Instructional design and the theory-practice gap

I’ve long been conscious of the gap between educational theory and the practice of teaching in the disciplines.

It has always presented a danger for my kind of work—working with faculty to create online learning that works for students.

My perspective on this has shifted over my career – from when I was the first Learning Technologist at QMUL in the late nineties, to my role now in a global online learning operation, where I don’t get the chance to get my hands dirty with actual practice as often as I’d like. One sees different views of the same problem at different times in your career.

But I don’t think my fundamental stance has changed, and I wanted here to examine that stance as a forms of ‘notes-to-self’ towards a longer piece of writing on the subject somewhere else down the line.

So if you have stumbled upon this, thanks for indulging me. Some observations:

  • In online learning, we encounter the gap between educational theory and the practice of teaching in the disciplines all the time, but we don’t think about it enough.
  • This theory-practice gap, when educationalists meet educators, is to the detriment of successful educational design, and damages the quality of education that results from it.
  • Failure to address the gap, and to resolve how to close it, is largely the fault of us educationalists and not of the teachers in the disciplines (for in this matter it is we who are educating them—in how to teach their subjects online etc.—and only poor teachers blame their students).
  • Too often in online ed., educational theory people are on a side-mission to disrupt traditional forms of education (lecture, transmission, sage on the stage, essentialist or behaviourist models of education, etc.), and in framing it as a struggle between the enlightened (us) and the unenlightened (them), we create an oppositional dynamic—it is no good to create a dysfunctional relationship and then complain you are in a dysfunctional relationship…
  • Among educationalists in UKHE, a kind of soft consensus has hardened into natural lore, that says that we now know how students learn, how we should teach (or, rather, facilitate learning), and that these principles and methods are uncontested.
  • I do not think those principles and methods are uncontested – in the literature or in the experiential world. It isn’t a closed case, and there are major researchers and practitioners who demonstrate this clearly, working within other traditions: cognitive psychology… cognitive load theory… instructional- (rather than learning-) design…
  • (I have seen how bewildered online learners can be when they are faced with sincere applications of these principles, and I know what our student body – from 190 countries – tells us about what they value in online ed. And what they find frustrating and baffling.)
  • I am innately suspicious of closing off alternative traditions and voices. I do not think homogeneity in education is a sign that we are doing it right. The opposite, rather. We should encourage multiplicities of practice, and we should learn from disciplinary traditions, rather than speak over them.
  • We overstate the importance of instructional methods generally, as though the student is a blank slate and we are wholly responsible for whatever is written on it. That view underestimates the importance of non-instructional factors, such as motivation to learn, conditions for learning, expectation and perceptions of value, background socio-cultural factors, international perspectives and traditions, and the general tone and support of the environment in which the student is pursuing their studies.  Teaching is important, but it isn’t the whole deal.
  • We make things too complex too often.

One exchange comes to mind, from very early in my career. It was one of the first meetings of the M25-Learning Technology Group, maybe around the year 2000. We were talking about how faculty in the disciplines needed to learn about the new affordances for learning of the still relatively new consumer internet. One nationally esteemed figure, from the e-learning scene that formed around the University of North London, argued forcefully that it was our duty to teach the faculty how to learn the new language of online education.  I stood up, a bit flushed, and argued to the counter view -that we had to learn their language first, or we would never make any sense to them.

I think that’s still the problem, and I fear we haven’t put enough effort into becoming multilingual in that respect. We still don’t make enough sense to them.

Much more to say, some ideas (and some things we are trying out in my teams) but I’ll end here with a question:

In our efforts to create successful online education, how can an instructional design practice – with all the cultural antagonisms, & the time, financial, situational, & policy constraints that we labour under – tackle the problem of the theory-practice gap?