Wednesday, 4 November 2009

Learning as doing two things at once

I'm having a problem with the screen layout of some online course materials. The student is being taught how to write definitions, and in one section they're presented with six different definitions of globalisation and have to fill in a table to analyse, for each of them, the different components of the definition. It's a common sort of distance learning activity, and the screen layout problem is a common one too: the student really needs to be able to see the definition they're working on and the table into which they're writing their analysis at the same time. I don't know how we're going to achieve this on our VLE - unless we put each of the definitions on a separate screen and repeat the table six times!

I find it astonishing that with all the effort and design talent which has gone into developing online learning platforms it is still the exception rather than the rule to find an easy way of enabling a learner to hold two things in view simultaneously. (For OU staff only: here is a rare exemple from D821.)

But this doing two things at once, or switching rapidly between them, is the essence of learning, is it not?

If we think we're simply transmitting information (as tends to be the assumption with people from the IT industry, which is based on information theory's conceptualisation of complex problems as the transmission, modification and reception of information), then a single view, single activity interface is not a problem. The student is just reading text, or looking at a picture, or watching a video, etc.

But if we're thinking about learning, then the student needs to be not only in the text, the picture or the video, but standing back from it and doing something else: relating it to their existing knowledge, forming new knowledge structures to accommodate it, thinking how to apply it to other circumstances. (It's the back end of the Kolb learning cycle.)

Good students, of course, do this whether we make it easy for them to do it or not. They take notes, they think about what we've shown them, they talk about it with their mates, they try it out.

But given how fundamental to learning is this doing-two-things-at-once (or, more accurately, switching between them quickly), and given that the distinctive capability of the contemporary digital computer is the integration of different functions on the same screen, isn't it extraordinary how little our VLEs and teaching platforms help our learners with this second function, being still designed on the assumption that they will be doing only one thing at a time?

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