Sunday, 25 May 2014

The rules of e-Learning: Don’t keep your learners in the dark

There is a very great temptation to keeping things away from the learner, ‘until they are ready for it’.  As online teachers it is our job to break the learning up into units that the learner can address in their own time and so we naturally analyse the learning in terms of its difficulty, hoping to lead the learner along the path of increasing knowledge.

So how does the learner know where they are going?

In theory the subject of the learning should give them a clue and we add to this by stating learning objectives.  But then if they already knew the subject, why would they need to take our course and the learning objectives have in my experience, more meaning to the author than the learner.   Then we add to the confusion by emphasising areas that are not important or by assessing smaller facts – just to keep them focused!  Also there is the great difficulty of deciding when the course is complete; as we work through course production, one thing leads to another and our memories are triggered towards further knowledge, a new description or further explanations, leading to confused learning or ‘going off at a tangent’!

Why is this important?

Surely the learner should trust us; after all we are the experts!  And if we add something extra to the information, that has got to be a benefit for the learner, right?  They should appreciate our commitment to make sure they know everything and if that extends the course slightly, again it is to the learner’s benefit, so they should be pleased.
Unfortunately learners have limited time and therefore like the knowledge laid out clearly and if at all possible, without ambiguity.  They like to know where they are going with this learning, they like to contribute to their own knowledge and that of their peer-group, they like to be co-creators of the learning and certainly our adult learners like to be treated as our equals.

There are benefits for us as teachers and authors too:
1.       It’s difficult to be an active member of a team if you don’t know where the team is going or what they are doing.
And yet we expect that learners contribute to the learning.  It makes it easier to situate the learning in their world if they build the knowledge without didactic guidance.  In fact we are so eager for this that assessment criteria can be based upon contribution of team members.  We cannot expect this to be a willing contribution or a happy situation if we deliberately hide critical knowledge until the next or later stages.

2.       Clear targets and obvious endings will keep the team focused, reduce the risk of discussions going off at a tangent, reduce the need for redirection (allowing the guide on the side to step up), and ensure programmes do not run over.

3.       Clarity of purpose and targets helps to reduce learner frustration; the teacher/author’s greatest nightmare.  Frustration reduces the capacity to learn, virtually ensures that the course will be ‘skimmed’ rather than producing deep learning and ensures knowledge will not be retained.  It also encourages high attrition rates and establishes a poor reputation for future provision.

4.       Openness and honesty shows trust.  We trust the learner to contribute sensibly to discussions, to progress their own knowledge and that of others, to bring the learning towards their own focus and that of their peers.  For me, learner support of other learners is as important as our own support of learners, probably more so once the key facts have been delivered.  Hiding things for a later reveal will only stop this from happening. 
Just one comment of “yes, very good but we will deal with this later” was sufficient to stop a forum in its tracks on one course I attended – and it proved impossible to start the forum later on in the course where the author had built in such interaction to support learning.  We all suffered from the ‘delayed reveal’.

5.       Openness about content direction and conclusions can save everyone a lot of time.  Learners can point out what they are familiar with so time is more profitably spent on the new learning. 

This doesn’t mean to say that you don’t test what they say they already know; it may have been in a different context, misunderstood or just not what they thought they knew, but you will have the advantage of understanding the current position to make the learning fit the learner.


Trust given to the learner is often returned and both you and the course will benefit – but most of all it shows respect for the learner; without respect there will be less learning.


  1. I like the idea " Don’t keep your learners in the dark ".
    Thank you for inspiration.