2. Understanding Learners’ Needs

This week is all about the learners — and if you don’t have a teaching role to apply this to, then you can use yourself and the other participants as an example.

The centrality of understanding learners’ needs is obviously not unique to Technology Enhanced Learning (TEL), and some of the principles in this area are common to all teaching. However, TEL brings with it new contexts that make additional demands of learners. So some of the key issues we’ll be thinking about are:

  • technical competence and a set of aptitudes often bracketed together under the ‘digital literacy’ heading;
  • language and culture, from understanding of the jargon of a domain to different cultural norms about interacting with individuals and groups via the medium of technology;
  • individual sensory, motor or cognitive impairments that affect what is accessible via technology;
  • learning preferences and disciplines, such as the ability to schedule self-paced learning.

This week’s aims

By the end of this week, we aim for you to be able to:

  • define the most significant needs and expectations which influence the way people learn;
  • identify major issues which learners will confront with TEL and online learning based on their needs and expectations;
  • define what level of digital literacy is needed by learners to take advantage of online learning;
  • identify the resulting implications for the way that we design and deliver online learning;
  • propose practical steps to deal with these implications in the types of courses that you are involved in.

If you only do one thing during this week…

There are a range of questionnaires and instruments produced by universities and online learning providers which claim to predict whether you are ‘ready’ for online learning – see the sample list to be provided. e.g.

Complete two or three of these questionnaires depending on the time you have available and make a list of the characteristics they have in common. Publish this list and add a short comment/reflection, considering how the questionnaires:

  • can help us plan to introduce learners to online learning and TEL,
  • accurately identify your readiness, and
  • how you might use them with your own students.

Please share your ideas on your blog or via Twitter (using #ocTEL tag), on this forum topic, or via the JiscMail list.

Come and join the live webinar

Join our weekly webinar at 12.30 British Summer Time on Wednesday 24 April. If you haven’t been to a live session before, don’t worry. There’ll be a short introduction and networking session at the start as well as time to familiarise yourself with the platform. In this week’s webinar the main presentation will be led by Helen Beetham. Helen will be drawing upon some of her research in the field of digital literacies, particularly the Developing Digital Literacies programme funded by Jisc in relation to this week’s key questions around learners’ needs. During the session participants will be able to actively engage and ask questions/contribute to the discussion.

Recordings of this and previous webinars are available from the Course Materials page.

Activities for this week

Activity 2.1: Learner expectations

(45 mins)

Find a colleague or someone else you know who has limited experience of online learning and TEL and discuss the following topics with them.

  • Using the ‘readiness for online learning’ themes that you identified in the previous activity, discuss the extent to which they feel ready to engage with TEL.
  • What expectations and concerns do they have about using TEL?
  • Do these expectations resonate with your experience of this course?

Activity 2.2: Researching themes in learner needs

(45 mins reading and assimilating; 45 mins writing and discussing; 45 mins finding more resources)

Consider one or more of these four themes:

  1. The nature of adult learning and implications for practice (tags: ocTEL, adultlearning)
  2. Studies of online expectations and ‘readiness’ (tags: ocTEL, readiness)
  3. Implications of digital literacy (tags: ocTEL, diglit)
  4. Implications for your teaching approach/delivery and implementation (tags: ocTEL, delivery)

Pick one or two. First review some of the resources below and what they have to say about the theme(s).

Please share – on your blog or via Twitter (using #ocTEL tag and any others mentioned above), on this forum topic, or via the JiscMail list – what lessons you take concerning the theme, and how you would apply them to your own teaching and learning practice.

Finally, try and find some more resources relevant to your chosen theme(s), using a search engine or social discovery and online foraging. As and when you find a useful resources, please

  • add it to our ocTEL diigo group with the tags shown in brackets above (plus any others you choose)
  • bookmark it in delicious with the tags shown in brackets above (plus any others you choose), or
  • add a link to the resource to a relevant forum on the ocTEL website


  • Post on“you are ‘ready’ for online learning” #ocTEL
  • Come and join the webinar or view the recording
  • Post a tweet to your post or share a short update #ocTEL
  • Use the course reader to catch up on some recent activity

Resources and more to watch, read and research

Adult learning theories: implications and critique

Studies of online expectations and readiness

Digital literacy


  • Learning to teach inclusively http://www.wlv.ac.uk/Default.aspx?page=24685 an OER (Open Educational Resource) module for Higher Education staff that aims to help you gather information about your own diverse students and, in light of this, redesign an aspect of your curriculum for the engagement and assessment of all students
  • JISC TechDis promote inclusive practice in teaching and learning and provide advice and resources to support learner needs. You can explore soem of the possibilities for inclusive use of technology at the site http://www.jisctechdis.ac.uk/techdis/userneeds
  • EDUapps provide a range of software collections to support a diverse range of user requirements.  These can be downloaded for free at http://eduapps.org/?page_id=7


To pick one very general treatment of what is required of successful learners in a (northern/western hemisphere) world of ubiquitous broadband, Howard Rheingold (2009) identifies five competences or literacies:

  1. Attention — knowing how to focus and how to divide your attention without losing focus;
  2. Critical consumption — the ability quickly to assess the provenance and credibility of online sources;
  3. Participation, particularly the more constructive modes of participation that are useful to others;
  4. Collaboration — being ready to organise together, and enable a collective response to emerge;
  5. Network awareness — the hybrid connection of reputation, social capital, presentation of self and other sensitivity to individual positioning within the collective.

There has been much debate in recent years over the distribution of these competences among the population and between generations, as well as how they can be acquired and how well they can be acquired by people who don’t take to them ‘naturally’.

When it comes to determining what your learners need it is always most helpful to go beyond generalities to specifics. There is no substitute for detailed knowledge of, and empathy with, your students. However, in some instances of TEL — MOOCs and other open courses such as ocTEL — this is not always possible, and other means of judging learners’ needs must be found.

How can we understand and anticipate learners’ needs and expectations and what implications does this have for the way that we design and deliver TEL?

What’s coming up next?

Next week’s topic: Designing active learning, starting 29 April.