There have been huge changes recently in learning and development (L&D) thanks to technology. Much of it is positive in terms of availability, flexibility and cost-effectiveness. Unfortunately, some of the impact has been less positive. If you are a similar vintage as me, you’ll probably remember the introduction of Cable TV. While the choice exploded from 3-5 channels to hundreds, much of the quality was shockingly poor. Sadly, it has been similar with the expansion of remote and online learning.
Driven by a desire to control costs, online training courses are often designed with a content-centric approach, where material is made available with little effective thought given towards ensuring that desired outcomes will be satisfied.
Of course, this won’t happen if training course designers take a truly student-centric approach. There are 5 simple rules to ensure that you deliver the most effective online learning experience.
1. Ensure Clarity of Purpose
Understanding the purpose and desired outcomes of the learning is the critical foundation for all training courses, both online and traditional. However, given the relative novelty of online learning, understanding purpose is of more importance as without it, L&D designers are likely to default to paradigms associated with offline training solutions.
As Stephen Covey wrote in "The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People", we must start with the end in mind. Do we want the trainees to emerge with competency in certain skills, to acquire specific knowledge, to pass an external examination or something else?
Once we are clear on the purpose, it becomes the term of reference to guide us as we design the material.
2. Make the Material Easily Accessible
While accessibility always matters, it takes on added importance for online learning for 2 reasons:
Students usually won’t have immediate contact with an instructor to have questions answered.
Technology challenges associated with accessing training material.
To avoid these pitfalls, designers must create material using clear and unambiguous language that students can easily understand. It also should be designed from the starting point of where students’ current knowledge ends. There is no point teaching advanced skills if intermediate skills are a prerequisite and students are only at a beginner level.
Ensuring that there are no technological problems means identifying how and where students will access the material. Ask yourself questions such:
Do security policies dictate that material must be accessed on the organization’s network?
Will students need to use on-site technology or a VPN?
Is the course designed to be compatible with students’ devices and connectivity?
Maybe students will download material to portable technology, how will that work?
How will login credentials be made available and how will students get tech support if necessary?
3. Create Material that is Engaging
As we all know, nothing turns off a class faster than an instructor reading out what’s written on a PowerPoint. Unfortunately, as the easiest and quickest way to produce online material can be recording slide decks with a voiceover, we often subject remote students to exactly this type of teaching.
Improve engagement by delivering material is a variety of formats. Get students involved by integrating slide shows, videos, exercises and other formats into the training. If you choose to use slides with commentary, make sure that the slides vary in format, that the amount of written text is limited, images are used and that the narrator talks about the slides rather than just read them out.
4. Facilitate Feedback and Questions
I recently completed a course from a world-renowned university through a leading online learning platform, and I found some of the instructions to be confusing. I reached out to the student community who split roughly 50/50 in their interpretations of what was required. Then I contacted the course administrator, but never got an answer. The lesson is clear, students need to have a way to ask questions and, of course, receive answers.
A great way to use technology effectively is the Flipped Classroom approach. This allows us to delegate the delivery of content to technology and then meet with students, either in-person or online, to check understanding, provide additional context, practice skills and handle questions. While this won’t reduce the cost of facilitation to zero, it is cost-effective as instructors can lead many more classes simultaneously as they would using traditional teaching models.
5. Design Effective Assessment Systems
The objective of assessment is to ensure that students meet the desired outcomes. If our assessment system is not tightly aligned to the purpose we identified earlier, there is no way of knowing if we are successfully meeting the goals of our purpose.
Multiple choice quizzes are the go-to for much online learning, which is understandable as they are cheap to administer and provide instantaneous feedback. They are definitely useful, and I use them regularly in my training as a quick check of understanding or as part of a more exhaustive system of assessment. However, multiple-choice alone will rarely tell you if a student has acquired the knowledge or skills required of the learning objectives. Similarly, I use peer-assessments with care too. Yes, they can be useful, but on their own or used solely in conjunction with multiple-choice exercises, will never tell the whole story.
You need to design an assessment system that provides a true and accurate measure of students' progress. However you do this, and it may involve role plays, long written answers or some other form of exercise, it's going to require some active involvement of the training staff,
Technology and the growth in remote workers have resulted in an L&D revolution. When designed effectively, online training can be highly effective and gentle on the budget. Sadly, if we fail to take a structured, student-centric approach to course design, so will our training fail.