Four strategies for online content

Demonstrates that online learning content varies dramatically in its role and shape depending on the learning strategy.

Online learning content can perform many different functions, depending on the learning strategy which you are employing. To make this point, I’ve adapted the descriptions of different approaches to learning as described by Ruth Clark and Merlin Wittrock in Psychological Principles of Training, published in Training and Retraining, Macmillan Reference USA (2001):

1. Exposition
By exposition we mean the delivery of learning content to the learner with little or nothing in the way of interaction. The learner is not choosing the content; it is delivered according to an established curriculum. Any passive content can be used in this way – web pages, podcasts, e-books, videos, slide shows and so on. The absence of built-in interaction may seem a restriction, but independent andvmore experienced learners are quite likely to cope well with this format – they can create their own interaction by taking notes, testing out the ideas in their own work or by discussing aspects of the content with their peers. Exposition may also work well as an element in a blended programme incorporating other strategies.
2. Structured instruction
Structured instruction is also a teacher-centred approach, but because it is likely to include a great deal of questioning and other practical activities, can be much more responsive to the progress being made by learners. Structured instruction is ideal for novices and more dependent learners, especially where the aim is to develop new skills. The most obvious example of structured instruction in online content is the typical e-learning module, an evolution from the computer-based training (CBT) formerly delivered offline using videodisc or CD-ROM.
3. Guided discovery
Guided discovery is a structured process, but one in which the learner is given considerable freedom to make mistakes and explore different options. The process is inductive, moving from the specific to the general. The hope is that upon reflection, the learner will be able to generalise from their experiences of a specific case, scenario or situation. Content can function as a catalyst for the discovery process, perhaps through a case study. In the case of a simulation or scenario, the content becomes the activity itself.
4. Exploration
This is the most learner-centred of the approaches. The ‘teacher’ here takes on the role of facilitator, helping learners to explore the available resources and to mould their own learning strategies. This approach is going to make most sense for independent learners who have ‘learned how to learn’. Online content can vary from public websites to online book sites to performance support materials to user-generated content to material originally intended for formal exposition. Thus we come full circle.
So what are the implications for the online content designer?
  • If you are creating new content, consider the strategy which this is primarily intended to support and what impact this might have on your design.
  • Consider whether the content will need to be combined with some other element in order to fulfil the strategy, e.g. opportunities for Q&A or assessments to accompany expository materials; opportunities for ongoing practice and feedback to support structured instruction; practical activities to provide additional opportunities for discovery; social media tools to support exploration.
  • Consider whether the content can be useful to support secondary strategies, perhaps even all four. You will be more successful in this respect if you keep the content modular and as free as possible from instructional context.