Friday, May 18, 2012

on learning objectives

Original post here.
Just read a great post that expresses most of how I feel about learning objectives.
2 years ago I would have said objectives are a crucial, irreplaceable part of designing learning. I know, I was inexperienced and naive. Especially because at that time I was just about to start researching learning using technology for professional development.
Since then, I’ve discovered that learning objectives are good for goal oriented people, and often those people are the designers. Not all learners have an explicit goal in mind when they start learning and not all learners want an objective handed to them when they decide to learn something.
It’s telling then, that the pro’s list features more pros for designers than learners themselves.
The pros
  • By defining learning objectives, you establish a clear target for you as a designer or instructor to aim for, expressed in terms of specific and measurable behaviours,
  • These learning objectives can then be used as the basis for designing appropriate assessments.
  • By analysing the objectives by type (knowledge, skills and attitudes in all their various guises), it is possible to formulate instructional strategies for each element of the intervention that are based on accepted good practice.
  • The objectives provide learners with a clear statement of what they are expected to achieve and what they can expect of the instructor or instructional materials.
Then cons list however, recognises that mandated learning isn’t the best way to ensure learners genuinely engage with content and are also motivated to learn. 
The cons
  • Learning objectives make sense when the learning intervention is driven from the top-down, i.e. at the behest of management. When participation in an intervention is determined by employees themselves, then their goals should surely over-ride any objectives set by the designer/instructor - at very least they should be negotiated.
  • Learning objectives work on the basis that specific outcomes can be consistently achieved for all learners, or at least most of them. This may well be reasonable with some types of learning, if only superficially. The reality is that the connections that learners manage to achieve in their brains as a result of a learning experience are likely to be very different from person to person and in some cases highly unpredictable, particularly when the objectives are more sophisticated than the rote acquisition of knowledge or the performance of routine, rule-based tasks.
  • Learners who are presented with highly formalised objectives at the commencement of a ‘lesson’ are likely to end up both bored and baffled. The priority at the commencement of any intervention is engaging the learner, not sending them to sleep.
Definitely there are times when learning objectives are required and are beneficial, however in the wide world of learning and more specifically learning with technology, they’re not *always* required. If a group of people are all motivated enough to engage with some content designed for learning, their objectives may all be similar, but they may all vary as well.
Recognising that people’s motivation and need for learning in any context is larger than a set of crafted objectives is the first step to finding the appropriate place for learning objectives.