Applying The Conversation Theory In Instructional Design

Applying The Conversation Theory In Instructional Design
Summary: What do you get when you combine cybernetics with online education? A theory that takes a systematic, technology-based approach to Instructional Design. In this article, I'll share everything you need to know about the Conversation Theory, including the core principles, levels, and types.

The Conversation Theory In Instructional Design: Principles, Levels, And Learning Types

Gordon Pask, a noted cyberneticist, is the founder of the Conversation Theory [1]. His goal was to create a system that contributed to a thriving society, free of conflict and oppression. In many ways, Pask was an idealist who wanted a harmonious and peaceful world, and he understood that this could only be achieved by one learner at a time. The heart of the Conversation Theory is the interaction between humans and computers.

This dynamic interaction is viewed as a "conversation", wherein both sides have the opportunity to discover new things about each other. The computer monitors the learner and tracks their progress, while learners gather information and explore ideas with the help of technology. It's a symbiotic relationship. In this article, you will learn what they need to know to apply the Conversation Theory in Instructional Design for eLearning.

3 Principles Of The Conversation Theory

eLearning professionals should consider the following Conversation Theory principles when creating eLearning courses:

  1. Online learners must be able to see the relationships between concepts in order to absorb and assimilate the subject matter.
  2. Online learners are better able to understand the subject matter when it is explained or manipulated. For example, when a task is demonstrated or they are able to instruct one of their peers on the core concepts and ideas of the lesson.
  3. Online learners have a preference regarding how they interact and relate to the subject matter.

3 Levels Of Conversation

According to the Conversation Theory, there are three distinct levels of conversation that help to facilitate the learning process. Applied to eLearning, each of these conversations involves the subject matter, which allows learners to explore and absorb the key takeaways:

  1. Natural Language
    Group discussions and any other form of conversation that occurs naturally in everyday life.
  2. Object Language
    Conversations that center on the subject matter, such as conversations that take place during a virtual learning session.
  3. Metalanguage
    Conversations that focus on the act of learning. For example, an employee's annual evaluation would consist of metalanguage, as the topic of the discussion is their learning goals, habits, and behaviors.

Conversation Learning Types

One of the cornerstones of the Conversation Theory is peer-to-peer instruction, wherein a learner applies what they have learned by instructing each other. For example, one employee might study the subject matter and then create a virtual presentation for their co-workers. According to Pask, there are two distinct learning types that eLearning professionals should factor into their eLearning course design:

  1. Serialist
    This learner group prefer to take a step-by-step approach and progress through the eLearning course in a linear fashion. They gradually build their knowledge base by relating new ideas and concepts to information they've already learned. Instead of looking at the big picture they tend to closely examine each individual piece and find the most basic connections and relationships between them. Serialists may become frustrated or impatient if your eLearning course doesn't have a linear navigation. For example, eLearning courses that feature clickable maps that online learners can use to access random eLearning activities or modules is usually off-putting. You also need to offer them regular reminders about the benefits and learning goals of the eLearning course, and give them a general overview of what they can expect. This is due to the fact that serialists typically don't view the eLearning course as a whole or focus on the outcomes, as they are busy paying attention to each of the steps or components that are involved.
  2. Holists
    Holist learners view the eLearning experience as a complete package. They prefer to have a course map or outline on-hand that they can explore on their own, in whatever order they choose. Holists focus on the goals and objectives and then piece together a personal learning path that gets them to the finish line. Develop a road map that online learners can follow, but allow them to choose the order in which they complete the eLearning activities and modules. Be sure to indicate which steps or lessons they've completed, as Holists have a tendency to skip or repeat eLearning content by mistake. You should also be clear about the relationship between concepts so that they can build upon their preexisting knowledge.

Other Important Conversation Theory Considerations

eLearning professionals should bear in mind that most online learners can align themselves with both conversation learning groups, serialists and holists, depending on the subject matter and extenuating circumstances. For example, an employee might be a holist when they are participating in skills-based training, but a serialist when mastering a work-related task. This is why it's essential to conduct audience research before every eLearning course, such as inviting them to complete surveys or pre-assessments.

The nature of the subject matter and the instructor also play a pivotal role in the Conversation Theory. Certain topics may be ideally suited for a holist approach, while others are geared toward a serialist strategy. For example, teaching a complex procedure may require a serialist-based eLearning course design, as it allows online learners to explore every stage of the process in greater detail. Likewise, the instructor or facilitator may need to become a holist or serialist depending on the needs and preferences of their online learners.

Pask's Conversation Theory is one of the most dynamic, Instructional Design approaches thanks to the fact that it is rooted in cybernetics. However, you can use this article as a guide to learn more about your online learners, their learning behaviors, and their relationship with technology-based eLearning content.

The Conversation Theory is all about creating a connection and facilitating meaningful interactions. Read the article 6 Tips To Become An Effective eLearning Communicator to discover ways for opening up the lines of communication and building a connection with your online learners.


  1. Pask, G. (1975). Conversation, Cognition, and Learning. New York: Elsevier
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