Stages of Learning and Edtech Improvements

There are multiple stages each learner goes through in the process of learning something new. Learning (as well as “online learning” and “eLearning” and “remote learning”) are first and foremost a human, learner-centered activity that is only augmented with various technologies.

Don’t get this twisted.

Beware of edtech marketing messages trumpeting their product’s ability to “revolutionize learning” by adding a video chat or mobile notifications into your online learning environment. Often those are technological solutions in search of a problem to solve, and a foolish buyer to purchase them without considering the problem they’re trying to solve.

I’d like you to internalize these four high-level stages of the learning task your learners are going through, and evaluate new products by how well they add value to one or more of these areas.

Access

In any journey of learning, the learner must first access the new material. This is the moment when they see, hear, read the new information for the first time, and (hopefully) comprehend the content of the message they access. This is the act of consuming the material so it can enter the brain and begin to be recorded there for future access.

This stage is important, though probably over-emphasized by educators and edtech vendors. Accessing information does not equal learning it, and too often it’s assumed that it does. However, it is a critical step in the process, and it’s a step that can be dramatically improved with modern technology and careful design.

Lots of learning technologies are focused on improving the Access stage. They tend to focus in the following areas:

Aesthetic improvements

Making a learning asset more aesthetically appealing through attractive design, color, fonts, music, animation, humor, etc. Anything that makes the information more enjoyable to consume fits here.

If you choose to offer your learners one textbook or tech platform over another based on its “clean look and feel”, you may be focusing on just the cosmetics without addressing other features of the learning asset. Conversely, if you’re turned off to a learning asset just because it looks dated and old, you might be missing out on some good quality materials.

The choice to offer content in video rather than text and/or images can be an aesthetic choice — are you doing it to make it more enjoyable to consume without thinking deeply about how that will affect the information’s comprehensibility? What does the medium do to learners’ ability to go back, review, re-read, highlight important passages, and other tasks that aid their comprehension?

When evaluating new learning tools and content, check yourself to see how much you’re responding to the clean look and feel and how much you’re identifying its other relevant features.

Comprehensibility improvements

Any editing, formatting, or presentation improvements that can actually make the content more accessible and comprehensible to the learner fits here.

Following Accessibility best practices like Universal Design for Learning is a great start for enhancing comprehensibility. These best practices help you design content that can be comprehensible to all learners, despite any physical or mental differences they may bring to the learning task. At minimum, a learner should be able to successfully acces and understand the material.

Editing one’s ideas (or having someone else edit your work) is something that is woefully rare among subject matter experts in education, but widely common in traditional fields of content development like print, radio, television, and film. Rarely does a first draft go to production in these fields before the content has been combed over and improved for brevity, clarity, and impact — and education content developers would be wise to edit their work as carefully with an eye to maximizing comprehensibility for learners.

If a learner struggles with the language used to access information, the may fail to comprehend it fully. Even using unfamiliar vocabulary words may trip up those new to the subject, so you may want to err on the side of providing vocab lists or at least hyperlinking to definitions for important subject-specific words.

As a California high school teacher I was trained in SDAIE techniques, using various nonverbal cues like visual aids, tone of voice, and gestures of the body and face to make an English-only curriculum comprehensible to English language learners. I think this helped me as an instructional designer to avoid depending solely on the words to carry the whole meaning of a message, but rather involving multiple layers of meaning to convey an idea. Consider reinforcing the words you use with visual aids and other emotional cues that would be comprehensible to someone who does not speak the language. You may find that it even reaches native speakers with a greater impact than the words alone.

Access improvements

Whatever their shortcomings, the Internet and mobile devices have expanded access to information to an astonishing degree. They have made it easier, faster, cheaper, and more effective to find the information you need from wherever you are and copy, store, and share it indefinitely with whomever you choose.

Access improvements, again, are not learning itself, but they remove some of the artificial and historic boundaries that separate learners from information.

You can think of ways to let them have access to your learning materials for a longer duration of time, to be able to copy, edit, and share the information freely, to have it on more devices, to be able to access it from home, school, or wherever they are, and to retain access to the information into the future, past the end of your course or training effort. You can think of ways learners can access the information (and the tools required to work with that data) for free, without paying licensing fees for textbooks or software.

Apple devices are famous for locking their content to only work on Apple devices, or limiting peoples’ ability to share their data freely. College textbooks (and their new eBook platforms) restrict learners’ ability to copy, paste, edit and share the data in the book, and can even lock users out of the platform for a variety of reasons.

Open copyright licenses (Copyleft) remove these kinds of commercial restrictions that can inhibit learners’ ability to simply access the information they’re responsible for learning. They give educators and learners greater freedom to access, edit, share, and store information without permission from any commercial entity.

Many micro-learning platforms fall into this category, seeking to improve learning by offering short, bite-sized lessons that can be consumed on mobile devices. They may reformat the learning materials to improve access without addressing other features of the overall learning task.

Improving Access: Case Study 1

When I was a high school teacher, I discovered that learners would often fail to copy down the night’s homework assignment from the board during our 90 minute block time, and would go home without knowing what they’d be expected to do the next day. Parents, teachers, and school administrators were frustrated that kids often came home without knowing their homework, and consequently showed up without the work in the morning.

The answer was to improve access to the information by making it visible to a wider number of people for a longer time period. I set up a Blogger.com blog with an email-to-post feature, so teachers could send one email per day with all their assignments on it, and it would be posted so that students, parents, and teachers could easily see what would be due the following day for each teacher. These blogs were searchable by date, topic, and teacher, and over time grew into a searchable master database of work activities for the whole school that could be used retroactively by students who had, for example, been on long-term leave for illness or other reasons and needed to make up work.

Improving Access: Case Study 2

I won my Brandon Hall award for designing an onboarding program that simply increased access to the information over time. Rather than assuming learners will retain every word said to them in an intensive two-day orientation, I wrote out all the relevant information on a wiki, organizing it by when they would need to access it, and making it searchable for those moments when they needed quick answers. I embraced the idea that they might forget what they saw and might need to see it a couple times before committing it to memory, so I made it all instantly accessible according to their needs, on their time table, and not that of the trainer.

Recall

After the content has been first consumed by the learner (and hopefully comprehended), it’s time to check how much of that information is retained in the learner’s memory.

Advancements in neuropsychology have shown us that the act of re-calling information back into mind after it has been learned have dramatic effects on recall and retention of information. It’s not enough for learners to see new information once — they often need to see it multiple times, explained different ways, and be asked to work with that information from their own memory to effectively learn it. Spaced repetition stimulates learners to recall learned information over the span of days and weeks after first access of the content to dramatically improve recall.

Recall is a relatively low tier of Bloom’s Taxonomy, certainly a preliminary stage of the learning task, but one we should not discount its importance.

Multiple choice quizzes and other low-level measures of recall are easy for computers to administer (via an LMS or eLearning lesson) but they can serve the purpose of…

  • Making it clear to learner and instructor how much of the content was successfully accessed, comprehended, and recalled
  • Reinforcing the importance of certain ideas so learners can know what to prioritize in their study
  • Repeating important ideas so they are seem multiple times
  • Identifying misunderstandings or areas of incomplete recall so that content can be re-taught

The fact that recall is relatively easy to measure and track with edtech tools means we can give learners multiple opportunities to see content, call it back into memory, check their understanding, and ensure that they are ready for deeper work with that content.

Application

Applying newly-acquired information to our everyday lives is yet another, more sophisticated learning task beyond simply accessing, comprehending, and recalling information. It involves recognizing how a new tool can be used to solve familiar problems you and your colleagues face in real life. You may apply an idea learned in one context to apply in another situation.

This rarely happens in a structured way either in academic or workplace settings, because it’s hard to standardize across a large group of learners. It’s a more personal process, with individuals thinking critically about the unique challenges they face, and thinking about how different ideas might add value. It works better where you have teams united in a common goal, facing a common set of challenges.

Application works best through inductive problem-solving, where discussion, collaboration, and sustained thinking over time is possible. That means it’s perfect for professional development tasks with a team of experienced practitioners to come together to solve a common problem by incorporating new information.

Application Case Studies

I taught in a Project Based Learning charter high school for years, where we would group students into teams and present them with a challenge. They would need to master new information in order to successfully complete the challenge, and then produce a work product that demonstrated their learning.

Metacognition

Metacognition is defined as “learning about our learning”, and it requires learners to reflect on their process of learning after the fact, identifying what was easy and hard, what made sense and didn’t, where their own actions and thoughts helped or hindered their learning. It involves looking at oneself in relation to the new information and the task of acquiring it, and asking critical questions about how that process could be improved next time.

It’s closely related to self-monitoring, or being able to know within oneself whether you have successfully learned something or if there is still more to explore. It’s a key skill in self-directed learning rather than teacher-led learning, where the decisions about what to do next are defined more by the learner than by the instructor. These related skills support lifelong learning practices, so learners can continue to grow and progress on their own after formal schooling or training ends.

Despite its importance, formal education or training programs fail to stimulate learners to engage in metacognition, often stopping after the Recall stage above. This self-aware learning about learning is assumed to happen organically for some learners further along in their careers, but is often skipped over to make time to expose learners to more new information to access.

Similarly, metacognition is not a popular area for edtech product vendors to try to add value to, because it is hard to quantify, hard to scaffold, and poorly understood as a key learning activity so there’s low demand for products to enhance it.

We as learning designers should continue to explore ways to promote this kind of thinking through careful experience design.

Metacognition Case Study

In my PBL charter high school City Arts and Tech, we would routinely assign a project-end reflection where students were prompted to tell the story of their learning throughout the project. They had to remember which milestones in a two-month project were especially challenging, think through the challenges, and envision ways to overcome those challeges in future. They found this kind of thinking uncomfortable and pushed back hard to avoid having to think this way, no doubt using a muscle that is not often called upon in school. Over four years of repeating this exercise, though, it was remarkable how well our students could talk about their own thought processes, and better teach others by identifying with someone who does not yet know or understand the material.

Metacognition and Un-Siloing Valuable Information

Workplaces often struggle with “siloed” information, which really means that one person on the team knows critical information that others could benefit from, if only that person could share what they know in a form that others can access. Just like my high school students, seasoned professionals fight back hard against having to take the time and energy to train others, write down their key understandings, and reflect in writing on what makes them such proficient practitioners.

The best way to prompt these types of learners to engage in this reflective thinking is an interview format. I will schedule an interview with a subject matter expert, ask specially-crafted question prompts, and furiously transcribe everything they say as they talk. I do my best impression of the legendary NPR interviewer Terry Gross, asking probing questions and clarifying various points as I document everything. After the interview, I go away, format my notes for easier access, and then ask the SME to review it for accuracy. This helps me to get that valuable information out of this person’s head and into a form where it can more easily be consumed by other practitioners.

Remember these Stages Next Time You’re Evaluating EdTech Software

So the next time some shiny, new, exciting edtech app comes on the scene, take a moment and ask yourself which stage of the learner’s learning journey does it add value to? Is it an area where technology adds specific advantages to learning, or where it simply makes it more enjoyable or convenient? Hopefully this will help you make smart decisions about where to spend your budget on tools that produce results.

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Ted Curran

Ted Curran is a Learning Content Designer/Developer for Autodesk. He is committed to empowering educators and learners to create transformational change through effective pedagogy and technology integration. You can follow Ted on Twitter, or learn more at my 'About" page. These thoughts are my own.

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