Using online and digital learning technologies is an increasingly common practice in corporate training, up-skilling, and learning. Despite this widespread acceptance, organizations often struggle to achieve the results. They are hoping for and quick to attribute this to online learning not being as effective as face to face sessions. However, this is not the case, online learning is a natural progression of educational practices. But much in the same way that say, retail practices have changed as a result of digital and online technologies, approaches to learning and how it is implemented must change too, if it is to be successful in an online environment.
Think of music, the traditional retail model involved us going to the record store and purchasing copy of the album(s) we wanted. When online distribution of music entered the market, this model was retained. We logged into the itunes store and bought a digital album, this was essentially a digital replication of the analogue model and was not as successful as businesses would have liked.
Enter spotify and other streaming services – this flipped the model on its head. No longer did you need to buy a specific album or song. Instead you have membership to the service which allows you to listen to any song at any time. The quick rise, success and ubiquitous success of services such as spotify and netflix have changed the fundamental approach to how these industries operate. We consumers enjoy a wider array of content, and are exposed to greater variety that we would otherwise be.
Now, the comparison for learning and education to content streaming is by no means 1-to-1. It is meant to illustrate how rethinking the approach when moving an activity or service from “traditional” to digital and online is critical to the success of that move. Learning and education is no doubt one of the most challenging fields in which to accomplish this kind of transformation. They are complex phenomena, often involving personal and subjective experience, and learning scientists are still discovering and working our exactly what happens in a brain when learning occurs. However this does not mean there are not some great lessons and knowledge that can be applied when transitioning to digital learning. There are some things from “traditional” learning practices which we know don’t work or translate well to the online environment.
Challenges of Online Learning
One of the biggest challenges that comes with this is:
- communicating with the people responsible for creating and managing online learning and training programs
- shifting their perspective from viewing online learning as a 1-to-1 switch from in-person learning experiences
- swapping out the classroom for a digital space
This approach is much like the concept of buying an album or movie online rather than in a store. Beyond a slight increase in convenience, there is not much different about the experience, and its value is thus limited. What really needs to happen for online learning to be successful is a rethinking of the model, approach, and experience.
We will get to some specific examples of what works and what should be avoided when creating and delivering an online learning experience a bit later in the article. For now just keep in mind that it should be an experience while we explore some of the advantages online learning experiences can offer, especially when done right!
Why choose online learning?
Moving to online learning brings several advantages, both to organizations and institutions providing the learning experiences as well as to learners. These advantages can impact everything from practical, organizational, and cost related advantages to the experience and effectiveness of the program.
Online learning saves training costs
Cost-effectiveness is one of the most appealing advantages of online learning. Especially for business and corporations where bottom lines and profit are an inescapable factor in all decisions. If you have ever had to organize professional, in-person seminars or training you’ll be well acquainted the the financial commitment these often come with. Reserving a suitable space to host the training, supplying materials, coffee, tea, snacks, and fees for experts or speakers are common expenditures that can quickly add up. This doesn’t even take into account the cost of lost productivity as a result of employees putting their daily work on hold in order to attend.
Ideally, this cost will be made up as training should contribute to better, more effective working practices in some way. However as we will discuss later, there are limits to how much any individual can learn in a day and the often compressed nature of these types of events results in diminishing returns.
Other cost savings
Since online learning is not location or time dependent, learners and instructors can evade the costs of regularly traveling to, setting up and hosting traditional physical classes or sessions. This in itself saves a great deal on costs. Also consider the cost of producing numerous copies of physical materials, updating texts, countless print outs, postit notes, pens markers and paper. While online learning still requires an investment in planning and development of effective courses and their maintenance, this cost is undoubtedly lower in the long run.
Digital versions of materials and activities often cost much less compared to the hard copies and can be edited or updated on the fly as needed. It’s also worth mentioning that environmental costs may also be lower. It produces less waste in the form of out dated texts books, long forgotten printouts and countless liters of inks and dyes, water bottles and paper cups.
Speakers and guest experts can easily contribute at a much lower cots threshold. Prerecorded session can offer the ability of a one time (or few time) fee in these situations: Moreover, organizations are not limited to those in their immediate are or their schedules. Even doing a live virtual session with experts from around the globe becomes a real possibility when training and learning experiences move online. A great example of this might be TED.org. Their well know ted talks and events have reach countless millions, bring bright ideas from renowned experts to anyone with an internet connection and an interest.
A variety of ways to incorporate social and collaborative learning
Conducting online training for your employees should involve much more than just content creation and the required online tools. Paying attention to the content delivery process and creating opportunities for learners to engage with, learn from each other and apply their knowledge directly to real world experiences is a critical aspect of course creation and design.
This means that the courses should borrow from the experiences of the employees as well as the company and organizational endeavours, and how best they can refine their skills to maneuver better and offer top-notch services. In such training, employees should also be encouraged to freely collaborate in the online space. This can be implemented using a variety of tools and methods. Materials that can be commented on contextually is one way to encourage peer-peer discussion and knowledge sharing.
Group discussion and projects are another worthwhile consideration when your aim is to have a connected collaborative team. It makes a lot of sense when you think about it, if your goal is training people to work effectively together in work related tasks and challenges, why would their training not include the same or similar situations? Including these types of activities and open ended questions to learners encourages them to behave much the same as they will need to in working situations, as well as easily incorporate direct or “real world” relevant examples.
Such peer-to-peer learning allows for the cross-transfer of practical information that can make things better. Also, one core advantage that online learning has over traditional learning is the constant peer-to-peer communication option. With online learning, employees can engage every so often and figure out how best to improve their services or products. This sets precedence for the increase of product, service, or organization.
Online Learning is flexible and has realistic time commitments and scheduling
Life is busy. Balancing work commitments, home, personal comments, hobbies, and chores has not gotten any easier. Perhaps ironically, there is also increased emphasis on work/life balance. The benefits this brings to individuals productivity, happiness and motivation. The flexibility offered by online learning fits nicely with busy schedules and work/life balance. Learners can study when they have the time. Removing potential blockers from learning such stress. Because they are aware they still have a report to finish, presentation to get ready for etc. This can impact the effectiveness of the learning, simply by freeing up the ability to focus on it. Furthermore, because online learning can be broken into smaller, “bit-sized” portions – sometimes called “micro-learning”. Meaning learners can spread their learning time across a number of small sessions through the day or week.
This brings us to another point mentioned earlier. The limits to how much a person can learn in a single sitting. The academic term for this phenomena is called “cognitive load”. Basically what it means is that our brains have a limit to how much information they can take in and effectively process at one time. Research shows that on average humans are capable of focusing for 3-4 hrs maximum on learning a new task or taking in information. Particularly if it is complex. After this window, motivation and focus drop off significantly. It is less and less likely meaningful or significant progress can be made. Of course there are additional methods and techniques for reducing cognitive load. But the self-paced nature of most online learning acts as a built in mechanism to manage it.
Smarter learning with data and analytics
Online learning gives us the opportunity to gather data about learning experiences like never before. Simple tracking functions that enable us to know learners have completed of consumed specific content. Features like automated grading for assessments to much more complex features such as behaviour analytics. There is a wealth of options and opportunities to use data to show measurable results.
Some of this of course might be replicable in a traditional learning environment. For example, a course feedback forum is a great way to get information. About how well your course or training is performing from the perspective of the learner. But what would you do with it? Are you going to read it all and make notes? You could get systematic, create a scale of some kind. Enter that info into a spread sheet to track changes and calculate means and averages, but that feels unlikely.
With online learning more can be done
With online learning all that and more can be done. It’s automated, giving course facilitators and designers more time to focus on the results. Simple things like metrics on how often content is visited. Or how long on average learners spend with particular content provide instant feedback about what works and what doesn’t. Through these and other measures we can begin to identify patterns and ask questions. Such as is this content too challenging, or uninteresting? When this becomes known changes can be made in the right places for the right reasons.
The cumulative result of all this is that learning can become more focused. Online learning can be tailored to the goals trying to be achieved. With more focused programs, honed by data insights, we should see better results. Over time tracking this progress gives us measurable results, which for organizations is a big deal. Time, money and effort are invested into developing a training program. So being able to show it success and correlate that success with other company metrics provides proof of the value the learning program brings.
Online learning isn’t a fad, coping mechanism, or cheap substitute for face to face. It’s a modern natural progression of the learning experiences. It offers greater flexibility and options in terms of content, time management and organization. Online learning fits better with our modern experience of media consumption and schedules. It can offer deeper insight and feed back through data analytics to help us better understand learner behaviour and needs. However in order for it to reach its full potential, those responsible for implementing learning programs online must understand that it is different from traditional learning experiences. Instead of trying to replicate these, embrace the challenge and do some learning themselves. About what works, and how to implement successful online learning programs. We at CLANED are always ready to assist and support in this process. We believe that better learning contributes to a better world.
If you’d like to read more content like this, then check out Chris‘s post: What’s ADDIE got to do with learning design?