Three Questions If You Are Designing Or Evaluating e-Learning

There is palpable excitement on increased use of e-Learning. this is a good time to look at a few fundamentals of Learning, so that we can do e-Learning the right way.

Ramesh Srinivasan

Executive Coach, Leadership Development, Sales Trainer, Key Account Management, Product Mgmt Consultant

Our neighbour’s aunt dropped in to say hello, and we got chatting on how her job at the High School where she teaches Physics, is going. She said she is very relieved and happy right now because she has completed all her ‘portions’ for Class X, and the syllabus is ‘done’. I asked her for the name of the last boy on the last bench of her class. She said, “Rohan”. I said, “OK, You’ve finished your teaching. Are you sure Rohan has learnt all that you taught?”

She was visibly annoyed. She said, “Now, you are spoiling my joy”. I helpfully dropped the topic with her on that day. But the question remains: Is the job of a teacher to teach or to ensure that her students have learnt? If the teacher has taught, and the student has not learnt, is not the teacher to blame? This question gains even more prominence in these times when we are pushing for more of e-learning, with an inherent emphasis on ‘teaching’.

We were going around a primary school in Los Angeles, and the Headmistress was telling us the latest methods and techniques being applied in the premises that has been redesigned to enable the learning objectives of the 3 to 8-year olds enrolled there. As we were passing a classroom in a corridor, she opened the door, and a surprisingly loud noise hit us. It was kids yelling, laughing, all talking at the same time. Seeing us taken aback, our hostess quickly closed the door, smiled, and said, “This is what I call ‘Learning Noise'”.

Learning Noise – What a beautiful phrase!

When there is a buzz in any training/learning environment, when people are talking, discussing and laughing or back-slapping, every teacher/trainer/educator is pleased with the environment she has created. Which is why the First Law of Learning says: You Will Learn Only When YouAre Having Fun. Whether children or adults, fun is a prerequisite for doors to open, inhibitions to dissolve, bonds to develop, mutual trust to drive curiosity and hence, creating those valuable repositories of retained learning.

Question 1: Can we design e-Learning modules with in-built detours/questions/games/exercises that will let the learners indulge in unadulterated fun? Fun generates Learning Noise. The Second Law of Learning clarifies that Learning Happens When You Link The Unknown To The Known. As a corollary to the theory on Multiple Intelligences, Howard Gardner’s research tells us that learning styles are unique to every individual.

What this means is that each learner’s Known is likely to be different. Assuming all new learning applies to one’s unknown, a knowledge of the individual’s Known becomes essential to ensure that learning happens. The methods we use to teach Quantum Mechanics (QM) to an aeronautical engineer will have to be different from the methods we will use to do the same with an accountant. The fact, however, is that both the engineer and the accountant can learn QM. We have to start with their respective Knowns and link that to a facet of QM that will get them hooked to the new subject. (Presumably, you will start with applications of QM that can affect a system’s productivity/efficiency when talking to an accountant, whereas wave-particle duality could be the starting point with an engineer.)

Question 2: How can e-Learning determine the various possible ‘Knowns’ before deciding on the sequence of presentation for the ‘Unknowns’? Can we create multiple customised paths to learning the same topic? Whenever an Unknown meets a Known, Learning Noise happens.

The High School Physics teacher told me that there are special challenges while teaching ‘dry’ topics like Friction. I advised her to challenge, provoke, and ‘generate’ questions with the more difficult topics. With every question from the learner, we are creating an ‘educable’ moment. (Demonstrating pulling a piece of wood on a smooth floor, and then on the carpet, and asking for what accounts for the difference in difficulty, will create ‘educable’ moments for Friction.)

The Third Law of Learning equates educable moments with Learning. More The Questions, More The Educable Moments, Better The Learning.

Question 3: What can e-Learning do (by way of design), to generate ‘educable’ moments? Questions will raise the Learning Noise levels. Whether in schools with kids, or in corporates with executives, Learning is a complex process. The jazz and bling of technology cannot be allowed to reduce Learning to a one-size-fits-all process. Dumping and Downloading of lessons is already happening in our schools and colleges, and curbing Learning Noise. We must ensure that e-Learning does not exacerbate this heinous practice.