the new age of exploration

The rise of instruction

From the earliest days of computer-assisted learning, way back in the mid 1970s, the dominant teaching strategy has been instruction. So dominant in fact, that those tasked with devising and assembling technology-based learning solutions have been called instructional designers ever since. As a result, it is easy to believe that there is only one valid approach to teaching on a computer and instruction is it. First of all, let’s just clarify what we mean by this term. Instruction is a structured teaching process that begins with behavioural learning objectives (that’s the sort that describes what you, as a learner, will be able to do at the end of the instructional process, in specific, measurable and observable terms) and ends with some form of assessment against these objectives. Along the route, the learner will be presented with facts, concepts, rules and procedures and asked to put these into practice in some way. They will receive ample demonstrations and examples. They will be provided with specific and timely feedback. Sounds like a watertight approach that is likely to lead to consistent and reliable outcomes. And sometimes this is what it delivers.

Just give me the information

It’s important to contrast instruction with what, previously, had been the dominant approach, at least in formal learning settings, and that was exposition. With this strategy, a subject expert presents information to the ? largely passive ? learner. There are many forms that exposition could take, from lectures and presentations to textbooks and videos, but the idea is essentially the same. With the expositional strategy, the subject expert determines what you, as a learner, receives. If you’re a confident learner, already grounded in the subject in question, you may well be quite happy with this approach. You concentrate hard and hope that some of what you read or hear will stick. When it comes to the inevitable exam, you will cram as much information as you can into some sort of temporary memory space to help you overcome this hurdle. Chances are that, a few days after the exam, you’ll have forgotten almost all of it.

Exposition is not a predictably successful strategy, even though it still dominates in many educational and training environments (including many of the latest MOOCs). It works very well for people who already have expertise in the subject, because they know what they don’t know, and can easily focus in on information that is relevant to them. On the other hand, novices are likely to be completely overwhelmed. You can understand why the emphasis shifted from exposition to instruction as it became necessary to provide millions of new entrants to the workforce with essential knowledge and practical skills. It was not good enough for soldiers, factory workers, insurance clerks and electricians to have been exposed to lots of information and to have passed exams; they needed to be competent.

When instruction doesn’t work

Competence takes many forms. When the tasks that people are asked to perform are routine and predictable, then it is easy to see how instruction can work ? the rules and procedures, and the skills needed to put these into practice, are undisputed and simply need to be understood and rehearsed. However, more and more work, particularly in the developed world, is far from routine and predictable ? if it was it would have been computerised or outsourced to countries where labour was less expensive. Employees working in a knowledge economy are required to make judgements in highly unpredictable circumstances. They have to solve problems, weigh up options and make decisions. And, because modern employers have to provide exceptional service in order to compete, while conforming to ever more stringent regulatory requirements, these employees also need to be committed to some important principles of working.

Instruction is capable of providing superficial results when applied to tasks that require judgement and commitment to big ideas, but it’s unlikely to get you far enough. You can be told endless times that it pays to have clear objectives for your meeting, to negotiate win-win solutions or to keep customer data secure, and you can pass tests that prove you understand those ideas, but that doesn’t mean you’ll do anything about it. To influence your behaviour, you need to test out these ideas for yourself, to discover their importance through experience. That’s why we have begun to see a shift away from instructional techniques and the adoption of the very different strategy of guided discovery.

In my early years in workplace learning, I encountered many successful applications of guided discovery, primarily in the context of leadership and management training, whether in the classroom, through adventures in the outdoors or with action learning sets. I saw just how much could be achieved when learners were presented with challenges from which they could discover key principles for themselves, typically with the aid of a facilitator. Now we’re seeing similar approaches adopted on computers, through scenarios, games and simulations. Many of the most successful e-learning programmes of the past five years have been based on realistic scenarios, rather than abstract theory. In fact you can see how guided discovery is transforming the perception that many learners have of e-learning. While they find instructional materials dull and patronising, they commit the same effort to scenario-based challenges that they do to video games.

Learners are doing it for themselves

Exposition, instruction and guided discovery all have their place. While one or other may have been predominant over the years, it would be misleading to regard the shift from one strategy to another as a natural evolution in thinking. In fact all three strategies have been around as long as we have had human beings. Thousands of years ago it would have seemed perfectly normal to present information to a group of eager students (exposition), help someone to acquire a skill (instruction) or suggest a challenge that would provide a learner with fresh insights (guided discovery). Each strategy had its place then as now, often employed together as part of a blended solution that mixes different methods and delivery media. However, all three of these strategies depend on a ‘trainer’ ? a subject expert, an instructor or a facilitator ? to devise and direct the programme of learning. The teacher ‘pushes’ learning content or learning activities in the direction of the learner. However, learners are not as passive as they used to be. They depend less and less on teachers to determine what they need to know and how they should organise their learning. They have become accustomed, through technology, to seeking out the information and assistance they need on the Internet. By and large they are proving successful in finding the help they need at the time that they need it. Learners of all ages are feeling empowered as never before. Surely this has to be regarded as a good thing, even if it does challenge the important role that teachers have traditionally played in the learning process.

The new age of exploration

Within what seems no more than handful of years, we seem to have entered a new age of exploration. There is that same magical feeling of a world waiting to be discovered and boundless opportunities available to whoever is brave enough to make the voyage. Of course, there are very few geographical regions still to be explored, but there is a whole world of ideas a click or a touch away. Exploration is emerging as the new strategy of choice for learners. It represents a major shift of emphasis, from push to pull, from courses to resources. It places the learner at the centre of the process of learning, amply supported by communities of peers and huge libraries of freely-available content.

So what role can the trainer play in this new world? Well, first of all, there is an important requirement for curation, perhaps not for experts but certainly for novices. When you’re a complete beginner and you don’t know what you don’t know, it helps to have some pointers ? who to speak to first, what site to go to, what videos to watch, what blogs to read. And exploration is not a panacea; there will still be plenty of need for exposition, instruction and guided discovery, not least because organisations depend on the competences of their employees, and cannot rely on these to emerge haphazardly. Employees too are keen to obtain formal accreditation of their skills and knowledge, particularly in those early years when they cannot compete for jobs on the basis of their work experience.

It is no longer appropriate to call those responsible for devising learning experiences instructional designers. The designer of the future has to know when to call upon all four strategies, taking consideration of the desired learning outcomes, the characteristics of the target population and the distance that this population has travelled on its learning journey. This is a new breed of designer, empowered to break free from the confines of instructional systems design. Designers themselves are on a voyage of discovery.

Clive is a learning and development specialist, with a particular interest in the applications of media and technology to learning at work. In a career spanning more than 35 years, Clive has headed up a corporate training function, co-founded a leading multimedia development business and operated as an independent consultant operating worldwide. In recent years, Clive has devoted his attention to the design and implementation of next generation blended learning solutions. He is a regular speaker at international conferences, has been recognised with two lifetime achievement awards, has written five books and more than 200 articles, and contributes regularly to his blog, Clive on Learning. For four years he was Chair of the eLearning Network. His new book, More Than Blended Learning, was launched in January 2015.