Tuesday, 24 October 2017

Alternatives to telling: what are we forgetting when we put education online?

Most people experienced in online education are clear that it’s not just about presentation of subject matter. Even if that’s your starting assumption – and such is the pernicious influence of IT thinking that even good educators find themselves thinking of teaching as the transmission of information – you quickly realise that online lectures, whether text, audio or video, don’t necessarily lead to learning. So online educators turn to the medium’s great potential for discussing, sharing and collaborating, and supplement online presentations with activities for learning through online social interaction. For many people these days, online education means presentation plus group learning activities.

But if we think like that, we’re forgetting the possibility of individual learning activities. From the earliest years of The Open University, these were the distinctive core of its approach to distance learning, as a deliberate and conscious effort to implement an active constructivist pedagogy through printed materials. As Fred Lockwood tells the story, the approach originated in a 1973 memo by Derek Rowntree, in which he asked writers of materials to imagine what their ideal form of teaching would be if they had a learner in their company for several hours: what would they do as teachers and what would the learner be expected to do during that time.
Rowntree argued that … it was highly unlikely that you would simply talk at the learner for hour after hour; he didn’t believe it would happen. Instead he thought you would probably regard a one-to-one tutorial as an ideal form of teaching when information, source materials, procedures, techniques, arguments, research findings, raw data, etc. would be communicated and learners would be asked to respond to a variety of questions. In some cases the actual answer would be provided, in others a commentary or feedback. In such a context a learner could be asked a whole series of questions, dependent upon the nature of the topic and form the teaching was to take. The learner could be asked to recall items of information, to define concepts, draw together arguments, justify particular statements, consult other sources, interpret data, compare different interpretations of the same data, work out examples, discuss things and perhaps produce something themselves. In short, teachers would expect the exercise of certain study skills by which the learner constructs his or her own picture of the subject and learn to integrate what has just been taught with what had been learnt before feedback was provided.
(Lockwood, 1992 p 25) 
This “tutorial-in-print” approach came to be the defining characteristic of Open University materials. When I was taught to write distance learning materials on an OU model in the early 1990s, I learned to give priority to such learning activities, preferably planning them before starting to write any subject matter presentation. One set of course materials on which I worked was designed to consist only of individual learning activities, the presentational element being supplied by existing published readings to which learners had access through their professional libraries. When computer-based and internet-based technologies arrived in the late 1990s, my colleagues and I recognised the possibilities which they afforded for interactivity, free exploration of resources and social learning, but we saw these as supplements to individual learning activities, not replacements.

But one starts from what one knows. When recently I asked a new OU lecturer what she was planning to add to her throughly planned presentation of subject matter, she responded in terms of online group activities; reasonably enough, she thought of delivering online versions of the lectures and classes with which she was familiar. So it’s not so surprising that individual learning activities should be absent from the online learning design of universities with no previous background in distance learning, such as Phoenix or Northampton.

What’s more surprising is that individual learning activities don’t feature in the OU’s own framework for learning design, even though they are still to be found in OU course materials, both printed and online. In the OU’s typology of learning activities, the only category in which they could plausibly fit is that of “Assimilative activities”, in which the root metaphor does at least connote the building up of structures. However, according to its definition, this category includes nothing more than “attending to information”, with the core task verbs being “read, watch, listen” [1], described as “essentially passive in nature” (Conole 2007, p 84) – bizarre in a typology of learning activities (how can one have a passive activity?) and certainly leaving no room for anything like a “tutorial in print”. But then this typology was developed at the University of Southampton, as part of a programme for promoting the use of educational technology[2], without reference to the tradition of distance learning, at the Open University or anywhere else.

Does it matter if we forget individual learning activities and omit them from our learning design thinking? I think it does, because group activities are not always appropriate ways of making learners active and developing their competence with the subject. For one thing, social learning is not suitable for some learners, most obviously for those in prison or other secure environments in which contact with other learners is limited or impossible. More importantly, group activities are time-consuming ways of working with a topic – typically each learner has to wait for responses from others before they can complete the activity for themselves – meaning that in practical terms they are only suitable where that investment of time is warranted. Most fundamentally, group activities are not appropriate where the range of possible correct responses is limited, so that there’s little for learners to discuss or share. Learners’ time may be better spent initially practicing new concepts on their own, learning to get them right before using them in discussion with others.

Forgetting about individual learning activities also lets authors off the hook of thinking properly about how learners are actually going to achieve competence in the subject. If all learners are going to do is to discuss the subject matter presented to them, that encourages authors to plan and write their materials as if for a textbook, without thinking about learning activities – group or individual – until the presentation is substantially finished. And that is bad, because whereas textbooks have to be complete, covering thoroughly all the topics in their scope, for learning materials completeness is usually not desirable. Rather than presenting a definitive account of the subject, it is actually more effective to leave gaps for learners to fill in for themselves. “Never tell learners anything you can have them work out for themselves,” was the maxim given me by Richard Freeman (formerly of the National Extension College and the Open College) when I started writing distance learning materials; like all maxims, it’s an overstatement, but it reflects the ideal, the ambition which should be ours, as writers and designers of learning materials. We need to be constantly alert to all the alternatives to telling we can think of, and we cannot afford to forget any of them.


[1] The three original task verbs of “Read, Watch, Listen” have recently been supplemented by “Think about, Access, Observe, Review, Study”, which while at least allowing for a learner taking an active stance does not suggest the kind of focused direction characteristic of an individual learning activity. To include proper constructivist activities, the category should include task verbs such as Summarise, Identify, Classify, Interpret, Compare and contrast, Apply, Analyse and Evaluate. See my post 'Learning as assimilation: a passive activity?'

[2] A conference presentation (Fill et al 2004) locates the development of the DialogPlus toolkit, which embodied the typology, in the perceived gap between the potential of educational technologies and the application of good pedagogic principles.


Conole, G. (2007), 'Describing learning practices: tools and resources to guide practice', and Appendix 7 'Taxonomy of learning activities', in Helen Beetham and Rhona Sharpe (eds), Rethinking Pedagogy for a Digital Age: Designing and Delivering E-learning (Routledge), pp 81-91, pp 235-237.

Fill et al (2004), 'Supporting teachers: the development and evaluation of a learning design toolkit', presentation at Alt-C conference Exeter, abstract at http://web.archive.org/web/20101126075256/http://alt.ac.uk/altc2004/timetable/abstract.php?abstract_id=79 (Accessed 22 October 2017), PowerPoint at http://web.archive.org/web/20101126114429/http://alt.ac.uk/altc2004/timetable/files/79/DialogPlus%20Toolkit.ppt (Accessed 22 October 2017).

Lockwood 1992, Activities in Self-Instructional Texts, Open and Distance Learning Series, London, Kogan Page

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