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Adding the human touch to online learning
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by Clive Shepherd
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At least from the perspective of the training manager, it would be perfect if all online training could be delivered without human support - just provide the learning materials and let the trainees get on with it. However, as we all too often discover with new methodologies, things are never that simple. Clive Shepherd has woken up from the dream to rediscover just how important other people are to human learning. He analyses just why online tutors are so important and how they are already being used by major online training providers.

Contents
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Just dreaming
Wake up!
Don't cancel the order
Who's doing it?
The end of the dream?

Just dreaming
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In a perfect world:

  • all learning would be in the cognitive domain, matched perfectly to the capabilities of online self-study
  • all learning could be achieved in extremely small chunks, delivered right to the desktop on a just-in-time basis
  • we would have large audiences for a narrow range of training needs
  • we would produce self-study materials that were completely self-contained, covering all the content required by every type of learner
  • our self-study materials would be entirely self-explanatory
  • the process of course administration would be entirely automated
  • online students would have no technical difficulties
  • online students would be self-reliant and self-motivated
  • all learning objectives could be assessed online without human intervention

In this perfect world we would get an unbelievable return on investment, because the cost of developing our online self-study materials would be offset by miniscule delivery costs. All would be well with the training department. We would be at peace.
 
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Wake up!
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It's nice to dream, but dangerous to dream too long. In the real world we know that:

  • some of the learning we have to accomplish is in practical, hands-on skills; some of it is really messy and is attitudinal

  • much learning, although it can be subdivided into small chunks, actually takes a considerable amount of time, maybe even years

  • often we have to meet a wide range of disparate needs

  • it's hard to think of everything that should go into self-study materials, anticipating all students' questions

  • however carefully we script our materials, some learners fail to understand (are they completely stupid?!!)

  • we have yet to purchase the learning management system that will automate all our training administration (that's next year's project)

  • some of our learners still believe the CD-ROM drive is a cup holder; they're quite capable of getting very confused using a browser

  • some learners (quite a lot actually) drop out and fail to complete our self-study courses (ungrateful or what?)

  • much of the learning we require is impossible to test with multiple-choice questions (and believe me, we've tried)

Oh dear. That's not what they promised in the adverts. Looks like we still need a training manager to deal with this mess. And my ROI calculations? Well, we may have to soften our projections from the hundreds to the tens of percent. But then, the Board did seem quite sceptical and it seems they were right. 
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Don't cancel the order
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Don't panic - you don't have to cancel your e-learning strategy. The arguments that made that strategy so convincing still apply:

  • learning becomes more accessible than ever before

  • you save time and money on travel and accommodation

  • you also save on trainer and other delivery costs

  • you can keep materials bang up-to-date from one central location

But if you haven't made adequate provision for ongoing tutorial support then you might have to get out the Tippex (remember that?) and give your strategy a rethink. The fact is that most - but not all - online learning requires human intervention if it is to fully deliver on the promise. Here's why ...

The loneliness of the long-distance learner
No-one's going to get lonely using a 5-minute, just-in-time learning object delivered to the desktop. This form of online learning does not require much support. Perhaps an email help line to handle subject-matter queries, but that's all.

But the longer the course, the more likely support will be required. It is an unfortunate statement on humanity that most of us find it hard to sustain the motivation to learn indefinitely. We run out of steam. We need encouragement. We need to be reminded why it's important to get to the finishing line.

There is a high drop out rate with online self-study. This is not a reflection on the medium, because there has been a high drop out rate with all previous forms of distance learning. But an effective online tutor, functioning in the role of coach, can make a lot of difference in getting learners through.

The perfect learning object is hard to find
People come in so many shapes and sizes, with so many ways of looking at the world, that it's an almost impossible task to meet all their needs with a single set of materials. Without the support of an online tutor, in the role of subject-expert, how else could you:

  • query a rather ambiguous statement, question or assignment?

  • ask why something is true and what the proof is?

  • disagree vehemently with an assertion?

  • ask for examples, references and sources?

  • admit to being completely out of your depth?

Subject-matter support can be provided by email, a discussion forum, a real-time chat link, maybe even by phone. Some learners will never use it, others will drive the tutor to distraction. Perhaps 80% of your content will be needed by only 20% of learners. It might just be cheaper to design the materials to cover the essential 20% and let your subject experts handle the rest.

Multiple-choice questions are not enough
Some of our learning objectives (the lower-level cognitive ones) will be measurable using multiple-choice questions, fill-in-the blanks, drag and drop exercises and a myriad of variations thereon. Others (some higher-level cognitive ones) can be assessed using online simulations, if we're lucky enough to be able to program them.

As for the rest, well self-study alone is just not going to hack it. In some cases, the only valid test will be practical application on-the-job or in a classroom, observed by human beings. In other cases, you may well be able to stay within the online domain:

  • the learner can undertake assignments and send in the results (Word files, spreadsheets, computer code or whatever) as an email attachment to a tutor for review

  • learners can participate in group or individual activities in real-time online, maybe with audio or video, which the tutor can assess

With the intervention of the online tutor, this time in the role of assessor, you can take a wider range of training topics right through to completion.

Even nerds are social animals
Don't forget that one of the main benefits from the classroom course is that we get to meet people, make useful contacts, talk about our problems, perhaps even get drunk together. Well there's no way to get drunk digitally yet (although someone's bound to be working on it), but we can have a go at the rest within an online environment.

It's easy to be misled into thinking that the World Wide Web and the Internet are synonymous. In fact, as you probably know, the web is a relatively recent development. The killer app on the Internet has always been email. The Internet is an interactive medium in which users expect to participate, and the ways of achieving this are plentiful:

  • plain, simple email

  • newsgroups

  • text-based chat

  • discussion forums

  • audio and video conferencing

  • shared whiteboards and so on

Used imaginatively, under the guidance of an online tutor, these methods can bring a course to life in the same way that group activities can energise a classroom. Establish an online learning community - not everyone will want to attend the party, but we'd all like to get invited. 
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Who's doing it?
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The typical educational model for online learning already relies heavily on the online tutor and group collaboration. With a much-reduced dependence on interactive self-study materials, this has enabled a large number of colleges and universities, particularly in the USA, to get online distance learning courses up and running quickly. According to the Gartner Group, by 2003 over 50% of higher educational institutions will be offering e-learning programmes to students.

In the training world, the dream of self-contained, self-study has been pursued with more enthusiasm. However, the major purveyors of online self-study materials are gearing themselves up to deliver a more collaborative experience.

As part of its new Xtreme Learning service, IT training specialist NETg, in partnership with KnowledgePool, will now be offering online mentoring and discussion rooms. Says Gary Lopez, President of NETg: "Many companies have found the answer to their training needs in providing multimedia courses to staff, but found that staff missed the interaction and support provided in classroom-based courses. Xtreme Learning brings together the best of two different approaches to training, to create a feature rich learning environment."

Other IT training publishers are following a similar path. SmartForce emphasise the collaborative element in their overall strategy for e-learning:

  • "Virtual learning communities within the system encourage peer relationships and learning teamwork.
  • Access to on-line mentors encourages use of experts when problem solving and making decisions."

The Institute of IT Training has recently issued a competency framework for online tutors, as well as a new online course, providing a solid grounding for anyone entering the field. Naturally the course itself employs the full range of online collaborative approaches, providing students, working in groups of six, with the maximum opportunity for hands-on experience. Already more than a 100 students are scheduled for the course and there is enormous interest from both the education and training industries. 
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The end of the dream?
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So is the dream of online self-study over? Not at all. The core of most online learning programmes will remain as individually-managed learning - anytime, anyplace. But if that's as far as it goes, then we will have wasted many of the opportunities provided by networked learning, opportunities that allow for real communication between real human beings. We've not lost a dream, we've woken up from a potential nightmare of frustrated and isolated students failing to reach their goals. It's still early in the morning for e-learning, but it looks like it could be a rather nice day. 
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