Learning activities are critical components of a learning experience. Learning activities engage students in the learning process and support them with achieving the intended learning outcomes. Very often though, these activities are targeted at the acquisition of subject matter knowledge, and not enough on the development of skills and competencies necessary for solving real life challenges. Unless learners are quite clear about why they are doing an activity, and how it is linked with their real-life situations, it would be neither meaningful, nor useful for them. Thus, design of learning activities with a clear purpose and supported with a strong theoretical view of how learning occurs, is essential to help development of critical competencies of learners. This is certainly a challenging task!
This piece attempts to provoke educators' thinking about contextual issues and challenges faced in designing learning experiences. A critical analysis of design challenges in relation to pedagogy, technology, and content is presented based on theoretical aspects as well as my own experiences as an educator in an open and distance learning (ODL) higher education institution (HEI) in Sri Lanka for three decades. A series of authentic "scenarios" have been included to stimulate reflective thinking of educators and those in the field to relate these issues in their own contexts, and to engage in a meaningful discussion on how best to manage such challenges.
Designing meaningful learning experiences
The development of knowledge is a product of the learning situation and learning activity embedded in the context and culture in which it is developed and used (Lave & Wenger, 1990). Learning is best seen as a situated cognitive activity that occurs in social, cultural and physical contexts (Brown et al., 1989). Accordingly, a productive learning experience takes place only if learning is situated in a meaningful context within the culture and the community in which learners live and/or work, and when they engage in knowledge construction through contextualised learning activities.
This fundamental conceptualisation of learning provides a strong theoretical base for teachers to design learning experiences with purposeful learning activities embedded in authentic scenarios, where learners will engage in solving real-life, problem-solving tasks. As emphasised in the first principles of instruction (Merrill, 2018), meaningful learning happens when learners are presented with real-world problems.
Accordingly, learning is promoted through problem-centred instruction, activation, demonstration, application and integration (see Figure 1).
Innovative pedagogical approaches as well as technological advancements facilitate educators to become designers of meaningful learning experiences. Technologies, which are referred to as cognitive tools (Jonassen & Reeves, 1996) will support situated learning when tasks for the application of these technologies are linked with realistic and meaningful contexts. The design of learning activities where learners use such cognitive tools to construct their knowledge is a creative process. This essentially requires an appropriate merging of subject matter content, pedagogical approaches, and technology integration (Mishra & Koehler, 2006) within the learning experience design (see Figure 2).
Some critical questions to consider when designing meaningful learning experiences are:
- What sort of learning activities will make students actively engage in the learning process?
- What type of learning resources/materials will enrich the learning experience?
- To what extent these activities and materials are authentic, interactive, and motivating?
- How would they cater to diverse learning needs?
- How can it be ensured that they are contextually relevant and culturally appropriate for the learners?
- How best can technology be effectively integrated to enhance the learning process?
Finding answers to these questions pose design challenges to educators which require careful decision-making. The choices made by educators may depend on a variety of factors. Context plays a significant role in influencing these design choices of educators about the learning activities, processes and materials. I will unpack the context first, before diving into the three design challenges: pedagogy, technology, and content.
Contextual issues in designing learning experiences
The teaching-learning process is a complex system of human activity. It involves the creation of dynamic learning environments to support student engagement in diverse learning activities. Critical design considerations of the learning activities such as relevance, diversity, and inclusivity can be well addressed by ensuring authenticity in the learning experiences.
Authentic tasks are inherent in situated learning environments (Herrington, 2006; Herrington et al., 2010). In addition to connecting with real-world contexts, authentic activities can also be integrated across the curriculum, providing appropriate levels of complexity and thus allowing students to select appropriate levels of their involvement (Jonassen, 1991). In fact, authenticity does not happen independently with the learner, the learning task, or the learning environment, but in the dynamic interactions among these various components (Barab et al., 2000). Accordingly, I make my point with some scenario building where I address some contextual issues in designing meaningful learning experiences.
Scenario 1 - Authentic learning
Scenario 1 presents an example of a learning experience designed to activate learners in a professional development programme by situating them in a real-world issue through an authentic scenario-based video and posing a challenge which is consequently linked with relevant learning activities.
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Look for alternative resource materials to traditional proprietary materials to be used in staff development/training programmes, and develop a strategy for adopting resources that are cost-free and open for customisation to the local conditions, just as effective in achieving objectives. You have been asked to present a robust and workable solution to the next programme committee meeting to convince the management that it is a viable way forward. So, where would you start to look?
[Adapted from: CPDMOOCs, OUSL (2018)]
Can you reflect on a challenging scenario in your own educational context and think about how you could design an authentic learning experience around that situation for your learners?
Addressing disparities and marginality
Disparities and marginality faced by learners in terms of economical, socio-cultural or other contextual issues can be positively addressed by making the learning experiences authentic. Teachers should make necessary adaptations to the learning experience designs, addressing the specific contextual needs such as accessibility, multilingualism, gender responsiveness and cultural representation. The use of technologies to immerse learners in multimodal learning environments with flexible choices can support different contextual needs of learners. For instance, provision of multilingual options using text/audio/video in learning environments to help non-native speakers of English, and the use of assistive technologies for differently abled students to support inclusive learning will cater for learner diversities and contextual variations. Even the use of specific examples, images, and terminology in the learning activities and learning resources are important considerations to address contextual differences. Some of the commonly used assistive technologies employed to help differently abled students include recognition software, conversion software, and assistive listening software.
Identifying the essential need to develop support systems to equalise the opportunities for students with disabilities in universities and work towards ensuring their rights to access higher education, measures are being taken to promote inclusive education in Sri Lankan universities (Yatigammana et al., 2021).
Adopting a Universal Design for Learning (UDL) approach to teaching and learning will provide all students equal opportunity to succeed (CAST, 2018). By using a variety of teaching methods, flexible learning activities and materials that can be adjusted for everyone’s strengths and contextual needs, UDL can minimise barriers to learning and benefit all learners. It is indeed a challenging task, yet achievable, with careful thinking, creative planning and appropriate decision-making. Design challenges faced by educators can be deliberated in relation to pedagogy, technology and content.
Scenario 2 - Assistive technologies
In Scenario 2, Janaka, a student following the completion of the degree of Master of Education in special needs education programme at the Open University of Sri Lanka (OUSL) shared his experiences in using assistive technologies to overcome the challenges faced by him during his studies.
Listen to an audio recording from a visually impaired student at OUSL: (2:11 mins)
Here, think of various challenges faced by differently-abled students pursuing their higher studies. How can universities support them?
Design challenges: Pedagogy
Meaningful learning is a complex process involving a blend of active, constructive, cooperative, authentic, and intentional learning (Jonassen et al., 1999). These key attributes of learning are critical influences on how individuals learn successfully (see Figure 3).
To experience meaningful and authentic learning, learners must have appropriate and adequate opportunities not just to access information but to explore, experience, understand, interpret and use the information/knowledge in their real life. This is a constructivist view of learning. A constructivist approach to the teaching-learning process is based on the belief that learning occurs through active engagement of learners in a process of meaning-making by themselves rather than passively receiving information. This perspective promotes a process approach to learning where learners would be immersed in meaningful learning experiences designed to encourage their knowledge construction through inquiry, imagination, action, invention, interaction and reflection. The specific needs of the learners within their cultural, socio-economic and social contexts should be taken into consideration in the design of learning experiences.
Scenario 3 - Student interaction
As an example, catering to the needs of working adult learners studying through the distance mode of learning in an HEI would require specific considerations. Scenario 3 presents an excerpt from a reflective story of practitioners which describes real life challenges faced by adult learners studying in an ODL HEI.
…Our students are teachers or other categories in the field of Education. They sometimes face situational barriers such as poor learning environments and lack of time to attend the day schools and engage with the self-study print materials…they have to cope with the demands of studies, home, and work. This leads to challenges such as the learners’ ability to integrate the demands of off-campus study with family, work, and social commitments. They experience feelings of isolation and stress…which may eventually lead to non-completion of the study programme…Students need continuous interactions with their peers…to reduce the sense of isolation, which is a characteristic of ODL…The relatively infrequent face-to-face interactions between the instructors and the students has brought many challenges…therefore, it is essential for these student teachers following the course to have more opportunities for interactions than it is possible in the primarily print-based distant learning…
Adapted from: Gonsalkorala et al. (2014, pp. 125-127)
Can you propose how best a course could be redesigned to support meaningful learning of adult learners in the scenario while addressing the specific learning needs and challenges faced by them?
Authentic learning scenarios
Designing and developing meaningful learning environments entails creativity and imagination of educators beyond just having expert knowledge of the subject matter content. Innovative pedagogical approaches based on theories of learning, models and frameworks provide guidance in this regard.
Situated pedagogical designs such as scenario-based learning (Naidu et al., 2017) offer meaningful opportunities for learners to engage with learning in real-life, problem-solving contexts. By situating and immersing learners in authentic learning scenarios, they are challenged to face real-life issues. This process will involve a series of steps (See Figure 4).
The process begins with our commitments to the learners by identifying the key competencies to be developed and the related learning outcomes. Next, most importantly, we need to recognise the specific context in which learning will take place and develop goal-based scenarios. These scenarios will afford the best opportunities for learners to acquire the identified competencies via the learning activities and assessment tasks embedded within them and supported with learning resources. This is an iterative process – much like an “Engine for Education” (Schank & Cleary, 1995). It will lead to the design of effective, efficient and engaging (e3) learning experiences (Merril, 2013).
When learners are engaged in pursuing and solving real-world challenges in authentic learning scenarios via situated learning, they get opportunities to deal with a variety of tasks focused on increasing complexity. Learners are scaffolded to engage in these tasks and learning will happen through cognitive apprenticeship (Collins et al., 1989), where cognitive skills are developed under the guidance of an expert practitioner. Further, we should not forget that learning is a social process. When learners engage in authentic learning experiences collaboratively and cooperatively through social interactions, it will also contribute to meaningful learning (Figure 5). Design and development of meaningful learning experiences require optimising the affordances not only of the pedagogy but also of the technology.
Design challenges: Technology
Engagement in meaningful learning with technology can support the development of higher order cognitive skills such as critical thinking, analytical thinking, creativity as well as collaborative and communicative skills of learners. Development of these skills will empower them to function as responsible and productive individuals in the 21st Century (Figure 6).
While the integration of technologies enhances the teaching-learning process, meaningful learning will occur when the focus is on learning with technology as cognitive tools instead of using technology as mere delivery tools (Jonassen et al., 2008). Learning experience designs in which technologies are effectively integrated to engage learners in exploring, modelling, designing, communicating and community building will support learning in authentic contexts, and lead to meaningful learning. However, the contextual needs to play in key role in integrating technology into learning.
Scenario 4 - Integrating technology
Scenario 4 presents an excerpt from a reflective story of a group of educators which describes real life challenges faced by them when designing a technology-integrated course for adult learners in an HEI.
“How can we make our learners active participants in a journey of technology integration?” This was the immediate query that arose among our team…when we were entrusted with the mission of designing and developing a professional development course for educators with ICT and OER integration. Our target group is teachers and teacher educators, who are mature-age learners, often observed to be reluctant in using new technologies, and facing difficulties in the transition towards the adoption of technology in teaching and learning. We thought hard, discussed, debated, and agreed that a ‘change’ is needed. We were determined to move forward, whatever the obstacles that may be encountered by us…Initially we felt, that we too were still trapped within a cell of conventional thinking. So, the starting point definitely required repositioning ourselves as radical thinkers and open-minded professionals to break away from this …Our driving forces were nothing else but confidence, determination, and potentials available within us…
Adapted from: Karunanayaka et al. (2014, p. 93)
Reflecting on your own experiences, can you suggest what technological design strategies would be most appropriate to adopt in a situation as described in the scenario below?
Online learning and the digital divide
The affordances of web technologies help facilitate the effective integration of authentic activities in online learning (Herrington et al., 2010). The online delivery mode, as well as the increasing range of digital tools, provide many opportunities for teachers to create innovative learning experiences. The COVID-19 pandemic compelled educators and students globally to rapidly shift to the online mode of teaching and learning. On the one hand, this compulsion has inspired educators to design various forms of online and digital learning experiences. On the other hand, it has raised concerns about equity and equality. Being mindful about the prevailing digital divide, in terms of access, devices, connectivity and cost, as well as digital literacy, teachers need to plan alternative strategies to enable participation of all learners in technology-enhanced learning processes. Moving from fully online learning to a blended, hybrid or a hyflex mode of learning are alternate options to bridge the gaps of digital divide. For instance, hyflex (hybrid-flexible) courses which offer alternative participation modes accessible to all learners, provide diverse activities yet leading to equivalent learning outcomes (Beatty, 2014). When learning activities and resources are offered with flexible options including in-person, synchronously online, asynchronously online, and other means using low-tech options, students are allowed to decide how to participate in the learning process depending on their contextual conditions.
Scenario 5 - Accessing the internet
Scenario 5 presents a section of an ADB survey report which describes real life challenges of access to the internet faced by teachers and students in online learning in Sri Lanka’s HEI during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Mobile data was critical, and all internet service providers in Sri Lanka provided free access to university web servers during COVID-19 until 17 August 2020, boosting online education. But most students still had concerns over affordability and stability of internet access. Mobile broadband was used by 78% of students in state, and 69% in nonstate institutions. About half of faculty respondents reported using mobile data (57% in state, and 49% in nonstate institutions). Almost half of surveyed students responded that mobile data plans were not affordable, or somewhat affordable. Poor internet connection was the top challenge faculty and students faced during online learning. More than 70% of students, 68% of faculty in state institutions, and 76% of faculty in nonstate institutions faced connection issues during online teaching and learning. One faculty member remarked that “students walk several hundred meters to get [a] somewhat decent signal”. Respondents reported disruptions in internet access caused by power outages in some areas. Without a stable, high-speed internet connection, student engagement and performance assessments were even more challenging, particularly for faculty.
Hayashi et al. (2020, p. 6)
Do you see any similar issues in your own context, and can you suggest alternative design strategies that can be adopted by educators to minimise the effect of such issues on student learning?
Design challenges: Content
A curriculum is more than the subject matter content. The content of any teaching-learning situation should not be just information packs to be delivered or transmitted to students by the teachers. It should be more about how the information will be learned by the students through meaningful activities. The learning experience design will show how the content will be learned by the students through their engagement in learning activities, in line with the learning outcomes to be achieved. An inclusive curriculum which uses a diverse range of learning resources and contextualised course materials will provide all students with an equal opportunity to achieve the intended learning outcomes.
Design of interactive multimodal environments with multiple representations of content via text, images, audio, video, and animations will support and promote students’ learning (Moreno & Mayer, 2007). While the use of multimedia and multiple modes to represent content in a variety of ways will motivate diverse learning needs and learning styles, contextualisation of the subject matter content is essential to make the learning relevant to the learners.
Instead of linear delivery of content using traditional methods, design of content in a variety of ways by embedding them into learning activities where the critical concepts are linked to real-world contexts will enhance active engagement and increase the confidence of learners. Changing from traditional content-driven practices to innovative context-centric approaches require substantial shifts in mindsets.
Open Educational Resources as a solution
This creative yet challenging task is facilitated with the concept of Open Educational Resources (OER). Due to the flexible permissions offered in OER via open licensing (i.e. Creative Commons licenses), educators are empowered to be innovative in the use of already available learning resources, by adapting or changing them to fit with the contextual needs, or to create new learning materials and share them as “open” content. The creation and curation of learning materials and making them freely and openly accessible to anyone enhances learning opportunities. These actions foster a shared culture among teachers and learners and lead to Open Educational Practices (OEP).
Scenario 6 - Dreamweaving Open Educational Practices
Scenario 6 presents some success stories of Sri Lankan educators in the adoption of OER and OEP. Explore the success stories shared in this scenario and reflect on success stories in your own context.
…This site captures the experiences of a team of educators at the Open University of Sri Lanka pursuing their dreams to promote the integration of open educational resources and open educational practices in teaching and learning. The journeys of the researchers and participant teachers are captured in the form of stories of their lived experiences… Our goal in the work that is presented here has been to help teachers “make their dreams come true” in relation of adopting and developing a culture of sharing in educational settings where resources are often lacking and where there is a need to promote such a culture...To achieve this goal, we engaged with student teachers of the Post Graduate Diploma in Education (PGDE) Programme of the Faculty of Education at the Open University of Sri Lanka (OUSL) to integrate OER in their teaching and then study its impacts...The project has been implemented at nine OUSL centres…representing the nine Provinces of Sri Lanka. This ensured that the benefits of this work did not remain confined to the central campus of the University, and that it filtered down to remote areas where the teaching and learning is actually taking place…
Adapted from: Karunanayaka & Naidu (2016)
Education is a fundamental human right. Everyone has the right to learn and achieve their full potential. The development of competencies for life-long learning is a crucial need to be fulfilled by all learners. The design, development and implementation of innovative interventions to support meaningful teaching and learning in higher education is a need of the hour. Teachers and educators have a great responsibility to pay serious attention and take maximum effort to cater to the learning needs of all learners.
Considering the diverse contextual design issues faced by educators in the higher education sector when designing learning experiences, in terms of pedagogy, technology and content, how would you gear yourself up to face these challenges? What strategies might work best for you and your students? What systemic changes may be needed? How do you stimulate shifts in mindsets and practices? And, how do you see yourself as a “change agent” in your context? These are some critical questions to ponder when you design meaningful and innovative learning experiences. Good luck in your endeavours!
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