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Article - May 2001
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e-Learning can deliver effective learning solutions that positively impact bottom line business results. A strong support system ensures the learning is successfully completed and gets applied to the work environment. 

Chuck Miles
Johnson Controls, Inc

Chuck Miles began his career in the adult education field in 1973 and has been a member of the Johnson Controls Learning Services team for over twenty years. 

Chuck first began working with Computer Based Training and "alternative" learning methods in 1979. He is a member of the American Society for Training and Development.


e-Learning provides an opportunity to deliver cost effective solutions to improve performance, but how do we ensure that it gets used and the expected results are achieved? What are learners telling us when they say "I'd rather learn this in a classroom"? How do we improve the completion rate of our e-learning programs when the audience has a hundred things competing for their time?

Reliable ControlsI believe we must keep our development efforts user focused to meet their personal developmental needs in the way they feel is appropriate for them. It is also critical to the success of our e-learning programs that we examine the lure of the classroom and create a complete learning environment for our participants.

Keeping a user focus 
Our users are facing new challenges in all aspects of their lives and time is in short supply as they try to balance their professional, personal and social lives. This makes it even more important that we heed our analysis and develop programs based on the real needs of our learners, programs that will impact their results directly. These learning experiences must be performance based and clearly linked to business results that enhance customer satisfaction, employee satisfaction and ultimately shareholder satisfaction.

Employees simply don't have the time in today's rapidly changing business environment to sift through tons of material to figure out which nuggets of information are important to them. They need to clearly see the relevance of each piece to their everyday experience. We can't expect our learners to build that bridge themselves. Every learning point must be made in the context of the business environment in which they work.

Their investment of time in learning has to show a personal return on investment (ROI) just as the overall program must be cost justifiable for the sponsoring organization. Keeping our focus as we develop the e-learning experience on what's in it for them will help address the personal needs of our learners. Helping the learners see how each topic, exercise, or activity relates to their world and the benefits they will gain from mastering the skill increases their motivation to succeed in the e-learning experience.

Another concern of the user focus is the environment in which the learner will use the e-learning program. What is their day like? Are they virtual employees on the road all day servicing their customers? Do they spend time in an office at a desk? Are they providing phone support all day unable to leave their phone? Are they experiencing the e-learning solution at home after the kids are in bed?

Ensuring the e-learning solution provides a meaningful experience for our learners in the way in which they prefer to interface with it will enhance the program's results, increasing its use, effectiveness and ROI.

Defining the complete learning environment
When I think of the learning environment, three dimensions come to mind: space independence, time independence and participant interactivity. Most learning opportunities can be measured against these three criteria to determine where they fall in the environmental spectrum.

For example, a book provides very high time and space independence. Learners can read the book any time they have a few minutes. They can read it anywhere they are, unless it's electronic, which requires they have their computer and maybe an online connection. But the interactivity between learners is virtually non-existent. Unless the learner happens to discuss what they read with someone else, who may not have read the same book, there is little sharing of and building on the ideas of other participants.

On the other hand, a workshop provides little time or space independence because all the participants must be in the same place at the same time. The only flexibility the learner might have is in selecting the dates and location of the particular workshop to attend. Participant interactivity is very high, however. The learners have the opportunity to share ideas and build on each other's thoughts. This strengthens the learning process and furthers the application of the content to the learners job performance.

It is often this informal learning network of linking with other participants that causes employees to say they prefer workshops to other forms of learning. They also like the structure of having dedicated time set aside for learning. When we realize this is how most of us were formally educated, it is not surprising that other methods of learning are considered to be less formal. These "alternative" methods, as we call them, are also often perceived to be less effective because they place the responsibility for learning on the individual.

Meeting the learners' needs
So how do we create an e-learning environment that provides the time and space independence of a book AND the participant interactivity of a classroom setting? How do we design an e-learning program that helps learners assume responsibility for their personal and professional development? I believe the answer is multi-faceted and involves multiple media to be effective.

Arguably the most important element is a strong support system. Where do the learners turn if they experience difficulty with the program? Who can they ask if there is something they don't understand? Reading the same screens a second or third time may not help if they didn't "get it" the first time. Whether these questions get answered by phone or e-mail is probably dependent on the learners organizational culture. The important thing is that an "instructor" is available to the learners when they need one.

This is a significant point that many e-Learning systems miss. It is probably the one component that is most difficult to implement. Having an instructor (or instructors) "standing by" in case someone needs help may not be an efficient use of their time. From another perspective, the most efficient use of the learners time means getting the help they need when they need it.

How can this apparent conflict of interests best be met? For common e-Learning offerings where there are multiple instructors, the duties can be shared by having an "on-call" instructor. Perhaps if we realize an instructor in a classroom environment might be helping up to twenty learners gain proficiency while an e-Learning instructor might be helping ten times that many, we can better justify dedicated e-Learning instructors.

Like a technical support person, the dedicated e-instructor may be doing other things between learner contacts including maintaining electronic discussions, coaching and providing meaningful feedback on learner assignments, and building a frequently asked question (FAQ) list with answers. This FAQ list offers learners an additional online support piece. The instructor and developer would also use the FAQ list to evaluate the e-Learning program to reduce the most common questions by strengthening the learning materials.

Some systems use an optional conference call on a regular schedule for any or all learners to ask questions of the instructor. This would be similar to the office hours of a university professor.

This support system should also include a communications vehicle for learners to share ideas among themselves. This communications vehicle may simply be a chat room where the learners can get together to discuss topics of mutual interest. It could also be a facilitated news group where relevant questions are posted for the learners to reflect on and share their thoughts. This news group could be moderated by the instructor who interjects "tag on" questions to guide the discussion and expand the learners' thinking beyond the obvious.

Taken a step further, the support system might group the learners into "classes" based on when they enrolled in the learning experience. Lumping learners who are at approximately the same point in the program together can make group assignments possible. These assignments typically require small groups of learners to work together to complete projects that enhance the application of their skills while expanding their thinking through the perspective of their "classmates."

A tracking system may be incorporated to contact learners who have not been participating. Gentle reminders may encourage less disciplined individuals to keep working towards successful completion of the learning and application of the skills to their jobs.

Reminders can also be sent to the learners' mentors/supervisors that keep them informed of what their employees are learning. Mentoring and reinforcement tips can be included to help them support their employees' development and application of the skills on the job. These messages can also serve as a "value report" for the supervisors ensuring they see the benefit of the e-learning program to their business.

Finally, a method should be provided for the learners to record and share their successes as they apply the skills they learned. This platform will also allow them to describe unique ways in which they applied their new skills as they expanded their thinking beyond the obvious.

e-Learning can deliver effective learning solutions that positively impact bottom line business results. A strong support system ensures the learning is successfully completed and gets applied to the work environment. Instead of "I'd rather learn this in a classroom," we'll hear, "Why do I have to go to a class for this?"


Alerton
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