So, it seems like everyone’s going back to school… including me. I’ve been teaching college English and Humanities as an adjunct since 1991, and after last Fall, I needed a serious sabbatical. I was questioning my ‘part-time profession.’ Standing in the shadows of those great educators that shaped my life, I asked myself: “Can teaching online really make a difference to someone’s life?” Not certain that I could answer that, I took a break to re-assess.
The Great Education Debate
There’s a continued debate about online versus instructor-led training. In the business world, where I live and breathe during the daylight hours, Human Resources and Training departments across the globe bemoan the continued corporate push towards eLearning. They’ve led workshops and in-class instruction, and they see this movement to online as a way to improve not the quality of the education, but the economics. And I’ll admit that I felt this way too when I began teaching online. As I designed my courses for online delivery, I saw myself losing the opportunity to be in the classroom, to interact with my students to perhaps influence them, as I had been influenced. I suppose that led to my hiatus. I was drained. In order to try and replicate the very best of an in-class experience, my eLearning design took more and more time, with less and less perceived personal gratification.
Let’s try to look at this debate dispassionately. What is the goal of the educational process? To expose the learner to some content, yes, but it’s also to: provide access to a community of learning that encourages personal reflection and active engagement; to expose learners to alternate opinions and perspectives; and to encourage a love of learning that will prompt students to continue their study, even after the class is over. Can all this be accomplished, online?
Instructors and teachers are often natural performers. They enjoy being the center of attention. The best classes I’ve ever attended were more “performance” than they were instructional. And this is great. It’s a critical component of education — exposing learners to content and to someone with an enthusiastic love of learning. Do we need to lose that? eLearning is by definition more student-focused. It has to be. Often, there is no set class meeting time or day, and there may be no instructor at the front of the class. So how can we create powerful learning in a student-centric way?
Top Ten ELearning Design Tips
So here are my top ten tips to encourage student-centric learning:
1. Speak to me.
This doesn’t just mean write second-person to the learner, but it means doing your homework as an eLearning designer to continually evaluate the content: “does the learner really need or want to know this?” If it doesn’t meet that test, then it’s not student-centric.
2. Keep it relevant.
This relates back to number 1, but warrants repetition. Continually make connections between the content and the learner. Why should I care? What does this have to do with me? If you are creating sales training, answer the question: “How will this increase my sales?” This is what the learner needs to know to keep the content relevant and engaging.
3. Tell the story
Most of us had a high school teacher who told the most interesting stories. I’ll bet, looking back, that’s what you remember, rather than what was on the test. Don’t lose that. Use scenario-based instruction to create a story of context for the content. Think in terms of what situations would exist that would require the learner to remember the content. Create those situations in your eLearning.
4. Encourage exploration.
As an educator, your first inclination might be to teach everything, which leads to boring eLearning that features lots of “click next to continue” instruction. Instead, design a “streamline” version of your course, with peripheral content available through weblinks and resources. You’ll be surprised how many learners will access these and retain more than they would otherwise.
5. Allow for practice.
The rule of thumb in eLearning design is meaningful interaction every five to eight screens. Even if these are only questions on the previous topic, make sure to create opportunities for the learner to practice applying the concepts.
6. Create community
This can be difficult in an online environment, but it is extremely helpful to provide forums, blogs and discussion boards that encourage learners to connect with others involved in the class. Allow them to relate their own stories or challenges to offer the other learners a chance to establish relevance from someone other than you.
7. Allow for reflection.
This is one of the most overlooked facets of eLearning. Reflection is the process by which the learner carefully considers the content and decides how it applies. This can be accomplished by crafting discussion board questions, rather than answers. Have your learning community come up with the answers, after they’ve had time to reflect on their response.
8. Adapt to learning styles
We know that different learners have different learning styles — visual, aural, tactile, etc. Try to accommodate these through the instruction. Design visuals or animations that directly reinforce the ideas you are trying to communicate. Use voice-over narration, along with text captioning to accommodate that style. Incorporate games and activities that will engage tactile learners.
9. Keep it short.
The standard seems to be that moving online will reduce training time by approximately 25%. This usually results from objectively analyzing your content and editing what the learner doesn’t need to know. Keep your narration direct and succinct. Streamline your delivery. Keep the content relevant, and shorter can be better.
So often after designing an eLearning course for a client, I’ll ask the training department how it’s going, and they have no idea. The ADDIE model was supposed to be cyclical, where the “Evaluate” phase establishes improvements that are integrated into another “Analyze” phase. Keep a “Lessons Learned” file active during the course, that you commit to returning to at least six months later. This will force you to continually improve the course and keep the instruction current.
The continued debate
Which one’s better — online or instructor-led. I was fortunate enough to attend one of those “small liberal arts colleges back east,” so that has been my prejudice. But in teaching online, I have students who are single moms, soldiers in Iraq, people struggling to survive. Without online learning, they wouldn’t have access to an education at all. So maybe that’s the greatest reason for creating the best learning environment we can – online or in-class.
If you’d like to learn about custom eLearning course creation from Digitec Interactive, visit our eLearning page.
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