Many learning executives have mixed feelings or have had negative experiences with e-learning, but there are ways to ensure more positive experiences moving forward. There are many misconceptions regarding e-learning. For this article, “e-learning” will include all self-directed modes of study (Web-based, technology-based, satellite, videoconference, etc.). The focus will further be narrowed to the context of learning versus performance, and how corporate learning professionals can design and build or buy effective e-learning modules.
Many trainers and instructors believe that they are creating e-learning by simply migrating face-to-face material to a computer screen. Sometimes a few bells and whistles, such as music, pictures or animation, will be added to make the screen look and sound more interesting. Simple migration of material with auditory and visual clips does not produce good e-learning. In fact, migrating classroom-based content to online formats generally degrades the quality of the learning. The design of the training modules and programs must be built around sound learning strategies that use differing technologies to achieve the greatest learning potential. Rather than have trainers request Web courses with sound and animation, CLOs should work with them to build courses that provoke thought, cause conversation, incorporate real-world activities, demonstrate learner skill and cause learning to occur.
Managers and customers never request learning—they usually ask for a course, a module, a Web course or a CD-ROM. All learning is at a crossroads, and unless the consumers of e-learning start demanding that learning actually occur, the industry will falter.
Too often, the reason for avoiding learning retention is because e-learning is new, and we are unsure of the best way to use it. We should wonder if educational experts in the past excused their responsibility to ensure learning because of new technologies like the book, the telephone, the overhead projector, etc. Every time a new technology emerges, from computer-based training (CBT) to satellite, videoconference, virtual classroom and now Web-based learning, training professionals revert to a lecture format. The newness of the technology seems to drive educators backward to a more comfortable or predictable method of teaching. We need to demonstrate the ease of using methods of teaching, such as “conversation, debate and application” within the technologies so that educators make the transition more comfortably and effectively.
One solution to help build learning into e-learning may be using a constructivist approach as a model for understanding. Many e-learning courses are lecture online, with a behaviorist foundation, providing stimulation and expecting a response, according to John B. Watson. (See “Behaviorism—The Modern Note in Psychology, online at psychclassics.yorku.ca/Watson/Battle/watson.htm). We need to create a learning environment that helps the learner construct meaning from the material presented and apply it to the work world. This point is significant because learners make meaning out of what educators provide them, and the meaning they make may be incorrect or counter to our objectives. According to Kimberley Osberg, we can facilitate meaning-making through a robust design of learning modules and by ensuring the learning occurs in a context that is relevant and valuable to the learner. (See “Constructivism in Practice: The Case for Meaning-Making in the Virtual World” online at www.hitl.washington.edu/publications/r-97-47/index.html). Consider if learning can occur without context. How deep is can learning be without context?
It is fairly well accepted that on-the-job training (OJT) and apprenticeships are excellent ways to learn, but also are time-consuming and expensive. One key reason this is an excellent source of learning is that it places learners in the real context—the real work. Becoming a journeyman is a sign of deep learning and mastery that allows one to apply previously learned material in a new and creative way. In most corporate training programs, CLOs look for transfer in the near space (applying learning to the existing job) versus the far space (apply learning to a new situation), so trainers can teach in a close resemblance of the ultimate work environment. This can be accomplished through case studies, simulations, scenarios, real problem statements and lab experiences, which mimic the real workspace—virtual OJT.
At this point, you are probably thinking, “These are very expensive learning methods.” That may be true, but it’s nowhere near the expense of not transferring the learning. Many learning experts cite statistics that show that 90 percent of what is taught in the classroom does not transfer. Others have pointed out that more than $100 bullion is spent annually in the United States on corporate training. If these experts are even partially correct, a lot of training dollars are lost in the classroom. Using a constructivist approach and intentionally addressing the learners’ desire and need to make meaning, CLOs can design courses to cause learning.
We know much about adult learning, both positive and negative. To make this point, let’s look at some “E” words that may describe attributes of positive learning: enduring, engaging, exciting, exploratory, experiential and efficient.
These “E” words describe a robust learning environment. Make learning available when I am ready and able to learn. Provide learning that I can access when I need it, not just during the class. Create learning that invites me to interact with the content and makes me think. Develop learning that is to the point, customized to my learning needs and easy to use and access. These adjectives describe learning attributes, not media attributes. Too often, e-learning has a media focus. Media may help achieve the robust learning environment, but media is supportive—not necessarily causative. In other words, learners don’t need an audio clip. Rather, they need to hear the customer’s voice tone to learn to respond in a customer-friendly way. Yes, that will yield an audio clip, but the learning objective drives the clip’s focus. The learner will still have to diagnose the customer’s need, formulate a response and respond. So the learner constructs the response from a real-world stimulus.
Let’s look at some “E” words with a different tone: erroneous, eccentric, endless, elongated, expensive and exasperating. In an attempt to be quick and efficient, many e-learning courses are full of errors—typos, misspellings, errors of omission, misquotes and often just incorrect information. Another observation is the sometimes-eccentric nature of e-learning. The metaphors don’t match the learning agenda, or they used a graphic artist or instructional designer who had way too much caffeine. The designer had good intentions but failed to connect to the learning agenda because he was driven by the “E” possibilities. This is similar to some PowerPoint presentations that include every feature possible, like random transitions, noises for each slide, colors, etc. At the end of the presentation, you remember the great sounds, but do you remember the content? How many times have you been in an e-learning course and wondered if it would ever end? Should this have been a course or a book? Then, there is the ultimate question of expense: “Wow, I just read 82 screens of information and it cost $182. If it were a paper handout, it would have cost $12.50. Was it worth it? Did I learn?”
Sure, these are strong criticisms of e-learning, but research in e-learning dropout rates suggest as high as an 80 percent abandonment rate. Why are learners abandoning e-learning? Would you abandon learning that had the positive attributes listed above? How about the negative attributes? Certainly if the value perceived by the learner is low, it becomes easy for the learner to abandon or drop out. Have you drifted off while reading this article? How many questions popped in your mind while reading? Did you find any errors? This passive media is providing information. To make it learning, you must interact with it, question it and apply it. Let’s see how that can be done.
The challenge is how to get learning into e-learning. Remember that it is about the learning, not the “E.” Our task is to create a learning plan or strategy that ensures performance. Let’s reflect on some of our own personal learning journeys and then look for ways to mimic them in e-learning.
What would you say are critical components of learning for you? Sit back for a moment and think of a time when you had a powerful learning experience. This could be in or out of school. First, what are some of the feelings you remember? Second, what did the learning facilitator (teacher, trainer, coach, course, etc.) do that caused the learning? When did the learning occur, during class or some other time? Why? Finally, what did you do as the learner to come to “I got it”?
Powerful learning is always tied to strong emotions. Again, think back to that powerful learning experience. Before engaging in the learning process, you may have felt concern over whether you could do whatever was ahead, yet for some reason you went ahead and pursued the learning anyway. Why, even though you were afraid and unsure, did you go ahead? Morris Massey, in his wonderful film, “Who You Are Is What You Were When,” makes this point with the term “significant emotional event” (SEE), a feeling-based event. We all have had examples of learning that we could call significant, and these learning experiences have some things in common. We all had some feeling of respect for a teacher or coach, a feeling of accomplishment and most importantly, a feeling of challenge and success for our personal significant emotional educational events (SEEEs). So creating SEEEs is a practical way to enhance transfer of training and cause learning. Let’s explore this further.
What did the learning facilitators do to enable learning? They generally demonstrated some level of caring, challenged us beyond our own efficacy, allowed us to interact with them to satisfy our inquisitiveness, had us really apply the learning and probably gave us meaningful constructive feedback. They usually had us move out of our comfort learning zone, using such tools as role-plays, games, physical activity, etc. But how can we do these in e-learning?
What did we do, as learners, to learn? You probably asked hard and probing questions, took a difficult assignment that caused you to look at the material at hand and re-evaluate it in a new light, asked for help and thought about what was to be “learned.” When reflecting on my own SEEEs, attributes of immersion, struggle and preoccupation emerge. These attributes yield an immersion in the subject, engaging others in discussion, thinking about the subject out for a jog, wakening in the middle of the night with a thought or question, etc. Some of us often drive those folks around us a little nuts with our preoccupation with the subject. We are engaged by the content and context. So how do we engage the learner? We need to cause wonder, stimulate the learners to ask why and how, and challenge them to construct meaning! Can we do this in e-learning?
Enable Learning Model
How do we attend to these positive attributes and avoid the negative? The following model will ensure we keep learning in e-learning. Let’s use the word LEARN as an acronym to describe the attributes of impactful learning or SEEEs: listen, engage, activate, reflect, nourish.
Listen—The Portal of Learning
Think of this attribute as the intake portion of learning. Listening is the critical beginning of learning. This is the way we get new information. The term “listen” includes the actions of reading, hearing, touching and sensing. To listen is to absorb and consume the new information or skill. These methods of receiving information are the portal of learning. A well-written book, succinct audio clip, well designed experiment or a pointed activity enables learners to “get” the information. Well-designed learning is to-the-point, error-free and contains appropriate language (jargon and abbreviations explained, if needed).
The challenge is to stick to the learning objectives and not add extraneous information. In “Preparing Instructional Objectives: A Critical Tool in the Development of Effective Instruction,” Robert Mager provides a simple way to ensure we stay on track by designing around the learning objectives. Begin with the objectives in mind. Craft the training content to them and measure the learning by testing the student. It’s not that tangents or added information are not good information, but if it is not part of the learning objective, it will actually degrade learning. One of the main differences between training and education is that, as trainers, we need to concentrate on the specific task at hand, as exemplified by the learning objectives. Academic educators, on the other hand, may have the luxury and responsibility of adding material that presents the topic from multiple perspectives to stimulate critical thinking. In an academic environment, the extraneous material actually supports the nature of that learning situation. The multifaceted approach needed in an academic setting is not in the best interests of most training environments, which require quick absorption and transference of content.
The experiential-learning model is used here as a method to cause SEEEs. In “Experiential Learning,” David Kolb explains that learning has two dimensions: grasping and transforming. In short, learners first must grasp the new information or skill, and then to complete the learning, they must transform learning into personal performance.
“Listening” attends to the grasping dimension. Grasping can occur in two ways: concrete experience or reflective observation. E-learning can include activities like problem-solving and scenario evaluation. The model suggests that learners grasp (listen) either through concrete experience or reflective observation. In Web-based learning, this occurs through the use of reading, exercises, simulations and “next stepping.” Next stepping is a way to use scenarios and multiple-choice questions and/or hot spots to have the learner experience the real world. Reflection in Web-based learning takes place through writing exercises or prompts that cause learners to think, using comparing and contrasting techniques and note-taking. If we attend to the variety of ways that learners interact with information, we will raise the effectiveness of the learning event. Good learning gets learners to sit back and go “hmm?”
Engage—The Verb of Learning
Engage is the action that will yield increased knowledge, skill and performance. Many training courses or subjects are based on some written work—books, policy manuals, technical manuals, etc. Generally employees are not sent the book and asked to read it. For a variety of reasons (reading skill, time management, learning preference, etc.), this method would have poor results. Training is created to support the source material and make learning efficient. The learner is engaged in the content. In classroom settings, top trainers know the value of engaging the student. They do this through oral questions, desktop activities, role-plays, etc. Contrast this with typical Web courses that focus on one method—reading. We need to consider how often we shift the learning method.
Even though the goal is to engage the learner, reading is still relied upon as the major vehicle for transferring information in Web-based learning situations. This is contrasted with the general decline in reading competency in our society. Has the general reading skill of the workforce kept up with the plethora of Web-based text material? What is interesting is that reading comprehension is on the decline in our society and, at the same time, current Web learning is primarily reading-based. We need to vary the engagement strategy to ensure that reading is effective. Certainly, well-placed and well-thought-out questions will enhance reading effectiveness and learning. Also, having the learner research a question versus checking off boxes from multiple choices gives them direction and purpose in the learning, and thereby enhances reading productivity.
Use of other media to enhance reading and engage other senses will also improve learning. Use of activities or scenario-based learning, problem-solving strategies, game metaphors, etc., contributes to a multifaceted approach to moving the learning from a print-based mode to an actively engaged approach.
Activate—The Engine of Learning
Activate and stimulate my intrigue. Cause me to think—yes, think. Learning is not accomplished by presenting information, but by causing thinking or intellectual dissonance. The learner must be involved. Alfred Bandura says all learning is social, so cause conversation. (See “Social Foundations of Thought and Action: A Social Cognitive Theory.) Think of a time when you were actively involved in a learning activity that you would say was positive. Time probably flew, your surroundings disappeared, and you didn’t want to stop. E-learning methodologies that can stimulate this atmosphere include problem-solving, puzzles, scenarios, case studies and competition.
The experiential learning view needs focus for the active parts of the experiential learning model (concrete experience and active experimentation). We need to listen and think actively and be action-oriented. How can we facilitate the effect that a trainer causes when she has learners stand or do a physical activity? We need to reinvent these activities for e-learning environments. Why not have learners go find a dictionary and look up a word, or pose a question and ask them to go get a beverage while they ponder the question? Besides physical activity, we can pose complex problems that should be solved and include chat room discussions or bulletin board postings to increase interactivity. In this portion of the experiential model, we are trying to turn on the infamous light bulb. Confucius said, “Tell me and I’ll forget. Show me and I’ll remember. Involve me and I’ll understand.”
Reflect—The Personalization of Learning
Plan for time to reflect and transform. Critical learning occurs when we have time to pause and take stock of the learning experience, and project the material to the workplace. Experiential learning offers two methods to transform information to learning: active experimentation and reflective observation. In e-learning, we can start the learning event with a reflective exercise that causes the learner to reflect on his current situation or competence, articulate a problem statement related to the training, etc. During the e-learning, we can build in reflection points. We can have a virtual journal for the learner to capture thoughts and guided reflection notes. As an example, halfway through we can ask questions like, “How does this apply to your current job?” or “How might you use this in the future?”
Nourish—The Growth of Long-Term Learning
Here we shift learning from an event-based activity to a learning process. Learning should not end at 4 p.m. or at the summary screen of the Web-based tool. Research suggests that transfer of training is not promising. We must take proactive steps to increase the transfer rate. For transference to occur, the next steps should include action and reflection on a regular basis. In e-learning environments, learners should be coached to think through and plan the next steps. Worksheets can enable the learning to transfer to the actual workplace. Job aids or quick reference links can allow the training to be reused. Follow up with modules or e-mails that add information, remind the student of the tools from the learning, ask reflective questions and provide new support tools. All of these can be used to reinforce the transferal process. CLOs must manage e-learning in three dimensions: before, during and after. Prepare the content and provider, deliver the content and support the content post-event. Build in an e-coach, have the learners e-mail their supervisor with a summary of learning and how they plan to use it on the job, and most importantly, determine what support they need to use this new knowledge and skill on the job.
It’s About Learning!
We have a great opportunity and responsibility to ensure that e-learning—all learning, for that matter—is focused on LEARN. Using the concepts presented here, we can design and develop learning that uses the power and wonder of the new e-learning world. We shouldn’t continue to be seduced by the media of e-learning. Rather, we should focus on ensuring that the learner learns. We should use media to support and/or cause the learning environment to be robust.
At a recent conference, Elliott Masie gave an interesting formula for learning:
Need To Know – What I Know = What I Want To Learn
Valuable e-learning will present “what is needed,” help assess “what I know” and offer what the “learner wants.” Our job, as educators, is to enable learning.
Denis M. Finnegan has been with The Hartford for the past 10 years as AVP, Corporate Education and now AVP, Claim Training and Education. During this time he has brought technology-based learning to applications including Corporate University, computer-based training and multimedia, satellite downlink training, classroom-based technology training, intranet/Internet-based training and company-wide videoconference training. Additionally, he delivers classroom-based courses in the areas of adult learning, instructional design, leadership, customer service/sales and effective presentations. Denis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.