What do we mean by learner-centred e-learning?

Placing the learner at the centre of the learning process is often encouraged in e-learning design yet frequently misunderstood. I find that the examples provided in articles about this topic repeatedly ignore the real meaning of this approach.

If you think adding the following to your e-learning designs make it learner-centred, I’m afraid I have to disagree (this is a snapshot of suggestions offered in numerous articles about the same):

  • Use scenario-based design with 3-4 choices every few screens (some designers say this gives ‘control’ to the learner and is therefore learner-centred – really?)
  • Give the learners a choice of media, for example they can either watch, read or listen to content (learner-centeredness is not about tools, it’s a philosophy)
  • Offer more information to the learners who would like to explore the topic in more depth (learner-centeredness isn’t about the amount of information you provide to your learners – giving them choice in your package doesn’t make it more learner-centred)
  • Make sure you have a good understanding of who your learners are (that doesn’t make it learner-centred – it all depends how your design philosophy builds on this information)

These are all very useful learning design approaches to increase motivation, but they don’t make a course more learner-centred. They overlook the essence of learner-centred learning as a mindset and a facilitation approach which is related to and supported by constructivist theories of learning.

The four learner-centred principles for e-learning courses

Jonassen et al. (1995)* (yes, almost 20 years ago!) writes: “Constructivist principles provide a set of guiding principles to help designers and teachers create learner-centred, collaborative environments that support reflective and experiential processes.”

According to Jonassen there are four distinct attributes of learner-centred effective e-learning courses:

  • Context refers to the ‘real world’ scenario in which learners can carry out learning tasks as close to the real world as possible. What we mean here is a complex ill-structured scenario, not the mini scenarios typical of compliance training.
  • Construction means that learners acquire knowledge better when they can link their own experience with the learning materials and make sense of them.
  • Collaboration offers the opportunity to learners to develop, test, and evaluate their ideas with peers – which in turn exposes them to multiple perspectives in a problem-solving case. This is an important part of the learning process.
  • Conversation with peers strengthens the learning and helps with planning, collaboration, and meaning making.

Are these elements present in your e-learning? No? If you’re developing compliance training, there is no need to. Compliance training isn’t learner-centred.

If you’re developing training that isn’t aimed at compliance but rather aspires to promote behaviour change, reflection and critical thinking, then these principles are very relevant. Learner-centredness becomes a key element to people’s engagement in such training and ultimately its success. This type of eLearning design needs a specific type of eLearning designer: a guide on the side.

Would you like to become a ‘guide on the side’ e-facilitator and/or e-learning designer? The next e-facilitation workshop starts on 16 February 2015 and the next eWorkshop design course starts on 20 April 2015. Have a look at our training page for more information. Early bird rates available!


*Jonassen, D., Davidson, M., Collins, M., Campbell, J., & Haag, B. B. (1995). Constructivism and computer-mediated communication in distance education. The American Journal of Distance Education, 9 (2), 7-26
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