June 21, 2004


In the Forum for the discussion of the Analysis phase of course development, Peter asked:
What exactly is a user's metacognitive ability? "Thinking about thinking"? -- but what does this mean in the context of education and Instructional Design?

In learning, metacognition refers to our self-conscious awareness about how we learn - paying attention to what we learn and how we learn it while we're learning it.

As we learn different ideas and skills throughout our lives, we also learn something about how we learn (at least if we're paying any attention!) and how to approach different tasks. Sometimes we do this quite self-consciously -- for example, when thinking about how to approach a very complex task or when reading something we think might be "over our heads" -- but at other times, we may just be going through the motions.

>>Try this experiment:
Select a piece of reading material -- anything ... an article in the paper, a course reading, this blog entry(!), etc.-- and read through it once without any particular agenda or mental preparation.

Then read it again --but this time, first imagine that you are going to have to write a one-page summary of the piece or teach it to a class.

What was the difference?

Most likely, you consciously paid much closer attention to how you were reading the second time.

Girl-reading.jpg When simply skimming a piece of writing, you might not think about why you're reading it, you might ignore any terms or phrases you don't immediately understand, and you probably wouldn't analyze the structure of the writing or the argument it presents, think about how it relates to other things you've read on the same topic, or reflect on it afterwards. But when charged with writing about or teaching the content, your attention is conscious and focused on how you are going to interpret the content and arguments presented.

When faced with a learning task like the one in the experiment, you focus your attention, monitor and evaluate yourself while you accomplish the task. For example, you might apply the following metacognitive strategy:

  • Plan/Pre-plan - Analyze the task and decide to concentrate on it
  • Direct attention - Focus on the task or on certain aspects of the task (e.g., decide to focus on how to teach the content rather than on how to directly apply the information)
  • Strategize - Decide on a strategy for accomplishing the task (in this case, for example, decide how to pick out the key concepts that will be the focus of the written piece or teaching unit, highlighting important phrases and taking notes as you read)
  • Self-monitor - While accomplishing the task, gauge the success of the strategy chosen and change strategies if necessary (e.g., ask yourself "Am I focusing on the right things, or should I look at this a different way?")
  • Evaluate - Look at outcomes (e.g., "Did I get what I needed to out of this to teach or write about it, or should I look at it again?")

In other words, the task assigned to you in the experiment was a learning intervention that made you become aware of, monitor, and take control over your learning.

Children's metacognitive skills tend to grow as they progress through different levels of education and cognitive development and as they become more skilled at learning how to become independent learners.

Classroom.jpg If you've ever taught in elementary or high school, you probably already know that young students often do their schoolwork without stopping to evaluate their comprehension, to think about the quality of their work, to revise their work as they go along, or to think about how the work connects to other things they've learned. They do the assignments because they are assigned, and finishing the assigned task -- not learning -- is the ultimate goal. In other words, their learning strategies tend to be instructor-dependent, and the instructor must "push" learning to the students.

Adults and mature students generally have more highly developed metacognitive skills, and therefore more independence as learners -- particularly if they are highly motivated to apply themselves. Mature learners are more aware of when they need to check for errors, why they might be having problems in understanding, and how to go about finding another way to approach the task, improve their work, or better comprehend the material.

Of course, this isn't simply a matter of age...personality factors and experience with formal study both play a big part in the development of these skills.

What does all this mean in terms of online instructional design?

knowledge.gif As we've discussed in previous sessions, online courses generally require a greater degree of learner autonomy and independence than do face-to-face courses.... therefore, a learner's success is often in direct proportion to his or her ability to apply successful learning strategies in self-directed learning.

During the analysis phase, analyzing learners' metacognitive skills allows the designer to create an environment tailored to the learners' ability to be self-directed, as well as promoting learners' knowledge and awareness of their own thinking and learning -- in other words, helping them become aware of the learning strategies that they already use and introducing new strategies and exercises.

For example, this information can used to:

  • Determine the level of direction needed in the course (e.g., while self-directed learners might take advantage of a non-linear format, "novice" learners might need a well-defined, linear learning path through the content)
  • Determine whether the course should be blended online/classroom (if learners are not independent enough for 100% online work)
  • Determine whether to track learners and check their progress at various points through the course (e.g., instead of allowing users to monitor their own progress)
  • Determine the types and number of instructional strategies to be employed
  • Determine the types of assessments and evaluations to be employed
Posted by jotz at 11:12 PM | Comments (0)

June 17, 2004


form-inform-learn.gifOne often-quoted statistic by trainers and education professionals is that, while organizations invest most of their budgets in formal training - such as workshops and courses - 80% or more of critical job skill learning occurs on the job in informal, unstructured ways.

For any kind of formal teaching or training, the ultimate goal is achievement of specific knowledge, skills, attitudes, and, finally, performance (whether it be performance on-the-job or performance in an academic sense) -- not achievement of a passing grade on a test.

But too often formal learning is taken out of the context of performance, and success in the classroom does not translate to successful application of learning.

informlearn.jpgInformal learning -- getting direction from a supervisor, asking a co-worker who sits next to you, talking to others at lunch or in the breakroom, looking something up on your own, observing what others do, calling the help desk, and, most of all, trial-and-error -- is effective because it's personal, timely and REAL. Application is immediate, and there's no question of the WIIFM ("what's in it for me?") factor

Informal learning is, ultimately, self-directed learning.

But most informal learning is unstructured, and organizations can't just assume that workers will be self-directed enough to "pick up" critical job skills. So how can teachers and trainers leverage technology to make their formal training efforts more effective?

Integration is the key.

Designing formal learning activities that make use of contextualized learning activities representing the complexity of the real world -- such as simulations and problem-based learning -- is an important part of this, but it's only one part.

When designing a training course, consider the other types of interventions that will support learning on the job, such as just-in-time training aids, help systems, job aids, communication and collaboration spaces, and other interventions that allow learners to learn what they need to when they need to.

Posted by jotz at 09:43 PM | Comments (0)

June 15, 2004


audience.gif Online courses can be a lonely experience for the learner... particularly in largely self-instructional courses.

Even in facilitated courses and courses that contain group discussion, the learner can feel isolated from others, confused by the interface or content, and not "connected" to the course experience.

One of the instructional designer's key roles is as the learner's advocate during the course design process, determining how learners will best navigate through the various media in the course and focusing on creating a satisfying learning experience for each individual learner.

To do this, the designer must have a clear understanding of who their audience is, how they learn, and what they want to achieve through the course experience.

At minimum, the designer needs to be able to answer the following questions at the very earliest stages of course development:

  • What knowledge and aptitudes do learners already have? What life experiences do adult learners bring to the course?
  • What is the organization of learners' knowledge?
  • How will this course add to learners' knowledge of the subject?
  • How will learners apply this learning in their real-world context?
  • What barriers may they face in an online environment?
  • What are the attitudes, motivations, lifestages, and interests that might influence learning?
Posted by jotz at 12:25 AM | Comments (3)

June 10, 2004


As you begin thinking about online learning, one of the first issues to consider is the relationship and "distance" between the instructor/facilitator and learners in both the traditional and online environments.

There is always some sort of social, psychological, and communications space between instructor and students in the learning "transaction", even in traditional classes. ...

Structure.gifFor example, in traditional lecture-based classes, the instructor is the "expert" who provides information to learners in a largely one-way transaction; there is little or no discussion among participants. In these courses, the interaction is highly structured, and the psychological "distance" between instructor and learners (as well as the distance among the group of learners) can be quite large.

When interaction and dialog are increased (for example, in a seminar-style course), this so-called "transactional distance" is decreased. However, an increase in dialog and interaction also requires a less rigid structure for the course and less control for the facilitator.

In online learning, the physical separation between instructor and learners requires some sort of mediated communication (e.g., though web pages, email, and multimedia applications) for learner-instructor and learner-learner interactions, thus further increasing the potential transactional distance.

By using two-way communication technologies in facilitated classes, this distance can be greatly decreased, but too much of an emphasis on group communication can cause the class to lose structure and fail to meet learning goals. Finding the right balance between structure and interaction is one of the course designer's key goals in the early phases of defining a course.

Posted by jtzanis at 12:57 PM | Comments (2)


One of the biggest differences between online courses and traditional face-to-face (F2F) training is that, in F2F training (and to some degree in real-time online interactions) learning content is generally "pushed" to the learner, whereas in the online environment, content is "pulled" from the interface by the learner....

The instructor/facilitator designs a workshop or seminar, and learners need only attend and complete whatever activities the instructor/facilitator has organized. Classes and training events are scheduled by the trainer, and learners only need to show up on the right day and time in the right place. In lecture-based classes in particular, the learner is fairly passive in learning interactions.

In online environments, the learner has to play a more active role. While some forms of content (such as this email message) are pushed directly to the learner, the majority of learning content and interactions must generally be "pulled" from the interface by the learners.

In these instances, the class is learner-centered and learner-controlled rather than instructor-centered ... in other words, interaction with the instructor/facilitator is just *one element* of the class, instead of the center of the class.

Particularly in an asynchronous class (where there are no scheduled real-time interactions), learners are responsible for logging in to the site, checking announcements, finding and completing readings, doing assignments, and asking questions of the facilitator if they are confused.

What does this mean for course designers?

Well, first, it means that your course interface had better be well designed so you can be sure your participants are even able to access critical materials.

It also means that user motivation and self-direction are key to a successful course offering... and it's a good idea to give learners as much direction as possible and to have ways of monitoring participation.

In facilitated classes like this one, the facilitator can take this role, using a variety of strategies to encourage participation. In self-instructional courses, however, you must program ways of automatically monitoring participation and successful completion of the class (for example by using log-in registration and tracking that can report whether participants have completed particular pages of the readings and activities or passed the tests).

In very linear courses, you might want to design a program where users must pass a test in order to access the next piece of content (we'll be talking more about linear and nonlinear course design in Session 5).

In the end, however, it's all about the learner's motivation to complete the course.

Posted by jtzanis at 12:36 PM | Comments (2)