The power of contextual learning in e-learning

Laughing girls

What a bunch of nice girls, don’t you think?! Ok, they could have dressed a bit smarter but hey, it’s a long time ago. And, they are definitely having a good time. Who could oppose to that?

Maybe, someone would oppose to a picture of these laughing girls, if they’d seen not only this part, but the whole picture from which it was taken. And to be precise: the laughing girls are posing for this picture with a few of their colleagues, at a resort for Auschwitz personnel in 1942.


Knowing this context, forces you to look at a different way at the first picture. It gives you the necessary information you need to decide what the picture tells you, or what it means to you. Without a good context, you just can’t.

The same idea applies to learning in e-learning courses when it comes to context. It’s hard for learners to engage a meaningful learning experience if they are not provided with the right context. This is crucial for every well designed learning experience, especially in e-learning courses where there is no teacher of trainer around to give any context.

From a constructivist point of view, this is called Contextual Learning. According to this theory, learning takes place when information is presented in a way that students are able to construct meaning based on their own experiences, for example during internships. Contextual learning has the following characteristics:

  • emphasizing problem solving;
  • recognizing that teaching and learning need to occur in multiple contexts;
  • assisting students in learning how to monitor their learning and thereby become self-regulated learners;
  • anchoring teaching in the diverse life context of students;
  • encouraging students to learn from each other;
  • employing authentic assessment.

Contextual learning relies thus mainly on the real life context in which the formal and informal learning activities takes place. This is also the case for e-learning courses, which -to be honest- are not always designed to make best use of the power of contextual learning. And that’s a shame, because it can make your courses much better and it’s not that hard to make use of as an Instructional Designer.

One way to make of the power of contextual learning in e-learning courses as an Instructional Designer, is to make use of the 4C/ID model of Merriënboer & Kirschner. This holistic model addresses the issue of how to teach complex skills, i.e. solid know-how that can be applied to real problem problems. The model is used for the design of whole, complex learning activities, but can als be used for a seperate part of it.



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