Lean-In Technology, Safety Nets and Psychology

Maureen Wakefield
Syrtis Instructional Designer

Steve Wirt, Syrtis Technologist,
Julie Batovsky and Linda Tatnall, Syrtis Instructional Designers


Collectively, what do the instructional designers who are experienced at creating online courses know about the online learning experience?  More importantly, what do they know about the online courses that work - where the learning is optimal and what is learned is readily retained and transferred to actual performance?  How can instructional designers improve the online learning experience to make it "world class"?
Creating an online environment requires a very different approach to the design of instruction.  The absence of a face-to-face instructor and classroom interaction makes the mouse click a primary way to interact, engage and grow.
The psychology behind the learning is patently different than a classroom experience.  Not only do mouse clicks take on added dimension of importance and meaning, but the online learner becomes responsible to self assess and advocate for his own learning needs by making choices and reaching out for additional support on an “as needed” basis.

Clicks make it a lean-in technology

The best of the best online environments use a "lean-in" learning environment. Lean-in refers to an environment that insists the student interact with the course materials, usually by using the mouse to click on graphics, text, and objects to more fully engage the learner. Learners click to make a choice, answer a question, navigate through the course, select an item from groups of items, manipulate or move an object, etc. The learner clicks the mouse or touches the screen to indicate their intentions, their understanding of the content, or to access new or supplemental materials to further their learning. The learner has to physically lean-in to do this, making a static computer screen a lean in technology. Learning is no longer passive, but active. This is clearly a good thing for those of us who believe that people learn by doing.
Active involvement is a better way to learn in any online environment. When designing lean-in online courses, consider the following questions:
One "screen-to-click" ratio recommended by instructional designers would have us embed learner interactions at fairly frequent intervals: one mouse click for every three screens of learning. This standard for a high frequency of learner interaction helps to move the online learning experience away from the "electronic page-turner" experience, where the learner merely reads text on a screen as they would from a textbook. The “one click/three screens” rule allows you to design an online learning experience that draws the learner into the course materials. Learners take part in the learning because they are more fully engaged in discovering, finding, and uncovering the salient points.

Consider the following methods for integrating higher click-to-screen ratios in online courses:
Click to Navigate

Educationally speaking, one mouse click is not necessarily equivalent to another mouse click. A learner can click to navigate from screen to screen, to move forward or back, to access another section or function in the course, or to move from one point to another point along the path. Ideally, navigation should be intuitive; the learner should not feel lost at any time, regardless of their chosen path. Learners should click and know what to expect as a result of a click and should not be surprised or confused about where they were or where they are at any point. In such a comfort zone, the learner easily interacts with the navigation and with little explanation about how to do it.
Commonly used navigation elements are buttons, arrows, symbols, icons, links, diagrams, maps, and text. Good navigation is consistently placed throughout a course. Clicking to navigate does not teach the learner anything new; it merely moves him through the environment.

Click to React

Reactive mouse clicks allow the learner to view a scenario or illustration and react to the stimulus. An example of this reaction opportunity is a simulated interaction between a supervisor and an employee during a performance appraisal. A reactive mouse click could measure complex reactions that result from the supervisor's communications to the employee. The mouse clicks could also offer insight into a new supervisor's judgement with regard to the standards by which he assesses employees. Further, a new supervisor's mouse clicks might reveal the logic used to decide on how to phrase and express performance feedback messages. A simpler type of reactive mouse click can be used to respond to a survey question on a satisfaction survey. Regardless of how it is used, a reactive mouse click seeks to elicit a reaction from the learner.

Click to Solve and Resolve

Solve and resolve mouse clicks solve problems or resolve theoretical conflicts and situations. The problem may be a mathematical problem or a word problem with constraints and scenario components. It may be a puzzle, a quandary, or a hypothetical ethical dilemma to wrestle with.
For example, the Seven People in a Lifeboat 1 question is a values clarification activity commonly used in classrooms. The question asks students to wrestle with the hypothetical profiles of seven unlucky characters adrift in an overcrowded lifeboat with limited food. Students are asked to decide who stays and who gets thrown over board. Their decisions are based on each character’s strengths, weaknesses, and ultimate "value" to the survival of the group. Students then discuss their choices and rationales.

Without defending the efficacy of the activity itself, this sort of dilemma can be accommodated easily online using threaded discussions to post rationales. The posted rationales could be used to measure the learner's insight and judgement. There is no right answer; the resolution may fall into a gray area. Yet such problems provide learners with an opportunity to examine their value system, their biases and the way they make decisions. Learners profit from interaction with other learners in order to compare, contrast, and discuss the logic behind their stances. In fact, a learner may chose to "resolve" the scenario based on feedback from the instructional piece or as a result of feedback and discussion with other learners.
Click to Manipulate

Manipulative mouse clicks allow the learner to move, examine, and change the position of dimensional objects. The instructional contention reasons that the learner clicks to physically manipulate objects on-screen, ultimately affecting what he is mentally attending to. If the learner processes relevant domain information in the correct way, such clicking will enhance concept formation, collaborative dialogue, and planning. The extent to which a particular manipulation encourages learners to process relevant concepts can be used to assess the instructional effectiveness of the activity (Larkin 2).
One example of click to manipulate techniques can be found in an online physics course, where students manipulate the different components of a complex physics problem involving acceleration, velocity, force, energy and momentum in order to deeply understand the relationships. Learning is made more efficient by manipulating each component in the problem to generate multiple outcomes and ultimately lead the learner to a deeper understanding of the nature of the relationships between the concepts involved to solve the problem.  The learning is dependent on the depth to which information is processed. Simply presenting the right information is insufficient, as the key concepts and interrelationships must be made salient. Online manipulation of problem components during problem solving can add increased effectiveness to what is learned, retained and applied, especially if the virtual environment closely approximates the actual environment (Van Lehn 6).

Click to Integrate and Synthesize

Learners click to integrate and synthesize to reflect key evidence of learning that occurs when new ideas blend with other concepts previously understood into a new, unified conceptual framework. Integrating a new idea may change the way the learner constructs cognitive structures and understands other related concepts. Such clicking may have the learner author original text, produce graphics or some other evidence that reflects the new, expanded understanding of the concepts.
Synthesis alters the learner's understanding of all concepts and often leads to a wholly original and sometimes unanticipated discovery. The discovery that results from synthesis might have sprung directly off the back of the newly learned concepts.  For example, cutting edge research published online may further and change the way others think about a field of study. If integration can be thought of as a sort of melting of ideas, then synthesis is the act of taking integrated ideas and creating wholly new ideas as a result of making these new cognitive connections.

Integration and synthesis require intense effort on the part of the learner. During integration and synthesis, learners go far beyond the presented information to create new cognitive structures, which allow them to think in different and unique ways about the information they have learned as well as the information they already know about the field.

Click to Assess Progress and Mastery

In click to assess progress and mastery situations, learners click to respond to online assessment questions that may be in a multitude of formats. Each response is designed to measure growth and learning of stated objectives. Such situations include many of the same traditional assessment methods as offline and paper-based testing. Some of these methods include multiple choice, fill-in the blank, and matching questions.

Click to assess progress and mastery techniques can also be used to set up branching courses, which lead the learner down specific paths, depending on their progress or mastery. The course may branch back to previous materials or to new and supportive content, customized to address the learner's confusion. Branching courses must take into account all of the possible learner errors and responses. For example, a flight simulator may record what a new pilot chooses to do in a dangerous weather situation and the time it takes to react to various weather scenarios. Mouse clicks can be tracked to reveal and indicate a pilot's problem solving and troubleshooting skills.

Psych 'em out and draw 'em in

How can we integrate the research and theories we know from the field of educational psychology with the design of lean-in online courses?

Educational psychology theory shows us that learners process and integrates new information with what they already know. Learners retain the information in short- and long-term memory, retrieve the information, and demonstrate mastery by transferring it to previously un-encountered examples or scenarios. Educational psychology theory expounds on two additional concepts important to lean-in courses:
It has been determined that learners retain different percentages of what is processed depending on the instructional strategy and mode used during the presentation. The following list of familiar teaching modes and retention rates is commonly referred to in instructional design and educational psychology literature 2:
This list would argue strongly for frequent mouse clicks in an online course and specific kinds of interactions aimed at achieving more complex learning outcomes. It is not enough to provide frequent interactions. Course designers must also provide online activities that ensure retention, retrieval and transfer of learning to real and relevant situations—situations that improve performance. Of what is known about types of learning, we learn approximately:
This list reflects the limited way senses are used in learning because we know that taste, touch and smell have a powerful impact on memory. This is certainly an area where course designers could be much more creative. In the online environment, some senses provide a real technological challenge, some of which will change as technology evolves. Currently, sight, hearing, and touch can be integrated into the learning experience. At some point taste and smell will become an option. Of what we learn, we retain approximately 3:
These generally accepted percentages would argue for using learning activities that involve more than one sense to enhance retention and to use them at the application level.

People learn by applying what they learn in a similar setting. It has been reported that the more similar the setting, the better the transfer of newly acquired skills. For example, if a learner masters the new skill of making change at a cash register, and the actual equipment is in a similar setting, the learner will have a better likelihood of success in making change because the setting and equipment is equivalent. If the cash register machine is different or if the money is arranged in a different way, performance will likely be affected as the learner is forced to adjust in transferring the new skill. In short, people remember what they learn by doing, and they learn best when the training most closely approximates the real-world setting.
The online environment has advantages and disadvantages when it comes to duplicating the environment and equipment for the learner. We know that retention greatly increases when we have plenty of practice, when we teach others and when we apply what we learn in a similar and relevant scenario using multiple senses. In an online course, the lessons and practice need to make strategic use of examples and non-examples, with meaningful feedback factored into the experience. Practice and feedback allow online learners to assess their progress, facilitating a process known as metacognition.


Metacognition is the process of thinking about thinking. In general, metacognitive theory focuses on the following:
J. H. Flavell defines this focus as “one's knowledge concerning one's own cognitive processes or anything related to them, e.g., the learning-relevant properties of information or data” (232). Flavell goes on to clarify his definition with the following example: “I am engaging in metacognition if I notice that I am having more trouble learning A than B; if it strikes me that I should double check C before accepting it as fact" (232).

Therefore, the promise of metacognitive theory (as it applies to lean-in online learning) is that it focuses precisely on those characteristics of thinking that can contribute to a student’s awareness and understanding of being self-regulatory--of being agents of their own thinking. Metacognition allows learners to become aware of themselves in such a way that they consciously and deliberately achieve specific goals (Kluwe 210).

Instructional designers creating lean-in online course must be able to recognize learners who are aware of their own metacognitive processes. These students will more than likely possess "self determination or autonomy in learning and problem solving. They will be able to refer to the what, how, when, where and why of learning when carrying out complex cognitive activities” (Gordon 49). Such learners will conduct cognitive activities by planning and deciding on the following issues to achieve their goals:
Metacognition considerations should be addressed throughout the lean-in online course. William Huitt recommends that course designers include methods that allow learners to ask the following questions about their progress:
The internal self-assessment questioning that goes on during the process of metacognition may be more difficult for a learner to answer in an online environment, depending on how the course is designed (Huitt). Ample opportunity to self-assess should be present at regular and critical intervals and in ways that are most meaningful to the online learner. A designer's challenge is to create a clickable, rich environment that insists that the learner click to interact in meaningful ways. As designers, we need to stretch the technology, let go of what we know and venture into instructional design in ways that are free, unbiased, and bold.

Allow for the road less traveled, but provide a safety net

The online environment can take advantage of pathways that off-line learning could never travel. And the online environment can provide multiple pathways that the learner can select based on interest, entry-level skills or time available to learn. As we discussed in clicking situations, in an online environment, the learner can choose to navigate through the material in various ways if the course is designed with freedoms and opportunities to do so. If material can be visited in multiple ways and in varied sequences in an online environment, why not let learners choose their own custom paths?
Instructional designers need to let go of the linear approach to design. While this may be unsettling to traditional designers, the online environment offers an opportunity to allow learners to decide how and when to access information and materials. Some designers may question, “What if the learner is floundering or feels confused?” One suggestion is to intersperse assessments throughout the course in order to provide the learner with an opportunity to self-diagnose or branch back to content. In so doing, the designer creates an online safety net. Safety nets should include the following elements:
This interconnected network is one of the key strengths the online environment has to offer the online learner. There is a gold mine of resources available to the online student that is simply not as readily available to the offline classroom learner.
Safety net elements are accessed according to the learner needs, which is a direct result of the process of metacognition. The learner is self-assessing and finding a real and immediate need for support information to facilitate understanding or clarification of the objectives, and so seeks out the support information. This process makes the information more meaningful because it is timely and self-directed by the learner.


Online learning and course design challenges all of our previously held beliefs about the way people process, retain, and transfer new concepts and skills as a result of learning. The online environment is an educational frontier that begs for innovative approaches and applications of educational psychology and learning theory. Instructional designers must break out of the traditional linear box as they forge a new hierarchical environment. The shape of online learning is active, multi-sensory, multi-modal, and stretches the technology to go beyond our two dimensional expectations of online learning. Lean-in online learning should be immediate, brief and reinforced, driven by the learner’s self-assessed needs, rich and relevant to the learner's performance, and drawing on the whole of the Internet's resources. The information highway will ultimately take us to places we have yet to visit. This is the challenge and the promise of instructional designers committed to creating world-class online learning.


1. The Lifeboat Values Clarification activity is generally agreed to have come from the case of U.S. v. Holmes, 26 Fed. Cas. No. 360, a case in which a member of the crew of the ship William Brown was tried for murder in the deaths of a number of passengers whom he forced out of a lifeboat that was badly overcrowded and foundering in heavy seas. See William A. Rutter, Criminal Law (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1976) 213-218.

2. Percentage Retention Rate Source: NTL Institute from retention rates from Different Rates of Learning.

3. Statistics compiled from research conducted by the United States Department of Justice.


Flavell, J. H. “Metacognition and cognitive monitoring: A new area of cognitive-developmental inquiry.” American Psychologist 34 (1979): 906-911.

Flavell, J. H. “Cognitive monitoring.” Children's Oral Communication Skills. Ed. W. P. Dickson. New York: Academic, 1981.

Gordon, J. “Tracks for learning: Metacognition and learning technologies.” Australian Journal of Educational Technology 12.1 (1996): 46-55. 14 September 2002  <http://cleo.murdoch.edu.au/gen/aset/ajet/ajet12/wi96p46.html>.

Harper, B., Hedberg, J. G., Wright, R., and Corderoy, R. “Interactive Multimedia Development and Cognitive Tools.” Proceeding of the International Conference on the Learning Sciences; 1996. Chicago, Illinois; 1996.

Hedberg, J. G., Harper, B., Brown, C., and Corderoy, R. “Exploring User Interfaces to Improve Learning Outcomes.” Proceeding of the International Federation for Information Processing: Working Group 3.2 Computers at University Level; 1994. University of Melbourne; July 1994.

Huitt, William G. “Educational Psychology Interactive course document Metacognition.” Valdosta State University (1997). 9 September 2002 <http://chiron.valdosta.edu/whuitt/col/cogsys/metacogn.html>.

Kluwe, R. H. “Cognitive knowledge and executive control: Metacognition.” Animal Mind—Human Mind. Ed. D. R.
Griffin. New York: Springer-Verlag, 1982.

NTL Institute. “Retention Rates from Different Ways of Learning” (2000). 16 September 2002 <http://www.cofc.edu/bellsandwhistles/research/retentionmodel.html>.

Larkin, J. H. and Simon, H. A. “Why a Diagram is (Sometimes) Worth Ten Thousand Words.” Cognitive Science 11 (1987): 65-99.

United States Department of Justice. Interagency Alternative Dispute Resolution Working Group: Retention of Learning. Feb. 2002. 11 September 2002 <http://www.usdoj.gov/adr/workplace/pdf/wp-reten.pdf>.

Van Lehn. “A Model of the Self-Explanation Effect.” The Journal of the learning Sciences 2.1 (1992): 1-59.

Additional References on Metacognition:

Biggs, J. B. and Moore, P. J. The Process of Learning. New York: Prentice Hall, 1993.

Brown, C. A., Hedberg, J. G., and Harper, B. M. “Metacognition as a Basis for Learning Support Software.” Performance Improvement Quarterly 7.2 (1994): 3-26.

Flavell, J. H. The Developmental Psychology of Jean Piaget. New York: D. Van Nostrand, 1963.

Flavell, J. H. “Metacognition Aspects of Problem Solving.” The Nature of Intelligence. Ed. L. B. Resnick. Hilldale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, 1976.

Paris, S. G., and Winograd, P. “How metacognition can promote academic learning and instruction.” Dimensions of Thinking and Cognitive Instruction. Eds. B. F. Jones and L. Idol. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum, 1990.

ITFORUM PAPER #67 - Lean-In Technology, Safety Nets and Psychology by Maureen Wakefield Contributors: Steve Wirt, Julie Batovsky and Linda Tatnall. Posted on ITFORUM on February 7, 2003. The author retains all copyrights of this work. Used on ITFORUM by permission of the author. Visit the ITFORUM WWW Home Page at http://itforum.coe.uga.edu/