There are many new ways to think about content and content delivery, but as a designer, you need only remember the fundamental instructional design principles and add e-learning tools to your list of delivery methods. Think Web-based instruction, virtual conferencing, chat, threaded discussion boards, and streaming media.
To determine which of those tools to use when, start at a familiar beginning: Consider your learning objectives. Think through your training goals, including what level of performance you're looking for and how you'll measure achievement. Select a delivery method that will allow you to measure the accomplishment of the objectives. If you cannot measure performance with a particular delivery method, then it's probably the wrong one.
For example, if you're giving learners fact-based information and asking for knowledge recall, you can test that recall with an online knowledge test. The content could be delivered using self-paced reading or Web-based instruction. On the other hand, if learners need to synthesize multiple areas of content, they could be assessed via Web conferencing.
As the learning objectives move from simple knowledge recall to more complex skills, you must take care to choose a delivery method that will support the skill transfer. You may find that a certain skill needed by your organization cannot be taught or measured unless it's in a face-to-face classroom environment, or that although computer simulation is best for your needs, it's cost-prohibitive for your organization to develop. If those situations arise, don't force the training on the wrong media. You will waste your effort and your learner's time. However, be willing to experiment because what works well in one organization may or may not work well somewhere else.
Because what works in one company may not work in another, you need to add learner characteristics to the decision process. Ask the same questions for any delivery selection process. How many learners are there? Where are they located? What level of computer experience do they have? Are they new to the content? Do they work in an office where they can connect to the network easily? What cultural barriers must be dealt with regarding technology-enabled learning methods? Use the answers to those questions to guide your selection process.
It is human nature to be easily distracted by multiple obligations, especially when at work. Therefore, it's important that e-learning content be meaningful to the learner. If you're using a self-paced online format, its even more crucial to capture and hold the learner's attention. Consider adding a facilitator for both synchronous and asynchronous activities to provide motivation, interest, and follow-up.
Now, put yourself in the learner's shoes. One of the greatest advantages of e-learning, if your infrastructure supports it, is just-in-time prescriptive learning. Ideally, a person should be able to access what they need to know at the moment they need to know it. If you think of content in terms of objectives, design the information so that it can be chunked into small pieces. You don't want content that's fragmented and disassociated, but you do want each chunk to stand on its own as a building block to the next. You may find that you need to bundle some of those chunks for delivery efficiency in order to ensure that learners participate in each section, but that's merely a packaging decision.
The second biggest pitfall is not understanding the full meaning of e-learning. Instructional designers must become as comfortable with e-learning tools and environments as they are with classroom-based instruction. If they are not, they cannot make sound decisions about delivery media selection nor counsel stakeholders and customers in their decisions. Implementing e-learning just to say you are doing it is almost never what your organization needs to meet its performance goals.
That leads to the last point, which is how to know whether your content was effective when it was delivered using e-learning tools. All traditional evaluation methods still come into play. It's still important to use formative evaluation practices throughout the development cycle to ensure that the program meets the needs of the learners. Include in this plan a usability test, especially if you're using untested templates and methods. Make sure that the navigation and technology do not get in the way of the learning.
You can also use traditional Level 1 surveys, but remember that learners may not like the program because it wasn't delivered to them in a manner they're familiar with, such as a classroom. Instead, focus more on Level 2 and 3 issues--for instance, learners' ability to master course objectives. Ultimately, the goal is to make sure students can perform; however, no one wants to torture them in the process.
So, be creative and willing to try new approaches. There is no one right answer about e-learning content selection and delivery. You must take into consideration what needs to be taught, to whom, and how much time and money is available. Just apply the fundamental principles and capture the power of e-learning!
Collins is learning program manager for Xerox
Corporation's sales education and learning organization. She
can be reached at Lisa.Collins@usa.xerox.com.
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