14. Three social contexts for learning

Designing blended solutions
Regardless of the strategy or strategies that you choose, there is another key decision to make in terms of the people who will be involved in the learning process. Essentially there are three choices: the learner alone, the learner with one other person – typically a coach or instructor – and the learner with a group of peers.
Self-study can range from reading a book at one extreme to engaging in a complex computer simulation at the other. It provides us with a great deal of flexibility as learners because we control the pace at which we learn as well as when, where and for how long. Organisations also benefit because of the cost-efficiencies.
Having said that, although self-study can stand alone, it works best in conjunction with other social contexts. We are social animals and it is natural for us to want interaction with other human beings at some stage in our learning. The social component allows us to share our experiences, test out ideas, obtain support and compare perspectives.
Self-study also relies on a fair amount of self-motivation and discipline. Somehow there is always some other activity that seems more urgent than our study programme. Hard experience suggests that prolonged periods of self-study need to be timetabled with regular milestones that must be reached by specific dates.
One-to-one learning places the learner with an instructor, a coach, a mentor or a subject expert, whether that’s on-job, off-job or remotely. One-to-one learning is highly individualised, which makes it fast and potentially highly effective, but success depends heavily on the quality of the individual responsible.
One-to-one learning makes a valuable contribution but is extremely costly when compared with other approaches. As a result, it is usually rationed to those situations where there is no other option or where the benefits justify the expense.
Group learning expands the resources available to us as learners to include our peers. This can provide useful benefits in terms of shared insights and experiences, mutual support and a degree of peer pressure, although this comes at the expense of flexibility and individual attention. Group learning can take place live in a physical or virtual classroom. It can also occur at the learner’s own pace making use of email, discussion forums, wikis, social networks and similar ‘Web 2.0’ technologies.
Each of these three social contexts has major advantages, but also some significant drawbacks. The art is to use each social context in the situations in which its benefits are maximised and its limitations minimised. In practice this often means using them in combination, as ingredients in a blended solution.
Next up:  Eating elephants

13. Four strategies for learning II

Designing blended solutions
Guided discovery is also a carefully structured process, but the emphasis here is on setting up activities from which the learner can gain their own insights and come to their own conclusions. Within formal interventions, examples might include the use of scenarios, simulations, case studies and leadership tasks, but the strategy can also be employed on the job, using techniques such as coaching, action learning, job enrichment and job rotation.
The driver for this strategy is the facilitator or, in the case of self-study materials, the designer. Guided discovery is best suited to the teaching of principle-based tasks, where the learner will be required in their work to make judgments in widely varying situations.
Exploration hands over control to the learner to make all the choices; there are no pre-defined objectives, no syllabus and no assessment.
The exploration strategy is most likely to be applied in the provision of on-demand support to the learner as they carry out their jobs, sometimes in the form of packaged content, sometimes by access to experts. But exploration is also the underlying strategy behind the use of social media at work – communities of practice, forums, wikis, etc. – that allow employees to provide support to each other.
The driver for the exploration is the learner. Having said that, there is an important role for the learning and development professional as a sort of curator, someone who provides novice learners with the appropriate tools and supports them in finding the right people and content.
The four strategies can be applied to any type of learning intervention. In some cases, different strategies can be used at different stages within a single solution; for example, the use of exposition for essential pre-reading, the use of instruction to convey important rules, the use of guided discovery to bring out key underlying principles, and the use of exploration for on-going reference.
Some learning professionals stick to one of the strategies almost as a matter of faith – it sums up their philosophy of how learning should be achieved. And for some organisations, the strategy that they use for learning is so pervasive that it has almost become a cultural expectation. In practice, it pays to remain agnostic. Each of these strategies has its place, depending on what needs to be learned and by whom. The trick is to use your judgement in determining which strategy to use and when.
Next up:  Three social contexts for learning

12. Four strategies for learning I

Designing blended solutions
Every learning solution, formal or informal, employs one or more of the following four basic strategies, whether or not this is a conscious decision:
Exposition is the simple delivery of information from subject expert to learner, typically as part of a formal syllabus. Examples include lectures, presentations and prescribed reading. The driver for this strategy is very definitely the subject expert, who may or may not have any knowledge of or interest in the process of learning.
Because exposition is relatively unstructured and unsupported, it is best suited to learners with higher levels of prior knowledge, who are quite capable of sorting out the wheat from the chaff and who are unlikely to get overwhelmed.
Instruction is a much more systematic process which typically starts with the formulation of specific learning objectives and culminates in some form of assessment. Along the way, a variety of approaches may be used to convey information and all sorts of practical exercises used to help the learner develop the required knowledge and skills.
Instruction can take place in the classroom, through interactive, self-study materials or on the job. The driver for this strategy is the instructor or, in the case of self-study materials, the instructional designer. Instruction is ideally suited to the teaching of routine, rule-based tasks, as well as providing the relative novice with the structure and support that they require.
Next up:  Four strategies for learning II

11. Learning methods are timeless

Designing blended solutions
In this series of posts (first post here), I describe a simple process for designing blended solutions that are both efficient and effective. This has three stages: (1) analysing the unique characteristics of the situation in which the solution is to be deployed; (2) selecting the right blend of methods to meet the needs of the situation; and (3) determining the delivery media best suited to these methods.
In the first two weeks, I explained how to carry out stage 1 of the process, analysing the situation. This has three elements: the learning, the learners and the logistics – the three Ls. Armed with the information gained from this analysis, we can move on to the most creative stage in the process: selecting the methods that we believe will meet the learning requirements, for the audience in question and within the given constraints.

Learning methods are timeless

Strange as it may seem, the methods we use for teaching and learning have been with us for a very long time. Thousands of years ago, Socrates would have had very much the same choices as you do now. If he ever became tired of Socratic questioning, the great man could have employed a wide variety of alternative approaches – lectures, games, role-plays, case studies, demonstrations, assignments, discussions, and so on. These methods may go in and out of fashion or be dressed up with fancy new names (witness ‘job aids’ becoming ‘performance support’) but they stay essentially the same. As Juliet so wisely remarked: ‘A rose by any other name would smell so sweet.’
Learning methods are the tools we use to facilitate learning. Importantly, they – and not technologies – are what determines whether a solution will be effective. That’s why we have to get the methods right first. A blended solution should not involve a trade-off between effectiveness and efficiency. With the process I describe in this series of articles, the idea is to select an effective strategy and then – without compromise – choose the most streamlined mode of delivery. Quality is a given.
So how do we select the most appropriate methods? Well, this is not entirely a rule-based process; it requires you to make careful judgements based on what you know of the particular situation and how you apply key learning principles. There are two ways in which you can systematise your decision-making and make sure that you consider all the options, rather than relying on the same old, familiar techniques. A good place to start is by selecting the most appropriate overall strategies – and that’s where we’ll head next.
Next up:  Four strategies for learning

10. All design takes place within constraints

Designing blended solutions
The third element of the situation that you need to investigate, after the learning requirements (‘the learning’) and the characteristics of the target population (‘the learner’), is the logistics. You need to know what practical constraints (or to put it more positively, what opportunities) you will have to accommodate (or, in the case of opportunities, to exploit).
All design takes place within constraints. I’m sure film director James Cameron moans about his measly $200m budget and his unreasonable two-year schedule. Chances are you have much greater limitations to work with, but this is completely normal, and can be seen to help the design process by closing down the options you need to consider.
So what logistical factors are likely to impact on your design?

  • The size and geographic distribution of the target population.
  • The amount of time available for training.
  • The budget.
  • The deadline.
  • The facilities and equipment available.
  • The human resources available for design, development and delivery, and the skills and knowledge they possess.
  • The software tools available for development and delivery.
  • The organisation’s policies and procedures with regard to learning and development.

Next week, we’ll move on to use what we have discovered about the learning, the learners and the logistics to start making decisions on the methods that will bring us the results we’re after.
Next upLearning methods are timeless

9. Of course it’s not that simple

Designing blended solutions
In the last two posts I’ve concentrated on the two characteristics that seem to have the biggest impact on your design – prior learning and the motivation to learn – but learners are more complex than that. You’ll want to find out as much information about your target population as you can; for example:

  • The learner’s hopes and fears, particularly what is likely to be pre-occupying their thoughts.
  • Cultural differences, from country to country and organisation to organisation, in the way that formal learning is carried out.
  • Expectations about the nature of formal learning based on past experience.
  • Computer literacy.
  • Any obstacles, such as child care responsibilities, which hinder learners travelling to training events.
  • The degree and nature of any disabilities.

Next upAll design takes place within constraints

8. The motivation to learn

Designing blended solutions
Another characteristic that will have a big influence on our design is the degree of motivation the target population is likely to have to learn about the topic in question. It is hard to bring about learning without a degree of emotional engagement. Quite simply, when our attention is aroused we remember much more.
If you know that learners will be coming to your programme full of enthusiasm, you have the luxury of being able to get straight on with the teaching, without much in the way of preliminaries. More often, learners need some convincing to devote time in their busy lives to what you have to teach. It is possible they have no choice about whether or not they go through your programme and are feeling just a bit resentful. In situations like this you have to build into your design the steps necessary to overcome these obstacles. You need to show why the topic in question is relevant to the learner’s working life and why time spent engaging with it will yield real benefits.
Next upOf course it’s not that simple

7. The importance of prior learning

Designing blended solutions
As we’ve discussed above, learning, both formal and informal, literally re-wires the brain. The more a person learns about something – a work task or a subject of interest – the more elaborate become the mental schemas that connect the various underlying concepts and principles. These schemas provide us with an understanding of how all the elements of a domain fit together and, as a result. enable us to solve problems and make decisions. After a while, we become so competent in a particular area that we seem to respond to situations intuitively, in other words without conscious thought.
All learning is a process of establishing patterns and making connections. When we know very little about a subject, we have very little prior knowledge to connect to. Without pre-existing schemas to build on, we need examples, stories, metaphors and similes to help us relate new information to our other life experiences. The novice craves a well-structured and supported programme of learning, which allows them plenty of time to process new information and to make sense of this in the context of practical application. They need reassurance and encouragement to help them through the difficulties they will inevitably encounter. In short, novices appreciate and benefit from good teaching and should, as a result, be the main focus of attention.
The more expert you already are in a particular area, the less structure and support you need to learn something new related to that area. We all have aspects of our life that we understand really well, whether or not we could easily explain what it is we know to someone else. We may be an expert in molecular biology, photography, accounting, office politics, bringing up children or the tactics of football. Because of our understanding, we can pretty well cope with any new information relating to our specialisms. We are very hard to overwhelm or overload, because we can easily relate new information to what we already know, to sort out the credible from the spurious and the important from the trivial. As an expert, we can cope with a long lecture, a densely-written text book, a forum with thousands of postings, or a whole heap of links returned in response to a search query.
These are the extremes. Of course there are many gradations of expertise and only a minority of learners are complete novices or acknowledged experts. But it is easy to see how, if we are not careful, we end up providing an ‘average’ learning experience which satisfies no-one.
We can over-teach those who already have a lot of expertise:

  • We patronise them with over-simplified metaphors, examples and case studies.
  • We frustrate them by holding back important information, which we then proceed to reveal on a careful step-by-step basis.
  • We insult them by forcing them to undergo unnecessary assessments.
  • We waste their time by forcing them to participate in collaborative activities with those who know much less than they do.

And we can under-teach the novices:

  • We bombard them with information that they cannot hope to process, providing nowhere near enough time for consolidation.
  • We provide insufficient examples and case studies to help them relate new information to their past experience.
  • We are not always there when they get stuck or have questions.
  • We do not go far enough in providing practical activities that will help them to turn interesting ideas into usable skills.

It may seem that I am suggesting you double your workload by providing two versions of each learning experience, but it doesn’t work like that. The relative experts need resources not courses and, of the two, resources are much easier to assemble. Many times you can just point the expert at the information and let them get on with it. And by doing this, you’ve reduced the population that requires a more formal learning experience considerably. You can start to give the novices the attention they deserve.
Next upThe motivation to learn

6. Every learner is different

Designing blended solutions
In postings 1-5, I outlined a simple process for designing blended solutions that are both efficient and effective: analysing the unique characteristics of the situation in which the solution is to be deployed; selecting the right blend of methods to meet the needs of the situation; and determining the delivery media best suited to these methods.
I started with the first step in the process – analysing the situation. This stage comes first because the information that we gather informs every one of our design decisions. I explained that situation analysis has three elements, which can be described quite simply as the three L’s – the learning, the learners and the logistics. Last week, I concentrated on the learning. This week I’m going to address learners and logistics.
Every learner is different
There’s a lot of talk in learning and development circles about learning styles, which are supposed to help teachers and designers of learning experiences to adapt their work to reflect the characteristics of different types of learners. This seems a reasonable endeavour until you reflect on the fact (I walked into that – because now I’m labelled a ‘reflector’) that there are literally hundreds of competitive models, which cannot, of course, all be right, and not one of these has come through any critical test of its validity.
The Association of Psychological Science concluded that: ‘There is no adequate evidence base to justify incorporating learning-styles assessments into general educational practice.’ And in the UK, a review by The Learning and Skills Research Centre found the various theories ‘seriously wanting’ and with ‘serious deficiencies’. Many were downright dangerous as they ‘over-simplify, label and stereotype’. Donald Cark has reviewed this research in some detail in his blog Plan B.
The fact that we have yet to find a reliable way to categorise learners, does not reduce the need for a learner-centred approach to design or for empathetic teaching. As Dr John Medina makes clear in Brain Rules, every one of the world’s seven billion inhabitants is different:
“What you do in life physically changes what your brain looks like.”
“Our brains are so sensitive to external inputs that their physical wiring depends upon the culture in which they find themselves.”
“Learning results in physical changes to the brain and these changes are unique to each individual.”
Interesting as all this is, I’m not sure it takes us that far in terms of the big decisions we have to make when designing a blended solution. From my experience there are two learner characteristics that are far more influential than learning preferences. One is the extent of their prior learning, and the other is their motivation to learn about the subject in question.
Next up: The importance of prior learning

5. When the need is to shift attitudes

Designing blended solutions
When I first entered the learning and development profession, I was assigned a mentor, a certain Mr Ernest Knagg. Ernest had strong opinions on just about all matters of pedagogy and good practice and that included the issue of attitudes. “Clive,” he said, “It’s not our business to try and change people’s attitudes. We can try and change what they do, but not what they feel about things.”
There’s a certain sense in what Ernest said, although time and time again I’ve encountered situations where attitudes are a major block to progress. I’ve checked this out with lots of other learning professionals and they agree. It’s almost impossible to address issues of knowledge and skill when attitudes are in the way.
An attitude is a predisposition, a tendency to think, feel or act in a certain way without reference to the facts of the situation. Try getting past “I absolutely hate computers”, “My job would be perfect if only there were no customers”, “I would never give a job to someone like that” or “E-learning is inherently evil.”
For a fuller discussion, see ‘A question of attitude‘.
Next up: 6. Every learner is different