Learning as conversation
Diana Laurillard’s conversational framework feels like a very powerful model for understanding how formal learning works and how best to design effective learning objects. It is the best kind of theory: one that informs practice. It starts by identifying the main characteristics of a learning encounter, develops from these a typology of learning experiences, and finally maps this to a taxonomy of media forms appropriate to each type of experience.
Building on the Socratic tradition of dialectic, the social constructivist learning theories of Vygotsky and Piaget and the conversation theory of Pask, Laurillard maintains that all complex learning involves
a continuing iterative dialogue between teacher and student, which reveals the participants’ conceptions and the variations between them… There is no escape from the need for dialogue, no room for mere telling, nor for practice without description, nor for experimentation without reflection, nor for student action without feedback. (Laurillard, 2002)
She divides her learning conversation into four phases – “the basic characteristics of every learning encounter” – as follows:
- a discursive phase in which the teacher presents a new concept and learners enter into a dialogue with the teacher, trying out the idea and its corresponding language, questioning and clarifying.
- an interactive phase in which learners interact with teacher-constructed tasks, attempting to put the new concept into practice, and getting feedback on their performance
- an adaptive phase in which learners attempt to put their ideas into practice, modify their ideas and adapt their actions in the light of what they have learned, and make their own links between ideas and events; and
- a reflective phase in which learners consider their experience of 2) and 3), reflecting on their learning, relating the theory back to the practice, adjusting their thinking in the light of reflection and framing future actions to be more successful.
Next, she adduces from these characteristics a fourfold typology of learning experiences, like this:
Finally, Laurillard turns to the characteristics of the different teaching media – which she groups into narrative, interactive, adaptive, communicative and productive media – and maps these media forms to the types of learning they support, and the technologies needed to deliver them. The resulting taxonomy looks like this:
Laurillard’s framework is intended to define any formal learning encounter, and the appropriate media technologies she lists include traditional as well as digital ones. But for eLearning practitioners the framework poses the question – which online technologies are best suited to supporting the range of experiences needed for signficant online learning to take place?
Here’s my attempt at an answer..
Narrative media such as digital text, video or audio files are readily attended to and aid apprehension by providing structure and coherence to the learning content. However they are linear media. They can present only the teacher’s ideas, terminology or instruction – not the learner’s reaction or reformulation of them. They support only the first, non-dialogic, part of the discursive phase of learning.
Interactive media such as hypertext, simple learning objects and the world wide web itself are non-linear media and therefore support exploration and discovery. They allow students to make their own links and follow their own lines of enquiry. They also allow some limited intrinsic feedback (ie feedback that comes from the activity itself) and, when combined with narrative media setting goals and giving guidance, interactive media can support the discursive as well as the interactive phases of the learning encounter.
Adaptive media such as more elaborate learning objects, simulations and virtual environments give the learner significantly more control over their interaction with the learning experience. Learners can experiment with changing the parameters, can model systems or environments, and can see what happens when they try to put their new learning into practice. They can also get more detailed intrinsic feedback, and may be able to log the interactive process and thus begin to reflect upon it. Adaptive media therefore support both the interactive and adaptive phases of a learning encounter, and may also support the final reflective phase as well.
Communicative media such as CMC, chat and online social/collaborative environments obviously support the discursive dimension of learning. The discussion and debate that these media allow with both teachers and other learners support the second, dialogic, part of the discursive phase of learning; but they also provide an additional source of learning content in the form of information and ideas, and enable extrinsic feedback during the interactive and adaptive phases – thus supporting reflection during the final two stages. Communicative media (eg in the form of wikis and blogs) can even provide the output of productive learning. On their own however they cannot easily support the interactive and adaptive phases of the learning encounter.
Finally, productive media such as a webpage or blog post or digital object or model of some kind – these enable an output from the learning in which the learner articulates and shares what they have learned, considers the learning experience, adjusts their original conception in the light of the interaction, and reflects upon the significance of the experience. Productive media support the final, reflective phase of the learning encounter, and will often overlap with communicative media.
What emerges is that while each media form supports a different dimension or dimensions of the learning encounter, none of them can support every dimension. Narrative media support the apprehensive dimension and may be all you need for a purely instructional approach; interactive and adaptive media support immersive, exploratory learning and on their own result in a game-like experience; communicative media support the discursive and productive dimensions, and for pure peer-to-peer learning may be all you need. But to support the kind of deep or complex learning which engages all the phases of the learning encounter, you need a combination of media forms.
Laurillard, D, 2002. Rethinking University Teaching: A Conversational Framework for the Effective Use of Learning Technologies, 2nd edition. London: RoutledgeFalmer