Almost anytime you are explaining an idea to a less informed person, a dash of ignorance will help you judge their knowledge and abilities more accurately.
Why is this? Apparently a teacher is much more effective if they don’t know their subject too deeply. This reflects my own experience at school – my physics teacher had a PhD and was incapable of seeing things in the same way as his class of struggling A level students. But my chemistry teacher was fresh out of teacher training and was brilliant at making chemistry accessible. In addition to different levels of knowledge they both took a different approach to the science of teaching but my physics teacher’s depth of knowledge actually made it really hard for him to help us understand some of the basic concepts.
When I meet with a new e-learning client one of the things I often get asked is ‘Do I know the subject matter?’. My stock answer is: ‘You are hiring me for my ability to design effective online learning not for my subject matter expertise.’ Now clearly it helps if we know a little about the subject already but the last thing we really need to be is an expert.
In practice most e-learning is aimed at foundation level knowledge so the amount we need to know isn’t too onerous. Nevertheless, approaching a new subject with a fresh and open mind really helps when designing an initial learning experience. If we are working with a subject that is totally new to us then we do have to catch on pretty quickly if we are to design some useful learning within what is usually a pretty tight timescale. And that brings me to the key point of this article.
When researching and learning about a new topic there comes that ‘Golden Moment’ where we know just enough to create an effective learning experience but not so much that we miss the tricky parts that learners might encounter. You’ll intuitively know that Golden Moment when it arrives – savour it because at some point down the line you’ll wonder why everyone is finding it all so hard!
I think this playful definition sums up the situation nicely:
What’s the definition of an ignoramus? Someone who doesn’t know something you learnt yesterday.
A social learning guru once suggested that my company name was misleading since it was impossible to design learning. Her argument was that learning is something that happens instinctively and that you can’t design it or force it in any way.
Was she right? Is it not possible to design learning? Maybe not but we can design for learning.
We may not be able to design the actual learning that people do but what we can do is design a resource, an experience or an intervention that encourages, stimulates or facilitates learning – and this applies equally to the classroom and the online environment.
When clients buy e-learning they often start by giving us a list of learning objectives. Our task as learning designers is then to design a resource that will result in learning by those who go through it. Ultimately clients want their learners to have all learnt the same thing, but in practice what they learn will depend to a large extent on what they already know. Learners will have different ‘aha!’ moments as they work their way through the learning material.
As learning designers our key role is to design scaffolds for learning. We take information and knowledge and present it in ways that help learners make sense of it all and which help map the new knowledge to their existing knowledge. To do this we use a wide range of devices, tactics, and strategies.
Sometimes these devices, tactics and strategies are embedded in learning design methodologies. Sometimes they are just intuitive approaches honed over years of experience in helping people understand stuff.
Learning design isn’t rocket science – every day teachers design learning experiences within a classroom environment. They aren’t designing the learning but they are designing the activities and interventions that will encourage and stimulate learning.
And this takes us back to social learning. Social learning is clearly not designed learning. Social learning does happen naturally. However left to its own devices it’s very inefficient and virtually impossible to manage or monitor. For social learning to be truly effective the environment (technical and cultural) needs to be right and this will need the hand of a designer in its widest sense.
Since I have been exploring the differences between e-learning and online learning I have been using the term conventional e-learning to describe the packaged SCORM course with a built-in assessment. Conventional e-learning has come a long way in the last 10 years and there are now some excellent people developing some excellent courses but this excellence comes at a price. This infographic shows why this sort of e-learning isn’t cheap.
In the UK you are probably looking at a cost of between £10k and £15k per hour of e-learning that has had the full team treatment (2012).