Does learning content differ from learning processes?

Planning for Learning

Fair Warning: I don't know yet whether learning content differs from learning processes. There are no answers here, just more questions exploring whether traditional instructional design models can accommodate all.

Connectivist Learning blurs the line between teachers and students in a community of interconnected learners and ideas.

Connectivist Learning blurs lines between teachers & students in a community of interconnected learners & ideas.

Whether we are traditional sage on the stage lecturers, or constructivist minded creators of learning environments, planning is an essential element of an educator's craft. Instructional design models emerged in the 1940s as a way to standardize outcomes, to ensure a predictable product with known characteristics. Design models served to create an effective and efficient model for optimizing learning experiences, delivering content, and assessing achievement. While instructional design as a thoughtful and thorough creation of learning activities, the methods by which it is implemented need to evolve to accommodate emerging technologies.

Acknowledging the symbiotic relationship between tools and the context in which they are used, we must also consider how learning environments and experiences have to change to accommodate significant changes to learning technologies. Traditional instructional design models are challenged by radical changes to the way education is delivered, or, more appropriately, the way people are leaning. Constructivist approaches to learning invite self-directed, self-paced, open exploration and understandings that grow out of the individuals own epistemology. That is not to say that everyone gets to determine what is right and wrong, rather it suggests that there are as many ways to acquire knowledge and understanding as there are people in the world. Constructivism seems to me an unleashing rather than a harnessing of intellectual effort. It broadens the scope of observation while encouraging creativity and diversity in engagement.

Learning to Plan in a Different Context

Massively Open Online Courses (MOOCs) are new models of program delivery that necessarily break from traditional models of instructional design. Larry Cuban observes that while initial attempts at MOOCs merely transplanted traditional lecture-based models of teaching into a digital space, some efforts are leveraging the unique capabilities of online learning environments to create entirely new models of learning.

...where students learn from one another, form online communities, crowd-source answers to problems, create networks that distribute learning in ways that seldom occur in bricks-and-mortar colleges and universities. In other words, student-centered or learner-centered pedagogy.

 points to this shift from individual constructivism to collaborative connectivism where community and content are part and parcel of learning. Traditional instructional design processes like Dick & Carey's are taken over by the learner with support and guidance from the instructor. In this way the learner comes to understand the processes by which to learn, rather than simply receiving content. Courses establish a framework within which the learner achieves his own learning goals. Stephen Downes, in a Huffington Post article notes that, "...the process of taking the course is itself much more important than the content participants may happen to learn...". He clarifies that content itself isn't irrelevant, but "serves merely as a catalyst, a mechanism for getting our projects, discussions and interactions off the ground."

More Questions

Connectivist learning systems change the teacher's role from deliverer of content to learning guide - instructor of learning processes. But is this change great enough to warrant an entirely new system of instructional design? Isn't learning still learning whether the focus is content or process? Wouldn't an instructional design framework be able to focus on outcomes related to learning as well as content specific outcomes?Does the context in which learning take place really make that much of a difference? Whatever the case, it is a fascinating time to be part of education.

Feel free to post answers, or just more questions.


  1. Thanks for your post. I'm part of the ETMOOC myself. I use maps and graphics to add two additional dimensions to the idea of learning and process. One of these is "place" and the other is "time". If we map poverty demographics we can identify places where access to learning as well as learning supports, are lower than in other places. A learning MOOC could have people who focus on the distribution of learning opportunities. The element of "time" is a second concept. It takes time to master any knowledge. Gladwell wrote about 10,000 hours of practice needed to become an expert in something. It takes 12 years for a youth to move from 1st grade through high school graduation. Youth in high poverty areas without the same level of supports as kids in more affluent areas would require more help, over longer periods of time, to assure greater numbers are staying in school and graduating, and are prepared for college or a life of learning. I hope in the ETMOOC I'll find designers who are visualizing these concepts and that I can connect with them in months beyond the ETMOOC.

    • milesmac says:

      Now THERE'S some data driven decision making. There are unique characteristics to MOOCs that could effectively be leveraged to address access to education. Feels like a step toward the kind of self-directed, self-paced learning journies many of us are hoping to see.

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