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A matter of style
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By Clive Shepherd

When we sit down to design an online learning programme, there are three key factors that influence our design decisions: (1) the nature of the learning to be achieved, (2) our own beliefs and values in terms of how people learn and (3) the preferences of the learners themselves. It is this last and often neglected factor that is addressed by Clive Shepherd in this article. Individuals differ in how they like to learn, and as designers of online learning materials, we ignore these differences at our peril.

Contents
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A style for you
Ways of looking at style
Online learning styles
How style affects design

A style for you
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You may be an online learning designer, but you have preferences too! Here's a chance for you to clarify where you stand. Tick all those statements that are true for you:

I like to learn by throwing myself into tasks and getting on with it.
I prefer to think about things and explore all aspects before coming to a conclusion
I like logical principles, theories, models and systems
I'm always looking for new ideas I can use and am keen to try them out
I like to take things step by step in a logical, linear fashion
I prefer to look at the whole picture before going into detail
I like to learn new skills by watching demonstrations
I like to learn by looking at videos, diagrams and pictures
I like to learn by reading
I like to learn by listening to lectures and audio tapes
I like to learn by participating in face-to-face discussions
I like to learn by getting hands on

What type of learner does this make you? Well, it all depends which learning styles model you are using …
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Ways of looking at style
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There are various ways of classifying differences in learning styles. Here's three of the most common:

Activists, reflectors, theorists and pragmatists
This scheme was developed by Honey and Mumford in the mid 80s. It identifies four types of learners (descriptions courtesy of Honey and Mumford):

Activists
These love novelty, and will 'try anything once'. Give them a task, and they will throw themselves wholeheartedly into it. They like to get on with things, so they are not interested in planning what they are about to do. They live very much in the present. They get bored with repetition and what they see as raking over the dead embers of the past. They are exciting, vital, open-minded and gregarious.

Reflectors
These like to 'look before they leap'. They like to collect information and sift it. They are cautious, thorough people. They prefer to observe rather than take the lead. They are slow to make up their minds, but when they do, their decisions are very soundly based - not only on their own knowledge and opinions, but also on what they have learned from watching and listening to others. Though they are often quiet in groups, this stems from their 'Olympian detachment' rather than from nervousness.

Theorists
These live in a world of ideas. They have tidy, organised minds. They are not happy until they have got to the bottom of things and explained their observations in terms of basic principles. They want to know the logic of actions and observations. They dislike subjectivity, ambiguity, and those who take action that is not underpinned by a theoretical framework. When a teacher uses figures in support of an argument, it is the theorists who will ask questions about their statistical validity.

Pragmatists
These are also keen on ideas, but want to try them out to see if they work. They are much less interested in actually developing the ideas - in fact, they will cheerfully beg, borrow or steal those they think will help them take action more effectively. They enjoy experimentation, but are not interested in the long dissection of the results that would appeal to the reflector. They take the view that if something works, that's fine, but if it doesn't, there is no point in wasting much time wondering why. The thing to do is to find something more promising and try that. They love solving problems.

Clearly, these basic types are extremes, and most people have some characteristics of all four. Honey and Mumford have devised a highly sophisticated self-perception inventory to help people find out which type (or types) dominate in their particular case.

Left and right brain
In the last 20 years, research has revealed that the two hemispheres of the brain perform different functions. According to Rose and Nicholl (1997): 'the left brain specialises in academic aspects of learning - language and mathematical processes, logical thoughts, sequences and analysis. The right brain is principally concerned with creative activities utilising rhyme, rhythm, music, visual impressions, colour and pictures. It's our metaphorical mind, looking for analogies and patterns.'

Although each hemisphere is dominant in certain activities, they are both involved in almost all thinking. However, there is a major implication for how we learn:

Left brain
Predominantly left-brained people prefer a slow step-by-step build up of information; they are sometimes called 'linear' learners.

Right brain
Predominantly right-brained people need to see the big picture, to have an overview; they are the 'global' type of learner.

Auditory, visual and kinesthetic
Research by neuro-linguistic programming experts Bandler, Grinder and Grinder has identified three distinct communications and learning styles:

Visual
Learning through seeing. We like to see pictures or diagrams. We like demonstrations, reading or watching video.

Auditory
Learning through hearing. We like to listen to audiotapes, lectures, debates, discussions and verbal instructions.

Kinesthetic
Learning through phsyical activities and through direct involvement. We like to be hands-on, moving, touching, experiencing.

All of us utilise all three types of learning, but most people display a preference for one over the other two. In early life the split amongst the overall population is fairly even, but by adulthood the visual side has become dominant.

According to Grinder, 70% of learners will be able to cope however a lesson is presented, 10% will be unable to learn whatever method is employed (largely due to outside factors, but the remainder will only be able to learn in a visual, auditory or kinesthetic way.
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Online learning styles
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So which of these learning styles are likely to be most compatible with online learning as a method? Let's look at each of the classifications in turn:

Activists, reflectors, theorists and pragmatists
Activists are only going to be stimulated by designs that provide lots of variety and lots of opportunities to get stuck in. They are likely to try online learning at least once - their first experience had better be good!

Reflectors should respond well to online learning materials, as long as plenty of opportunity is given to reviewing the options and issues. Do not expect reflectors to take what you say at face value and simply move on to the next point.

Theorists should respond well to typical online learning materials, as long as the ideas are presented logically and methodically. They will not favour a discovery-led approach.

Pragmatists will respond to online learning as long as it clearly has a practical value to them. They will not be interested in developing their own theories, just picking up on anything that looks like it works.

Left and right brain
Much online learning is material is presented in a logical, linear fashion, so should be acceptable to those with a left-brain tendency.

If you are to get across to right-brainers, it's important to present the learning material in a holistic way, stressing the big picture. Much online learning material would be too logical and step-by-step to work effectively.

Auditory, visual and kinesthetic
The auditory learning style is hard to satisfy in online learning without an audio component (sound, video with an audio soundtrack, audio conferencing) and that requires network bandwidth. You might need to supplement online media with CD-ROM, TV / video, radio / audiotape, the telephone or face-to-face work.

Nearly all of online learning is visual, through on-screen text and graphics, so visual learners (and that's most adults) should respond well to the medium.

There's not much that's kinesthetic about online learning, so it's hard to see it working for these learners, in any major capacity.
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How style affects design
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What are the implications of learning styles? Is it really possible to create learning materials that will be 'all things to all people'? Here's some suggestions:

Links
Here are some sites that will allow you to explore the subject in more depth:

http://www.peterhoney.co.uk
Through this site you can obtain a copy of the Honey and Mumford Manual of Learning Styles. Their learning styles questionnaire is now world famous and could be helpful for surveying typical learners in your organisation.

http://www.rust.net/~lmolter/
Brain Works from Synergistic Learning Inc. is a Windows-based learning styles test that measures for left and right brain orientation and visual or auditory learning preferences.

http://www.funderstanding.com/about_learning.html
Funderstanding - an excellent site for exploring learning theories.

http://www.oise.utoronto.ca/%7Eggay/lstylstd.htm
Learning styles links - an extensive listing of sites dealing with this topic.

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