Monday, January 21, 2013

How to Create a Great E-Learning Environment

After having taken a nice long vacation from email, the Internet, Twitter, and my blog, I am feeling recharged and ready to start 2013!  It is clear for me that 2013 will be a year of growth in e-learning and managing training virtually.  So I thought I would start by recording what I have learned so far.

For those who do not know, I never finished my university diploma.  I dropped out of college due to financial constraints and "other pursuits" in 2001 and it has haunted me ever since.  So in 2010 I restarted my journey toward societal acceptance by enrolling in online study from the University of Maryland to obtain my BS in Marketing.  Over the past two years I have seen all sorts of teaching, moderation, tasks, and so on from the professors of the university.  Combined with my limited experience in conducting training online, I'd like to share...

Best Practice in Online Learning or How to manage an asynchronous online conversation...

1.  Start off with a general introduction

One of the over-arching themes of adult online learning is that the participants place their daily lives on hold during the course.  They are extremely interested in really getting to know the other people in class and friendships come naturally.  Therefore, it is best to leave the personal introduction task as general as possible.  In fact, the wording, "Post an introduction of yourself," is typically sufficient to build a proper collaborative network.  This type of task will truly encourage the learners to read and remember the posts of their peers.

2.  Reduce teacher talking time

Teachers should moderate the discussion as little as possible.  Remember, the key aspect of online learning is that the learners "find their own path".  Any guidance, correction, or feedback will only disrupt that process.  Besides, feedback is generally best when withheld until grading an assignment.

Additionally, because the participants are reading all of the other posts there is no need to refer to the opinions of other class members.  Saying things like, "Interesting point of view, but I think Jenny might disagree," is simply a waste of time.  The learners will have already read the post and in fact are probably already preparing a response.  The same is true for links to additional material.  One characteristic of adult learners is that they are only interested in learning the material provided in the course.  Optional links and 'for more information' resources are seen as disruptive.

3.  Set rules about how often and when posts must be written

The real value of an online forum is the number of posts the class can write.  This shows real collaboration.  The quality of the ideas is only secondary.  Therefore, your learners will truly benefit from rules like, "Post your response by Tuesday, one reply to another classmate by Friday, and two more replies by Sunday."  These rules ensure that ideas are spread and that everyone is getting the most from the discussion.  Furthermore, it will help the learners manage their lives better and assist them in prioritizing their tasks.

4.  Focus on the theory

Adult learners are fascinated by theoretical learning.  In surveys, most respondents say what they enjoy most is reflecting on theoretical tasks and coming up with ways to apply them to their real world situations.  By providing practical tips and applications, the teacher is only robbing the learners of this opportunity.

5.  Rewards and praise often fall flat in adult courses

It is a universally accepted truth that only children respond well to praise and reward for positive effort and results.  For adult learners the reward is the course itself (and naturally any certification).  Therefore, providing positive comments to good ideas or dedication to the group should be minimized.  The learners will undoubtedly find it condescending and resent the trainer.  Along with this, competitions and games should be removed completely from the adult online training environment because it will only cause further demotivation.

6. Keep tasks open ended

When giving instructions, remember to keep them as general as possible.  Use vague verbs like discuss, reply, and consider because these will yield the best results for online discussion.  Also, because adult learners are continually focused on achieving the learning objectives, there is no need to inform them of the purpose behind the individual tasks.  The extensive introduction document you send at the beginning of the course will be read with vigour and the learners will clearly see how everything fits together.  Giving a purpose is simply redundant.

7.  Summarize activities are the best

Perhaps the best online discussion activity is to ask the learners to summarize a document, chapter, website, etc.  The most effective way to generate differences of opinion is to have 30 responses which all say the same thing.  The students will discuss continuously about why and how one summary is different than others.

So those are my lessons learned for effective e-learning.  Happy moderation and I hope you have a great new year!

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