Thursday, December 2, 2010


I was having a discussion the other day with some folks about best practices for teaching online. Someone in the group piped up and said, "Oh, that's just a learner-centered teaching strategy." I thought about that for a nanosecond and said, "Well, if our primary objective in the online course space is to allow students to shape the learning outcomes, then yes, I guess I'm describing a learner-centered pedagogy."

I could tell my response didn't sit well with the person who made the observation, and I think I know why. The "learner-centered" phenomenon has been around for a long time. In the late 1990s we were applying it to corporate initiatives where we moved from knowledge-centered training to a focus on learning/training outcomes. The idea was to expand the training (F2F, computer-based, web-based, etc.) to include "shop floor" activities that lead the learner to their own desirable learning outcome, such as being able to perform a new task or to perform an old task better. The key to this approach is to provide the learner with opportunities to demonstrate their success in achieving their learning outcomes and aligning those outcomes with the overall training requirements.

In an online undergrad college course, we are not so much applying a learner-centered strategy as we are a sort of knowledge/learner hybrid pedagogy. Encouraging students (through design and prompts) to interact with the course content and with each other is one thing (and one aspect of learner-centered instruction). However, I don't know of any faculty who would openly adopt their students' goals for their course. A more realistic outcome is to have faculty identify and address the disconnect that almost always exists between their goals and those of their students. It's similar to the challenge of aligning corporate training outcomes and requirements, just more tedious.

There's a lot of value in learner-centered pedagogy. We just have to be cautious and deliberate in applying that pedagogy to online learning environments.

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