Web-based Learning: Extending the Paradigm
by Dirk Rodenburg

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Although web-based learning has been touted as a panacea for many training and educational needs, the reality is that results can fall dramatically short of expectations. Unfortunately, dominant conceptions of web-based instruction for many organizations are primarily driven or shaped by IT personnel and departments, not by educators. In my work, servicing a primarily corporate clientele, this is often the case.

Those issues which are educational in nature—such as sustainable content management, sound pedagogical strategy, and learner support—are all too often left in the periphery. I'd like to discuss some ways in which the discussion around learning technology can be broadened to include a more critical, more effective approach to design and implementation.

The Challenge: Using the Technology Appropriately

Education is a complicated construct. The vast range of competing perspectives offers many different, legitimate ways of characterizing process and outcomes (Pratt, 1998). The problem for the designers of a technology-based learning strategy is defining an instructional paradigm that is contextually appropriate and instructionally sound from this myriad of conceptual frameworks. In my experience, many web-based learning environments do not reflect a coherent and carefully considered instructional approach. More often than not, the developers of technology-based learning environments make the following assumptions which are not supported by research:

Media and Learning

Research into the impact of media on learning outcomes does not support an unequivocal endorsement of a "technology" or "media-centric" approach (Clark, 1985, 1987). I’ve found that many technology learning initiatives support an uncritical acceptance of the following relationship:

LIE < ----------------------------------------------------------------------------> HIE

Text ( < ) Graphics ( < ) Simple Animation ( < ) Complex Animation and Video


LIE = Low Instructional Efficacy

HIE = High Instructional Efficacy

The value of novelty (which is often used as a rationale for the inclusion of more band-width intensive media—"We’ve got to get them excited!") is not sufficient to provide sustained instructional efficacy. What does contribute to instructional efficacy is the contextual appropriateness of the media used and the ways in which the learners engage with that media, in terms of the stated learning objectives.

Contextual Appropriateness of Media

Contextual appropriateness within a web-based learning environment is related to a number of issues, some of which include:

What level of representation is appropriate for the learning objectives? In some cases, a simple conceptual diagram will suffice. In others, dynamic representations of process flow or variable interaction are important. In others, a narrative or story coupled to specific imagery is crucial to help learners understand the impact of macro forces at the micro level, or to foster personal engagement with the issues under discussion.

How can the media utilized be provided in a manner that fosters, not hinders, the learning experience? This issue is in part technical and in part design related. If download or access times are prohibitive, learners will experience frustration. If the media is abstracted too much from the context in which it is meant to be supportive (i.e. downloaded and viewed later, or launched through a separate proprietary set of applications), learners will lose the connection between context and media element.

How can the media utilized be effectively presented? This is also an issue that is both technical and design related. For example, in many contexts, a "layered" delivery of an image or diagram (through channels like "FLASH™" or DHTML) is a bandwidth conservative method for representing changes in structure resulting from changes to a single variable or a combination of variables.

Learner Interaction with Media

The ways in which the learner will engage with the supporting media is a second important consideration with two associated issues:

To what extent can the learner control the presentation of the media to match his/her needs? Let’s look at a simple example, on-line video. In my experience, many web-based learning approaches assume that inclusion of a supporting video resource is sufficient to provide effective instructional support. Depending on context, that can be true. But the use of on-line video can often be augmented to provide more effective, better-targeted instructional support. For example, an on-line video resource can be segmented into topics or concepts or can be linked to keywords (or metatags) and instructional/curricular goals. In this way, direct, non-linear access to specific segments of interest can be provided to support or help resolve conceptual difficulties.

How can media be structured to allow the learner to interact with and/or self-discover, underlying principles, models and causal relationships? Using on-line video as an example again, a specific event can be shown from a number of different perspectives (cultural, sociological, economic, age, role, disability and so on), or as a consequence of a specific conceptual model ("What happens to the ball in a vacuum when it is no longer pushed? What about the same situation in normal atmosphere?"). By providing a method by which each (competing) perspective can easily be comparatively viewed, or each predicted outcome tested, learners can begin to formulate, articulate and test new conceptual frameworks.

Instruction and Access to Information

Providing access to information is not the same as teaching, although this distinction is often blurred by developers of web-based learning. In fact, simply providing access to information can, in some cases, do more damage than good. Learners can experience anger, resentment and frustration if mechanisms for distribution, access and learning do not meet expectations.  

Constructing meaningful representations of knowledge takes time, commitment and an appropriate level of organizational/institutional support.  Design goals should include helping the learner to:

Many of these techniques are currently used within the context of print (e.g. textbooks), but web technology offers the added dimension of the ability to respond dynamically to learner choice.

For example, few web-based learning applications attempt to provide consistent, easily accessed and well-structured ways in which the following questions can be answered:

  1. What are the overall objectives of the material I’m now covering?
  2. How does the information I’m reviewing now fit into those overall objectives?
  3. What have I covered so far?
  4. What do I still have to cover?
  5. How am I thinking about this material?
  6. How do other learners typically think about this material, and how well do those ways of thinking map to my own?
  7. What are some of the consequences of each way of thinking about the material?
  8. What are some of the typical misconceptions that learners have as they study this material?
  9. What are better ways of thinking about this material that are tied to those misconceptions?
  10. How is what I’m learning now going to help me deal with later material?
  11. What’s essential for me to pay attention to right now, and what’s important for later?

Assessment: A Tool for Instruction and Measurement

Web-based learning approaches often use a paradigm that completely separates learning material and assessment. The typical learner experience is to "cover" a specific learning module and then immediately complete a short assessment process (usually multiple choice) which tests for immediate recall of the information. The learner is then free to return to the module or move on to the next based on performance within the assessment. This vision of assessment has some serious instructional shortcomings (Elstein, 1994, Ramsden, 1989, Page, 1995, White and Gunstone, 1992).

A more integrated approach would be to include assessment within the instructional process. For example, after a new concept has been presented, learners could predict the consequences of a range of variables applied to a theoretical model, or to pick a way of thinking about the problem domain that best matches their own, or both. The feedback generated by these choices could provide some insight into (and therefore the potential for developing a diagnostic framework for) the way in which the learner is conceptualizing the material. These "instructional assessments" within the instructional material can help the learner articulate the way in which he/she is thinking about the problem (meta-cognition) and understand the predictive value or short comings of that approach, as well as the degree to which it generally accounts for the problem domain.

One way to develop this kind of "embedded" feedback is to involve teachers who have experience teaching the specific topic under consideration. Content expertise is one thing; pedagogical expertise within a specific domain space is another(Pratt, 1998). Teachers can help identify specific points at which learners typically encounter difficulty, and equally importantly, describe misconceptions that are often carried by learners. The instructional material and assessment and feedback mechanisms can then be designed to anticipate common needs.

Wrong answers should not be treated as wrong answers ("there are never stupid questions, only stupid answers"). They are pointers which show how the learner conceptualizes the instructional material and which can help designers plan targeted instructional support.

Objectives for On-line Design

On-line learning design should do more than provide access to information; it should support the following processes:


Clark, R. E. (1985b). Evidence for confounding in computer-based instruction studies: Analyzing the meta-analyses. Educational Communication and Technology, 33(4), 249-262.

Clark, R. E. (1987). Which technology for what purpose? The state of the argument about research on learning from media. Paper presented at the annual conference of the Association for Educational Communications and Technology, Atlanta, GA.

Elstein, Arthur S. (1994). What goes around comes around: Return of the hypothetico-deductive strategy. Teaching & Learning in Medicine, 6(2), 121-123.

Page, Gordon (1995). Developing Key-Feature Problems and Examinations to Assess Clinical Decision-Making Skills. Academic Medicine, 70(3), 194-201.

Pratt, D. & Associates (1998). Five perspectives on teaching in adult and higher education. FL: Krieger Publishing. ISBN 0-89464-937-X.

Ramsden, Paul (1993). Theories of Learning and Teaching and the Practice of Excellence in Higher Education. Higher Education Research and Development, 12(1), 87-97.

White, R.; Gunstone, R. (1992). Probing Understanding. London: The Falmer Press.