In an earlier post, I asked if digital training was inevitable yet inferior. Now I consider a further question.

Is introducing digital training about cutting costs or about improving learning for learners? I was asked this recently by a staff member at a college I was visiting. I suspect they expected me to say the former but I replied the latter. I do believe that digital training applied appropriately can improve learning for learners and this post gives reasons why. But making my case begins in a classroom context…

Software training keeping learners alongside
Software training keeping learners alongside

I sensed I was losing my learners. It was an early experience of me training a class to use software to assist in language learning. While I was helping some who struggled to stay alongside, other more advanced students were drifting into different worlds online. In future courses, as a teaching staff, we eventually arrived at an approach to accommodate our full spectrum of learners. Yet trainers all face the issue of enabling all of their learners to learn, not just those in one part of the spectrum of abilities or experience within a class. As well as a spectrum of technical competence, other spectra will exist, such as ability of non-native speakers in the language of instruction. How can these be handled and how can digital help?

Flipped classroom beside the sea
Photo by FootMassagez

Perhaps the best-known aspects of digital learning is that of the flipped classroom, using digital to offer content for learners to grapple with out-of-class and so enable them to engage more fully with it within. Here are ways I believe it can improve learning for learners:

  • The digital aspect of the flipped classroom means that learners with less experience can take more time to learn on their own without pressure, while those with more expertise can take less time on things already familiar.
  • Digitally presented content can accommodate those for whom the language of instruction is not their strongest language, using subtitles in video for example.
  • The VARK model recognises that learning includes Visual, Auditory, Read-write and Kinaesthetic (i.e. physical activity) aspects. Digital learning can accommodate all of these; a read-write approach has dominated digital historically but these other aspects can be provided for too – video and podcast enable visual and auditory aspects, and e-learning authoring software enables kinaesthetic learning to some extent. Providing variety for learners however is not the sole criterion in using specific media for certain course content. But that is a topic for another time.
  • One helpful aspect of digital is so familiar that it is easily overlooked – hypertext. We come across it as the (often underlined and blue) computer text that links to other information by clicking on it. One challenge in classrooms in introducing a topic is deciding how much we can assume learners already know around the topic. It is likely that for some, they do not know as much as we thought and we leave it to them to catch up later, while others know more and so must listen patiently to hearing it again. Hypertext helps address this. If content is introduced using hypertext, then learners in a flipped classroom can choose to read exactly what they need in order to know the topic.
  • Hypertext also helps in accommodating how different learners think when they learn. Linear learners prefer to think in sequential steps, with each step following logically on from the former. Classroom learning with its fixed space-time dimension easily enables this. Non-linear (or global) learners by contrast, tend not to ‘get it’ until they see the whole structure and how its parts work together. Classroom learning can also accommodate this, but hypertext within content can help. One example I have seen is content presented on a website as “rooms” in a mansion. Each “room” represents a website page with certain content within it. This is admittedly more technical than simple hypertext and may not work with all content, but it shows again how hypertext can help make learning a less linear experience.

As well as advantages, a flipped classroom approach certainly also raises challenges:

  1. One is how to present content interactively when taken out of a relationally rich classroom. One solution is online discussion forums, which I will consider next time. Another is online quizzes; these help assure learners they have assimilated key knowledge, but learners still only interact with a computer rather than with colleagues. Ways I have encountered to make this more interactive include following up quiz results with tutorial content or encouraging learners to create questions and answers for each other.
  2. Another challenge is how to structure learning. Questions I focus on when designing learning are akin to: “Why do learners need to know this?” “What do they then need to know about it?” “How can they know it works?” and “What can it become for them?” In classroom contexts this works well, but with the space-time dimension so significantly disrupted by digital learning, creativity is needed to address these questions effectively. Solutions will vary depending on the situation.

Hence my answer to the initial question is that digital training can greatly improve learning for learners. As far as cutting costs is concerned, I’m not so sure that it will; maybe more so for the learner.

But for learning advantages alone, digital must surely be considered.

Question for thought: how could these digital aspects best enable learning for your situation?

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