E-Learning: Do It Right (But Do It!)

By Holly Macdonald

There’s (still) a lot of hype about e-learning and it’s hard to know what’s true. It’s cheaper! (Well, it can be.) It’s easy to create! (Easy doesn’t always mean good.) Learn anytime, anywhere! (Well, maybe.) Anyone under the age of 25 is online all the time anyway! (That might just be true!)

The key is this – technology is changing faster and faster than ever before and today’s cool is tomorrow’s must have, while today’s must have might be tomorrow’s has-been. In spite of the potential land mines inherent in embracing e-learning, my advice is to do it anyway.

Just do it right.

Firstly, figure out how you are going to transition into e-learning. What’s your best first step? What makes sense for your organization? Assessing your needs doesn’t need to be a big exercise, it could be as simple as a questionnaire that gives you a hypothesis to test. Answer a few questions about current requests/needs/demands, for a starting point. Consider the learner, your department, customers and overall organization in this assessment.

Secondly, match up those needs to what exists today. While there are a multitude of techno-wonderful options available, they still fall into three categories: I need to learn/I need help/I need to share or know. Using these broad categories helps you figure out where to start and what general direction is the best to target. When you put together a broad business case, then you’ll engage your stakeholders and validate it.

I need to learn…

  • Self-directed learning (think “online courses”) can be a tremendous opportunity to leverage, as long as the instruction is audience-focused, not content-focused. It’s great for content that is relatively stable and needs to serve a diverse audience. If you are going to build a self-directed course, it has to be able to both entertain and educate, so I’d encourage you to think outside of the corporate style guide (sorry corp comm cousins). If you are going to D-I-Y, check out Cathy Moore’s fabulous suggestions in this presentation.
  • Synchronous options (webinars, twitter chats) can be wonderful, but without active moderation they are as painful as a face-to-face lecture with no engagement or interactivity. Don’t let the technology tail wag the dog. Use of a moderator dramatically increases the ability to facilitate multiple channels. Designing them to suit the medium is important – you can’t just create a powerpoint slide and then wing it. Build in interaction and test it, and have a plan ‘B’ and ‘C’ ready to go should something not work the way it should. Don’t end up like this conference call.http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zbJAJEtNUX0[/youtube]

I need help…

  • Performance support could be a killer app, as long as it is embedded into the work at hand. These used to be the “online help” of the software training spectrum, but isn’t confined to that little blue question mark anymore. However, if the task requires someone to go out of their way to seek out this nugget of e-help, then you haven’t really connected the learning to their performance. Think about it in other ways – maybe an impromptu video analysis (“let’s record you and then we’ll do a feedback session”) or “can you send me a screencast of exactly what you did and I’ll contact you with next steps…” kind of help. Not sure what performance support is? Check out this example.

I need to know/share…

  • Lots of times, a training department/manager/professional is expected to create a training solution when really what they need to do is remove barriers so that the “learners” can learn from one another. Sometimes, no one needs to guide them or train them, we just need to connect them. Maybe, it’s a private youtube channel, or a yammer network, or a policy-wiki…maybe building that elusive online learning community…can all be great, but you need to figure out how to shape/support/move it along, otherwise you could end up with a virtual ghost-town. (Here’s a treasure-trove of resources to read through on online communities).

Whatever you do, don’t lead with technology, focus on outcomes. What will they be able to do after you’ve done this? And be able to answer the ultimate question: “So what?”

It’s pretty safe to say that e-learning is not going to go away, just get more complicated and pervasive, so you might as well roll up your sleeves and dig in.

Holly MacDonald is an independent consultant with well over 15 years of experience in the learning & development field. Holly is a bit of a techno-geek and can often be found playing online. When she steps away from her computer, she spends time outside: hiking, kayaking, gardening and of course walking the dog. She lives on Saltspring Island and is a leader in the live/work revolution.

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  1. Anca Sovarosi February 24, 2012 at 10:29 am · · Reply

    Great article, thanks for sharing your inputs! I appreciated the refreshing 3 needs, and do align with the connecting viewpoint.

    I do think differently on the ‘e-learning getting complicated’. Stepping off wall-e visuals and metaphors of processing other’s information, and separating the physical recycling from the ideas/practices/behaviors one, I actually think it will get simpler, to the point, and wider validated. I do agree, in order for such to come true, there’s work and rolled sleeves involved :).

    • Hi Anca – thanks for your comment. Agree that once you get through the “noise”, things are getting easier in terms of developing e-learning, the challenge I see for instructional designers is to keep on top of the options, be aware of consumer trends that might open up new methods and to incorporate things that are down the road. Technology is going to keep evolving and who knows what the next 5 years holds: google goggles for production workers, chips embedded in uniform fabric for retail workers, flexible glass for corporate workers…all seemed sci-fi years ago, but closer to reality than we think. Just read this http://venturebeat.com/2012/02/28/eric-schmidt-mobile-world-congress/ which has some examples that illustrate it to.

      What do you think?

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