On Putting it Online…

June 3, 2013

What this post is about: Some thoughts on making the decision to “go online” with training interventions, and how you might go about doing that.

What this post is not about: This is not a specific, tailor-made guide that can help you determine whether and how to go online. This is informational. Always speak to your instructional design specialist, and only follow the instructions on the label if you are sure it will provide the outcome you are seeking.

Here is a summary: I have been following the ocTEL course provided by ALT. While I have been lax in activities, I have been thinking a lot about the discussions and resources provided. In one of (hopefully) many posts inspired by the ocTEL course, I consider how one should make the decision to provide online learning content.

Here begins the post.

So, you’re going online. Genius move. There are training and marketing dollars in that. You are the future, ever stretching and all-knowledge providing. What next?

First, I’m assuming you know you need training (and that you really do). If not, I suggest reading this blog by Cathy Moore on whether you even need to provide a training intervention.

So, let’s assume you do. What next?

A few days ago from my (PLUG WARNING) new @BrenLearning Twitter account (which is reserved for learning and development thoughts and tweets), I tweeted the following:

“Having studied theories and styles, plus reflection, I’m going with “People are #learning, everywhere and all the time, in different ways”
(https://twitter.com/brenLearning/status/340805463589388288)”

“(2/2) My job in #learning is to provide opportunities for learning that are appropriate, applicable and assessable, for learner and subject.
(https://twitter.com/brenLearning/status/340806028377600000)

(PLUG ENDS)

This encapsulates my current thought on learning, and what you need to do. Current is the key word here, as this may change, because I am 1. quite ambivalent about everything, in general and 2. constantly learning, so may well refine, rework or reverse my opinion.

So, now you’re done.

Except, how do we turn a pithy tweet into something workable? Let’s break it down.

(MC Hammer Dance)

Making it Assessable for Learner and Subject

What? This was the last point in my pithy “rule of three”-structured comment. Why is it first?!

Because:

You need to consider the outcome first. How will you know your online learning has worked? And how is that translated to the workplace/skills applied/etc (in most cases, “assessment” is really a proxy result that will confirm a learner knows something – how this affects behaviour after may require further follow up after the training intervention).

What is it you are trying to achieve for your learners? And will that work for them? What you’re trying to achieve can range from depth and breadth of knowledge to proving an ability to apply that knowledge to – in some cases – actually testing the application of knowledge (although this can be limited in the online space – see the first point).

In terms of what will work for learners, do they need to learn this, do they want to learn this, is “online” an appropriate manner for teaching?

Once you know where you want to get to, then you can start mapping a path to it.

Making it Appropriate for Learner and Subject

In terms of going online – think about your intended learners and ask yourself: Why?

  • What is the value to learners? (this is key. Many, many people think of the value to the institution (in terms of improved service or esteem), which can leave learners cold. While your institution may well gain in terms of esteem (but that is up to you and your marketing department to know or figure out), if you’re going online, think of the learners.
  • Will they see that value themselves? (if the answer is “No”, some marketing may be required. Just because someone doesn’t know whether something will work for them does not mean it won’t. My 5 year old who will not touch carrots but loves broccoli confirms this for me)
  • What is the most effective way to get the information into their heads (This will include what learners will be able to access, will have time to access and will not be too difficult to get through)?
  • How are they used to learning, and is there anyway to leverage that (e.g. Could you record “live” events (lectures, presentations, round tables, etc.) and put these online, along with assessment? Or would this bore them? Or, do you need to provide more applicable content – see below in Applicable bit)?

In terms of the subject matter or content you want to teach, consider:

  • What do you teach now?
  • What is taught in a “live” event?
  • What can you put online (e.g. again, can you record lectures? Or would it make more sense to provide case studies and activities online? Or would it make sense to provide both?)?
  • What is worth putting online (Just because it can go online, doesn’t always mean it should. I give you LOLCATS and many, many Tumblrs as examples. Don’t assume that if you build it, they will come – it must be worth coming for)?
  • Is there a split between what can be taught effectively using live events, and what can be taught effectively using online (self-directed) methds? (Commonly known as blended learning, but more often now known simply as learning, as more institutions and providers actually design their learning output to work in this way)

Another aspect to developing learning content that is appropriate to learners and the subject is what it actually looks like. It might be:

High in interactivity, using Flash or HTML5 (here is a really interesting issue right now. Flash is not supported on iOS devices. Yet (and despite the death notices), it is still the main technology used for highly interactive and video-based content for learning.  This probably will not last, as so many new products are released that publish to HTML5, offering similar types of interactive content, and indeed products that publish to apps for iOS or Android phones and tablets. A full discussion on this is beyond the point of this post, so to go back to the initial consideration: High interactivity using Flash or HTML5 is expensive, and labour intensive, but can offer really excellent results. An experience can be developed, rather than a resource.

High in social interactivity, using forums or social media. The appropriateness of this approach again depends on your content. If you are trying to be quite didactic (i.e. this is the information you need to learn), then careful monitoring, mentoring and moderation will be required to ensure incorrect information is not circulated through your learning community. However, if the purpose is to be more exploratory (i.e. through discussion, the community will build up their own knowledge base), the effort required is less so.

Low in interactivity, but rich in information: This is a common approach because it is fairly easy to create. However, it can be difficult for learners to engage with – so is a trade off. In short, you provide an indexed, searchable body of information, with supporting assessments and some kind of curriculum outline (perhaps with supporting activities as well). Then launch it. Learners can access information as they need, and go back to it as required. The difficulty with such an approach is that it can get boring for learners, who may use it in 20 minute bursts (or something similar), rather than sitting down to a course. (By the way, 20 minute bursts is the recommended timeframe for any specific “chunk” of information you want people to learn).

And so forth – one could go on forever, but really the approach you take should depend on your objectives, and what will work for learners to help them better learn and understand the information. Again, I’ll reiterate: You should consult a learning specialist to help you determine what will meet these requirements – and within your budget.

There are some ways to help with this: Surveys of potential learners; Looking at case studies from others in industry, or if you are part of an association, etc.; Looking at other case studies, which may be applicable to the type of information you are learning. In these cases, the more information the better – build up profiles of your learners – and through those profiles – your online service.

Making it Applicable for Learner and Subject

So you know what you want them to do after the training, and you’ve figured out a way to provide online content that will work for them. Now, what will that content be? Some more questions to ask yourself:

What should they be able to do (see assessment), and how can the content align to that?

What the hell does this mean? Here are some examples!

If you’re teaching software, consider developing activities where they use specific functions in a targeted way. Don’t just say “Use the file menu to open a new document and save it with a title…” Instead, go with: “You have received a support call from a client, who has asked for a breakdown of their current account information to be posted to them. Prepare this document and include a cover note to explain what it contains and how the customer can read it. Remember to give it an appropriate file name, because it will be going to them!”. Or something similar. The point is you should be considering real life application at all times.

In a project I worked on, we used animated diagrams and click events (click here to see what happens) to explain the inner workings of machines. This helped learners to “visualise” the mechanisms involved and (hopefully) to consider how they might apply such mechanisms in other situations (i.e. when on the job, to consider what mechanical applications could be applied to specific problems they needed to solve).

But wait! That’s too advanced! I need to roll back a  bit…

OK. Well, here you need to consider:

  • What it is they have to learn
  • How they will use this information

Going back to our software, you could:

  1. Explain a typical workflow, which includes how the software “fits into it”
  2. Break out the specific information you will be talking about, and what it means
  3. Run through the specific information and its place/function within the software
  4. Provide one or two examples
  5. etc.

For more theoretical information, consider the use of diagrams that relate how different information works together. For example:

  • Specific information to be input to a process (data, a situation, etc.)
  • The process itself (steps taken, tasks)
  • The output (result of using the information through the steps)

Such a diagram could also be used as a download or job aid, which the learner could print out and keep, so they have a ready-reference when they need it.

You also need to consider your expertise, with regard to making your content applicable. Subject Matter Experts (SMEs) are fundamental to making your online learning work. Without them, you have nothing. These are the people who can tell you what needs to be in the course. What learners need to know, be able to do and the relationships between what they know and what they do.

  • How will you engage SMEs? Who will they be?
  • Will they be paid? Can they work voluntarily?
  • Could they (with some initial training) develop the online content themselves? Or, if they are time poor, how can they be involved efficiently – so that being involved in your project does not take up too much of their time.

Another tough question is how your SME(s) might be managed. They are often senior figures, who can think of better things to do with their time. You are better off finding people who are interested in learning (have a “vocation” for want of a better word). What happens if they miss deadlines? Can you exert any pressure on them?

Of course, all of this will be done for free, so that’s the end of this post.

What?

Oh, yes. Budget.

This is why I suggest talking to an instructional designer or eLearning professional. They may have some idea of costs for you (time for instructional design, technical costs and what you may need to pay out initially and on an ongoing basis).

However, they may also (drawing on their experience) have some creative ideas on maximising your budget. For example – as mentioned earlier, you could engage an instructional designer to teach your SMEs to develop content over a set period. During that time, they could develop templates, themes, manage installation of technical infrastructure, etc. Then perhaps come back once a year or so to look at refreshing the look and feel of your content and provide pointers on improving what has been developed.

If you have loads of money, you could look at a “big house” company, where teams of instructional designers, graphic designers and programmers will work to create content.

In many cases, you’ll probably fall in between these stools, and perhaps require someone on an ongoing basis (but part time) or full time as an employee.

In Summary

I hope this has been a helpful post for those thinking of providing online learning content, and at least give you an idea of how you should be thinking. As I say, none of this could be taken as specific advice, as there is no guarantee any of it is appropriate, applicable and assessable to your specific needs (as I hope is made clear by the post). You should engage an instructional designer or eLearning professional, at least to provide advice in the early days, and perhaps for a longer and more involved engagement. Always read the label, but only ever follow the instructions when they will specifically deal with the problem you are facing.

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One Response to “On Putting it Online…”

  1. […] this post is about: A continuation from yesterday’s “On Putting it Online…“, but with a bit more structure in terms of when you might do […]

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