8 Ways to Take a Learner-Centered Approach to Elearning

The internet does not make learning easier.

When first attempting to teach online, most subject experts will take successful offline methods and translate that to an online medium as directly as possible.

A 45-minute lecture can be recorded with a camera and uploaded to YouTube.

A workshop can be recorded and provided as a webcast.

Each lecture in an undergraduate course can be recorded and uploaded, and assignments can be submitted online. No need to even change the syllabus.

I remember when I first approached this subject, making videos to teach Japanese with online video. At one point we were asking ourselves how to recreate the experience of being taught Japanese in a classroom. We went so far as to have our presenter stand in front of a blackboard, the camera positioned as if sitting at a desk.

At the time, it seemed completely natural. After all, the internet's power was its ease of access. If we could recreate something tried-and-true in video form, then distribute those videos online, we would be providing a valuable service to people across the world.

And that's generally been as far as online learning has gone. The internet may have democratized education, connected learners and instructors, supercharged a community of collaborators, and provided a centralized repository for articles, lessons and entire classes.

But the internet hasn't made learning easier.

Because the mind of a person trying to learn something new does not care whether it's watching video lectures online, sitting in a classroom with thirty students, or reading from a second-hand textbook by candlelight.

The act of learning — the process of taking new information, forming a mental representation, and combining that into one's long-term memory — occurs completely within the mind of the learner.

"Elearning" could stand for so much more than increased access to classroom instruction. It could mean finally taking a learner-centered approach to education, and discarding some of the longest-standing relics of traditional classroom instruction.

Relics like the 45-minute lecture. The role of teacher as a knowledge dispenser. The pace of learning which is appropriate for one person, too slow for nine, and too fast for twenty.

Elearning doesn't have to obey these rules because the web is an open platform which can accommodate completely new types of media. The internet's first educational revolution was one of access, but the second one can be to actually make learning easier.

A Learner-Centered Approach

But where to start? We need to look at what research tells us about how people learn new subjects.

"Instructional design that proceeds without reference to human cognition is likely to be random in its effectiveness."

Here are eight principles, backed up by research, that can make learning easier. I want to focus more on the application than on the research, but I highly encourage you to check out the Cambridge Handbook of Multimedia Learning for more information.

1. Use words and pictures instead of just words

The Science

We learn better from words and pictures than just words.

Words and pictures are processed using different channels. Each channel has a limited capacity for processing. When information is presented using both channels, we can process more total information before being overloaded.

The Takeaway

Don't waste the chance to convey information visually. A video lesson where the information is purely given through words will be limited by the learner's verbal processing ability. Offload information onto the visual channel whenever possible.

It's very tempting to write your narration first and then add visuals where convenient. As a result, many video lessons convey all their information with audio, only using video for reinforcement. Instead, write your scripts with two columns labeled "audio" and "video". In the audio column, write all your narration. Then add all visual information into the video column.

This method should quickly become reveal where you are lacking in visuals. Challenge yourself first to come up with visual ways to reinforce the narration. It's better than nothing, and much better than a static shot of the presenter speaking. Once you have mastered this, look for ways you can use visual explanations **instead of** verbal ones. Use that power to shorten your total lecture time.

2. Organize the material and highlight key information

The Science

We learn better when our attention is guided to important information, and material is well-organized.

When you're trying to learn something new, you don't simply memorize everything the instructor says. There is a selection process, where you decide what is important and load that into your working memory. That information is then further organized into an internal representation.

If the information is difficult to select, or the material is not well organized, this process is very hard for the learner.

The Takeaway

We can immediately tell the difference between a well-formed presentation and one the instructor is phoning in. While you can be impressed by the instructor's knowledge in either case, the unprepared lecture follows the instructor's train of thought, rather than any sensible hierarchy.

Organizing information isn't optional. Either you do it in advance, or your learners will need to do it on the fly. As an instructor, give a clear overview of the topic you're about to explore, and proceed through it systematically.

Emphasizing key terms is another way to clarify the hierarchy. This makes it obvious what the important information is. The learner just needs to worry about what that importance is.

3. Remove all unnecessary material

The Science

We learn more deeply when extraneous material is removed.

A learner is limited by their cognitive capacity, or the amount of processing that their working memory can handle at once. When learning new material, that capacity is of course spent by attempting to achieve the instructional objective. But it's also spent dealing with words and pictures that are not relevant to the instructional objective.

Your presentation should not cause excess cognitive load, and the best way to do that is to remove anything unnecessary.

The Takeaway

It's exciting to deliver a lesson on a subject that you have a lot of passion about. And students appreciate learning from a teacher who can inspire passion in themselves.

But a passion for details without an eye for focusing on the instructional objective can have a negative effect on your learners' ability to learn what's important.

I once took an economics course on Coursera. I was drawn to the professor's excitement. He talked passionately about how cool it was to be teaching online, how happy he was to bring his lectures to the world, and how rewarding it is to be a professor in general. This excitement made a short overview lecture balloon to over 30 minutes, during which I found and enrolled in a different economics course.

This talkativeness is fine in the confines of a college lecture hall where it's important to develop a rapport with your students. But in the elearning industry, you don't have a captive audience. Your learners view you as one seller in an open marketplace. Producing the learning outcomes trumps everything. If a digression or a story will not help the learner understand a subject enough to justify its length, it's doing more harm than good. Cut it out.

4. Allow the learner to set their pace

The Science

Our cognitive processes can quickly become overloaded by information coming at a fast rate.

Research has shown that by breaking up a presentation into smaller parts and letting the learner control the pace, they demonstrate better understanding by the end. This allows them to proceed to a new concept only after forming mental representations of the prior concepts. The pace will vary by learner, but all learners will benefit from a chance to "digest" one piece of information before needing to listen to the next.

The Takeaway

I've seen many elearning videos of the "filmed lecture" style where the instructor says something like, "If you don't understand, hit pause and watch again!"

That's not enough.

All learning requires cognitive processes: selecting relevant information, creating representations, recalling relevant long-term memories and integrating that with the new information. That process simply cannot happen if the learner is constantly trying to "keep up" and listen to an unending supply of new words and images.

Have you ever been reading a book and stopped to pause over a new insight? You don't need to tell the book to shut up for a moment so you can think about it, and you don't need to feel as if you're stupid for not "keeping up." You simply stop reading and reflect.

A chance for reflection should be built into multimedia presentations, and the simplest way to do that is to divide up long presentations into segments. Allow the user to continue learning when they feel comfortable.

Knowing when to divide the segments is not necessarily a property of length, but in the amount of new information given. In general, try to give the learner a chance to process whenever significant new information has been presented.

5. Present material in a conversational tone

The Science

We have a social response towards humanlike presentation and conversational style which makes us increase our cognitive effort.

Research has shown that presenting in a personable manner when introducing new information can lead to better understanding, compared to academic or robotic presentations. By being personable and speaking conversationally, the teacher can evoke a natural desire to listen actively, and in turn, foster deeper understanding.

The Takeaway

There's a particular style of speech which aims to create distance between the speaker and the audience. It's often spoken by those who want to be respected over everything else, and so speak as if they are a living, breathing academic journal. The effect is impressive on the listener, and altogether hopeless in conveying information.

Don't try so hard to sound distinguished that you fall into this trap. We want to learn from another human, and our social upbringing will naturally pay more attention to a message which sounds like something we encounter in the real world. Use common words and phrases, incorporate your own experiences and feelings. Be a human, and your audience will listen to you like a human. Be an academic journal, and your audience will leave you on the shelf.

6. Encourage self-explanations

The Science

Creating a mental representation of new information is a prerequisite of learning. It is desired that students will do this on their own, but since reflection is as important as presentation, by setting aside time for this process you increase the chance it will be done.

The Takeaway

Videos bring about a very "safe" feeling. You can relax in the knowledge that you can always rewatch a video. There is no social pressure to act like a good listener. And you know the teacher won't call you out for not paying attention. If the videos are set to play continuously, an hour can pass by with the instructor dutifully reading their script to an inactive mind.

As a creator of video content, you could simply hope that your watchers are obediently integrating new information with their long-term memories, or you could offer a hand.

After new concepts are presented, guide your learners through the process of integrating those concepts by asking open-ended questions. Not multiple choice questions. Challenge the learner to explain the concept being taught to themselves in their own words.

Leave visual aids on screen while doing this. It's not a test, but a chance for the student to make sense of the information you've just provided, and put it together into a coherent form in their own heads.

7. Guide your learner through a path

The Science

We do not necessarily learn better when we have more control of the selection and organization of material.

While it might be expected that giving the learner control over the sequence of study would lead to more active, inquiry-based learning, in practice the additional control creates demands on the learner's cognition which reduces their ability to learn effectively.

The Takeaway

I used to believe that language learners wanted fine control over the lessons they studied. That way, they could build up skills speaking about their interests and role-playing through scenarios they envisioned needing in daily life.

The data has shown that assumption to be incorrect. Based on surveys and feedback from our users, we've pivoted from an open experience to a guided one. Our users didn't want to take control of their learning. They wanted to trust us. They wanted a curated path they could follow which would take them towards fluency.

The science backs this up, and now I understand why. Learners are already ambitiously signing up to study new information or skills. It takes a lot of effort to learn actively for 20 minutes, so it's only natural that learners would avoid wasting energy fine-tuning their learning experience.

Allow your learners to trust that the syllabus or learning path you've created won't waste their time, and they'll be able to relax and spend effort learning the lessons within.

8. Speak words instead of writing them

The Science

Our brains process verbal information and pictorial information separately. Words can be conveyed visually, as text on a screen, or as audio, with speech. Of the two, speech is preferable because it frees up the eyes to take in visual information.

The Takeaway

I end with one of my favorite principles, which is so simple and yet highlights why video as a medium is so powerful in the first place.

Ironically the biggest advantage video has over a book has nothing to do with "video." It's the audio track! Such a perfect place to encode the words that do the heavy lifting of explanation, freeing up the video track to be as helpful as possible.

Don't waste this advantage by asking your learners to read information on screen. When text is shown, it should be to highlight key information and to help organize major concepts. Keep your visuals visual.

I'm happy to say that I've seen many of these principles put to good effect in elearning solutions around the web. In particular, I want to call attention to Udacity and the learning center they've crafted. The videos contribute as much information visually as they do verbally. Their courses are well organized and remove extraneous information. The break up lessons into consumable chunks and offer plenty of formal time for reflection.

But Udacity makes courses teaching computer science. It's no wonder they've been quick to identify new possibilities of elearning and create an environment for them. There are countless subjects out there which are starving for a similar treatment.

Go out and teach them!