Monday, December 05, 2005

Research-Based E-learning: The Pertinent Need in Modern Organizations

By Asim Choudhury
E-learning has come of age. The euphoria, promted by a rapid march towards technology and graphics, has subsided and the glamour has fizzled out. Organizations around the world have woken up to the real learning and to the co-related fact that it can bring in a tangible change in workplace culture and performance. This paper analyses the impending need for research in developing e-learning courses for the global corporate industry.

In simple terms, e-learning is a process that enables learning to be an effective process. While the nuances of this procedure remain similar to the traditional instructor-led classroom settings, the effectiveness comes in the form of rapid delivery of learning to a global learner base and an ability to assess the learners effectively. Technologies play a proactive role and facilitates this process.

After the realization of the global Internet medium when e-learning emerged as a concept, the learning was based on mere powerpoint slides or documents. With the emergence of technologies like ASP, XML, learning management system (LMS), content management system (CMS) and learning content management system (LCMS), the Sack Du process saw tremendous a makeover in terms of effective delivery and tracking. And now, with the emergence of applications like Flash and streaming video, learning has morphed into an environment never experienced before.
However, amidst all this amalgamation of technology and delivery means, learning called for a broader treatment. Today, learning is no longer understood as the domain of the learners studying only in schools and universities but even in smaller setups and organizations. Corporate training has thus emerged as a specialized area of learning that calls for as much innovative skills and competence.

Being successful in tomorrow’s e-learning marketplace will involve following research-based learning principles; using e-learning’s unique capability to connect with learners over time; assessing a program’s design before it is deployed; analyzing the appropriateness of the implementation scheme; and evaluating learning outcomes using simulated real-world scenarios.

Corporate Courses: A Different Ball Game
Developing corporate courses are a different ball game; quite unconventional and performance centric. Unlike the learning that takes place in universities and schools, corporate learning does not deal much with theories. Instead, this type of learning deals with the current needs. It deals with not the possibilities but with practicable skill-based learning that can be immediately applied to the job.

Corporate courses different from one organization to another. So, for example, a corporate learning courseware for an oil and gas company would be quite different from the courses that is being delivered to IT companies. Though all corporate courses address the needs of the workforce, the nuances differ because of a great deal of difference between workplace settings, technical background, and skillsets.

Thus, corporate training courses should cater to the following essential nuances:

  • Research on the workforce skillsets
  • Research on the organizational setup and structure
  • Research on the career path of individual employees
  • Research on the organizational goals
  • Research on individuals (psychological, behavioural)
  • Research on individual learner’s objective

Understand the Business Impact
E-learning courses in business environments need to focus on the business impact. The actual value proposition of e-learning courseware developers is to create real business impact. Business impact comes from learning that is based on real work projects.

Tomorrow’s e-learning customers will not only demand business results, they’ll ask specific questions. Is e-learning the right tool for the issues we face? Does our e-learning follow proven research-based design principles? Can we improve our e-learning implementation scheme? How can we measure our performance results?Developers of e-learning for organizations will look to different types of people as the market ups its demands. Experts on learning will be needed to ensure that e-learning in organizations support the human learning system instead of working against it.

Analysing learning readiness
Also known as learners’ prerequisites, the learning state or condition of an individual makes it possible for him or her to engage profitably in a given learning activity. The learning readiness depends on such factors as past experiences, cognitive development, affective factors, and motivation. It also depends on the instructional methods and materials to be used. Knowledge, achievements, or other characteristics or circumstances required before proceeding on a given course of action.

The e-learning marketplace makes for interesting display. While new learning technologies typically generate considerable euphoria, the courses are usually followed by failure then effectiveness. Continued success in e-learning therefore will come to only those who update their offerings to keep pace with the changing expectations of buyers and learners. For this constant pace with market needs, research is indispensable.

Today’s e-learning market is predominantly dominated by ROI calculations. This is an impediment as well as a boon. The impediment factor comes from increased commercialization of learning at the cost of its essence and long-term benefits. The boon comes from a focused parameter to the knowledge industry.

Therefore unlike the formative years of e-learning, today’s success does not depend on cost cutting; rather, it depends on high-quality learning and on-the-job performance results. Several successful organizations today seem to be headed in that direction. Organizations no longer decide on e-learning courses on the basis of costs; rather, they do so on the basis of the outcomes.

Avoiding tailor-made courses
Tailor-made courses are ineffective. E-learning courses for the corporate world that are churned out in rapid numbers resemble the rush for commodities during the industrial revolution in Europe: it was much about quantity and less of quality. E-learning has dragged on so long with this with little or no success. Organizations that were awed with the new process forgot to realise that actual learning was a different game altogether. The macro-level approach followed by e-learning vendors were largely ineffective and made little difference to the learning curve amongst the workforce. This is simply because of the fact that organizations vary in degrees from one another in terms of learning needs. Even within organizations there was a wide variation between the departments. This then calls for a micro-level analysis and a granular understanding of the learning needs.

The micro-level approach is the key to organizational learning. Recent years have seen too much of run-of-the-mill type training courses in organizations that have greatly reduced the learning effectiveness and have developed a negative mindset towards e-learning. This is partly due to the incompetence of the e-learning courseware developers and partly due to the lack of understanding of training managers in organizations.

It has been quite a disaster for organizations to focus on the costs rather than the effectiveness of the vendors. The cut-throat competition between e-learning vendors was primarily responsible for this parochial cost-centric perspective of e-learning courses. Today, however, the e-learning industry seems to have matured; the result of which is witnessed in the large number of effective and innovative courseware available for organizations. At the other end the training managers in organizations are to be equally blamed. With little or no understanding on e-learning, the training managers had outsourced their training courses to almost anyone, without worrying even a wee bit about the profile and competence of the courseware developers. This is now changing as training managers mature and focus more on quality and are not affected by mere word play.

Research on the Instructional Design Strategies
Instructional Strategic Design (ISD) forms the basic framework for constructing an e-learning course. ISD may be thought of as similar to the architecture prepared by an architect prior to constructing a building. At a superficial level the architecture seems independent and obvious, but at the micro-level one observes several other factors that come into play. For example, for an architectural design of a building, apart from the aesthetics, the architecture should also cater to the finer nuances like direction, ventilation, utility and the ability to repurpose it for other unusual needs. The same principle applies to ISDs. Merely framing an ISD for the obvious learning and not considering the granular nuances is fraught with dangers. When implemented in improperly designed ISD will not only lead to loss of precious development time but will result in huge cost expenditures, thereby making the whole exercise futile.

ISDs based on thorough granular level research would enable developers to meet the exigencies that may creep in. The research-based ISD provides alternate paths to assessments, graphics, reinforcements, style of presentation and an ability to quickly repurpose it to changing needs.
The well-researched ISD would also consider information of human information processing of the learners and the effective instruction for maximum learning. Almost all ISDs today are incomplete in the sense that they contain very little though on the several techniques of learning that are specific to individual learners. Learner-sensitive ISDs are robust and possessed with logic for every single element suggested therein. Any move that cannot be logically srgued and supported is scrap and serve as the loopholes to effective learning.

Research also suggests that ISDs should stear clear of unwanted “noise,” that emanates from the inclusion of unthought graphic and functional elements. Most e-learning course developers feel that adding unusual elements to the courses would make it look different. While a graphic-intensive ISD might appeal to the novice training managers, for the serious and foccused one, they are chaotic. These elements erode the sheen out of the learning activity making them just another format of glitz and glamour. This however, does not mean that glitz and glamour is to be completely avoided. The real essence lies in a balanced use of these elements so that they enhance learning and do not serve as distractors in the learning process.

E-learning courses, to be effective, should be grounded in time-tested learning theories and not on the subjective decisions of a few people. The focus should shift from “what we think” to “what learners need.” This is true even in the traditional model of classroom learning where the efficient teacher rarely concentrates on what he or she thinks is right to what is actually required. The science of instruction calls for a thorough understanding of how instruction works, how it is encoded and consequently decoded by the learners. Human Information Processing – Encoding, Transfer, and Metacognition – all should be adequately addressed by developers while developing learning courses. There is a lot of maturity now both within the domain of the teachers as well as within the domain of the taught.

10 Learning Principles
Organizational learning needs to focus on 10 learning principles. These learning principles provide a mechanism to work out the basics of an effective human learning system. The principles are as follows:

1. Make learning context similar to performance context
2. Provide retrieval practice and testing
3. Provide feedback on practice and testing
4. Provide interactivity to engage the learner
5. Provide repetition of learning and practice
6. Space learning and practice over time
7. Present learning material innovatively
8. Prepare a psychologically powerful learning environment (interface)
9. Utilize relevant information only
10. Help learners focus on the most important information


Shweta said...

Hey Asim, your thoughts on the whole process are quite on the conceptual side. I couldn't have agreed more especially on applying the learning rule about the interface. Thanks buddy, keep writing more of such stuff.

Maverick said...

Hey Shweta, I do not think that Asim's post is more on the conceptual side rather than the practical side. Yes, I do agree that the implementation to these concepts really needs a skill force which can sell the concept(s) rather than any other tangible product. Also, I would stress on the fact, that e learning is more to do with the prescreptive learning and a continous learning. So I totally agree with Asim's concepts. Take care mate. keep posting the comments.

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