posted 17 May 2002 in Volume 5 Issue 8
The winning formula
A blended approach to cross-platform content
E-learning has become more than a buzzword. By combining the latest technology with carefully crafted educational content, this innovative approach to employee and corporate training is delivering visible results. According to Piers Lea, matching the audience to the platforms used is key to ensuring that learning content created for these initiatives is engaging, relevant and effective.
The belief that e-learning has only been around for two years is a myth. While the latest learning technology and content has come of age since the start of the 21st century, the principles of technology-enabled learning have been around for many years. When e-learning arrived in the UK in early 2000, it was heralded as a revolutionary way to learn, and once businesses had educated their employees on how to use these new technologies the whole concept of training would change for ever.
Brandon Hall, one of the leading e-learning luminaries, has said he believes that the full benefits of e-learning will be realised when it becomes just simple training or learning, and the emphasis on the technology has once again become a given. The e-learning industry should remember that the technological phenomenon that drives the industry is not unique. Technology has played an important part in organisational training and learning for many years, with the advent of projectors, videos, interactive whiteboards, and now the internet. The only difference is that as the latest technological advancement becomes part of the fabric of everyday life, each new development is greeted with new enthusiasm and innovation. The assumption has been that new technology is always going to offer a better experience – but what about the learning context?
Bridging the technology gap
Another assumption, which may have slowed the advance of the e-learning market, is that it requires employees to learn in a new way. It is true that new technology requires the creation of new learning cultures, but through the selection of the correct technology platform they offer the opportunity to deliver a blended learning experience. This should become less of a concern if the technology gap can be bridged, especially as the next generation of employees bring with them a desire for new technology. In reality, the true value of e-learning is that it enables an audience larger than is attainable for conventional instructor led training (ILT) to access training and learning material. Technology will provide the basis for training and learning delivered in the way that best suits a company’s learning style, and businesses should instead concentrate on developing the content to suit their employees.
By providing custom learning content across a range of technology platforms, e-learning can improve a company’s performance, reduce training investment per capita and provide tangible ROI.
Our ethos is much the same as the one expressed by Brandon Hall and we believe that technology should be the enabler – whatever the client’s chosen platform – but should also be invisible to the learner. Our approach to effective and engaging learning content does not lie simply in software development but in our range of media backgrounds – from TV and radio, through print publishing and interactive media design, to software development. Learning is increasingly being focused around a screen, whether a TV screen, PC monitor or the three inch square LCD screen of a Pocket PC, and whatever the client’s selected medium or platform, our approach is the same. Making effective content is like making good TV – each audience requires something specific, and using multiple platforms allows us to make content more employee-focused.
Understand the context of the audience
One of our first projects was not what many people would now class as e-learning – developing the multi-media presentation for the GB pavilion at the 1992 world exposition, Expo ‘92, in Seville – but it fits very comfortably within the ‘technology-enabled’ definition. The solution in 1992 was designed to offer information and insight on Great Britain to a commercial and tourist audience of more than three million visitors to the GB pavilion over a six-month period. We developed a 155 screen visual presentation, which was complemented by a light show and audio commentary, and was entirely computer-controlled. The experience lasted about ten minutes, providing us with a tight timeframe in which to provide a valuable learning experience. The key was to understand the constraints and context of the audience. We wanted to educate and engage the viewer in the learning experience to show the essence of what it is to be British.
The purpose of the exposition was simply to educate. With technology still in its immaturity, bringing the latest advances in AV together to create a holistic learning experience was a challenge to engage the audience rather than simply provide entertainment. This combination of education and entertainment is essential developing effective learning content. Without the entertainment component it is unlikely that the intended audience will get past the opening screen, and without the learning experience there is no business case for developing e-learning content.
Learning from the TV experience
Where there is a fixed medium the job of creating engaging content can be developed and formulated, in much the same way as the early television broadcasts or the birth of the internet. Television has changed over the last 80 years and would now be almost unrecognisable to an audience watching during its pioneering days.
While some would argue that the quality of the content has declined, the fact remains that producers have become more effective at using the medium to develop programmes that pull in escalating audience figures. Television is becoming an interactive medium, with links to the internet and viewer handsets. The selection of the correct context and platform has become an imperative for creating engaging content.
This is important to the future of successful e-learning: not simply making it entertaining, but making both the content and the platform relevant to the individual. In the mid 1990s, desktop and home PCs were still emerging as the must-have electronic gadget, and as such, training and learning was still the preserve of the classroom. The emerging technology for corporate communications during this period was the videocassette and organisations were looking for ways to use this medium to educate and engage their employees.
Our work creating learning content for the Institute of Public Relations (IPR) was to develop a piece of content called PRTV, which taught new PR professionals the essentials of the industry through a series of sketches and role plays. This allowed the learner not only to learn the theory of good PR, but also to view examples of best practice, while providing the facility to replay and review any part of the course at any time.
To enhance the experience further, we provided a booklet to accompany the video, which provided additional information, acted as a reference tool, and also provided for a range of learning styles. This was our first foray into cross-platform learning in its true sense and it received widespread user satisfaction and high completion figures. I set the objectives for the development of our cross-platform work: to look for innovative ways to deliver content, while ensuring that it was relevant to the audience’s strategic requirements and the individual employee’s working environment.
Choose the right platform
As PCs became more established in the fabric of corporate life, the advent of interactive computer design heralded the start of a new era in creativity and accessibility for learning content. In 1996, we helped a professional services company to develop a diskette and folder cross-media solution to educate its consultants about the impact of the impending European Monetary Union (EMU), a real challenge as the subject matter required more than a sprinkling of innovation and creative input.
The ideal platform for this project would have been CD-Rom – if it wasn’t for the global reach of the company and lack of universal access to CD drives. The content was targeted at more than 9,000 managers, and in addition to providing a computer-based solution, our approach allowed the highly mobile audience to benefit from a portable performance support and reinforcement learning tool. This was a pioneering approach at the time, and something that many businesses are only starting to realise the importance of in 2002.
Cross-platform solutions can provide a range of learning solutions to cater for different audiences, suitable for continuous professional development, just-in-time and modular learning programmes. Cross-platform content also allows for the important considerations of religion, language, tradition, learning style and organisational culture to be taken into consideration through regional variations and language versions.
Web-based learning is now seen as being the perfect solution for educating a diverse cultural audience, but this has not always been the case. One of the criticisms levelled at so-called low-tech platforms is they do not offer the flexibility of the web, and have limited version control. In the main, these are challenges that are still being addressed when using diskette or CD-Rom, but as part of a project where cultural diversity is a central theme, we were able to maximise the attributes of the CD-Rom for Volvo Car Corporation. Even with the all-encompassing web, distributing a learning solution to a global organisation has its challenges, but delivering Volvo’s training via CDI provided a cost-effective way to ensure that all employees had access to a media-rich learning solution.
Supporting the classroom
The focus for much of the e-learning industry has been about raising the number of enrolments and completions among business learning, but we have proved that variety of cross-platform solutions using a variety of fat, thin and interactive media can also be beneficial for traditional education. Developing content for an audience aged over 25, where there is no expectation of the standard of learning material, is one thing, but to engage and inform students aged between 12 and 16 is another.
When I was at school, cross-platform learning meant reading books, learning from the blackboard and listening to the teacher standing at the front of the class. To most pupils at school now it means using laptops, PDAs and computerised whiteboards. As part of the BBC Bitesize series, we were commissioned to develop a modular learning solution, based on interactive CD-Rom, which would teach mathematics. User testing reported that students had claimed it made maths fun, reinforcing our belief that adopting a creative approach to technology and content is the most effective strategy. This was also one of the first truly interactive solutions, providing links to the web and access to performance support provided by mathematics teachers.
We also developed a solution called the French Experience, which made use of simulation and interactivity for learning. It is widely accepted that the best way to learn a language is to go to the country – so that is exactly what we did. We took the student to Aix-en-Provence in France, via the use of video role-play, to buy a railway ticket and a loaf of bread, where a failure to use the correct phrase would result in a failure to complete the task. This approach to interactive learning – being able to put an individual into a ‘live’ situation and experience real-life at first hand – is the true future of e-learning. We’ve proved it works with audio recognition and its development will demonstrate that the classroom is not the only solution for soft skills training. The CD-Rom was among Amazon’s best selling CD’s throughout Christmas 2001.
The definition of cross-platform has so far been one of using multiple technologies as support and confirmation aids, but for e-learning to be truly multi-platform, the challenge is to make learning ‘portable’. The key to increasing enrolment numbers and completion rates is to take the solutions away from the desktop. The number of hours spent every week in front of PC screens has grown steadily over the last decade, and the prospect of spending more hours learning at the desktop has been one of the major concerns of employees across the world.
For us, portable learning is not just about being able to put content on a PDA or laptop, although it does include this concept. We are currently working on a project that uses re-usable learning objects and a learning content management system to enable the same learning solution to be accessible via desktop, laptop, pocket PC and, potentially, 2.5 and 3G mobile. In the past this would have required developing separate versions for each platform to cater for the individual technological requirements. We are starting to see the second generation of high-resolution PDAs, and the first colour mobiles, which will increase the possibility of a truly portable learning solution.
By developing learning content and concepts on each platform, the potential for cross-platform solutions has been proven. It is about learning from the individual challenges and adapting this knowledge to ensure that each element provides the same engaging and educational elements. It is also important to understand the limitations of each individual platform, and find how each platform can best contribute to the learning experience.
We have already completed a range of cross-platform projects to create a truly blended solution. With First Media, we were involved in the multi-media companion to Dr. Joseph Needham’s epic history of 5,000 years of Chinese history, Dragon’s Ascent. The multi-media publishing venture included many hours of video footage, over 150 man-hours of photography, and text from Needham’s Science and Civilisation in China (which currently runs into seven volumes).
Using short segments of video, extensive excerpts of text and more than 1,200 images, we produced learning content on the web and CD-Rom, video and DVD, containing as much of the original information as possible, but delivering it in an intuitive and engaging way.
Intelligent application and innovation
The key to delivering a learning solution is an understanding of intelligent use of technology, treatment and platform. Combined, the results can be truly compelling. We are continuing to push the envelope with almost weekly technological advances. Who is to say where the next opportunity for delivering learning will be? Perhaps it will be via next generation electronic tablet or through a games console, or digital television channels like BBC Learning.
The challenge for us now is to use the technology platforms for improved user acceptance of e-learning and a wider understanding of how portable learning provides individual improvement and benefit, coupled with competitive advantage. We are working with a leading oil producer to develop a solution that will deliver content via a range of media, for first-level leaders that has all the functionality and interactivity that you would expect from web-based content. This work is part of our development of large-scale roll-outs, which are using mobile platforms. Through intelligent use of available media, selecting a suitable delivery platform and a compelling creative approach, cross platform e-learning will prove its value, and show that it is nothing new – and while the platform keeps on changing, the learning experience should remain the same: compelling and relevant.
To go back to the myth that e-learning is all about web-based learning, it is certain that the internet will form the backbone of training, learning and communications, but in order to make it relevant for every individual it is essential that e-learning becomes a truly multi-platform experience. Multi-platform solutions are still in their infancy, and as technology continues to develop at a quickening rate it is essential that businesses maintain an open mind when selecting a platform. We’ve shown that over the last decade training and learning has successfully used a variety of delivery methods, and this will continue, with new technology and traditional methods such as classroom-based ILT and e-learning being used side by side. The key to the ongoing success of e-learning is in ensuring that the platform addresses three criteria: audience, cost and, most importantly, effectiveness.
Piers Lea is CEO at Line Communications. He can be contacted at: email@example.com