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Engineering e-learning

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by Clive Shepherd
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Like it or not, the USA has a major lead over the UK in e-learning. To an extent this can be attributed to a greater willingness to invest and innovate and a history of leadership in technology, but that's not the whole story. For many years now, America has taken the subject of instructional design more seriously than the Brits, and the universities turn out a ready supply of new designers, all looking to make their mark in learning technology. In this article, Clive Shepherd explains what instructional design is all about, why it matters and what needs to be done to get things moving on this side of the Atlantic.

Contents
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It ain't what you do
The flight to quality
What is instructional design?
Coming over all andragogical
The making of an instructional designer
Case study: NETg
Resources

It ain't what you do
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Several years ago, before anyone coined the term 'e-learning', Thomas L Russell set about reviewing the 300 or more studies conducted over more than 75 years comparing the virtues of different media for education and training. Was the classroom the best? How about 16mm films (remember them?), correspondence courses or CD-ROM? After all this endeavour, Thomas may have been a little disappointed to note the common finding that emerged from all these studies - that there was really no significant difference in the effectiveness of one medium over another. His survey was conclusively inconclusive.
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What the "No Significant Difference Phenomenon", as it is now called, tells us is that the choice of medium in itself does not guarantee effectiveness. What makes the difference is the way that you do it. Some classroom courses are delivered well, some badly. It's a similar story with e-learning, except here it's the design that makes the difference.
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The flight to quality
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In the quest to gain competitive edge, e-learning publishers are increasingly resorting to a numbers war. "Our catalogue contains over 500 courses." "Call that a catalogue? We've reached the 1000 mark and are still climbing." But judging e-learning on the basis of quantity is a nonsense - it's like saying that Barbara Cartland was a better romantic novelist than Jane Austen because she wrote more books!
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In the survey 'Attitudes to E-learning' (Campaign for Learning, KPMG and UfI, 2000), 12% of e-learners thought that the quality was 'poor or terrible' and 39% only 'satisfactory'. Although more than 70% reported that they learned anything from 'a fair amount' to a 'great deal', the perceptions of quality are significant and probably explain why in another survey (ASTD / Masie Center, 2001), only 38% of learners indicated a preference for e-learning over other methods.
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More evidence can be found in the 2000 survey by Forrester, which found that, although enthusiasm for online learning runs high, users struggle with static content. One user reported: "Right now the content available isn't much better than a workbook or reference manual with a few quizzes. The design needs an overhaul so that the content is more engaging to the learner".
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The problem with quality is not related to the sophistication of the programming, nor the whizziness of the multimedia - it comes down to design. In her article 'Deprogramming IT Learning' (ASTD, 2001), Christine Sevilla describes how "many providers are using Internet technology to implement basic educational techniques that are derived from programmed learning models, developed fifty years ago. This type of learning isn't about problem solving; it's an assessment of memory." Controversial psychologist turned designer Roger Schank, speaking at Online Learning Europe 2001 in February, echoed this view, although he believes that this approach is just a carry-over from classroom training: "The problem with online learning is that it replicates the existing system. It treats learning as a process of knowledge transfer."
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What is instructional design?
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The cry goes up that all we need to remedy these ills is a good old-fashioned dose of instructional design. "Instructional what?" you respond. Well, instructional design is, taken literally, the design of instruction in all its forms - whether classroom, one-to-one or self-study; for adults or children; in education or training. As a discipline, instructional design draws extensively from the psychology of learning and, in its methodologies, from systems and management thinking.
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The term is not favoured by all. Some object to the word 'instruction', with its implications of a teacher-centered approach. Others object to the word 'design', suggesting as it does a rather arty orientation, and insist that what we really need is 'instructional engineering'. Nevertheless, we have to settle on a name, and instructional design is not only generally accepted in the USA, it's almost universally applied to the design of technology-assisted learning. So you may like to consider yourself a 'learning engineer', but the job you will be applying for will be instructional designer.
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So what does an instructional designer do? Well, according to the competencies published by IBSTPI (see Resources), a lot more than design. Instructional designers will often take the lead role in analysis and planning. Naturally enough, they'll mastermind the design phase, selecting the appropriate strategies to meet the learning objectives. Because they don't like to get left out in the development phase, many instructional designers will go on to write all or part of the script and contribute to the authoring. Typically, the larger the team, the more limited the instructional designers role. In a small team, they do everything, including make the tea.spacer
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Coming over all andragogical
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Instructional designers are primarily concerned with how adults learn. Andragogy, in case you didn't know, is the art and science of helping adults to learn (unlike pedagogy, which is just for kids). Critically, andragogy also refers to a 'learner-centred' approach, whereas pedagogical methods are centred on what the teacher does. These double meanings are significant - experts agree that instructional design for adults must be learner-centred, it must put the learner in the driving seat.
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Emerging as the dominant theory in adult learning is 'constructivism' (these words will impress all your friends). According to funderstanding.com, constructivism is "a philosophy of learning founded on the premise that, by reflecting on our experiences, we construct our own understanding of the world we live in". Courses built on constructivist principles "pose problems for learners to explore, seek and value multiple perspectives, encourage reflection, embed learning in realistic and relevant contexts, and recognise the social dimension of learning" (Sevilla and Wells, 2001).
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To what extent is what we know about adult being applied to real e-learning product? Well, SkillSoft is probably the world's largest publisher of e-learning courses in soft skills. Their instructional design model underpins all of their products: "The model draws heavily from adult learning theories that emphasise learner initiative, self-management and experiential learning, and from social learning theory, which emphasises the importance of observing and modelling the behaviours, attitudes and emotional reactions of others".
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New e-learning developer Academee has discarded old models of instructional design and is basing its approach on a learner-centred, constructivist model, emphasising the importance of collaboration between learners. Chief Knowledge Architect, David Bird, has made it a point not to recruit his team from the existing ranks of instructional designers, having found that those with teaching or training experience empathise better with Academee’s approach.
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Roger Schank combines his role of Director of Northwestern University's Institute for the Learning Sciences with that of CEO for e-learning developer Cognitive Arts. Roger believes passionately that real learning is achieved by doing and not by telling. Learning occurs naturally when we're in pursuit of a goal and we fail in some way. We develop a theory of how to improve and then we try again. Cognitive Arts have been working with Columbia University and Harvard on a series of new e-learning courses that employ simulation as a way of immersing learners in realistic problem scenarios. Purveyors of page-turners should beware when these 'page-burners' hit the market.
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Henry Stewart, MD of Happy Computers, the current IITT Training Company of the Year, believes that the principles that have served them well in the classroom apply equally well online. "With our new e-learning venture, LearnFish, we are aiming to apply our successful classroom training methodology to our interactions with the learner. We never present information when we can prompt the learner to find things out for themselves. We use the real application as a basis for all our practical work, so learners have no difficulty in relating what they're taught to the real work environment."
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The making of an instructional designer
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What is most likely to bring the e-learning bandwagon to a halt? Lack of budget? Lack of enthusiasm? No, at least as far as the UK is concerned, more likely it will be a lack of skills. The UK's pitifully small supply of experienced designers was long ago exhausted. We have the programmers; we have the graphic designers and all other forms of multimedia specialist; we certainly have the brains. We just don't have enough people who know how to help people learn using computers and networks.
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At a conference in June 2000 organised by the e-Learning Network and Technologies for Training, delegates unanimously agreed that the lack of instructional design skills in the UK was a critical problem. According to Jan Seabrook and Nick Rushby, writing in People Management, major UK initiatives such as the University for Industry are likely to be extremely hampered by the skills gap: "It would be astonishing if, given what we know about the lack of competent instructional designers, there were a sufficient stock of suitable learning products in the UK." The situation exists throughout Europe. A survey conducted in 2000 by the EC body Cedefop also reported considerable anxiety amongst trainers about how to increase their knowledge and skills in e-learning design.
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Dr Yoon Yong, of BYG Systems, is resigned to the fact that it is difficult to recruit people with training in instructional design. Instead BYG draw their recruits from related fields - stand-up trainers, cognitive psychologists, developers of learning materials and communications specialists. Ed Hatton, Head of Instructional Design for major e-learning publisher SmartForce, looks for an interest in education and technology: “We then provide in-depth training, depending on the role the new recruit will be taking on, as curriculum planners or as writers/designers”.
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However, formal education in instructional design is available at the Centre for the Study of Advanced Learning Technologies, at Lancaster University. Says Professor Peter Goodyear: "We are one of the few places in the country where you can study leading-edge approaches to the understanding of adult learning, learning needs analysis and learning systems design. Many universities in North America offer such opportunities but Lancaster and Twente (Netherlands) are the main centres where one can do such work in Europe." The course at Lancaster makes extensive use of practical assignments. According to course director, Christine Steeples: "It enables learners to build stronger bridges between theoretical principles and their ongoing experiences and practical working knowledge".
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Of course the IITT has been making its own contribution in this area. KnowledgePool, winners of this year's IITT award for e-learning, have employed the Institute's five day course to train many of their designers. And e-peopleserve.com, the alliance between British Telecom and Accenture, is just one of many firms making extensive use of The Online Trainer.
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Considering the importance of e-learning for education and training in the UK, these initiatives, whilst encouraging, are not enough. Instructional designers need more than formal training. They need role models to whom they can be apprenticed. They need to feel part of a community that is not just aping US practice, it is building the sort of leading-edge designs that will convert the majority to the potential benefits of e-learning.
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Case study: NETg
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NETg is one of the world's largest e-learning publishers and winner of the 1999 IITT Training Company of the Year award. With between 150 and 200 courses to produce a year and hundreds of developers on multiple sites, NETg clearly has to take instructional design seriously.
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Jim L'Allier is NETg's Chief Learning Officer and VP Research and Development, working out of Naperville, Illinois: "Although we have instructional design standards, we want our designs to be open, not all the same. We have adopted an eclectic approach, drawing pragmatically on research from a variety of schools of thought". Jim's team are currently examining the latest thinking on study skills to see how NETg's learners can be helped to obtain the maximum benefit from e-learning. NETg are also working directly with the University of Utah to conduct a large-scale evaluation of the effectiveness of their courses in changing behaviour on-the-job.
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NETg has 60 instructional designers working in their Limerick offices, many of whom have been recruited directly from the Technical Communications course at the University of Limerick. Working in close collaboration with NETg, the university have adapted this course to include a significant component on instructional design. According to HR Manager, Juliet Finlay, this provides an excellent basis, although the company also provides a two-week course for all new designers, to ensure they are fully conversant with the company's overall instructional design model.
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Resources
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Training for instructional designers
www.online-trainer.com
The Online Trainer: E-learning course from the Institute of IT Training, leading to the Certificate of Online Training Design and Development Skills. The Institute is also developing an advanced course in instructional design for e-learning, to be launched in 2002.
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http://csalt.lancs.ac.uk/alt/
MSc in Information Technology and Learning at the Centre for the Study of Advanced Learning Technologies, Lancaster University. Also available as six separate modules.
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www.surrey.ac.uk/Education/apstech/index.htm
Postgraduate Certificate, Diploma and MSc in Educational Technology at the University of Surrey.
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www.cee.hw.ac.uk/MSc_courses/IMM.html
MSc in Interactive Multimedia at Herriot-Watt University, Edinburgh.
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http://www.icbl.qub.ac.uk/msc.html
MSc in Computer-Based Learning at Queens University, Belfast.
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www.iqdos.com
IQdos Instructional Design Programme, open and in-company courses commencing May 2001.
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Tools for instructional designers:
www.mentergy.com  
Designers Edge from Mentergy (formerly Allen Communications)
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www.wids.org 
WIDS (Wisconsin Instructional Design System)
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www.fastrak-consulting.co.uk/loda 
LODA (Learning Object Design Assistant)
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http://ide.ed.psu.edu/idde/  
Instructional Design in Distance Education
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Competencies:
www.ibstpi.org
IBSTPI (International Board of Standards for Training, Performance and Instruction) instructional design competencies.
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www.iitt.org.uk
IITT competencies for e-learning designers and developers.
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Information:
www.funderstanding.com/about_learning.html 
Funderstanding - About Learning - a review of learning theories.
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www.adulted.about.com/education/adulted/msubtheories.htm 
About.com's index to articles on adult learning.
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www.elearningnetwork.org/ 
The eLearning Network (formerly TACT) is a long established, non-profit making organisation for all those interested in the application of technologies to learning.
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E-learning's Greatest Hits by Clive Shepherd
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E-learning's Greatest Hits
by Clive Shepherd
Available now from Above and Beyond

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