“Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I remember. Involve me and I learn.” - Benjamin Franklin
Have you ever taken an online course? If you did, what was your experience? If you are like many, it wasn’t fun. An online learner was asked on a post-course survey, “What was the most important thing you learned?” She replied, “How much I hate online learning.” Most of us have been there. But does that mean all online learning is bad? Is it the nature of the beast? Of course not!
Needless to say the quality of learning online varies anywhere along the complexity spectrum. It can be a humdrum page-turner with no interaction other than the next button. It can have interactive scenarios with multi-branching or even high-end 3-D simulations. Nonetheless, fancy interfaces with bells and whistles do not guarantee a positive online learning experience. To ensure learning that is measureable, meaningful and not something to be dreaded requires investments of time, talent and resources plus adherence to sound adult learning principles.
What can be done to help ensure a positive self-study online learning experience?
- Capture the learners’ attention. But how? It begins with a creative staff. It is important to have an instructional designer, technologists (or good template software such as Articulate Storyline), access to good graphics and supportive subject matter experts. The right team can create an experience that not only initially grabs the learner, but also keeps the learner’s attention throughout the course.
- Inform the learners what’s in it for them from the get-go. If it is compliance-based training, explain why. If it is new information, explain what it means for their career development.
- Develop learning scenarios. Using scenarios allows the learners to complete learning activities that mirror the world in which they live or work. Telling stories that connects throughout the learning makes for a more compelling learning experience.
- Remember all new knowledge should be built on previous knowledge. Continue to scaffold the learning throughout the course until the learning goal is reached.
- Chunk the learning into small segments. It has been proven that learners can retain a limited amount of information in a set period of time. According to John Medina in his book, Brain Rules: “The human brain can only hold about seven pieces of information for less than 30 seconds! Which means, your brain can only handle a 7-digit phone number. If you want to extend the 30 seconds to a few minutes or even an hour or two, you will need to consistently re-expose yourself to the information. Memories are so volatile that you have to repeat to remember.” It is important to provide information in increments so the brain can process that information. Be sure to reinforce the memory in order for it to be long-term.
- Use clickable text or graphics that require the learner to drill down for needed information. Keep the learner as an active participant in the learning experience.
- Avoid the “next” button as much as possible. Screen transitions should be active not passive. Ideally learners should progress from one screen to the next by means of a gateway, which could be a question, an activity or a challenge.
- Limit text on the screen. Remember that reading online is more tedious than reading hardcopy. Keep sentences short and to the point.
- Use audio to explain graphics. Avoid long, rambling sentences.
- Incorporate frequent knowledge checks to reinforce what was just learned. Regardless of how the learner answers, there should be explanations as to why the selected answer was wrong or right. The right answer should always be revealed before the learner progresses.
Online learning comes in many formats. Regardless of the format or whether one uses a computer, tablet or mobile phone, the same elements of design and development hold true for an effective experience. Here are some examples:
Online experiences have become more prevalent on educational sites of major organizations such as The Smithsonian Institution. Today you can explore exhibits by simply downloading mobile learning apps to enhance a museum visit. These apps offer audio and interactivity to take the usual museum experience to new levels by way of your mobile phones and tablets.
In recent years gamification and game-based learning have become hot topics associated with online learning. Because many of today’s learners grew up playing video games, games have become more acceptable in the learning world. Rather than the conceptual learning that we are most accustomed to, gaming hews “more towards the experiential learning model in which you learn by doing rather than by being trained in theory.” Some good examples are found at the Nobel Prize organization’s website.
Recently MOOCs, which stands for massive online open courses, have also made news. MOOCs offer learners the opportunity to take courses from many of the world’s top universities through sites such as Coursera, MIT Open Courseware, and edX. Many of these top-notch classes are self-paced while others adhere to a semester schedule.
Let’s not forget virtual learning. This most often occurs in institutions of higher education or alternative high schools where interaction with an instructor over an extended period of time is the norm. An example of a virtual platform is Blackboard. Virtual learning also occurs in organizations where live educational webinars are becoming the norm.
Finally there is micro-learning, which refers to small bursts of learning that can last anywhere from seconds to seven minutes. Micro-videos can be created as a part of a larger series of videos in order to learn a complex task. Explore some of the BBC’s micro-learning language videos to experience excellent examples.
Online learning can be very effective if designed and developed with the learner in mind. As technology improves and humans’ insatiable desire to learn increases, online learning will continue to grow. Let’s do what we can to make it effective!
 John Medina, Short-Term Memory, Brain Rules, ND, http://www.brainrules.net/short-term-memory
 Connect with the Smithsonian, ND, http://www.si.edu/Connect/Mobile
 Rob Marvin, How Gamified Brain Science is Transforming E-Learning, PC Magazine, November 30, 2015, http://www.pcmag.com/article2/0,2817,2495652,00.asp
 Nobel Organization’s The Blood Typing Game, ND, http://www.nobelprize.org/educational/medicine/bloodtypinggame/gamev2/index.html
 Coursera, ND, https://www.coursera.org/; MIT Open Courseware, ND, http://ocw.mit.edu/index.htm; edX, ND, https://www.edx.org/
 Blackboard, ND, http://www.blackboard.com/
 BBC Languages, ND, http://www.bbc.co.uk/languages/
CATMEDIA is a certified Woman-Owned Small Business (WOSB) firm based in Atlanta, Georgia. The firm’s trademarked communications process, CATVANTAGE™, enables the team to deliver customized solutions to meet client needs in creative services, strategic communications, training and eLearning programs, and program management. For more information about CATMEDIA, visit CATMEDIA.com.