One of the biggest opportunities for effective course re-design, when it comes to learner engagement or connected learning, can be found at the beginning of lessons. It's right at the start that a course can make or break how personally involved learners are going to be. In other words, what are we doing at the outset to let students know that their participation is an important part of the learning process?
Traditional sequence of many course lessons
Let's take a look at the traditional sequence of many course lessons.
In most courses, lessons begin with an instructor mediation. The purpose of the instructor mediation is to put key learning concepts to be covered in the lesson in their proper context. The instructor mediation is generally a video explanation by the instructor, which immediately is reinforced by some other form of explanation – such as a textbook reading – to ensure the learner fully understands the concepts before moving on to a practice or assessment activity.
Once the initial information has been presented, the course generally takes learners 1) to practice the concepts covered in the lesson, often providing multiple forms of practice to advance the student's proficiency in terms of understanding on the Bloom's Taxonomy scale, 2) to participate in a class discussion, and then 3) to be assessed to ensure they've properly digested the information presented.
We can model this sequence visually using the LEML design language.
Yes, this traditional structure puts the material in context so learners can make sense of the information presented and then – hopefully – convert it into actual knowledge. But, is something missing? We're finding that the focus of this traditional approach is too limited to generate within learners a sense of being personally connected to the material. In fact, in many ways the traditional structure insures that learners will remain separate from the information we want them to individually assimilate. With connected learning, we want learners to do more than just get a good grade in the class – we want them to leave the course better prepared intellectually to negotiate their way through the waters of life.
When we look closely at this traditional structure, we find two primary weaknesses:
1. Lack of learner self-reflection as part of the contextualization process
Putting the material in proper context at the outset is critical, but it's incomplete if all that's being contextualized is the information itself. We want to help learners put the information in context to themselves. How does this information apply to them? How could it possibly matter in their lives? Where do learners feel they are currently – and uniquely – regarding their own understanding and possible mastering of the concepts to be presented? Without this form of initial personalization and internalization, learners have no real motivation or interest to connect to the material presented.
2. Lack of core emphasis on connectivity
In order for learner engagement to occur and endure, we must provide more than a single element in a lesson design – the individual's motivation must be an integral part of the lesson architecture and must be woven thoughtfully throughout. At a minimum, this means emphasizing personalization of information at the outset and facilitating an initial sharing of ideas and assumptions with others. Additionally, the lesson should contain a series of scaffolded dialogues and interactions that reinforce and evolve learners' initial assumptions. Finally, each lesson should feature some form of concluding self-reflection that allows learners to re-assess their assumptions from the beginning of the lesson and then to appreciate the evolution of their learning networks.
Addressing the weaknesses
The most obvious place to begin addressing these weaknesses is at the beginning of the lesson. If we add sufficient opportunities for self-reflection, personalization, and connected feedback loops, we establish a foundation for engagement that can be carried through an entire lesson easily. One possible design iteration for beginning a lesson focused on connectivity might look like this:
There are a number of other factors that can impact our decisions around such beginning-of-lesson designs for connectivity. Such factors include: 1) the complexity of the data we're presenting, 2) the learner's previous experience with the concepts being presented, and 3) the learning environment in which the lesson is being delivered.
Regardless of the variables, however, the core design emphasis on personalization, scaffolded interactions, and final reflection should remain constant. As instructors and instructional designers, we need to always keep in mind the following question – Are we doing this just to help those enrolled get correct answers on tests, or is it possible that we can do something more meaningful? And that's what connected learning is all about.