From its beginning in World War II to the more contemporary ADDIE model and the rise of the Internet to provide instruction, instructional systems design has been the cornerstone of the learning and development field.
This methodology is at the heart of knowledge acquisition and skill enhancement. However, as the pace of organizations has increased and technology has become a convenient enabler, the learning field has lost touch with the science of design.
Imagine what it was like when teaching by computer was uncertain and untested. There were a lot of unanswered questions. Could computers recognize what learners typed, evaluate it and respond? How? And early computer systems were expensive and slow. There were no graphics, no sound, photographs, animation or video, only reams of printed paper which students leafed through to recall their notes.
Most instructional designers would feel severely handicapped today by such limitations, yet pioneers found these basic interactive systems overflowing with potential. By applying knowledge of conditioning and behavioral reinforcement along with recognition that individual learners had different strengths in their abilities and therefore different needs, basic concepts of how to individualize learning were established. Individualization sought to bring each learner to a state of performance mastery as quickly as possible.
Some 45 years later, it seems the burgeoning e-learning industry should have achieved success in bringing learners to a state of performance mastery. With ubiquitous, nearly free networking, integrated media, enormous computational power and broad access to information of all sorts, one would expect instructional systems’ impact on learners to be the epitome of quick proficiency. Instead, the industry degrades its offerings, ignores research and chronicled experience and bypasses the major advantages of e-learning.
Too much e-learning is designed off-the-cuff. If it’s true that corporations cut training expenses first when cost cuts are needed, this is surely one of the reasons. When poorly done, it has such little value, it won’t be missed.
To increase e-learning’s value and to ensure that leaders and learners alike take it seriously, it’s necessary to go back to the foundations of what makes effective e-learning. Consider the eight aspects in Figure 1:
Content vs. performance focus: It never pays to drown learners in content presentations. Typical e-learning does exactly that. Subject matter experts and designers present exhaustive volumes of information, and learning activities that lead to skill development are given short shrift. For better outcomes, narrow content to provide carefully selected and sequenced situational practice based on identified, high-value performance.
Authoring efficiency vs. meaningful learning: Because positive impact is so often assumed but not measured, managers respond to what is measured, and that’s usually production cost and speed. In a truly odd and ironic twist of logic, authoring time is treated as a more precious commodity than learning time. A few more authoring hours can result in fewer training hours, but the focus needs to be on providing learning experiences that are meaningful and helpful.
Driving attendance vs. attracting learners: With e-learning’s reputation for being inefficient and boring, organizations must often mandate learners wade through it. If they can, learners will opt out, often preferring instead to interrupt another person to get direction — direction that may not be the best advice. For serious e-learning, designers work to engage learners who may, because they benefited so much, become learning promoters and encourage their peers to give it a try.
Delivering information vs. immersion in authentic contexts: Serious e-learning focuses on the learner and the learning experience rather than on content presentation. Effective experiences help learners identify when certain behaviors are appropriate as well as how to perform those behaviors. Beginning with an authentic context also helps learners determine the relevance of the instruction. If they can imagine themselves in such a situation, their motivation to take advantage of e-learning rises, and it becomes more effective.
Fact testing vs. observing realistic decisions: A valuable outcome is not having learners simply remember facts; it’s more important to ensure learners can make effective decisions and perform important tasks correctly. Typical e-learning is often satisfied measuring student progress via convenient multiple-choice questions that generally assess only fact recognition. Serious e-learning, with its performance orientation, has learners do things while they learn. Fact testing is an insufficient and nearly irrelevant measure of progress. Learners need to be challenged to make realistic decisions and measured on their ability to do so.
One size fits all vs. individual challenges: From its origins, the primary benefit of e-learning was its ability to adapt the learning experience to each individual in real time — a powerful technique used by mentors but one that’s difficult to achieve in a classroom environment. Typical e-learning has a single path, tends to give the same corrective feedback to everyone, sometimes regardless of the learner’s response, and offers no option to accelerate the pace for some learners while providing remediation or extended practice for others. Individualized instruction not only minimizes learning time, it also elevates interest because challenges are neither too great nor too simple.
One-time events vs. spaced practice: No single intervention, whether it’s a couple of hours or a couple of days, will result in significant behavior change, especially when learners have little opportunity to practice. Multiple events with performance opportunities sprinkled throughout maximize retention and synthesis of new information and skills. Ideally, there are practice sessions that resume at post-learning intervals.
Didactic feedback vs. real-world consequences: Most learners became used to didactic feedback in school, being told when answers were correct or not. It can be far more effective when learners witness the consequences of specific actions and can determine for themselves what is effective behavior and what isn’t by observing the results of alternate choices.
While the gap between typical practice and serious e-learning is wide, serious e-learning is achievable and practical. There is some effort to build an individualized experience as opposed to simply having participants pass through a deck of narrated slides and take a quiz or two. But making the transition to serious e-learning is mostly a matter of using resources differently and making better design decisions.
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