Friday, March 26, 2010

Defining "Instructive"

If you teach in an ABE program in Minnesota, you're probably aware that there has recently been an upsurge of interest in expanding Distance Learning (DL) opportunities for adult learners in our fair state. While certainly not all distance education is computer-based, a good portion of it is, and that portion is likely to increase in the coming years. In my technology training role, I get to have a seat at many of the tables where the discussions about DL policies are happening. It was at once such table, many months ago, where I got a particular bee in my bonnet. And it's been there ever since, and I've been trying to ignore it, but it hasn't gone away or died off, so I'm finally giving up and saying something about it. Hence, this post: What does "instructive" mean when it comes to DL content?

First, some background. The discussion was about the creation of DL content which would be approved for proxy hours. In order for a DL program to be approved to earn proxy hours (seat-time equivalent) the content it provides must be instructive. It can't simply be practice or homework. It must teach new concepts or skills. Which is a fair standard, I think. If the DL program is going to be considered as equivalent to a classroom experience, it should definitely teach you something. No argument there.

My problem is with the assumptions that surround the word instructive. After listening to and engaging in numerous conversations on this topic, it has become clear to me that many people only understand instructive in one way:

I, the knowledgeable teacher, tell (possibly show) you, the less knowledgeable learner, some information. Then I quiz you on it later.

Of course, that is one way to instruct. In edu-speak, I'd call that the deductive approach. But it's not the only way. There is also the inductive approach, in which the learner is guided by the instructor to discover new knowledge for him/herself. And as an instructional designer, curriculum writer, and teacher, I happen to believe that inductive teaching is actually much more powerful than deductive! Especially in an online format.

Take a look at this piece of instructional content from Minnesota Public Radio, for example:

(Take the quiz. Really! You'll probably learn something.)

That quiz is an example of an inductive approach to learning. There was no "instructive text" before the quiz. There was just the quiz. I took it and I learned something. What's more, I am more likely to remember what I learned than if they had built a web page with text and then a quiz at the bottom. Why am I more likely to remember? Because when I got a question wrong (and I got 4 wrong - ouch!) my brain perked up and said, "Hey, wait a minute! You don't know as much as you think you do! You had better pay attention to this." And when I got a question right, I thought, "Cool! Let me see if I got that right for the right reasons." And I read the instructive text (which pops up after answering a question) with much more interest and engagement than I would have if the information had been front-loaded.

Sadly, I have been told (by very well meaning individuals) that when we create DL content for our adult learners, we can't do this. Not if we want it to count for proxy hours. We are not supposed to start with the quiz. We must "instruct" first. But, I want to cry out, the instruction is embedded in the quiz! The quiz is, in and of itself, instructive! It just instructs in a different - and frankly more powerful - way.

Now it is possible that my fears are entirely misplaced, that I misunderstood the conversations over these past months, and that in fact a inductive approach to instruction would be acceptable. And some of the things I have seen happening since then assure me that that is the case.

Still, I must ask, am I alone in worrying about the definition of instruction? If you design online learning content for adults, what approach do you use? Which way do you prefer to learn? Which way do you think your learners acquire knowledge best?

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