Week 2 – Understanding Learners and Learning

This week is all about learners and their learning. We’ll be exploring some fundamental ideas concerning the nature of learning, different learning attributes, and how to engage learners effectively online.

We’ll start by considering what ‘learning’ is, including different things that can be learned, and different approaches taken to learning by learners in formal educational contexts.

We’ll then ask you to explore learner experiences and diversity, their implications for learning and teaching online, and some of the different learning theories that can be used to design online learning activities. We’ll ask you to consider the relevance of some of these theories within your own context, and to think about how you would design technology-enhanced learning activities to effectively engage learners in a ‘deep’ learning experience.

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This week’s aims

  • Reflect on the nature of learning and fundamental differences in how learners undertake learning (see ‘If you only do one thing…’ below)
  • Distinguish between the different expectations and needs that individual learners can bring to learning and learning online, and explore the general implications for supporting effective online learning (Webinar, Activity 2.1, Activity 2.2, Activity 2.3)
  • Apply what we’ve explored in the above areas in the design of ‘authentic’ online learning activities that can engage learners in a ‘authentic’ learning experience (Be a TEL Explorer activities)

If you only do one thing…

Approaches to learning

(60 mins)

Please review the research discussed below and consider one of the questions that follows.

As we’ll see in Week 3, the notion of ‘learning styles’ is a contentious one. However, there is body of research in the ‘phenomenographic’ tradition, based on learners’ descriptions of their own experiences, which has made a distinction between three different approaches to learning – the ‘deep’, ‘strategic’ and ‘surface’ approaches. It’s not that the three approaches are mutually exclusive, but that when left to their own devices many students can be seen to have a leaning towards one over the others. What is generally accepted though, certainly in Western higher education, is that ‘deep learning’ is the ideal we should be striving to engage our learners in.

Defining features of approaches to learning

Defining features of approaches to learning

Source: Marton, F., Hounsell, D. and Entwistle, N., (eds.) The Experience of Learning: Implications for teaching and studying in higher education. 3rd (Internet) edition. Edinburgh: University of Edinburgh.http://www.ed.ac.uk/schools-departments/institute-academic-development/learning-teaching/staff/advice/researching/publications/experience-of-learning

Your task is to think about the general idea of ‘approaches to learning’ in relation to online learning. Questions for consideration are:

  • Have you seen any evidence of these different approaches in online contexts, e.g. in technology-enhanced courses you teach? How did these differences manifest themselves in terms of online learning behaviour?
  • Are you leaning towards one approach in particular on ocTEL, and if so why might that be? Perhaps you are employing strategies from more than one approach?
  • Are learners who tend to take a ‘surface’ approach likely to learn more or less effectively online versus face-to-face?
  • How might we encourage ‘deep learning’ in online contexts?

Pick one or more of these questions to tackle. Share your ideas on your blog (using #ocTEL tag), or on this forum. Try to respond to the blog or forum posts of at least two colleagues.

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Come and join the live webinar

Presenter: Dr Panos Vlachopoulos, Macquarie University, Australia (short bio).

Time: 12.30 British Summer Time on Tuesday 13th May.  (timezone conversion | iCal)

Title: Learning design for student-directed learning – opportunities and challenges

In formal higher education the desired shift in a new student-directed pedagogical paradigm is very often circumscribed by inappropriate learning design as well as by pre-established and preconceived power relationships between the teacher and the students, in the centre of which are often oppressive assessment techniques.

In this webinar Dr Panos Vlachopoulos will focus on how a more student-directed learning design can support and empower the creation of togetherness and belonging in a community of distance learners in formal higher education. He will present the findings of recently completed research that looked at the interactions in two different learning tasks as part of a postgraduate online distance learning programme.

View the live session recording using Blackboard Collaborate: http://go.alt.ac.uk/octel2014-week-2-recording
Watch live stream recording of Blackboard Collaborate session on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Zp6-Shb6bW8

View Panos Vlachopoulos’ session slides.

Vlachopoulos, Panos and Cowan, John (2010) Reconceptualising moderation in asynchronous online discussions using grounded theory. Distance Education, 31 (1). pp. 23-36. ISSN 0158-7919 http://researchrepository.napier.ac.uk/5614/

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Activities for this week

Activity 2.1: Learner experiences

(30 minutes)

Find a colleague, a student, or someone else you know who has some current or recent experience of online learning and TEL, and discuss the following topics with them.

●   How did they generally try to organise their studies?

●   What were their motivations for undertaking the course they were on? This might include whether they self-selected to be an online learner, or found themselves needing to engage in online learning as part of a campus-based or blended course.

●   What did they like and dislike about their online learning experience, and what were the key contributing factors (e.g. course design, tutor role, type of activities)?

Post a short summary on your blog (using #ocTEL tag), or on this forum. Try to say something about whether the learner you spoke with seemed to be taking a deep, strategic, or surface approach, and why you think this. Remember to anonymise their identity!

Activity 2.2: Learner Diversity

(30 minutes)

Try to find one example from your own practice, or an example or resource from elsewhere, that you think exemplifies good practice in taking a technology-enhanced approach to addressing a key aspect of learner diversity.

It could be an example of a freely available assistive technology, or a set of online guidelines for designing a culturally inclusive curricula. It might be an example of an initiative, such as the college2uni podcasts produced by Edinburgh Napier University, which provide ‘just in time’ guidance at key points in the academic year for Further Education students coming in to University in the second or third year.

Share your example on your blog or in this forum, where we will build up a range of resources, guidelines, tools and projects that can help us to embrace and respond to student diversity online.

Use some of the links in the Resources section as a starting point if this is useful.

Activity 2.3: Theories of active learning

(60 minutes)

There are a wide range of theories of learning, but no single universally applicable one.

  • Have a quick skim through the learning theories links in theResources section.
  • Select a learning theory, either from the links provided, or of your own choosing, and:
  • write a short discussion piece that explains the theory chosen, and how you would relate the principles of the selected theory to:
    • your current practice as someone who supports learning, or, as an alternative, how you personally like to learn;
    • how you would try to ‘design’ and support online learning in your own discipline area so that it engages and supports as many learners as possible in ‘deep learning’ as characterised by the reading associated with the Approaches to Learning activity; and
    • any considerations of learner diversity that are particularly relevant to your own practice, discipline, or the learners you are involved in supporting.

Take a few minutes to read others’ commentary. Make a note of any theories that particularly resonate with you. Please share your ideas on your blog or via Twitter (using #ocTEL tag), or on this forum.


●       Post on ‘Approaches to Learning’ #ocTEL

●       Post on your blog, tweet or share a short update #ocTEL

●       Come and join the webinar or view the recording

●       Engage in some or all of Activities 2.1, 2.2 and 2.3

●       Check out the TEL Explorer activities for this week

Resources and more to watch, read and research

Adult learning theories: implications and critique

●    Learning and Teaching in Action: Open Issue (Nicola Greaves article and project summary, 2008)http://www.celt.mmu.ac.uk/ltia/issue16/greaves.php

●    Training and the Needs of Adult Learners (Ota et al, 2006)http://www.joe.org/joe/2006december/tt5.php

●    Adult learning theories presentation slides (Smith, 2008)http://www.slideshare.net/carterfsmith/adult-learning-theories

Digital literacy

●    Developing Digital Literacies (JISC Design Studio)http://bit.ly/diglitds

●    21st Century Literacies (Rheingold, 2009) 45 minute video of talk in Londonhttp://blip.tv/howardrheingold/21st-century-literacies-2393998


●    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 diversity among your own 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 some of the possibilities for inclusive use of technology at the sitehttp://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 athttp://eduapps.org/?page_id=7

Learner diversity in online learning

Learning theories

●    Learning theorieshttp://www.learning-theories.com/

●    Theory into practice databasehttp://home.sprynet.com/~gkearsley/tip/index.html

●    Review of e-learning theories, frameworks and modelshttp://www.jisc.ac.uk/uploaded_documents/Stage%202%20Learning%20Models%20(Version%201).pdf

●    Connectivism: A learning theory for the digital agehttp://www.elearnspace.org/Articles/connectivism.htm and debate about connectivism as a learning theory http://halfanhour.blogspot.co.uk/2014/04/connectivism-as-learning-theory.html

●    Zone of proximal developmenthttp://www.simplypsychology.org/Zone-of-Proximal-Development.html

●    Constructivismhttp://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Constructivism_(learning_theory)

●    Collaborative learninghttp://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Collaborative_learning

●    Experiential learninghttp://www.learningandteaching.info/learning/experience.htm

●    Enquiry-based learning: definitions and rationalehttp://www.ceebl.manchester.ac.uk/resources/papers/hutchings2007_definingebl.pdf

●    Problem-based learning: an instructional model and its constructivist frameworkhttp://www.ross.mayfirst.org/files/savery-duffy-problem-based-learning.pdf

●    MOOCs and learning theorieshttp://onlinelearninginsights.wordpress.com/2013/03/04/a-tale-of-two-moocs-coursera-divided-by-pedagogy/

Frameworks, rubrics and principles for designing online active learning activities

●   Edinburgh Napier’s 3E frameworkhttp://staff.napier.ac.uk/services/vice-principal-academic/academic/TEL/TechBenchmark/Pages/home.aspx

●   Learning materials in a problem-based coursehttp://www.materials.ac.uk/guides/pbl.asp

●   Learning design and assessment with e-tivities (pdf of research paper)http://goo.gl/P5AC4

●   Seven Cs of learning designhttp://e4innovation.com/?p=628

●   Effective practice in a digital agehttp://www.jisc.ac.uk/practice

Be a TEL Explorer

For those that want to take things further in Week 2, we invite you to produce a full design for an ‘authentic’ online learning activity, and critique or offer feedback on an activity design by a fellow ocTEL participant.  There will also be an opportunity to explore examples of games-based learning activities and reflect on their educational value. If you undertake the explorer activities, please share on your blog or via Twitter (using #ocTEL tag), or on the forums.

Activity 2.4: Design or review a learning activity

(2 hours)

In this activity you have the option of being a creator or a critic. The latter may seem easier, but the challenges of the former may make it more beneficial as an exercise in active learning.

2.4 (a) Design an authentic learning activity

Produce a plan/design for a short (15-20 minute) online learning activity on a subject of your choosing. You can plan to use any technologies you feel are appropriate, but the learning activity must be an ‘authentic’ one in that it will engage learners (individually or collaboratively) in a learning activity that reflects as closely as possible how individuals in your discipline area create, share, practice and work together in the ‘real world’.

So, no abstract activities (e.g. essays, exams) but something that represents or reflects elements of authentic practice e.g. online or technology-supported lab or field work; an online political debate; a  cooperative task using collaboration software; asking learners to create a product using digital tools; undertake research on a topical issue and present findings; doing something that engages them online with the discipline related or professional communities they will ultimately be joining. You can be as creative as you like.

The activities in ocTEL so far demonstrate some other examples, which you may like to follow – or not! Hopefully they show that learning activities need not involve a lot of writing.

Consider the intended learning outcomes, and the appropriateness of the pedagogic approach adopted in relation to the learning outcomes, the topic, and the level and nature of the learner cohort. How do you plan to engage students in the activity and hold their interest? What technical issues might occur and how could you deal with them? What ‘learner diversity’ considerations are particularly relevant to the cohort in question, and therefore to the design of the activity?

Crucially, what will make your planned activity an ‘authentic’ learning activity that results in engaging learning, the development of skills and literacies needed in professional practice, and which reflects the nature of the discipline?

You may find the headings below useful (but you are not limited to them).

  • Title of activity
  • Intended learning outcome(s)
  • Activity description
  • Timeframe for activity
  • Prerequisites (e.g. existing academic knowledge and skills, technical skills required)
  • Links to the technology to be used
  • Links to additional resources

Make your activity plan/design available online, on your blog or other web space – you could present your activity via a video on YouTube, for example, but always use the #ocTEL tag – and provide a link to it in a new topic on this forum. Alternatively you can just post the activity as a new topic in the same forum. This serves to advertise that your activity is awaiting review by others, and enables people to see who already has reviews.

2.4 (b) Reviewing a learning activity

Review two of the activities created by other course members. You can choose any that you like that interest you, and you might also like to select activities that have not been critiqued very much already. Visit theforum for this activity to see which activities are waiting for more reviews. For each, write a short critique of the activity. Consider:

  • Your thoughts on the overall design of the activity in relation to its intended   audience
  • Would a ‘deep’ and authentic learning experience be provided?
  • Does this activity match the intended learning outcome/s?
  • Would you find the activity engaging (bearing in mind that you may not be part of the intended audience)?
  • Can you envisage any technological issues with how this activity is to be implemented or how learners will undertake it, and if so how they might be resolved?
  • How could the activity be improved?

Make the critique available to the author of the activity on the ocTEL forums, and copy this to their personal web space (e.g. through blog comments) if the activity is also available there.

Activity 2.5: Active play

(30 minutes)

Over recent decades, game-based learning has grown as a form of TEL. It encapsulates many principles of active learning, such as engagement in an authentic context, learning by mistake-making and reflection, experiential learning, collaborative learning and learning by problem-solving. As such, it is worth considering the techniques that games use to engage learners and what can be learned from them.

Play one of the following games for 15 minutes (longer if you like):

Write a short description — on your blog and shared via Twitter (using #ocTEL tag), or on this forum,  —  that answers the following questions:

  • What do you think you could learn playing this game?
  • What (if anything) did you find engaging?
  • What (if anything) did you find demotivational?

Please also feel free to share links to good online games you are already familiar with, so that ocTEL participants can end Week 2 armed with a range of examples to take away.

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1 response to Week 2 – Understanding Learners and Learning

  1. Are learners who tend to take a ‘surface’ approach likely to learn more or less effectively online versus face-to-face?
    My students have either Dyslexia/Dyscalculia or some form of moderate learning difficulty. I would say that the majority of them are surface learners. They try to take in just what is required to pass their courses, before either moving on or ending their education (some might return to learning at a later date).
    Though most like to use different types of learning resources, they also require the back up of an actual person, plus interaction to encourage and reinforce what has been carried out. For some it would be a task in itself to remember to carry out on line activities independently.
    Some students who are intent on ‘getting on in life’, not using their learning ability to hold them back, or as an excuse for not achieving, will take a strategic approach, using any resources and activities to increase their chances of achieving their goals. My workplace uses a VLE, which can be accessed in college, and from home; it includes course materials, and visits can be monitored. Again visits depend on the confidence of the students to ‘drop in’, despite how they appear in class.
    I think that if students were told that the online activities were a progression from what had been covered in class they would be more likely to look at them. Another approach could be to use it to help develop independent learning; preparing them for higher education.