them meaning, and really understanding them — Our minds have great difficulty in remembering facts and procedures that we haven’t understood.

What if we delegate the role and responsibility of supervisor, or as much of it as possible, to learners? Once they know what they have to learn, are they not capable of organising themselves and deciding how they’re going to learn it? In Project Zero, at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, researchers are investigating this:

“One British study found that the primary forms of talk in elementary schools around the world are rote, recitation, instruction, and exposition. Academically productive talk (or “Accountable Talk” — a term first coined by cognitive scientist Lauren Resnick) is more likely to be grounded in discussion and dialogue rather than instructional or expository talk. Resnick argues that accountable talk supports student learning across economic, social, and linguistic backgrounds. Developing a vocabulary of collaboration; using tools such as protocols, thinking routines, rubrics, and norms; and focusing on building collective as well as individual knowledge are all ways to foster such learning conversations.” ³

The what and how of learning

ZPD among learners
Learner-led groups can address concepts in their own terms and help each other to meet their learning needs

A learner-led classroom cultivates a climate where learners can take responsibility for their own learning. The teacher’s role as leader is to provide the stimulus, what the learning objective is, any resources that may be useful, and allow the learners to seek the help they need and decide/discover how they can best learn it (If you’re a fan of Latin, the what is the syllabus, literally meaning “list”, and the how is the curriculum, literally meaning “the course of a race”).

A typical approach is to put learners into smaller sub-groups of no more than five and to work on tasks, problems, and projects as teams. Members of a learning team succeed together, working on their individual strengths to the benefit of the whole group. Learners can also adopt specific roles to play during a learning activity, as in the case of Reciprocal Teaching’s reading for understanding activities, which shares the cognitive load between members of a group allowing for more complex tasks, requiring greater collaboration, and promoting deeper learning. Learners who already understand a concept can help those who don’t yet, and as Dr. Matthew Lieberman has noted, learning a concept in order to teach it to a peer is a strong social and cognitive motivator⁴ (Peer teaching was very successful in the Écoles Mutuelles during the French revolution when there was a dire shortage of teachers, and popularised in the UK as the Lancasterian and Madras systems). Additionally, if one group gets stuck on a particular concept, they can ask another group for help. In this way, all learners are working together purposefully and meaningfully, always aware that they may be called upon at any time to help their peers to understand a concept. In this setting, the teacher spends less time instructing and directing learners and typically adopts multiple roles as a monitor, moderator, guide, and/or mentor with individuals, groups, or the whole class, depending on what any particular interaction or intervention she feels would be most productive and conducive to independent, self-directed learning.

What are some examples of self-directed learning?

In K-12 education, studies on Reciprocal Teaching have reported strong learning gains. Here’s a teacher oriented introduction to the method. Here’s an interesting paper, Simmons, A. M., & Page, M., Motivating Students through Power and Choice, that examines self-directed learning.

Part of the reason some “flipped classrooms” have reported success is that they provide classes with time and space to work together in small groups on tasks, problems, and projects informed by the presentations, readings, research, etc. that they do in preparation outside class.

In university settings, Peer-Instruction has been returning consistently higher learning gains and learner satisfaction in physics and math undergraduate courses. Here’s a paper by Eric Mazur, credited with introducing this method to higher education: Peer Instruction: Ten years of experience and results, and here’s an application of it in the humanities: Using Peer Instruction to teach Philosophy, Logic and Critical Thinking

Please note: These are just a small sample from a long and growing list of courses and programmes with strong orientations towards collaborative, self-directed learning and teaching practices in classrooms around the world.

How does this relate to online learning?

Many of the stock tools of modern online and distance learning and learning management systems are designed to facilitate collaborative participation and group work among learners; discussion forums, chat, wikis, databases, concept mapping, Etherpad (similar to Google Docs where learners can see each other edit pages in real time), etc.. The tools are available to teachers, faculty, resource developers, and curriculum developers but, with the notable exception of discussion forums, I’ve been surprised at how infrequently they’re used to this end. As with face-to-face learning and teaching practice, online learning and teaching practice tends to engage with only a small sub-set of traditional, orthodox learning and teaching theory.

For those teachers, faculty, curriculum developers, and academic management that are interested in exploring and developing learner-centred, collaborative courses and programmes, one of the most influential and frequently cited evidence-based models is the Community of Inquiry framework, which places a strong emphasis on social connection and collaboration between learners.

Here’s a first person account of a university faculty teacher who has successfully transitioned to online learning and teaching practice and how it has influenced her classroom practice: How Teaching Online Made Me a Better Face-to-Face Instructor

Does this mean we should never use direct instruction?

Certainly not. I prefer to think of direct instruction as just one of many tools available to teachers, and all tools have their appropriate uses and limitations. There are times when teacher-led, direct instruction to a cohort of learners is an appropriate choice and some amount of direct instruction can improve group cohesion, and be motivating and even inspiring to learners. However, I think problems arise when it’s the dominant or only method that teachers and faculty use and it’s the combined responsibility of teachers, faculty, curriculum developers, and academic management to work together to ensure that courses and programmes are using the most appropriate methods and approaches to meet learners’ needs in achieving their learning objectives. Although the proportion can vary from discipline to discipline and subject to subject, if you’re spending more than 20% of classroom time on direct instruction, I recommend reviewing what other methods could be more appropriate for your courses’ and/or programmes’ learning objectives.

References

¹ Willingham, D. T. (2009) Why Don’t Students Like School?, A Cognitive Scientist Answers Questions About How The Mind Works and What It Means for the Classroom, pp. 21 – 22. Jossey-Bass.

² Tyre, P. (2012) The Writing Revolution, TheAtlantic.com. However, it’s not entirely due to the writing programme and a more complex picture unfolds in this response: Fredricksen, J. (2012) Are We Learning the Right Lessons From New Dorp High School? TheAtlantic.com. Here’s an article that outlines the principles behind developing literacy skills for learning: Task, Text, and Talk: Literacy for All Subjects (2006) ASCD.org

³ Quoted from Krechevsky, M., Mardell, B., Riverd, M, & Wilson, D. (2013) Visible Learners: Promoting Reggio-Inspired Approaches in All Schools. Jossey-Bass, citing Michaels, S., O’Connor, M. C., Hall, M. W., & Resnick, L. (2010) Accountable Talk sourcebook: For classroom conversation that works (PDF download). Pittsburgh: Institute for Learning.

⁴ Lieberman, M. D. (2013) Educating the Social Brain, Social: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Connect, 1:12. Crown Publishing. Lieberman found that a learner who studies a concept with the intention of teaching it to a peer, even if she doesn’t teach her peer, learns it better and performs substantially better on tests that a learner who studies for a test.

Ratings systems on social platforms can have unexpected effects

Plane in downward spiralThis is a quick post to share a recently published paper, How Community Feedback Shapes User Behavior, that examines the effects of ratings systems and up/down voting on social networking platforms and services. I go on to discuss some questions it raises for online social learning.

Abstract

Here’s the abstract to How Community Feedback Shapes User Behavior:

“Social media systems rely on user feedback and rating mechanisms for personalization, ranking, and content filtering. However, when users evaluate content contributed by fellow users (e.g., by liking a post or voting on a comment), these evaluations create complex social feedback effects. This paper investigates how ratings on a piece of content affect its author’s future behavior. By studying four large comment-based news communities, we find that negative feedback leads to significant behavioral changes that are detrimental to the community. Not only do authors of negatively-evaluated content contribute more, but also their future posts are of lower quality, and are perceived by the community as such. Moreover, these authors are more likely to subsequently evaluate their fellow users negatively, percolating these effects through the community. In contrast, positive feedback does not carry similar effects, and neither encourages rewarded authors to write more, nor improves the quality of their posts. Interestingly, the authors that receive no feedback are most likely to leave a community. Furthermore, a structural analysis of the voter network reveals that evaluations polarize the community the most when positive and negative votes are equally split.”

Summary of findings

  • The findings of the study appear to contradict the Skinnerian behaviourist model of operant conditioning (i.e. punishments and rewards or “sticks and carrots”).
  • Up/Down-votes and commenting provide a means for social interaction and “this can create social feedback loops that affect the behavior of the author whose content was evaluated, as well as the entire community.”
  • Authors of down-voted comments/posts tend to post more frequently and their comments/posts tend to be of lower quality.
  • Down-voted authors are also more likely to subsequently down-vote others’ comments/posts.
  • Down-voting tends to percolate throughout online communities having an overall negative effect.
  • Up-voting doesn’t appear to influence authors’ subsequent comments/posts in any significant way.
  • If comment/post authors receive no feedback, they are more likely to disengage with the community, i.e. fewer comments/posts and less up/down-voting.

The article concludes that ignoring/tolerating negative behaviour in online communities, i.e. giving no feedback whatsoever, is a more effective approach at discouraging it than addressing it directly, e.g. down-voting.

How does this relate to online social learning?

Firstly, we should be cautious about drawing any conclusions about online discussions and learning activities in online social learning. Firstly, the researchers report that, “…we have mostly ignored the content of the discussion, as well as the context in which the post appears… “, which can have significant and far reaching effects on the behaviour and interactions between participants.

Secondly, the social dynamics of social constructivist oriented online courses can be very different: The study focused on massive groups of self-selected users participating in communities based around popular media and entertainment websites, whereas in elearning, we’re typically dealing with smaller cohorts of learners who, at least in an ideal world, establish an atmosphere of mutual support, shared responsibility, and explicitly shared common purpose that is effectively moderated by skilled, experienced mediators/facilitators, e.g. teachers, teaching assistants, and/or moderators.

Rethinking the design of ratings systems

In my opinion, this paper raises more questions for elearning practitioners than it answers, which is a good thing:

  • How do learners use ratings systems and how does this affect their future behaviour in online learning communities? Is it significantly different to the users’ behaviour on social media sites?
  • Is it possible to design ratings/feedback systems that have more positive effects or at least avoid the potential negative effects reported in the paper?
  • How would the range of ratings options available to users affect the way they rate and comment, e.g. if you only include positive options in ratings?
  • How would providing ratings options that are more specific to the learning objectives of the particular learning activity affect the quality and quantity of comments and quantity of ratings?
  • What factors/influences affect learners’ behaviour in online learning communities more significantly with regard to ratings and comments? e.g. Does the degree of familiarity, mutual respect, and trust affect how learners respond to negative and critical ratings and comments?

Some example suggestions

In an earlier article, Implementing star-ratings in Moodle, I described how teachers and curriculum developers can create custom ratings in Moodle. As well as simple star-ratings, I listed some possible options which included Likert scales, prompts, showing interest, and expressing personal alignment, e.g. “This is(n’t) like me” statements. Most of these omit negative or neutral ratings, my reasoning being that, in order to give negative or critical feedback, learners and/or teachers have to take the time and effort to write sensitively phrased, personalised, specific, reasonable, constructive criticism, ideally with some kind of “what to do next”, so that it’s not just negative or critical but that it’s also helpful and purposeful in some way.

One strategy that springs to mind is to use ratings systems that, rather than ratings that suggest learners are being graded, i.e. “good vs. bad” comments, provide a set of prompts and/or questions and therefore are a convenient and helpful tool to encourage further participation. If learners have little experience of social learning and/or maybe need some initial support and guidance, having a convenient list of prompts/questions at hand could be helpful. For example:

Self-reliance questions

  • How do you determine this to be true?
  • Why don’t you consider a different route to the problem?
  • Why does that answer make sense to you?
  • What if I say that’s not true?

Reasoning questions

  • Why do you think this works? Does it always, why?
  • How do you think this is true?
  • Show how you might prove that.
  • Why assume this?
  • How might you argue against this?

Clarifying questions

  • Can you explain that in another way?
  • How does this relate to [discussion topic]?
  • Can you be more specific?
  • Can you give us an example?
  • Please tell us more about this.

Finally

It’s worth mentioning that a strong characteristic of these questions and prompts is that they are intended to stimulate analytical and critical thinking, which we usually expect to hear from teachers and mentors rather than from our peers. Learners don’t automatically assume that such questions and prompts are welcome or appropriate from their peers. In order for them to be positive and productive, participants should already be inducted into a familiar, trusting, mutually respectful and supportive group of peers, who all explicitly share a common purpose, i.e. learning objectives and/or “big/essential questions,” in a collaborative climate.

Discussion

I’ve started a discussion thread for this article on the Moodle.org community forums: https://moodle.org/mod/forum/discuss.php?d=261124 Joining the Moodle community is quick, easy, and free.

Image credit Wikimedia Commons

Are teacher-led and learner-led approaches compatible?

tug of warAs learner-led/learner-centred learning and teaching oriented methods and principles gain attention and popularity, teachers, curriculum developers, and instructional designers are incorporating them into learning activities and courses. Many report mixed results and issues when they do so. The following article examines one possible contributing factor to such results and issues.

Defining terms

Firstly, I’m not arguing that teacher-led and learner-led views of learning and teaching practice are absolutes or binary states. I view them as being on the same scale from extremely prescribed and controlled by the teacher, e.g. the stereotypical Victorian school master, through to entirely self-organised, defined, controlled, and sustained learning by autonomous learners themselves, e.g. special interest groups and communities of practice, and I believe that most online curricula and learning and teaching practices are situated somewhere in between.

Teacher-led <———————————————————————–> Learner-led

Teacher vs. learner-led scale

When tensions arise

With the best of intentions and carefully and skilfully constructed learning activities, teachers, curriculum developers, and IDs can inadvertently create relational and motivational tensions between teachers and learners, and among cohorts of learners by the way they mix teacher-led and learner-led activities. Here’s a typical case scenario:

An experienced, well-informed teacher has developed an online course that is predominantly teacher-led. The course uses online presentations, readings, webinars, and forum discussions which are intensively monitored led by the teacher. The teacher conscientiously provides guidance, instructional scaffolding, and links to further resources at every turn. The teacher then decides to introduce some learner-led projects, problems, or tasks to the course (Perhaps as a way to make the course less labour intensive for the teacher?).

However, only a small minority of the learners participate as much as expected and/or required, and the majority go “off track”, waste time, and/or complain about aspects of the activity or the whole activity. The learning outcomes are mediocre at best or even poor, and it’s difficult to regain the previous “learning momentum” of the course.

Why did this happen? Is there something wrong with the activity? Is there some way to make it more productive? I suspect that in most cases, the activity is adequately designed and not the main contributor to the issue.

What contributes to these tensions?

If a course is predominantly teacher-led to start with, it creates an atmosphere and learning experiences that set up learners’ expectations that are aligned with being led and having critical learning decisions being made for them, or the feeling that any decisions they make need to be validated or approved by an authority figure; the teacher.

Additionally, some of the prerequisite conditions necessary for learner-led learning to occur, e.g. social presence and building autonomous, mutually respectful, and productive relationships between teachers and learners, and among the learners themselves, may not be in place and may have gone unnoticed since they aren’t critical to the success of teacher-led approaches. When suddenly faced with the responsibility of thinking autonomously, analytically, and critically, and having to work closely with peers, who they may or may not have got to know very well, and without the supervision, guidance, and approval of their authority figure (the teacher), the majority of learners’ expectations are not met; they feel lost, unsupported, and confused.

In my experience, the majority of learners are perfectly capable of being autonomous, thinking analytically and critically, and taking responsibility for their learning; most people do so from an early age in their public and private lives outside of education. However, because of most people’s previous experiences of education and strongly held cultural beliefs about it, we need to be explicit when asking learners to do so in situations and environments labelled “educational” and cultivate the atmosphere, and provide the environment, support, and resources that are necessary. Learners need to get to know each other and learn about what each of their peers on a course has to offer with regards to the subject matter and learning objectives. They need to build interpersonal relationships and cultivate trust so that they have the confidence to explore, experiment, and take risks and feel that they have the interest, approval, and support of their peers as well as their teacher.

In conclusion

I’m not arguing here that teacher-led and learner-led methods and activities are inherently incompatible, just that from what I’ve seen in practice in the majority of instances, both in face-to-face and online contexts, tensions and issues can and do arise when certain conditions and factors aren’t taken into consideration. When we break with educational traditions and orthodoxies, and/or atmospheres of learning that have been cultivated within organisations, we need to be explicit about what we’re doing and why, and ensure that the prerequisite conditions are in place for learner-directed learning experiences to be purposeful, successful, and productive.

What can learners and teachers do to limit corporate surveillance while working online?

Big Brother Google is watching youSince security and surveillance expert Edward Snowden blew the whistle and leaked damning NSA documents to investigative journalists Laura Poitras and Glenn Greenwald, the implications and ramifications of the NSA’s dragnet surveillance, partly enabled by IT giants like Google, Microsoft, and Facebook, have been cause for concern everywhere, and not least in elearning. As educators we bear a responsibility to our learners and other educators to protect their basic civil rights wherever and whenever we can. By being well-informed about internet surveillance and the tools and strategies available, we can offer useful, effective advice and help to reduce both the quality and quantity of personal data collected from them in the course of their online studies and work.

Why is internet surveillance an important issue?

First, here’s the scary bit. Below is an interview with a Journalist who’s looked into the business of internet surveillance:

“Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative journalist Julia Angwin joins us to discuss her new book, “Dragnet Nation: A Quest for Privacy, Security and Freedom in a World of Relentless Surveillance.” Currently at ProPublica and previously with the Wall Street Journal, Angwin details her complex and fraught path towards increasing her own online privacy. According to Angwin, the private data collected by East Germany’s Soviet-era Stasi secret police could pale in comparison to the information revealed today by an individual’s Facebook profile or Google search.”

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XPmbohZK6EI?feature=player_detailpage]

So, What can learners and teachers do to limit corporate surveillance while working online?

What advice can we give and what measures can we put in place? Are they practical, understandable, and easily do-able? Here’s some practical suggestions to get the ball rolling…

Turn off local storage on Flash Player

Turn off local storage on Flash Player: Local Shared Objects (LSOs) are used extensively by surveillance organisations, including Google, because they reveal more information about users’ computers and software, making it easier to uniquely identify individuals, and LSOs aren’t deleted when you clear/purge your browsers’ cache, i.e. they’re more persistent. The benefits of allowing LSOs is minor and easy to live without.

Install a cookie manager

Along with your IP address and HTTP headers, cookies are the primary means of identifying and tracking individuals. There are several cookie manager extensions/plugins available for browsers that manage cookies for you. Those that you want to keep, e.g. for sites that you want to remain logged into, you can white-list them, everything else gets deleted when you navigate away from the site. My favourite is Self-destructing cookies for Firefox.

Block JavaScript from surveillance sites

This one’s a bit more problematic and can “break” page displays on some sites. If at all practical and workable, JavaScript blocking prevents some very detailed surveillance from taking place. From my experience with using free and open source web analytics software, I’ve witnessed how rich and detailed the collected data can be. There are two main approaches; white-lists and black-lists. A white-list is a list of approved sites to allow JavaScript from, a black-list is a list of sites to block JavaScript from. Both require someone to maintain the lists and block or allow new sites as they come up: many sites nowadays use CDNs and/or 3rd party libraries for JavaScript libraries and blocking them can make many sites unusable. In short, you have to maintain a list of legitimate JavaScript CDNs and 3rd party libraries as well as for the individual sites. I use a white-list plugin for Firefox called NoScript.

The added benefit of JavaScript blocking with white-lists, is that they also prevent the vast majority of web malware attacks. JavaScript has consistently been identified as the primary technology used in malware attacks by all the major anti-virus firms.

Use privacy protecting search engines

Rather than use Google, Yahoo!, or Bing as your search provider, why not use one of the more ethical and privacy protecting services? They don’t store your search history or your IP address and as an added advantage, they don’t filter their search results according to a personal search history profile thereby preventing the “filter bubble” phenomenon which can hide useful, relevant results from users.

Automatically generate random tracking noise

The browser plugin for Firefox and Chrome TrackMeNot periodically generates random but convincingly genuine search strings and sends them to search engines that may be tracking you. This “muddies” the profile they can build up on you, making it less accurate and less revealing about you.

Use different browsers

Using different web browsers, e.g. Firefox, Internet Explorer, Safari, Chrome, Chromium, and Opera, for different purposes puts up barriers between surveillance companies that use the same tracking techniques, e.g. “+”, “Like”, and “Share” buttons (In many cases, you don’t have to click on them, they’re watching you anyway), across multiple websites. For example, use one browser for searches and another one for social networking sites, and another one for logging into email (or better still use a free and open source email client that doesn’t send tracking data to surveillance companies, e.g. Thunderbird.

Use a privacy protecting proxy

This is one that organisations’ IT support can implement on their users’ behalf. A proxy can filter out personally revealing information from HTTP requests and in some cases hide users’ IP addresses.

Why if my school/college/university/institution has switched to using Google services?

It would be expensive and difficult to switch back, so more than likely not a feasible option for many organisations. The best advice I can think of is to create Google accounts specifically for use with that educational organisation and don’t use those for anything else and, if you already use Google services, e.g. GMail, Google+, and/or GCalendar, migrate to a different service provider; preferably a more ethical one, if that’s possible. The idea is to create as many barriers as possible between your private life and your studies and work, and reduce the quality and quantity of your personal information and internet usage habits that are available to one single surveillance organisation.

Use TOR

TOR (The Onion Router) is at the extreme end of anti-surveillance techniques. It’s quite restrictive and only practical for searching for and viewing a narrower range of web media, e.g. viewing Flash-based media such as video and audio can reveal personally identifiable information thereby defeating the purpose of using TOR. TOR would be particularly useful for users researching politically and culturally sensitive topics, e.g. child abuse, sexual behaviour, terrorism, copyright infringement, and political activism, that might lead to inappropriate interventions by security and law enforcement agencies (or get followed around the web by some highly inappropriate targeted advertising!) It’s widely used by journalists, political activists, and people who want to circumvent censorship and surveillance around the world. TOR comes in a ready configured, optimised, easy to use, standalone package called the TOR Browser Bundle which can also be run from a USB thumb drive or CD ROM.

In summary

These measures cannot prevent surveillance entirely but they can significantly reduce the quality and quantity of data that corporations and government security agencies can collect about you. If you can add suggestions to this list that are practical, understandable, and easily do-able, please participate in the discussion. I’ve linked to this article from Moodle.org community forums. Joining Moodle.org is free and quick, and a great place meet elearning professionals and discuss things that matter to you and to them. (Disclosure: Moodle.org uses Google Search and Analytics but I’d like to get that changed!)

Using chat to facilitate more interactive classes

chatHere’s how you can make your face to face lessons more inclusive and interactive quickly and simply by using a chat session during class, and open up a range of benefits that aren’t immediately apparent.

How does it work?

Before a face to face lesson or lecture begins, the tutor/teacher/TA opens or schedules a chat room in the course on the school’s, organisation’s, college’s, university’s, or institution’s Moodle*. All the class participants login and join the chat session. They can use their laptops, netbooks, or mobile devices. Now everyone can submit questions, requests, and comments and everyone can see each others’ during the lesson or lecture.

*Or any chat client on an elearning platform that has appropriate user management, privacy, and oversight facilities (e.g. most commercial chat services such as Facebook, Google+ don’t allow right of audit, which is necessary addressing ethical and behavioural issues), and that admins, teachers, TAs, and learners can access transcripts of previous sessions for learning and professional development (PD) purposes.

How does this affect the classroom dynamic?

  • All learners, even in a relatively large class, have the opportunity to participate in significant and meaningful ways.
  • Learners don’t have to raise their hands to interrupt the flow of the class just to have their question, request, or comment expressed and considered.
  • Less gregarious learners don’t have to compete for attention/get noticed and can therefore contribute their questions, requests, or comments more easily; everyone has an equal voice.
  • Learners can see their peers’ questions, requests, or comments whether they are addressed/focused on or not in the lesson.
  • Teachers/tutors can choose which questions, requests, and comments, in what order, and when to address/focus on.
  • Points raised by learners can be dealt with appropriately and in a timely manner and never “get lost in the moment.”
  • The transcript of the chat session is an invaluable record of what actually happened and when during the class, making it an excellent resource for critical reflection.
  • Teachers/tutors can review the transcript to see where the lesson could be improved and/or consider alternatives.
  • Teachers/tutors can see who’s participating more or less than they should be and find out why.
  • Teachers/tutors can assess learners based on their participation both quantitively and qualitatively even if it didn’t get addressed/focused on in class.
  • There’s a record of questions, requests, and comments that it may not have been appropriate to address/focus on during the lesson but could provide productive avenues of inquiry in subsequent classes.

Could it also get learners off of Facebook during class?

Presentation on learner-centered (self-directed) learning

peopleIn the previous article, Am I a learner-centered or a teacher-led teacher?, I compared and contrasted learner-centered (self-directed) learning with teacher-led (teacher-directed) learning, outlining some of the differences between them regarding learning and teaching theory and practice. In order to further clarify what the implications of learner-centered (self-directed) learning and teaching theory and practice are, I’ve composed and uploaded a presentation (slideshow).

Click here to view the presentation (opens new tab/window)

I hope you find it interesting and useful!

Technical details about the presentation software

The presentation is hosted on my Moodle installation, using a resource module (plugin) that I’ve developed and am experimenting with. My Moodle Presentation module is an implementation of the  free and open source Javascript-based slideshow project Reveal.js by Hakim El Hattab.

Please contact me if you have any difficulties in viewing the presentation.

Am I a learner-centered or a teacher-led teacher?

peopleThere’s a lot of talk about social learning and social constructivist approaches to learning these days. One of the key features of these approaches is that they are learner-centered/self-directed. But what does this mean? How does this affect curriculum development and learning and teaching practice in the classroom and online?

This article is an attempt to make a clear distinction between learner-centered (self-directed) learning and teacher-led (teacher-directed) learning and to identify their underlying characteristics. These two approaches represent fundamental differences in the ways we view how people learn, learners’ and teachers’ roles, and how we think and act in learning contexts. Hopefully, the following guide will help teachers and curriculum developers discover what their preferred kind of learning and teaching approach is.

The definitions are more or less copied (and slightly modified) from Malcolm Shepherd Knowles’ book, Self-directed Learning: A Guide for Learners and Teachers (1975) which, in my opinion, remains an excellent source of advice for curriculum development and covers topics and views that are rarely included in teacher and instructional designer education, training courses, or professional development today.

You’ll probably notice that the outline of learner-centered (self-directed) teaching is much longer than teacher-led (teacher-directed). Why? Because almost everyone has had a lot of experience of teacher-led/teacher-directed learning in schools, colleges, universities, and on professional development and training courses, and so it requires little explanation. Only a small minority of learners and teachers have had experience of learner-centered/self-directed learning and so I’ve provided more expansive descriptions.

“Anything a learner should do and can do for themselves, and we do for them, takes away an opportunity to learn responsibly.”

— Gene Bedely (paraphrased)

Am I a teacher-led/teacher-directed learning teacher?

If you view lesson planning and curriculum development like this:

  • What content needs to be covered?
  • How can this content be organised into manageable units?
  • How can these units be organised into a logical sequence?
  • What means of transmission will be most effective for transmitting each unit?
  • How can learners’ retention be measured/assessed?

…then your preferred learning and teaching approach is most likely teacher-led/teacher-directed.

Am I a learner-centered/self-directed learning teacher?

If you view lesson planning and curriculum development like this:

  • Climate setting
  • Planning
  • Diagnosing needs for learning
  • Setting goals
  • Designing a learning plan
  • Engaging in learning activities
  • Evaluating learning outcomes

Climate setting

  1. How can I most quickly get the learners to become acquainted with each other as people and as mutual resources for learning? (i.e. build the necessary relationships for co-operative learning; familiarity, trust, and mutual respect).
  2. How can I help them to gain an understanding of the concept of self-directed learning?
  3. How can I provide them with a simple preliminary experience in practising the skills of self-directed learning?
  4. How can I help them to understand my role as a facilitator and resource to self-directed learners and ensure that they will feel comfortable in relating to me in this way?
  5. How can I present myself to them as a human being so that they may trust me?
  6. How can I provide them with a short but meaningful experience in working together collaboratively?
  7. How can I create an atmosphere characterised by both mutual caring and support and intellectual rigor?

Planning

  1. At what points shall I decide what procedures to use, and at what points shall I present optional procedures for them to decide on?
  2. On what ethical basis shall I make this decision, and how will I explain it to them and invite their modification or veto?
  3. What mechanism will I propose for involving them in the decision-making process: consensus or voting by the total group, delegation of responsibility to subgroups, or delegation to an elected steering committee?
  4. How will I adjust my approach to planning according to how knowledgeable and experienced learners are, or have become, at self-directed learning?

Diagnosing needs for learning

  1. How shall we construct a model of the competencies (or content objectives, if you prefer) that this particular learning experience should be concerned with?
  2. If I start with a model I have constructed, how can I present it so that they will feel free to change it or build upon it?
  3. If I start with their suggestions for a model, how can I introduce my own ideas or the requirements from the outer environment without denigrating their contributions?
  4. How can I assure that they will have a sense of ownership of the model finally agreed upon?
  5. How can I make it possible for them to realistically and non-threateningly assess the gaps between their present levels of development of their competencies and the level required by the model?
  6. How will I adjust my approach to diagnosing needs for learning according to how knowledgeable and experienced learners are, or have become, at self-directed learning?

Setting goals

  1. How can I help them translate diagnosed needs into learning objectives that are clear, feasible, at appropriate levels of specificity or generality, personally meaningful, and so that measuring accomplishment is feasible?
  2. How can I suggest changes constructively?
  3. How will I adjust my approach to setting goals according to how knowledgeable and experienced learners are, or have become, at self-directed learning?

Designing a learning plan

  1. What guidelines for a learning plan will I propose?
  2. What optional models of plans will I present?
  3. What kinds of help will I give particular learners in designing their plans?
  4. How will I expose them to resources and strategies for using resources that they may not know about or may not have thought of?
  5. What mechanisms (e.g. consultation teams) can I suggest to facilitate their helping each other in designing their plans?
  6. How will I adjust my approach to designing learning plans according to how knowledgeable and experienced learners are, or have become, at self-directed learning?

Engaging in learning activities

  1. Which learning activities shall I take responsibility for to meet objectives that are common to all (or most) of their learning plans, which activities should be the responsibility of subgroups, and which should be individual inquiry projects?
  2. How, when, and why shall I intervene in learners’ activities? (i.e. When would it be productive or counter-productive to intervene?)
  3. How can I make myself available to subgroups and individuals as a consultant and resource as they plan and carry out their learning activities?
  4. What is my responsibility for assuring quality performance of the learning activities?
  5. How will I adjust my approach to engaging in learning activities according to how knowledgeable and experienced learners are, or have become, at self-directed learning?

Evaluating learning outcomes

  1. What should be my role in providing feedback to the learners regarding my perceptions of the accomplishment of their learning objectives?
  2. How can I do it so as to not create a dissonance with the learners’ self-directedness?
  3. What is my responsibility for making judgements about the adequacy of the evidence of accomplishment of the learners’ objectives and the adequacy of their criteria and means for validating their evidence?
  4. How can I present these judgements in such a way that they will enhance rather than diminish the learners’ self-concepts as self-directed people?
  5. How will I adjust my approach to evaluating learning outcomes according to how knowledgeable and experienced learners are, or have become, at self-directed learning?

…then your preferred learning and teaching approach is most likely learner-centered/learner-directed.

Adapted from: Knowles, M. S., Self-directed Learning: A Guide for Learners and Teachers, 1975, Prentice-Hall.

Follow up post: Presentation on learner-centered (self-directed) learning

Specifying elearning resources and strategies

Specifying elearning resources and strategiesA common challenge facing those about to embark on elearning projects is knowing just what their options are and what they have to offer. Novice project managers, teachers, and curriculum developers often find themselves at a loss as to where they should start and what they should be looking into. This article is not intended to be a definitive guide (That could fill several books!) but more of a general outline and starting point to investigate and gain a broader understanding of what options may currently be available and how they can be used.

How does this guide fit in with elearning projects?

Organised learning involves some kind of explicit or implicit learning contract, i.e. an agreement and alignment between learners, teachers, and support staff of shared objectives and goals. Here’s a quick overview of some of the main aspects* of developing an elearning contract:

  • Diagnosing learners’ needs
  • Specifying learning objectives
  • Specifying learning resources and strategies
  • Specifying evidence of accomplishment
  • Specifying how the evidence will be validated
  • Reviewing the learning contract
  • Carrying out the learning contract
  • Evaluating learning

Adapted from: Knowles, M. S. Self-Directed Learning. A guide for learners and teachers, 1975, Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall/Cambridge.

This guide is limited to a broad overview of one particular aspect of investigating, planning, and developing an learning project; Specifying learning resources and strategies; and, in order to limit the scope, does not take into account strategies such as blended learning, i.e. combined face-to-face and online learning. Blended learning in particular, makes many more options available so curriculum developers, teachers, and learners can have the best (or worst?) of both worlds. It also assumes that your project will be centred around a learning management system (LMS) that supports some or all of the features and tools listed.

*Please note that this list is by no means definitive or a set sequence of stages. Developing elearning is often a complex, messy, recursive, fluid activity that frequently revisits and re-evaluates the various aspects in the light of unforeseen discoveries and developments.

What are the options?

This guide is by no means exhaustive and lists only the more commonly researched and used resources, activities, and strategies. There are more options and many that are specifically for particular topics and subject areas. I’m frequently surprised by the number of qualified, experienced teachers, instructional designers, and curriculum developers working in elearning who appear to be unaware or at least uninitiated in using many of the options available to them. Hopefully, this guide can provoke more investigation into and discovery of more of these options.

Resources

  • Text documents: HTML web pages, pure text, Microsoft Office Doc, Open Office ODT, PDF, and eBook formats, e.g. EPUB (free and open ebook standard), AZW, and MOBI.
  • Images: tables, charts, diagrams, infographics, illustrations, photos, etc.
  • Audio recordings: radio programmes, podcasts, lecture recordings, interviews, self-speech recordings, i.e. listening back to yourself talking your way through an activity or problem, etc.
  • Video recordings: similar to audio recording but also including presentations, visual documentaries, etc.
  • Animations: animated illustrations, animated 2D and 3D models, interactive models, etc.
  • Slide show presentations: PowerPoint, Adobe Captivate, Raptivity, Slideshare, Prezzi, etc.
  • 3rd party websites, databases and repositories: external sources of information and media; Wikimedia Foundation, Creative Commons, OER, Google/Yahoo!/Bing Maps, etc.

Synchronous activities

Chat

Allows participants to have real time synchronous text discussions. Pure text discussions have some advantages over voice discussions, in that although they are generally slower and convey less information, so they tend to provide stronger focus on the content of what participants are saying and can encourage normally reticent learners to make more contributions. Additionally, since it is more difficult for and more obvious when some learners try to dominate the conversation, there tends to be more evenly distributed participation and greater inclusion. Chat sessions are also easier to analyse and assess than voice over internet protocol (VoIP) since they’re already transcribed.

Chat services also allow learners to contact each other more spontaneously and informally to ask questions and/or ask for clarifications, and generally increase their engagement, social presence, and sense of community.

Popular examples: Skype chat, MSN Messenger, Facebook chat, etc. Almost all modern LMS’ have chat activities available.

Web meetings

These are real time online virtual spaces that often include multi-way chat, voice over internet protocol (VoIP), audio, and video, shared whiteboards, file uploads/downloads, and slide show presentations. Some services allow participants to attend by traditional telephone for when internet access/bandwidth is an issue. Many web meeting services also offer the option to record sessions so that learners and teachers can review and refer to them at a later date.

Web meetings are an effective way for learners and teachers to increase social presence, get to know each other, build trust and cultivate a stronger sense of belonging and community between  participants.

If users require or would like to access web meetings on mobile devices, it’s essential to check that whichever service you choose provides a native app for it. For the foreseeable future, web browsers on mobile devices are unlikely to have sufficient capacity to reliably support the high demands of multiple participants in multi-way, multimedia communication over the web.

Web meeting software services run on media servers with high processing and bandwidth requirements, and are complex and require highly specialised skills to maintain. Most media servers are consumed as 3rd party web services from independent specialist providers, even by many of the larger media organisations, universities, colleges, and institutions.

Popular examples: Big Blue Button (free and open source), Meeting Burner, Tok Box, WizIQ, Google Hangouts, Skype, and Blackboard Collaborate (formerly Elluminate).

Collaborative documents

Shared online text documents, databases, and spreadsheets that can be edited in real time by multiple participants simultaneously. Real time online co-construction of documents can provide a strong focal point to discussions and collaborative projects especially in Social Constructionist learning and teaching approaches, where the emphasis is on the process of creating a document rather than the finished document itself (process vs. product).

Popular examples: Etherpad (free and open source), Google Docs, MS SharePoint, etc. Here’s an example of integrating a collaborative document platform with an LMS: Etherpad and Moodle Integration

Asynchronous activities

Assignments

Similar to traditional college and university essay “drop boxes”, assignment activities enable teachers and assessors to grade and give comments and feedback on uploaded files and assignments created on and off line. Submissions can be documents, images, diagrams, concept maps, infographics, posters, learners’ blog posts, inline web pages, audio, and/or video recordings. Some assignment activities support peer assessment. An advantage to online assignment activities is that learners and teachers can always be sure that they’re looking at the latest version of a document and its comments, avoiding the confusion of trying to manage multiple versions of files from multiple learners via repositories or email (Yes, some people do that!), and can also review earlier versions to see the progress of changes.

Also consider using forums, glossaries, databases, and wikis for collaborative assignments.

Databases

Enable participants to create, maintain and search a bank of record entries. Most people understand databases as MS Excel spreadsheets (although spreadsheets and databases are quite different). They can be a useful tool for learning how to categorise and organise information, construct overviews, and thereby gain a broader understanding of a process, system, or subject area. Databases needn’t be limited to storing text; they can support multimedia too. Having online databases means that learners can collaborate in editing them, leading to greater discussion, reflection, analytical and critical thinking, and therefore deeper learning.

Popular examples: Open Office Base (free and open source), DHTMLX.com (free and open source), Microsoft Access, etc.

Feedback (surveys)

For creating and conducting surveys to collect feedback from learners. High quality feedback can give teachers and curriculum developers invaluable information and opinions from learners related to resource, curriculum, and course design, as well as attitudes and relationships towards each other, teachers, and support staff. Feedback that is frequent, and easy to administer and easy to participate in, and is anonymous when and if required, is an effective way to offer real choice and control over to learners and make their learning experiences more democratic, inclusive, responsive, and engaging.

Forums

Forums allow participants to have asynchronous discussions. For many years, online discussion forums have been one of the main focal points of elearning, communities of practice, and communities of inquiry. They offer many of the benefits of face-to-face discussions and, in addition, give opportunities for different styles of discussion and interaction, as well as providing environments where normally reticent participants can contribute more and have a more influential voice. As forums are asynchronous, they allow time for participants to reflect on their ideas, do further reading and research, and give more informed and considered responses. Some forums support peer assessment via rating systems.

Popular examples: BuddyPress.org (free and open source software), phpBB.org (free and open source software), Elgg.org (free and open source software), Slashdot.org, LinkedIn.com, Actionscript.org, and Facebook.com.

Glossaries

Glossaries enable participants to create and maintain lists of definitions, like a dictionary.  Some glossaries support peer assessment via rating systems, peer, and teacher feedback, and hyperlinks can be automatically added to glossary entries whenever they are used in online text within the LMS. Learners can collaboratively build class glossaries, thereby demonstrating their understanding and mastery of learning objectives while they study and continually use them as a reference resource for key terms and ideas. They can also update and refine their glossary entries as they deepen their experience and understanding.

Lessons/Presentations

Lessons/Presentations are mostly used for bringing together different types of activities into one session and/or creating branching scenarios***. In most cases, lessons amount to presentations of information, maybe with some practice, and maybe with quizzes or tests, i.e. the so called “present-practice-produce” (PPP) approach to learning and teaching; appropriate for transmitting “useful to know” information. As an alternative or complement, it’s also worth considering reading texts, documentaries, and/or silent demonstrations with follow up chat and/or forum discussions so that learners and teachers can get a clearer idea of what learners have understood and learned from the information presented.

Beware: There are many elearning “experts” and quiz software vendors who claim that including quizzes throughout presentations promotes deeper learning. They frequently fail to differentiate between quizzes during presentations and spaced repetition (a technique for memorising verbatim information). To my knowledge, there is no conclusive evidence to support these claims. A meta-study of research papers** on present-practise-produce elearning with and without quizzes concluded that there were no measurable differences in learning outcomes and that including quizzes only managed to needlessly take up more of learners’ time for the same gains.

**Source: U.S. Department of Education, Evidence-Based Practices in Online Learning – Review of Online Learning Studies (2009) (PDF)

***A note on branching scenarios: They were an early attempt at adaptive learning, i.e. changing the activities and resources presented to learners according to their responses to choices and questions. They are very difficult and labour intensive to design and set up and have so far shown to be of marginal benefit in comparison to learner centred activities and decision making, e.g. reflective inquiry and reflective practice. Current research is looking into artificial intelligence for solutions but we’re a long way off from anything broadly productive.

Polls

A teacher or learner asks a question and specifies a choice of multiple responses and encourage participants to vote on them. Polls are a quick and easy way to offer choices and gauge reactions to and understanding of learning resources and activities. Many forum software packages, web meeting services, and some learning management systems (LMS’) have polling activities built in and/or are available as extensions.

Quizzes

Allow the teacher to design and set tests and exams, which may also be automatically marked and feedback and/or to correct answers shown. Quizzes can support audio, video, and animations, and some interactive features such as drag and drop matching, order sequencing, and identifying points and areas on images. Native learning management system (LMS) online quizzes have mostly taken over from earlier SCORM based assessment and testing. They are usually easier to create, organise, and maintain, are more flexible, support more features, are easier to make accessible (for Section 508 compliance or similar accessibility legislation), and are more secure, e.g. with SCORM the answers to quizzes are sent to the learners’ web browser cache where “tech savvy” learners can access them.

SCORM packages

SCORM packages are usually authored/created by instructional designers with rapid elearning integrated development environments (IDEs), e.g. Adobe Captivate, Raptivity, and Articulate, among many others. They present an easy entry point into elearning design and development and allow novice elearning instructional designers with very little technical know-how, a shallower learning curve to producing learning resources and activities. They were previously used to present content and give quizzes but have since been superseded by open format, easier to create, edit, and maintain resources and tools that most modern LMS’ support, e.g. presentations, lessons, and quizzes. However, they are still widely used in military organisations (e.g. the US Pentagon is a huge “cash cow” for SCORM based elearning products and services) and corporations for things like basic health and safety conformance/compliance training, and training to use software, since they are much cheaper than providing tutored or supervised training.

However, rapid elearning IDEs like Adobe Captivate and Techsmith Camtasia do have legitimate and productive uses, for example rapid prototyping of ideas for learning interactions, quick “How to…” guides for teacher and learner technical support, and silent demonstrations.

Also see: Cheating in SCORM

Surveys

For gathering data from students to help teachers and curriculum developers learn about classes, resources, and strategies, and reflect on their own teaching. Appropriately designed surveys can also encourage reflective thinking and help to further develop learners’ analytical and critical thinking skills.

Popular examples: Lime Survey (free and open source), Survey Monkey.

Wikis

A collection of web pages that participants can add to or edit; a kind of collaborative encyclopedia. Common activities are co-creating documentation, collaboratively constructing narratives and stories, and categorising, ordering, sorting, and organising information. Most wiki software keeps a record of changes, who made them, and when, making them useful tools for assessing contributions and collaboration between learners.

Popular examples: Wikipedia.org (MediaWiki, which is free and open source).

Caveats and common issues

Different learners will more than likely have different knowledge, experiences, and abilities, and many will be unfamiliar with some of the current elearning activities on web platforms. Which of the options available that you choose to use will depend on learners’ and teachers’ needs, prior knowledge, experiences, and abilities.

Despite what many people believe, we tend to be very poor at multi-tasking; only about 2% of people can multi-task efficiently; and we need to focus on one activity (frame of attention) at a time. In particular, learners and teachers frequently report that they sometimes feel overwhelmed by the skills and knowledge they have to learn in order to successfully complete learning activities. It’s possible to overload the best and brightest of learners by asking them to learn too many things at once. There are three main areas:

  • Tools: Do learners (and teachers!) already know how the tools work and how to use them? Can they easily perform all the actions the learning activity requires of them? e.g. navigate, create, save, edit, submit, download, upload, link to, recover forgotten passwords, etc.
  • Rubrics: The fundamental design of the learning activities. What do learners have to do? How complex are the activities, what are “the rules”, and how long will it take to learn them?
  • Learning objectives: The skill(s) and/or knowledge they are supposed to acquire and/or develop, i.e. the syllabus.

To avoid “cognitive overload” and demotivating learners as soon as they start an activity, it’s important to consider just how much it’s asking learners to do at once in relation to their existing knowledge, experience, and abilities. Ideally, we’d like to spend as much time as possible on learning objectives and as little time as possible on learning to use tools and understanding rubrics. However, some activities can offer significant learning opportunities that make them worth the time and effort. In such cases, we need to reduce the cognitive load from the learning objectives while learners focus on learning how to use the tools and/or what they have to do (the rubrics); so called introductory or user interface training activities.

What’s next?

Now that we’ve established a broader overview of some of the options available for developing resources and learning strategies, we have a starting point for further investigation. There are many more specific and comprehensive books and guides available, as well as large and growing bodies of research into online learning and teaching approaches, methods, and strategies.

However, and I can’t stress this enough, there is no substitute for hands on experience and experimentation, and “learning by doing.” Trying out elearning tools and strategies with learners and watching activities unfold in different contexts, and getting honest, direct feedback from learners and teachers is invaluable. It also gives a better understanding of research papers, providing much needed background procedural knowledge to their usually abstract, declarative generalisations.

A word of caution

Beware of books, guides, and gurus who say things like “This is how it’s done.” or “If you do X, Y will happen.” People are complex and unpredictable. It’s difficult to say how they’ll react to or behave in a given activity. More reputable researchers report their findings along the lines of, “I did this with these particular learners, here’s the context and their backgrounds, and here’s the data I collected and my interpretation of what unfolded.” Above all, be prepared to be comfortable with dealing with uncertainty and ambiguity, and getting mixed results. As with all learning and teaching activities in any medium, it takes time, insight, discipline, patience, and understanding complex concepts and interactions to get to grips with elearning.