Is there a ‘right way’ to learn?
Before we can consider if there is a right way, we need to understand something about our capacity to learn. Intuitively we understand that some people are ‘better’ at learning than others. One of the skills of teachers is to analyse a students’ ability and to present appropriate material in a timely fashion to bring that learner on with their development.
Across many centuries there has waxed and waned a view of intelligence. Some people view ‘all intellect’ as a whole piece. They believe that each person is born with an inherent intelligence and that this can be ranked by means of, for example, IQ. This viewpoint has led to widely used terms to describe people as clever or bright or smart etc.
The counter position is that intelligence exists in a fragmented state. Looking back to the ancient Greeks the poets differentiated between reason, will and feeling whilst medieval university students had their trivium (introductory course) which comprised grammar, logic and rhetoric and their quadrivium of maths, geometry, astronomy and music. The debate as to the validity of measures such as IQ has led to numerous studies and has provided a useful tenet for the study of the brain. The psychological impact of the various theories was well summed up by Howard Gardner in Frames of Mind by referencing Egan:
psychology does not directly dictate education, it merely helps one to understand the conditions within which education takes place. One person’s limitation can be another person’s opportunity.
The need to reframe our reference points
Occasionally there is a change of such proportions that we need to reframe our thinking to accommodate the shift. One such example is the explosion in the use of online technologies to teach. If we don't re-consider our pre-conceived ideas about intelligence and the manner by which we teach, how can we can decide if face-to-face learning, or online learning might be best for a given situation?
It is no surprise that the online education sector has increased in popularity in recent years. Studying online allows learners a wonderful opportunity to take a wide and varied range of courses from around the world, often for free. For people who work in multiple locations, or away from traditional seats of learning, online study offers a range of opportunities that traditional classes can’t.
Online courses can, by their nature, be taken by anyone, from any background, from anywhere in the world and whilst flexible, online courses offer less direct contact with peers, mentors and teachers. This generally leads to a less tailored experience and this is often viewed as a key drawback to learning online.
Software can test, analyse and recommend, but it lacks the soft-touch approach of a teacher analysing a student through simple interaction. On the other hand, an online approach should be a tool kit made up of accessible content that is responsive to the device being used and which allows a broad range of innovative strategies to offer the user bite-sized learning.
There is a risk of a clash of cultures if the relative merits of the face-to-face philosophy and the online philosophy aren’t considered and squared away and this is best done as part of an initial planning phase for a course.
If squaring philosophical approaches is about anything then it is about compromise and this leads to the often talked about ‘blended models’. Blending face-to-face time with the convenience of an online course is akin to getting the best of both worlds.
In summary, we do not suggest that there is a ‘best way to learn’, instead we advocate that the methodology around bite-sized, accessible online learning is particularly well suited to a fragmented and diverse audience.