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e-Learning

Dec 10, 2013. by Jim Lewis

Interested in e-learning, but not sure how it works or what all those letters and terms mean? If that is the case, this article will explain the various methods used for e-learning and will also provide you some insight in things to do and things to avoid as you develop e-learning materials.

E-learning is teaching or instruction via electronic media. Today the Internet is the electronic media most often used for e-learning classes, but e-learning may be delivered by CD, DVD, other computer based program or even teleconferencing. Acronyms describing these methods of e-learning abound, but the most common you will here are CBT or Computer Based Training and LMS which is a Learning Management System. Distance Learning is also interchanged for some types of e-learning.

Most organizations move to e-learning for cost savings and to make instruction more readily available and more convenient to participants, employees and students. E-learning will do all that, but the success of the program shifts and becomes more dependent on the self-motivation of individuals to study effectively. Being aware of this student challenge is important to remember when planning any type of e-learning class.

For example, even for a Distance Learning class an instructor must work differently than in a traditional classroom setting. "An on-line to do," says Eric M. Witcher, a Faculty, Assistant Professor at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, "is the instructor has to engage frequently with students via "discussion boards" (topical sites that give the instructor input as to material the student has studied and synthesized into feedback). Additionally, there should be timed quizzes, midterms and final exams. The reason for the timed aspect is to ensure the student has done the prescribed reading before the tests."

So again, *RULE #1 - You must keep the student first and for most in mind when designing the course.* To do that, like any good communications effort, you must know your audience. What is the information you are going to provide supposed to do for the student? How will it help them?

Once you have purpose and content defined, you need understand what equipment the student will use to access the class? Questions like computer type, audio availability, and even type of internet browser will affect delivery and engagement. Don't forget to consider mobile devices as more and more tablets and pads are being used by students. These portable devises have different screen resolutions and screen sizes than desktop computers. They also may require a different navigation set-up. Creating e-learning materials for mobile devices is often referred to as responsive design because content is produced to detect each device and resize or respond to meet the optimal settings for the device. While defining technical requirements, don't forget to consider even environment where each participant takes the course. For examples, is the environment such that the student may need headsets as to not disturb others in the room. And don't forget students that may have disabilities. An example here would be that videos may need transcripts to allow e-readers help a hearing impaired classmate. There are specific guidelines available to help you meet the requirements of people with special needs as outlined by the ADA which is often referred to as 508 compliant. Ask the right questions from the start, and you'll have a better chance for learning at the end. Remember is not just about pushing content to participants. E-learning is about engaging students and motivating them to learn.

Technology is a wonderful thing, but too much use of technology is can be a distraction. E-learning platforms offer all types of whistles and bells that include everything from animation, sound effects, to videos and more. These tools and methods in themselves don't make good learning, it is how to use them that makes the positive difference. Lynne Revo Cohen, a founding partner in NewPoint Strategies LLC, a business that specializes in high-risk management issues agrees, "it doesn't matter how good your content is, how much video, audio or animation you use, you've got to make it "relevant" to the learner and keep them engaged on every page." So, *RULE #2 - always make sure the e in e-learning stands for enhancement* over traditional learning, not a distraction.

Just like using too much technology can be bad, not taking advantage of technology is a waste of time. As a producer of e-learning solutions, Communications Concepts has seen this pitfall first hand when potential clients have come to us saying their training system is not working, Often times what we have found is their approach to e-learning has been simply converting paper-based course materials to e-learning classes. These are sort of like a self directed linear power-point presentations. This approach never works as it is unlikely to engage, motivate or help the student. This is a real shame too, as e-learning solutions offer an enormous opportunity to immerse students in the subject with great story telling, actual example scenarios, interesting demonstrations, knowledge checks and remedial interactivity. Revo-Cohen points out "People learn by thinking and doing, not just by listening and watching. So challenge your learners' assumptions, make them think, and ask them to prove what they just learned. Only then will you succeed in creating great online training!". So, *RULE #3, always take full advantage of the e-learning platform you are using to involve and challenge the student.*

However, be careful, just adding interactions, does not necessarily make learning more engaging or effective. Studies show that there is not a direct relationship between quantity of interactivity and quality of the learning experience. So, again, it comes down to understanding your audience and delivering your messages in the best way that will reach and help your participants learn.

Just like for a good movie, or good website content is king, the same is true for e-learning. No matter how good your presentation may look it, after the first impression fades, you may find that good looks don't automatically enhance the learner's experience. Investing time and resources in visual glitz, 3D animation, avatars, virtual worlds, and other such production elements should only be used if they genuinely enhance learning. When you do decide to use any production technique or effect, *RULE #4 - Be consistent.* As a student is using your course, you are training and conditioning them on how the course-ware works. You want to the students to use your class materials correctly and efficiently. Consistency will reduce student frustrations, increase program adoption and ultimately improve learning.

*RULE #5 - Don't just test your students, test your course thoroughly.* Make sure the navigation is straightforward to use and intuitive. Navigation is typically referred to as the student interface. Taking a class is a challenge in itself, so don't make using the class any more difficult than it has to be. Test the course and debug it before you fully roll it out. Make sure the students spend their time thinking about the content, not how move from screen to screen. Provide an easy and clear way for students to save their work, in case they are interrupted, loose power or have to take a break. Confirm audio levels are consistent throughout the course and easy understand. Have and communicate a plan of what student should do if they need help or find a problem with the course. Finally, make sure all data collected, such student's names, identification and scores are safely and securely stored.

Scoring and data storage are typically what differentiates e-learning classes hosted on website from e-course hosted on a Learning Management System or LMS. Like a website, unless your courses are delivered by CD, DVD or teleconferencing you will need to a place to house and host your materials, such as server or web-server. When you add registration and scoring databases to the mix there may be a need to consider using an LMS. Since learning management systems are specifically designed to host and manage training applications these systems offer many additional features ranging from handling registration and class rosters, management of documents and curricular content, delivery of content, course calendars, interactions between instructors, students and tech support including messaging, chat, emails and forums and of course assessment and testing. Some LMS' are specifically designed for corporate training and offer additional features from class reminders, reminders and updates for mandatory courses and certifications, reports and access for managers and Human Resources (HR), and access and security control. As you can see, an LMS can provide instructors and students countless benefits that lead to a more efficient teaching experience and ultimately increased student engagement. So, *RULE #6 builds on RULE #1, make sure the system that delivers your courses is not a barrier between the learner and their learning.*

Finally, *RULE #7 - Learning doesn't happen in isolation.* Just creating great courses and putting out there for people use will not guarantee a successful e-learning program. Make sure you inform and get commitments from all stakeholders ranging from management to tech support. Consider making tutors or mentors available for students to call on and make courseware available for these tutors and mentors. Collect feedback from everyone and update and improve courseware regularly. Keep in mind, computers, pads, phones and browsers update daily almost and often go through a major overhaul a couple of times a year. Make sure your classes, especially your institutional ones that have been around a long time, still work proper with today's technology. Keeping materials fresh, content current and fixing operational bugs promptly will keep users coming back for more.

Communications Concepts, Inc. (CCI) has been producing e-learning solutions for over 25 years. If you have an e-learning requirement or would like to learn more about e-learning call Anthony Hight at CCI at 321-783-5232 or email Anthonyt at ahight@cciflorida.com