Imagine you are a teacher of chemistry and you want to impart your knowledge of hydrogen bonds to your students. That’s a big undertaking given that students have a different prior knowledge and are equipped with numerous misconceptions about chemical molecules. How would you do that? You would certainly make them talk so that you understand what they already know. You would also give them a short lecture on how hydrogen bonds work. You would also provide them with some activites to practice their newly acquired knowledge.

But why would your students care? Hydrogen bonds are not as interesting as sports, celebrities or the usual chitchat. As a teacher you know that motivation is not achieved by alluring student with nice looking pictures on your power point. Instead, students get motivated when they are able to solve problems by themselves. They want to feel competent, they want to learn if they are of the opinion that they are capable to do so.

But first, students will not be able to solve problems on their own, so you give them guidance along the way. Over time you fade your guidance until the students are capable of solving other problems on their own.

Such a procedure is in fact a common example of recent instructional design models. Among those models, problems are at the heart of teaching. The 4C/ID-Model by Jeroen van Merrienboer for example is a very elaborated model that works like this: Students are provided with a set of different problems, which are authentic whole-task experiences. Imagine a student is faced with the problem to find out why flies are often able to walk on water. For many people, especially young kids, this is a fascinating problem, since it betrays common sense. Yet, many problems are hard at the beginning. That’s why the 4C/ID-Model incorporates lots of learner support at the beginning, which disappears as the student progresses. One problem is seldom enough. Hence, students are faced with multiple problems that show high variability. The idea is that students are encouraged to think beyond mere surface features of a problem and distill the concepts and principles behind them. To be even more efficient and knowledgable in a domain you also need highly automated skills that occur every time. You are currently reading this blog post, the act of reading, however, is highly automatized, so you don’t have to think about it anymore. Wouldn’t it make sense then to train these recurring skills in order to make them part of your skillset? That’s what the 4C/ID-Modell also tries to achieve.

Another recent model is the First Principles of Instruction. It was developed by David Merrill and goes like this: For every learning environment, problems should be at its heart. About the same real-world problems we found in van Merrienboer’s model. Students get multiple problems with a high degree of variability and we fade the learner support as they get better. Another central idea is that we should demonstrate the skills we expect from the students. It strikes me as utterly strange that we have to remind people to demonstrate their knowledge to others. It is the most natural form of conveying subject matters to others. Before schools and universities existed, people showed learners how to do stuff. Not only is it natural, it is also highly efficient. A vast amount of research has shown that worked examples - as an example of demonstrating knowledge to others - works. Almost everytime it is more efficient that letting students work out a problem by themselves. But learners also want to share their knowledge with others. They want to reflect on it, discuss controversies and defend their line of argument. This is what Merrill calls Integration. We should encourage learners to do exactly that. Another popular framework, the ICAP framework by Michelene Chi also proposes that idea. Interactive activities that allow learners to discuss, review, and debate about their newly acquired knowledge should be more effective than constructive activities, in which students reflect and self-explain their knowledge by themselves.

This is the state-of-the-art in instructional design. Why then do e-learning courses miss these instructional principles so often? Indeed, e-learning courses are often so parsimonious when it comes to educational best practices. There is certainly not a single answer to that question. The first is simple, it takes a lot of time and effort, which is often lacking in highly competetive business environments. But that can’t be the whole answer, since instructional designers could at least try to work towards that goal.

I think the main reason is that we have acquired a wrong metaphor of learning in e-learning. Have a look at a bunch of e-learning courses. They are usually structured among topics, have some instructional videos to convey the subject matter and provide students with multiple choice questions at the end of each unit (see Margaryan, Bianco, & Littlejohn, 2015). Again, imagine our fictitious teacher teach in that way. She says hello to her class, gives them a short lecture and then after each lesson she provides them with some multiple-choice questions. Everyone goes home and most students are still confused about hydrogen bonds. Why? Because such a design lacks most features of effective learning environments.

A common argument in defense of this bad instructional approach is that building a learning environment among whole-task problems is not attainable in online learning environments. Is that so? Certainly not. Demonstration does not require lots of technical ingenuity. You only have to make a video explaining stuff. No big deal. Integration is certainly more difficult. How do you get students to reflect and discuss about the stuff they have learned. A bad method is to give them a forum and kindly ask them to do so. They will not. Instead, make it part of your assessment. We call this technique constructive alignment and it works like this: Define clear learning goals, design your learning activites so that they help learners to achieve these goals and align the assessment to these learning goals. The trick here is that students cannot dodge the learner part and just do a quick assessment to get their certificate. If students are required to reflect and discuss about their learning as part of the assessment, they will do so. In terms of providing students with realistic problems, some companies have already found good solutions. Udacity for example provides learners with so called Nanodegrees. Every Nanodegree has a few central projects the students have to solve by themselves but with additional guidance from others. That is a good approach, which is in line with current instructional design models.

I believe we can do better as instructional designers that want to make good e-learning courses. Let’s try to work with realistic problems more often and see how it works. It is also fun. Just think how you would react to such an e-learning course. The course won’t start with an instructional video on how hydrogen bonds work. No, you would be faced with a difficult problem that you find interesting: Why do flies are able to walk on water. Mmmmh. Since you are not able to solve this problem yet, your instructor gives you a hand and demonstrates that the reason are the characteristics of the hydrogen bonds. You then are faced with another interesting problem, but this time, you have to do more work. If you think such a learning environment would be more effective than the usual boring I-tell-you-all-I-know-and-then-you-get-a-quiz metaphor, you are ready to change the way you design e-learning courses.