Learning from Linear Presentations
The development and growth of the Internet has revolutionized not only the way we access information, but the way we present it as well. Prior to the advent of the World Wide Web, most learning presentations were audio, textual, or video publications that were viewed linearly, or planned learning activities that were presented in a linear fashion. The learner may have listened to a lecture, completed a sequence of activities, read a chapter in a textbook, followed along on a tour, or watched a film or video to gain the information needed to learn a new concept – and opportunities to adjust the presentation sequence were limited.
Linear presentations (lectures, expositions, demonstrations, activity sequences, etc.) can be seen as efficient from the perspective of the instructor and the institution. They aim to maximize the overall learning effects for a target audience by identifying the state of understanding and needs of the average learner, and then creating and reusing a fixed presentation to meet those typical needs. These presentations are often well polished and can be effective for large portions of their target audiences.
However, this model seems to be inefficient for many learners and completely unhelpful for others. Because the intended audience is an amalgamation of learners, any given presentation can fail to meet student needs on several fronts: for some, the content presented may be redundant, while for others the examples presented may be insufficient or inscrutable; for some the information may be presented too quickly, while for others the pace may be too slow; for some, the presentation style and language may be easy to take in, while for others, the presentation may require excessive effort to apprehend ideas and remain engaged.
These issues may be somewhat mitigated in a live classroom presentation, where a learner can have an opportunity to ask clarifying questions to address some of their learning needs. Unfortunately, these opportunities are often limited because the teacher feels a pressure to get through the material for the day. Similarly, when students are in a learning setting outside the regular classroom, such as on a tour, questions might be asked – if the learner has sufficient language skills, background knowledge and confidence to pose a question – but often the schedule is tight, and the opportunities for questions (and student led learning) are limited. Finally, when viewing a video, there might be an option to pause and review, but social constraints limit interference with the traditional linear presentation – and as a result learners tend to become passive or adopt a “learned helplessness” (Flanagan, 1996).
We expect that this “learned helplessness”, or passivity, occurs to some degree in most linear presentations because learners have experienced the futility associated with trying to synchronously process all of the content, reconcile every contradiction or explore all the perplexities arising from the presentation. If they allow themselves to be distracted by any portion of the content, their inattention to the new content and structures being presented will likely lead to greater confusion overall. To cope with an unregulated onslaught of new information, the learners will be conditioned to become passive receptors of content whenever the pace of information exceeds their ability to cope. This passivity, in turn, may retard the learning process (Schunk, 2000).
That linear presentations are often partially effective for the majority of the target population is a testament to the resiliency and capacity of the human mind. Learners may store up the presented content (information and experiences) for later reflection and learning. Yet, we suggest that this is an inefficient process (when compared to interactive learning opportunities) with uneven results that depend upon the individual learner’s capacity for storing and recalling presented content and their access to additional resources (supplementary experiences, books, experts, tutors, etc).