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Using Discourse in eLearning

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It might seem a little counterintuitive but we cannot just tell someone a piece of information and then expect them to remember it.  This is true of fact and figures and it is even more true of habits and behavior.  Unfortunately, lasting mental change takes time and effort.  Let us take a brief example.  What was the last thing someone said to you?  Not just the gist, but the actual words. If you can remember great, but if you were not able to, that is nothing to be ashamed of.  Remembering discourse, extended passages of words, is extremely difficult, and becomes even more difficult when the discourse is dense or filled with facts and figures.

Given the limitations of discourse for actually remembering specific pieces of information, one might assume that it would be best to simply eliminate discourse altogether within a learning context.  This kind of free exploration does have its place within an sort of learning culture, and it can be very helpful, especially for self-starters and people who like to take charge of their own learning.  However, this tactic does have some serious drawbacks.  

First and foremost, free exploration can often lead a learner “off the reservation” as it were.  As they connect one idea to another, they may become distracted and, like Alice following the white rabbit, end up falling down a hole.  

The main advantage of discourse is not to actually communicate new information.  Rather, the communication of new information is merely incidental to discourse’s real purpose: keeping the learner on the reservation.  If the learner’s goal is to learn about the fall of Ancient Rome, then they will need a certain amount of historical and political context.  However, if they are allowed to explore with complete freedom, then they may end up spending more time learning about one specific tribe of ancient Germans who had contact with the Roman Empire, rather than the actual topic which they were supposed to be investigating.

Discourse offers an ordering mechanism which keeps the learner focused on the topic at hand.  Through discourse, new information can be presented to the learner, and then reviewed before moving on to a new subject.  Discourse helps form the diffuse learning project into a more linear experience.  But there can be too much of a good thing, and an overabundance of discourse presents the danger of robbing a course of its excitement and personalization.  

It is for this reason that discourse cannot be presented all on its own.  Interactive portions must be placed with consistent frequency throughout the sections of discourse or else the learner will be more likely to disengage.  As John Medina puts it in his book Brain Rules, “We don’t pay attention to boring things,” and even the most engaging piece of discourse will eventually become boring simply through lack of variety.  

In order to the make the best use of discourse in an eLearning context, discourse needs to do three things.  First, it needs to introduce whatever topic the learner is about to engage with.  Here discourse can provide crucial context and general background information which will prep the learner for the interactive portion which will cement their new knowledge.  Second, it needs to provide transitions to keep the learner moving through the course, letting them know that a certain topic is now closed, and here are the most important take-aways before moving on.  Third, discourse is one of the best ways to keep things in perspective.  Throughout a course a learner will be exposed to a lot of new information, and it is not always clear what information is the most important or how each pieces relates to the others.  While it might be possible for an individual to see how all the various pieces they have learned fit together on their own, discourse provides an excellent way to bolster and assist that organic insight.

Like any other aspect of eLearning, discourse is a tool.  It has its place and its uses, as well as its drawbacks and limitations.  The key to employing it effectively is to recognize all its advantages and disadvantages and apply it accordingly with the goal of always creating the best piece of educational material possible.