Monday, June 14, 2010

Chunking the timeline

We hear a lot about chunking the content in instructional design. Chunking, for the uninitiated, means to offer content to learners in sections. The idea is that learners can only absorb so much at a time, therefore only put 'so much' in front of that at a time so they have the best chance to fully absorb all the important concepts.

Chunking the Content in eLearning

My area of specialty is online learning in particular, online learning for adults. Chunking is particularly important for these students for a couple of reasons. One reason is because they often can access the course for short spans of time, or they get interrupted while learning online. Chunked content lets them use short time spans effectively. Untimely interruptions don't have as large a detrimental effect on retention of the concepts when information is chunked.

Another reason for chunking content in online learning is we know people will only scroll so far on a webpage. Putting no more than 1 or, at most, two screens of information in front of them means the designer has a better shot at getting the learner to read everything. If the learning management system is cumbersome and creating separate pages for each chunk is not reasonable then adding headings and white space in between chunks can offer similar results for readability.

Chunking in Middle School

All of the above has been common knowledge to me for quite some time. In fact, when still teaching 8th grade I knew I could only give them so much at a time because their minds could only stay focused on the course materials for so long before they were off thinking about something else. At that time, I didn't know I was chunking the content... but that is what I was doing.

Chunking the Timeline

My new thought for the day is something a little different. I realize now we also need to chunk the timeline of activities in eLearning. Let me give you two examples happening over the last few days which helped me arrive at this new epiphany.

In one activity students were to find a partner, share their work for the week with one another, edit it, send it back to the author, and then the author would revise and post their assignment. (5 steps)

In another activity students were to post questions they wanted to pose to a guest expert, then the instructor was to create a poll or survey of the questions, and students were to vote on their top 6 question. (3 steps)


Each of the activities required multi-steps to occur and they both required actions by a second party, either a fellow student or the instructor. However, much as we would like to believe all our adult learners are devoted to the course and they log onto the course site and their email daily... this just isn't the case. Many adult students are very busy people. Some of them are one-nighters.

One-nighters are folks who sit down at their computer and try to do all the readings, complete all the assignments and activities, do all the discussions, and any other required course elements in one long sitting. While this isn't best practice, for some of them this is the best they can do. In fact, this is why some of them are not in traditional courses. They need this flexibility to 'do it all' in one sitting.

Face-to-face Chunking the Timeline

In face-to-face classes the instructional designer and instructor chunk the timeline for the students. "You have 2 min. to find a partner who shares your interest, you then have 10 min. to discuss this..." Steps are sequential and the timing is a part of the course session. As noted above, this is not how online learning works, esp. not for our one-nighter population.

Chunking the Timeline Theory into Practice

I do not advocate writing eLearning courses as if every student is a one-nighter. We do know that it is not best practice for students to do one-nighters. However, there are ways to take into account that the population includes one-nighters.

Separate the steps into different modules. In the case of the partner activity, finding a partner should occur prior to the assignment being given. In the case of the survey or poll the posting of questions should happen in one module, then the survey should occur in the next.

Offer workspaces
. Whenever students are expected to work together in online learning, whenever possible, offer them a group workspace. This helps eliminate the issue of student-to-student emails ending up in Junk Mail etc. Most LMS now offer some way to create group workspaces. If not, use Web2.0 tools, or ask the students to do so. There are tons of ways to work collaboratively online. (Working collaboratively online needs to be a separate blog posting. Look for that one in the future.)

Yours in ignorance

While I do know about chunking the timeline, I still have my moments of ignorance when I think all the learners will be logging in daily, checking email, working throughout the entire module. This is ignorant thinking on my part.