Training Educators to Design and Develop ODL Materials/Developing Learners’ Profile

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Tutorial.png Workshop Modules Home.png Principles of ODL | ID Models | Needs Analysis | Developing Learners’ Profile | Methods of Delivery | Content Development Methodology for ODL | Types of Assessment in ODL | Developing a Student Guide | Relevant Technologies | Course Evaluation | Other Key Issues

Module 3: Developing a Learner Profile

A learner profile is basically information relating to individual learners who are engaged in the learning environment. In any course, it is always important to know who your learners will be, where they come from, their prior knowledge and their expectations from the course.

Developing a learner profile will enable us to better plan the course in a learner-centered way and to deliver the instruction in a manner that suits the individual preferences of the learner.

This module therefore aims at creating an awareness on the importance of a learner profile in the process of developing ODL (Open Distance Learning) materials. It outlines the steps the instructional designer would take in preparing a learner profile.

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Module Objectives

At the end of the module the learner should be able to:

  • Define a learner profile
  • Explain the importance of having a learner profile
  • Identify the relevant content of a learner profile
  • Identify the methods of collecting learner profile data
  • Differentiate between the methods of collecting profile data
  • Explain how the instructional designer uses learner profile data
  • Develop learner profiles in own specific territories
  • Use the learner profile data to contextualize instruction


This section contains definitions of some key terms used in this module.

Learning environment - a class, an online learning platform, a set of manuals and anything that forms part of the learning process of the learner.
Learner-centered - an educational philosophy that puts the learner in the center of the learning process and not the teacher. Learner needs are given priority over the teacher's preferences.
Learning/cognitive styles - The terms learning styles and cognitive styles have often been used as interchangeable words in the literature. However, some researchers have elaborated the main differences between the two terms. For instance, Jonassen and Grabowski (1993) distinguish between learning and cognitive styles by explaining that learning style instruments are typically self-report instruments, whereas cognitive style instruments require the learner to do some task which is then measured as some trait or preference.
Kinesthetic resources - resources that actually require the learner to 'do' things like note-taking, writing, putting parts together etc.

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Discuss the main difficulties/barriers involved in the process of learner profiling when it comes to Distance Education.

Well, when you are involved in a face-to-face session, the participants are basically centralised at the same location. There are a variety of ways to interact with them,to access their records in a "just-in-time" fashion from the registry or administrative department etc. This kind of 'real' time access to the individual records can help you adapt your instruction on a daily or weekly basis.You can then progressively adjust your instruction to suit the learners' needs.

However, when you are in the process of preparing ODL materials for delivery, you need to plan your instruction, course guides and students' manual well before-hand. Furthermore, you will rarely know your learners because they are dispersed in different locations,come from different socio-educational cultures and means of interaction with them before preparation of course materials is quasi-null. The real challenge is then how to plan contents that are at the same time 'generic'(that is appropriate to diverse group of learners) but 'specific' (that is to meet the needs of the various learners with diverse profiles that you do not really know beforehand).

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As an educator, try to think of the students in your face-to-face classroom. Think of them in terms of their race, nationality, ethnicity, and social status etc. Jot down some 'sensitive' points that you think you need always to avoid to refer to or to use as examples in your classroom that could offend any particular student in general.

It is clear that in a class of say, 25 students we shall have a mixture of students from different ethnic groups especially if you are in a multi-cultural and multi-ethnic society (mixture of people from Asian, African, Caribbean, European origins). For instance, many educators often unknowingly do offend students when they take examples to illustrate concepts in their classes. For instance, in the Western world (occident) sexuality is not such a taboo subject while in most of the Asian communities (oriental world) it is still a taboo. So as an educator, learner profiling would greatly help us in making small and trivial choices which are indeed very important for the well-being of every learner in the course. One should also be very careful even when making jokes since not all jokes are acceptable in different communities and social classes! A course writer for ODL materials should therefore always bear in mind that the target groups for his course would indeed be diverse and spread over different cultures from all over the world. So learner profiling should range from the more general profile (or group) to the more specific (or individualised) profile.

Contents of a learner profile

A learner profile can be broken down into two main categories:

  1. Social, Personal and Professional Background
  2. Preferred learning/cognitive preferences

Social, Personal and Professional Background

When you are collecting data, it is possible to collect a lot of learner profile data – more perhaps than you could use. It is therefore important to think about what data you most need for the particular course you are preparing. For example,

  • A course on a sequential subject (e.g., maths or a foreign language), data on prior learning might be the most important to have.
  • A course on a professional subject (e.g., law, accountancy), the most important thing to know might be learners’ current work and the type of work that they hope to move into.

You therefore need to adapt your profile data collection to your needs as instructional designer.

Look at the table below it outlines the types of information you may need to collect from your learners.

Category Examples
Personal characteristics
  • age
  • gender
  • family circumstances
  • work circumstances
Reasons for studying
  • to gain entry to another course
  • to gain a qualification
  • for pleasure
Prior knowledge
  • the qualifications the learners already have
  • other learning they have completed
  • learning problems they might they have (e.g., misconceptions and bad study habits)
Prior study skills
  • experience the learners already have of studying other than in a classroom
  • their ability to organise their own time
  • their note-taking skills
  • their self-assessment skills
  • their ITC skills
Study circumstances
  • their access to a library
  • their access to a computer and the internet
  • their access to other learners
  • their ability to visit study centres

Please view this presentation concerning the content of the learner profile data.

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You are planning a course for adults in an online environment. What information would you need to collect? Try to justify why you have included each piece of information.

Preferred learning/cognitive preferences

Learners mainly prefer to learn in ways that are different from other learners of the same class, culture or religion. It is beleived that more than three-fifths of a person’s learning style is biologically imposed (Restak, 1979). Furthermore, education research and practice have demonstrated that learning can be enhanced when the instructional process accommodates the various learning styles/preferences of students (Buch & Bartley, 2002).

It has been observed in learning style schools that many poor achievers do not function well under stress, but their stress appears sufficiently reduced after learning through their preferences to enable them to attain significantly higher scores on tests (Dunn et al., 1995). However, this opinion is not always shared by all educational researchers and practitioners. For instance, McLoughlin (1999) points out to different empirical findings showing that learning styles do not only enhance but can also hinder academic performance in several respects.

Read more on Learning/Cognitive Styles here

Methods of collecting learner profile data

Information can be collected by several different methods as follows:

  • Direct observation
(e.g Observing the person at work). This method reduces the chance that incorrect information may be gathered, but it is not always viable (e.g. it would be practically impossible to follow a lecture for a month to find out her competencies in delivering content).
  • Personal surveys
Data could be collected using a questionnaire, or direct interviews. This method has the advantage that many questions can be asked quickly and that high response rates are achieved.It is generally used to collect information / data from small numbers of people. You may need this to find in-depth information about the learner. However, this may not be possible since participants could be from different countries.
  • Postal surveys/Emails
Use a sample of people drawn from a specific mailing list or from an electoral register. The people selected could be sent (e-mailed or posted)a questionnaire.
  • Telephone surveys
Telephone Surveys special cases-of personal interviews. These are becoming more widely used in the UK because more and more people have telephones at home.

Please view a summary of methods of collecting data.

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Discuss the advantages and disadvantages of the above mentioned methods

Sources of learner profile Data

The most accurate source of data is that from the learners who are going to take the course you are designing. Unfortunately, you may have no access to those learners. For example, if you are setting up a new ODL organisation, you will need to start planning courses many months before any students have enrolled. Even if you are working in an existing ODL institution, you cannot necessarily assume that the institution’s existing students will represent the students for the new course. For these reasons, collecting accurate profile data is problematic and you need to be careful in extrapolating on data from existing learner groups to future ones.

Alternative Methods
  • Use the characteristics of the students that you have had in your classroom.
How will ODL students be similar to these? How will they differ?
  • Contact other teachers who have taught similar students
Ask them for learner profile data on their students.
  • Gather together a group of students on an existing but similar course
Ask them for data about themselves.
  • Mail a questionnaire to past students, current students or people who have enquired about the courses offered by your institution.
Mail questionnaire to the students who test your course.(If your instructional design process will include a period of developmental testing) It would be good to have learner data long before this, but no data will be more reliable than that which comes from a pilot, since the pilot learners are the nearest you have to ‘real’ learners.
  • Find out what sort of student profile data is kept in your institution’s administrative records. If this is on computer, you might be able to search for data on courses at the same level or in the same subject as the one you are working on.

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Discuss in your groups, some other alternative ways to collect similar type data from existing groups?

Use of learner profile data to design instruction

Once learners' learning styles are known, it is easy to design instruction that accommodates their different learning needs. It is a fact that high achievers have different learning styles from low achievers. For instance, high achievers prefer to learn orally and visually while low achievers would prefer an extensive use of visuals because they find it dificult to remember information delivered orally through lectures and discussions.

To cater for the two catergories of learners, an instructional designer may need to use the balanced training design method which would provide a balance of text, pictures and diagrams. Let us look at the table showing how learner profile data could be useful to instructional designers.

Type of Data You need to know this to decide...
Literacy level

The level of Language to use when writing materials

Age Group

What types of examples to use The extent to which you can draw on learners’ experience (e.g., older learners will have more experience of work and bringing up children)

ICT skills

The skills you can assume learners have and which will have to be taught

Reasons for Studying

The approach and types of examples to use to best motivate learners (e.g., learners studying law to become lawyers might be motivated by a different approach than that of learners studying law to help them as managers of small businesses)

Home Situation

Does the learner have a place to study? Does the learner have access to electricity?)

Prior Knowledge

The skills you can assume learners have and which will have to be taught

Learning Situation

The sorts of tasks you can set (e.g., can you set a task that requires going to a library?)


  1. Ayersman, D.J., and Minden, A.(1995). Individual differences, computers and instruction. Computers in human behaviour, 11(3-4), 371-390.
  2. Barbe, W., and Milone, M.(1980). Modality. Instructor, 89(6), 44-46.
  3. Buch, K., Bartley, S. (2002). Learning style and training delivery mode preference. Journal of Workplace Learning. 14(1), 5-10
  4. Dunn R., Griggs S.A., Olson J., Gorman B., & Beasley M. (1995). A Meta Analytic validation of the Dunn and Dunn learning styles model. Journal of Educational Research, 88(6), p 353-361.
  5. Dunn, R (1996). How to implement and supervise a learning style program. USA: ACSD
  6. Jonassen, D. H., & Grabowski, B. (1993). Individual differences and Instruction. in Ayersman D.J. & Minden A. (1995). Individual differences, computers and instruction. Computers in human behaviour, 11(3-4), p 371-390.
  7. Restak, R. (1979). The Brain. The last frontier. in Dunn R (1996). How to implement and supervise a learning style program. USA: ACSD
  8. McLoughlin, C. (1999). The implications of research literature on learning styles for the design of instructional material. Australian Journal of Educational Technology, 15(3), p 222-241.