Tuesday, May 26, 2009

The Importance of Relevance

Lots of kids find school boring and a waste of time. If you ask them why, odds are they just don't see how it applies to them - they don't see the relevance.

This feeling carries over to adults, particularly when it comes to training in the workplace. One of the basic principles of Andragogy (the art and science of helping adults learn), developed by Malcolm Knowles is as follows:

"Adults are most interested in learning subjects that have immediate relevance to their job or personal life."

If you think about it, it makes perfect sense. We adults have a lot to do. Any subject that can help improve how we do our job or our personal life is important. Anything beyond that may be nice to know, but if it's information that won't help us in the here and now, it's something that can be put off until later.

This issue of relevance becomes even more important in an e-learning environment. Why? Consider this:

1. E-learning environments come with lots of distractions.

Most e-learning is done by the user at their workplace computer. That means they have their work phone, their co-workers, and their boss nearby that can be very distracting. They also have e-mail that will alert them when something new is arrived, and will take away their attention from whatever course they may be involved in. If the material is not relevant, it's very easy to tune out or turn off e-learning when the phone rings, or an e-mail comes in, or a co-worker pops in to talk about the weekend. With relevant material, particularly material that's essential or important to getting work done, it becomes more of a priority, and distractions become easier to resist.

2. E-learning feels informal.

When sitting by yourself in front of your computer in your office or a cubicle, it's a very different experience than sitting in a classroom with other people and an instructor in front of you. In a classroom, you almost feel a sense of obligation that you are there to learn something. You grew up in this type of learning environment. Even if you didn't care for the subject or the teacher, not paying attention could have consequences (assuming the teacher was any good). When it's just you at your desk with nobody else looking, if the content is irrelevant, it's easy to just click through it as fast as possible and get it over with. If you find the material relevant to your job, you're more likely to pay attention to it, even without being in a "formal" learning environment.

3. E-learning does not have the benefit of an external motivator (extrinsic motivation).

What do I mean by an external motivator? Very simply, an instructor. In a classroom, a good instructor can read a class and can tell if the learners are engaged or not. If they aren't, the instructor can take action to get them engaged through exercises, pop quizzes, or a discussion. He or she can motivate them to learn, or at least pay attention. Even if the material is irrelevant to the learner, having a human being interacting with them can keep them (even reluctantly) engaged and motivated. In e-learning, particularly asynchronous e-learning, there is no external motivator keeping you engaged. Yes, you can try to make e-learning that buzzes and beeps and has movies and interesting effects, but if all that revolves around irrelevant material, people will still tune out eventually - unless you provide other external motivators such as punishment or reward. But without these motivators or an instructor, it's easy to ignore irrelevant e-learning. Relevant e-learning gets people motivated from within (intrinsic motivation). They WANT to learn how to make their jobs and/or lives easier. Make sure they are getting relevant material that internally motivates them.

So before you put together a course - any course, figure out if the material being taught is relevant or not. Will it improve how they do their jobs? Will it give them important information they didn't already have? Will it offer them realistic solutions to realistic problems they may encounter?

We are working more hours with less help than ever before in the workplace. There are lots of distractions coming at us from every angle, and we can only do so much. If your material is important and relevant, you will find your learners are more likely to ignore those distractions and get engaged in that relevant material. If it isn't, you may be spending a lot of time and money creating a course that nobody will have any interest in.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Why eLearning?

In this blog, I intend to look at different aspects of e-learning, from theory to tools to my personal experiences. I am assuming anyone who is reading this is currently doing e-learning, or is thinking about it, so I will try to make it as simple and concise as possible, but I will assume you know the basics.

For this first blog entry, I thought it would be a good idea to cover why you would want to have e-learning as a method of training at all? With so many different ways to train individuals, why is e-learning the right choice for a company?

Honestly, e-learning is not always the right choice for every training situation.

There are many companies that choose e-learning because they think it is a low-cost alternative to putting people in a classroom, or at least sending an instructor out in the field. Once you take into account the cost of purchasing an e-learning tool, purchasing an LMS, then paying people to create and maintain courses, it could theoretically cost as much, if not more than classroom instruction. It's important to do the research first and find out the real costs.

Some companies believe they can take an instructor and have he or she conduct a "webinar" or take PowerPoint slides or a manual and use a particular design tool to put it online and it will be just as good. This may be perfectly acceptable for some topics. For other topics, it's critical for the trainee to have a live person in the room to answer questions and explain things. Especially if it involves something complex and mechanical like an engine or similar device.

While I have a background in e-learning design and development, I'm also versed in instructional design. The goal of instructional design is to find the best and most effective way of training people, and each method of training (instructor-led, job aids, online, etc.) has strengths and weaknesses. While entire books have been written on this subject, I will focus on reasons why you would want to choose e-learning either as a primary way of training, or, better yet, to supplement other types of training.

Here are some (but by no means every) legitimate reasons why you would consider e-learning:

1. Difficulty aligning trainee schedules.

Yes, going to a classroom and training would be nice, but people are busier than ever before, and they just don't have the time to go to class. Even if you can get two or three people in a class at a time, what if you have 100 or more trainees? That's over 30 class sessions. If you're under time constraints, this may be unacceptable. Asynchronous can be taken via computer, which means an employee or customer can take it as time allows.

2. The topic of training involves using a computer.

One thing e-learning can do very well are software simulations. Now this isn't to say that learning in a computer lab with an instructor isn't advantageous as well. If a software program is extremely complex, having an instructor present is helpful. But if the program is relatively simple, or a lab just isn't available, or schedules don't allow lab training (point #1), e-learning could be the right training tool.

3. Tracking of training is critical.

If you have a large number of trainees, and it's important to monitor their training (particularly test scores), e-learning with a learning management system (LMS) is an excellent way of keeping track of who is receiving what training and how that individual is doing. Yes, an instructor could take attendance and keep track of test scores and enter them into a database, but having the whole process online is much faster and more efficient - particularly if the trainees are spread out over a large geographic area.

4. Instructor interaction is not necessary or important.

The less complex a training topic, the fewer questions a trainee will have. This means an instructor is not as necessary as with a more complex topic. If the training is relatively simple, and it can be easily conveyed via a computer, then e-learning is a good method of providing training. Conversely, if a topic is complex, e-learning (particularly asynchronous e-learning) would not be a good training method.

5. A training topic has frequent simple changes over time.

What is really powerful about e-learning is it can be distributed to a group of people in a wide area in an instant - at least theoretically. I can make a change to this blog and in an instant it's uploaded and available to everyone with web access. E-learning can be like this, but it takes some planning in advance. If the tool used to design e-learning is not a simple tool, or your e-learning uses complex media such as audio and/or video, that can slow down the process. By the time new audio or video is recorded and placed into the course, the content may be outdated. Remember to take into consideration the amount of time it takes to get changes approved through the review process. If you can juggle all these variables successfully, e-learning can be a great training method for this type of content.

While this is not a comprehensive list of reasons to choose e-learning, it should provide some food for thought. With all the different types of training available, make sure you are choosing e-learning for the right reasons.