In its Innovative Learning Environments project, the OECD has identified seven principles that should be integrated into any learning environment to ensure that it is truly effective and relevant to the needs of 21st-century learners. While each of these principles was already known, the novelty that the OECD emphasizes is that they all need to be present, since it is in their sum that their strength lies.
As elearning is set to become an increasingly important part of education, here is how this learning modality can respect and even enhance these seven fundamental principles.
1. Learners at the center
The learning environment recognizes the learners as its core participants, encourages their active engagement and develops in them an understanding of their own activity as learners.
- To ensure that the learner is at the heart of online training, it is important to avoid elearning rhyming with e-teaching. That is to say that an online course should not take over the formula of a lecture given in a traditional classroom. If the online course includes a presentation by the teacher or another speaker, it should be designed and presented in the “online” format, that is, broken down into shorter segments that can be accompanied by presentations on an interactive whiteboard, and interspersed with, for example, pedagogical exercises in the form of microlearning, discussions or other types of teacher-learner or learner-learner exchanges. In short, it is essential to take into account the particular context of the online environment where the learner is alone in front of his or her screen and to exploit the possibilities of digital technology so that he or she feels challenged, supported and motivated throughout the training.
- Personalized learning is, of course, a form of learner-centred approach and its most high-tech version is certainly “intelligent” adaptive learning. This type of training made possible by artificial intelligence, however, needs to be refined and is still not accessible to the greatest number of people. Even when it becomes more effective and accessible, human intervention by the teacher or trainer — a role that is being defined in the online environment — should remain essential. They will then be able to focus on the more complex human aspects of their work with learners.
2. The social nature of learning
The learning environment is founded on the social nature of learning and actively encourages well-organized co-operative learning.
- For some years now, there were ample discussions of “social elearning,” a form of learning that is rooted in both collaborative learning, informal learning and forms of elearning. Web 2.0 tools that can be integrated into elearning are indeed renewing the possibilities for distance collaboration and interaction. They can also be used to foster a sense of belonging, a key factor in learning. It is therefore important to carefully plan the integration of activities and projects between pairs — discussions, teamwork, case studies, etc. — in order to take advantage of the digital tools.
- For a dynamic of sociability to take hold, teacher-learner and learner-learner communication must be optimal. This implies, among other things, choosing among the communication tools compatible with elearning those best suited to each type of exchange. It is also desirable to offer learners several communication platforms.
- The teacher or trainer should ensure regular be in touch with the learners, in addition to facilitating and encouraging communication between them. The frequency and quality of the teacher’s or trainer’s presence in the particular context of online training would play a role in the emergence of a group spirit, as Denis Cristol points out in his book “Former, se former et apprendre à l’ère numérique – le social learning”: “The representation of another, distant from oneself, in an environment with no shared spatio-temporal reference points, produces gaps in understanding because the scene of interaction has disappeared. … Under these conditions, the teacher must be attentive to the types of interactions and the setting up of sociability. The trainer must establish a presence that, according to Jézégou (Cristol and al., 2013), can be broken down into a socio-cognitive, socio-affective and pedagogical presence. The higher this presence is, the more it would facilitate the creation of a learning community.”
3. Emotions are integral to learning
The learning professionals within the learning environment are highly attuned to the learners’ motivations and the key role of emotions in achievement.
- It should be noted that for the OECD, emotions and motivation are the first pillars of learning. Contrary to popular belief, the virtual context of elearning is not necessarily a brake on the emergence of emotions. On the contrary, some of its tools can even encourage the manifestation of positive learning emotions. This is the case with tools that allow for interaction and collaboration, but also with educational video scenarios that present realistic situations that learners can identify with. To be effective, however, they must be produced with great professionalism (scriptwriting, acting, directing, etc.). As for the presence of the teacher, trainer or any other intervening party, it is desirable that it be marked by warmth and empathy.
4. Recognizing individual differences
The learning environment is acutely sensitive to the individual differences among learners in it, including their prior knowledge.
- When it becomes more accessible, “intelligent” adaptive learning (see Intelligent Adaptive Learning: Everyone’s Training!) — discussed above — could be a serious elearning asset in terms of providing each learner with a customized learning path. This type of learning, in its most sophisticated version, can adapt the presentation, navigation and content of the training, in real-time, to the learner’s profile, preferences and performance.
- In order for the technological environment between the teacher and the learner to be a driver rather than a hindrance to learning, for all learners without exception, it is essential that it adheres to the principles of Universal Design for Learning (UDL). Universal Design, as defined by the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (Art. 2), is “the design of products, equipment, programmes and services that can be used by all, to the maximum extent possible, without requiring any adaptation or special design.” Applied to learning, Universal Design aims to maximize the chances of success for each learner and to reduce inequalities in their learning path. This approach is flexible — that is, it can be adapted to each individual case as needed — and applies to learning objectives, teaching methods and materials as well as to assessments. For detailed advice, see our article Creating inclusive online training courses: follow the guide.
5. Stretching all students
The learning environment devises programmes that demand hard work and challenge from all but without excessive overload.
- Let’s start by emphasizing the importance of offering engaging online training with a balanced learning path and a well-balanced workload. In order to maximize learner interest and retention, it is essential that the content is fragmented and that digital approaches and tools are chosen, not randomly, but for their relevance to pedagogy. For example, video scenarios are reserved only for subjects whose complexity and importance deserve such treatment. To avoid boring learners, we must vary the types of exercises as well as the forms of exchange and collaboration between peers. This may require the use of targeted strategies when the content to be integrated online is too dense. For detailed advice, see our article Online Training: 3 Strategies for Optimizing Learners’ Workload.
- In this age of information overload and stimulation of all kinds, it seems that our attention span has diminished. Moreover, digital technology, in the broadest sense of the word, has accustomed us to increasingly fluid and entertaining experiences. It is therefore natural that today’s learners have high expectations of online learning. They will easily get bored, let alone if they come up against an environment that is not ergonomic. For detailed advice, see our article Online Training: Inspiring Self Confidence in Learners.
6. Assessment for learning
The learning environment operates with clarity of expectations using assessment strategies consistent with these expectations; there is a strong emphasis on formative feedback to support learning.
- One of the main concerns with respect to an evaluation in elearning versus face-to-face situations is cheating. Rest assured, however, even if all is not perfect — which is also the case in traditional classrooms — effective means are now being deployed in online training to counter dishonesty. To learn more, read our articles Countering cheating in eLearning and Online Training: 8 Anti-Cheating Strategies.
7. Building horizontal connections
The learning environment strongly promotes “horizontal connectedness” across areas of knowledge and subjects as well as to the community and the wider world.
- Regarding this “horizontal connectedness,” the OECD states: “A fundamental characteristic of learning is that the construction of complex knowledge structures is achieved through the hierarchical organization of basic knowledge. If well constructed, this organization allows understanding that is transferable to new situations; an essential skill in the 21st century. It is also important that learners perceive horizontal connections between the formal learning environment and the wider society. The ‘authentic learning’ that this creates also promotes deeper understanding.”
- Is it necessary to recall that with the rise of new means of communication and Web 2.0 we are “connected” as never before and that in this new reality, interpersonal exchanges, as well as the sharing of knowledge, no longer have borders. Thus, a learner who wishes to have an idea of the concrete application of his or her knowledge, whether in professional activity or in a given social context, has access in a few clicks to various resources in this regard. We should consider exploiting this possibility in elearning when it is relevant!
Catherine Meilleur has over 15 years of experience in research and writing. Having worked as a journalist and educational designer, she is interested in everything related to learning: from educational psychology to neuroscience, and the latest innovations that can serve learners, such as virtual and augmented reality. She is also passionate about issues related to the future of education at a time when a real revolution is taking place, propelled by digital technology and artificial intelligence.