Looking Through a Learning Tool

There is a spectrum of opinion about online learning, inclusive of two polar opposite sides in the discussion: it’s either new and exciting and every course should be online, or it is a scary new technology that destroys the personal communication essential for a “good class.” As I consider this debate, something that both groups should realize is that it’s easy to fall into the trap of defining instruction through the use of a tool, rather than realizing there is an inherent separation between the instruction and the tool. Today I’ll explore the differences and how this separation impacts our design. 

Consider a drill. As a tool, it doesn’t define the product it is making—it just enables the user to get the screw to its proper destination. Additionally, when picking a drill, we’ve got choices. Manual or automatic? Pneumatic or electric? DeWalt or Craftsman? So, when we realize a drill could be helpful, we first have to decide which drill to use. Remember the drill is just a means to the final product—which could still be assembled without it, just with a lot more work.

When you substitute “drill” for “Learning Management System” (LMS), my point becomes clearer. So now let’s examine how that alters our understanding of online learning and the use of an LMS.

Defining Learning Tools

First off, we need to analyze the definition of an instructional tool. My favorite definition is provided by Driscoll, who points out that a tool is “something that can be used in the service of something else” (Driscoll, 251). Here, the tool (our LMS) fades from focus to more of a learning support rather than a piece that determines instruction methodology.

Building off Driscoll’s template of understanding, viewing the tool appropriately as a mode of communication helping the individuals to participate, we realize that every tool has its own affordances and constraints. So, how do we deal with the perceived constraints of online education, namely limited communication and discussion. With the right features in the right courses, this constraint actually can be beneficial. 

Here’s how.

One concern is delayed response time. During a face to face discussion, students and instructors are able to listen to—and feed off—each other’s ideas without frustrating word count limitations or asynchronous response times. While true, it doesn’t mean there aren’t opportunities for collaboration and discussion. It can even be argued that delayed response formats provide students the opportunity to consider their response and develop more detailed and comprehensive answers without time pressure. This potentially allows for more detailed responses—pushing the discussion further. It also requires every student to participate rather than limiting it to those few who are willing or able to speak up in class—widening both the perspectives presented and the community created by student interactions. 

Another common concern with online learning is the potential loss of relationship between students and instructors. But I’d argue that the tool isn’t the limiting factor here. Teaching styles vary based on a classroom. There’s traditional lecture format, with minimal student and teacher interaction or a more collaborative environment, where discussion is encouraged to foster new ideas. 

Both styles have value based on the subject matter and objectives of the class, and the same concept applies on an LMS. Based on your learning outcomes, you can emphasize the collaboration through elements like the discussion board, or use web-conferencing tools like Zoom or Blackboard Collaborate. Alternatively, if collaboration isn’t a focus, you can use the LMS to share study materials and prerecorded lectures in combination with assessments like written assignments and tests. Most LMS programs provide a variety of opportunities to fulfill the specific needs of each class—but the LMS is merely the tool we use to communicate information, it doesn’t define the learning.

Wrapping it Up – Evaluating Tools

After reading about the various capabilities of an LMS, I’m am not necessarily convinced an LMS is the answer for all course types. It may not be a good choice based on technological or physical constraints of students, the need for physical, collaborative spaces to use as a practice experience (like residency programs), or cognitive limitations of the students. Organizational needs may also determine if an LMS is the right way to proceed—or if time and productivity needs dictate face-to-face is more applicable. 

That being the case, we can’t blame the tool or use it as an excuse to alter the decision on course modality when we’re implementing it in a suboptimal way. And we also can’t be afraid or intimidated by technology— we must evaluate its worth in each specific setting. We should frame any form of LMS or online instruction as the communication tool—not the learning. Additionally, we need evaluate tools objectively, looking for all the affordances and constraints they provide for each specific class, rather than making assumptions about if it will or won’t work. The availability of options is ever increasing with technology, so as instructors and designers we need to make sure we’re not assuming the tool we use determines if the course is effective or ineffective without looking intensively at what the course learning outcomes are. Then we can determine the most effective communication tool to use, so we can create an active learning environment. The best method we can use is to define the course, then find the tool that works best regardless of our preconceptions. 

Author: Jessica Pierce, Instructional Designer

Jess enjoys the science behind learning and cognition and how it applies in multiple modalities, including eLearning. In the off hours, she likes spending time with her husband and three kids, going out for coffee, or running the occasional road race for the “free” shirt (to counteract the caffeine).

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