From instructional strategy to teaching-learning cycle on to your choice of tool

If you have a hammer, you see nails everywhere. It’s a cliché, but that doesn’t make it less true for learning designers. If your company is awfully good at producing e-learning modules, every learning need can be answered with a sparky SCORM package. If you have a pool of trainers and a building with classrooms every learning need needs a classroom session. Of course you preach the blended gospel, but you are not really free. Well, we are. How to use that freedom well?

Although we believe fully that one can learn like Socrates did with his pupils, we also know there are many great digital tools out there we can use to make other types of learning possible. Our quest is “how to choose”. I introduced Diana Laurillards Conversational Framework as a basis for designs for teaching. Here I connect the various teaching-learning-cycles in the Framework to learning strategies. If you have found the why and how of your teaching, you know what should happen in each mini process in the cycle and with whom. Only then you can focus your search for tools.

Laurillard reviews  strategies, each with its own cycle. Here I describe them as short as possible. (You really should read her book and keep following her work. Although she is mainly devoted to Higher Education, you can adapt it easily to learning in the workplace.) In the last post of my trilogy, I will show how this insight in strategy and the application of it in a cycle can help us to describe and find digital tools.

What’s a cycle again?



In the Acquisition strategy the cycle is always conceptual. The learner follows the narrative designed by the author or the teacher while watching a video, reading a chapter in a textbook or being present at a lecture. It can be an online resource. Distinctive for this strategy is the mostly passive role of the learner.

This strategy hardly ever suffices to really “get it”. It takes a big investment in content design and creation to motivate and make the learning stick if there’s nobody there, just a book or screen.

An Individual Cycle

In an individual cycle the teacher has wrapped herself inside a resource. I am on my own.

I have a goal > I make a prediction on how the short term memory works > I check the correctness of my prediction using the feedback from the conceptual resource I study (a diagram of information processed in memory) or from the response the real world (try to keep stuff in my own short term memory) gives on my action > Use the feedback t modulate my predictions on how it is

Teacher Communication Cycle

When the teacher comes on board and talks to me:

I have a goal > The teacher explains concepts in some kind of live presentation or she has organized the concepts in a (digital) resource > This explanation and her questions generate a response from me as a learner > The teacher gives feedback on my understanding of the concepts > I modulate my concepts. This goes – ideally – on until I can remember and have understood the new concept.


In Inquiry the learner is still in a conceptual cycle, but now she actively creates, or is guided to create, his own narrative by searching through (online) resources, libraries or specific collections, datasets or even physical locations with a “critical and analytical approach”. He tries to answer a question or find proof for a hypothesis. It is not about creating new knowledge, but about actively building a personal network of knowledge he needs to apply skills with reason, or, become a scientist. It’s usually called constructivism or problem based learning.

Peers Communication Cycle

Going on an inquisitive journey can be nicely done together. Find out how things work in your organization dividing observational questions among colleagues. Or a team can go on a webquest. The teacher can be asked for feedback on the team’s output.

In the way Laurillard describes Inquiry, I find a clear overlap, by the way, with Bloom, as Laurillard sums up in action verbs the skills that are trained during inquiry. Most of them would fit neatly in the domain Analyse in the wheel: “Students develop their skills […]: questioning, investigating, analysing, hypothesizing, designing, interpreting, sharing, arguing, synthesizing.”


This strategy you will always find applied in social constructivism. Discussion can be diverse. You can recognize discussion in designs under the name of buzz groups, seminars, tutorials and whenever students get the task to “talk about this in your group”. Either with or without the teacher present, synchronous in chats or asynchronous in a forum, text based, with audio or even with video.

Learning something through discussion alone, can be pretty hard. The Framework clarifies what is needed to make it work. Looking at it digitally, an asynchronous forum combined with a discussion scenario or role taking promises the most success.

We are still in a conceptual cycle, but no discussion without peers. Sometimes a teacher who moderates and corrects is useful.


With the practice strategy we move up from the cognitive activity to the level of application. In acquisition, inquiry and discussion a teacher or peer has to speak or write to the learner to express his feedback. In practice however, the feedback can be internal, by experiencing success or failure after an action. Think of role-play in communication training, where you ask someone to do something for you and he does something entirely different. But mostly we see practice applied as “homework” that needs correction from a model given by the teacher or by peers.

Mundane as homework sounds, Diana reminds us that: “This is the goal-action-feedback-revision cycle, the modelling cycle, which is fundamental to the natural learning cycle.” Our job as teacher is to give excellent feedback.

Digital activities one can think of are simulations. A complex concept like “pricing” is explained easier if you see what happend with supply and demand if I lower the price of the Dutch cheese I sell.

Teacher Practice/Modeling Cycle

When I practice with the teacher:

I have a goal > The teacher elicits an action from me to put a new concept in practice (design a slide in an e-learning module that is based on the concept of what I think a STM can hold) or asks me to learn from a modeling environment (to ask different people to study my slide and report how their STM works) > I receive feedback on my work, either extrinsic from the teacher who is an expert or intrinsic feedback from my test persons, or both > I modulate the way I put my concepts in action and review my work.


This can comprise inquiring, discussing or practising alone or together but goes beyond. “Collaboration is a coordinated synchronous activity that is the result of a continues attempt to construct and maintain a shared conception of a problem”, cited by Laurillard from Roschelle and Teasley 1995. A group of students builds some kind of output containing new knowledge (if you take the term “knowledge” broadly). Outputs can be varied: an article for a trade journal, an instructional video, a press statement, etcetera.

Ever since communication technology became available for learning, there has been a search for the ideal tool for Computer Supported Collaborative Learning. Laurillard focuses on the wiki, discussion tools and microworlds that, by their design, support the collaborative problem solving or construction process. Interesting stuff!

Peers in the Practice/Modeling Cycle

Peers can do the same as teachers, and more. They can ask questions, challenge my understanding, ask me to write or produce something that shows my thoughts, correct me, model behavior, respond to me in a way that tells me if I have communicated successfully or edit my work if we are collaborating on a shared project. Peers can each represent a different background, perspective, experience or work style and enrich our production. But, if the teacher is not present, face to face or virtually, synchronous or asynchronous in time, she has no influence on the quality of the modulations the learners makes in this cycle.

Over to the tools

As a designing teacher, who is not afraid to use software or an app, I can choose something that facilitates every step in the cycle, for me or for my learners.

Something to:

  • Present and organize concepts in text or other media and store and retrieve them
  • Generate ideas or actions from others, set a task to think or practice
  • Practice with new concepts and behavior in a virtual environment or live
  • Share and edit output in text or media
  • Respond to output personally
  • Give automatic feedback (as a learner I can’t do this, only as a teacher I can program it)

What kind of technology suits me best, depends on my experience and expectations. Which part of my cycle is transformed in such a way that effectivity is significantly higher than with another tool, or with a conventional method or medium for my learners?

The book Teaching as a Design Science contains a really good comparison from conventional and digital technology one can use for each strategy. This will help us to describe and categorize those 1000 tools from Joost Verbrugge’s list (if we think this helps us).

View Table 6.3 “Types of Learning and the Different Types of Conventional and Digital Learning Technologies that Serve Them” from Teaching as a Design Science.

In the next and last post I suggest a list of fields to populate with data and options one could tick off when describing a tool in a database, with the focus on finding a tool that fits your needs.

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