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Adult Learners and Hypermedia Environments

Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning

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Over the past decade, learning technologies have evolved from environments in which highly structured information is presented electronically, to environments where the learner is supported in meaning-making or in constructing knowledge. This shift in control from the computer to learner is evident in multimedia and, in particular, hypermedia environments, where the onus is on the learner to make decisions about optimal learning paths and semantic linking.


The posting below is an extensive discussion on how to promote effective online, e-learning . It is from Chapter 5, From Text to e-Text - Message Design, in E-ffective Writing for e-Learning Environments, by Katy Campbell. Published in the United States of America by, Information Science Publishing (an imprint of Idea Group, Inc.), 701 E. Chocolate Avenue, Suite 200, Hershey, PA 17033-1240. []. Copyright ? 2004 by Idea Group Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.


Rick Reis

UP NEXT: Leadership development for the Next Generation

Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning


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Multimodal Learning


Over the past decade, learning technologies have evolved from environments in which highly structured information is presented electronically, to environments where the learner is supported in meaning-making or in constructing knowledge. This shift in control from the computer to learner is evident in multimedia and, in particular, hypermedia environments, where the onus is on the learner to make decisions about optimal learning paths and semantic linking.

David Jonassen (1990, 1994, 1996), Roger Schank (1993), and Brent Wilson (1999) are three of many learning theorists who believe that learners should be "doing something, not just watching something" and that if this occurs, "multimedia offers serious improvements to instruction through computers." (Yaverbaum, 1997, p. 141). Both multimedia and hypermedia environments have the ability to support and/or create active learning environments, affording the learner opportunities to engage with and think about the information (Hill, 1998). In the best of these contexts, learners must develop their own learning strategies, which is a cognitive process that encourages deep learning. If this process involves the social negotiation inherent in collaborative decision-making with others, knowledge construction is much enriched. Thus, the learning environment is much enhanced through the dynamic, interactive, and visual capabilities of multimedia learning. (Crosby & Stelovsky, 1995).

Ewing, Dowling, and Coutts (1998) have identified several features of the World Wide Web (Web) as an information source. In brief, information is semantically structured by creators of Web sites who embed links to other information according to their own individual or personal preferences and perceptions. These embedded links are dynamic, evolving almost daily, and are extended by the site users who follow the links through multiple stages and branches. In this process, the user is making his/her own semantic links or building a personal pathway structured by the way that the information is connected or the meaning that he/she brings to the relationships. The amount of information and the rate at which it is expanding is unknown and unknowable.

Although hypermedia environments have great potential to foster the critical thinking required to actively structure them for learning, they have to date resembled early CD-ROMs, that is, they are mostly linear text (Child, 1998). Ewing, Dowling, and Coutts (1998) speculate that the potential richness of hypermedia has not been realized because traditional perspectives on structuring learning tasks do not correspond easily to these environments. Planning for computer-based learning has been based on identifiable outcomes, with structured objectives on which activities are based and assessed. Teachers may have trouble re-conceptualizing their roles as instructional planners, just as learners may be confused about how to proceed with a structured task in the context of unstructured environments (Ewing, Dowling, & Coutts, 1998). Carver, Lehrer, Connell, and Erickson (1992, in Child, 1998) suggested that the lack of effective implementation of multimedial environments is rar!

e because both teachers and students lack the skills necessary to function in environments where they are "collaborative designers rather than transmitters and recipients of knowledge" (p. 69).

The Learning Benefits of Hypermedia Environments

The instructional paradigm is shifting from a teaching environment to a learning environment, with a focus on "practice-centered learning." This orientation aligns with adult learning theory (andragogy), in which the notion of self-directed learning is fundamental to the design of learning contexts. Hypermedia environments support self-directed, life-long learning if structured to stimulate and motivate learners to be able to independently locate the resources necessary to continue learning (Diaz, 1998).

Technologies that facilitate self-directed, practice-centered learning and meet the andragogical challenge include hypermedia, real-time chats, threaded discussion, and tools such as VRML, Shockwave, and Java applets that make the Web interactive while delivering rich content. These technologies have been related to both learning and cost effectiveness, as they tend to influence the ways in which a learner represents and processes information (Kozma, 1991) as an active strategy in which he/she is required to structure the learning process as a co-designer of his/her own experience. Diverse learning and cognitive styles are supported through multiple presentations of information, improving retention and performance, and increasing motivation to learn (Crosby & Stelovsky, 1995; Daughtery & Funke, 1998; Oz & White, 1993; Yaverbaum et al., 1997).

Criticizing conventional educational environments that help to shape 'compliant thinking. "Hill (1998) describes learners who lack the "orientation, mental models, and strategies (or capabilities for creating them) for open-ended learning environments, where divergent thinking, multiple perspectives, and independent learning are critical" (p. 79).

Learning is now deemed heavily influenced by social interactions and environmental factors such as culture, technology, and instructional practices. As educators and researchers increasingly accept the views of Vygotsky, (1978) and Bruner (1986) that interaction is the origin of all mental activity and grown, student learning is increasingly analyzed in a social context. From this perspective, meaning is seen as a negotiation and knowledge building process within a learning community (Bonk & Reynolds, 1998). These communities, characterized by their open-ended nature, are exemplified by the Web, which shows significant promise by its very structure, or lack of it, and in its support of communication tools that enable dialogue across and among diverse communities of knowers.

The social environment results in learning gains and increased creativity of outcomes that develops from collaborating and working in groups (Nelson & South, 1999). Internet-based communication tools such as e-mail, Internet-relay chat (IRC), threaded discussion forums, and synchronous conferencing enable dialogue that can help students think critically and make better decisions. Using computers as collaborative tools can be seen as a type of social constructivism whereby knowledge is generated problem-solving skills are scaffolded through group activity (Clements & Natasi, 1992). In these groups, students frequently reach a state of conflict that must be reconciled in the form of a solution. The solution represents a "qualitatively different third perspective (combining) two opposing ideas into a coherent, higher-level idea" (p. 243). Cooperative learning and cooperative problem-solving groups enhance opportunities for generative learning, generating a wider diversity !

of ideas, most reflective thinking, and increased creative responses (CTGV, 1990, 1992; Oliver, Omari, and Herrington, 1998, in Oliver, 1999, p. 10)

Open-ended, hypermedia, collaborative environments are more engaging, can support diverse interests and cognitive styles, support independent and self-directed learning, increase retention and performance, and enhance critical-thinking and problem-solving skills by exposing learners to multiple perspectives. However, unless designed carefully these environments can be problematic and counter-productive for adult learners. Many of these problems stem from the very elements that make hypermedia environments so unique and effective: open-endedness, self-directed learning strategies; learner control.

Design Challenges for Adult Learners

An earl supporter of hypermedia texts, Jonassen (1988, 1990) accentuated the structural differences of hypertext-based organization of knowledge over the linear representation found in textbooks. According to him at that time, because hypertext is a node-link system based upon semantic structures, it should map fairly directly the structure of knowledge it is presenting (Tergan, 1997). However, Jonassen acknowledged that it is not merely the structure of the information that is important, it is the "active and constructive processing of the learner to meet the cognitive requirements of the anticipated task which are relevant for effective processing of hypertext" (Tergan, 1997, p. 260). He subsequently described the greatest problem related to hypertext-based learning as "how learners will integrate the information they acquire in the hypertext into their own knowledge structures? Learners must synthesize new knowledge structures for all the information contained in the !

hypertext?" (Jonassen, 1996, p. 190)

Similarly, Myers (1993, in Oliver, 1999) found that students needed a semester or even a school year to learn how to process hypermedia deeply. Simply embedding strategies in the system did not cue higher-order thinking unless the teacher similarly cued the students. Most learners cannot cope adequately with such complex systems and keep on studying texts in a fashion that is quite similar to linear text processing, following frames of information as presented in computer-based tutorials. A major result of this and related studies is that learning outcomes are ultimately determined by the quality of learners' goal-oriented activity, although learners who are more field-independent or who are domain experts, may perform better in unstructured environments (Tergan, 1997; Wenger & Payne, 1996).

Research shows that users are often unable to explore hypertext without experiencing navigational problems at some point. McDonald and Stevenson (1996), describe the keyhole problem, in which learners don't understand the position of hypertext nodes in relation to the rest of the document, since it may be hidden. Detriments, other than the lack of adequate overview of the scope of resources, include cognitive overload, inefficiency because more time is spent learning how to navigate rather than processing information, and interference with the critical and creative comprehension necessary to solve open-ended problems (Oliver, 1999).

Interestingly, however, Mayes, Kibby, and Anderson (1990), in McDonald and Stevenson (1996), suggest that in certain circumstances, disorientation may be a necessary precondition for conceptual understanding. For example, in discovery learning the whole point is that learners should engage in a continual process of restructuring their knowledge by integrating the new information encountered into existing knowledge structures.

There is evident that hypertext-based learning may be enhanced when it is integrated into a broader educational context. According to Cunningham, Duffy and Knuth (1993) the successful use of a hypertext system in university classes is mainly due to the instructional supports offered (i.e. explicit modeling and scaffolding and the system's embeddedness in a social context.)

Design for Effective Hypermedia Environments

Is there an appropriate theory of learning for hypermedia environments? Many theorists believe that Piaget's theory of accommodation provides an epistemological basis for planning for experiences in which thinking and learning involves making links through new knowledge and past knowledge by organizing, ordering, classifying, identifying relations, transforming, and explaining.

Similarly, Nunes and Fowell (1996) and Ryser, Beeler and McKenzie (1995) suggest that hypermedia most effectively supports tasks requiring the acquisition of high-level skills of problem-solving and critical thinking. Learners actively increase their knowledge and understanding by working in collaborative learning environments that encourage them to adjust their views of the world. In this view, learning is likely to be the result of active involvement in internal mental processes (thinking) while interacting with others.

Interaction, especially in cooperation learning activities, appears to be a key factor for success in many hypertext-based learning tasks. Equally important, however, is the intellectual and technical support provided as adults learn to navigate these environments and structure their own learning in ways appropriate to the learning tasks and outcomes. The essential components of an effective hypermedia environment then, are: well-defined goals and explicit scaffolding support (Guzdial & Kehoe, 1998; Tergan, 1997); participation in determining learning goals and processes (Glaser, 1991); authentic learning environments in which knowledge is socially constructed (Denning & Smith, 1998; Rogoff, 1990); and navigational/cognitive devices such as spatial and conceptual maps.

Numerous models of learning have been examined for those best supported by hypertext frameworks. Learning is suggested to be most effective if it embedded in social experience and if it is situated in authentic problem-solving contexts that entail cognitive demands relevant for coping with real life situations. In this notion, learning is characterized by the cognitive ability to effectively criss-cross landscapes of information (Spiro, Feltovich, Jacobson, & Coulson, 1988, 1991) represented by the semantic units in hyperdocuments and the development of cognitive flexibility. Opportunities to critically reflect on new learning are maximized by social activity and the expectation that new conceptions will be shared and negotiated in dialogue with others (Fosnot, 1998; van Dusen & Worthen, 1993).

Embedding opportunities for reflection and summarization in social conversation helps solidify student learning and restructure student knowledge (Bonk & Reynolds, 1997). Naturally how all participants share representations is a key issue in the design of these learning environments. Zhao (1998) suggests that the critical feedback of peers required for learners to reshape their ideas and learn new information that they might not discover on their own. Another closely related factor is conceptual conflict resolution. According to Harasim (1990), group controversy may lead members to question their own concepts and seek new information and perspectives.

Apprenticeship learning and goal-based scenarios (GBS) are two learning designs that show promise for critically reflective, socially-based, authentic learning. Both are based on the idea that the learner acts as his/her own agent in determining learning progress and taking more executive control and he/she negotiates navigates a learning task.

Apprenticeship learning is when students learn through active participation in a task. At first it may be limited as students gain an understanding through observation and making small contributions, but the involvement develops into full participation and eventually task ownership (Guzdial & Kehoe, p 290, 1998).

Goal-based scenarios are where students are provided wit an interesting situation in which they have goals to achieve. Students have the resources and tools with which to achieve goals. Progress is compared against a model of a successful process. When students fail they are provided with conceptual and process information in the form of a story of practice to allow them to understand and correct their faults. Often there is no single correct process and as learners articulate their learning in conversation with peers and coaches, they begin to move toward a personal conception of domain expertise. Browsing is not an effective instructional strategy in either of these environments, as it supports incidental rather than intentional learning (Tergan, 1997). Rather, cognitive strategies such as the creation of a conceptual map require the learner to trace and elaborate his/her learning progress.

How can we design a virtual community that supports learning? Schrage (1991) offers a model that highlights the importance of collaboration. According to Schrage, the goal is to create a shared experience rather than an experience that is shared. An experience that is shared is passive. A shared experience is one that is participatory and can be understood by comparing a conversation or a discussion (negotiated discourse) to a lecture or a television broadcast (didactic instruction).

McLellan (1997) outlines 13 design themes in Schrage's model of virtual community: competence, a shared, understood goal; mutual respect, tolerance, and trust; creation and manipulation of shared spaces; multiple forms of representation; playing with representations; continuous but not continual communication; formal and informal environments; clear lines of responsibility but no restrictive boundaries; decisions that do not have to be made by consensus; virtual presence; selective use of outsiders for complementary insights and information; and collaboration (p. 186). Hypermedia environments that support communications tools and that are structured by a problem-solving model are able to support the self-directed and collaborative learning in which adult learners are successful.


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