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The search for the holy e-learning recipe, part 2 – Choosing learning channels


In the second part of an indepth study, E-learning Consultant and Content Designer Don Morrison looks at how organisations can choose a learning channel from the growing number of options.

Part One

Learning channels don't map directly to content types.

The most effective approach to channel selection is strategy.

For example, it's generally accepted that e-learning can make a valuable contribution to homogenizing the input standard of learners attending a face to face learning event—regardless of content types. By creating prerequisite online evaluations and learning, content designers can be confident that every learner walking into the classroom is on a level playing field. Gone are the days when learners with too little pre-knowledge slow down the progress of the whole class while learners with a surplus of pre-knowledge feel they are wasting their time.

It's also generally accepted that following up a face to face or online event with coaching—whether using online collaboration tools, e-mail, or telephone—can help the learner apply what has been learned which, after all, is the ultimate learning objective.

Equally, following up face to face and online learning events with peer to peer collaboration can both help the learning stick and facilitate the development of personal networks through which learners will continue to learn and share knowledge long after formal events have ended.
I am much less comfortable with the notion that learning channels can map directly to either content types—nor can I find any evidence that they can.

There is a notion that only face to face learning can change settled behaviours and, it must follow, distance learning is only appropriate for task- or procedure-based learning, for example, learning computer skills. Using Robert Gagné’s taxonomy of learning, you could say that face to face learning is the only appropriate delivery channel for learning about Attitudes and Cognitive Strategies while distance learning is a suitable channel for learning about Verbal Information and Intellectual Skills.

It’s not true. Controlled comparisons between distance and face to face learning have been made since the 1940s and a clear majority of these have shown that at worst there is no significant difference between distance and face to face learning regardless of content.

What is true is that it takes uncommon imagination and creativity to create distance learning engaging and powerful enough to change behaviours. As a result, most learning managers have never been exposed to learning content capable of changing behaviours and wrongly assume it does not and cannot exist.

Unimaginative distance learning cannot change behaviours but neither can unimaginative classroom training. What determines the effectiveness of learning is the quality of the instructional design and content not the choice of channel.

Learning Channels Don't Map to Learning Styles

Another notion I encounter regularly holds that learning channels map directly to learning styles. Channel selection then becomes based on catering to the learning styles of the learner base. I can understand the instant appeal of this approach but I can’t find any evidence to support it.

Learning styles are themselves a problem area. What are they? Building on David Kolb’s Learning Style Model, Honey and Mumford offer us four learners: the Activist, the Reflector, the Theorist, and the Pragmatist. Howard Gardener offers us eight multiple intelligences: Verbal/Linguistic, Logical/Mathematical, Bodily/Kinesthetic, Visual/Spatial, Musical, Interpersonal, Intrapersonal, and Naturalist.

Other people talk about VAK, a simpler approach that maintains our overall learning preferences are visual 60%, auditory 30%, and kinesthetic 10%. The Grasha-Riechmann Student Learning Style Scale, designed for universities, identifies three personality dimensions: competitive/collaborative, avoidant/participant, dependent/independent. And so on.

What you will not find is any of the experts in the area arguing that each of us has a single learning style or that our learning styles remains fixed. Most experts adopt the same position as Peter Honey who maintains that learners need to adopt all styles of learning in order to learn effectively. Honey is sceptical about a single right style for each learner: ‘Teaching exclusively to an individual's preferred style, if indeed it was possible, would undoubtedly be convenient and comfortable for the learner. But so much of what is involved in effective learning would be missing—having to struggle, taking a risk, picking yourself up after a setback and having another go, and learning from failure and mistakes.’1

David Kolb agrees: ‘Tracking of students in education by whatever criteria is generally a bad idea, as it tends to stigmatize and stereotype learners, preventing them from developing their full learning potential. It is more effective to design curriculum so that there is some way for learners of every learning style to engage with the topic, so that every type of learner has an initial way to connect with the material, and then begin to stretch his or learning capability in other learning modes.’2

Howard Gardener is very pragmatic about the application of MI: ‘My own teaching has changed slowly as a result of multiple intelligences because I'm teaching graduate students psychological theory and there are only so many ways I can do that. I am more open to group work and to student projects of various sorts, but even if I wanted to be an “MI professor” of graduate students, I still have a certain moral obligation to prepare them for a world in which they will have to write scholarly articles and prepare theses.’3

I have very practical concerns about the direct mapping of learning styles to learning delivery. Suppose we test a learner online and find, in Gardener’s terms, she had a Musical or Naturalist intelligence. How would that help us as designers and deliverers of learning to help her get more out of Microsoft Outlook or to change her behaviours towards enterprise IT security?

I was once involved in the development of a self-paced e-learning course about project teamwork. The subject matter expert was convinced the best way to exemplify teamwork was through the album ‘Kind of Blue’, Miles Davis’s 1959 jazz masterpiece. There were serious issues around copyright clearance for the music and photos of the legendary musicians. More importantly, many people on the development team were not convinced that jazz music was a robust analogy for teamwork in the enterprise. The SME remained adamant it was. On reflection, he almost certainly had a Musical intelligence which was not present in the rest of the development team and, presumably, the learner base. Would learners who disliked jazz have been engaged or distanced? Would the substantial cost of copyright licences delivered good ROI?

I don’t deny learning styles exist and I believe it is probably a good thing for each of us to have an appreciation of the style of learning with which we are most comfortable. What I don’t think we can do is to map learning channels directly to learning styles, for example using Gardener’s intelligences to insist that all learners with an Interpersonal intelligence need to learn through collaborative channels while all learners with an Intrapersonal intelligence need self-paced e-learning.
Neither should we glibly provide a spoken narration with all text displays in order to cater to both auditory and visual learning preferences. To do so flies in the face of research into Cognitive Load Theory which shows that delivering the same content simultaneously in two channels impedes assimilation.

Relentless Push of Technology

My crystal ball doesn’t work any better than anyone else’s but one thing is certain: the number of content delivery channels available for learning will only ever increase — and all the new channels will be distance learning channels. IBM Learning Services believes that online collaborative learning will become the dominant form of e-learning while face to face learning will decline both proportionately and in absolute terms but never disappear. That makes sense to me. More and more, face to face learning will be reserved for special circumstances—whether ‘special’ means critical learning, value-driven learning (as in PwC Consulting Consulting’s approach), or perhaps learning in the board room.

Universities understand this. In the US, almost 90 percent of large universities (more than 10 000 students) provide distance learning. Gerhard Casper, the outgoing president of Stanford University, remarked: ‘How Internet learning will shake out, I really do not know. But I am utterly convinced that over the next ten years we will see shifts from in-residence learning to on-line learning.’4

So not only has blended learning been around for as long as learning has been around but its future is assured. In that context, it’s important to understand is that placing a higher value on the effectiveness or desirability of face to face learning over the effectiveness or desirability of the increasing number of distance learning channels is wrong thinking. There will be situations where face to face learning has a strategic value but as every aspect of our lives become permeated by media, face to face will become proportionately less significant. It’s already happened outside learning. How many people go to the theatre compared with the number of people who watch drama in the cinema, on broadcast and cable television, or packaged, that is, on DVD and VHS?

Today when a seven or eight year old child forgets a homework assignment at school, they know one of their classmates will fax it them. Often primary school children have no text books for key subjects like science but author their own notebooks based on their experience in the classroom and, as importantly, their personal research using books, CD-ROMs, and the Internet.

Adolescents have adopted SMS text messaging as their communication channel of choice. Instant Messaging, a real-time peer to peer channel, has been awarded ‘cool’ status not only by adolescents but by masses of enterprise employees. Digital radio and television—whether broadcast or delivered by cable—have dramatically increased the number of delivery channels around us. While G3 telephony is currently suffering a protracted and painful labour, one to one, one to group, and group to group two-way wireless channels are here to stay for both voice and data communications. The emergence of plastic LCD screens so thin they can be rolled into a tube portends a new generation of e-books with as much or greater portability than paper books.

The more delivery channels there are, the less centralized our lives, our society, and our learning becomes. Learners in organizations will have an increasing expectation of a channel-rich screen-based learning environment.
With more and more channels available, the challenge of channel selection becomes increasingly critical and difficult. The idea that there can be a formulaic approach to channel selection—a set of rules to cover every situation—is simplistic and adrift.

Today, the reality of blended learning is often learning delivered through three channels: the classroom, the virtual classroom, and self-paced online courses—and already learning managers and designers are struggling with channel selection. What is needed for the future is a strategic approach not a set of rules. At the heart of the approach lies the need for a deep understanding of the business and learning requirements. Only through that understanding can a strategy for delivery channel selection emerge. Just don’t expect it to be easy. All together now: Blanda lore!

1. Delahoussaye M (2002) Perfect Learner: An Expert Debate on Learning Styles [Internet] Accessed 23 May 2002.

2. ibid

3. Checkley K (1997) The First Seven . . . and the Eighth [Internet] Educational Leadership Vol 55 Num1 September 1997, Accessed 6 Dec 2001.

4. Clark RC Mayer RE (2002) e-Learning and the Science of Instruction: Proven Guidelines for Consumers and Designers of Multimedia Learning San Francisco Jossey-Bass p12.

Copyright Don Morrison, E-learning Consultant and Content Designer
Don's book "E-Learning Strategies: How To Get Implementation and Delivery Right First Time" will be published in March.


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