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Putting the LEARNING in e-Learning

by , chief instructional strategist | @ethanaedwards

Ethan Edwards BlogI came upon a magnificent quote the other day—from a nineteenth century educational pioneer, no less—that reminds me, once again, of a basic characteristic of learning that so easily gets lost in the accepted models that continue to dominate the e-learning field.  The quote:

“Our bravest and best lessons are not learned through success, but through misadventure.” – Amos Bronson Alcott

Even as authoring systems evolve, new delivery platforms become commonly available, and enhanced media capabilities become commonplace, too much e-learning is still trapped in the traditional tell-and-test framework that has been in place since the very earliest days of computer-based education.  Instructional Design too quickly becomes little more than varying the manner in which material is presented and then formulating questions to test the learner’s ability to recall what was just presented.

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The assumption is that the e-learning module will replace the function of the teacher, yet somehow we are content to limit the role of a teacher to presenting information and then grading standardized examinations.  In fact, these elements of teaching are probably of least importance in effective learning.  The value of the teacher is in challenging the learner, adapting to unexpected opportunities, mentoring to develop individual skills, fostering curiosity, and providing guidance through ambiguity.

The problem is we have become too attached to a narrow view of TEACHING and meanwhile ignored what is necessary for LEARNING.  This is where the quote comes in.  It’s a graceful and literate way of reminding us that we learn by doing, by exploring, by making mistakes—in other words, we learn by experience.

e-Learning that works does exactly this.  It creates a meaningful environment that doesn’t shovel content into the learner’s mind like a textbook (or PowerPoint presentation), but rather engages the learner in actions. It should engage them in formulating hypotheses and testing them, in trial and error, in hopefully making massive errors, and then in fixing them.

When I approach an instructional design problem, I never view the challenge as “How can I teach this information?”  Rather, the guiding question is “What is the experience that will make this real?”  By necessity, that moves you into a learner-centered approach to instructional design, where interactivity rather than navigation, communication rather than media, conversation rather than lecture, become the core elements of the learner’s experience. When you meet that challenge successfully, you can be confident that your learners will encounter the most magnificent of misadventures!

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