Many companies that failed in those years gave in to the pressure to run at “Internet speed,” emphasizing quantity over quality. There was a lot of pressure from the investment community to be first with the most. I felt this pressure at my own company, The Chalkboard Network, an e-learning provider targeting engineers and business professionals. The company is no longer around, but not due to a lack of quality of the instructional materials or delivery methods.
The research into e-learning strategies we did and the lessons we learned are still very important. Yet when I look at what’s being offered by e-learning companies and by internal programs at large companies, I still see an emphasis on quantity, despite claims to the contrary. At one large company for which I consulted, a huge set of guidelines for e-learning was set up by the training department. The guidelines were often arbitrary and emphasized meeting certain technical standards but not meeting instructional design standards. Because of the bureaucracy involved, most managers at this company simply avoided the training department when their employees needed e-learning and did their own evaluations.
As the economy picks up, two things will happen. First, companies will have more money to spend on training. While a critical mass of courses is important, those e-learning companies that have high quality will get the majority of the business. The others will fail or die a slow death. Second, as companies hire new employees, there will be more need to train them efficiently. Those companies that implement high-quality e-learning programs will find their new employees able to come up to speed quicker and perform their tasks better. These guidelines should be used to develop and evaluate effective e-learning programs.
In-depth engineering courses need to be created by engineers with in-depth knowledge of their fields. In the same way, business experts need to be involved in course materials for business professionals. Essentially, subject-matter experts need to be involved in generating the course materials. Too often course materials are prepared by student interns or, worse, by instruction experts or course developers. These people may have great skills in presenting the material, but they do not know the material itself. The result is a great learning experience where the student is motivated and engaged but learns little of value because the course content is simply not useful.
Using subject-matter experts alone creates some problems that are evident in the offerings from many existing e-learning companies. People who are experts in their fields do not necessarily present the material in an effective manner. They may not be familiar with good instructional methods and principles. Even those experts who teach seminars and university professors who are comfortable in a classroom can have difficulty adapting their material to an asynchronous course where the student takes the course at times of his choosing and controls much of the pacing and direction of the course. An instruction expert is needed—someone who understands effective design of course materials and, in particular, understands e-learning instructional design principles.
A methodology is needed to allow subject-matter experts and instruction experts to work together efficiently to create an effective online course. Chalkboard developed rules and guidelines for courses based on the experience of several well-known instructors. It hired and trained course designers with experience in education, technical writing and graphic design who worked closely with the expert engineering and business professionals to take the course materials and mold them into an excellent learning experience. We developed a very specific methodology for course creation and presentation. This methodology was fully documented. It was flexible enough to allow some creativity with the material—a course on digital magnetic recording should not have the same look, pacing or writing style as a course on marketing new high-tech products. Yet the methodology needed to be strict enough that course designers did not need to spend hours thinking about the layout, graphics, amount of text, etc. We found that there were four basic areas that needed attention to create the quality that we desired—course structure, user interface, interactivity and what we called “depth control.”
All of the courses need a similar structure. This serves several purposes. First, students can enroll in multiple courses and feel a comfortable continuity with the presentation of the material. A well-defined overall structure for the courses means that the student only needs to learn the structure itself once. It is important that the student spends most of her time learning the material—not the delivery mechanism.
The structure that worked for Chalkboard can be summarized as follows:
- Each course is divided into individual lessons of three to 15 pages. This ensures that the student is not overwhelmed with the material. In these fast-paced times, students often want to learn the material during breaks between other tasks.
- Each course has five to 15 lessons and is no longer than 100 pages total. E-learning courses are often broken into a number of small modules that a student can access in a random sequence. Whether you take this approach or not depends on the material and your requirements. If you are providing training for some kind of certification, you cannot give the student the flexibility to choose the material and the sequence. If you are providing refresher material, small modules can work well.
- A course Web page has a maximum of 200 words. Too much text on a single page can be tedious. It makes the course seem more like a textbook than an online experience. Short pages that do not need to be scrolled are ideal, allowing students to absorb the material at once. But often not all of the material will fit on one screen. Don’t be so concerned about a student scrolling a page that you artificially divide the material into chunks that are too small.
- A course Web page has a minimum of 20 words. Too little text doesn’t convey information. Many online courses use slides with bullet points and talking heads—not very effective for conveying information as I explain in the section on interactivity.
- Each page shows the current page number and the total number of pages in the course. With page numbers and a total number of pages, students are working toward a goal. Many students are professionals with tight deadlines and need to know how much further they have to go. Without these numbers, students can feel as though they are traveling down a long, dark tunnel with no light at the end.
- The first pages of a course introduce the student to the general look and feel of the user interface. This allows the student to become proficient at navigating the course before the material has begun. I’ve seen one course that was so difficult to navigate—the button functions were not obvious—that I missed material as I experimented with the navigation.
- Each course has one introductory page that includes a short abstract of the course, the objectives of the course, a list of lesson titles and a picture and short biography of the instructor (including a video welcome message). This lets the student know what to expect from the course. It also informs the student about the qualifications of the subject-matter expert who created and is presenting the materials.
- Each lesson starts with a description of the points that will be covered in the lesson. This well-known aspect of presenting materials gives the student a perspective about the lesson before it begins. It can give a comforting feeling that questions that arise in one part of the lesson will be answered in a later part.
- For long or complex lessons, a summary page is included at the end that describes the main points. A summary ties up the information neatly and reinforces it. For short lessons, a summary may not be necessary and may seem redundant.
- Each lesson must end with a quiz. A quiz is an excellent way to engage the students and let them exercise their newfound knowledge. Answering a quiz reinforces the information, giving it stronger roots in the student’s mind, particularly if a passing grade is required to move on to the next section.
- Each page includes a link to a help page describing the course navigation buttons. Make certain that the students can get even basic help from every page in the course.
- Each course includes a glossary containing definitions for all subject-specific terms used. Technical terms throughout the course can be linked to a glossary pop-up page. This useful tool allows students to instantly refresh their memories about terms or facts without interrupting the flow of the course.
As Henry David Thoreau stated, “Simplify, simplify.” Albert Einstein said, “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.” When it comes to user-interface design, this must be the rule. Include all of the necessary functions in simple, easy-to-understand buttons, and no more. I have seen engineering e-learning courses with a very cool, complex, flexible user interface, but in which I couldn’t find the forward button to take me to the next page in the course.
Navigation buttons should use simple graphics to show their function, and only necessary functions should be included. The function of each button should be obvious. All buttons should have a similar look and have the same functionality for each course. Students should not have to spend time figuring out how to navigate the course. This takes valuable time and mental energy away from learning the material.
Another key aspect of e-learning is the need for user interaction with the course. Too many e-learning courses navigate themselves, presenting slide after slide without requiring the student to do anything but stare at the screen. For those of you remembering your college days, you know that listening to a professor drone on in a classroom often led to a pleasant afternoon nap. It’s worse with an online course. Research has shown that many people lose focus during this kind of learning experience. In order to learn, the student must be engaged and active in the learning process. Even the simple activity of pressing a navigation button to get to the next page keeps the student alert. You should require audio and video segments, animations, pop-up pages and applets to be activated only by student interaction. To start a video, require the student to press a button. To start an animation, require the student to move the mouse over the graphic. Quizzes are a particularly good way to reinforce the material and allow interaction with the student.
Many e-learning companies that do have quizzes for their courses often have simple one-answer multiple-choice questions using text and HTML radio buttons. Not only is this aesthetically unappealing, but it also gets very tiresome to take these quizzes after a short time. Use graphics in the quiz. The technology is easily available to make all sorts of quizzes that are not only visually more interesting, but require more thought. Quizzes can involve checking multiple answers to a question, selecting a diagram or flow chart to answer a question or typing in a word or a number. Quizzes that require more thought, and that look nice, tend to avoid the problem of students blindly clicking on buttons, then seeing how well they did.
Depth control is a methodology that allows a student to get the amount and type of material that he wants from the course. Depth control turns a strictly linear course into one with branches for further exploration. Each student takes the same basic course and learns the same essential material. Depth control means that additional materials are available in a variety of media throughout the course that the student can activate or ignore. For example, some students may not enjoy watching talking head videos but prefer to read each page, absorb the material and get through the course as quickly as possible. Other students may prefer to bring up videos of the instructor from time to time to get further explanations. One student may easily grasp the theoretical physics of electron spin and magnetic force while another student needs an animation to illustrate the point. One student may have already studied free-market economic forces while another student wants to bring up pages, a kind of mini-course within the course, to learn more. Depth control means that all of these students can choose these options while taking the same courses.
Depth control has two primary goals:
- To provide optional, supplementary, illustrative material that students interested in a specific topic can elect to view.
- To help break up text, sustain visual interest and provide an interactive learning experience for students.
In general, good course design dictates that a depth-control item is appropriate at least every other page. Examples of depth control include:
- Animations: a graphic or figure that moves in an illustrative way at the student’s request. For example, a top that spins to illustrate principles of magnetic torque.
- Applets: a small program embedded in the HTML that students can run for further information about a topic. For example, a calculator that students can use to determine how much they might charge as an independent consultant.
- Pop-up pages: pages containing related information that might be of interest to some students but are not necessary for an understanding of the main course material.
- Links: links to supplemental pages or other Web sites that can offer a good source of additional, but not mandatory, information.
- Audio/video segments: short clips that illustrate points and elaborate on them throughout a course.
A high-quality, useful Web-based learning experience requires carefully-thought-out courses that follow rules and guidelines that are unique to this new medium. The criteria discussed in this article, based on years of research and experience, can be summarized as follows:
- Courses are based on content from experts in the field.
- Courses are prepared by instruction experts with experience in instructional design.
- The course structure is well thought-out and consistent for each course.
- The user interface is easy to use and consistent for each course.
- The courses require regular interaction with the student.
- The courses use depth-control methodology to allow student exploration and flexible learning.
For e-learning companies to survive, there must be a new emphasis on quality. Companies developing online courses must base them on these criteria. Companies selecting an e-learning vendor to train their employees or customers must make these criteria a part of their vendor selection process.
Bob Zeidman is the president of Zeidman Consulting (www.zeidmanconsulting.com), a contract research and development firm. Bob was previously the president of The Chalkboard Network, an e-learning company for high-tech professionals, and is currently an advisor to e-learning company SemiZone. He has taught courses at engineering conferences throughout the world. For more information, e-mail email@example.com.