Adapting for online delivery: Is Online the best option?
Advocates of total online training solutions point to the following sorts of advantages for the learner:
-Learn anywhere at any time
-Fit learning around personal commitments
-Access a wide range of resources
And for the producer of learning materials, it means:
-Potentially lower delivery costs
-Access to wider groups of learners
-Organisation-wide delivery of training
-Integration with organisational goals such as knowledge management and organisational change
Totally valid reasons and significant benefits that justify considering online delivery of education. However they are not enough on their own to justify assuming an online solution is best. There are three main issues:
1. The online environment will not suit some learners
2. There may be other combinations of delivery tools that do the job better
3. There are some distinct disadvantages as well
Online learning works well for learners that have moderate or better computing abilities. It is easy to underestimate the skills required. Challenges include managing internet connections, using browsers, downloading plugins or third party software, trouble shooting and file management. They also need to be good at managing their own time and competing commitments. Learners who need extensive support in managing their study programme may well not complete. This profile is not limited to people new to study. Those with extensive work commitments often drop out despite high initial motivation and good study skills.
Despite improvements in bandwidth, few online training courses offer the degree of interaction found in classrooms or on CD Rom multimedia products. While technologies such as streaming media and videoconferencing do offer high end solutions, they are only useful if the learners have genuine access to them: fast connections and current hardware and software.
These issues may not be relevant if the content can be taught using lower level technological solutions. Often however, such solutions lead to superficial learning of facts only. There is a real danger in assuming that such solutions will lead to significant training outcomes. Everyone may complete, and pass, but will they have actually learned anything useful? More on this when we discuss designing for online learning.
Another common trap is dumping text online. Text is inherently more difficult to read on screen, learners will almost invariably print out text and read off paper when given the chance. Unfortunately, much online text is not set up to print cleanly. Online text is also often broken up into smaller blocks and linked for multiple access points. This is great for learners navigating to find what they need, not great if learners need to repeatedly refer to or work with volumes of text.
Finally, the most effective 'resource' in the face to face environment is of course the presenter or lecturer. Often projects to go online simply adapt the existing print and media resources. Effective online courses find ways to maintain that personal contact, or develop tools that go some way to performing the same functions. Simply offering chat or bulletin board facilities does not, of itself, resolve this issue. The analogy is putting a learner in a car, but not showing them how to drive, or giving them a reason to go anywhere. The delivery methodology needs to be designed to stimulate and guide online communication.
For the learner, the technology can be intimidating, or actually impede learning. More self-motivation and discipline are often required, and communication technologies may be a poor substitute for face-to-face contact.
For the producer of the learning, significantly higher development costs are likely, and specialised skills are required. There are also the problems of overcoming scepticism amongst potential users, and adapting the organisation's culture and systems for the new delivery method.
Despite the range of challenges and issues inherent in online learning, there is no doubt that it is revolutionising the face of training and education. In the race to assimilate technology into educational delivery, it is not the development of training that is the goal, it is the depth of learning that results from it. Be wary of claims by vendors of online training solutions that one product is all that is required to develop and deliver an effective (online) package. Any educational course will require planning and good educational design. Subsequent articles in this series will overview that design and development process.
About the Author
Phil has been involved in a number of projects in the field of flexible delivery, both research based and product-based. In addition he has developed a number of industry based flexible delivery packages and open learning packages in the Polytechnic sector. He also works as a staff development consultant.