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E-Learning 1.0:Using Multiple Intelligence Theory in the Virtual Classroom

Combining what we know about multiple intelligences with virtual classroom features can help us enrich e-learners’ experiences.

Howard Gardner, creator of the theory of multiple intelligences (MI), alerted us to the different ways people process information and to the importance of taking that into account when designing learning events. You may have modified the activities in your traditional classroom based on multiple intelligences theory, but what about your virtual classroom? In many companies, 50 percent or more of the curriculum is now offered in some form of collaborative virtual classroom. And yet, much of that material appears to be little more than PowerPoint slides with audio of the instructor’s voice. Often, companies assume that this limited approach is all that’s possible with existing technology. But many more features exist in a virtual classroom, and combining these with what we know about MI can help us enrich e-learners’ experiences. Here’s how.

Use all of the available features

There are dozens of major virtual classroom providers and hundreds of companies that resell the classrooms under a private label arrangement. Once you select the right virtual classroom for your needs and budget, you can begin to design learning events and programs that take advantage of the available features. Available features vary a bit from provider to provider, but most providers offer the ability to

  • display presentations, such as PowerPoint slide shows
  • share the facilitator’s desktop or an application
  • use a whiteboard for drawing and charting
  • hold conversations in a chat room or sub-chat rooms
  • create voice sub-conferences, often called breakout rooms
  • document and slide markup tools such as highlighters and text and drawing tools
  • administer surveys and quizzes
  • download documents and reference materials
  • connect to URLs on the Internet or an intranet
  • use symbols, sometimes called emoticons, to show emotions and raise questions.

Plan to engage as many different intelligences as possible

Once you’re familiar with the features in your virtual classroom, plan your learning event or program to engage as many different intelligences as possible, using all of those features. As you review the list of suggestions below, remember that we all have all of these capabilities to some degree, but each of us will be stronger in some areas and weaker in others. The best way to ensure that you’re engaging as many learners as possible to the greatest degree possible is to use as many different ways to appeal to those multiple intelligences as the technology will allow. Here are a few ideas, listed by intelligence type, to get you started.

Visual/spatial intelligence. People with a strong visual capacity tend to think in pictures and will create pictures in their minds to represent thoughts or concepts. These learners respond particularly well to learning activities that let them

  • see key points demonstrated with detailed graphics or visual effects, such as in a PowerPoint presentation
  • watch a video of a process or a story that pertains to the course (No talking heads, please!)
  • interpret and apply charts that summarize statistics
  • use flow charts or maps to arrive at a solution or destination
  • interpret visual puns or metaphors that capture a key fact or concept
  • share mind-mapping software or graphic organizers to understand a problem or collaborate on a solution
  • design, draw on, modify, or correct a diagram using a whiteboard and digital markup tools.

Verbal/linguistic intelligence. People with highly developed speaking and listening skills often think in words rather than in pictures. These learners will respond particularly well to activities such as

  • listening to or telling stories that illustrate a key learning point
  • taking detailed notes during a lecture
  • reading and interpreting text
  • selecting and advocating a course of action
  • memorizing key facts or dates
  • analyzing case studies
  • exchanging typed ideas and information with the instructor or other learners in a chat room format
  • answering written quizzes or surveys based on facts.

Logical/mathematical intelligence. People with a highly developed ability to use reason, logic, and numbers tend to think by using patterns and linking concepts. These learners always like to ask a lot of why? questions and expect detailed answers that help them link pieces of information together.

They may benefit from learning activities such as

  • working on a spreadsheet or calculating percentages or metrics with other learners
  • conducting or analyzing an experiment
  • interviewing an instructor or subject matter expert to get the answer to a problem
  • classifying or organizing separate items into larger groups
  • developing theories or conclusions based on facts in evidence
  • solving a problem expressed as a crime or mystery.

Bodily/kinesthetic intelligence. These people have a highly developed ability to control body movements and handle physical objects. They process information by interacting with the physical space around them. Because the space around them is virtual, you’ll have to create virtual interactions to help these people use their intelligence effectively. They will respond well to learning activities involving

  • hands-on manipulation of the keyboard or mouse as a “student driver”
  • watching videos or presentations that let learners put themselves in the action
    simulations that let learners make decisions that affect the outcome of the story or case
  • game-like activities that require hand-to-eye coordination or rapid reflexes
    buttons that let them express feelings with digital signals that take the place of facial expressions
  • videoconferencing that lets them show their body to other participants and express concepts through gestures, mime, or dance
  • blended solutions that let them create something with their hands and share it with the rest of the class through a digital image.

Musical/rhythmical intelligence. Learners with a heightened ability to appreciate and produce music tend to think in sounds, rhythms, and patterns. They’re also extremely sensitive to environmental sounds that might be interpreted only as background noise by other learners.

Try some of these activities to engage these learners:

  • compose or ask them to compose a song or rap to summarize key points
  • associate tones with different stages of a process, different eras in time, or different levels of performance
  • use sound effects to accentuate the key points in a presentation
  • play subtle background music to enhance the desired mood (excitement, deep thought, relaxation, and so forth).

Interpersonal intelligence. Learners with an advanced ability to relate to and understand the feelings of other people often process information by linking it to a story about how other people feel in a given situation. They enjoy learning in a team setting, working with other people, and possibly taking a leadership role.

Activities for interpersonal intelligence include

  • creating sub-conference groups to allow for small group discussion
  • role-playing the same case from several different points of view
  • analyzing case studies for motivations, conflict, feelings, or intentions
  • using verbal skills to build consensus or agreement.

Intrapersonal intelligence. People dominant in interpersonal intelligence exhibit a strong sense of self and the ability to understand and share their inner thoughts and feelings. These people process information by reflecting on their own strengths and weaknesses, establishing dreams and goals, and understanding their relationships with others. Intrapersonal learning activities might include

  • surveys that focus on how the learner feels about a particular subject or fact
  • role play showing their own response or emotions in a particular setting or scenario
  • discussion of how the actions of others make them feel or think
  • retracing how they solved a problem or learned a new skill and applying that process to a new learning situation

Naturalist intelligence. People with a heightened appreciation for and understanding of the world around them like to experience the outdoors and relate well to animals. They tend to process information best by exploration. These learners will respond well to activities that let them

  • visit other Websites or resource documents and investigate a topic on their own
  • organize and conduct a virtual field trip to show other learners sites that have interested them
  • go on a virtual tour of a company site, library, or museum
  • create blended learning that combines live field trips with sharing those experiences in the virtual classroom.

Put it all together

Remember that everyone exhibits a combination of the various intelligences. The goal is to engage as many of these different capacities as possible within the same learning event or program. Too often, we find that inexperienced instructional designers use one particular activity and continue to repeat it exclusively, when other types of meaningful activities would create more variety, increase learner interest, and appeal to multiple learning styles.

For example, in a project management course, you could use a small group discussion followed by a visual activity such as a collaborative flow chart. Later, you could bring the entire class to a Website to explore project management principles and resources.

Build a library of learning activities.As you begin to deploy your virtual classroom, you will build a curriculum of learning programs that you have designed specifically for this environment. In addition to leveraging reusable learning objects, be sure to build a database of reusable learning events and activities. This approach will save you time as your virtual classroom curriculum continues to grow.

Assess your own intelligences. It’s natural to develop an unconscious bias that reflects your own areas of intelligence. By taking a self-assessment, you can learn more about your preferences for one form of delivery over another and work to establish more balance in your approach.

Here are some sites where you can assess your intelligences and learn more about MI.

  • http://www.ldpride.net/learningstyles.MI.htm. A good place to start. The site offers an online self-test and addresses the importance of MI when working with people who have learning disabilities or attention deficit disorder.
  • http://www.ldrc.ca/projects/projects.php?id=26. The Learning to Learn site offers a free 10-module course on how people learn, including a module on MI.
  • http://surfaquarium.com/im.htm. Walter McKenzie’s site offers a newsletter and a self-test for learning styles.
  • http://www.ldrc.ca/projects/miinventory . This site, maintained by the Learning Disabilities Resource Community (LDRC), offers an MI inventory as well as a number of links to other sites and projects.

By paying attention to the multiple intelligences of your audience, you’ll find that your learning programs are more exciting and more effective. As you grow more comfortable with the technology, your own creativity will begin to respond to the challenge. Use the simple suggestions we've shared here to help you get started.

Published: June 2003

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