Saturday, January 28, 2006

e-Learning rules

Thanks in large part to our colleague Sara Jalali, here is what we had been using as a "bible" for our writers and developers for e-learning:

1. Text should be the standard delivery format. (People have to read the stuff.) A manuscript should always be accompanied by a breakdown of core concepts and processes to be learned.

2. Writing style should be friendly and suited to the small screen. Write sparely for scan-reading, but don't over use bullets. Training should be fun, engaging, not boring. Use "voice" and the vernacular wherever possible.

3. Visual media (Illustrations/diagrams/animations and action video clips) should be employed to support and enhance text. Visuals are crucial instructional aids and not just pretty pictures. Illustrations can provide examples and modeling of key behaviors. “Story” clips can convey key emotional content.

4. We should design backwards from the desired outcomes -- The goal of all training is to improve performance. Each course should have clear organizational goals stated as outcomes. Then learning objectives should be written in behavioral terms (such as "plan a den meeting using all seven steps," rather than "know the parts of a den meeting.") The objectives should be stated at the beginning of the course and/or the beginning of each section or module and reviewed at the end (Safe Swim). Everything in the course should be closely related to learning objectives, especially all interactions and test questions.

5. Adopt a "semi-linear" course structure to provide learner choices and personalize the experience. Offer a clear path that the user will follow if he/she just uses the "next" button to progress through the course. But also offer a menu the learner can use to step off the path to find information quickly for reference.

6. We should provide interactions -- Each course should include frequent, meaningful interactions that require at least a little thought. Interactions should not be fancy "next" buttons. Much of the learning that takes place in the course happens through interactions -- as in the old adage, people remember most what they do. But interactions should respect the intelligence of adult learners and should help them practice and apply crucial information. They should reflect real-world context and help learners approximate what they will need to do in their jobs. Interactions should use visual analogies and illustrations whenever possible rather than just text (see Visual Analogies and Illustrations below).

7. We should use Stories wherever possible. A storyline can run throughout the course to tie all the elements together, provides real-world context and modeling, while adding interest. A story brings the information out of the abstract world of principles and procedures and allows users to identify with characters in situations they can relate to.

- A variant of this idea is the use of scenarios one of our earlier courses starts out with a scenario of Scouts on a hike who jump into a river to swim and cool off. The user is asked to identify the most important principles that are being violated before those principles are presented. This allows the user to make a prediction, think about what he/she is going to learn, and creates a sense of suspense about the course material. At the end of the course, the same scenario can be revisited with a different outcome. A scenario at the beginning of a course is a good way to draw users in immediately.

-Another variant of this is the "Guiding Character -- Safe Swim uses a tongue-in-cheek guiding character called Qualified Supervisor. He guides the user through the course and fits with the light tone of the course. A guiding character also serves to pull the user into the course and adds interest.

8. Use Humor -- The Safe Swim course uses light humor throughout and a cartoon visual style, although the course is clearly aimed at adults. This combination allows for a fun course experience and helps with retention while respecting adult learners.

9. Use visual analogies -- Both VFS and Safe Swim use visual analogies, such as the kayak scene in VFS to illustrate Venturing Methods, and the desk scene with steps of organizing a Venturing crew. Safe Swim uses a sandwich metaphor for the safety principles. These visual analogies are used both to present information and then in exercises and games. Visual analogies help with retention and add interest to what can otherwise be dry lists of principles or policies.

10. Provide performance support tools -- If it is feasible and applicable, it's great to provide useful tools for users, such as the PCI survey tool and the program planning calendar in VFS. This not only helps users practice crucial skills within the course but gives them tools that they can take away and use to help them later in their jobs.

Following my exposure to Dave Allen in his very fine ASTD certification for E-learning, I think I have a better understanding of e-learning. Here's what I'm playing around with now:

E-learning is not about presentations, but about interactions.
These are media objects that are responsive, that change when acted upon and can be played with by the user open-endedly. An interaction is not an assertion, but a problem. It relates to a didactic concept called "active learning" or "problem-based learning" commonly used in more progressive elementary/secondary education. The defining characteristics of PBL are:
(a) learning is driven by open-ended problems,
(b) students work in small collaborative groups, and
(c) 'teachers' per se are not required, as the process places them backstage as 'facilitators' of learning. In e-learning, the role of the teacher is the design of the object.
Advocates of PBL claim it can be used to enhance content knowledge and foster the development of communication, problem-solving, and self-directed learning skill. This is all cousin to constructivism which views learning as a process in which one actively constructs or builds new ideas or concepts based upon current and past knowledge. Constructivist learning is a very personal endeavor, whereby internalized concepts, rules, and general principles may consequently be applied in a practical real-world context.

Ultimately, learning is not a relpication of an idea, but a personal and novel effort to cope with the universe. According to Jerome Bruner and other constructivists, the teacher acts as a facilitator who encourages students to discover principles for themselves and to construct knowledge by working to solve realistic problems, usually in collaboration with others. This collaboration is also known as knowledge construction as a social process. Collaboration is what the more progressive schools (and all successful creative endeavors) do. In E-learning, however, at least as we define it today we are still stuck with the single-user computer interface paradigm which leaves the user alone with the learning object. As we develop haptic and gestural interfaces for the PC, we may see collaboration finally arrive on the scene for e-learning too.

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