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Blending information and instruction

First published July 09, 2001 by Maish Nichani

In his book, E-Learning: Strategies for Delivering Knowledge in the Digital Age, Marc Rosenberg, identifies "information" as being an equally important part of learning as "instruction" is. In this article, I analyze some practical implementations of systems that blend these two aspects of learningÑa concept that seems to be catching on with many LMS vendors these days.

Information Vs. Instruction

Consider two scenarios: 1) a new business manager who needs to be inducted into the organization, and 2) a customer-support officer in a bank who needs to be updated on new promotions, services, etc., offered by the bank.

In the case of the new business manager, would you make him sit through a training session that outlines the objectives, deploys a specific instructional strategy, and finally assesses him on his understanding? No. Rather, you would describe some the of the basics, and then show him how he can access the relevant information (policies, forms, processes, etc.) in the company intranet. The new manager knows his job, he just needs to find the right information at the right time. The induction programme should orient him to finding this information.

Take the case of the customer-support officer. She is in direct contact with the bank's customers, and thus is responsible for a very important function. She not only needs to have all the right answers but also the right customer-centric attitude. When the bank introduces new services, she needs to know exactly what these services are, and how to explain them from the customers' point of view. In such a case, would you give her a service description database and a search function to do her job? No. Rather, you would implement a training session, where you would instruct and assess her on all angles of this new offering. You would research and deploy the most effective instructional strategy to meet these needs. In this case, information in itself won't suffice. Instruction is needed to achieve the desired performance.

Thus, there is a need to recognize that both information and instruction help in learning. As Rosenberg states:

"Some people argue that information is not training. That may be true, but if we value the information we are seeking enough to find it and understand it, i.e., turn it into knowledge, it may not be training, but it is learning. After all, if people didn't learn from information, why would anyone use a library in the first place? (p.65)

The following table lists the different characteristics of information and instruction (Rosenberg, p.13):

Information Instruction
Focused on a specific organization of content

Focused on a specific learning outcome

Purpose defined primarily by users Purpose defined by instructional designers, instructors, etc.
Based on the characteristics of the particular knowledge discipline and targeted users Based on a strong diagnosis of user characteristics and needs, and targeted to meet those specific needs
Sequenced for optimum reference Sequenced for optimum memory retention
Primarily centered on effective presentation Contains presentation, practice, feedback, and assessment components

When it comes to building applications or systems catering to a total learning solution, both these components of learning need to be incorporated. We can get a good working knowledge of how this can be done by taking a look at the support websites of Adobe and Macromedia.

The Adobe and Macromedia support websites
The support websites of Adobe and Macromedia are built to provide customer support for their products and servicesÑnot just on solving problems, debugging, and troubleshooting, but also on using and extending their products.

Both support websites offer a blended set of informational and instructional features that are listed below:

Feature Description
FAQs
- Information

The Adobe support site calls it "Top Issues".

The FAQs are a listing of the most frequently asked questionsÑwhat else?

These are not static/dormant pages, rather they reflect genuine problems faced by customers on a continuous basis. For example, if there is a software upgrade, or bug, the FAQ list may change to reflect this new state.

Knowledgebase
- Information
This is a searchable collection of articles/reports written by support staff pertaining to error messages, plug-ins, formats, upgrades, etc. In short, they are mostly solutions to technical problems. That's why Macromedia calls its knowledgebase TechNotes (e.g.TechNotes for Ultradev). Similarly, Adobe has a separate section called Technical Guides, which "provide graphically rich technical analyses of common support issues."
Forums/Newsgroups
-Information

These are conversational spaces for users to exchange their experiences, ideas, troubles, and solutions with one another. The support staff are also involved in these conversations.

Most often, common problems are taken from these forums/newsgroups and put into the FAQs or Knowledgebase sections.

See Macromedia's Support Forum

Articles
-Information
Articles are written by in-house/external experts, and describe new trends/techniques/tactics on using a particular function/process. See Adobe's Features Index
Training (tutorials)
-Instruction

These are instructional components that satisfy a specific need. In Adobe/Macromedia's case, these range from simple "How-to" nuggets, to full-blown tutorials.

See Adobe's Tutorial Index, or Macromedia University

Note from the above list that there are more "informational" features than "instructional" features. The reason seems quite obvious if we relate to the notion of "on-demand" learning, or "just-in-time" learning. After getting familiar with the software (using the manual, attending a training course, etc.), users would want continuous support for their urgent and immediate needs. Many of these needs are usually satisfied by specific informational nuggetsÑFAQs, knowledgebase entries, forums/newsgroups postings, articles, etc. But, if a need warrants an instructional approach, then the "tutorial" nuggets come into play.

New breed of LMSs

It's not too much of a stretch to imagine the benefits of having such support features as part of a corporate learning solution.

The new breed of LMSs are doing just that.

Many LMSs concentrate on the instructional component of learning and totally ignore the informational component. Those that do incorporate the informational component call it the "knowledge management" (KM) component, and refer to their solution as an "integrated learning solution".

Thus, if one were to chart the growth of LMSs, it would look something like this:

LMS growth

Many of the informational components in these new LMSs are similar to those found in Adobe/Macromedia support websites, and in KM systems. Some other components might include digital media repositories (DMRs), peer-to-peer applications (P2P), instant messaging applications (IM), etc. But as Harvi Singh points out in an article on the merging of e-learning and KM, "is important to look realistically at what is desirable, what is possible and what is practical. Each field has its own roots, biases, heroes, product leaders and areas of influence. Any form of convergence must recognize these differences and focus on the most likely areas of cooperation."

Links:

Conclusion

In his book, Simplicity, Bill Jensen informs us that 60-80% of us can't find or translate the information we need to make good decisions. The blend of information and instruction can be one positive step in alleviating this condition. As we enter the era of integrated learning solutions, the authoring of informational and instructional components will not be difficult, but authoring one in place of the other will certainly add to the confusion.

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