Just not enough time for real learning? Published 2006-07-14

I just finished attending an webinar titled "Five Effective E-Learning Design Strategies" hosted by Adobe. I was disappointed by the traditionalist approach to learning taken by the presenter (Professor Karl Kapp from Bloomsburg University). As an example, he suggested creating mnemonics and word search games as ways to help students learn facts. I posed the question: "Why not create game templates and let your students come up with the mnemonics or word search content?" - a more constructionist approach and one I have found to be more effective.

My suggestion was well received for the effect on learning but was discounted as not being practical given the time limits. The presenter was speaking mostly of corporate training/learning, but this is a common criticism of a constructionist approach in the classroom. "We have just too much material to present to do anything other than lecture and maybe some short discussions."

Barry Dahl commented on a recent post by Dave Warlick describing how in China, the education model is all about lecture. This works for them as they have a culture of respect and "engaging" the students is not really a priority. But what the student in China are gaining in content, they are (perhaps) losing in creativity. Jeff Utecht posed this question in a comment on the same post: "How do you have a well disciplined classroom and at the same time allow enough freedom for there to be imagination and openness to engage students?"

Where is the learning actually taking place? In a lecture based model, actual learning talks place outside of the class where students review lecture notes and read requisite material. In the e-learning environment described above, the model assumes that learning only takes place during the time the student (employee) is engaged with the e-learning module. Just like in a successful classroom, learning must be able to extend beyond the classroom - whether physical or virtual.

So for those who think that there is not enough time to provide "active learning" opportunities, I say that you should re-think where learning takes place. With such tools as blogs, wikis, podcasts, etc., classrooms can be reformed from being solely a place for disseminating facts to a place for coordinating learning taking place outside the room. This requires a radical shift from the "expert" model of education to that of a "facilitator".

Time will always be an issue when it comes to teaching, just as it is with most aspects of our lives. But let's not make time an excuse for not exploring better ways of helping our students learn. After all, we have time to do anything we want - its a matter of prioritizing.


Karl M. Kapp said...

First of all, thank you for taking time to attend the webinar and for your comments on the content. Education and learning are only furthered through discussion and dialogue.

However, I need to clarify some points that were either not conveyed properly or where mis-interpreted in my webinar.

While I do agree that allowing a student to create their own mnemonic or word search game is an effective learning tool. The question I ask: “Is that the best use of limited instructional time?” I do not believe so. Many times instruction needs to be made as efficient as possible because of time constraints. Whether in a K-12, college or corporate setting—educators only have a limited amount of time to present information.

It would be far more effective to encourage constructivist activities at the higher levels of learning which are principles and problem-solving rather than the lower levels like memorizing facts.

A good instructor, covers facts efficiently and then allows students to be creative at the higher levels of knowledge. This is a superior model (in terms of efficient use of time) than allowing the students to spend hours creating their own mnemonic or word search. Instead, have them create a problem in science that their fellow classmates need to solve or have them create a scenario to disprove a statement made by a well-known economist or have them create a situation in which traditional customer service remedies might not work.

Constructivism only works when the learners have a solid foundation on which to construct their knowledge. As a time-constrained instructor, you need to build that foundation quickly and move on to higher levels of learning. Unfortunately, in most academic and corporate training situations, the learning stops at facts. (ok, maybe a couple of concepts.)

It should also be noted that constructivism has recently come under some criticism in terms of its effectiveness. See Paul Kirschner’s “Why Minimal Guidance during Instruction Does Not Work: An Analysis of the Failure of Constructivist, Discovery, Problem-based, Experiential and Inquiry-based Teaching” at http://projects.ict.usc.edu/itw/gel/Constructivism_Kirschner_Sweller_Clark1.pdf

Additionally, you are correct about informal learning, the US Department of Labor indicates that as much as 70% of learning within an organization is done informally, I would argue, however, that the reason for all the informal learning is the failure of the formal learning process—traditional classroom lecture and e-learning modules are not as effective as they should be.

Instruction is typically not designed…it is just presented. This is as true (or truer) in lecture-based courses as it is in e-learning. If an instructor used the proper techniques for teaching facts (in a lecture or online) then he or she would have more time to teach principles and problem-solving…higher level learning…and students wouldn’t have to learn the basics informally through wiki’s, blogs, podcasts, etc.

The primary contributor to the need for informal learning outside the classroom is a bad approach to the formal instruction in the classroom. While people tend to put down lectures, they are effective and do lead to learning, when done well. If done poorly, the result is minimal or no learning. The same can be said for wiki’s, blogs, etc. A blog is not good learning because it is a blog and a lecture is not bad learning because it is a lecture. The design of the content of the blog or lecture is the heart of the matter.

It is not the method of instruction that makes the difference: it is the techniques or strategies that make the difference. The point of the webinar was to provide strategies or techniques for improving instruction. The individual designer, teacher or facilitator must make decisions regarding the trade-off between time and amount of content covered. But to make those trade-offs, he or she needs to know what strategies work with what type of content.

Again, thanks for your comments on the webinar, dialogue is the tool of growth and I hope this lessens your disappointment somewhat.