[The New Virtual Classroom] Learning in The New Virtual Classroom

Disclaimer: This is a result of my attempt to synthesize understanding from the book The New Virtual Classroom: Evidence-based Guidelines for Synchronous e-Learning. I am but an interpreter of these ideas.

Instructional modes, methods and architectures

When designing a virtual classroom, decisions about communication modes, instructional methods, and course architectures are what determine the learning effectiveness.

Communication mode is the choice of medium through which you transfer information: text, audio, graphic. In virtual classrooms, you can take full advantage of these delivery mediums.

Instructional method is the usage of communication modes within a learning environment in order to actively influence the the learners towards the absorption information & knowledge.

Instructional architecture guides the major components of the course. There are four prevalent architectures:

  • Receptive architecture: Contents are delivered in a mostly one-way communication style, usually contains no (or little) room for explicit interactions.
  • Directive architecture: Short lessons that provide only a small amount of information, followed by examples with corrective feedback. Usually the lessons teach steps to complete a procedure, and then the examples confirm the correct responses.
  • Guided discovery architecture: Problem-based lessons where a problem is presented and the learners collaboratively propose solutions. The premise is that learning occurs during problem solving.
  • Exploratory architecture: Learners decide what they want to learn and then draw from a (large) repository of information & knowledge on those topics. The internet is an example of this.

Working Memory and Long-Term Memory

Working memory usually can hold about 5 – 9 items, and is central to thoughts and processes during the learning activity. Long-term memory is like a repository. But the two complements each other.

The capacity for working memory to absorb information is predicated upon how much knowledge relevant to the learning topic is already in long-term memory. For a novice chess player, he sees about 24 pieces of information, but a master player sees about 8 to 10 chunk of information, because smaller pieces of information have been grouped together and represented as one pattern.

Experienced learners have more knowledge in long-term memory which increases their working memory capacity. In contrast, novice learners are often overwhelmed by new information, and thus require clear communication and architectures that minimize load on working memory

Harnessing the Learning Process

The instructional modes, methods and architectures are only meaningful when they are used to support some instructional events. An instructional event involves working memory, long-term memory and the exchange of information between them.

Some of the main instructional events:

Supporting attention: It is easy to multi-task during virtual classrooms as there are no immediate social pressures to focus. Therefore the instructors must help guiding the attention into learning by employing visuals which stimulate the learners’ minds. Another thing may be to keep a lively pace, (1 slide per 1.5 minutes for example)

Activating prior knowledge from long-term memory into working memory: Learning is a process of incorporating new information with relevant information from working memory. In order for this incorporation to take place, relevant information must be loaded into working memory. Instructors can provide a review of the learnt lesson before each new lesson.

Managing cognitive load: Because working memory is limited, it must be used to attain instructional goals, rather than spent on processing extraneous things. One way to manage cognitive load is to combine visual and verbal explanations to take advantage of visual and auditory centers in working memory. Providing mixed step-by-steps examples and practices are more preferred than providing only one example followed by practices, this is because solving a problem takes more cognitive load than reviewing and studying examples

Aiding construction of new mental models: When the working memory is freed, then it can be used to construct new mental models – which are structures stored in long-term memory that encode our knowledge and skills. Graphics and words is a good approach because we have two corresponding encoders. Examples and practices is another good approach because studying examples to do a practice helps build up mental models on how to do things.

Encouraging transfer of learning: Storing working memory into long-term memory is not sufficient for learning but the learners must also be able to retrieve relevant information when necessary. This is called transfer of learning. Contexts is a good thing to have in lessons. Contexts should be set-up to mimic the real-world settings, so that later on when the real-world settings present the retrieval of information have already been reinforced several times.

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