Skillagents: Active Learning

I recently got back into the Skillagents course and completed the next section on active learning. This part of the course begins to delve into the application of the ideas discussed in the mindset modules; into how to transition from passive content based learning to contextually embedded integration of skills with attitudes, or “making meaning”. This part of the course also begins to explore the psychology of learning and the different types of thinking that learners need to utilize in active learning. The ingredients of active learning are threefold: gathering of ideas and information in the form of text, audio, and video, meaningful and relevant physical and cognitive experiences through real world simulations, case studies or observation of experts, and reflection and feedback.

Although there are similarities between passive and active learning, they both include expertly curated content, the difference lies in the design of the course or how the learners are expected to interact with this content. These interactions are related to the second two ingredients for active learning. The first of these, authentic simulations, is something that I have been thinking about a lot lately. Since starting to explore the world of instructional design a discussion that I have followed is that instructional design for academics and business are distinct and incompatible generally due to the idea of return on investment. Either you learn to design for the business world or institutions of higher learning. I first saw this argument from Cathy Moore’s blog post regarding her approach to scenario building through action mapping. I agree with her that designing for both worlds is not the same, but the overlap is becoming increasingly blurred. Recently, Christy Tucker wrote a great piece looking at the ideas inherent in active learning for higher ed. Her post had some great ideas for courses in psychology and teacher training. It seems that students in higher education are demanding a return on their investment. They want real world skills so that they can be employable. Employers too are finding that graduates don’t have the requisite skills necessary to enter the workforce. We have seen attempts in the past to answer this through for-profit institutions like ITT Tech or Devry, and many community colleges are focused on helping students transition into the workplace, something I learned about in my recent design course for adult basic education through Designers for Learning. Therefore it seems that it is a responsibility of college level courses to be designed for active learning, and to provide authentic scenarios for students to practice real world skills. This call is already being answered in the private sector through companies like 2U and CorpU, and if higher ed institutions want to stay current and relevant they need to be doing the same thing.

The last ingredient of active learning, reflection, begins to explore the psychology of learning. Thinking can be divided into system 1 which is associative, impulsive, and emotion, and system 2 which is analytical, logical, hierarchical. Obviously, reflective activities need to be designed to help learners tap into this system 2 type thinking. This is much harder to do, and requires a greater responsibility on the learner and the designer. It is the designer’s responsibility to provide opportunities for deep reflection, through insightful and challenging discussion questions in a safe place that is actively moderated and defined by appropriate guidelines. It is the learner’s responsibility to dedicate the time and mental resources necessary to genuinely engage with these reflective prompts.

Designing active learning is no easy task, it requires insight from subject matter experts, and an architect’s sensitivity in planning the course, but if successfully designed for learners to actively engage with meaningful content in real-world context it can lead to meaningful and significant changes in learners’ lives in both corporate or academic institutions.


Skillagents: Value Mindset 

The third and final mindset in the Skillagents course is the value mindset, and I found it to be the most inspiring as well as challenging. The value mindset asks designers to dream big for the potential value a course can have for the learners. It urges the designer to not simply make artificial knowledge the goal of the course which is rewarded with a hollow certification, but to assist learners in making long term changes to the skills and attitudes related to the course objectives rooted in the real world.

These lofty goals are met by asking regularly what value the course can have for the learners not only by the end of the course, but long term. This value can be defined through empathy with the learners’ and their needs, and can be achieved by providing genuine and meaningful contexts to prepare learners to make appropriate decisions for future tasks.

This is all well and good, quite inspiring to want to change lives, but reality is never that easy. Learners come to our classes for a variety of reasons  and with a multitude of preconceived notions and expectations. From my own experience with EFL learners in South Korea, who have experienced over ten years of passive English education, the final 3 – 6 years with the sole focus of passing the English section of the college entrance exam, a majority enter my conversational and academic English classrooms disheartened and numb. Their communication language skills have plateaued and the majority of students just want to complete the required courses and get on with their degree. This is what Anna Sabramowicz calls the impossible staircase illusion. A situation where learners don’t see their progress and lose sight of the value of your course.This type of situation is not unique and can occur in other contexts, such as where learners are participating in required training for the workplace. It is in response to these challenges where the designer has to be the most vigilant, explicit, and ambitious.

Vigilance is necessary because there is a temptation for the designer or trainer to respond to the learners’ indifference to mandatory courses with equal resolve. Let’s just get through this. Let’s just satisfy the requirement. This attitude can sneak in over time, but through conversations with colleagues, and participation in professional development of their own, designers can remain vigilant and continue to design courses that challenge and motivate learners.

The designer must also be explicit in the description of the objectives of the course. It is well known that the objectives of a course should be described at the beginning of a course when working with adults, and that these goals should be described in the learners’ language, not overly academic or industry-laden terms. However, as mentioned above the goals should extend past the end of the course, and these should also be clearly communicated to the learners in order to demonstrate the value the course can have for learners in the future.

This brings us to the last idea of being ambitious, and inherent in this idea is a certain vulnerability. It is not easy to share your ambitions for the course with your learners. Especially if learners are already approaching your course with a certain level of indifference or incredulity. But if bravery and enthusiasm is encouraged in your design and incorporated throughout, it will be met with equal amounts enthusiasm for the course goals and objectives from learners. 

In conclusion, the value mindset module was very inspiring. It made me reevaluate the design of my past courses, and how I define and communicate the course objectives to my learners. It made me want to be more ambitious with what I expect from my learners and myself. I am excited for the next iteration of the courses I design. 

Skillagents: The Lecture Mindset

The lecture mindset is an extension of the ideas presented in the content-centered courses module in Skillagents. As the previous post mentioned lecture based courses homogenize learners, and create passive learning environments which can reduce learner motivation and engagement. It also restricts flexibility for both the educator and learner, in terms of missed classes or other unexpected events. Finally, it presents the danger of creating knowledge gaps because the synchronous or face-to-face time spent with learners is filled primarily with lecture material, and reduces learners opportunities to question what they are learning or for the instructor to explore “teachable moments”.

The solution, lies in blended learning, or the flipped classroom, something that I have explored in recent posts. This approach frees both the learners and the educator to be more exploratory in the learning process, but places more responsibility on each party as well. The educator acts as a curator of beneficial educational resources, needs to provide more individualized mentoring to students, and have confidence responding to problems with the technology necessary for blended learning solutions. The learner too must act more autonomously, completing the necessary requirements before entering the class, and participating actively and appropriately in the online space of the course.

One way to ensure that these roles are being achieved throughout the course is through regular self and course evaluation by all parties. These assessments can have many functions. Simple pre-assessments can used to determine learners’ expectations for the course and their familiarity with the content. Weekly “check-ins” are not only a great way to learn how learners are responding to the course, but also as a means of informal summative assessment to gauge learners’ understanding and usage of the content provided.

There are three important aspects of these evaluations that need to be remembered. First is that these assessments should be in the form of short open-ended questions that encourage learners to share their individualized and honest responses to the course. Second, the responses should be categorized into changes that can be put into place immediately, in the next module, or the next iteration of the course. Finally, results should be shared with class to demonstrate that their perceptions of the course are valued, and to nurture a dialogue about the learning process.

Skillagents: Post-Content Mindset

I recently completed the first mindset module in Skillagents, which identifies several problems with content-based courses. Content-based courses are traditional courses where an all-knowing educator spews knowledge of a topic that they know quite a bit about with the hope that learners will be able to regurgitate it back to them at a later date.


The first problem is that with advent of the internet the content is everywhere, free, and its legitimacy is improving. For example universities like MIT are providing lectures and full courses for free digitally. That is tough competition, and learners are going to question why they need to pay X amount of dollars to hear you lecture when they can find comparable or better content in minutes on their phone.

The second problem with content-based courses or just content itself, is that there is no context. Real world context allows learners to absorb, retain, and apply new knowledge. Just think back to any of your previous lessons in education. A great deal of content has been lost, I am sure, because the necessary connections between information and application were not strong enough in the first place or regularly repeated in meaningful ways.


The final problem with content-based courses is that they are not individualized. Generally, a one-size fits all mentality is used to ensure that learners with less experience in a certain topic are not left behind. The assumption that all learners are at a certain level, stifles motivation and opportunity for learners to engage with the content.

Content-based courses are everywhere, and they are hard to kill. I have experienced my share of content-based courses, and admittedly taught several content-based courses. The reason that these types of courses continue to persist is that the alternative takes time. To address the problems mentioned above, and create courses that are individualized, and which provide opportunities for real-world application takes time and skills. Time and skills that many educators or subject matter experts don’t have. Therefore it is the role of a quality instructional designer to guide those with valuable content in creating a course where the value of the course is understood to the learner throughout the course. This idea of value is one of the keys to a course’s success, and is achieved by creating a lifelong effect on the learner through the meaningful real-world application of lessons learned.

Skillagents: First Impressions

Several months ago I completed two very valuable courses: Blendkit 2016 and Designers for Learning: OpenABE but both were dramatically different in how they made me think about instructional design. I have detailed my experience with Blendkit on this blog, and described the lesson I designed for Designers for Learning on my portfolio. One feeling that has plagued me since I discovered instructional design, is a constant feeling of being behind. I assume that is common for tech integrated careers: how to stay current? I have made a commitment to myself to always be learning, reflecting and adapting. Luckily I found a course whose goals are to train me in just that: Skillagents.

Anna Sabramowicz has not only provided a wealth of knowledge regarding instructional design, but she practices what she preaches. Her lessons are approachable, engaging, and clearly organized. Not only that but she has built a strong community in Facebook with current and former Skillagents. She encourages, if not demands full participation in the course and regularly and personally checks in on you, asking for feedback in the course, pointing out new resources available to you, or in my case keeping me on track with the lessons.

The first part of the course is a general overview of the current climate of education and how this is both intimidating and exciting. Traditional education is changing if not dead, and instructional designers can be active participants in the engineering of new types of educational experiences if they are willing to adapt to these changes. One of the primary changes is that now the learner has greater access to information and greater control of his or her learning, and the it is the goal of the instructional designer to place the learner as the primary focus of the lesson.

Skillagents is clearly focused on the learner and I look forward to learning more valuable lessons and using this blog to reflect on what I am learning, how it is encouraging me to adapt, and in what ways.