Media’s role in complex learning

This entry is part 18 of 21 in the series Ten Steps to Complex Learning (the book).

Chapter 14 of Ten Steps to Complex Learning deals with the use of media.  Van Merriënboer and Kirscher make clear that they’re discussing the preliminary selection of media; media choices change as the design process continues.

They related media to the four main components of the Ten Steps; those components in turn relate to four key learning processes.  I’ve made this chart based on one of theirs:


What I especially like is the way the chart summarizes the underpinnings of the Ten Steps. For example, when you’re dealing with non-recurrent tasks (and if you’ve read any of the previous posts in this series, you know that means “things you do differently each time you confromt a new task), you want to help the learner build cognitive strategies and mental models (see the overview for Step 4).

A case where training IS learning...

Keep it real?  Not always.

Because the Ten Steps so strongly advocate whole tasks, it’s no surprise that the ideal media to support induction would include real or simulated task environments.  You might use less elaborate simulations in the early stages of learning; novices are sometimes hindered by over-rich environments.

Other advantages of simulations over actual environments:

  • Control of sequence: the designer and the learner aren’t restricted to whatever real-life situation happens to come along.
  • Learner support: unlike the real world, a simulation can provide both supportive and procedural information.
  • Safety: simulations reduce or eliminate dangers to the learner (or to others, like coworkers who might suffer from a beginner’s mistakes)
  • Control of time: a simulation can speed up or slow down processes to help the learner attend to detail or see the consequence of his actions.

Some media make it easier to provide dynamic task selection–proving a unique set of problems to each learner.  This aids adaptive training, which in turn tends to help learners do better in training and transfer skills more readily to the job.

How you did and what to do

This dynamic selection requires continuous assessment against objectives and criteria.  vM&K point out, though, that assessment is inadequate for diagnosis.  Knowing that someone can’t do X doesn’t tell you why, nor what to do about it.

For routine tasks (right, the recurrent ones), it’s relatively to analyze errors and give corrective feedback.  These tasks have correct procedures or interpretations, and often what I think of as expected wrong answers.  In the problem 3 ( 2x + 5 ) = 9 , if your answer is x = 2/3, you almost certainly multiplied 2x, but not 5, by 3.

It’s still hard for computer-based systems to diagnose well when it comes to errors in non-recurrent tasks (problem solving, reasoning, and so on).

[T]he teacher or instructor will typically provide this type of cognitive feedback, or the learners will be invited to critically compare and contrast their own problem-solving and reasoning processes with those of others–including expert task performers.

Along the same lines, learners could be involved in the assessment of their own performance…or the performance of other learners….

Beyond the learning task

The Ten Steps sees a real or simulated task environment as the primary medium.  After that, secondary media support the other three components of vM&K’s learning blueprint.

For non-recurrent tasks, supportive information helps the learner connect new information to what she already knows.  Media that allows her to interact with and explore models and examples encourages elaboration.  In this view, a simulation of a conceptual domain is not to practice a skill–for that, the simulation would involve whole tasks.  Rather, simulations or case studies related to the domain help the learner construct and improve her mental models of that domain.

Hypermedia allows the learner to move from one informational element to another, in a connected way, and thus explore relationships in that field.  The Ten Steps offers three principles to help stimulate deep processing:

  • The redundancy principle says that presenting redundant information typically has a negative effect on learning.
  • The self-explanation principle holds that learners benefit from trying to connect new items to each other and to existing knowledge.  Learning tasks can prompt them to, for example, identify underlying principles.
  • The self-pacing principle says that giving learners control over the pace of a presentation can facilitate elaboration and deep processing.  The learner benefits from being able to pause, rewind,  or replayaudio or video, for example.  This allows them to pause and reflect on the new information

For recurrent tasks, vM&K say that procedural information must be available when it’s needed, and in small enough units to be helpful.  Step 7 touched on the problem of split attention.  Other principles for online help include signaling (e.g., explaining a process step-by-step; highlighting parts in an engine repair) and modality (using two modes for presenting information, such as an audio explanation of a detailed blueprint.

Finally, part-task practice benefits from media that support small-step, drill-and-practice techniques that lead to automaticity.

CC-licensed image of BVE train simulator by Alan_D.

In this series...<< Previous post Next post >>