Expect More From E-Learning

Tratto da Distance-Educator.com, settembre 2001

It’s often difficult to separate the truth from the hype when evaluating e-learning products. Many of us get bogged down in suppliers’ bold guarantees and lose sight of what should be the real focus of the industry: learning. This article identifies a few characteristics of effective, interactive e-learning to help you sort the best from the rest.

To discover what makes learning memorable, just look to children. As any fan of Sesame Street can tell you, effective learning entertains and engages. Interactivity is key, because often learners don’t enjoy receiving knowledge passively as it’s doled out by an authority figure. How can you judge if an e-learning program will be entertaining and engaging? Here are five qualities to look for:

Audience-focused text. Effective interactive learning focuses on and addresses the appropriate audience, resulting in a meaningful exchange of information between the author and the learner. Have you ever read a really great book that kept you entertained and intrigued? Did you wonder how that one differed from the 30 horrible books you skimmed through to glimpse even a hint of an intelligible thought? The answer lies in the author’s treatment of the text. Did she focus the writing towards her audience with examples that spoke to everyone? Or, did she use the book to pontificate about the wonderful things she accomplished or the obscure theories she created?

To be effective, text must be written with the audience in mind. A program for HR managers loses its impact (and the author his credibility) when the text better suits fourth graders. To truly be effective, e-learning’s examples and language must address the appropriate audience. If a program loses touch with its audience, it wastes the time and money invested in it. (For more on effective writing for e-learning, see “Write Right: Polishing Your E-Learning Prose.”)

Relevant questions. Effective e-learning programs contain questions that stimulate thought and bring abstract theories to life, by connecting concepts to learners’ work lives. No one benefits from questions that simply test recall ability. That type of assessment doesn’t encourage people to retain information or make changes in daily work habits. Good questions prompt learners to recognize the connections between the information they just learned and its application to their jobs.

For example, in a decision-making program, learners might be asked to identify a time when they faced a difficult decision at work and note what they decided to do about it and how they implemented the decision. Or, in a mentoring program, learners might be asked to identify people at work they would consider as possible mentors, as well as the competency areas in which each potential mentor could advise them. Those questions help learners see the concrete applications of the theories they’ve learned.

Informative models. Some people may consider models, graphics that users roll their cursor over in order to view additional information, nothing more than gratuitous eye-candy. But they do have a purpose: They provide learners with another channel for accessing information. People’s different learning styles may make what seems unnecessary to some a crucial means of understanding to others. Some learners need graphics and sound in addition to words on a screen because they retain more information when several senses are stimulated and when they feel they participate actively in their learning. For example, being able to move the cursor over a graphic to access more information puts learners in control and the interaction helps them remember information.

But there’s a catch. The information that learners gain through graphics and other multimedia formats needs to provide them with additional learning they would otherwise be without, not just recap data. Programs abuse learners’ trust when they display signs of something big (for example a colorful animated graphic) then fail to deliver new information. Good interactive learning uses models to add value and meaning, not just fill white space on a page.

Retrievable information. While most e-learning programs lack this feature, being able to retrieve information from a secure database remains integral to interactivity. Information retrieval capability becomes necessary when programs ask focused questions that guide learners to input information and then take action. At a later date, people may want to access the data they entered, so programs need to offer them a way to do so. If users view their e-learning as a daily help tool rather than as a one-time learning experience, e-learning will make huge advances within organizations. People could access programs to help them work through decisions on a daily basis, utilizing a dynamic, interactive method of learning instead of the traditional static form of e-learning most of us are used to.

Chances to collaborate. Effective interaction is not limited to facilitating connections between the learner and the program. E-learning interaction also encompasses connecting learners with one another. Too often our image of e-learning involves one person sitting in an isolated room with only the computer as a friend. Thankfully those days have passed. Effective e-learning today connects multiple users from anywhere in the world so that they all may participate in the same program. Through the indispensable database previously described, learners can connect with one another and share program information as they desire.

For example, in a decision-making program, a learner can invite another user into the decision he or she is working on. The invited user can see the work the learner has completed so far, answer the same questions about the decision as the learner, and offer suggestions about the decision in progress. This level of interaction connects people quickly and easily. The opportunities for people to expand their ideas and professional networks can grow endlessly.

Evaluating e-learning products doesn’t have to be difficult. It just takes a willingness to look through the proverbial haystack for the elusive needle: quality interactivity.

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