posted 8 May 2001 in Volume 4 Issue 8
An interactive approach to learning
The four elements of effective e-learning design
E-learning is an efficient economic and flexible means of providing training to employees wherever they are located. Davis Klaila discusses the key principles behind developing effective e-learning systems and argues that program designers should look to the techniques employed by the computer game industry to ensure e-learning techniques fully realise their potential.
Knowledge management offers us new and exciting ways of looking at an organisation and where value lies within it. Likewise knowledge management-based business simulations should help people understand the principles behind knowledge management and how to apply them in ways that are also new and exciting.
While effective KM learning programs are serious business they are often called ‘knowledge games’ and that is not inaccurate. Business simulations especially electronic versions need to be fun interactive and relevant to the real world in order to fully engage the learner. While the e-learning marketplace is exploding with alternatives choosing a program that effectively communicates the often-complex theory behind knowledge management requires a bit of investigation.
So where do you begin? Trainers facilitators e-learning designers and others engaged in knowledge development could take a lesson from the computer games industry. Computer games shows us that long traditionally tedious and difficult tasks can be engaging and fun when they are part of a good story. E-learning enables knowledge-based business simulations to take on some of the characteristics that have made computer games so engaging.
There is no question that when harnessed effectively e-learning is a fast cost-effective way of providing consistent information to people wherever they are and whenever they need it. The challenge is to strike a balance between cost-effectiveness and an engaging learning experience.
Initially cost has seemed to overshadow content. The majority of early e-learning efforts have been adaptations of text-based training delivered electronically. These are the worst of all possible alternatives. They deprive participants of interaction while reducing them to reading ‘green screens’ of scrolling text. These electronic textbooks don’t make use of the interactive power of electronic delivery such as video sound and simulations but merely replace traditional text materials with computer screen textbooks.
E-learning consumers now expect programs that incorporate the same innovative tools and techniques used in the computer gaming industry – such as graphics interaction and skill-building challenges – to deliver an educational experience that is compelling informative and fun. The learning experience should be designed with a clear story line and interactive exercises that are engaging and relevant to course objectives. Ideally computer game and other e-learning experiences should leave participants free to make choices that directly impact the outcome.
For example Riven is a complex and challenging commercial computer game that offers puzzles to solve as you move through a series of locations to complete a quest. The choices you make lead you to a variety of outcomes. Each time you play you learn until ultimately you master the game. Riven makes full use of animation sounds and video clips. The result is an experience that draws you in completely. Should we expect any less from a business e-learning program?
The next generation of e-learning has arrived. Here are four components of an effective engaging and fun e-learning program.
Choose your own adventure
A strong story line is key to the success of interactive e-learning. Working through a story or simulation gives participants a context for learning valuable lessons as they address business challenges resolve workplace issues and move ahead in the marketplace. It’s the experience of working through the issues that remains with learners so they’re better equipped to handle real-life situations.
For example an e-learning program might establish the following scenario: your business is at a crossroads and you must select a strategy that will help differentiate it in the marketplace. The strategy you select will suggest the investments you need the employees you hire and the customers you pursue. As events unfold you may rethink your strategy suffer the consequences of poor decisions and reap the rewards of good decisions. Despite the outcome the story line provides common frames of reference for all participants and can facilitate individual or group learning at any scale.
Build in e-facilitation
In a classroom environment a facilitator’s role is to guide participants through an event and maximise their experience. The role of facilitation within an e-learning experience may vary though. To ensure that participants absorb as much practical experience as possible from their e-learning investment it’s important to provide a means for accessing guidance and obtaining feedback.
E-facilitation can be built into the experience as computer-generated feedback or delivered live as a screen image or chat room. Ideally an e-learning program should offer tips and a debrief for general feedback live or video images for context and online chat rooms for expert feedback.
The challenge of e-facilitation is to identify and anticipate common issues and provide ways to address the unusual. In e-learning as in classroom training setting the stage is key to success. Once the story line is clear and the stage is set it is simpler to anticipate issues. For example as a participant encounters situations and makes decisions the program can use established guidelines to reward his or her actions. These well-planned computer prompts help keep participants focused and move the learning process along.
Drive home value with feedback
Though it is important to build facilitation into e-learning – through tips periodic debriefs and the like – direct person-to-person feedback provides the final link that ensures success. Through live interaction a facilitator can provide closure by wrapping up the experience responding to open issues and beginning the process of transferring lessons learned to real-world situations.
To drive home lessons learned you may want to provide participants with a written review or ask them to forward questions to experts who can address work issues. A collective group summary with a live facilitator may also be helpful. In addition a participant’s manager may debrief and transfer actions to day-to-day workplace situations.
When possible it is best to adapt facilitation to meet the goals of the learning experience. For the most part offering email and chat lines that address specific issues – combined with opportunities to debrief with a manager – is optimal.
Keep the conversation going ‘e-style’
Conversation draws people into learning and keeps the process of learning active. When they interact learners can help each other work through simulations games and other interactive exercises and transfer what they’ve learned to the workplace.
E-learning can be especially effective when conducted as a team exercise. When two to four learners gather around a computer they can discuss strategies and interact in much the same way as in a classroom. When that’s not possible it is important to incorporate other types of learner interaction throughout the experience. This is where e-learning developers should take a page from the gamers’ book.
For example advanced computer games often use chat functions in both their individual and team programs. Players can email questions and encourage one another. They can also use email chat rooms and web postings to pick up tips review strategies and discuss outcomes. All of these tactics work well in a business e-learning environment too.
Adding interactive exercises into a learning program encourages discussion. Once a participant makes a decision – selects a strategy bids for or releases a customer or employee and so on – there should be an opportunity to discuss the ramifications. These consequences stimulate discussions that start as “I was doing fine until my largest customer decided to bring the work in-house. So how do I hold on to the employees who were assigned to that account?”
A strong story line also encourages discussion. You can gauge how well participants are learning by noticing the game-specific vocabulary in online chats and day-to-day conversation.
Participant interaction is important. The buzz around a learning experience facilitates learning transfer. It’s part of what differentiates traditional teaching from true learning. It is active instead of static and the outcome lasts longer than the time it takes to read a textbook or attend a seminar.
The power of e-learning
E-learning doesn’t have to be e-boring. Let’s face it; the structure of business relationships is fluid today. Multidisciplinary work teams distributed work teams and project-related work groups all demand rapid learning delivered on site and just-in-time.
While debating the relative merits of e-learning versus traditional classroom learning may make for a lively discussion most arguments miss the point. Online learning like voice response systems ATMs and other electronic self-service tools is here to stay. The debate focus should be how to make the most of new technologies to design e-learning tools that are engaging and effective.
You can do this by paying attention to the design details. Incorporate fun and excitement into learning so that a participant will want to share it with colleagues. And you must make the most of technology to deliver content in a way that encourages interaction. Posting 500 PowerPoint slides on a website is not e-learning; it’s e-boring.
As you consider developing e-learning tools for your organisation’s learning repertoire explore the world of gaming and entertainment websites and note how they harness technology to engage and deliver.
Once you begin looking at e-learning as its own experience rather than comparing it to classroom learning the need for facilitation and participation becomes obvious. And making e-learning effective should no longer be a mystery.
Davis Klaila is managing director of Celemi Learning Business. He can be contacted via www.celemi.com.