Taking the place of the instructor in e-learning

e-Learning, and the discussions around it, tends to polarise people. Nobody really sits on the fence – broadly speaking, they are for it (normally, those with a keen sense of the cost of training) or they are against it (those who believe in traditional pedagogy).

Those in favour of e-learning, therefore, often tend to come up with arguments along the lines of ‘it’s cheaper, and if we can demonstrate that learners have completed and passed the course, we’ve accomplished the same as much more expensive and time-consuming classroom based training may have done.’

Those against will argue that ‘e-learning might tick all the boxes, but there is no replacement for an instructor-led training session.’ It is ‘impersonal’, ‘un-engaging’ and ‘removed from the learner.’

But which of these perspectives is right? The short answer, I believe, is neither of them.

Let me explain why I think this is. All of the arguments above could just as well apply to an instructor-led session. Cheaper training is always an option, especially with web conferencing and virtual classrooms so readily available. And how many times have you been bored by an instructor or a teacher? Or felt that the content or delivery of training fell short of your expectations?

Writing great e-learning courses is not about emulating the presence of an instructor. The function e-learning should perform is to bridge the gap between learning materials and student. As one might prepare materials for an instructor to deliver to a student, so too must an e-learning course deliver its content – avoiding the same pitfalls that bad instructors fall into: being boring, un-engaging or impersonal.

Harry Calhoun, writing for CEdMA Europe, shows how Anil Mammen mentions four key points for good e-learning that help you bridge this gap:

1. Help the learner ‘internalise’ the content

A learner, whether at a computer or in a classroom, cannot be forced to absorb content. However, you can encourage them. Make your course intellectually challenging, fun and relevant, and they will internalise the course content much more readily.

2. Make the learner pause and think about the concepts and principles illustrated there

Just like in a schoolroom, learners need time to absorb information, which they may do in a plenary or a group exercise. While this luxury is not readily available in e-learning, you should still design courses to have natural pauses for reflection. At Saffron, we use a ‘test then tell’ approach to get learners to think about another topic using their intuition, experience or previous learning (as opposed to the traditional ‘tell-and-test’ approach, which asks the learner to read a lot of information and then tests their memory recall of that information).

3. Make the learner experience the situations presented in the program

My speciality is systems simulation, but even those courses that are far removed from systems simulations need to engage the learner on a relevant and realistic level. Doing some ‘boring’ compliance training? Why not ask the learner some difficult scenario-based questions? Putting them on the spot tests their behaviour as well as their knowledge, much like an instructor would.

4. Provide the learner with opportunities to solve problems and interact with ideas

The problem of interactivity is an interesting one. Too much, and you risk the learner getting ‘click-fatigue’. Too little, and the course can feel dry. Make sure that the interactions are relevant, and present plausible and engaging problems to the learner. I remember, for example, the puzzle about the farmer who has to get his chicken, a bag of corn and a fox across the river, taking two at a time with him, but not leaving the chicken alone with the fox or the bag of corn (although it can be argued that it is unrealistic, because no farmer would ever try to give a fox a helping hand across a watercourse). Still – it’s a well-thought-out mind-game. Like a great teacher, a good interaction will provoke thought for hours to come.

Why not bear these four points above in mind when you are writing your next e-learning course? You might find yourself naturally writing courses that not only bridge the gap between material and student, but make them wonder why an instructor was ever needed in the first place.