Do you want to manage your blended programmes better? Do you want to provide better pathways for your learners within your blends?
It’s hard for anyone to say ‘No’ to those questions.
The problem is that many online learning environments seem to hinder these plans driven by old and inflexible models of learner management that confuse or confine the learner. The unfortunate truth is that most learning management systems over the years have grown unwieldy and unmaintained. So what seemed a logical and clear structure when set up can become a complex maze.
This building metaphor is actually quite relevant and you will soon find out why.
If we imagine that all our lovely learning resources are a combination of people and things you can meet in a building, our goal has to be to make the architecture of our building perfectly aligned to the needs of everyone who visits it.
But everyone is different…
The problem is we are all very different. Even using the simple Honey and Mumford model of learning styles (Theorist, Activist, Pragmatist and Reflector) we can see there are very different preferred learning paths.
Put very simply these could be:
But, it’s not just their personality that matters. Their learning requirements will also vary from those who are simply browsing to those who are on a formal qualification path. If it is an informal path, they are likely to want to set their own agenda and so it is a user-controlled experience. If however, they are doing this because someone has told them to (a classic compliance situation) or they want to get a qualification, they will need and expect some form of pre-ordained structure.
So, if we layer on the type of learner with their natural learning style, we have a pretty complicated matrix of learners to cater for:
What exactly is the best learning architecture for these very different requirements?
Well, initially you have to make a distinction between the user-controlled, information requirements and the structured, more formal learning needs.
If the key driver is information-giving, then the building needs to be as open and accessible as possible – like a museum where you really can’t second guess what a visitor will want to see.
So, you need to have an entrance area that’s really clear and easy, to ensure the rooms are easy to navigate and move around. Translating this to a learning equivalent, this suits very open, multi-path blends such as product portals or new starter orientation. Here’s an example from one of our clients in the publishing and logistics industry that has been built using Totara:
The next example is a site created for Levi, here you can see a similar open structure with a more ‘web-like’ approach. By using a wide variety of imagery and presentation styles, no option stands out more than another. Thus leaving it up to the learner to choose what takes their fancy.
This can be applied to topics that might normally be handled in quite a structured way. If learners are still in a ‘browser’ mode, it still needs to be presented in a user-controlled, more open fashion.
Let’s look at an example for City & Guilds, here we produced an upfront menu page just like this for a comprehensive set of food and drink learning resources. It was designed for open exploration with structure defined within the mandatory and non-mandatory content:
If your aim is to improve knowledge and skills (especially within a more formal curriculum), the route through the building needs to be very different; with a natural path that most visitors should take as well as structured experiences. A great example of this, in the world of architecture, is an airport terminal where the best designed spaces take passengers through a natural flow from checking in to boarding the plane. You complete one task and there is your next stage in the process straight ahead of you.
There is a very natural flow within a skills development programme or qualification such as an apprenticeship. The learners are given a flow through the whole programme and most will follow that path as it will be the natural way to build on their growing knowledge as they move through the course. The learning needs to be more linear with a succession of interlinked and often sequential components.
A good example of this approach is this digital learning experience (which includes a wide range of methods) to support apprenticeships programmes as shown below. This blend lasts 12 months so it has to be a natural flow from topic to topic. It has been very successful as it makes the whole experience really straightforward and takes the stress out of managing the journey both from a learner and management point of view.
So, how do you control AND open up blends?
If you're clever though you can cater for everyone just through a simple set of clear options that offer either an open exploration path or a recommended structured one. This can be a diagnostic to determine the user’s preferences, learning needs, role or just a simple presentation of choices. Here’s another Totara example which allows the user to get a carefully selected set of learning resources (according to their profile) or just lets them wander around the wide range of components on offer:
Can a single LMS page layout suit all those learning styles and requirements?
What if you have to accommodate everyone within a single LMS page?
Well, it's never going to be perfect, but look at how each of those four Honey and Mumford learning styles might use the same LMS page (and what the LMS designer would need to do to accommodate their preferences better).
What does all this mean?
The highly structured LMS models that have blighted corporates over the years creates an equally extreme model of very open exploratory learning experiences. As always we hop from one extreme to another. We need to strike a balance between the two so we get the best of both worlds.
You can follow a ‘resources not courses’ mantra but if you don’t think carefully how these are structured and presented to your learners, you’ll have a vast array of loosely linked learning opportunities with no intuitive learner journey that makes it all work. And of course, you’ll need an LMS that gives you the flexibility to create different learner journeys for different users, and enables you to customise the look and feel, like Totara. There’s no point coming up with highly empathetic blend that accommodates multiple learning styles if your LMS insists on one size fits all.
Excellent blended learning environments must try to match the vast array of learning styles and levels of knowledge out there in your target audience. By providing a range of well signposted paths and not just relying on the learner’s natural exploratory instincts.
So why not take a second look at your LMS and ask yourself these simple questions:
- How well do you provide both a user-controlled and structured learning experience for your learners?
- How many of your learners actually get an experience that matches their needs and preferences?
By asking yourself those two simple questions you might find that it could be a good time for a review and a bit of a refit.