Digital Learning Design – You Sure You Have all the Pieces?

Digital learning is gaining momentum as technology continues to disrupt every facet of modern life. We hear of newer models, thinking, approaches, tools, platforms, devices and network based education offerings. The adult learners, who form the significant part of corporate learning and general continuing education initiative, have been at the center of many such offerings. It is very surprising that the two key parameters – interest of the learners and the impact of the interventions, do not report any major improvements. Since eLearning came to be a part of mainstream education offerings, there have been parallel reports of low completion rates, lower assessment scores and certification and lowest confidence of the academic community about its ability to deliver significant value by itself. That however, doesn’t stop the digital learning juggernaut to spew more disruptions like flipped learning, gaming and simulations and Nano-degrees. Success of digital learning platforms like TED, YouTube, Khan Academy and many more has been unprecedented, and more initiatives are coming up at an accelerated pace. In this note, I look at this dichotomy and explore possible sources of the same.

The relevance of digital learning certainly needs to be re-established at one fundamental level – can they be generalized across all learner profiles? For e.g. the cognitive stage of a learner can be looked at as an indicator of learners’ capability to learn. We know that adult learners demonstrate maturity, self-confidence, autonomy, independent decision-making, practicality, multi-tasking, sense of purpose, self-directed, experience, and less open-mindedness or receptivity to change. All these traits affect their ability and their motivations to learn.

Just as Malcolm Knowles’ (see Andragogy Core Learning Principles) thoughts on adult learning made a significant impact on the redesign of learning intervention for learners of different ages, it is prudent to create similar demarcation in the digital world too. It is not a common sight to see any digital content openly proclaiming the suitable learner age mentioned distinctly.

While we mull over the point above, let’s go further ahead and highlight the next level of distinction based on the maturity of the learner. Even though there is a clear and definitive point legally to be considered an adult, we see great number of variances in the manifestations of rights and privileges an individual enjoys as an adult (for e.g. Voting, Driving, Owning, Drinking, etc.). It is an accepted basis to think of an adult as someone who-accepts responsibility, makes independent decisions, and is financially independent. These are very overt and visible real life signals. While in the context of learning, as we established in the earlier section, one rarely gets any visible signals to take a call on the learner’s “adultness”. It therefore is valuable to consider the intermediate phase of a learner that psychologists call “emerging adulthood” or “extended adolescence”. The psychologists also posit that there is a phased transition that an individual goes through from adolescence to adulthood. It would be logical to see this as a continuum of phases of a learner and incorporate it into the digital learning design. The idea of self-efficacy (defined as personal judgments of one’s capabilities to organize and execute courses of action to attain designated goals – Bandura 1977) is possibly the closest approximation on the thought of this continuum. Self-efficacy is posited to be a key component in social cognitive theory leading to performance capabilities. Using it as a basis Rickbaugh proposed a Learning Independence Continuum (2012). The idea of “Independence continuum” fits well to elaborate “adultness” aspect of learner better.

In the conventional world, the facilitator tries to use their judgment and ongoing feedback to adjust for the learner’s position on the continuum. However, in the digital world, this won’t happen unless the session is designed and delivered to a learner fully mapped for her level of learning independence. For certain, it would be difficult to objectively establish an accurate point on the continuum. Added to this, neither do we have well defined learning approach to configure learning interventions with such details, nor would it be viable to develop such customized program. Hence the idea is largely ignored possibly making the makes digital play fall short of being the panacea in the learning space as well. It is of value to dig deeper and elaborate the contributing factors to this divide and pave the way towards bridging it.

The learner continuum could form a good basis to design better offerings for the “range of adults” as they exist in the real world. I use the key traits of adult learners established well in the existing references and draw out the implications and imperatives for improved digital learning design.

Trait 1 – Increasing need to take responsibility and strong resentment if their privilege to choose is taken away. Without the control over their learning, they will resist learning and even disrupt the learning facilitation efforts.

Implication – The learners desire to take more control over their learning is both an indicator of the position on the continuum and the basis to get the learner involved.

Digital Design Imperatives

  • Overtly include the adult in the configuration of individual learning plan
  • Build self -assessment and evaluation to establish readiness for the outcomes
  • Build an equal relationship with the learner, rather than a hierarchical one.
  • Ensure that there is greater availability of instructions so that the learner at various points of the continuum can be in control of their learning

Trait 2 – A greater reservoir of life experiences. They need to link any new learning to their prior knowledge. The validity of new ideas and concepts needs to “fit” their existing view.

Implication – Based on their position in the continuum, the learner would bring their experiences and it can be used as a resource in their learning efforts

Digital Design Imperatives

  • Harvest all the experiences and prior learning of the learners in the area
  • Make it convenient to link them to the new ideas
  • Engage in active and mature idea sharing activities to find the fit with the prior experiences

Trait 3 – Their learning is voluntary and they exercise personal choices to learn professional or any specific skills. Their motivation to learn is a function of the perceived fit of the choice made.

Implication: Based on the position on the continuum the learner’s level of motivation for the learning would be established

Digital Design Imperatives

  • Put higher efforts and time on facilitating the areas that the learner is motivated to pursue
  • Ignore/minimize the efforts to justify the importance of an area to learn in any way other than linking them to their personal choices

Trait 4 – They evaluate the value of any learning immediately applicable to their situation and needs. They don’t give the same value/enthusiasm to “Abstractions” and “theory” of future relevance or learning unless they develop the generalizations themselves.

Implications – “Reality orientation” is an indicator of a learner position on the continuum. The practicality of the learning needs to be established upfront.

Digital Design Imperatives

  • Understand the desired outcomes of the learners
  • Let the application needs of the learners define the core body of the program
  • Integrate self-assessment and learning alignment to ensure stickiness
  • Start with the real-world view, allow the learner to theorize and close with compelling evidence of outcomes

Trait 5 – They let the learner role and not their self-identity fix the priority for the learning. They play multiple roles and these create conflicting and competing demands on the learner limited time and energy to read or study

Implications – The primacy of self-identity as a learner in the mind of the learner is a function of their position on the continuum

Digital Design Imperatives

  • Allow flexibility in the programs
  • Ensure clear expectation setting and alerts for reading or studying efforts from them
  • Ensure that there are intermediate and quick goals and ensure that they understand the need to move ahead to accomplish their final goal
  • Design multiple efforts to get better priority from the learner
  • Leverage learner’s other roles and responsibilities to achieve the outcomes

Trait 6 – They allocate lower priority for learning, as they allocate all the energy to primary roles and often compromise on the personal commitment made to learn

Implication – Use the position on the continuum to create more aligned basis for them to see sustained value and resist procrastination in learning

Digital Design Imperatives

  • Account for counseling to establish the value and priority outside of the learning design
  • Provide guidance to help learners to be realistic about the demands of learning
  • Provide initial and intermediate time management and learning efforts suggestions.

Trait 7 – They hold negative perceptions such as eroded study skills, meager grasp, assessment apprehension, or sometimes devise more novel barriers to learn

Implications – The self-confidence in their learning skills is a function of their position on the continuum. There is a need to reassure them of their ability to learn what they find useful.

Digital Design Imperatives

  • Design approaches that reinforces confidence in the learners
  • Start by initiating the learner on some basic study skills and ways of improving comprehension
  • Use collaborative learning approaches to address anxiety
  • Continuously reassure them of the progress
  • Keep a look out to identify and address any learning breakdown or gaps

Trait 8 – They tend to be resistant to changes and feel learning is not making them any better and find the outcomes unpredictable

Implications – Position on the continuum is an indicator of the expected resistance to learning from the change perspective. Idealistic and far reaching changes are often discarded.

Digital Design Imperatives

  • Concentrate on the “why” questions in the beginning of the program
  • Do not abandon or discount their current learning to emphasise the need to change
  • Build new concepts based on older, understood, and accepted concepts
  • Design for sustained, demonstrable incremental changes through their efforts
  • Encourage exploration, self-pursued concept build up and basis to reject status quo
  • Involve the learner in designing the “how” of the changes by themselves

Trait 9 – They over compensate all the learning limitations by leveraging the learning curve and what they learn is learned at a deeper and more integrative level

Implication – Their position on the continuum is also an indicator of their ability to leverage the learning curve to make the learning efficient and engaged

Digital Design Imperatives

  • Ensure easier pace of learning in the early part of the program
  • Leverage the learning curve as the learner moves ahead in the program
  • Ensure that all the relevant background and dependencies are overtly included in the learning design
  • Use intuitive pre-session content to trigger current knowledge connections

It is established that adult learners (in contrast to younger aged learners) need a different approach but if we see closely at the traits demonstrated by them, there is an equal diversity that exists between them too. eLearning blindly followed the “one size fits all” policy of conventional learning. This will not work if we are looking to leverage the power of digital innovations in the learning space. As the technology becomes more intelligent and intuitive, the design and use of technology needs to follow the suit. There have been many innovative products and services that have made significant impact on learning, but it might not be wrong to say that we are still scratching the surface. At the most fundamental level, we still follow linear and organic growth models. While technology will maintain the exponential development pace independent of the endorsements by the users, it would need efforts to concentrate on cultural change, learner focus, and factual analysis if the value of digital innovation is to be realized by learners. As we breach the frontiers of our understanding of the universe, learning remains the prime mover at the apex of all human endeavor. The critical question to ask is – would we keep the progress linear or do we have the conviction to opt for exponential digital disruption?



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