On-Demand Learning

An issue in the business training world, but a non-issue in HE.

Why not?

On-demand learning is where learning and support is available when a student needs to do or know something rather than when an administrator, course team/leader, module organiser or teacher decides it is to be taught. Currently more relevant to skills (how to do something) than theory (why it is this way). I wonder if we aren’t really missing a trick.

In the skills world, providing support and resources for knowing how to work through a complex statistical technique makes sense when a student’s data has been collected and there is a need to carry out an analysis. We don’t really target our teaching in this way. More traditionally, we teach students how to carry out the statistical test required somewhere in the middle of the programme and then tell the students we have already taught them this and they should have already learned it.

On-demand learning is already available, in some ways, through the use of  computer help systems. When you are not sure what to do, click on the help icon and hope the system can help you understand what you need to know.

However, in the theoretical sphere, on-demand learning doesn’t really play a part. I think it should. I don’t think it should be the only type of learning available, but it should augment what the learner has already learned. As an example, I might learn about the need to reverse questions in a survey as a measure of non-engagement when I take a research methods class that covers survey design. However, I should also be reminded of why I reverse some of the questions when I am actually working with a questionnaire. This is important for the long term recall and contextualisation of knowledge.

Given how memories are formed and stored, this is important in order to establish the right connections in the brain. We know that the immense (possibly infinite) capacity for memory is because of the way memories are formed and stored. Too often faulty analogies such as computers or tape recorders are used to describe memory formation and storage. in reality, memories are formed by the building of connections and bridges between parts of the brain, either at the level of a neurone, a system, or an area. There appears to be no upper limit on the number of connections that can be made, and therefore, no limit to memory.

However, making the connections to the right places is critical for the development of useful knowledge and understanding. When I first learn something, it might be stored as a tidbit of information that I need to pass a test. Later, that tidbit becomes contextualised when I have to use it in practise. This means more connections are made that tie the tidbit with something else.

As we increase the number of connections, our understanding of any concept is enriched and changed. The knowledge becomes contextualised and embedded and leads to a greater understanding of how the world fits together. Reminding students of theoretical tidbits throughout the learning process allows them to make connections that otherwise might be missed. In this way, on-demand learning is vital to developing understanding. Unfortunately, we usually rely on recall to enrich understand, and miss out on the opportunity to embed on-demand systems in our teaching.


Learning Spaces

In my last blog, I talked about the lecture theatre. It is a poor learning space – but a brilliant lecture space. It isn’t that you can’t learn in a lecture, it is just that better learning happens in other places.

Recent research points to social learning as being the primary driving force behind most of our learning. Communities of practice are pervasive in our lives, and are primarily responsible for the vast majority of the learning that we do. My interest in music is a massive motivator for learning – far greater than a grade. Outside of the area of primary research, almost all learning is reliant on the communication of ideas, knowledge, information, understanding or whatever you want to call it. This puts learning clearly in a social context. In the past, the social interaction was focused on the lecturer presenting and the student listening. Current pedagogic approaches centre on active and collaborative learning. Learning with others through discussion and reasoned argument. An approach marginalised in lecture-centric traditions.

In my last blog, I said that I thought that 2/3 or more of the lecturers would opt for a lecture-centric approach. However, that leaves maybe a third of HE teachers wanting something different. Wanting to explore how to foster active and collaborative learning in their teaching. That may not seem like a lot, but I have seen this in our own department (The School of Psychology at Bangor University).

Our teaching is about 70% lecture centric. That means, in a department our size (40+ core academic members of staff) that there are 12 – 14 members of staff who would like to explore other options. These other options rely heavily on flexible teaching spaces, and we simply do not have enough. I am not teaching any tutorial classes this year, but both last year and the year before, I was scheduled to teach a small tutorial group (20 students) in lecture theatres – because there was no other space available.

Have you ever tried to teach a tutorial in a lecture theatre? The space screams out to the students to sit quietly and listen. I would say that not ideal is being generous – it was not even adequate.

In our building, we have a space devoted to student group work. We call it our cluster space. It looks like this:

It is based on the computer group work spaces at the USITE/Crerar Computing Cluster and Cybercafé in the University of Chicago. Only ours were the budget model. We got large tables (up to 10 seated comfortably) and put a computer on the end with a big screen. We then used room dividers to delineate the spaces. There is a fair amount of open space in the room, and scheduled tutorial teaching has been encroaching on the resource. Other teaching that requires the tables and computers to be moved out has also been increasing. Last month, to the dismay of a half a dozen staff members, we made the decision that the space was to be prioritised for students and student group work (the heavily used original purpose of the space). The disappointed lecturers will have to look elsewhere for flexible learning spaces to use with their students.

Clearly, there is a demand for this kind of space. Space that is flexibly equipped with wireless access, tables, chairs, dividers, and presentation equipment. Rooms of a variety of sizes that will accommodate 15, 30, 50 or 100 students. This is the kind of learning space that good teachers want, and this is the kind of learning space that appears to be in short supply. This is the kind of space that we not only need, but that I would hope will be increasingly demanded in the future.

We have a new building project going on at the University, and I hope that we end up with 10 or 15 rooms made for learning. What I am afraid we will be getting is a few more rooms made for teaching.

The Lecture Theatre

I can’t help it. I’m going to post again about the lecture and the lecture theatre.

I’m going to repost some of what I said earlier in order to set the stage for my thoughts.

If these walls could talk… What would they say. Against a backdrop of Anywhere U’s full lecture theatre (I’ve been there plenty) Michael Wesch asks what the traditional lecture theatre represents. He makes the following list:

– to learn is to acquire information
– information is scarce and hard to find
– trust authority for good information
– authorised information is beyond discussion
– obey authority
– follow along

This has been what students have experienced for years – even centuries.

Lecture Theatre Popularity

It is easy to say that lecture theatres are an anachronism, but they are still the most popular teaching facilities, and are widely used. Recent research shows that students prefer lectures by a two to one margin, and that over 85% of them expect Powerpoint slides in the presentation. I would guess that if lecturers were surveyed, the margin who would prefer lectures would be even higher, with the use of Powerpoint at least as high. Even less amazing, I would predict that if administrators were surveyed (those who arrange, timetable,and resource teaching), they would prefer lectures and Powerpoint 99 times out of 100.


Because it is easy for the students, easy for the lecturers, and easy for the administrator. Passive learning is the hallmark of Higher Education today. I know there are excellent examples that break the mold, but for every excellent example, there are 99 examples of conformity – lectures with Powerpoint.

Historical Context

There is a good reason why we have lecture theatres. They have a stong historical context.

When Universities were first started, there were few resources (books etc.), and these resources were prohibitively expensive. Students sat and listened to an expert who told them what they knew, and the students wrote their own resources (notes) so they would have them for themselves. This model has been in place for centuries – except a couple of things have changed.

Books and information are no longer scarce. Even as recent as 30 years ago, there was often only a single copy of a journal or book in the library that had to be shared out among 10, 20, 50, 100, or 1000 students all taking the same class. Much of the information the students needed was difficult to access and was a scarce resource. The lecturer stood in the front and dictated information to the students.

Why do we still do this? Why do we insist on clinging to a model that is well past the sell by date on the package?

Information is not scarce. Within the walls of the lecture theatre, there exists all the information a student could want. With the click of a button or the swipe of a finger, the internet is available and ready to disgorge its contents onto a waiting screen

Not only do most lecturers not use what is available, there are lecturers out there who want to ban laptops and tablets from the classroom. They want to have the undivided attention of the class in order to impart of their wisdom. No questions asked… and most students are happy to comply.

Easy! Easy! Easy!

Is it any wonder students want Powerpoint slides of their lectures? They know that there is a world of knowledge available to them on any given subject. They also know that they will be tested on some of this information. Why not demand that the lecturer condense, organise, and present the information that is considered most important – saves the student from having to do it themselves. I’m waiting for the real advent of twitter in education. Give me a 90 minute lecture with 24 slides highlighting the most important points, accompanied by a single tweet (140 characters) of exam possibilities.

Why do lecturers prefer lectures. I think the main reason is ease. Lecturing is easy to do. In one hour (or 90 minutes or whatever) you can deal with 40, 50 100, 200 or 1000 students. In and out with minimal effort (plus the accompanying buzz). In addition, lectures are sustainable – easily recycled and reused. They are an easy way to teach.

For administrators they are heaven sent. Pack all the students together in a bunch and timetable them into one ginormous room for a few hours a week, and that’s all there is to it. Any other form of teaching takes additional resources and support that cost time and money. Not something an administrator wants to consider. This is not their fault – this is their job.

Easy, Easy, Easy – but difficult to defend. Some might say that by providing traditional lectures, we are satisfying all of the principle stakeholders. I believe that this is where education and learning part ways. We are providing an education that is only minimally interested in learning.