Epsilon Learnng Systems
EPSILON LEARNING SYSTEMS - "Enabling People to Learn"

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Focusing On Learners

It might be a truism to say that everyone is different, but it's a crucial fact largely overlooked by traditional educational systems geared to serve a mythical norm. New technologies and e-learning appear to hold out the promise of making learning more effective by providing on-demand instruction personalized to individual needs. We dream of accessing precisely the learning we need, when we need it, and in the form that best suits our learning preferences. But can these technologies live up to the promise if they are simply grafted onto traditional ways of thinking about education and training? Is it even possible to provide effective individualized learning on demand?

We all have different needs when it comes to learning. We have different life experiences and so each of us builds our learning upon a unique knowledge base. We have different ways of contextualizing what we learn, different ways of encoding new information into our memories (see The Learning Process), and different learning styles (see below). We each need to learn different things, even if we are expected to achieve the same outcomes. So to make learning most effective, with better retention, recall, and transfer, it must be tailored specifically to our individual learning needs.

But this vision of personalization runs counter to the "industrial model" of most modern, Western educational systems. With the blossoming of the Internet, and especially of the Web, many educators have jumped on board and have produced a first generation of online courses, environments, and educational products. Many of these endeavors have attempted to "move the classroom online" and up to this point have met with varying success. Most online instructors are recognizing that the successful use of the new learning technologies involves a different way of thinking — a paradigm shift away from traditional content-centered, instructor-led models toward a clear and informed focus on the learner.

Certainly online instructors are discovering that their role must change from "sage on the stage" to "guide on the side" — tutor, facilitator, and coach. And the production requirements of the new technologies — digital media, learning management systems, and learning object repositories — involve a level of technical expertise and effort that is beyond most individuals. There is a need for a systematic, team-based methodology for developing and delivering e-learning content that is focused on the needs of the learner.

Learner-Focused Design: The ADDIE Cycle

A learner-centered approach to instruction can be found in the tried-and-true methodology known as instructional design. Refined over six decades in military and corporate training environments, this discipline utilizes a variety of techniques that focus directly on effectively meeting learner needs. It includes the explicit statement of what is to be learned and how that learning is to be demonstrated or assessed. Its emphasis on pre-instruction analysis ensures that learner needs are analyzed, recognized, and appropriately met. And it is most effective as a team-based methodology.

There are five basic phases in this learning design approach (often abbreviated to the acronym ADDIE):

Analysis: The process begins with analysis of learner needs. Learner profiling (including identification of the range of learning styles) and knowledge/skill gap analysis establish the learner's current state of knowledge and the precise instructional requirements that identify the desired end state.

Design: This critical phase involves detailed planning of the course or instructional program. Explicit demonstrable objectives (or "learning outcomes"), with associated assessment strategies, are designed at this phase. Appropriate learning resources that can support these objectives are identified, and instructional strategies that match technological implementation with learning style needs are developed, along with monitoring and evaluation plans.

Development: Learning materials, resources, and environment are developed and produced according to the design plan, generally including a piloting sub-phase to ensure learner needs are indeed being met as planned.

Implementation: The learning program is delivered as specified, including learning assessment instruments and all monitoring and program evaluation instruments.

Evaluation: Each phase includes the collection of evaluation data and a feedback loop of revisions to ensure that the identified learning need is being met as effectively as possible.

The ADDIE learning design cycle

Findings from the Evaluation phase feed back into the Analysis of the next cycle. In this way the method includes both maintenance and improvement of the learning program in such a way that it aligns more and more closely with learner needs.

Learner Profiling

The first step in a true learner-centered approach is to gain as deep an understanding of the learner as possible. In the ADDIE learning design cycle, this is the most crucial aspect of the preliminary Analysis and results in a profile that describes the target learners as fully as possible.

Important learner profiling information to gather includes:

  • basic demographic data (gender distribution, age range, geographic location, etc.)
  • educational background (including reading level and language proficiency, fulfillment of prerequisite learning, etc.)
  • socioeconomic data (including employment status and pertinent cultural considerations)
  • technological literacy
  • expected learning locale (including access to technology, bandwidth, etc.)
  • accessibility (including range of disabilities)
  • motivation and learning goals
  • and preferred learning styles (see below)

Some of this data might be mined from existing organizational databases, but other crucial information requires the use of surveys of the target population or focus groups. Once this learner profiling information is assembled, it is used throughout the Design, Development, and Implementation phases to guide creation and delivery of learning content that appropriately meets learner needs.

Learner profiling also provides the foundation for designing integrated learning systems, and particularly solutions that support personalized learning pathways. Such systems can effectively facilitate enterprise learning by matching organizational knowledge management with individual learning needs and by aligning training and career paths with organizational strategic goals.

Learning Styles

Each of us has different life experiences as well as different physical and genetically inherited capabilities. Since the learning process itself is founded on experience, it is no surprise that different people learn in different ways. Some people need to see things in pictures, others need to see things written down, while others need to act things out to understand them. People develop individual ways of learning that work most effectively for themselves. These different preferred modes of learning are called learning styles, and they lie at the heart of learner profiling and of the learner-centered ADDIE model of learning design.

Educators have been studying learning styles for some time and have devised a number of different ways of thinking (schema) about them. Our integrated scheme places the eight principal learning styles in a three-dimensional space.

A 3-D learning style space


Psychophysical dimension

Psychophysical knowledge is acquired through direct experience and interaction with physical objects. The kind of learning involved includes the processing of perceptual stimuli (auditory, visual, touch, heat, pain, etc.) in relation to our internal "body image" (based on muscular feedback and motion awareness). This dimension spans the three classic "learning modalities" — auditory, visual, and kinesthetic — with the additional significant distinction between textually based and graphically based visual learners. Note that this dimension contrasts "linguistic" learning on the left with "imagistic" learning on the right.

  • Auditory learners learn best through hearing, and particularly through the spoken word. They process linguistic information through listening and benefit from lectures, spoken instructions, talking things out, and keywords on diagrams.
  • Visual-textual learners process information best when in the form of written language. They need to see it written down and benefit from textbooks and class notes.
  • Visual-graphical learners learn best when information is presented in a graphical format or in pictures. They benefit from visual aids, diagrams, and images.
  • Kinesthetic learners learn best by manipulating physical objects, acting it out, and other "hands on" activities. They process information through physical sensation and action — through touch, movement, body language, and gestures.

Abstract Dimension

Abstract or "logico-mathematical" knowledge (number, length, order, etc.) is acquired through invention or the recognition of patterns or relationships based on interactions between objects. It involves another level of processing or a re-representation of explicit sensory information. This type of learning covers reasoning skills and spans two basic learner types:

  • Holistic, global, or deductive learners prefer to start with the whole picture and see how it fits with everything else. From this they deduce any consequences or applications. They benefit from getting an overview at the beginning of a lesson.
  • Analytic, procedural, or inductive learners require all the details or logical steps before they fully comprehend. They tend to arrive at governing principles by inference. They are interested in acquiring facts and find introductory overviews distracting and confusing.

Social Dimension

Social or cultural knowledge (values, morals, history, etc.) is acquired through interaction with other people. This dimension includes emotional learning and spans two basic types:

  • Independent learners need to "work it out" for themselves. They require personally relevant reasons for learning. They benefit from self-directed activities, introspection or reflection, and from keeping a journal or log.
  • Collaborative learners learn best in a social setting or when working with others. They benefit from discussions, cooperative learning, simulations, and role play.

The following shows this learning style model in the form of a classification scheme.

Integrated learning style scheme

Applications to Teaching

Here are some suggestions on how learning styles and learner-centered design may be applied to your teaching.

  • Identify your own learning and teaching styles. Remember you may show a bias in your teaching style according to how you learn. Vary your teaching method so that students of differing learning styles can benefit.
  • Identify the range of learning styles in your class. This is part of your Analysis phase of ADDIE. Use the information you gather to streamline your lessons.
  • Be aware of any students with strong learning style biases. They will require special attention. This is especially true of students with certain disabilities.
  • Build students' skills in all learning styles. The goal should be to ensure that the learning needs of the student in each learning style category are met at least part of the time. This is important because it creates an "all round" learner who can adapt to different learning environments.
  • Match the technology to the learning style. For example, use technology to integrate different learning styles into a lesson: audiotapes, videos, CD-ROMs, computer based programs, collaborative activities, etc. The breadth of resources is key.



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