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Editor’s Note
: Distance learning forces teachers to rethink theoretical constructs and teaching practices to optimize performance. Dr. Shih addresses a process to achieve this using the iLearn model.

A Pedagogical Design Strategy for Effective
Technology-Based Learning: iLEARN

Ju-Ling Shih

Using digital multimedia, people are gaining flexible command of multiple ways to represent knowledge, simulate interactions, and express ideas, extending the reach of intelligence, altering the spectrum of civilized achievement, and lowering thresholds to cultural participation.
( ADDIN ENRfu McClintock, 1999
, p. 3)


iLEARN is an interactive distance learning framework designed specifically for analyzing, understanding, and implementing technology-oriented education but generally applicable to other computer-assisted instruction. It is a pedagogical design strategy which lays great emphasis on learning rather than teaching in the aim of strengthening students’ role in the education process. Reminiscent to the Chinese term for “education” which is a compound of two words “teaching” and “learning,” this framework created a bilateral dynamic offering a student-centered and teacher-guided paradigm. iLEARN also is the antithesis of the all too common philosophy of “teaching to the test.”

It is a challenge for teachers who are used to the conformation of the conventional lectural teaching to adapt to the “invasion” of technology into their classrooms. This paper offers a quick flash of the historical view to the technology-oriented education as a foundation to acknowledge the necessity to create an educational environment supporting effective learning, followed by a thinking strategy for those teachers who are searching for an entrance to the technological realm and a guiding map for pedagogical transformation.

An Historical View

As early as the 19th century, Internet-connected classrooms were visualized. Jean Marc Cote's illustration of 1899 (Figure 1), which was preserved in Isaac Asimov's “Futuredays: A Nineteenth-Century Vision of the Year 2000” (Asimov, 1986), successfully but sarcastically reflected today’s education. In the precocious illustration, students sat in line, facing forward much as they do in many of our “modern” public school classrooms, and each student was connected by a local area network to an non-automatic infernal machine.

The teacher, instead of being the only authority in the front of the class and lecturing as the “sage on the stage,” was portrayed deciding which books to feed into the machine while a sole “disconnected” student turned the crank to feed the information to the “more worthy” students through the interconnected wires. Textual information was then transferred into electronic form, but mythically “presented” in the absence of its visual form. The transmission of knowledge through the passing of mere information, as if information can adequately be called “knowledge,” was mechanical and rigid, and social interaction between each human entity was utterly absent. Inherent in the painting was a view of duplicative education connoting the teacher's and society's message to the pupils: “You will all learn exactly what we want you to learn when we want you to learn it, and in the manner we have decided is best for you.” The painting echoed the spirit of the Industrial Revolution, a mass production and assembly line modality, from which resulted molded instruction.

Figure 1: Illustration by Jean Marc Cote 
from Futuredays: A Nineteenth- Century Vision of the Year 2000

Molded instruction, which was tightly associated with print-based instruction, was a natural consequence of Johannes Gutenberg's invention of the printing press in 1440 (Printing: History and Development, n.d.; Bellis, n.d.). Teachers organized their instruction and course content in a linear fashion to match the sequential and procedural presentation of print materials. All students had identical textbooks and read precisely the same text. The disparity between original and reproduction of a text that often occurred during the transcribing process, when books were written by hand long ago, was thus eliminated. This education system was like a mass production factory in which students were expected to absorb knowledge in its exact original form. Like installing an engine and tires on each empty car, information was loaded into each student's unfilled brain. In the final product test, rather than ensuring that the fully assembled car worked properly, students were tested on their ability to accurately repeat facts on command, proving the information that had been mechanically “installed” in them. Failure to spit out the information absolutely as it had been given to them would cause students to be regarded as products unqualified to be “marketed.” Ironically, in the molded instruction, unsatisfactory performance of a product was always a fault to blame on itself; it was seldom aimed at its producer or the process. The student is blamed, not the teacher or the pedagogy. There was a joke, which prevailed in our school office, saying that teaching is to know what to stuff, whom you are stuffing, and then to stuff them nicely. Students' ability to demonstrate subject competency, comprehension, or mastery of the material was somehow ignored.

Adaptation to Change

Yet, stuffing students is not only insufficient but also inappropriate. Congruity, requiring students to have uniform knowledge, is not adequate for a full understanding of any type of subject. One has to be allowed to construct his/her own mental model for knowledge processing and knowledge construction. Due to the increasing latitude and magnitude of knowledge in the digital age, accessing multiple perspectives and multiple interpretations becomes increasingly important.

The concept of accessing multiple perspectives is in consort with pluralism, which is the central idea of postmodernism. “Postmodernism” is a term used across disciplines of philosophy, anthropology, psychology and sociology, referring to a concept that was developed in reaction to modernism's exact science and objective knowledge. Deconstruction and fragmentation ideology has demolished modern absoluteness, and in turn, celebrates postmodern relative-ness. While the pervasion of postmodernism is changing the perception of life in general, it is altering education in particular. Embedded within the concept is the fact that different people learn in very different ways.

Technology, offering its flexibility and fluidity, encourages learners to pace their own learning processes and to pave a way in knowledge construction which best suits them, forsaking the “one size fits all” approach inherent in traditional education.

Constructivism, as a teaching and learning paradigm in the postmodern world, suggests a context-dependent learning based on the belief that knowledge comes from experience and is dynamic. Its pluralistic point of view encourages individual thinking and meaning making, each being a consequence of the learner's internal negotiation among various perspectives that are stimulated from the external world.

It is often misinterpreted as a laissez-faire policy, which denotes “learning whatever you want in whichever way you like.” Actually, an open approach in education requires a proper amount of scaffolding, building on solid knowledge foundation, which is especially important for learners new to the discipline. Intellectual and spiritual supports normally come from the teacher who pays continual attention to the students' learning process, and provides appropriate guidance to satisfy individual learning needs. With the assistance of technology, distance education can extend the virtues and minimize the defects of traditional “slate-and-notebook” classroom practices.

Theoretically and pedagogically, constructivism can be applicable to subjects in different domains. Subjects that require creative thinking, such as liberal arts, or subjects that require systematic scientific experiments, are all suitable for constructivist education. Even in technical and medical schools, students can benefit from field learning, case studies, and mentor systems, in which they are placed in a real-world context rather than a situation supposed in the textbook, so that students acquire necessary skills spontaneously with professional assistance at the side instead of vicariously imagining the scene by reading the textbook. Consequently, in the postmodern education, “learn by doing” becomes one of the pedagogical principles in liberating both teachers and students from the rigid model of education.

In technology-driven online courses, which depend heavily on the advancement of the technology, instructors often had to make compromises to the limitation of technological availability and accessibility. This framework emphasizes the inter-personal communications, both online and in-person, and provides an effective knowledge transfer environment model with the premise that technology is merely used as a tool rather than serving as the driving force.

Framework of iLEARN Model

The iLEARN model is fundamentally based on the theory of constructivism, which incorporates various elements extracted from major instructional design and learning theories. It is a framework expected to stimulate critical thinking on strategies for pedagogical design. The basic concept of this framework is derived from David Perkins’s five facets of technology-based settings, namely information banks, symbol pads, construction kits, phenomenaria, and task managers (Wilson, 1996), each is categorical in the iLEARN model. His “person-plus” has been widely used to make the indivisible links between the learner and the environment; nevertheless, the implication of “person-plus” in the iLEARN model is extended to include activities, resources, artifacts, human networks, symbolic media, and pedagogical support surrounding the learner.

A prime belief used in the design was that an effective education takes place in a self-motivated situation where the environment is not only rich with organized and retrievable resources built with clear teacher guidance, but also is constructed on an amiable network where a three-way interaction between the teacher, students, and external resources takes place.

What the iLEARN model entails is not a set of procedural guidelines; the elements within the model are inter-connected with each other in no specific order (Figure 2). The framework is meant to be applied in a manner corresponding to the designated situation. It is dynamic and fluid.

Figure 2: iLEARN Model, The Six Elements: instrument, Lead,
Environment, Activities, Resources, and Network.

The first element of the iLEARN model, instrument, is located in the center of the asterisk to represent the foundation of the framework. The other five major elements, namely learning environment, activities, resources, network and teacher’s guidance, are incorporated and established around and within the asterisk tightly connected with and based on the first element, instrument. An online course construction could start with any of the elements. In the diagram, one element is led to another and consequently will return to the starting point after all five of them are visited. Each element has a definition as follows: 

i: instrument. This element is about the role, the design, and the use of technology in an online course, for it is the instrument for online education. Technology can be any civilized invention, including table, chair, paper, pen, even computer and the Internet. “i” is specifically used in lower case to signify its least important role in this framework. In a technology-driven environment, teachers always have to surrender to the fast-paced technological development. Most frustration felt by such teachers came from experiencing confinement due to their frequent inaccessibility to technology or their insufficient capability to catch up with the state-of-the-art.

The iLEARN framework, on the other hand, is technology-centered rather than technology-driven. Without over emphasizing the role of technology, the Internet and computers are stressed only to the degree that they function simply as environment enablers. The real actors on the stage are the teachers and students, not the technology. However, the unavoidable high reliance on the technology could upset a learning experience when it loses its regular functions, and when it is “down.” The emotional frustration attached to the technology's functional failure sometimes appears to be more thought-provoking and exasperating than the corresponding situations in the conventional learning environment such as temporary campus disruptions resulting from catastrophe or construction, or the instructor's absence from the class for personal health concerns. The probable reason could be the desperate situation the users were in when the absence of an element was irreplaceable immediately. Therefore, it is supposed that the distress caused by technological failure can be substituted and transferred from machine to people.

Besides the technological hardware construction, interface design is also a key issue since a course web site's usability relies heavily on the interface's user friendliness which will consequently influence the learning outcome.

Other than personal computers, instruments for the online education include the Internet, courseware, equipment, and communication tools such as chat room, discussion board, and net meetings. While many teachers think E-Mails and search engines are for casual interaction with friends, novel use of these tools can greatly suffice educational purposes. Instead of being confined by the limited functionalities of the instruments, teachers can focus on the tools' strengths and create opportunities to make the best use of them.

The use of multiple modes of representation is also encouraged (Hobebein, 1996). Another advantage of online education is that technology provides the opportunity of knowledge presentation in diverse media formats, including textual, audio and visual representations, which is generally called “multimedia.”

L: Lead. Lead is about the important role of the teacher in online courses. Although many people may interpret that constructivism contributed to the freedom of the students’ learning and their knowledge construction so they learn what they want freely and automatically, I would argue for the contrary. A huge amount of behind-the-scene instructional design involving the preparation of various teaching approaches is needed to accommodate students' different needs and learning styles. Although it often appears to be a non-planned opportunistic teaching style, actually, that often is not the case. This recognition of the need for careful planning reflects on Wilson's contention that students who are given generous access to information resources and tools are likely to learn something if they are also given proper support and guidance and that “the complex nature of learning environment interactions is no excuse for careful planning and design to the extent possible” (Wilson, 1996, p. 5).

This emphasis reinforces the teacher's role in distance education, which is often ignored in the interpretations of constructivism. To sustain this element, the teacher has to take seriously his/her responsibility to navigate students through the learning process.

E: Environment. Environment refers to the setting, pace, tone, and culture of a course. Some people jokingly say the convenience and freedom of distance education is that the students could take their courses with their pajamas on, with the television on or music playing, with their feet up on a table or desk, with a laptop on a breakfast tray in the comfort of their own beds, or even when they are in the bathroom; not surprisingly, these statements are all true since online education is different from the traditional learning environment of here and now; it is anytime anywhere. Distance education can permit the learning environment to be completely tailored to one's needs in a way that could not be done in conventional classroom learning. The distance education classes no longer take place within the 50-minute time constraints, and have overcome the space limitation of the four walls of the classroom. Therefore, students can conduct self-paced learning in their own time, and can access their education from everywhere in the world.

The ideal online learning environment is one where the teacher can facilitate an amiable learning space, since face-to-face communication has been precluded. It is also generally understood that humans' ability and involvement toward work of any kind is strongly attached to their emotions. Whether or not a course is established with a friendly and personalized atmosphere is important because students’ familiarity toward the surroundings will affect their learning outcome.

How could this be achieved in an online environment? Without seeing each other face-to-face, the instructor’s tone of written instructions is the key. Many symbols that are created for online communication are not only literary but also behavioral. By becoming familiar with this new language, the instructor could be in step with technological fashion, yet communicate with students who seem to be a generation apart. For example, symbols and expression icons are incorporated in many Internet communication tools. With symbols, which are often called “smileys,” such as J or L, personal emotions can be presented in the textual form. Learning could be more humanized, personalized, and entertaining than formal lectures and assignments.

A: Activities. One similarity between situated learning, anchored instruction, and goal-based scenario theoretical frameworks is that they are all dedicated to learning in situations. “It is an argument that the relationship between mind and environment is so complex, and so interdependent, that it is an oversimplification to consider them separately” (Greeno, 1997). Therefore, the iLEARN model also advocates the idea of positioning the students in the real-world representational network where they can experience the technical aspect of the work as well as the social interactions between people that normally influence the working process a great deal. One criterion described in Rich Environments for Active Learning (REALs) is to “utilize participation in dynamic activities that promote high level thinking processes, including problem solving, experimentation, creativity, discussion, and examination of topics from multiple perspectives” (Dunlap, 1996, p. 66).

Activities can be in various forms, namely project production, regular assignments, group work, research, and/or presentation. In whichever form they are, the key is to create a problem space where students can witness the state change of a problem from its initial stage to its goal stage. Through a maze of states, the problem solver needs to search for an appropriate path for the solution to a problem, which is achieved through a search process (Anderson, 1980). The conscious experience of the problem's transformation from problem to solution is the thinking process of learning.

The ultimate goal of these activities in distance education is to help students to successfully transfer knowledge from the classroom to the real world by increasing their personal experience in the process of information transmission.

R: Resources. Another criterion of REALs is its goal to “promote study and investigation within meaningful and information-rich contexts” (Dunlap, 1996, p. 66). Teaching a course online does not mean that the teachers are off duty once they post the syllabi online. Specially selected, organized and presented materials such as resource database banks, are essential, especially for higher education. They are not meant to confine students within the pre-defined context, but rather to provide professionally chosen useful resources to initiate students' learning. It is the teacher's responsibility to ensure that the information library is not limited to the “volumes” it starts with, but that it can grow during the course in accordance with students' expressed needs for additional or special material, with students themselves perhaps being agile enough at navigating the Web to find these resources and make them available to other students through the teacher. These resources are likened to textbooks in the traditional classroom because they carry the designated job to direct the students' paths for learning.

Resources that are provided should thus have the potential for being usable in making inferences. The teacher should be sufficiently aware to not “dead-end” the resources, but rather to provide significant implications of how they are used and where they are likely to lead. Instead of treating the resources as exam content, the resources should be applicable to various activities so the functionality of the resources can be brought out. While one goal of the course is to adequately cover the material listed in the syllabus, a larger goal is to get the students to “think outside of the envelope” and go beyond a somewhat narrowly defined syllabus to discover how a piece of material fits into the larger picture of themselves and an ever-changing, somewhat amorphous world.

N: Networks. “Human activity is socially bound and not simply the sum of individual actions” (Engestrom, 1990). Learning is likewise. “In an effective learning environment, an individual’s tool-using and information-using activities need to be complemented by the powerful resources presented by other people and by the surrounding culture” (Wilson, 1996, p.5). This suggests the importance of situating learning in the social context and establishing human linkages within the social network.

Many scholars and theorists have discussed the functions of cooperation and collaboration. In REALs, one criterion is to “encourage student responsibility and decision making and intentional learning in an atmosphere of collaboration among students and instructors” (Dunlap, 1996, p. 66). The central idea is to facilitate a collaborative network within which interactions among the teacher, students and/or with external experts, could take place.

The advantage of collaboration is that while the individual and one or more people jointly engage in the same activity, they also share cognitive labor. In Salomon’s term, it is a process to yield “cognitive residues,” (Salomon, 1993, as cited in Hewitt, 1996, par. 5) a cognitive “effect of” computer supported collaborative learning. 

Collaboration process also assists to foster multiple perspectives and multiple interpretations toward any given context. Toward that end, I propose an interactive network that includes not only peers but external resources, namely professional practitioners, who can demonstrate expertise on issues and provide real-work perspectives, or parents who can consult on building social relationships. It is akin to establishing apprenticeships between experts and amateurs where students cand get consultation and support, and technology can be the means for students in distance education to build social networks. “The Internet for them has become a necessary social tool” (LaQuey, 1994, p. 11).

Pedagogical Strategies

Having a map is not enough to tour around a place; directions need to be given in order to find the destination. Once the network is built, the interaction has to be initiated. A framework shell does not function until the guidelines are taken for actions. In an online learning environment, the teacher and students both have their portions of work to ensure successful teaching and learning; each has his or her own new responsibilities.

A teacher's duties and obligations include liberation, affiliation, and navigation, which are at many times reminiscent of those a parent must skillfully assume (Figure 3).

Figure 3: iLEARN Model, Guideline For Teachers:
A Conceptual Adjustment to Facilitate Liberation, Affiliation, and Navigation.

Liberation. A successful movement from the traditional education environment to one that is technology-supported requires the teacher to open up the space for various and multiple learning styles, schedules, perspectives, and interpretations. The goal is to achieve “emancipatory education.” The need is to construct a heterogeneous education environment, which fosters independent thinking and individualized learning. Technology could both liberate and limit learning; it all depends on how the teacher uses it. If teachers can successfully shift their teaching beliefs and methodologies to distance education, the students could benefit more likewise.

Affiliation. The second responsibility of the teacher is affiliation, to strengthen the importance of companionship. While students are given freedom of learning with their own goals, at their own pace, they are not to be encouraged or permitted to aimlessly wander around. This results is a difficult distinction to define the line between these states. It varies by student and by time, and requires patience and astuteness from the teacher lest unnecessary intervention occurs that stilts curiosity. Teachers should try their best to establish both technical and emotional associations with the students, being a friend where necessary but not losing the important ability to step into the role likened to the combination of co-pilot and guiding parent when needed.

Navigation. On top of providing companionship to students, the teacher has to scaffold students’ learning by providing guidance. Based on the constructivist view of knowledge, which is constructed rather than obtained, the teacher should shift his/her role from being the only authoritative figure in the class to being a mentor or a counselor. One of the criteria for best learning is for the teacher to “provide experience with the knowledge construction process” (Hobebein, 1996, p. 11).  

Students’ parallel responsibilities toward effective learning include interaction, experience, and research (Figure 4).

Figure 4: iLEARN Model, Guideline for Students:
Conceptual Adjustment to Motivation and Practice on Interaction, Experience & Research.

Interaction. Students are given the opportunity to collaborate and cooperate with other classmates to accomplish tasks by sharing their work, exactly as most real world projects occur. “Provide experience in and appreciation for multiple perspectives” is especially important to enhance effective learning as well as to “embed learning in social experience” (Hobebein, 1996, p. 12). Other scholars and theorists also advocate the same concept.

Constructivists argue that cooperative learning and cooperative problem solving groups facilitate generative learning. Working in peer groups helps students refine their knowledge through argumentation, structured controversy, and reciprocal teaching. (Dunlap, 1996, p. 68)

Experience. Students are provided with an environment in which they are situated in the real-work context to gain hands-on learning experience. Theoretically, it not only increases students’ learning motivation and provides opportunities to make inferences from the course work to real-life situations, it also enhances memory and skill transfer and prepares students for real-world tasks. It embeds “learning in realistic and relevant contexts” (Hobebein, 1996, p. 11), and it reflects the anchored instruction, which is purported to put students in “a realistic context that is appealing and meaningful to students” (Dunlap, 1996, p. 67).

Research. Students not only have to participate in the activities, but also have the responsibility to look for information that goes beyond the given. They have to relate their personal experience to the resources and extend that to external information. They are encouraged to take “ownership and voice in the learning process” (Hobebein, 1996, p.12), and to “take action to create meaning from what they are studying” (Dunlap, 1996, p. 67) so they can generate usable knowledge from learning context. Research, and the role of computers in removing barriers to it, is one of the chief ways education can be turned from the often passive experience to an active one that is predicted as a byproduct of distance education.

Relationship Between Guidelines The teacher and the students have to strive to fulfill their responsibilities together to achieve a successful education. A good education requires both parties to participate in the action, hand-in-hand. When the teacher and the students’ roles meet each other, it is as if the two diagrams are put together; it becomes an asterisk or star, as shown in the diagram (Figure 5). It is neither a teacher-centered model nor a student-centered model. There is a mutual dependence where the ideal education occurs. 

Figure  5: iLEARN Model,
 Relationship between Teacher and Student Guidelines

It is an inherent belief of the iLEARN model that when both the teacher and students collaborate in the education process, the interactive learning environment is thus enhanced. The overlapping space in the diagram is the representational network where the interactive learning environment is located. To illustrate the application of this design framework, all guidelines are interrelated with the elements of the iLEARN model.


The education paradigm shifts when a course is moving online. It is a challenge for the teachers to rethink the methods and techniques they use in the classrooms. With ample consideration of the opportunities and barriers of developing a learning environment online, teachers can successfully achieve the ultimate educational goals of enhancing the quality of the students’ learning.

Constructing learning space is like architecture. Building knowledge foundation, networking for energy and motivation, facilitating designs according to educational landscapes, selecting the best quality materials, drawing blueprints of guidelines, extending the use of space with a pedagogical scaffolding process, and applying the art of design are what the successful education architect must be prepared to do. This is exemplified by the modern architect Frank Gehry, who employs space in an inconceivable way to its greatest extension in his architecture, in that constructivism in distance education constitutes the same incarnation of pedagogical theories. Teachers are encouraged to transgress conservatism for students to construct a customized learning space to its highest possible limit.

Technology is a new medium for education, and distance education is an evolutionary field with generous possibilities. Significant differences can be made for courses with different objectives and cultures, and yet they can still generate significant positive results. Like home schooling, distance education is not meant to replace classroom-based education. It is an alternative, for all schools, teachers, and students. Educational institutions should make no judgment of whether distance education is inferior or superior to conventional education, but instead should regard it as a different medium of education. It is a matter of choice, on deciding which one to use and then how to best use that educational medium to achieve the desired goals; and we are trying to make it do just that, as well as is possible.


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About the Author

Ju-Ling Shih has an Ed.D in Communication and Education from Teachers College, Columbia University specialized in distance education and instructional technology. She has two master degrees; Communication and Education, and M.S. in Broadcasting Production.

She is currently an Associate Professor and Director of Teacher Training Center in Wenzao Ursuline College of Languages in Taiwan. She may be reached via email:

US Address: 295 Continental Dr., Manhasset Hills, NY 11040   (917) 771-6463
Taiwan Address: n. 56, Ln. 2, Lin-Sen Rd., Pingtung, Taiwan 90007 

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