Learning needs arise in specific contexts. So to truly understand a learning need, a learning designer needs to gain a deep understanding of the context in which the need arises.
Theorists and practitioners of learning design are increasingly emphasising that learning needs, and the strategies required to address them, are embedded in specific contexts. They are acknowledging that the effectiveness of a learning experience is inextricably bound up with the situation in which is occurs. An implication of this is that highly detailed but abstracted training objectives may not address the right problems, and generic strategies may offer inappropriate solutions.
Traditional instructional design methodologies regard the context of learning as a low priority. For example, most versions of Instructional Systems Design, formulated by researchers such Gagne & Briggs (widely used in North America), hardly mention understanding the learner’s context. Neither do prominent books on training such as Buckley and Caple’s “Theory and Practice of Training.” Likewise, traditionally stated training and learning objectives, if they mention context at all, tend to describe it in a brief, simplistic and disconnected way.
In many fields of design, it is regarded as critical for the designer to gain a deep understanding of the context in which the user functions. Product designers in particular go to extraordinary lengths to find out exactly how, where, when and why particular characteristics of their products are used. The characteristics of an object depend on how the object is used; and how it is used is largely dependent on its context. Likewise, it is increasingly clear that the characteristics of a learning experience – the learning strategy employed, the many diverse methods, particular components of the interface, and so on – are largely dependent on the context of use.
Three methods of research are particularly relevant to understanding the learner’s context in learning design. They have been selected here for their speed and ease of use, given the e-learning industry’s reluctance to employ such methods.
|Note that these methods are not presented as objective or “scientific”, but in the spirit of design thinking. That is, they aim to help the designer to start exploring a problem through design. They do not attempt to provide a comprehensive or objective list of requirements.|
Learner observation. Taken principally from product design, learner observation is usually a fairly simple, informal involvement with groups of learners, although it can in a few instances stretch to a more detailed research programme. The aim is to immerse the observer in the context where there is a learning need, so that they can see in precise, concrete terms how people really behave. For example, the observer will gauge whether knowing something different would help in a specific situation; whether being able to apply, analyse or synthesize (to use Bloom’s terms) is helpful when facing authentic challenges. They may also look to develop a “model” of performance or behaviour around which to base a learning strategy. And being anchored in reality (rather than in abstract learning objectives) can trigger off ideas about learning strategies and methods that have direct relevance to the learners.
Observing is, in many cases, more effective than interviewing as it is possible to see peoples’ emotional responses and their typical tactics for dealing with problems at first hand. What people say they do, and what they actually do, are often quite different.
A key challenge with learner observation is that the observer is not just noting actions and behaviours, but interpreting these in the light of what the people being observed might be thinking and feeling; how they may or may not be learning, and the learning problems they face. There is a considerable requirement for interpretation, intuition and common sense.
It is worth noting that observation is useful whatever learning strategy is being considered. Although it is more commonly used in simulation and scenario design, it is applicable to any form of learning task.
Learner stories and anecdotes. People talk (and gossip!) about their work all the time, usually in the form of stories and anecdotes. These stories can be of great value in getting to the heart of learning needs. They give the designer an indication of how a range of learning needs might fit together and can also provide useful content for the final learning resources.
Learner stories serve a number of purposes, some of which appear somewhat contradictory. By giving an account of a flow of events, they make connections; they link ideas, themes and issues together into a meaningful whole. They can also provide models of different levels of performance. But as well as making connections, they need to be deconstructed, to reveal and allow assessment of underlying problems. So stories and anecdotes allow the designer to identify critical incidents, and connect them with learning needs.
It is surprising the range of learning issues that stories and anecdotes can reveal. For example, what appears at first to be basic IT application training can be revealed as relating to change management, team working, personal motivation or management style.
There are some guidelines for using learner stories and anecdotes here.
Learner profiles. Learner groups are rarely homogenous to the degree that their needs and contexts are similar, yet much current analysis of learner groups assumes an unrealistic degree of homogeneity. So, using the themes that may emerge from story telling, observation or other forms of research, it can be very helpful for designers to produce profiles, or caricatures, of particular learner types. These profiles will include key characteristics such as motivation to learn, role, experience, income and so on.
Like observation and story telling, character profiles help anchor the designer’s thinking, so that they can envisage how the different character types may relate to the learning resources, how they might use them, their different contexts of use, and so on. The designer can periodically check their design ideas against the character profiles later in the process.