Getting Serious about e-Learning

independent-developerBy Clark Quinn


e-Learning is no longer new, but it has not yet fully arrived.  While e-Learning exists, by and large it has not lived up to its potential.  We are extending university courses and organizational learning beyond the classroom with MOOCs, mobile, and more. But are we getting what we are paying for?


Driven by both pragmatic needs and technology advances, e-Learning is increasingly prevalent.  While it would be desirable that its expansion be predicated on good design, unfortunately this is not the case. Despite findings that e-Learning can be superior to face-to-face instruction, the evidence is that this only occurs when the learning design is rethought – and typically, it is not.


The findings from learning-science research are robust.  We know that things like contextualized and spaced practice, annotated examples, and emotional engagement lead to better outcomes.  There are caveats about working with subject-matter experts, yet we understand that design processes should include a thorough analysis and are fostered through regular collaboration. What we see, though, is all to often knowledge dump and information test, whether it is done in an organizational or educational setting.


The reasons are not hard to understand, but they are problematic.  The market has been driven to producing tools that make it easy to present content, and there is too little thought about how to actually engage learners through meaningful interaction.  Cognitively, experts have limited access to what they actually do, but far better access to what they know.  This becomes a problem when there is little real accountability.


The market really is not being assessed.  Too often, courses are developed without a metric documenting the impact.  What is measured (and infrequently) is learner opinion on effectiveness, but this turns out to be a bad basis for evaluation.  It is the sad state of affairs that too often a course is praised when it looks like learning, whether it is effective or not.  The nuances between a course that is well produced and one that is well designed and well produced are subtle.  It is easy to delude ourselves that we have developed a learning intervention when all we really have done is present information.


Unfortunately, the consequences are real.  Developing courses that will not lead to any meaningful change in the ability to perform is a waste of resources. We can spend time and money developing things that meet the stipulated requirement – a course on a topic – without meeting the real need, which is a course that develops the ability to do what is needed with that knowledge.


And we are not just talking compliance here. We are seeing courses created when they are not the best solution, and the courses we are seeing are dull, content heavy, and woefully inactive.  Learning units in organizations are responding to requests for courses without challenging the need. Designers are reacting to expert statements about what needs to be included without establishing real needs. This is not the rigor that good, effective courses demand.


What can be done?  We have the opportunity to raise our game.  We need to apply the science of learning that has been established through research; the necessary knowledge is not being applied.  We are seeing “learning” in which the alternatives to the right answer are silly or obvious. Too often learners practice only until they get it right, instead of until they cannot get it wrong.  We are seeing too much content presentation and insufficient practice. We see content that is unenlightened by any attempt to address motivational concerns addressed toward the learner. The typical course is almost antithetical to effective outcomes!


The good news is that the opportunity does not imply a complete revision of our existing design processes. There are small modifications that can yield big changes in effectiveness. Once these are incorporated into existing approaches, the impact on costs is marginal, yet substantial on learning outcomes. Knowing how to establish real needs, how to work with experts, when and how to collaborate, and having detailed understanding and support around the details that make learning really work are doable, and important.


It is time to move from instructional design to real learning engineering. The solutions are known, the need is real, and the time is ripe.  It is no longer necessary or appropriate to accept anything that does not reflect what is known about how we think, work, and learn.  We have the ability to make learning that works, and we should.


Clark Quinn will be leading an #OEB16 pre-conference workshop on integrating learning science with experience design on November 30. More information here.

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