Wednesday, April 6, 2011

E-Learning – Confused on Many Levels

E-Learning has long been misunderstood and it continues to be confused on many levels. This confusion stems from a broad swath of learning solutions having collided with the introduction of technology and the internet. Many of the E-Learning solutions developed as a result of this collision are driven by cost and not effectiveness. We have recently had the opportunity to respond to many E-Learning RFPs and we are always surprised that the balance of these RFP’s deal with technical parameters and infrastructure and not the learning objectives, instructional design, the interactivity of the content or the diverse makeup of the learners. Today, the technical delivery of E-Learning is relatively easy to implement, band width considerations are virtually non-existent even in remote rural settings and there are plenty of well-designed, easy to use, scalable, non-proprietary E-Learning development platforms.

So then the question has to be asked, if the technology exists, and is easily implemented, why are most E-Learning initiatives are either boring, ineffective or bogged down in technical issues? Well, to truly understand this we have to take step back and look at the evolution of E-Learning and the effect that the traditional learning process has had on E-Learning. In short, the technology is mature but the process and our ideas framing E-Learning development are relics of the past. Administrators who fund and develop E-Learning projects apply a linear process to E-Learning to help manage costs, schedule project milestones and ensure the efficacy of the content. Managing E-Learning like traditional training, often results in a finished E-Learning product that looks like traditional training, delivered in a much more robust interactive domain. Typically, in such a process the content has not realized the value and benefit of a mature interactive process, such as the inclusion of selective video, branching based on pre-test and post test questions or quizzes, access to multi-layered depth of content, etc. 

A well developed E-Learning solution includes subject matter experts, a diverse and creative instructional design team that is experienced in the production of media in all forms, including simulations, animation, video and interactive design. A well designed E-Learning module or comprehensive curriculum can last indefinitely since, like annually updated university text Books, E-Learning modules undergo a review for updates and efficacy on an annualized basis. A well designed E-Learning program has the power to change behaviour, enhance comprehension and create incentive for people to value and engage in lifelong learning.

More confusion reigns when  many flavours of, what I would call,  less than ideal interactive learning are slapped with the moniker of E-Learning. E-Learning means different things to different sectors of the economy. The most common expression of E-Learning is often cited when discussing colleges and universities. It offers instructor led learning with complementary opportunities for learning through assigned activities, reading activities or instructor designed PowerPoint presentations. While using the interactive medium, it remains a lecture style presentation best suited to students rather than adults. The main learning still takes place in an interactive live session with the instructor and the final test and/or interim tests are still delivered on campus or proctored through associated organizations that must meet Government educational guidelines. It’s called E-Learning but I prefer the term Distance Learning since the interaction is not under the control of the learner.

Organizations offer yet another watered down version of E-Learning through the use of Webinars; incorporating the use of video (but usually not), a guest speaker and a PowerPoint presentation. This is recorded and posted on a web site as E-Learning. These have the feel of warmed up left-over’s. Often in these examples the most important ingredient not mentioned is the learner, how are they represented in the content, the objectives and (what I like to call) the engagement level?  The engagement level is driven by our need for entertainment, distraction and love affair with media on the internet and on television. Good teachers and instructors know and understand this and use this in traditional learning to provide insight, humour, gravity and life experiences to the learning process to make learning unpredictable and enjoyable.  

The final flavor is the corporate E-Learning – usually designed to teach us mandatory repetitive information. Most are designed as interactive web pages and even real interactive E-Learning with plenty of interactive control but the content is often text heavy, lacks any engagement and the learning outcomes are not substantiated.  The biggest drawback is the poor engagement level.

We’ve all been to school and understand the nature of boring learning; the difference is that we are forced to participate as students while we must have engaged to learn as adults. Somehow this lesson is lost when developing E-Learning, perhaps because of cost, our lack of understanding of the E-Learning medium or the need to use traditional methods to manage a very untraditional medium and its potential.

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