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The Learning Environment

Bruce Murray 

April 22, 2016

©iStockphoto/urfingussThe best learning environments have been the subject of theoretical debate for decades. While academics dither, the landscape is transforming with a multitude of diverse resources emerging online. We’ll touch upon the debate later, but there’s no doubt that the driving forces are the need for speed and personalization.

The thirst for speed is quenched by the Web being just a fingertip away. Elliott Masie describes personalization as being “able to select, sequence, manage, and access learning resources in a manner of their choosing.” He adds that personalization is also “the ability to choose time, device, style, and even intensity of content, context or collaboration.”

When the learner is alone, deliver the content with building blocks. Outline the topic, telling the learner what he or she will know when he’s finished. If you’re taking personalization seriously, allow the learner to see this outline in written, visual or video formats.

Masie is an experienced academic and training professional. He concludes that you have no more than three minutes to capture a learner’s attention. Some learners will immediately grasp the words and concepts expressed, while others will need help. Don’t structure the lesson for the slowest learners because you’ll lose the others’ attention. Instead, provide clear links to help the slower learners pick up the basics. Use dictionaries and/or visual images to define terms that are unfamiliar to the learner. And, consider using Wiki links, very short videos, or even social media to provide richer detail that’s too complex for a simple definition.

Even though what I’ve described may not feel like your past learning, it’s still a form of lecturing: “We know this stuff. You don’t. Sit still. Watch and listen.” Paul Bartlett says, “Millennials want context and meaning, make it fun.” So, as quickly as possible, offer paths for the learner to interact with the material via hands-on modeling, experiments, interactive scenarios, and discussion forums.

This building-blocks approach is called “the inverted pyramid” in journalistic news reporting. Mind Tools’ editor Jo Jones faults the approach as uncreative, though. The alternative is storytelling that teaches deeper lessons. I agree with Jo but, if you use storytelling, the story had better be compelling, and it had better lead to achieving the required learning objectives.

Thus far, I’ve only discussed environments where the learner is isolated from the instructor and other learners. In face-to-face learning with others, take advantage of opportunities for much more interaction and feedback.

Which environment is best for learning: classroom lectures or software? Michelle Davis says that the research proclaims both! Bonk and Graham coined the term “blended learning,” where “online modules… help students acquire the tool skills and technical information, and then use[s] precious F2F class time to focus on application, case studies, and develop decision making skills.”

Catlin Tucker advises, “Think big, but start small as you build blended learning lessons. The software options are overwhelming. Patiently start with one piece of technology. You’ll make some mistakes as you achieve some success and get used to the tools yourself.”

All of the above assumes that personalized learning achieves better results than teaching a common core. But does it? Benjamin Riley notes that personalization assumes greater learning when students, “…have power over what they learn… [which] runs afoul of our current understanding of cognition.” Knowledge is cumulative. To be effective, new learning must be integrated into pre-existing knowledge. If the learning path becomes the responsibility of the student, she may not make sense of what she encounters.

Personalized lessons in improving productivity or best marketing practices might make sense. However, MTP cautions that, “there are some areas where knowledge is not in dispute and must be retained.” For example, it quotes an earlier paper that I wrote, warning that, “weapons training [might be] an area where you wouldn’t want to allow scope for learner interpretation!”

Aside from using some discretion in giving learners a personalized path for learning, I believe in its ability to accelerate learning. Use blended learning techniques, and exercise some control over their timing path, and learners will become more knowledgeable, engaged and satisfied.

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