We learn in a multitude of ways, through formal learning encounters, through social situations, through problem solving and through adversity. Sometimes we learn specific skills, sometimes knowledge, sometimes we just learn a state of mind or a framework for problem solving.
In this series of five articles, i want to explore the five steps that i use when talking about e-learning. This isn’t so much a methodology as a checklist that i apply. For every complete learning experience, i try to ensure that we have covered off all five bases. Why five? There’s no magic in the number, it’s just a framework that i use, and it works for me.
Step One – Context
Context is very important for anything that we learn. It’s about understanding how the thing we are about to explore relates to the frameworks and knowledge that we already have. Understanding context is the only way in which we can fit the new information into our current understanding of the world and how it works.
Sometimes context is simple, and sometimes it’s complex. Sometimes setting the context depends on the context!
With more formal learning, it tends to be something we do easily. If we are preparing a project on ‘change’ within a business, we usually set the context by having a senior sponsor talking in a video. They usually set the scene and explain how the learning module relates to the learner. The things we need to watch out for here is not so much how this particular module relates to the learner, but rather how it relates to everything else that the learner is being asked to do.
It’s not uncommon for organisations these days to be in an almost constant stage of flux. Individuals have less job security, less security about where they work, and less of a sense of ownership of their own destiny. Working for a global player has it’s advantages, but you can be left feeling like a very small cog in a very large machine.
The challenge can come when we have sponsors talking, saying that ‘this is a key development, crucial to… whatever we are focussing on this week’. Learners can develop ‘context lethargy’! Sometimes, we don’t want to try to make out that every project is ‘critical’, that every piece of learning is ‘essential’, but rather, sometimes, we should look sideways, to understand the wider picture of learning that people are exposed to within the organisation.
When learning new knowledge, the context is more about the relevance, validity and provenance of the information. For example, if i’m at a conference, organised by a University, i will give greater credibility to the information than i will to a similar conference organised and sponsored by a business. This is a steady progression, right do to ‘the internet’, which has the least credibility (or sources like Wikipedia, which i haven’t fully decided about yet). The point is that the context of the learning has a material effect on the level to which i trust it, the notice i will take of what is presented, and the validity that i believe it has. Of course, just because something comes out of the University doesn’t mean that it’s actually true or ‘better’, but at least i know that there is a process of peer review that is, at the very least, a quality check.
It’s also important for individuals to know what the mandate is for learning. Are they being told that they have to learn something, begin asked if they can learn something, because everyone will benefit, or learning something because they want to. In the latter case, individuals can set their own context, something that we should be aware of, because we don’t want to clutter up the front of the learning if this is the case.
Sometimes we ‘overcontextualise’ things. When a new computer system is launched in a business, it’s pretty obvious that you need to learn to use it. There’s no need for a four minute video of someone telling me this. If we do have a video, it should, at least, be clear. It’s better to acknowledge that learning the new system is a pain rather than to flower it up with too much language about how it will benefit the customer, the company and so on. When it comes down to it, some things are just a drudge that you have to do, so there’s no point in trying to make it too pretty.
The context is the foundation for learning. It doesn’t have to be complex, it doesn’t even have to be explicit, but when we are thinking about creating a piece of learning, it’s important that we do, at least, consider it.