The Big Picture: Why Learning in Context Matters

In learning, context matters.

Most of us know what it’s like to “cram for the exam.” Like hamsters stuffing their cheeks full of seeds, we humans are capable of stuffing our brains full of information – and then regurgitating all of it out a short time later.

This method often produces adequate essays or good test scores. Once our little mental seeds have been turned out, however, we tend to pack up our belongings and forget much of what we’ve “learned.”

The fact is, of course, that short-term cramming is not the same as “learning” – which is why such a method of study is wholly inadequate for the acquisition of knowledge that can be applied “in the real world.” Teachers at all levels have long grappled with how to ensure students really learn material.

In the workplace, cramming doesn’t cut it. But how can employers provide workplace training that provides genuine understanding in a timely way?

High-Res eLearning is a powerful new tool in the world of course design technology, which allows for unprecedented contextualization of learning. Combined with extremely high-resolution photography, Klixel8 has developed easy-to-implement interactive course tools and analytics that make High-Res eLearning a gamechanger for workforce training across a wide variety of industries.

In previous articles, we’ve explored how High-Res eLearning revolutionizes training courses, and how to get started on your first High-Res eLearning course. In this article, we explain the significance of a contextual approach to training, then take a deeper look at the cognitive science behind why it works.

Understanding by Learning in Context

Really learning material means understanding it. In teaching, whether in a classroom or through an online training or eLearning course, “understanding” is what happens when a learner retains information, integrates it into a body of knowledge in their memory, and builds upon it. It means the learner can demonstrate that they’ve learned by applying their knowledge.

In other words, understanding is about connecting new ideas to prior knowledge. It is also about the use of “big ideas,” not simply recall. This is perhaps more obvious in the workplace than anywhere else.

Depending upon the requirements of a job, training a new hire can be an intensive task involving more experienced workers, online courses and certifications. It may involve a period of formal or informal “apprenticeship” where a new hire shadows other employees for a period of time.

In all of these situations, the greatest value of training is found in the more immersive, contextual settings. This is one of the greatest headaches some employers face when hiring new workers straight out of college. These new hires often come with cutting edge knowledge, great energy, and passion – but lack the necessary orientation that only “being there” can provide.

Putting the puzzle together

Atomized pieces of knowledge are a little like puzzle pieces. Knowing how to operate a particular machine or perform a particular task, for example, is a valuable component of a production line. But it’s not enough for a new hire to jump into a work environment.

Think of a puzzle piece with vibrant, well-defined flowers. You may know nothing about the picture of which it is a necessary part, but you can study the piece closely and learn certain clues about its place in the big picture. Is it an edge piece? Can you tell which side faces up? How close are the flowers to the foreground?

You may be able to discover a bit about the puzzle from studying one piece, but there is so much more left unilluminated without the rest of the pieces or a reference photo of the scene.

A designer of an eLearning course must seek to provide “context clues” for their learners. Only the learner can put the puzzle together in the process of learning, but you must try to provide the proper grounding for them to do that.

When employees truly understand the context of a task – the who, what, when, where, why, and how – they are ready to take off the “training wheels” and become fully productive members of the team.

Presenting Material in Context

A traditional eLearning approach to presenting subject matter limits the ability to contextualize certain topics.

Say you’re training a new dental hygienist on how to sterilize cleaning instruments in an office. A traditional online course would introduce equipment on one screen, a procedure on another, health and standards information on another, and then test the learner on the content. Another module would review another sterilization instrument or process, and continue with screens of instructions, further reading, and a test.

To complete a training course, in other words, a new dental hygienist would need to page through numerous screens and complete knowledge checks. But how much would such a training course truly help a learner understand the context of the content they were learning?

This format may provide ample content, but because the learner is switching from one component piece of knowledge to the next without a reminder of how they fit together, the screen-to-screen movement limits the learner’s ability to absorb and genuinely assimilate content.

High-Res eLearning overcomes this limitation through the use of very high resolution, interactive images that immerse learners in real-world scenes.

Our dental hygienist can become intimately familiar with new sterilization lab equipment by seeing it in a wide view of the actual room where she will be using it, along with the tools and stations associated with it. She can zoom and pan to closely examine individual controls, calling up rich multimedia context linked to hotspots in the image.

Engaged in a responsive environment, she may explore and work at her own pace to absorb information. The act of working through a High-Res eLearning module stimulates the brain’s conversion of experience into knowledge with the help of contextual and visual anchors.

How the Brain Processes Information With Context

Cognitively speaking, learning is a complex process involving multiple parts of the brain. Learning strategies may have developed over centuries, but we’re only now discovering how they work at the neural level.

Why does this matter when designing a training course?

For one thing: The more areas of the brain that are engaged during learning, the more effective and lasting that learning is.

That means the more we unravel the complicated physiological, chemical, electrical neural process of learning, the better we can fine-tune our practical teaching techniques. In other words, understanding the science of learning is a very practical question for anyone trying to teach others.

Who, What, When, Where, How, and Why in the Brain

Research has begun to reveal how parts of the cerebral cortex and hippocampus, in particular, interact to process and store memories. These parts of the brain work together to process the “who, what, where, and when” of information, forming connections for higher-order thinking – the “how” and “why.”

The cerebral cortex is the outer layer of the brain, generally understood to be where thoughts, consciousness, and so much of what makes us “human” happens. Components of this general region play big roles in how we learn and perceive the world.

Researchers have conducted MRI scans of the brain to observe at the neurological level how we learn about visual objects in their context.

The prefrontal cortex is the front part of the brain responsible for things like personality, planning, and behavior. One part of the prefrontal cortex, the ventrolateral prefrontal cortex, or VLPFC, is responsible for processing the attributes of a specific item, isolated from its surroundings.

During brain scans, the VLPFC is activated when a learner sees an image of an object on a plain white background without any context. This kind of format is common in traditional textbooks, classroom materials, and many eLearning courses. It is useful for clearly labeling parts of an object or providing annotations.

When a learner observes an item in its surroundings, by contrast, several areas of the brain are engaged at once. Along with the VLPFC, the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, or DLPFC, is also stimulated in this situation.

The brain is said to engage in “item-context binding” when we observe an item in its context.

In our dental clinic example, a dental hygienist’s VLPFC activates at the sight of a dental mirror illustrated in an eLearning course module. If that mirror is pictured on the dental tray alongside probes, scalers, and other instruments in the context of a sterilization room, our learner’s DLPFC is also activated.

The perirhinal cortex is where the “what” and “who” information about sensory data is defined, research suggests. Another part of the cerebral cortex, it plays an especially important role in taking already highly processed sensory information and forming memories.

The hippocampus is the location for “where” and “when” processing. Spatial and timing information is crucial for memories and contextual understanding, because they provide a sort of informational glue in the learning process.

In coming articles, we will further explore the significance of hippocampal stimulation during learning. Suffice it to say here that research suggests when the hippocampus is activated, a learner is “encoding” information in long-term memory – not simply cramming for short-term recall.

High-Res eLearning Supports Higher-Level Brain Activity

For our dental hygienist new to the job, we can easily see how important a virtual “walk-through” of a workspace becomes for processing all the information about location, tools, and procedures. She needs training that stimulates all the parts of her brain that we’ve just reviewed.

With High-Res eLearning, detailed, interactive photographs maximize the “item-context binding” process that will help learners retain and integrate new information quickly.

The ability to add hotspots to objects of special interest allows for both exclusive focus on those items, and, at the same time, the addition of even more context through multimedia links, interactive quizzes, and descriptions. As a result, more areas of the brain are active in the learning process.

Want to learn more? The Klixel8 eLearning team has learning designers and developers who can answer your questions about how to develop a High-Res eLearning course specifically tailored to your learner’s needs.

For more information and to see a demonstration of how it works in real-time, contact us today: Call us toll free at (833) KLIXEL8 (833.554.9358).

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