Learning online

16 January, 2013    

One size fits all?

Motivation in learning can be enhanced by setting clear expectations and defining a direction of travel, creating a sense of where you are going and how far into the ‘ideal’ journey that you are.

But the ‘ideal learning journey’ will vary depending on who you are. Learning has a lot to do with context. An expert in a field of study has a detailed mental model, a schema into which they can slot new knowledge and judge the ‘correctness’ of new concepts that are presented to them. As you learn more about a subject you add detail to the schema until the acquisition of new sills and knowledge becomes an act of comparing information and embellishing the schema – slotting new knowledge in – rather than constructing the model. Learning becomes easier the more you know. It becomes a bit more like sorting and checking, so the mental strain of learning within a field in which you already have expertise is relatively low.

A novice in a field has to build and compare their mental schema for each new piece of information. They must ask “Does the new knowledge match the current schema?” if not “Does this indicate a deficiency in the current schema, which would require a correction in current understanding or is this an extension of the current schema.” Only they use simpler language because they’re trying to be cleverer rather than just look clever.

Acquiring new knowledge is still a process of slotting knowledge into a schema, just as for the expert. But experts have much more confidence in their mental model, so the thinking is much quicker and requires much less effort. This is one of the reasons why it’s easier to learn something new within a field in which you’re confident (and have a mental model).

Combining context with content – ‘Guides’

Content is contained in learning object. Learning objects are content-focused and context neutral – because they provide their own context. They are self-contained chunks of learning – allowing them to be shared across multiple resources – pages and other online formats.

I like to think of learning objects as a sort of Knowledge pill™. They are intrinsically motivating and contain a clear and describable learning objective. They are self-contained and can be described easily.


Natural connections might exist between learning objects that can be described through linked data. But these natural connections can also be supplemented by collecting objects into Guides – which provide a much richer contextual framework to related objects.

Guides are made up of objects and chapters. A chapter is an object in itself, containing narrative content and also provides slots into which we can place the other types of objects – the knowledge pills. Imagine actual medicine. A chapter is the blister pack – a big one with the day (interesting relevent content related to others in a sequential order). The blister packs are usually grouped togther into two rows – the equivant of a guide.

Chapters grouped together into a Guide provide context and a coherent sequential order that supports learning. They have a position in a narrative, as well as the ability to contain learning content.

Learning journeys can will help all users to define the mental model of a subject by ensuring that each element (each learning object) fits into the mental model established by the narrative and elaborated by the accompanying objects.


A learning pill must be small enough to swallow. It should also be small enough to facilitate simple re-use. It is self-contained. By keeping these learning objects targeted towards a single learning outcome, they are more easily described and shared.

But we will often want to combine these individual “bits” of learning into longer learning journeys.


A Guide defines a path through a subject. It creates a model so that the learner is able to connect the specialised information sources represented in the objects.

The Chapter elements of the Guide represent the minimum degree of complexity that’s needed for someone to reach a learning outcome. But collected around this ‘minimum’ we add additional learning objects that will help to supplement or extend the users mental model – extend their learning.

The narrative of the Guide provides a macro-structure which creates coherence and aids recall through its network of causal links and signposting. The learning objects provide stepping stones into individual subjects. The internal coherence of these individual learning objects provides the micro view necessary to constrain complexity and cognitive load and facilitate learning.

Jumping sideways

A Guide creates a compelling route through objects that have been linked by a narrative structure. But, objects can provide jumping-off points into new, related subjects.

Decision-making is itself a learning process. The narrative structure, the defined learning journey sequence, is a best guess framework designed for the majority. This narrative structure constructs a semantic network to make learning easier and promotes a curated path through the content. But because of the internal coherence of learning objects, learners should be empowered to leave a learning journey and explore tangential and related subjects when their curiosity is peaked. The model allows for adaptation and personalisation.

I’m trying to combine discursive and interactive activities. The discursive activities are represented by navigating the narrative, working through the defined structure (schema) of the subject or topic. Our learning journey binds content together for users to navigate and consume.

Users can also engage in narrative construction activities as they acquire and synthesise the new learning. The learners’ construction of their narrative is unique to them – even if they follow the prescribed path. And the learner can surf through the learning journey, or they can dive deeper into a subject by exploring related objects, or jump sideways on a tangential journey across learning objects.

Coming next: Designing for two types of behaviour – browsing and learning



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