Week 2 of #ocTEL has found me flagging somewhat, due to work commitments. However, it has been a great week of reading.

The key question of learning approaches really interests me, as it is something I am very interested in. Different to the ever-controversial learning “styles”, learning approaches are defined in three categories, as listed on the #ocTEL Week 2 page:

Page detailiing 3 approaches to learning

Approaches to Learning


My initial reaction to the question of which approach is best was “Well, deep learning of course, because it is the most “complete””. This is unsurprising as a Philosophy and English graduate:

A little learning is a dangerous thing;
Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring

(Alexander Pope)

However, thinking a little further, I considered – could these approaches actually be a continuum? One starts learning facts, and as they accumulate those facts, they get a bit smarter about what they are learning, they get strategic: targeting the knowledge they need. At some point, if the subject is interesting enough, they will seek to learn and think more deeply about it.  This theory made sense to me, and fit with many experiences (me, people I know, people I have created learning content for, but never met, etc.).

What I find interesting about “Surface” learning is that it corresponds somewhat to learning by rote, which many now consider an awful travesty. However, in my own experience, it was worth learning some things by rote. For example (and this is just one), my multiplication tables(!). I use these just about every day. While there are many ways times tables could be made more interesting, I think they survived better without application, as their abstract nature made it easy to apply to many things: hours, time, money, etc. Although, I must confess, my father taught me times tables using a very rhythmic metre, such that they felt more like poems in recital – so this probably helped immensely.

Then, I read #ocTEL activity week 2 : approaches to learning (http://chcoll.wordpress.com)  and my thinking got pushed a little further. The well constructed argument is that strategic learning is perhaps what we should all be aiming for in community situations, as deep learning could mean a whole group learning to follow the interests of deep learners (or indeed switching off when the deeper levels do not interest them). You should read this post, as rather than re-write all the arguments here, I’m just going to refer to them.

The “strategic” learner is pretty much my audience, and has been for my whole career. Working in eLearning development, our learners are often those seeking “Just in time” skills-gap content. They want to get in and out quite quickly, and they want a sense that they have learned enough to do what is required (as a result, one develops towards stated learning objectives, talks about or refers to specific tasks as much as possible, and loads in assessments that will run the gamut from True or False questions to detailed scenario based simulations).  For my own learning, I would notice many situations where I am “strategic”, a simple example might be looking up code for html – not necessarily understanding the complete ins and outs of it, but knowing it will do what I need to get done. An interesting development in the industry is the announcement of the Serious eLearning Manifesto, something I am very interested in, but don’t necessarily agree with fully (I feel it concentrates too much on the strategic – while good for professionals, may not meet the needs of others who need factual or deeper learning, which I feel technology can be developed to provide or at least assist with).

Many would argue eLearning has no place for those seeking “deep” learning, but I would disagree.  I see eLearning (or technology enhanced learning) as a set of tools that can be deployed according to pedagogical principles – the question is not whether, but how. That is not to say it is easy to do. The danger (as outlined in Week 1 of #ocTEL) is that you provide the technology and expect learning to occur. This is why I am doing #ocTEL – to better understand how others, from different disciplines or backgrounds are using technology to provide that deeper learning. All this said, I still agree with the post I linked to a paragraph back: strategic may indeed be the real goal, with “deep” being a bonus.

In my current role, my audience is somewhere between surface, strategic and deep – depending on the specific context and content. Some will just want to know facts (that can be applied elsewhere, or used to inform understanding of something else). The same person can also be strategic in a different context – learning what needs to be known to perform a specific task. In another context, that same person may feel the content we have developed, while informative, hasn’t taken them far enough – so they will go and read articles referenced in the content, and seek out forums and/or wikis to further discuss ideas.

In conclusion, I think we are all working within some kind of dynamic strategy. When I say “we”, I mean “learning designers/facilitators” and “learners”.

As learners (and we are all learners really), we sometimes seek facts to support other information – or just to know. We can also be strategic, outside of the classroom/course setting, learning specific things we need (taking facts, and applying them to tasks). But as we learn facts and assemble them strategically, we start to see connections, similarities or the rationale, which leads to a deeper learning.

As learning designers, we’re trying to assist the deepest required learning for people. This could be provision of facts (if that’s what they want to come and get, we can certainly hang it out, ready to be taken), or something more strategic (which as I think I’ve said is perhaps what we should aim for: an understanding that allows for action), as well as providing a gateway for deeper learning.


Week 1, and I have already found #ocTEL quite challenging!

This is a good thing, as this is the reason for my taking the course. It begins with the Week 1 Webinar (on Strategies for Learning Technology), which I would recommend for anyone in learning technology or instructional design. Kyriaki Anagnostopoulou (University of Bath) and James Little (University of Leeds) gave an elegant account of developing and implementing strategy, while also signposting the way to more discovery for learners. It was a bit of a masterclass in using a webinar format to inform and spark further exploration. However, I digress, when I should be getting back to the start.

To start: my current role is very much in developing eLearning content – multimedia, quizzes and assessments – for didactic courses (we are “teaching”, as opposed to guiding/encouraging exploration, which seemed to be the approach focus for the webinar). This is important to point out, as this is where I am coming from when I watched the Week 1 webinar.

My Contribution to Current eLearning Strategy

Currently, I work on two projects, developing interactive eLearning content (developed as courses composed of individual modules; each module is based on a presentation, notes and some in-house research). The audience is composed of junior doctors/surgeons who are seeking to improve their understanding of the theories, concepts and development of surgical interventions.  While we can explain surgical steps, they really learn to perform those steps in the hospitals or clinics where they are working and learning. However, what we provide helps them to understand why certain steps might be taken, what could go wrong (and what to do if something does go wrong), so that better knowledge will (we hope) lead to greater confidence when they begin undertaking these tasks in real life.

I developed the current strategy we are using (this also answers the question on impact of my practice – as it is what I do). I did not do it alone, and could not have done it alone. There was input from me (as an instructional designer, with experience in multimedia and developing assessment) in terms of the type of resources we could provide. This was guided by more senior members of the company I work for, who had great insight into the needs of the audience and what was realistic in terms of managing a project. Once we had put together some ideas (described in more detail below), we took it to some senior surgeons, who helped to further refine it.

Is the Main Focus Learning Technology?

This is where it gets a little controversial. Most people I work with would answer “Yes” to this question (as the learning technology demarcates us from the huge number of videos, articles and other online resources available). For me, the answer is “No”. We are using multimedia development tools to better engage learners – who are, by default, working hard and tired. The purpose is not to “provide multimedia content” but to enhance their professional development by helping to improve not only their knowledge but to deepen their understanding. We work with very experienced Subject Matter Experts (SMEs), who are rich in wisdom, but poor in time. We are trying to connect the audience to the SME. For me, the main focus is the learner, and making the most of the time they can afford (at the time they can afford to spend it). Time is at a premium: for learners and SMEs, today’s schedule is tomorrow’s adjustment. Therefore, preparing content in advance for SMEs to review and edit means they can still reach this audience. For the audience, they will get opinions from surgeons who are at the top of their game, and the head of their field.

Multimedia content, as a strategy, was initially sparked by the person who employed me. The intention then – as now – was to provide something more engaging, that was assessed and accredited (so adding value to taking these courses). They were looking for something quite involved. This is where I come in.

My role was to define the type of content we could use to better engage these doctors – using not just video (by seeing a video, and hearing an explanation of what is going on), and not just reading about it. The idea was to let them better conceptualise what happens during an operation – perhaps (not always) even beyond what can be seen (using animations, diagrams, images) and get them to really think about it (using questions, quizzes and assessment).  A deeper understanding prepares them not only for the tasks they perform, and what to do if anything goes wrong, but also (I hope) to help them think further about the possibilities of the concepts, steps etc they are learning about.

I am quite proud of what we have achieved so far. But the world keeps turning: standing still means you will surely be passed. This is something that crossed my mind as I watched the Week 1 Webinar. While I couldn’t see changes to the specifics of what we are currently doing, I did start thinking about how we might expand the offering. I’m starting to answer the next question. So time for some Bold font and a carriage return.

How often is it reviewed and is it flexible enough to adapt as things change?

The content we develop is updated every 2 years, and we change the content according to any major changes in industry, academia or clinical practice. However, to date, the overall strategy remains the same. This is primarily because we are still working through it (developing courses). The intention is to go on from developing multimedia courses to providing spaces for communities of practice to develop, helping learners connect to each other (but this is a place we have not arrived at yet).

The Week 1 Webinar got me thinking more deeply about this expansion.

  • How can we start providing activities and opportunities for those beyond this career level?
  • Those who may have some experience and want to explore different issues in more detail?
  • Perhaps helping people from different places connect to build knowledge with each other?

Again, I’m getting ahead of myself.

Finally, if you were to provide input to a new version, what, if any, changes would you make to it?

This for me has been the key learning point and key action I can take from the webinar. As I mentioned already, we develop didactic multimedia content; but one of its aims is to get people thinking further.

The strategy now should look to how we take these small sparks (of thinking further) and create something of a fire with them (sorry for the mangled metaphor). Hopefully, those managers, senior surgeons and I can work together again to define ways in which we can:

  • Empower learners to follow their interests but also find new ways of learning and managing their learning
  • Encourage greater conversation between learners so they can find like-minded travellers
  • Enhance collaborative opportunities to allow them space to act upon these

What I learned from the Week 1 Webinar is that this is not a case of: Provide bookmarking services, forums and wikis. The next step is not to provide technology, but to determine (along with the other main stakeholders) where it is our learners should be going and how they want to get there, so that we can provide the right learning technology to help them get there.

I signed up for ocTEL last year, but time ran away from me. After it was over, I thought “Damn, I wish I’d made more time for that”. 

In the meantime, I have continued in my job (developing eLearning for medical specilaists), and every so often think of my learners “Damn I wish they’d make more time for this”. Now that ocTEL is back, so am I. Hopefully with a resolve which will sustain. It is only 7 weeks after all. 

Why am I doing ocTEL?

Working in eLearning (or Technology Enhanced Learning), I find a real strain of the “Shoemakers children”. While we strive to make professional development accessible, useful and applicable for our learners, we rarely take the time to reflect on our own professional development. 

One issue I am painfully aware of myself is my own career trajectory in this regard. Like many I know in the eLearning space, it has been quite a circuitous route.  I’m going to talk about this, but between dashed lines, so that you can skip it if you want. 


I started out working for a large eLearning “shop” (as I called it). I was an instructional designer writing scripts for multimedia content, which was developed into Flash Learning objects and deployed to telecoms engineers to help them learn about and use telecoms hardware and software. In these early days, I was quite content writing up my scripts, suggesting graphical illustrations and interactivities (all of which had been pre-defined) and developing quizzes based on manuals we received from the Company.  I was about a year into the job (and enjoying it, and doing quite well with it) before I actually saw the finished product – the fruits of my labours as it were. How I managed so long, I do not know; but it is an indication of how foreign the development/design side of things was to me then. I saw my job primarily as a writer of scripts. 

During my time there, we went through the dot com crash and some ripples as a result of it. I actually decided to return to college, to take an MA in American Literature. To make money while doing this, I worked as a technical writer on a part time basis. I did OK with this, but my content did lean toward the didactic, rather than the purely informational. I was even then trying to teach through what should have been a manual. So, I took another part time job, but this time as an instructional designer (the first time I had actually heard the term used). This was much more satisfactory. There were 2 instructional designers, working directly with Subject Matter Experts and two graphic/programmers (who were also working part time, on work experience from their degree courses).  We were creating multimedia-based learning intended to explain the mechanisms of various industrial automation bits and pieces. This was a good time, and my colleague and a line manager were very supportive but also quite excited about learning technology. It was this experience that really sparked me into thinking: This should be my career.

Never one to make things easy for myself, I next ended up for a search marketing company, writing copy for online ads and reviewing the copy of ads submitted for online display. The project I had been working for came to a natural end, and at the time, I found it difficult to get work as an instructional designer. But then, the job titles used at that time ran the gamut from “Technical writer” to “Multimedia scripting editor for educational content ” to “instructional designer”, so I probably missed a few opportunities by not understanding what these titles meant. 

Feeling I had done my stint in search marketing, I sought a role as a web editor. The job description demanded 3 references. When I reached out to someone who I had worked with in my first job for a reference, he offered me an interview: he and a friend of his from that first company I worked for had set up their own company. It was a sort of boutique content development company, specialising in eLearning (but also taking care of marketing and other messaging). This role really formed me. I learned about web standards (which at the time seemed to shift every couple of months), learning content, real multimedia development (when I wrote design notes in scripts, people came back! They asked: Is this what you meant? I couldn’t believe it). While in this role, I had experience with Rapid eLearning tools (specifically Articulate, but also others), as well as podcasting, video development, online resource development, and collaborative learning. At the time all these things were in their infancy as learning technologies, and it was great to be working in a company with the imagination to really try to use them and use them well. The key lesson I learned from the guys I worked for here was: everything you do should have a purpose. I carry this with me to this day.

Unfortunately, 2008 rolled around, and it was like someone slammed on the brakes. With the inertia built up, I was flung through the windscreen of my job and landed on the side of the road, where I did some contract work to keep the bills paid. 

Then, about 4 years ago, I saw an ad for the job I am currently in. A medical society were seeking someone to manage the development of eLearning. I thought “I can manage the development of eLearning. Can’t I?” Really, it turned out they needed someone to just create the eLearning, and they wanted multimedia content. Well, with my experience using Rapid eLearning tools and Moodle, I said “Yes, I *can* manage the development of eLearning”.


For the past 4 years, I have been developing learning content for medical specialists. We develop using Articulate tools, and presentations given by medical specialists. Some research is also required, but the idea is to create highly interactive, multimedia content that is laden down with quizzes (medical graduates like being tested. A lot).  Our content is designed specifically to prepare medical specialists to take more hands-on learning (i.e. to give them the background, theory, explanations of what they are doing and why).  I am interested in the “Serious eLearning Manifgesto”, which was launched recently, but note that our content would not meet its exacting standards (specifically, making the learning more practical – we can’t do this, as most people are not willing to be operated upon by someone who has learned a procedure from eLearning). However, our feedback indicates that the content we are developing is helping people to better understand the various interventions they are learning to do in practice, why they must be done and how various pitfalls arise. My understanding is that our learners use the content we build as a complement to text books (which don’t test them) and lectures they attend (which may be recorded, but don’t ask too much of them in terms of engagement). They enjoy the engagement, the challenges of quizzes, the “fun” of interactivities and/or animations that explain various mechanisms. 

As I have concentrated on this sphere of multimedia-based eLearning development, I note from reading blogs and articles that the eLearning world is moving in different directions:

In terms of what we do with technology, some talk about instructional design moving into a more “curation” based area (gathering, assessing and providing digital assets such as podcasts, videos, PDFs, etc.); others see eLearning as becoming communities of practice, sharing information and experiences and gathering the same when required. Many still see multimedia as having a role.  Mostly, you hear of a mix of all of these things.

In terms of how we do what we do – this (it seems to me) has become much more fractured. Should we be teaching didactically? (I know I have to right now), should we encourage exploration? Should we mix these things. Should we just provide tools and allow learners to find their own path (as ocTEL does)? What is best? 

In terms of how we measure our outcomes – the debate here ranges wildly, because people forget that (ideally) content will be tailored to specific audiences, so there are calls that all eLearning should be measured in workplace improvement. Sounds great, unless you develop eLearning for 6 year olds. Or “All eLearning should be measured by standardised tests”, also good, unless you are trying to get people to think critically – then you need a human to determine how well that critical thinking has occurred. “No eLearning should be tested based on facts: only on application of information”, again, good, unless the specific sphere calls for an understanding of specific facts. 

For me, what is best is answered quite simply as “What is best for the learners”. However, this is not so simple, when learners may not be aware of the opportunities available to them.  One thing I like to reference here are stupid Facebook memes. I saw two beside each other the other day. One was basically “What should I do?; Let them tell you!” and the other was Henry Ford saying if he asked his customers what they wanted, they would have said “A faster horse”. I think we may be at this crossroads in Technology Enhanced Learning: determining the best way to provide learning experiences (or to direct learners to it), while the boundaries of possibility are broken around us every day.

So, why AM I doing ocTEL?

I want to catch up with the developments in other areas.  I need to better understand other approaches other people are taking to engage their learners, and better understand their experiences (as learners and those providing the learning experience).

The Experience (Tin Can) API has really ignited my imagination about what learning can be into the future, and I want to be fully prepared to exploit the potential of learning anywhere/everywhere. I should add, my fundamental starting position is that we are all learning, all the time. For me pedagogy is about designing learning experiences that can capture and enhance this natural instinct. 

By taking part in ocTEL this year, I want to engage myself further in the benefits, challenges and drawbacks of different methods of Technology Enhanced Learning.