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Who Steers the Ship? The Impact of Learner Control on eLearning.

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Who should be in control of your eLearning course—the learners or the instructor? Which will result in more effective learning?

That’s a much more complicated question than it appears. Many say that allowing online learners to influence aspects of the learning process gives them a sense of autonomy that increases motivation and engagement. Learners love having control over the course experience—after all, they are used to the internet, where they are free to wander through sites at their own pace, click on content that interests them, and walk away from the computer when they feel like it. Why take that freedom away from them just because they’re doing an online training?

But here’s the problem: do your learners really know the best way to navigate information? Are they seeking a satisfying experience, or an effective learning experience?

It’s tricky because you want learners to be engaged, but you may not always be able to trust them to make the right choices for the best learning. So we ask again: who should be in control of your eLearning course?

Examples of learner control versus instructor control

In the seminal book E-learning and the Science of Instruction, Ruth Clark and Richard Mayer outline three types of learner control:

  • Content sequencing – being able to move through the course in a non-linear way (e.g., beginning with Chapter 8 because it looks most interesting)
  • Pacing – pausing, reviewing, or setting the speed at which they complete the materials
  • Access to learning support – being able to choose whether or not to see examples, definitions, and other resources

A learner-controlled course might be an asynchronous self-paced module in which the learner advances through the slides by clicking a “next” button; is able to pause, rewind, and re-watch a video; and selects the topics she wants to learn first from a menu. She has the option to click on additional resources if she needs them.

An instructor-controlled example of the same course would be more like a webinar: synchronous, with the instructor delivering a live streamed lecture, or even controlling the learners’ screens via a program like Google Hangouts.

4 principles for learner control

Clark and Mayer recommend four principles for designing an effective learner-controlled course:

  1. Always let learners set the pace for learning. Learners read at different speeds, absorb information differently, and have different schedules for eLearning. Honoring those needs gives them the best chance to learn the material well.
  1. Give advanced learners more control. “High learners” (those who already have some knowledge of the subject) typically make better learning choices than those who are engaging with a subject for the first time. So if you are designing a series of stepping-stone courses, Level 1 learners may have slightly less control over content sequencing and navigation than those in Level 3.
  1. Make the most important elements of the course part of the default path. If there are parts of the course you definitely want learners to see (such as practice examples), fold them into the default path where they can’t miss it. For example, you might have the practice examples be a content page the user lands on when they click the continue button, rather than a link they can choose to click on (and therefore might miss).
  1. Get rid of one-size-fits-all learning and make learning adaptive. Since learners have different needs, you’re best able to serve all of them in a learning environment that responds to their needs (e.g., branching opportunities that present advanced material and more control to high learners).

When you’re designing a course and deciding what elements to leave for your learners to control, keep chewing on this question: How do learners know what they don’t know? The answer is: They don’t.

In other words, you (as the designer and/or instructor) are the one who knows the most important elements of the course and what should be learned. Assuming your learners have this same knowledge can lead to design mistakes that muddle the learning process. By following the four principles, you are more likely to design an eLearning experience that gives learners the autonomy they want, but still offers the support they need.

Need more ways to increase learner engagement?