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New Ways To Learn

3. A new learning process

Is there a common link between the different experiences of new ways to learn?

What we see struggling to emerge is a new learning process that focuses on the individual learning experience, rather than the group experience of the conventional classroom.

The classroom: all aboard the school bus

As our diagram shows, the heart of traditional learning is the classroom, where the teacher attempts to convey his or her knowledge directly to a group of pupils. When we think of learning, it is images of the classroom that spring to mind. In the classroom, the key relationship is the direct link between teacher and pupil. Any other relationship - pupil to pupil, or pupil with anyone or anything outside the classroom - is a distraction, and is actively discouraged.

The traditional process

Moreover, the teacher drives the process. As when boarding a bus, the whole class can only go in one direction and at a common pace. The teacher sets the timetable, determines the syllabus, the nature, quality and depth of the content, and steers a common path through the learning task. The direction and pace is set by the teacher - and the whole class depends on her or his expertise to get them through safely andwithout taking a wrong turn.

The new process: learner at the controls

Emerging from the growing use of IT and, especially, online technology, is a process which works in a different way. Here there is a much more direct interaction between learner and learning material. Minute by minute, it is the learner who controls and drives the process - even if he or she chooses to spend some time in a classroom or a lecture hall.

But the learner is not alone. Overall motivation and guidance are supplied by a dense web of interactions with learning material, teachers, fellow learners and others. Potentially this is a much richer, and more flexible, experience than the classroom. There is much that can go wrong; but we see evidence that under the right conditions the process becomes self-correcting and even self-propagating, creating a sustainable learning culture. In these circumstances learners and teachers exchange not only learning content, but knowledge of how to learn - and how to teach. In this environment, both motivation and technique rub off. People guide each other.

The new process


The teacher's role

In this new process, teachers are far from redundant. The teacher develops a new and highly skilled role as guide and consultant, setting tasks and assisting the learner to evaluate outcomes. Crucially it is the learner's own motivation, supported by group interaction and a wide range of external stimuli, that fuels immediate learning. A key task, therefore, is to stimulate and maintain that motivation using all the resources of media and group support available.

Building on this, an additional role is emerging for those with teaching skills: to create material that incorporates this stimulus, motivation and guidance, using all the facilities of new technology and media production to go far beyond the traditional textbook. New learning materials not only provide a much richer interaction: like sophisticated computer games they can, where appropriate, record the path each learner takes, report impartially on progress, and gently or firmly steer learners in useful directions.

New relationships

A great deal has been written about 'learner centred' education; but experience suggests a more complex picture. No-one learns alone; a new web of relationships is developing in tandem with the new process, and there is growing evidence that these relationships are a key part of making the process work.

There are relationships with other learners, with experts, and with real life sources of information. We even see a developing role for an online 'audience', which can be extremely effective in motivating certain types of activity.

Relationships within the classroom are well defined and understood; the new process is creating a new set of relationships, which have yet to be fully mapped. ICT provides the medium through which many new relationships are created and maintained.

Relating online

For a growing minority, online relationships are not a second best alternative to face-to-face interaction. They have their own characteristics, and for some purposes may even be actively preferred:

"I feel closer to the students in my e-mail course than I did with others sitting in the classroom... you're forced to know more about them." (John Craparo, US lifelong learner)

research link:  Introducing email into a traditional distance learning course is not all plain sailingUnlike early attempts to apply technology to learning, the use of ICT is not eliminating relationships. In fact the most successful initiatives appear to be enhancing existing relationships and adding new ones, in ways which stimulate natural ways to learn and encourage them to work more effectively.

Perseverance is required to overcome the initial difficulties of using email. More than technical issues are involved. Studies such as the one highlighted here indicate that new attitudes and a shift in culture is needed, to create new forms of discussion and participation. Many projects report that this takes longer than expected; but over time, it becomes a natural part of the learning process. Learning to use email effectively is becoming a key part of learning how to learn.


©1999 Mediation Technology

Section: 3 A new learning process

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