I love technology. I really do. I generally don’t have any problems with the accomplishments or advancements we’ve made and I’m not looking to abolish any of the triumphs or practices we have in place as a result of technology, but there are some things we have to step back on a bit. One of those things is the extreme volume of self-paced, internet learning, e-learning, independent study, etc. types of programs out there. We’ve accomplished a great deal in regard to these self driven types of programs and they do have value – yet I think we’re losing touch with the human factor.
When I started in the training business, the internet was still fairly youthful and humanity hadn’t yet realized all the potential it held (we still don’t, but we were a much longer ways away from it then). There was no such thing as online learning. You could download training materials and references, maybe even submit test answers online (although the norm was still to fax answers), but that was about as interactive as it got. The next step was pretty pathetic – uploading slides in a PowerPoint format or something similar, to the internet for people to view. As time progressed, we saw great advances in online learning. Now we have video, audio, in-course quizzes and learning checks, even biometrically-driven verification systems to ensure that it’s still you taking the course (don’t believe me? take the defensive driving course on-line). Courses are much more comprehensive and provide both internal and external links to additional information and content areas. I think it’s fantastic and we can’t stop this advancement – but we can’t let it take over, either. All things in moderation.
People need interaction. In 1970, Malcolm Knowles identified, as one of his six characteristics of adult learners, that adult learners are generally autonomous and self-directed. While this may be true, it doesn’t mean that all learning is to be accomplished in isolation or without facilitation. Adult learners still need human interaction. While the degree of interaction necessary may vary based upon each individual’s preferred learning styles and personality type, that need still exists. This is an interaction that generally can’t be replaced by games or other interactive components in e-learning programs. Yes, many adults love the concept and process of self discovery, and some will excel greatly at absorbing information completely on their own, but most people need and desire human interaction. We can’t forget this.
Some content areas are much more suited (read: ideal) for e-learning. I recently began working with a company that has employees nation-wide. E-learning is certainly the best structure to disseminate required programs such as business ethics and workplace harassment. In fact, these programs were extremely well done. They used a lot of audio, pictures, and knowledge checks throughout the programs. They were designed to provide variety and appeal to the senses. They were well structured and didn’t contain any of the cheesy videos many of us remember from previous iterations of these types of programs. I can honestly say that I preferred these in an e-learning format over any previous classroom experience in the same subject areas I’ve ever had.
Why do programs like ethics and workplace harassment work very well in an e-learning format? Because, if designed well, they require very little human interaction to facilitate the learning process. There are programs that I have taught for many years, however, that MUST have human interaction, such as incident management and emergency planning topics. I think the key here is that they are complex topics, with a lot of variables, and the real world execution of these topics requires team work and human interaction. You can’t manage an incident inside a barrel nor can you write an emergency plan (a good one) without input from an entire team of people. The instructors have to have experience in these areas and be subject matter experts that the learners can consult throughout the class. Access to an SME helps the learners become more comfortable with the topic. All this said, do these courses need to be delivered in a classroom environment? Not necessarily. We can still be interactive with others without being face to face. It’s all about creativity, leveraging technology and other resources, and paying attention to the needs of our learners as well as the objectives of the courses themselves.
We have a number of distance learning options we can leverage, from webinars, to video teleconference, to chat room types of environments (and these can be highly integrated such as the ones used by educational institutions). Does course participation (in whole or in part) have to be synchronous (the instructor is present with all learners at the same time) or can it be asynchronous (the instructor and learners can log in at different times, able to download and upload materials and leave messages for each other)? It all depends on what needs to be accomplished. Once again, as in previous blogs, I defer back to the needs assessment. The data collected from the needs assessment will provide an astute instructional designer with information necessary to identify the delivery modes that would be appropriate for the learners.
With all the technology we have available to us, I think many learning organizations are being seduced into using e-learning platforms for everything. E-learning and content management systems are very powerful and valuable tools, but can’t forget the human factor. We need to be very careful with what we use and how we use it – and ensure that we are meeting the needs of our learners in the best way possible. I encourage you to use caution and always consider what is best for the learner.