Wednesday, December 14, 2011

A Conducive Learning Environment: To Guide or Not to Guide

I can’t say enough about the guided inquiry approach that I’ve used in the classroom over the years at both the college and secondary school levels. A sizable chunk of this pedagogic enthusiasm no doubt stems from a tightly embraced Socratic approach to learning. But as an instructional technologist, with an unwavering penchant for multimedia and digital technology in a perpetual critical thinking and creative environment, I view the guided inquiry approach as a proven pedagogic tool.

That’s why I’m especially intrigued over Siemens (2008) and his provocative but praiseworthy paper on learning theories in the digital age. As a veteran communications instructor, I certainly can see all sides of the issue regarding instructional guidance when it comes to computers, the Internet, and, by extension, multimedia and digital technology. Learners, as I continue to find out, handle and absorb content in the technology environment differently, which requires certain pedagogic adjustments on the part of educators and learners. But I’m not so sold on the concept in the students’ interfacing with multimedia and digital programs and applications that minimal guidance, as Siemens (2008) posited in his Mitra (2007) “hole-in-the-wall” reference, is the most effective approach. Granted, this had to do with a children’s research study in which computer learning was achieved with minimal instructional input involving computers. But my question is, what constitutes “minimal guidance”? Is it having a group of youngsters, in this case ages 6-12, turning on their computers and going to an application or a program, without the instructor making reference to any program nuances or complexities? Or, is it reinforcement of digital content, where and when applicable? As a seasoned communications and technology instructor, I submit that “minimal” at this point begins to take on a whole new aura or meaning, making it not only pivotal but something akin to a concept being in the eye of the beholder.

But regardless of the pedagogy, behaviorism in educational technology no doubt shifts depending on the task or the assignment. I can just imagine what the learning environment was like in the 1960s when Skinner’s (Saettler, 2004) teaching machines and programmed instruction were beginning to make their mark on a skeptical but increasingly technologically-savvy society. From my vantage point, this behavior in multimedia and digital technology kind of ebbs and flows among students depending on the application or program. When a group of my gifted and academically talented middle school students started using their iPods to make videos a few years ago, I literally had to pry them away from my computer lab to go to their next class. I got the same enthusiastic response from the same group when I introduced them to electronic organizer programs such as Inspiration® and Timeliner® that literally involve bells and whistles.

However, class enthusiasm was a little more subdued when the students had to work with graphics and enhanced illustrations in Macromedia’s Fireworks as part of a WebQuest® (WebQuest.Org, 2007), which required constant interaction with me as their instructor using this increasingly popular electronic lesson tool. There was no other choice but to assume a more guided posture as their instructor to spur the kind of requisite engagement necessary to achieve the WebQuest® task.

So to guide or not to guide is a pedagogic dilemma in which educators may often find themselves. My suggestion for a possible solution is not only to monitor learner behavior as technology continues to expand, but to couple the efforts with a heavy dose of engagement to help bring about a more conducive learning environment.


Saettler, P. (2004). The evolution of American educational technology. Greenwich, CT: 
           Information Age Publishing.

Siemens, G. (2008), January 27). Learning and knowing in networks:  Changing roles for

           educators and designers. Paper presented to ITFORUM. Retrieved from


WebQuest.Org (2007). The WebQuest Research Forum. Department of Educational Technology,

           San Diego State University. Retrieved from

1 comment:

  1. Great post Fred! I think 'minimal guidance' also has to do with the way the technology is designed- I have stated in other posts that my daughter ( who is 3) can interact with the Ipad like a pro. She needed about 10 minutes of instruction and off she went. It took her about 2 weeks to master her little leap pad cheapo laptop, which is a toy designed for her age. It's not intuitive in nature, the graphics are clunky, the use of touch non existent. So I agree with you that the application and the program make all the difference!