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.

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.