November 28, 2014

Learning environments: a critical component of the design of online teaching

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Figure 5.1 A learning environment from the perspective of an instructor

Figure 5.1 A learning environment from the perspective of an instructor

I have now published the first four chapters of my open textbook ‘Teaching in a Digital Age’. These chapters have greatly benefited from your feedback.

I am now working on Chapter 5, ‘The design of teaching and learning.’

I’m offering you here my first thoughts on the design of teaching and learning, with a particular focus on creating and working with a rich learning environment that will support students’ learning.

Overview of the whole chapter

  • introduction to the design of teaching/learning design
  • learning environments
    • learner characteristics: digital natives and digital literacy; learning styles; family and work contexts
    • content: structure; sources; quantity/depth
    • skills: opportunities for skills development and practice; competency based learning,
    • learner support: activities; feedback;
    • resources: time; facilities;, technology
    • assessment: methods
  • learning design models (objectivist lectures/LMSs, ADDIE, online collaborative learning, communities of practice, flexible design models, PLEs/MOOC of One, AI approaches).
  • summary/conclusions

5.1 What is learning design?

It is one thing to have a good theory of learning and a choice of appropriate teaching method, but it is quite another to implement the chosen teaching method successfully. As noted in the previous chapter, teachers and instructors may need a mix of methods, depending on the circumstances. This means deliberately planning methods of teaching and a broad learning environment that will facilitate the development of the knowledge and skills that are needed.

Once again, though, there is extensive research and experience that point to the key factors to be taken into consideration in the successful implementation of teaching. In essence we are talking about using best practices in the design of teaching – sometimes called learning design.

We shall see that these principles may vary somewhat, depending on the chosen teaching method and the underlying epistemological position of each teacher, but a large number of the core principles in learning design extend across several of the teaching methods. These main principles can be summarised as follows:

  • know your students: identifying the key characteristics of the students you will be or could be teaching, and how that will/should influence your methods of teaching
  • know what you are trying to achieve: in any particular course or program what are the critical areas of content and in particular the particular skills or learning outcomes that students need to achieve as a result of your teaching? What is the best way to identify and assess these desired outcomes?
  • know how students learn: what drives learning for your students? How do you engage or motivate students? How can you best support that learning?
  • know how to implement this knowledge: what learning design model(s) will work best for you? What kind of learning environment do you need to create to support student learning?
  • know how to use technology to support your teaching: this is really a sub-set of the previous point, and will be discussed in much more detail in later chapters.

In order to implement these core principles of design, we need to construct effective learning environments for our students.

5.2 Learning environments

Definitions

Environment: ‘The surroundings or conditions in which a person, animal, or plant lives or operates.’

‘Learning environment refers to the diverse physical locations, contexts, and cultures in which students learn. Since students may learn in a wide variety of settings, such as outside-of-school locations and outdoor environments, the term is often used as a more accurate or preferred alternative to classroom, which has more limited and traditional connotations—a room with rows of desks and a chalkboard, for example.

The term also encompasses the culture of a school or class—its presiding ethos and characteristics, including how individuals interact with and treat one another—as well as the ways in which teachers may organize an educational setting to facilitate learning…..’

The Glossary of Educational Reform, 29 August, 2013

The latter definition recognises that students learn in many different ways in very different contexts. Since learners must do the learning, the aim is to create a total environment for learning that optimises the ability of students to learn.

There is of course no single optimum learning environment. There is an infinite number of possible learning environments, which is what makes teaching so interesting. Developing a total learning environment for students in a particular course or program is probably the most creative part of teaching.

There is a tendency in the literature to focus on either physical institutional learning environments (such as classrooms, lecture theatres and labs) or on the technologies used to to create online personal learning environments (PLEs), but as the definitions quoted above make clear, learning environments are broader than just the physical components. They include the goals for teaching and learning, what engages or motivates students to learn, what student activities will best support learning, and what assessment strategies best measure and drive student learning.

Thus one place to start in designing a learning environment for a course or program is to identify some of the key components.

Figure 5.1 A learning environment from the perspective of an instructor

Figure 5.1 A learning environment from the perspective of an instructor

Figure 5.1 illustrates one possible learning environment from the perspective of a teacher or instructor. It should be pointed out that this represents both a set of components that it may be difficult for an instructor to change (learner characteristics, resources, etc.), but which may nevertheless have important implications for how the course should be taught, and other components (content, skills to be taught, etc.) over which an instructor may have more choice or control. Within each of the main components there are a set of sub-components that will need to be considered. In fact, it is in the sub-components (content structure, practical activities, feedback, use of technology, assessment methods, etc.) where the real decisions need to be made.

I have listed just a few components in Figure 5.1 and the set is not meant to be comprehensive. For instance it could have included attitudes or social factors as well as content and skills, institutional factors (policies, priorities,etc.) and personal factors (being a part-time or adjunct faculty, a dual role as instructor and family carer, etc.), all of which might also affect the learning environment in which a teacher or instructor has to work. Creating a model of a learning environment then is a heuristic device that aims to provide a comprehensive view of the whole teaching context for a particular course or program, by a particular instructor or teacher with a particular view of learning. It is also not enough to list the components; they need to be organized, scheduled and integrated. The more detailed design of a course will then be built around and take best advantage of the learning environment.

Once again, our choice of components and their perceived importance will be driven to some extent by our personal epistemologies and beliefs about knowledge, learning and teaching methods. The preferred teaching method and epistemological position will influence which components of the learning environment get the most attention from a teacher or instructor. For instance, an instructor with a transmissive or objectivist view of teaching is likely to focus mainly on content and certain kinds of assessment tools, while a more constructivist or nurturing teacher will pay particular attention to learner characteristics (particularly their goals), and learner support.

Lastly, I have deliberately suggested a learning environment from the perspective of a teacher, as the teacher has the main responsibility for creating an appropriate learning environment, but it is also important to consider learning environments from the learners’ perspectives. Indeed, adult or mature learners are capable of creating their own, personal, relatively autonomous learning environments, and this will also be discussed in more depth later in the chapter.

The significant point here is that it is important to identify those components that need to be considered in teaching a course or program, and in particular that there are many components in addition to content or curriculum.  The key components of a learning environment will be discussed in more detail in later posts. After that, different learning design models will be discussed.

Up next

My next post will be on learner characteristics and their potential influence on the design of teaching – especially in a digital age.

Over to you

1. Is it legitimate to focus on a learning environment from a teacher’s perspective rather than a learner’s perspective?

2. What would you add (or remove) from the learning environment in Figure 5.1?

3. Does thinking about the whole learning environment overly complicate the teaching endeavour? Why not just get on with it?

Comments

  1. Thanks Tony for this wonderful article.

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