Variety key to effective online learning

Variety key to effective online learning

One of the challenges in facilitating online learning is that, unlike face-to-face instruction, it’s hard to tell when a student or learner’s attention is flagging. The tell-tale signs (blank looks, yawning, physical restlessness) aren’t there to suggest that it’s time to shift gears, change topics or approach, etc.
To counter this, we recommend that courses or learning resources be constructed with variety in mind. Changing the type of learning offered to the learner helps make it engaging and keeps the boredom factor to a minimum. It allows for a balance between “guided discovery” and “routinized learning.”
When designing a course it’s helpful to look at the outline of assignments and deliberately alternate kinds of learning. If you notice that your course pages don’t have enough variety, try any of the following format changes to wake up the learner:

  • visually-enhanced presentations
  • video segments
  • Flash interactive exercises
  • asynchronous discussion
  • self-assessments
  • flashcards
  • brief essays
  • reflective prompts
  • slideshows
  • case studies
  • video or Web chats
  • hyperlinks to pertinent websites
  • excerpts from books

Interactive exercises can follow presentations or reading; reflective prompts or brief self-assessments are a great way to help the learner stop and consider what he or she has absorbed.
It’s important to recognize that sometimes the learner will find learning difficult: concepts may be complex; foundational formulas or definitions must be memorized; a synthesis of disparate ideas may be required. Varying the learning style or approach can help in these cases as well. Vocabulary games can make remembering definitions less of a chore. Step-by-step problem-solving, in which the learner is asked to complete a complex task in an incremental fashion, can help in the mastery of difficult concepts. Offering more than one explanatory avenue to the learner (pairing a brief video segment with a slide presentation) can also prove effective.
This may all seem elementary, yet it’s not hard to find examples where the Law of Variety is violated in online learning, often by instructors or course designers who prefer one kind (or format) of learning and assume that it will appeal to all learners. Another concern is the growing proliferation of software like Adobe Captivate and Camtasia, which places learning tools into the hands of teachers and instructors, but can result in a mechanical experience for the learner because of the templated quality of much of the output from these programs. (Some choose the Captivate/Camtasia mode of presentation because they mistakenly believe that a learner shouldn’t be asked to scroll down or around the screen.)
We recommend using beta testing and feedback from learners to evaluate when more variety in an online learning resource is called for. We’ve found that students are eager to let you know when a learning element isn’t working for them. Beware of long-form videos and repeated passive presentations (where the student is asked to absorb, but not respond or interact)–break these into smaller learning units where the learner does something. It’s one more reason to integrate continuous improvement into your instructional design, if you haven’t already.