E-Learning Effectiveness: The Importance of Pedagogy in a Field of Dreams

A recurring mistake in online learning is the “build it and they will come” approach, trying to generate a need rather than responding to an existing one. While it may have worked in the Hollywood movie Field of Dreams, it does not work like this in the real-world! In the words of Richard Clark: “instructional media are mere vehicles that deliver instruction but do not influence achievement more than a truck that delivers our groceries causes changes in our nutrition” (http://users.cdli.ca/bmann/0_ARTICLES/Media_Clark.html).

In the attempt to innovate and impact change, everyone is jumping on the technology bandwagon. I applaud one’s desire to make a difference, try something new, but we must adapt our approach to maximize the benefits of the medium. This refers to pedagogy, using instructional strategies to transmit knowledge and skills. Transfer is the primary goal of instruction, yet many of the standard page-turning e-learning are not impacting behaviour on the job. As instructional designers, we try to include more interactivity with knowledge check questions, increase reflection through case-based scenarios, but we continue to find ourselves in the same predicament. Why?

As discussed in the book Games and Simulations in Online Learning by Gibson, Aldrich & Prensky, there are instructional strategies known for transfer, but we design e-learning applications that do not take advantage of them. The question then becomes how do we design for e-learning success? Here is a list of my four fundamental requirements:

  1. Use instructional strategies known for transfer: In the report “Getting started in e-learning” by the eLearning Guild, they state that the following instructional strategies can improve transfer in the real-world: using similar contexts to the job setting, providing extensive and varied practice to reinforce learning, and making underlying principles clear so that the learner knows which skill to apply in which situations. Basically, we should aim to design instructional experiences that leverage these strategies in the design.
  2. Consider the end-game: As the famous maxim goes: the end justifies the means! In training, identify what the learner will need to know or be able to do upon completion of training. Once you have defined the end-game, you can decide how you will blend the content and pedagogical approach with the technology. If the learning objective involves recall of facts and procedures, you can consider an engaging multimedia course. If on the other hand you need to address problem-solving and role-plays, you might want to consider serious games and immersion.
  3. Create an engaging learning experience: According the Malone’s criteria, engaging the learner requires you to incorporate the right mixture of knowledge, curiosity, fantasy and control. You want the learner to be enthusiastic and focused as they move through the content. Motivate the end-user, and appeal to them cognitively and emotionally. As Don Norman discussed in his TED Talk our 3 emotional connections (visceral, behavioural, and reflective) are linked to the success of any product.
  4. Set winning learning conditions: Consider activating prior knowledge and focusing on higher-order thinking rather than rote memorization. Encourage discovery and self-directed learning, and provide guidance and meaningful contextualization.

We find ourselves caught in a predicament where we continue to use the same old instructional methods in new media. However, as Mo’Nique said in her Oscar acceptance speech for Best Supporting Actress for the movie Precious, “you sometimes have to forego doing what is popular to do what is right”. We need to take a step back and look at pedagogy, and allow learner-centered design to dictate our selection of instructional strategies and approaches. And for those who argue that budget and timelines do not allow for process changes, consider the fact that lesser effective means will require additional training interventions to address the need, leading to more effort, time, and cost in the long-run.

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