12 Building Blocks to Use Learning Technologies Effectively – Building Block 2: Give Clear, Structured, and Challenging Instruction

The world is in the grip of the corona virus. Schools are closing and people are urged to work from home if possible. Education institutions and organisations alike are trying to figure out how to help their students or workers learn while at home. At this point, they’re forced to redesign their current offerings from face-to-face to digital at a distance. Although there are many pitfalls (redesign from in-person to virtual requires a careful design process), we thought it might be helpful to give some tips & tricks. Wilfred Rubens, a friend / colleague has recently written some useful blogs in Dutch and has kindly agreed to allow us to translate them to English. They’re all based on the wijze lessenbook ‘Wijze lessen. Twaalf bouwstenen voor effectieve didactiek’ (‘Lessons for Learning: 12 Building Blocks for Effective Teaching’ which is at this very moment being translated into English), written by Tim Surma, Kristel Vanhoyweghen, Dominique Sluijsmans, Gino Kamp, Daniel Muijs and Paul A. Kirschner.

In the book, Surma and his co-authors, discuss how to teach effectively using twelve evidence-informed instruction principles. Wilfred saw an opportunity to elaborate on the building blocks by teasing out the relationship between each building block and learning technologies. He published 12 blogs – one for each building block – in which he explained how learning technologies can be used to facilitate and strengthen the relevant building block (you can find the original blogs here).[1]

As announced in our first blog from March 17 (St Paddy’s Day in Ireland!), we (Mirjam and Paul) are now collaborating with ExCEL, the Expertise Centre for Effective Learning at Thomas More University of Applied Sciences in Mechelen, Belgium where Paul A. Kirschner is guest professor and Tim Surma and Kristel Vanhoyweghen (also authors of the book) are researchers. Together with Tine Hoof, also a researcher of ExCEL, we’ll translate the 12 building blocks, and how learning technology can strengthen them, into English.

Surma and his co-authors state:

Spend time on clear, structured, and challenging instruction. If learners don’t understand what needs to be learned, we have a problem. Well-defined learning phases and goals provide the learner with structure. Challenging goals and a good tempo in a warm learning climate motivates them.

Learning technologies can help you, the instructor/facilitator, implement this building block:

  • Digital learning environments are often good in providing very structured instruction. In 2012, Gerard van den Boom of the Open University of the Netherlands (now retired) wrote a white paper entitled ‘Ontwerpen met modellen’ [Designing with models]. In that white paper he described a number of alternative design approaches to what he and his colleagues call an ‘electronic workbook’ + source-materials model. One variant of this model, for example, is based on study tasks in a workbook that can be carried out using the source materials. Its structure could be:
    • Introduce the task
    • Provide core tasks that the learner must carry out making use of the source-materials. Use:
      • modelling/explanation
      • examples
      • assignments
    • Wrap up the task

Other variations as suggested by Van den Boom are using part tasks, themes, blocks, or study advice as a basis. He also describes a number of other specific educational / instructional approaches (such as the 4C/ID model or problem-based learning) which largely structure and control the learning process. The electronic workbook provides the structure for a learning program within the digital learning environment. It contains the goals, tasks, assignments, instruction, etc that you, as instructor/facilitator have decided upon for what needs to be learned. The electronic workbook also provides the learner with both a quick overview and structure. It’s critical to keep in mind to NOT put the tasks, assignments, etc. of multiple study units and groups of learners within one structure. This quickly becomes confusing for learners.

  • In ‘Lessons for Learning’, the authors emphasise the importance of clear communication. When using learning technologies, this is extra important. If you don’t communicate clearly – for example what the goal of an assignment is – you risk creating ‘noise’ and confusion. Moreover, if the communication isn’t clear, you as instructor/facilitator will get many questions about the confusion you caused which will cause you additional work. Usually, with face-to-face learning, confusion in your class is easy to see and you can quickly correct it. However, when it comes to online learning, and especially when it’s asynchronous, confusion quickly leads to turmoil and frustration.
  • Advance organisers play an important role in structuring the course of instruction and learning. In the first building block (Activating Relevant Prior Knowledge), you can read how you can design advance organisers with learning technology.
  • One of the tips in ‘Lessons for Learning’ is: Give or request brief interim summaries when closing a learning phase. You can do this with short videos, podcasts, infographics, mind maps, or regular written summaries. These can be made by learners or by you.
  • Surma and his co-authors advocate learning in small steps, up to the point that learners master the necessary knowledge and skills to move on to the next/higher step [us: mastery learning]. You can do this, for example, through adaptive testing. In that case, learners complete exercises and only move to the next topic or higher level when they have exhibited mastery. You can also use podcasts or videos for this. Donald Clark recently wrote a nice blog on using video for learning. He suggests that instructional videos should not exceed 6 minutes. In addition, he rightly argues for combining videos with other learning activities. Today, there are also applications that allow you to alternate videos with questions while watching the video [us: a kind of adjunct question]. When using online video, you have a choice of several formats (from a short instruction to ‘modelling’ (demonstrating actions, for example). 360-degree videos also offer opportunities to bring in more authenticity. An advantage of using learning technologies such as podcasting or online video is also that learners can learn at their own pace.
  • You can also use serious games to provide challenging instruction. Going to higher levels is an integral part of playing a game. Learners are then given instructions in the game and carry out tasks. Such serious games are particularly suitable for developing skills. Virtual reality is increasingly being used for this.
  • With this building block, the book authors indicate that extra support in the form of (peer) tutoring is also important for giving clear instruction. Learning technology can also play a role here. Think, for example, of an online Q&A in between virtual synchronous meetings, when learners are ‘busy’ processing the instruction. Such an online Q&A can take place via synchronous online communication (e.g., BlueJeans, Skype, Zoom). You can also consider an online collaboration environment where learners can ask questions to each other via messaging. A final example is the use of chatbots for online tutoring. The learner asks a question, and the chatbot answers immediately. This application can be used, for example, for routine questions but also for developing learning strategies. Thanks to AI, these applications can also become ‘smarter’.
  • Tim Surma and his co-authors also emphasise the importance of a warm and safe learning climate. Often times, learning with learning technology is seen as cold, impersonal, or ‘distant’. However, you can promote a good learning climate when using learning technology. For example, you can facilitate learner interactions between synchronous meetings through messaging or video calls. You can also let learners establish a relationship between the personal situation and the subject matter, for example via blog assignments. One sample question to illustrate how to help learners connect what they learn to their personal life: What is the most important celebration for you or your religion, and how is it celebrated? Lastly, you can ask learners to fill in a profile within the digital learning environment so that they learn more about each other (hobbies, certain characteristics, and so forth).

As indicated in the first contribution: every learning technology has strengths and weaknesses. In these blogs, I [Wilfred Rubens] only describe the possibilities.

Previous: Activating Relevant Prior Knowledge

Next up: Using Examples

[1] Note: These blogs don’t take criteria/requirements for selection of learning technologies into consideration (including costs). It’s always wise to first consider which learning technologies your organisation already has and which are also supported. The different tools or functionalities all have strengths and weaknesses. In general, you always need to explore the properties and make a conscious choice. In any case, always take the General Data Protection Regulation into account.

6 thoughts on “12 Building Blocks to Use Learning Technologies Effectively – Building Block 2: Give Clear, Structured, and Challenging Instruction

  1. Oliver Brown says:

    Thank you for sharing. I teach students in primary school and my students are really active in class. But when we go to online, the engagement is not good. I will try those and see if the engagement can be better.


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