Designing for Today’s Learners

Two of the many conveniences of the “good ol’ days” was that it was easier to define learners and the then-popular cognitive theories were easier to apply to designing for the learners.

While some people truly practiced life-long learning, the formal structures we have today were not in place in the past. Life-long learning was an individiual effort for the most part. While community colleges had started in the first decade of the 20th Century, it was not until the ’60s–when the number doubled to more than 900 (AAAC figures, NavigationMenu/AboutCommunityColleges/HistoricalInformation/ CCGrowth/ CC_Growth_1961-1970.htm)–that the possibility for organized lifelong learning became a reality.

Before then, learners were K-16; an overwhelming majority were K-12; and a strong percentage were K-10 or less. They were college prep (bright), business (smart) or vo-tech (average).

Behaviorist theory centered on concrete, defineable outcomes with assessment based upon observation. Without having to contend with multiple intelligences, social constructivism, and other inconvenient theories, the tightly-defined concept of “learners” was easy to design for.

Nowadays, we have an expanded and increasingly diverse learner population, whose definitions are shaped by cognitive theories, learning strategies, distributive cognition,cultural influences and language barriers. All of this is in addition to a wider range of ages, ADA accomodations, and the need for career-enhancing and career-changing skills, to name a few factors.

Not only has the learner population grown in terms of both size and scope, but the resources–and the requirements–to successfully design for these learners has expanded. No one system, approach, theory, or strategy can possibly fit all situations. It will be up to responsible and focused educational research to supply us with answers to a multitude of very specific questions. And it will be up to a cadre of very flexible designers to provide effective treatments that will not only bring fundamental knowledge to the diverse masses, but will also be able to satisfy the needs of many demographic sub-groups within our society.


My Newfound Respect for Second Life

I’ll admit, my early experiences with, and impressions of, Second Life were not very positive. There’s an appreciable learning curve, more options than I’ll ever use (or remember). And, when you finally leave Orientation Island, what happens?

Me & my cohorts stood around–pretty close to where we “beamed down”. No exploration, no meaning-making, no discovery. Just chat. And texting at that!

I bought a headset/microphone so that I could talk online. Lord knows my speaking skills are much better than my keyboarding. But my attempts at conversation were met with silence… except for the clicking sound SL makes as the avatars typed in their next text message.

And with over a dozen people texting…. well, you can imagine just how linear those dialogues were 😦

Working & studying take up my time; once I get my degree, once I retire, I might spend more time in SL. But right now, I’m there at the appropriate meeting time and place, ready to do whatever we’ve said we’re gonna do, then I’m off to finish some other assignment or work-related task. I don’t have a lot of “dawdle time” right now.

So, when a recent class session included time to explore, my initial reaction was “@*&%?+~, what a waste of my oh-so-precious time!” But, the only thing worse than wasting time is to have to report back to the class that I didn’t waste it effectively! So I went exploring.

And what I found was pretty cool. museum sites, resources, links to places beyond SL. I began to see the possibilities that SL held for learning. For K-5 (or -6, -7, -8?) students, SL could serve as a very effective learning environment. True, building it would take more time (and money) than doing so in Moodle or Blackboard. But, for the younger learner, the environment would be much more enticing.

As students got older, the environment would have to offer more than just a creative way to archive links and resources. But the possibilities are there.

And, the creation of a totally virtual classroom, with simulations, demos, etc. available no longer seems as quite the stretch I viewed it as, just one week ago. By properly applying a supportive pedagogy that embraced the fluid, distributed environment, instructional designers could create effective learning experiences.

Parts of me is glad that I don’t have to become SL-proficent in order to participate in my classes. But, having been fairly well bruised and battered by behaviorist teaching strategies, New Math, and the earlier years of standardized testing, another part of me wishes I’d been born 40-50 years later. So that I would now be at a point in time, and in my life, where exploration was an integral part of eduction, resources were readily, and almost randomly, available, and I could fly to class.

Interaction & Engagement

In the article “Interaction and Engagement in LEEP…” Ruhleder identifies several possible problems dealing with having simultaneous audio broadcasts and chat room postings. Those who have worked in the CRG environment can testify to the dual threads that can run concurrently, but not in parallel.

Synchronous online environments change the instructors’ role and control of the class while allowing for more interaction & engagement by the students. However other questions arise:

As the focus of the two threads diverge, can cognitive overload be avoided? Some will say that 21st Century Learners are multi-taskers and can handle multiple input streams. While this may be true, how much is absorbed in real time & how much gets picked up by reviewing the session log?

The technology offers instructors flexibility and spontaneity; but at the expense of control. A pedagogy can be developed around this synchronous form of delivery so that the discussion stays on subject, inaccurate statements get corrected, and learning can take place. But it involves the students taking on more responsibility to make this happen. The course must be designed to include activities that foster a sense of community early on. Peer monitoring can be more effective than heavy-handed didactics. This is more true in the synchronous learning environment. The instructor cannot monitor activity on both streams But the students can. By loosening the reins, the instructor may be able to exercise greater control.

Ruhleder, K. (2004). Interaction and engagement in LEEP: Undistancing “distance” education at the graduate level. Duffy, T. and Kirkley, J. (eds). Learner-Centered Theory and Practice in Distance Education. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.