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Coactivism – A Learning Model

June 29, 2011

For many years now I’ve been dissatisfied with how training is delivered and in particular the concepts of ‘classroom’ and ‘elearning’. In 2009 I developed a new learning model that addresses the issues as I see them. Since then I’ve been trialling this learning model in our Rapid eLearning Development course.

Here you can see a recording of a Pecha Kucha session I delivered at an eLearning Network conference in June 2011. It gives a quick overview of the learning model.


For many people, ‘elearning’ means electronic courses delivered over the web. For me this definition is too narrow and limiting and has a number of inherent challenges. Firstly, elearning is a form of self-study and, as with any self-study, this can be a lonely experience. It’s often a solitary undertaking; just you, your computer and the courseware – you don’t have a tutor you can easily ask questions of and you generally get no opportunity to interact with your peers.

Furthermore, too many courses focus on theory. Learners are crammed with facts, interspersed with multiple choice questions. These questions measure only the effectiveness of the learner’s short-term memory; not whether they will retain the information or be able to put it into practice. We know from Ebbinghaus’ Forgetting Curve that we forget the majority of what we learn in a matter of days if we do nothing with that information.

Often within elearning courses there are little or no opportunities to apply what you’ve learnt to realistic activities. Where you can practice what you learn, there is only rudimentary feedback on your performance or none at all. Computers aren’t that smart; so even now, it is difficult to provide meaningful feedback without spending huge sums of money on artificially intelligent systems.

There is a further challenge to do with how our brains are wired. We know our brains develop differently depending on the type of input and stimulation we receive in our formative years. If you have children, you will know how long they spend playing computer games. This has a fundamental and substantial effect on the development of their brains, their preference for how they learn and their expectations of how content is presented to them.

Gone are the days of teacher as ‘sage’ handing down words of wisdom to be learned by rote. Instead younger learners like to try things out, get it wrong, adjust their approach, problem-solve, then draw their own conclusions. Spoon feeding such learners, as most elearning packages and training courses do, is counter-productive.

All of this got me thinking and looking for an approach that would address these issues, so when I designed the Rapid eLearning Development (ReD) course I decided to free up access to the learning material. So, instead of accessing material from a learning management system, a social network acts as the hub for all the learning content. I’m not interested in knowing whether learners have gone through the content, I’m not even particularly interested in their scores in the assessments. What I am interested in is how they perform in practical assignments designed to duplicate or simulate the real-world activities or behaviours I want them to learn.

Furthermore, the social network is the main means of communication between student and tutor and also student and student. It is also where students upload their assignments for tutor and peer review – students review and feed back on each other’s work as a means of reinforcing their own learning. The challenge with social networks is getting people to use them, so I made it mandatory that students review a number of other students’ assignments, write in their personal blog reflecting on their learning, and contribute to the weekly discussion topics.

Besides the informal learning in the social network, further material can be presented as either rapid elearning content or informal media (video clips, podcasts, narrated presentations, short documents or links to external resources for example YouTube videos, websites and so on).

The links to all this additional media are placed on collaborative mindmaps which show the learning outcomes for each module. A mindmap is a visual way of structuring concepts or ideas around a central topic. A collaborative mindmap is simply one that many people can edit at once. On the mindmap, students can rate the links for usefulness in achieving the learning outcome and add their own links.

We also used 3D gaming environments where learners complete missions, interact with game characters and have ‘conversations’ with them. The game characters give their point of view on a subject, helping the learner to develop and consider their own opinions.

A strength of this approach is that ‘the proof is in the pudding’ – students are assessed on their performance in real world activities (the assignments) rather than how good their short-term memories are. Students interact, socialise and learn from with one another as well as the tutor.

It would be far too grand to describe this as a new learning theory, for me it’s a model, a new approach to elearning. Any new model needs a name and any self respecting learning model would not be seen dead without an ‘…ivism’. So I’m calling this approach ‘Coactivism’.

I encourage you to try out this learning model the next time you need to teach people new skills. Essentially:

  • Design assignments where people practice what you want them to do in the real world
  • Have them review each other’s work and give them a social place to communicate and collaborate
  • Have an online tutor facilitate the learning




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