Synching up with the learners

Leigh Blackall has just written a wonderful exploration of the dilemmas created by wanting to facilitate online learning while the learners want content delivered to them by an instructor:

But I have been asked to facilitate a learning community. And although I know the word facilitate is being used more than a little loosely by institutions these days, and that the majority of the participants are encouraged to bring with them expectations AND needs of being taught and instructed, I have this idealist expectation to build and facilitate a learning community.

As I've reflected up Leigh's dilemma, that I've also experienced myself, I'm seeing facilitation as a special case for a particular subset of evolved learners. The robust expectations for "getting instructed" that Leigh articulates superbly, are reflections of how far along the learners have come in putting new knowledge to use. Of course this came to my mind as another taxonomy:

Questions of comprehension: Learners who a new to a domain of knowledge are on unfamiliar ground. They need maps, guidebooks and landmarks. Their hunger for formal instruction is not pathological. It's the nature of lacking familiarity, being unsure of themselves and getting easily misled. Learners at this stage can get what they need from archived material online, a modicum of research skills and personally meaningful questions to guide their search.

Questions of qualification: Learners who already comprehend the terms and concepts want formal procedures to follow. They want to make sure they are "executing the recipe right". They want to be tested by someone qualified to catch their mistakes, clear up their misunderstandings, recognize what is getting overlooked and show them how to successfully conform to the procedures. Their hunger for "click2death" content is not pathological. Learners at this stage can get what they need from sequential modules, games and interactive exercises that score their key presses and monitor their progress.

Questions of application: Learners who are already qualified to execute procedures compliantly are getting into trouble in the field. The recipe does not always work. Sometimes problems get misdiagnosed or made worse by standard procedures. Learners want a community of practitioners they can learn from, exchange concerns with, and gain new insights into unusual situations. Learners at this stage can get what they need from the online facilitation of social learning processes.

Questions of contribution: Learners who can troubleshoot breakdowns and nuance application contexts have a lot to offer others. They are in a position to generate valuable content and respond helpfully to comments, queries and contradictory viewpoints from their readers, subscribers and linkers. Learners at this stage can get what they want by publishing, uploading, and contributing to collective efforts online.

Returning to the dilemma of instructing and facilitating, it now appears to me that the opportunity to facilitate learners must first be created by getting them past the stage of seeking procedural compliance and certified qualification.


  1. Hi Tom--thanks for the link to Leigh's article. I've been struggling with some of the same concerns so it was really helpful to read.

    I like your taxonomy here. It actually helps my thinking more as I realize that I often want to operate at the application and contribution levels with people who are still struggling to comprehend. Going back to Leigh's issue of looking at teaching vs. facilitation, I can see that the "facilitation" method will work better at those application/contribution levels than at the comprehension/qualification levels where people NEED more structure. I think that my tendency to focus on the "higher" levels of learning is a result of where I'm at, not where learners are at. I think this happens because when I see myself as a facilitator, I tend to think of a sort of co-learning going on. But at the comprehension/qualification level, it's not about co-learning.

    Good food for thought--thank you.

  2. Thanks for sharing your ways of relating to the taxonomy, Michele. I'm on the same page with everything you've written here. As I wrote this piece, I had to let go of my attachment to informal, free ranging and PLE ideals.

    There's a concept that takes lots of reflective practice to realize: everything is perfect as is -- for some one, some context or some phase of development. So this taxonomy captures that and I'm still absorbing the idea that I need to think more about the condition of the learners than my love of free learning.

  3. how do we teach/facilitate in a classroom where we are pulled across the spectrum you identify. Since students are at different levels... different needs.

  4. Thanks for your question. In a classroom setting, I suspect that all the students would be put on independent study programs. They could self select which kind of questions they are currently facing in their understanding. If they were facing questions of comprehension, they would likely stick around in the classroom to hear lectures, get homework assignments and take tests to verify their initial understanding.

    Those learners with questions of qualification will need to activities where they follow procedures and produce results. They will gradually wean themselves off of scaffolding that shows them the steps until they can follow the sequence on their own. They will return to the classroom to get tested on their execution of recipes, not their conceptual understanding which has already been verified.

    Once the learners "know the drill", they will need to meet in groups with others who can also "do it by the book". Together they will solve problems with the situations where the method backfires, fails to get the intended results or call the procedure into question. These group meetings will only work with those learners who are confident in their understanding and ability to execute the procedure.

    Those that have the group discussions under their belt can become bloggers, contributors to class wiki, and producers of videos, slide sequences and games. These creative projects will expand the ways the other learners gain move through the changing questions, learn from other learners and take on more self-directed initiatives as they grow in the full realization of their own understanding.