I recently addressed the value of using learning objects to address student needs for prerequisite skills in online instruction. I suggested developing a library of learning activities that could be tapped into whenever a student had an identified learning need that was interfering with present learning. Not too long ago an online education company considered the idea of using independent learning objects of this kind to create new courses just by mixing and matching the objects as needed. They also considered building a course entirely with such lessons, letting students select the lessons they needed in the order they felt they needed them. This, they felt, was the epitome of student-centered learning.
As tempting as it sounds, it is a plan to be avoided. The obvious advantages have too many disadvantages in terms of best practices in curriculum design. It makes it difficult to ensure proper sequencing, it creates the possibility of improper transfer loads, and it precludes the course designer using perhaps the most effective of all instructional strategies.
I was once consulting with a teacher designing an online middle school level English course. She had first identified the state standards to be addressed and was now planning the sequence in which those standards would be met. One of those standards was a research paper, and the teacher had decided to make this the very first unit. She felt it was the most challenging, and she wanted to “get it out of the way first.” I pointed out that, to be successful in that unit, students would already need to have mastered many of the skills she was planning to teach later in the course. For example, research papers demand the use of quotation marks, which was not going to be taught for several months. She eventually realized that a researched report would be an excellent chance for students to demonstrate learning for many of the standards in the course and should thus logically come after those skills had been taught.
Proper sequencing of instruction is one of the most important elements in effective curriculum design, and in my past role as a director of curriculum, I was amazed at the number of course designers who were apt to teach topics randomly without any regard for how one learning leads logically to another. This was even true in designing math instruction, where one would expect proper sequencing to be self evident. If certified teachers have trouble designing a learning sequence that makes sense, how can we expect students to do any better?
One of the biggest problems with online education today is that in many cases, with even well designed instruction, students have the ability to skip or skim over important instructional steps and go right to assessment where they too often struggle.
Even if the sequence is proper, the steps between them have to be suitable in their increasing level of complexity. In effective learning, students apply old learning to new situations. Each step in the educational process should put an appropriate transfer load on the student. Too little increase in complexity and the student is bored; too much, and the student is baffled. One of the biggest problems with online education today is that in many cases, with even well designed instruction, students have the ability to skip or skim over important instructional steps and go right to assessment where they too often struggle.
The most important problem with designing online curriculum with independent learning objects is the limitations put on the design of the lessons themselves. Since you cannot tell what a given student will have encountered instructionally before a lesson, there can be no reference to previous learning in a lesson. In What Works in Schools: Translating Research into Action, Bob Marzano cites research demonstrating that the most effective strategies by far in boosting learning are those that force students to make comparisons, finding key similarities and differences . When students are effectively shown how what they are learning now is both similar to and different from what they learned in the past, achievement soars. When you use a curriculum strategy that forbids or works against such activities, you have taken the most effective learning tool out of the hands of the course designer.
Learning objects, then, are powerful tools for helping students deal with problems interfering with present learning, but a proper learning sequence is such a powerful tool that it must continue to be a critical component of instructional design.
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