The rush to capitalise on online learning has been with us for a long time now, but across a number of contexts I am involved in currently it would be fair to say the surge has increased significantly. Educational providers and companies appear to be in an almighty rush to get courses online, capitalise on reaching a wider audience of students, and reduce the costly or inconvenient processes associated with F2F learning.
I've always maintained the position that if you are going to run a course online it should be designed from the ground up to fit and maximise learning opportunities according to the characteristics (sometimes of the enhancing nature, other times limiting) of the online environment itself.
Realistically, however, most institutions and companies already have a plethora of training materials that have been developed for F2F programs, and I can see the sense in drawing on (as much as possible) already existing good-quality content as they build their online courses.
Content is King, after all?
Yes, but without a Queen you are only providing half a learning realm. If Content is King, then Communication is Queen. Facilitation or interaction might have been better words for it, but it didn't alliterate quite as well...
Basically, for courses to come across well to learners, you need both good content and effective communication and interaction with that content.
Let's look at it this way. In your F2F offering, would you go into a classroom, distribute a heap of handouts, turn on your powerpoint (setting it to auto slide), play a couple of videos, and throughout sit in the corner with a bag over your head, until the end of the session when you hand each learner a piece of paper with an assignment to be completed?
The answer to that is "of course not!" but in 'translating' F2F courses to online ones, that is exactly what so many programs are basically doing.
The online rendering of the F2F course becomes an information dump where all the actual materials and resources are put on a site or LMS and learners are presumed to be able to study/learn it with barely any interaction with a real teacher at all.
In the title to this post I call this 'belittling', which may sound a tad harsh or over the top, but here's why:
- It belittles the overall course and the teachers behind it because all of that excellent presentation, discussion, problem solving, elaboration and contextualisation a good trainer provides in a room with people is almost completely cut out of the equation;
- It belittles the learners when they feel like they are being taught by a series of powerpoints and documents rather than qualified, expert human beings who are sensitive to learners' needs;
- It belittles learners who can't cope with the swamping effect of massive amounts of decontexualised information and yet are asked to absorb and analyse it all for one overarching assignment at the end of the unit or course - many will drop out and leave the experience feeling like failures (or that online learning in general is a failure).
I'm seeing a lot of online programs that turn out this way. In addition to what I see teachers and programs doing, I've experienced it myself as a student. Online certificate and Masters degree courses in particular would have to be the worst culprits, and I might even go so far as to say that the hasty, slipshod approach to instructional design in these courses is quickly eroding their overall value.
So what can you do about it? How can you avoid the belittling information dump when you attempt to move a F2F course across to online delivery?
In essence, the key thing is to find ways (via both design and relevant tools) to provide those teacher and communication aspects we associate with quality F2F coursework within the online environment.
Here are some key applications to consider:
This may sound like a strange or unnecessary consideration to be raising in this sort of discussion, but personally I think it becomes extremely important.
When we attend good quality F2F classes, we get to sit in clean, well-appointed classrooms. Hopefully there is comfortable furniture and good classroom layout to create a sense of both space and intimacy. The environment, while comfortingly regular, features variables like the weather outside through windows and the different clothes people wear to class.
The information dump (into template-based LMS) technique is, for many learners, the equivalent of putting learners in a featureless white room without windows, with chairs and tables bolted to the floor in an invariable pattern, and a whiteboard fused to one wall with the same black and white text appearing on it day in and day out.
Online LMS and materials can and should incorporate something in the way of comfortable and variable scenery. We don't want to create a sense of chaos or confusing irregularity, but I think a variety of colours, formats, spatial arrangements and images can make a world of difference. We are not limited by the F2F print-based environment's requirement that materials be limited in page number (and therefore usually crammed) and black and white versus colour, so just reapplying those materials in an online interface is both lacking in imagination and missing an opportunity to liven up the whole experience.
When you present and interact with material and activities in a classroom, you plan them into sessions and often some sort of schedule. It's important to do the same thing with your material in the online environment, by organising the course into units or study sessions that work through particular objectives.
As a general rule of thumb, with online courses I always try to feature content and activities in units that would take the average learner about 60-90 minutes to complete. This maintains a rough correlation with classroom timing, but also gives learners a feeling of accomplishment as they manage to complete things from one session to the next. When you don't have the womb of a classroom and a teacher, that sense of progress (and 'manageability') can be really crucial.
In addition, professional presenters often feature a menu or overview of what they are going to cover in a session along with the overall goals or objective. This element can also be featured in our online delivery.
3. Teacher presentation
This pretty much vanishes in the information dump online course approach, unless you consider extensive written documents as somehow a reasonable equivalent to having a person talking to you. Personally I think the notion of having a real human being deliver content, activities and feedback is really crucial to almost all learners, and it's worth finding and applying ways to make this happen in the online environment as often as possible.
For synchronous application, using something like Eluminate or Adobe Connect can replicate the live interactive lecture/tutorial experience. For asynchronous (and here we get certain advantages in terms of time/scheduling and opportunities to re-watch and absorb at our own pace), the most useful tool out there is screencasting. You can present your Powerpoints (or any other kind of material), pace them and talk through/around them just as you would in a room with people. Learners get to hear their teacher and see what they are pointing out or demonstrating. It may be a recording, but some 'live' training is pretty similar to a recording (!) and in any case it's still a human being, hopefully one who knows his/her stuff, and it helps to keep the humanity in the course.
4. Checking understanding
Okay, not all 'live' teachers/lecturers/trainers do this very well all the time, but good ones do: they pause at appropriate moments in delivery to check learners are understanding or getting the point. They do this in a way that ensures learners are on track and effectively grasping what they are learning, well before any major project or formal assessment kicks in.
This is where so many online courses using the 'information dump + assignment' really fall down (dragging many learners with them). Very few courses offer teachers who can respond promptly to calls for clarification or other questions (I've waited literally weeks to get a response about something that completely held up my progress), and the result is a very uncomfortable feeling of flying blind for what can be extended periods of time.
Other than the very real requirement (in my opinion) that things like forums are utilised and checked/responded to daily by course teachers, eLearning authoring tools out there now like Camtasia Studio, Articulate, Captivate, iSpring (etc.) allow you to build in a variety of quizzes and interactive checking devices at regular points in your content to help teachers and learners check and see if they are actually 'getting it' as each element in the course progresses. They can be formulated in ways that reflect teachers' experience with content elements or problems in live F2F settings, and they can often be automated to provide instant feedback. They can even incorporate those teacher presentation elements I mentioned in (3) above: the prompts can feature screencast or audio recordings of teachers comments to indicate why something is correct or why/how something isn't.
5. Discovering rather than 'receiving' information
In a F2F interactive setting, good teachers will provide opportunities to 'discover' information or theory rather than just presenting it and asking students to 'stick it in their heads'. They will present problems or hypothetical situations which learners then interact with and come up with conclusions for. As the learners are steered toward the best conclusions, they discover and build new knowledge.
The online information dump excludes this opportunity to discover content and reinforces an overwhelmingly transmissive mode of teaching/learning. It doesn't have to be that way.
As with the checking understanding consideration mentioned above, eLearning authoring tools and quiz functions in various LMS offerings can be applied in ways that allow learners to build knowledge rather than simply read and remember it. They can experiment with cause-effect, matching and procedural sequencing activities that result in new and correct tables of information, with (as described above) instant feedback and reasoning from teachers as to the how/why. The learners have built/discovered this themselves, via our careful instructional design, and this leads to better uptake as well as motivation.
6. Activity variety
The effective F2F teacher or trainer knows that variety is the spice of life and it is important to 'mix it up' in the classroom in terms of activities and methods. There will be often be games or roleplays, occasionally more light-hearted activities oriented around humour.
By just sticking with the documented course information, an online offering will inevitably become as boring as all hell. We wouldn't do this to classroom-based learners so I don't see why we should do it to them in the online environment either.
Interactive games and roleplays and lighthearted activities can be featured in online coursework. While I recognise that classroom and online are different mediums and we need to be careful not to look like we are filling up an online course with over-frivolous or less-than-strictly-professional ('by the book') activities, more creative and alternative applications are possible and ought to be explored.
Even things as simple as a 'riddle of the day' feature (relevant to the course or occupations involved), a 'Guess who?' challenge, an interactive crossword, or a webquest treasure hunt - they can really help to mix things up in the online learning environment - and they can be just as educational as anything else we happen to be featuring.
7. Customisation and Personalisation
Good F2F instructors have a keen sense of audience and are very adept at making course content and activities orient themselves to the specific situations and needs of the learners in the room. Information dump techniques remove this opportunity and result in a 'cold' core of what feels to many learners like decontextualised course content that may or may not end up being relevant to them personally.
If we take that awareness of audience and apply it to our online course, we can predict and cater to a variety of different learner situations, perspectives and learning preferences. We can provide oral as well as written versions of key information; we can create different versions or applications of central theories and apply them to different occupations or settings. There can be regular adjuncts where the learners choose from a variety of settings or situations to apply certain theories or skills and hence make it more relevant to themselves. It means of course that there may need to be several or dozens (or more) of layers underlying the core content, but these layers are provided by the effective F2F trainer in a classroom and there is no reason why they shouldn't be facilitated in the online version of the course as well.
Some people may be quick to point out that more 'regular' courses featuring a core of information often then apply assignments that invite the learners to contextualise and personalise what they have learned. That's true, but it's not enough for me. This adaptability can be built into the course at several stages and not just the assessable assignments; this will help to keep my learners motivated with a sense of relevance and practicality.
Okay, so not all courses applied/offered online can effectively predict the specific audience(s) they will be catering to in advance. At the very least we can provide a variety of options which allow learners to get something reasonably close to their specific profession or situation. At the most, we can apply my next principle...
8. The 'emergent' course
While it's true there are many F2F courses which are as rigid and pre-set as stone, I wouldn't characterise these as being examples of best practice. Teachers and coordinators of good programs will often make changes to sequence and content as they get to know the learners and their specific needs better. They will be flexible while continuing to work towards a set of (often broad but sometimes highly specific) predefined or compulspory learning objectives.
The online version of the course can incorporate this flexibility and adaptability as well. It just means that teachers or managers have the ability (and permission) to adjust the course content and activities while the course is actually 'in play'. Units may be held back, added, cut or adapted as the course progresses. We might even (heaven forbid!) invite the learners to participate in this ongoing editing of the course.
It does mean that, to some extent, every application of the overall online course will end up slightly or majorly different. If we are genuinely catering to the learners involved in each application of the course, I really don't see why this ought to be an issue. It generally isn't in progressive F2F courses.
9. Getting social
We meet new classmates in F2F learning settings. We often interact with them in the classroom, but may also choose to develop closer relationships outside the classroom as well.
Information dumping techniques either completely ignore the social/interactive notion of learning or rely on auto-inclusions in LMS like forums. The forum function in online courses is usually vastly under-utilised or else pushed in a way that makes it feel completely contrived and unnecessary. It may also end up too wide or slow or poorly organised for people to see much use in it.
We have more tools and integrations at our disposal these days (beyond the good old forum) and it makes sense to try and make the most of them to facilitate learner socialisation if and when they want to engage in it. For example, a live chat feature would be a good inclusion to each and every course page (with the option of turning it on or off). Each unit could link to a Twitter feed with a specific hashtag, and/or a course Facebook page. The important things to consider with these features are that (1) many of our learners are now very familiar with them, (2) they are easier than ever to set up, and (3) they facilitate more in the way of easy live/chatty interaction compared to the slow or static pace of a forum.
Basically, it's possible to have our learners see who else is 'in the classroom' with them, and for them to lean over and chat about what they're learning at that time, how they're feeling, or whatever they like (hopefully within the bounds of polite interaction). They get this in F2F environments and it makes sense to provide it (for those who want it) in the online environment as well.
10. An end to 'evidence of learning = read + write'
Progressive F2F courses have gradually opened up assessment options so that learners can demonstrate their new knowledge or competence in a variety of ways. They may write up an assignment, create and apply something, do a presentation of some sort, or a combination of two or more of these and other options.
The online information dumping technique almost invariably limits the learning process to reading a lot of text and then writing answers to questions (or an extended essay of some sort) to gather evidence of learning for assessment. And, again almost invariably, this written assessment work is created for an audience of 1.1-1.8 (the learner him/herself and whatever portion of the the written work the teacher/assessor actually ends up reading).
At least the information dump approach is relatively fair: it expects learner output/demonstration of knowledge to be as closed, rigidly formatted, unimaginative and often as essentially one-dimensional as the input materials themselves...
But again, we are missing opportunities here. Learners should be allowed to explore a variety of other assessment modes, including things like building real websites, blogs or Facebook pages; screencasting a presentation they have made; putting together a podcast; building a dyanmic e-portfolio, etc.
So there are 10 ways I think we can be more creative and productive with our course development and delivery when moving from a F2F classroom environment to more of a fully online one, avoiding a simple 'information dump' based on core print-based materials.
What might be your number 11 (and 12, 13, 14, etc.?) for this sort of list?