Wednesday, July 14, 2004

Thinking outside the course

I have spent many years trying to get trainers to see the broader potential of the Web and to stop seeing e-learning merely as “courses online”. What is required is a conceptual breakthrough, not a bigger budget – indeed, creating dynamic e-learning experiences is often much cheaper than building "conventional" online courses. Naturally, “what” you are teaching and “who” you are teaching has a bearing on the learning models and media you will need to use, and equally obviously if you need to use simulations of software applications text is not going to be much help.

But there is no reason a company should delay providing e-learning till all of its technology choices have been made, and its tools and infrastructure purchased and implemented. In fact, purchasing your tools before you have any experience in designing and implementing e-learning on a shoe-string can cause you to make some expensive mistakes.
Striving for perfection in learning (particularly in e-learning) is admirable but irrelevant if your focus is on the tools instead of on the learning experience. Pedagogy idealogues are often way too willing to yield to technology idealogues. Your choice of learning model should dictate your choice of development tools, not the other way around. And if you don’t have or can’t afford the ideal tools your model calls for, instead of compromising on the model you should first try to compromise on the tools.  The test is always going to be what combination of learning model and development tools best achieves the learning objectives.

I simply don’t believe that creating an effective online or blended learning experience requires a complete dedicated e-learning technology infrastructure to be in place. And a major early investment in a particular toolset can cause tunnel vision, which is why I discourage it! Your learning strategy should accommodate revolutionary prototyping, in which you build and burn then re-build, starting small and working toward evolving a pragmatic set of intervention models. The ASTD forum that sparked this rant is a simple type of text-based dynamic online learning environment, as are discussion groups like trdev and ODnet, and blogs such as Internet Time. None of these require sophisticated technology infrastructures, or even much techno-competence, and the tools are often free. And, with a little creativity (not the visual kind, the learning structure kind), such tools can be used in whole or in part to rapidly build effective online learning solutions. Such solutions may not be what you want to stick with, but they can get you moving up the learning curve, and will inform the way you choose and use a more “technological” infrastructure in the medium term.

I certainly do not advocate the use of PowerPoint as an e-learning development tool in isolation (though it can be quite effective in WebEx-type scenarios). Nor do I advocate text-only as an ideal online learning medium. But I DO advocate using whatever tools you have at your disposal in whatever combinations if they will help to create a learning experience that will achieve its objectives.

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