When delivery method and subject matter are the same

The MA I’m pursuing right now is an interesting beast. One thing that has been very engaging about it is that what I’m studying is actually how I’m studying too. That is to say, while the subject matter of many degrees delivered via distance has nothing to do with how they’re delivered, it’s the exact opposite in this case. The MA in Learning and Technology focuses on learning within technology mediated environments and context.

What I find interesting is that, as I get further through courses in subjects like program planning or, in particular, the course I’m doing now in instructional design, I see the principles that I’m reading about and discussing online being put into practice by our instructors. It’s allowing me to see (at least for my own learning style) the effectiveness of different approaches to instruction and what is working for me … or not.

Design is design

Much of the ground I’ve covered so far (save for learning theory and research courses) is really about project management and design theory and frameworks. A lot of the principles we read about in the textbook for this course – and some of the literature we’re reading – could just as easily be applied to web design (and aren’t really about only learning at their core). Many of them are broad design principles I’ve worked with for some time.

Setting goals and objectives, using those for measurement and evaluation, user/learner analysis, formative evaluation (iterative user testing in the web design world), summative evaluation (metrics analysis and user feedback in the web design world), sequencing, pacing, and on and on. The big difference to me comes down to learning objectives, specific activities and evaluation of outcomes – a big difference from aggregate web sites and applications.

I will delve more into these similarities – and where I’m seeing aesthetics and online learning could be better blended – in future journal entries.

The cognitive aspect

I may be overstating the obvious, but the key things I keep returning to with regard to learning are cognitive and social activities within the web environment. Certain elements that are very specific to learning are becoming clearer to me through experience.

My design and project management practice has not been learning-focused, so perhaps my observations will not be news to anyone working in that field. However, the instructional design material I’m absorbing now is coming to life for me as I equate what I read to what I’m doing in the program. In particular I find that the balance of social and autonomous activities goes a long way to determining my satisfaction with the instructional design of a particular course, while the pacing, step size and cognitive load inherent in the instructional design determines how engaged I remain with the material.

The social-autonomous balance

The first two courses in this program were completed in a residency intensive (and were almost entirely social experiences), so my comments are based on the third and fourth courses. To some degree, both follow the same approach. A number of readings are assigned, which we complete individually, supplemented by a number of small team activities and assignments, along with occasional individual papers and assignments. My preference in this area is coloured heavily by the fact that I’m an autonomous learner.

Not only do I like doing the readings at my own pace, but my enjoyment of writing means I really get into drafting and polishing papers on my own. I find a great deal of value in the online discussions in which we take part, as it provides me perspectives that I would not have encountered working in isolation. It aids greatly in the interpretation of readings and analysis of the literature. However, there’s a limit. These two courses have been in stark contrast to one another.

Where Program Planning was very heavy with group discussions and collaborative assignments (to the point where team members were suffering fatigue by the end), Instructional Design has been comprised primarily of reading and an individual paper, with a couple fairly loose discussion forums thus far, which honestly would have benefited from a little more structure. The overlap and sheer volume of group discussions and assignments in the former course heightened the cognitive load so that learners had difficulty focusing – to the point where we felt the quality of the discourse eroded dramatically by the end of the course. The free-flowing discussion forums of the latter, coupled with the way unmoderated chatter has a way of meandering quite far off-course, has meant that the value of the discussions seems to get quite diluted if they’re not closed off soon enough.

Engaging the mind

I draw strong comparisons between designing information architecture and wireframes on a web project, and things like pacing, step size and cognitive load, which we’re focusing on right now in my present course. The concept of cognitive load is really not new to me, though I’ve usually considered it in light of page clutter or how much information is ‘above the fold’ on a particular web page. How much mental work do you make your learner or user do to complete a required task? It’s all about how you structure your information, visual cues, information scent and userflows. Again, I’ll write more on that at a future time.

When I look at this issue with respect to the past two courses, more contrasts emerge. In Program Planning, while I feel that I certainly came away with a strong foundation in the material, I believe the same result could have been obtained without some of the stresses we encountered. Five units all had different lengths, and while there were two individual papers and one group edited project, each unit had a large volume of reading, a lengthy discussion forum and then a summary of that discussion posted to a course wiki. In at least one case the group discussion/wiki and the group-written project could have been blended and lost nothing. I’d guess this one course probably took at least 15 hours a week most of the time.

Based on what I’m reading about pacing and step size, the course probably suffered the most from slow pacing and small step size. Too many exercises in each unit seemed to result in waning interest, declining quality and a heavy cognitive load. Too much material to focus on and slow movement between units for me. My autonomous learner couldn’t move at the pace I would have liked. Even those who prefer the social online activities (whom I spoke to about it) found the volume of group work to be overwhelming. While one of the unit wiki discussion summaries could have been replaced with the group edited paper in that unit, the wiki exercise was probably unnecessary to some degree, at least for all five units.

By the same token, Instructional Design probably needs a bit more structure to its activities – at least so far. I’ll give this course a very large caveat in that it’s happening over the holidays and, to the instructors’ credit, they’ve kept the workload light over the last two weeks of December. However, in general, I’ve found the quality of the online discussion forums a bit weak this time. To avoid engaging in too much meandering chatter, I decided to stop engaging at the point when the discussion was supposed to end. I say ‘supposed’ because many folks continue discussion forums well past the cut-off, when reading for the next section is to commence. To keep all learners engaged in discussion at the right time, I find the group activity structure better in the Program Planning course, while I found the volume of those activities to be excessive.

My conclusions

Admittedly, my analysis is very personal and only based on a few experiences, but I’m seeing a strong pattern in what does and doesn’t work so far in the realm of online learning. It’s also difficult because one size definitely does not fit all in this area. It seems a balance needs to be struck. The small group activities and the individual work needs to be carefully balanced to allow learners to feel like they are still managing aspects of their education. Social learning is definitely a valid concept in my mind, but not to the point where the work is completely produced as a group effort.

My feeling is that the balance needs to lean a little more to the autonomous side of the scale. I find the group activities and discussions are valuable because you gain insight and perspective you can’t on your own. However, those activities need fairly rigid boundaries and, at least for me, don’t provide nearly as much value in and of themselves as what they can contribute to the work I that I still produce on my own.