Learning is a delicate process. There are many factors that mitigate against its successful accomplishment. It is more than just the conveying of an understanding, or the imbibing of certain information. It should be a confirmation of the integrity of the information transfer, from the external media and resources to the interior of a persons mind, and the ability of that person to accurately recall and apply that information in a meaningful way. This high standard of ability cannot be achieved unless a lot of preparatory work (i.e. creation of clear, concise and relevant course material along with the design of benchmark questionnaires) is done on the part of the educators. It can also not be achieved unless students are engaged in the learning process in a focussed and directed way.
Some of the pitfalls in the learning process are: A lack of interest, enthusiasm or commitment on the part of the student or instructor. Deficiencies in source material - outdated, irrelevant, incorrect, poorly prepared data. Deficiencies of instructor - ill-prepared, lacking in knowledge or teaching skills. Miscommunication of study material [book, lectures, videos], thus undermining the potential for its useful application. Poor retention and recollection of information. Inability to relate stored information to application areas.
Other problems include: A lack of skilled training personnel. Education not available when it is needed for example on a part-time basis instead of full-time only. Education not available where it is needed for example in remote regions. High cost of education.
At a micro level, one definition of an ideal educational system may be described as follows:
Each student, after attending classes presented by highly competent instructor and after independently reading through properly prepared course material - as well as after trying to absorb the information naturally - would be tested by a panel of experts in the field of study. The team of experts play the pivotal role. The student is asked questions in a structured way from simple to complex. Everything is covered. It is initially assumed that the student is hardly familiar with the topic. Student is prompted, prodded - correcting misunderstandings, identifying errors, eliminating false assumptions, inaccuracies, identifying and overcoming hurdles and stumbling blocks. A record is kept of the students progress so that things can commence smoothly from where left off at the previous sitting. This process of testing continues until it is confirmed that the student has mastered the entire subject course content. At this point the challenge of an examination for the student does not exist. It has already been proven that the student has been made aware of all the relevant material, understands it, has properly retained it in memory and is able to intelligently recall and use this same information.
Due to the fact that information in memory may suffer from erasure with time, subsequent briefer, less intensive, periodic but less frequent in time, sittings, with the same experts is arranged. In doing this, information that previously had a tenuous association in the mind will now become firmly impressed therein.
This tool described herein called Managed Learner attempts to approximate the ideal described above. It is a web based system which is accessible from virtually everywhere. It can help overcome or obviate several of the pitfalls listed earlier and can become part of the solution to improving education in a challenging environment. It does this by using a well designed questionnaire to play the role of the team of experts mentioned above, assisting the student in his or her attempt to understand and master some subject or course material.
In particular it will confirm that -
the student has received and understood the material correctly,
the student has stored the information correctly in his mind,
the student is able to apply the information intelligently.
The system creates an information file or account for each user. In it is stored the username, password, list of questionnaires' attempted, the question number at which the previous session ended, as well as the record of attempt for each question in each of those questionnaires.
Managed Learner permits the user to work with up to 20 different questionnaires, each of which may hold up to a 1000 questions. The questions in the questionnaire may be grouped into up to 20 different sections. The user has the ability to clear the record of attempt of individual questionnaires . The user can also clear the record of attempt of one or more sections and may also ignore certain sections of the questionnaire .
Ideally, a questionnaire would be designed by a team of individuals, consisting of experts in both questionnaire design and the particular area of study being considered. The body of knowledge will be broken down into individual questions of differing complexity. A questionnaire will consist of standard and multiple choice questions, as well as Information Blocks. It is initially assumed that the student does not know the answers to any of the questions in the questionnaire. Questions will be made to appear conditionally - i.e. complex questions will not show up unless the earlier simpler questions are answered correctly. This structured approach should avoid, as far as is practically possible, any likelihood of confusion.
The questionnaire will define the standard of ability required by the course. By constant comparison against this defined standard, the student will be able to confirm whether s/he understands the course material, identify misconceptions, misunderstandings, and false assumptions and take timely corrective action. This interactive computer based testing, should only be introduced after the student has completed reading and understanding the required course material, and after attending the course lectures.
A student who is making gains against the defined standard should gain confidence in his or her ability to perform well in an upcoming examination or job situation.
The questionnaire can be either tactical or strategic in scope - for instance a student can prepare for an upcoming examination in a subject of interest. Or a student can work toward a long range objective - such as mastering much of the key words in a dictionary. Here a word expert will grade all the significant words in a dictionary say from 1 to 20. A child can begin at age 10 and continue to improve on their vocabulary to age 30 or more.
Complex questions are those that require an answer to incorporate several related ideas.
For instance you can ask a question such as:
'What information might you include if you were writing an essay on topic xxx'.
The answer would be - 'You should mention the following: a, b, c, d'.
[This presupposes that you have an awareness, understanding of what a,b,c,d, xxx are all about.]
Another example: If you are training an emergency room physician - you could ask the question:
'What would you do if you were presented with a patient showing the following symptoms .....'.
A prescribed answer would most likely be:
'One must do the following things in the following sequence......'.
This sort of questioning is powerful, for through this 'virtual experience' an individual should demonstrate a higher level of competence when confronted with the actual situation. So any such training should expose the trainee to a good cross section of potential challenges in a particular area of expertise or study.
This exposure to a representative sampling of scenarios I believe can speed up the rate of learning. Experience that is ordinarily gained by serving years in a position can be presented in simulation in a relatively short period of time.
Even though simple questions precede more complex questions in a questionnaire, it is useful to include some redundancy so that the gradient from simple to complex is not too great. Obviously, the rate at which the learner proceeds through the questionnaire is going to affect things - but it is useful to give the learner a chance to let things sink in. Another important technique is to ask questions from various angles to make sure that learner has a thorough understanding of the material - this applies especially to those concepts which have proven to be difficult to grasp.
Also included in this package is the software which permits developers of questionnaires to compile their own assembly of questions. The first step in creating a questionnaire is the entering of information into a text file using the prescribed format. The pre-compilation stage checks for several hundred syntax and other errors. If no errors are found, it is then compiled into its final form.
The questionnaire is a database of questions. With the passage of time, as well as with feedback from interested parties, other interesting, challenging questions that uniquely tests an individuals understanding of some item or topic can be added. The questionnaire should therefore always be a living document.
Once the student has logged into the system and chosen a questionnaire to work with, s/he will be presented with either questions or Information Blocks from that questionnaire .
The student will need to study the material presented and then in the case of a question, indicate to the system that s/he wishes to view the answer. In the case of an Information Block there is no answer, and the only requirement is that the student acquaint himself or herself with the information in the block.
In both cases s/he can indicate to the system if s/he has understood the material presented and if s/he is ready to proceed to more advanced questions or Information Blocks which use the current material as a precursor.
In that same response s/he can also indicate to the system if s/he wishes to view this question or Information Block just presented again in the future. If s/he chooses to view this same material again in the future, this will happen at some future point in time when the questionnaire cycles through itself again.
This response to the system from the student [whether to view again and whether to advance] is stored away by the computer system, and is utilised later to determine whether higher level questions should be displayed or not.
In this way the student will not be tested on information for which s/he has not been prepared, nor will s/he be re-tested on information that s/he has already covered. The 'known' is effectively separated from the 'not known', and the student will advance across the course material, being tested only on the least complex of the 'not known' at every stage.
Information Blocks are quite straightforward and are meant to convey information. There is no answer segment and so when this block is presented the student merely studies the information and then indicates to the system if s/he wants to proceed to more sophisticated material or not. Managed Learner gives the student 3 options at this stage -
s/he can indicate to the system by clicking on the 'Repeat' button that s/he does not wish to proceed to more advanced material [i.e. questions or Information Blocks, which use the current Information Block as a precursor], or
s/he may request that s/he wishes to receive material which is more advanced and not view the current Information Block again by clicking on 'Advance' button, or
s/he can indicate that s/he wishes to receive more advanced material as well as view the current Information Block again in the future by selecting the 'Adv&Rep' button.
Questions may be either standard or multiple choice.
When a question is presented, the student studies the question and then spends a short while thereafter formulating an answer either mentally or on a notepad.
S/he will then prompt the system for the prescribed answer. For a standard question s/he can do this by either clicking on the answer frame that says 'Click for Answer' or s/he can click on the button at the bottom frame which says 'ShowAnswer'. To get the answer for a multiple choice question s/he must click on the 'ShowAnswer' button to obtain the answer.
S/he will compare the prescribed answer with his or her own and then indicate to the system if s/he should proceed to more sophisticated questions or not. Managed Learner gives the student 3 options at this stage -
s/he can indicate to the system by clicking on the 'Repeat' button that s/he does not wish to proceed to more advanced material which uses the current question as a precursor, or
s/he may request that s/he wishes to receive more advanced material and not view the current question again by clicking on the 'Advance' button, or
s/he can indicate that s/he wishes to receive more advanced material as well as view the current question again in the future by selecting the 'Adv&Rep' button.
In the case of standard and multiple choice questions the student can skip the stage where s/he prompts the system for the answer. If s/he is confident that s/he knows the answer to the question s/he can go forward even at this stage and select either the 'Repeat', 'Advance', or 'Adv&Rep' button and proceed to the next question or Information Block. This is particularly useful when the student wishes to move quickly through the questionnaire for example during the final revision stage.
Managed Learner can assist with making sure that information previously learnt does not fall away with the passage of time. Clearing and re-attempting one, or more, or all sections of a questionnaire on a periodic basis is a useful way of overcoming this problem.
The difference between Managed Learner and other tools is that the other tools pose the question and the student then types in an answer which is forwarded to the test system. The test system will store this information and either immediately or at some future time forward this answer to a trained person or artificial intelligence machine to do an appraisal of the answer and then forward that determination to the student. This requirement of online appraisal, which is time consuming, expensive and requires significantly more overhead, is conveniently avoided in the Managed Learner system.
Managed Learner presents the prescribed answer and leaves it to the student to determine if s/he has answered the question adequately or not. This approach is simple and powerful. Managed Learner does however require a certain level of sophistication from the learner.
With Managed Learner you only need the experts to design the questionnaire. Thereafter they may be left to focus on the next iteration of this or other questionnaires. If students have a question [about a question] or want to provide some feedback they can do so by using the feedback link that is associated with every question. Responses from support personnel should give the student some reassurance that s/he is not on his or her own. Information from all the feedback received will be used to improve future versions of the questionnaire.
Support personnel do not have to be located in the same geographical region that is being served [unless language constraints require this]. For instance, a Managed Learner server along with all the technical and knowledge support personnel may be located outside Africa, but provide access to learners all across Africa. There is no reason why this system cannot be made available 24 hours a day, all around the globe.