New lessons in learning

The advent
of e-learning is changing traditional models of training. But while the
technology may be new, the principles of learning are still the same – and, if
anything, they are more important now. Sue Weekes reports

If
we think about it – and as the TV commercial reminds us – we can probably all
remember a good teacher – the maths tutor who made trigonometry strangely
compelling or the PE instructor whose enthusiasm for cross-country pushed us to
a personal best every time. While such people were natural-born teachers, they
also had the benefit of three-plus years teacher’s training behind them, during
which time they became well-versed in all aspects of learning theory.

Many
trainers working in the corporate sector have had neither the benefit of such
pedagogical training nor even an understanding of pedagogy but this does not
necessarily make them less able to do their jobs. If they have the right
personality profile – the ability to empathise and relate to other people’s
needs – they will be effective at transferring their knowledge to a class of
people. But this does rely entirely on face-to-face interaction and while until
now most training has taken place in the classroom, the advent of e-learning
means this familiar learning model is changing.

Predictions
that face-to-face learning will eventually disappear are, thankfully, unlikely
to come true. What is more likely is a proliferation of blended solutions that
combine the best parts of e-learning with classroom-based tuition. Whatever the
future holds, however, it is already true to say that learners will
increasingly find themselves having to acquire knowledge in front of a computer
screen rather than in front of a tutor.

While
the learning delivery mechanism may be new, the learning principles remain the
same and, if anything, say the experts, they are now even more important.
"The way we learn is crucial to online delivery," says David Wolfson,
vice-chairman of the British Association of Open Learning (BAOL) and technology
director of Learning Materials Design. "There are 20-30 different models
of learning and we must look at which ones are best for e-learning."

Wolfson’s
words are echoed by others in the e-learning field. "We cannot adapt to
the learner because we are not in front of them. We don’t necessarily know
which learning style best suits the learner," says Jan Hagen, head of the
solutions group at e-learning course producer Wide Learning.

And
others warn against letting the delivery mechanism and the technology dictate
the pace. "How learners learn should be at the top of every course
designer’s agenda. Too much time is often spent focusing on the mechanics and
technology. We need to start seeing real evidence of theory being integrated
with content," says Click2Learn’s senior interactive designer Valerie
Dougall.

Take
any typical textbook and you’ll find potted versions of a number of learning
theories which dominate the teaching world. They range from those of David Kolb
– who sees learning as a continuous four-stage cycle comprising concrete
experience, reflective observation, abstract conceptualisation and active
experimentation – to the theories of Dr Peter Honey and Alan Mumford, who
describe four main learning styles: activists (those who learn best through
trial and error, and practise), reflectors (those who need time to digest what
they are learning), theorists (those who like a structure, pattern and purpose
to their learning) and pragmatists (those who prefer practical, real-life
scenarios and issues to learn from).

A
straw poll of learning experts reveals that a number of educational theories
are appropriate for e-learning, but several cite the visual, auditory and
kinesthetic (VAK) or multi-intelligence model as being the one which can be
most suitably applied to e-learning.

The
multi-intelligence model was devised by Howard Gardner and he identifies seven
areas of multi-intelligence, which include: spatial/visual intelligence;
linguistic/verbal intelligence; intrapersonal intelligence; auditory intelligence;
kinesthetic intelligence, interpersonal intelligence and logical or
mathematical intelligence. "The multi-intelligence model is well suited to
e-learning because it allows different learning styles to be perpetuated,"
says Professor Sa’ad Medhat, vice-president, e-learning and knowledge
management, at Futuremedia. He believes that, if built and used properly,
e-learning should enable better, faster knowledge acquisition.

It
does not take a hardened learning academic to figure out how you could exploit
the various components of a multimedia learning programme to fit one of the
intelligence models. For instance, if your learner’s ability lies in being able
to learn from playing a game or creating something – as it does in kinaesthetic
intelligence – some form of interactive learning programme will work well. If a
person’s learning ability relies on working as part of a group, as in
interpersonal intelligence, the programme should include the facility for an
online chat forum.

Of
course, developing programmes for the above intelligence models is fine if you
have a limitless budget but, as Wide Learning’s Jan Hagen points out, you
cannot design a course four times over to suit several different learning
styles. "You must therefore build in a blend of learning styles into the
course," he says.

Other
specific learning styles cited as being appropriate for e-learning are
brain-based theories, such as Ned Herrman’s "whole brain" model,
which enables you to measure your own success. This is particularly appropriate
in the often lonesome world of e-learning where assessing your own progress may
be your only measure of success.

So
if all these highbrow pedagogical theories are going to be crucial to the
future of e-learning, who should be responsible for ensuring they are preserved
in an everyday e-learning programme? That someone must be the custodian of such
traditional values is undisputed, but exactly who is one of e-learning’s many
grey areas.

"It
should be the commissioner of the material," says Wolfson. "And it
can also be the author but is unlikely to be the technician. At LMD, we have a
‘learner’s advocate.’"

Others
support the idea of shared responsibility. "The course designer should
have the pedagogical skills and knowledge," says Click2Learn’s Dougall.
"But to progress the application of learning theory to online course
design, there is certainly an opportunity for some kind of collaborative
partnership between commercial trainers and academics."

Certainly
for e-learning to work at its optimum, the more people in the process who are
aware of good, solid learning theory, the better. In truth, there is probably a
hybrid individual capable of taking the responsibility who, if they do exist,
are currently one of a rare breed.

"It
is someone who can blend traditional theory with cognitive computer science and
instructional design, and who can cross between the worlds of technology and
learning," says Professor Sa’ad Mehat.

In
all this talk of theory, it is as well to remember the other aspects of a
learning environment which are crucial to the process. Howard Hills, author of
Team-based Learning, sees a rosy future for e-learning as long as the
traditional principles are adhered to and trainers are clear about their goals.

"They
must also understand the mindset shift from a teacher’s teachings to a
learner’s learning, when it comes to creating a resource for the learner who
will be accessing it as and when they need to," he says.

But
vital to all forms of learning, he says, is that the learner must "feel
relaxed, be able to enjoy themselves and be free from anxieties". The
examination-room heritage that has prevailed over so much teaching and training
has often made these three requisites unachievable, but perhaps with e-learning
– a medium which lets you learn at your own pace – they are attainable.

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