To take advantage of the many perks inherent to e-learning and to implement various virtual options in the marketplace, learning leaders must approach technology mindfully.
“We can’t avoid powerful, technology-enabled learning platforms, and in fact they’re getting better and better each and every year in terms of their ability to engage learners,” said Mary Campbell, assistant vice president of talent and organizational effectiveness at the University of Southern California. “But we need to enable technology, help it evolve and figure out as an organization, as a group of co-workers, how to get better and better at this.”
Campbell said one major issue is the generation gap. While the emergent workforce is quite comfortable with technology, older generations may have a bigger challenge getting comfortable with new modalities like virtual learning She recommends organizations first identify whether this issue applies to their workforce, and if it does, develop initiatives such as reverse mentoring to make adopting virtual learning practices easier for workers of all ages.
Engagement also can be an obstacle with e-learning. When learning takes place alone, it may seem difficult to draw in employees as effectively as if they were surrounded by their peers and in face-to-face communication with a teacher. Ken Barber, manager of learning and development at Jiffy Lube International Inc., oversees Jiffy Lube University and has witnessed countless attempts to engage learners. He said the first step is to keep each virtual lesson to about two hours.
The learning platform itself also plays a crucial role in engagement. “A quality platform can almost duplicate what happens in a real classroom — putting people into breakout groups and doing practice role-plays,” he said.
The instructors are important, too. They must be properly trained on how to use the platform, in designing the course and in delivering the course virtually in a way that is engaging, interactive and keeps the student a part of the process. Barber said facilitators actually play a more significant role in virtual learning because engagement is more elusive in impersonal e-learning situations.
CLOs continue to advocate face-to-face learning as the most effective method to create meaningful relationships, but if learning leaders can find ways to reduce distance and simulate relationship-building online, e-learning practices will be much stronger.
According to Michael Cummings, faculty director for Babson College’s blended learning MBA program, the key is to create as much human interaction as possible. “Beginning in kindergarten and continuing throughout most of your education, you were in a classroom with a bunch of your peers,” he said. “Moving into a virtual world, having to learn by yourself, is kind of a shock. So we work very hard to create the semblance of the traditional classroom, and essentially human interaction, to reduce the distance.”
Babson’s blended learning MBA program uses video conferencing and Google Hangouts. “By putting in time and place and context, and hearing the voices, you reduce that distance,” Cummings said. “That’s a critical component of distance learning or blended learning: using the technology not to create a distance, but just the opposite, to create a feeling of proximity.”
E-learning is not without its faults, but the best and most effective virtual experience can be created by being mindful of the many aspects that make distance learning different from a proximity-based model.
“It’s all about how well you prepare and how well you deliver the experience,” Barber said.
This article is a sidebar to Chief Learning Officer's November 2014 feature "The Power of Proximity."
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