posted 29 Jun 2009 in Volume 12 Issue 9
Tried and tested
Elspeth McKay presents ten top tips for delivering effective e-learning programmes
"Most organizations, including training organizations, don’t have an effective, broad-based e-learning strategy. They have Websites, courseware, and other artefacts of online learning. But without the strategic thread that holds it all together, based on ‘why do it’, not just on ‘how to do it’, most programmes have been minimally impactful and/or short-lived at best.”1
The main purpose of this article is to provide commonsense tips for developing your own e-learning development strategy. These ten design and delivery tips are offered as strategic rules to guide the building of your e-learning solutions. Moreover, they reflect the toolkit’s earlier concentration on the human dimensions of e-learning. These rules dispel the common axiom that, for all new employees, e-learning is but a mouse click away.
1. Feelings count
“You remember best what you feel the most.”2 Affective e-learning is all about tapping into the emotional aspects of learning something new. This means that your training strategies need to expand trainees’ human-computer interaction (HCI) in such a way to include reaching their ‘emotional communications’. We are naturally ‘scripted’ to recall intense feelings; “neurological studies indicate that the role of emotion in human cognition is essential; emotions are not a luxury”3.
In the business sector this is why it’s easier to replay the emotional ‘script’ when recalling testy things like “getting chewed out by the boss”2. We’ve known the power of scripts for many years.4 Psychologists refer to such a theory to reflect patterns of human behaviour they call scripts. These scripts function analogously to the way a written script does, by providing a programme for action. Think back to your school days. It’s far more difficult to recall the dry prescriptive theories when they are delivered minus the emotional intensity of first-hand experience. Ignore this principle and your training is bound to be instantly forgettable.
Make sure the training scenarios/simulations are believable. Our brains are not wired to store fabrications. Take great care when using role plays; don’t set up unworkable hypothetical scenarios. Instead, choose realistic settings that reflect the real world.
2. People aren’t empty jars
“Dumb employees aren’t born: they’re made.”2 The worst mistake you can make is to assume that your trainees are ‘as thick as bricks’. For the most part, it may be quite some time since they passed through the school system. This means they have spent many years functioning quite well, maturing to adulthood, getting their first job, setting up their families, and generally managing (or mismanaging) what life throws at them. Given the previous rule relating to ‘feelings that count’, it’s these perceived ‘mismanagement’ issues that many people will have ‘learnt’ the most. As Schank and Abelson put it, your employees will “usually have a natural impulse to help others and, in business, to meet customers’ needs. That impulse is drummed out of people by companies that believe the way to get employees to do what they want is to make them into mindless robots who follow every rule they are told.”
The best e-learning solutions provide instances where – despite attempts to be helpful – mistakes are made by the trainee. This lesson is more valuable than making them follow ‘the book of rules’, where there is no allowance for alternative behaviour, which takes account of the wide variety of human interactions. Think about what happens when you visit your local bank to withdraw cash over the counter, without the necessary personal identification. In this circumstance, what happens next will depend upon whether the bank clerk knows you well enough to ignore the book of rules.
Make sure your e-learning strategies provide enough discretion for the trainees to explore situations they are likely to encounter in the real world – nobody’s perfect.
3. Choose the right time
“Deliver training just in time (or when a learner has just failed and really needs help.”2 Another mistake is to assume that training sessions should be structured to align with room bookings and trainer availability. Corporate logistics aside, setting formal classroom facilitation is a thing of the past. Instead, people respond best to training when they are able to situate their new skills immediately. This is the time when they are likely to be more motivated to concentrate on gaining new skills and knowledge, rather than setting a training regime to accommodate a cast of thousands.
Make sure that you enable the trainee to ask questions as they arise, rather than expecting them to remain as passive participants – you can’t simply pour information into people and expect them to remember it all – nobody’s that perfect.
4. Throw them in at the deep end
“Failure can teach just about anything.”2 Contrary to the belief that creativity can be taught – particularly in the corporate sector – the reverse is closer to the truth. To learn how to be good leaders, senior executives are often sent to rough it in an adventure camp. They are confronted with challenging events like white-water rafting and mountain climbing. Usually, the only new skill these people acquire is white-water rafting and how to climb a mountain! This is another mistaken training premise.
Instead, what can be engineered may be the climate in which people are encouraged to respond in creative ways. For instance, realistic simulation can be devised where the scene is set for the tough decisions that lie ahead.
Make sure the activities allow people to fail without consequence. The context for this must be made absolutely safe. This means people can try out several things, but nobody notices or cares when things don’t work out. “This allowance for easy failure is the real value of a good e-learning simulation.”2
5. Avoid the white knight syndrome – self-taught sticks best
“You will teach yourself better than the world’s best trainer or highest paid motivational speaker.”2 Ever noticed how many training facilitators have ‘tickets’ on their training prowess? They completely forget people have been noticing the world around them since the day they were born and teaching themselves about all manner of things – as mentioned earlier, often through making mistakes.
Make sure that navigating your e-learning knowledge development programme is flexible. Research has shown that novice learners/trainees respond best when given the full training or skill development programme, whereas the experienced employee (who is just a bit rusty and needing a brush-up) responds best to an adaptable-skill development path, where they choose which tasks to have a go at next.
6. Rule out rote learning
“Memorisation without corresponding experience is worthless.”2 Declarative knowledge, which is a ‘learned capability’, may appear on the surface to signify a certain level of intelligence. From our earliest days we take notice of huge amounts of information, including names and facts, together with a great many collections of organised ideas.
For many decades now, we have understood how people gather this type of information during their lifetime. For instance, Robert Gagne’s categories of the types of learning outcomes are still popular today (see Table 1). In relation to the rote learning of facts, he says: “some is stored in our memories for a relatively short time, apparently, before it is forgotten. Other items and sets of verbal information are retained for a very long time, sometimes over the entire span of our lives.”5
People therefore waste an enormous amount of their time ‘rote learning’ facts, procedures and slogans. Corporate trainers even insist that employees commit company policy and procedures to memory. Nevertheless, “such memorisation has no impact on behaviour: it doesn’t translate into learned skills.”2
Make sure that your e-learning programme involves learning procedures, and that people (especially the novice learners/trainees) have ample opportunity to practice. Think about how you learned to swim or ride a bike; the memorisation of the procedural steps for these skills isn’t going to do you much good as you struggle against the tide or need to deal with a sudden brake failure. Be aware that the best way to identify the types of learning is to ask ‘how’ learning can be demonstrated.
7. Allow for the square peg in a round hole
“When you buy an e-Learning system, it should come with all the options.”2 People definitely learn things differently; it’s perhaps one of our most interesting characteristics. Often e-learning content development texts will refer to ‘personality types’ and/or ‘learning styles’.
There are many other common labels that are used to describe ‘cognitive strategies’. Notwithstanding the psychologists, for most people, fully understanding the literature relating to individual learning attributes is challenging to say the least. There are many terms describing how individuals process information, which change according to the researcher’s professional paradigm. Early attempts by psychologists researching cognitive abilities and processes during the 1950s and 1960s, produced a fragmented list of models and labels (Table 2). These were derived mainly from single experiments.8
The educationalists Richard Riding and Stephen Rayner argue, however, that cognitive style should be understood to be an individual’s preferred and habitual approach to organising and representing information. Be that as it may, it was cybernetician and psychologist Gordon Pask, who made significant contributions to cybernetics, instructional psychology, experimental epistemology and educational technology, and who first proposed the existence of the holist/serialist distinction as an example of different learning strategies, rather than the presence of a learning style.9
Make sure that your instructional strategies include ‘the full roast dinner’. In other words, cater for the ‘verbal-imagery dimension’ (representation of information during thinking) as well as the ‘wholist-analytic dimension’ (the mode of processing information). Know that people can alter their ‘verbal-imager’ tendencies according to the task at hand, while they cannot alter their inherent mode of processing information – that’s a given.
8. Make an entrance
“Open your e-Learning course with a bang.”2 Employees tend to view training as something they hate, or a chance to ‘chill out’ and take time off from their real work. The way to break through this understandable view is to make sure that your e-learning programme commences up-beat. To keep sweet with your participants, relegate those workshop/training objectives to handouts or flyers, where they belong.
Meritable e-learning gets people involved early; don’t expect them to remain enthusiastic after a long-winded introduction about the whys and whats of their training programme. Instead, ignite their imaginations with a realistic simulation. Activate them immediately; this is one time when excitement should be one click away. Stimulate their emotional communications by having them do ‘something’. Then call upon them to act upon this experiential episode.
Make sure your ‘orientation activity’ allows them to make mistakes. This is the way trainees can differentiate and appreciate the ‘what it is’ from the ‘what it isn’t’.17
9. Use practising experts
“Trainees should be learning from the world’s best.”2 Many corporations realise their valued expert employees are no longer on the payroll.18 As a consequence, training officers are engaged to emulate these wise and knowledge-rich people. The trainer delivers simulated versions of the skill-development process in a less desirable, explicatory facilitation, missing the very expert nature (of the tacit or unseen attributes) necessary for the skill development.
Corporate training units need to recognise that these days, there is simply no excuse for engaging so-called training experts with marginal or mediocre skills. After all, the e-learning environment is the ideal context in which to implement the ‘cognitive apprenticeship model’. This is the constructivist approach to human learning, which contextualises the knowledge-development process where an apprentice follows the skill of the master.
The cognitive apprenticeship model holds that masters of a skill often fail to take into account the implicit processes involved in carrying out complex skills when they are teaching novices. It is therefore important for the apprentice (novice trainee) to emulate these ‘short cuts’ (tacit knowledge) in a non-threatening manner while under the guidance of the ‘master’.
When designing and developing your e-learning resources, make sure that you find the real world expert (in their field). Moreover, they need to be willing to pass on their tips and tricks. In addition, your resources (interactive instructional media) must be equipped to answer the inevitable plethora of questions that arise from novice trainees – nobody’s perfect (as a beginner).
10. Train the many
“Simulation-based e-Learning is best suited to large training populations.”2 This ‘rule’ is all about raising the overall corporate bar to leverage the organisational cost effectiveness.
Government organisations in general employ a wide range of people with diverse skills across their provider network. Finding up-to-date and reliable workforce training statistics is very difficult. Generally the current metrics are unknown. For instance, in Australia, the most recent records for this type of evaluation, in the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) 2003 survey, identify that in 2001-02, 41 per cent of employers provided structured training programmes. However 79.2 per cent of employers provided unstructured training in the workplace.19 The development of high-level skills across the workforce is expensive and requires major investment.
Costing of workplace training is very difficult to quantify. In 2001-02 the cost of structured training was estimated at AUS$4.018bn, an increase of almost 60 per cent on the 1996 value of AUS$2.518bn (ABS, 2003). The Australian National Training Authority (ANTA) combined vocational and structured training to estimate the 1996 cost to employers as AUS$6.186bn, which reflects only 57 per cent of the total Australian training cost of AUS$10.845bn.20
Traditionally, employers view training as an expensive solution that is implemented to fix problems. In the current climate of changing work practices, every time a new ICT tool enters the work environment, employers seem to pour endless amounts of money into upgrading their employees’ skill base. The dilemma of this continual investment in workplace learning begs the question of what we know about the impact of these emerging ICT tools on institutional effectiveness.
Furthermore, many of the e-learning solutions that have been implemented recently have been poorly designed and inadequately tested. Often, paper-based training materials are simply loaded into a learning management system (LMS) or courseware shell, without including adequate knowledge navigation or consideration for the principles of instructional design.21
Make sure you ‘calorie count’ your e-learning development budget; plan the expenditure to get the best training bang for every buck spent. Be prepared to give up those precious ‘boutique’ training projects – nobody’s perfect.
This article is adapted from an excerpt of Ark Group’s E-learning Toolkit report, written by Elspeth McKay. For more information contact Robyn Macè at email@example.com.
Elspeth McKay is a senior lecturer and researcher in the School of Business IT at the RMIT Unitversity, Australia. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
1. Rosenberg, M.J., e-Learning: Strategies for delivering knowledge in the digital age, McGraw-Hill, New York, 2001.
2. Schank, R.C., Designing World-Class e-Learning: How IBM, GE, Harvard Business School, & Columbia University are Succeeding at e-Learning, McGraw-Hill, New York, 2002, pp73-83.
3. Nourani, C.F., ‘A haptic computing logic - Agent planning, models, and virtual trees’, in Affective and Emotional Aspects of Human-Computer Interaction: Emphasis on Game-Based and Innovative Learning Approaches, M. Pivec, Editor, IOS Press, 2006, pp286-310.
4. Schank, R. & Abelson, R., Scripts, Plans, Goals and Understanding, Erlbaum, Hillsdale, 1977
5. Gagne, R.M., The Conditions of Learning: And the theory of instruction., 4th ed, Holt/Rinehart/Winston, New York, 1985
6. McKay, E., ‘The Human-Dimensions of Human-Computer Interaction: Balancing the HCI Equation’, The Future of Learning, Vol. 3, IOS Press, Amsterdam, Netherlands, 2008.
7. Schank, R.C., The structure of episodes in memory, in Representation and Understanding Studies in Cognitive Science, D.G. Bobrow & A. Collins, Editors, Academic Press, New York, 1975, pp237-272.
8. Riding, R.J. & Rayner, S., Cognitive Styles and Learning Strategies, Fulton, UK, 1998.
9. Pask, G., ‘Styles and strategies of learning’, British Journal of Educational Psychology, 1976, 46: 128-148.
10. Holzman, P. & Klein, G., ‘Cognitive-system principles of levelling and sharpening: Individual differences in visual time-error assimilation effects’, Journal of Psychology, 1954, 37: 105-122.
11. Witkin, H.A., et al, Psychological Differentiation, Wiley, New York, 1962.
12. Kagan, J., ‘Individual differences in the resolution of response uncertainty’, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 196, 2: 154-160.
13. Guilford, J., The Nature of Human Intelligence, McGraw-Hill, New York, 1967.
14. Pask, G. & Scott, B.C.E., ‘Learning strategies and individual competence’, International Journal Man-Machine Studies, 1972, 4: 217-253.
15. Riding, R. & Cheema, I., ‘Cognitive styles - an overview and integration’, Educational Psychology, 1991, 11(3&4): 193-215.
16. Kirton, M.J. Adaption and Innovation in the Context of Diversity and Change, Routledge, London, 2003.
17. Merrill, M.D. & Tennyson, R.D. (1977) Teaching Concepts: An Instructional Guide, NJ: Educational Technology Publications.
18. DeLong, D.W., Lost Knowledge: Confronting the threat of an aging workforce, Oxford University Press, New York, 2004.
19. Cully, M., ‘Employer-Provided Training: Findings from case studies, NCER, 2005. Retrieved 12/04/09 from http://ncver.edu.au/publications/1636.html.
20. Richardson, S., ‘Employers’ contribution to training’, National Centre for Vocational Education Research, 2004.
21. McKay, E. & Merrill, M.D., ‘Cognitive skill and web-based educational systems’, conference paper at ‘e-learning Conference on Design and Development: Instructional Design – Applying first principles of instruction’, Informit Library: Australasian Publications On-Line, 2003. Retrieved 24/04/09 from http://www.informit.com.au/library/.