Online Learning


One of the first questions stakeholders ask in the learning development process is, “how much training credit are we going to give for this?”  This is actually one of the last questions I ask when developing a training solution.

Non-developers ask this question first because they are usually accountable for creating training opportunities that will help employees meet their annual requirements or because they have to fit the training into a larger program.

Developers ask this question last because it places the emphasis in the wrong place, limits the design process, inhibits creative thinking (yes training development requires creativity), and because it is impossible to answer at the beginning of the process.

In Chapter 9 of Designing Successful E-Learning, Michael Allen describes a process he calls “backgrounding.”  This is an information gathering stage that occurs before the actual design of a training solution begins.  In this process he suggests some key questions you SHOULD be asking first regardless of the format of your training solution.

  1. Is there really a human performance problem? This is similar to standard 5 of ISPI’s performance standards which I wrote about here.
  2. Is the problem caused by a lack of ability to perform?  Cause analysis is standard 6, which I wrote about here.
  3. What are the determinants of behavior?  “People do things for reasons.  Their reasons may be built on misconceptions, fears, and lack of confidence, desire to fit in and behave like everyone else, perceived strengths and so on.  To be successful with a learning intervention, instructional designers need to identify the primary determinants of the behaviors that need to be changed.”

When I am “backgrounding” a project I want to know what result we are trying to achieve, what problem we are trying to solve or what opportunity are we trying to address.  ISPI uses the acronym RSVP to describe this process.

R – Results
S – Situation or context
V – Value
P – Partnerships

The answers you get when backgrounding a project will focus your efforts and greatly increase your likelihood of success.  Forcing a topic (assuming it is the right topic) into a predefined time-limited box will greatly impair your design and development effort and may cause you to miss your target altogether.

Try saying the color of every word, NOT the actual word, you see in the image above. (Source)

How’d you do?  When I first tried this I thought I was doing pretty good until I realized I wasn’t doing it right.  The second time required a conscious effort to follow the directions and do it right.

According to a neuroscience study by Dr. Jeffrey Schwartz and David Rock, cited in chapter 8 of Michael Allen’s Designing Successful E-Learning, our brains try to “hardwire” as much as possible to preserve working memory, which is limited.  Hardwiring preserves this precious resource and enables us to be more efficient when performing common or repetitive tasks.

The problem arises when we are asked to change hardwired behavior.

Schwartz and Rock say that insight is the key to changing hardwired behavior.  To gain insight and individual must first be aware of a new behavior and reflect on it.  In the reflection stage an individual shuts out external stimuli and focuses on internal processes.  Through this process of reflection the brain actually is rewiring itself.  When the rewiring is complete, adrenaline-like substances are released bringing on a euphoric feeling.  Have you ever had an “a-ha” moment?  This is the reason why it is so satisfying.

According to Schwartz and Rock, the role of leadership is to help others develop the most useful hardwiring.  Michael Allen is concerned with the actual process of rewiring.  In Dr. Allen’s words,

change or even just the prospect of change engages area of the brain that consume high levels of energy.  Instead of running idle, letting lower brain centers work in familiar patterns, change alerts and excites the prefrontal cortex.  This can be pleasant and constructive.  Working at optimum levels, the prefrontal cortex teams with the amygdala, the center of the brain that’s important for visual learning and memory, so that learning and effective decision making can occur.

But the prefrontal cortex is easily stressed and overloaded.  When the circuit breaker pops from too much excitement or concern, the prefrontal cortex again enlists aid from the amygdala, which is also (here’s the kicker) associated with feelings of fear and aggression.  Now in a defensive mode, the brain works to escape unfamiliar circumstances, return to easy running, and cool off.  Even if the escape is to old familiar behaviors that are known to be undesirable, the brain has protected itself, relaxed, and cast off the pain of the unfamiliar. (emphasis mine)

This brings us back to the introductory exercise.  I don’t know about you but it felt like I was consuming high levels of brain energy during that exercise.  I am not anxious to do it again.  Is that how learners feel when we participate in our e-learning or other events?  How can we create an environment that is conducive to effective learning?  That is the subject for another post.

If you build it, they will come.

That’s a famous line from the movie Field of Dreams.  But does it apply to e-learning?  In chapter 7 of his book, Designing Successful E-Learning, Michael Allen says probably not.  How often do we assume that the mere presence of an e-learning program, or any course, will attract an audience?  I accept that some responsibility lies with topic selection but the design plays a significant role as well.

Dr. Allen suggests that applying traditional instructional design to e-learning focuses too much on simply presenting information and passing a test to achieve its full potential.

Much contemporary instructional design is based on behaviorism or retains at least a strong flavor of it.

Simply get people to respond as we wish, provide knowledge of results as a reward, and practice until correct responses meet criteria.

Unfortunately, this approach, while quite effective with mice and pigeons to “teach” them relatively simple behaviors, has not worked well with humans.  It does not embrace the complexity of human thinking, emotions, motivation, and the powerful effects of the environment in which people behave.

Dr. Allen’s solution is to incorporate the Stages of Change model into instructional design.  This 6-step model below acknowledges that most people do not want to change or don’t see the need for change.  Since the goal of e-learning is to bring about change I believe Dr. Allen’s solution has merit.


In Dr. Allen’s revised approach, an e-learning course should include pre-instructional material.  He specifically warns against giving the learners a reading list.  Pre-instructional activities focus the learner’s mind on the need for behavior change (pre-contemplation), focus on the problem and consider solutions (contemplation).  What is traditionally considered formal instruction does not begin until the preparation stage.

You may ask, “what can I do to focus my learners on needs and solutions?”  One of my favorite ways to focus a learner is to give them a problem to solve.  Working on the problem can point out to the learner what he or she knows (and doesn’t know).  The great thing about e-learning is nobody has to know what the outcome is.  Introductory activities focus the learner on the subject matter, reveal learning opportunities (pre-contemplation) and motivate the learner to continue with the course.

In the rest of the chapter Dr. Allen address informal and blended learning.  Both are useful ways to introduce and follow-up on learning.  I’m not going to cover everything in the chapter.  Go out and buy the book yourself.  You won’t regret it.

In chapter 6 of his book Designing Successful E-learning, Michael Allen describes 4 elements that contribute to effective instructional design.

Meaningful learning experiences

If the content is not meaningful to the individual, the learning will not be able to assist in the learning process.

Notice his perspective here.  Dr. Allen views the learner as a partner in learning not merely a consumer of content.

The learning will have trouble maintaining focus, practicing sufficiently, and being able to apply learning outcomes if any occur.

Does anyone set out to create learning that is so boring that it can’t keep their audience’s attention?  Of course not.  But if you can’t keep their attention how can you expect them to attain the learning goals?  My advice, don’t take your learner’s attention for granted.  Consider what aspect of the content is important to them and use that to gain their attention.  Once you have earned their attention you can focus on other aspects they may not be as interested in or aware of.

Memorable learning experiences

Learning activities must make a lasting imprint on the learner if behavior subsequent to instruction and posttests is to be improved.  Is there sufficient impact, perhaps through imagery, surprise, amazement, practice, or other devices to help learners retain what they’ve learned?

That sets the bar pretty high from what I have seen in e-learning.  Have you thought of surprising or amazing learners with e-learning?  What would that look like?  Dr. Allen points out that this “isn’t just about novelty.”  Surprising someone may be memorable but it doesn’t translate to learning.

Motivational learning experiences

Learners must have motivation to learn, or they won’t, and learners must have motivation to transfer their learning to actual performance, or they won’t.

How often do we ask if our participants are motivated to learn?  We assume they are, but are they?  What will motivate a person to apply what they’ve learned?  They’ve completed the lessons.  They’ve passed the test.  They’ve earned their continuing education credits.  But will they change how they do their work?  Will they think differently?

Measurable results

Although the 3 Ms provide design direction, they are just the means to the Big M; what we really want is measurably improved performance that begets needed results.  We’re not talking just about posttest scores here, but an authentic ability to perform more effectively after training.

Dr. Allen is making a big assumption when he writes that everyone reading his book wants measurably improved performance.  If you adhere to ISPI’s performance standards then you understand the importance of measurable performance.  If this is a new concept for you, read here.

…many well-educated instructional designers who have not worked with interactive technologies attempt to apply designs that don’t translate well from the classroom or text book to e-learning.  The medium really does demand different design decisions, and there are important skills to be mastered if one is to become a successful e-learning designer.

The quote above is from Michael Allen’s second book in his e-learning library.  These books are must-reads for anyone planning to create their own own e-learning, regardless of background, education, or experience.

The book provides a thoughtful overview of instructional design, complete with recommended reading and resources, a design methodology to focus on measurable results (ISPI standard #1), and a systematic approach that accounts for factors beyond learning outcomes and content, such as prior learning and expectations.

I guarantee this book will have a positive impact on your e-learning and traditional learning development.

Source: http://www.learningguidesolutions.com/images/uploads/pdf/Learningguide_presentatie_Nick_van_Dam-.pdf

Like any training medium, online learning can be misused.  It is so quick and easy to put something online that even well-meaning people could fail to employ instructional design principles when creating their materials.  I understand that their are times when project constraints require hard decisions to be made.  However, if you are allocating time and resources to a learning project it is important to employ best practices.

The image above demonstrates the need for instructional design principles when creating online learning.  In short, the more engaged a learner is, the more he or she retains.

Much of what passes as online learning involves lots of reading and seeing. Very rarely does it require the learner to contribute anything.  If you want your learners to retain more you must involve them.  That takes effort, expertise, and a desire to create a more meaningful experience for your audience.

Have you ever thought your classroom training could have been shorter?  Did your e-learning course resemble a PowerPoint slideshow?  Has your mind wandered during a webinar?  Ever wanted to test out of some training?

As a learning professional it is my responsibility to choose the delivery method that will achieve the best outcome.  My primary consideration is ensuring the participants retain what they are supposed to learn.  If that was the only consideration my life would be a lot easier.  For better or worse we live and work in a world of budget constraints, geographic separation, and learning styles that affect our how we present training.

When I started my career in adult learning e-learning was hot and organizations were moving all their training out of the classroom.  In their eagerness to catch this wave, little or no consideration was given to instructional design.  Later I joined an organization that relied heavily on classroom training.  Neither of these situations is better than the other.

So what is the best way to present training?

The only way to answer that question is, it depends on your situation.  The table below matches frequently asked questions with common delivery methods.  The table is intended to help decide what is the best way to present your training.

Don’t agree with something in the table?  Add a comment.  Start the discussion.

Below the table are links that provide additional information about each of the methods.

ILT -Classroom

ILT-Online

Webinar

Asynchronous Online (Podcast, etc)

Multimedia Online

Coaching/

Mentoring

Do the instructor and students need to be in the same location?

X

X

Do the instructor and students need to interact?

X

X

X

X

Do the students need to interact with each other?

X

X

Do students need immediate feedback and remediation?

X

X

X

X

Does the content require rich media (video and audio)?

X

X

X

X

Does the content require long explanations (over 20 minutes)?

X

X

X

X

Does the content require practice?

X

X

X

X

Does the content require hands-on practice?

X

Does the content require role play or simulations?

X

X

X

Does the learning need to be assessed?

X

X

X

X

Is the training time-sensitive?

X

X

X

X

Resources:
Training Delivery Methods
Training Delivery Options and Media

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