New Wine In New Bottles: Learner-Centered eLearning

New Wine In New Bottles: Learner-Centered eLearning
Summary: Online learning has been derided as "old wine in new bottles" - modern, sleek technology that delivers stale, traditional instruction. But by focusing on design, the role of instructors, and of students, we can begin to create courses that focus on what we know works best for teaching and learning. So, let's talk about learner-centered eLearning.

Learner-Centered eLearning: New Wine In New Bottles! 

Last month’s article discussed learner-centered eLearning instruction as a general instructional method and anatomized five models of learner-centered instruction.  This month we focus more specifically on how to ensure that our eLearning courses are learner-centered. Because I am writing this in the Republic of Georgia, with its 8,000 year old viniculture tradition, it seems only fitting that I integrate the wine angle in this blog.

I've either got your attention or I've lost you to the Georgian wine sites...

Georgian wine, Tbilisi, Georgia. Photo: Mary Burns

What Does A Learner-Centered eLearning Class Look Like?

First, learner-centered eLearning courses are designed based on learners’ needs. They draw on learners’ practical, classroom-based experiences in both the design and delivery of the course. They provide content in different formats whenever possible. Learner-centered eLearning courses incorporate school-based (i.e., workplace) activities that build on and add to the learner’s (in my case, that would be a teacher) repertoire of knowledge and skills. Technology and organized activities and assignments provide multiple routes for communicating, understanding, presenting, and assessing knowledge.

Above all, such courses focus on the practical application of learning. They help learners transfer learning from the online classroom to (since I write about teachers) their physical classroom. This way learning is authentic and relevant so that teachers can improve their classroom competence.

How Can We Design Learner-Centered eLearning Courses?

By doing the following:

  • Designing experiences based on what we know about learning sciences and cognition, education theory, and technology-mediated learning.
  • Building on students’ prior knowledge and design learning experiences that are based on students’ strengths, needs, and interests.
  • Employing a variety of modalities -video, audio, interactives, multimedia, games, discussion forums, text, etc.- to take advantage of the online medium and address various learning styles.
  • Establishing learning experiences that allow learners to construct knowledge in a variety of ways, using multiple tools, resources, and experiences.
  • Helping learners acquire knowledge by interacting with subject matter that is meaningful and relevant to their own experiences.
  • Sequencing content and activities so that learning learners assimilate, accommodate, or reject new information according to existing frameworks.
  • Capitalizing on the social dimension of learning by creating opportunities for students to learn with and from one another.
  • Promoting learning that is developmental and exploratory, providing a variety of teaching and learning opportunities.
  • Designing for cooperation, communication, and collegiality.

There are lots of highly didactic, or direct-instruction type online courses (think, though it's not "classically" an online course). Despite the high production quality of many of these, their quality and their overall worth (I'm a huge fan of, instructionally they are still "old wine in new bottles." Learners are still fairly passive.

Recognizing this, most courses I have seen do attempt to get at some form of learner-centered approach - by blending direct instruction (reading and watching videos) with collaborative activities (online communication, learning team projects) and inductive learning (helping learners generate theorems and “rules” by analyzing examples). This is hard to design, which is why we see so many self-paced courses and MOOCs--why we see so much "old wine in new bottles."

There are multiple exceptions, however. One of the best examples of a fully learner-centered eLearning course is Education Development Center's (EDC) EdTech Leaders Online program, which organizes learners in cohorts, has learners complete a project together, and engages learners in ongoing and meaningful discussions with one another.

What Do Instructors Do In A Learner-Centered Online Course?

In learner-centered online courses, the instructor embodies a number of tacit and explicit behaviors. These include:

  • Communicating high expectations
  • Eliciting prior knowledge and encourage students, in discussions, activities, projects, artifacts to share these experiences
  • Using metacognitive techniques (for example, reflection questions, summaries, etc.), so students understand their own thinking, assess their own learning, and figure out how they learn best.
  • Acting, not as the only source of knowledge, but as one of several sources—encouraging students questions and discussion among students by asking open-ended questions
  • Modelling diverse ways of learning
  • Allowing students to take charge of their own learning—this means, letting them be confused, work through their confusion, attempt solutions, fail, learn from failure, and keep trying until they succeed—all with appropriate amounts of scaffolding (including, at times, none at all) (This is hard!)
  • Framing the learning—laying out weekly objectives, moving learners along a set of activities, checking for understanding, providing feedback and support, and summarizing what students have learned
  • Promoting collaboration and community building
  • Analyzing LMS data to see where students are struggling, who is at risk of failing, who is succeeding, who needs help, etc.

One of the best ways that an instructor can model and promote learner-centered approaches is through questioning and discussions. Online instructors can pose a stimulating, open-ended question; allow students to brainstorm ideas and responses; then engage students in the activity of contrasting and comparing ideas, guiding them from definitional and empirical knowledge to more analytical, synthetical and evaluative knowledge. Thus, by facilitating discussions, instructors can connect ideas and learners, using student responses as part of the learning.

What Do Students Do In A Learner-Centered Online Course?

Learners in student-centered online education courses are invested in the process of learning and they demonstrate this investment by:

  • Exhibiting a sense of ownership of their own learning.
  • Questioning, collaborating, investigating, applying, and evaluating what they have learned.
  • Recognizing that they are members of a technology-based (and possibly face-based) community and interact with tools, peers, materials, instructors, and experiences to fuel the online sharing and collaboration that in turn fuels learning.
  • Using higher-order thinking skills to determine the quality, authenticity, and applicability of the tools, materials, and resources with which they are interacting.
  • Taking responsibility as members of a team and checking in constantly, completing their part of a task, and actively communicating and responding online.
  • Getting outside their comfort zone and serving as a "critical friend" to online classmates, offering constructive feedback as requested and needed.

In its online programs in Southeast Asia, my organization, Education Development Center (EDC) has promoted numerous learner-centered online approaches: Co-teaching in which a teacher in one island connects with a teacher in another to co-teach a class; live coaching through Bluetooth headphones and a Skype connection; learning circles in VoiceThread where teachers, weekly, upload a video example of a classroom-based activity and host a live feedback session; student online learning teams which work together to create activities that they employ in one each other's classrooms; and the creation of shared digital portfolios. What is powerful about these is not the "bottle" (the technology), but the "wine" - the collaboration, interaction with colleagues, peer instruction, the interaction with others already already engaging in that behavior.

New Wine...

Our understanding of learner-centered instruction has often been rather one dimensional. Learner-centered instruction is not a single pedagogical approach but rather, as noted in last month's article, a taxonomy of instructional approaches in which learning goals and content drive how information is organized, understood, presented, and assessed. We know from research that student engagement, motivation, and mastery over many real-world competencies are better attained through structured, learner-centered instructional approaches.

...In New Bottles

We know, too, that technology complements learner-centered approaches, both in terms of teaching and assessing learning. Learner-centered instruction as a foundation of online learning provides instructors with multiple points for assessment - at the beginning, middle, and end of lessons; allows for multiple types of assessment (performance-based tasks, written and oral reports, or projects); it offers students a variety of assessment products by which to showcase their knowledge and skills (technology-based products, multimedia, Web pages, reports). In short, learner-centered eLearning can measure not just that students learn, but what, how, why, and under what conditions they best learn and allow us to design online experiences that don't just replicate traditional didactic experiences ("old wine") but provide "new wine" - experiences and learning that capitalize on the Internet's ability to connect us to people, places, and content.


Georgian qvevris (Signangi, Georgia). Photo: Mary Burns, August 17, 2016

It's Not The Container; It's The Process...

The above image shows qvevris - a traditional Georgian vessel made of clay used for fermenting and storing wine. Within this clay vessel, Georgian winemakers add stems and skins, and create wines -in a process that has endured eight millennia- that are inky, robust, and among the most flavorful in the world. To belabor the wine metaphor a bit longer, the qvevri suggests that it's not the container that matters, it's the content, the activity and the process. eLearning doesn't beget learner-centered instruction, nor does learner-centered instruction need technology to thrive. We can be innovative without technology. We don't need expensive tools or new bottles to create learning or wine that is high quality and rich.

But we do need technology if we want to extend learner-centered instruction to the greatest number of learners possible. We do need technology so that we can both reflect on our own learning and enter into the intellectual space of colleagues with whom we might otherwise never come into contact. As a proverb (1) from another land proud of its vinculture, France, notes: "In water we (see) our own face; but in wine we (see) the heart of the other person". This is also true for online learning courses that harness both learner-centered design and delivery--we learn more about ourselves through the process of writing and reflecting and we learn more about others through the process of collaboration.

We can raise a glass to that.


Note: The French "On distingue dans l'eau son propre visage; mais dans le vin, on s'aperçoit le coeur d'un autre."