In Challenging Times: Make Lemonade in eLearning

turning lemons into lemonade elearningIn 2009, an SRI team working for the Department of Education led by Barbara Means, reported for the first time, that eLearning was superior to face-to-face. This is in contrast to the work that Kulik and Kulik had been doing that showed that Computer-Based Training was no worse than face-to-face (meaning it’s a suitable substitute). However, what intrigued me was this statement:

The meta-analysis findings do not support simply putting an existing course online, but they do support redesigning instruction to incorporate additional learning opportunities online.

At this time, owing to a global pandemic, many institutions and organizations are shifting learning to online delivery. This includes schools, colleges, universities, and a lot of organizational and corporate learning. And this makes sense. When it’s time to minimize physical interaction, virtual experiences should be a suitable substitute. But not, of course, trying to take a face-to-face course online directly. That’s been done and has been shown to be ineffective.

There are a lot of emergent prescriptions, such that there’s even a backlash! Yet there is a way to go further. What is offered is the opportunity to shift to online with the appropriate redesign of experiences for online delivery. That means two major things: accommodating what is lost by going online and taking advantage of the opportunities technology provides us.

What’s lost online

There are a number of differences between a face-to-face experience and learning online. And it’s clear that some of them are desirable. The question then becomes what’s lost, and what we should do about it.

One of the primary characteristics of learning together is “presence.” There’s the instructor’s physical appearance and behaviors, as well as those of the students. These elements provide feedback that goes beyond what’s communicated by voice or text. What’s communicated by dress, mannerisms, and more is part of the whole communication.

Making up for presence requires more effort in deliberately conveying a sense of self on the part of the instructor – and the students. If not an instructor, there needs to be the evidence of some real person behind the scenes. It can come from the SME, even a video, but it has to be authentic. Authors do it; in Eric Barker’s Barking Up the Wrong Tree, his parenthetical asides really add to the experience.

Asynchronous experiences may be different, but some authentic “voice” makes the experience more manageable. And if there’s a cohort, particularly if they’re unlikely to know one another from elsewhere, and/or will be working together going forward, have them present themselves. They can tell something about why they’re taking the course, but get them to communicate something “safely.” In some research I worked on as part of my undergraduate degree in technology-mediated learning, the instructor had a typo in an early email, and said something like “I’m not worrying about spelling and I don’t want you to either.” It helped set the tone.

You also need to engage learners more in action. While we should not be using class time to lecture regardless, an instructor can monitor student comprehension and engagement visually. This isn’t as easy to do online. Consequently, there should be more interaction that can be tracked. Don’t just take your hour(s)-long lecture and stream it. You need to mix in content with activity more frequently. Ask content questions. If there’s a synchronous cohort, do group assignments. Have people processing the content, not just consuming. And, of course, ideally have them do so in ways that are like how they should be using the material after the learning experience. This isn’t restricted to online learning, but it’s even more important here.

Of course, hands-on activities are hard to replace. You can scaffold them with simulations and arrange for some hands-on time, as was done at the University of Melbourne with precious time on a complex imaging device. But some things will not be able to go online. I’m working with the local Community Emergency Response Team on training volunteers, but getting hands-on with a fire-extinguisher and putting out an actual burning device, or bandaging wounds on a patient, and doing search and rescue drills, just can’t be faked.

What we can gain from technology

On the other hand, simulations are powerful opportunities for learning in many or most instances. For many situations, there are powerful ways to engage learners in meaningful practice. Moreover, they often don’t take as much effort as initially imagined. Serious games are just one of the ways in which digital technology can be more powerful than face-to-face training.

Whether actually programmed, or implicitly creating the underlying relationships in the branches of a scenario, simulated experiences can be powerful. You can have learners navigate challenging conversations, or operate complex machinery, and make decisions about many different types of activities that are the focus of training. These days, it’s easy to capture computer simulations and there are tools that make development of branching scenarios manageable.

These work better asynchronously, of course, but they can be leveraged synchronously. And blended can mean mixing up asynchronous with synchronous activity. You can have everyone consume content or interact with a canned experience (which includes even a game), but then you bring people together to do things like collectively reflect on each person’s individual experience, or discuss a topic. And, of course, there’s group work.

One of the great opportunities online is using collaborative technology. So, for instance, you may have a group collaborate to respond to a challenge. Again, these should be work-product focused, but it could be a joint response to an RFP, or a presentation, or a spreadsheet representing a business model. The benefits of a group are the social learning ones, engaging with other interpretations.

And while you can’t do role-plays quite as easily, there’s another alternative. Individuals can record themselves performing a task, like giving a talk, and upload it for asynchronous viewing and comments. As the research project I participated in documented, there were qualitatively better discussions conducted asynchronously. In-class questioning tends to be what was termed Initiate – Response – Evaluate, which meant that the teacher was probing for specific facts or interpretations. Online, however, with more time to respond, there were more thoughtful expressions of ideas.

Thinking afresh about learning

The real opportunity is to think afresh about what our learning goals are and how to meet them. This goes beyond the media of communication and goes more fundamentally to what we’re trying to achieve. It gives us an opportunity to review both our curricula and our pedagogy.

From the curriculum side, we should be looking more carefully at what outcomes we need. It should be about having new skills and the ability to make better decisions. If you’re focusing on recitation, you’re likely to get what cognitive science terms “inert knowledge,” where people will know it, but not use it when relevant.

We also have the opportunity to break it up into finer granularity. We can space learning out over time, which we know makes for better retention. We don’t have to accommodate the tyranny of the timepiece, and can instead build things in more, smaller chunks, which better aligns with our brains.

We also should revisit our pedagogy. How can we put “do” in the center, and resource with models and examples, not just dump a whole bunch of concepts with minimal exercise? We should be thinking about activity, not content.

Five and more years ago, we wrote the Serious eLearning Manifesto, talking about what good eLearning should be. And, we differentiated it from typical eLearning. We still think that it is an appropriate approach. The circumstances driving us to go online are horrific, but as the saying goes “if life gives you lemons….” In the face of desperate times, let’s use this opportunity to do good. Doing something positive is a mentally healthy response. Be well!


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