The e-learning market is growing apace, thanks to new technologies and trends like massive open online courses and mobile learning, as well as a desire for organizations — both educational institutions and companies — to get more for their money.
While most of the initial online courses and MOOCs were scheduled and moderated similar to a face-to-face course, today learners get more self-paced, on-demand e-learning options. A variety of factors are driving this trend, including:
- A general move toward bite-sized learning activities
- An increased focus on just-in-time training and performance support
- A growing BYOD, or bring your own device, culture
- A need for people to learn more quickly
- An emphasis on personalized, rather than standardized, learning processes
- A consumer mindset that favors instant access
Many organizations today use e-learning for more than education and employee development. Colleges are producing MOOCs to boost awareness of their academic programs, and companies are using online courses for brand awareness and recruitment, improving customer relationships and more.
The overall effect of these forces combined is creating a system that provides learning opportunities for people where, when and how they want them. This movement is happening quickly: According to Docebo in March 2014, the worldwide market for self-paced e-learning is expected to increase 7.6 percent per year, hitting $51.5 billion by 2016.
While e-learning best practices apply whether the course is scheduled or self-paced and moderated or not, the new tools and technologies used today require more thought to the learning environment and the user experience. Below are three essential things to consider when designing modern, self-paced and on-demand e-learning.
1. Usability: In 2006, Michael Feldstein and Lisa Neal published a practical guide to usability in e-learning courses. The core concepts are still relevant, especially concerning the importance of usability. They wrote: “Courseware that is not designed for usability can create challenges for the learners that have nothing to do with the difficulty of the content. They can be distracted from learning the critical subject matter of the course by having to learn how to use the courseware. Poor usability can have a measurable impact on course completion rates and post-test scores.”
Although the principles of usability are just as important now as they were nine years ago, the practical aspects have changed considerably. E-learning courses as a whole have become less linear. Taking an e-learning course is now less like using a single web page than it is like surfing the Internet, and learners are as likely to use smartphones and tablets as they are to use personal computers or laptops to access their courses. In this environment, usability considerations must include more sophisticated navigation, mobile support and so on.
2. Interactivity: The wealth of new multimedia and social technologies has been a boon for e-learning, which previously had a reputation for being fairly static because of technological and cost limitations. Today, self-paced e-learning can be just as engaging as scheduled online courses. Here are three ways to make self-paced e-learning interactive:
Use a variety of learning activities, including games and simulations.Affordable audio and video technologies have made e-learning courses much more interesting, but interactivity doesn’t stop there. Many modern e-learning authoring [fS2] toolsallow easy creation of activities like branching scenarios, and online software applications create hands-on simulations that can be integrated directly into courses.
Host discussion forums. Self-paced e-learning courses are making more use of discussion forums; learners can talk about concepts as well as post their own questions and answer questions from others.
Incorporate formative assessments and feedback. Receiving immediate, relevant feedback is key. Modern e-learning authoring tools make it easy to give formative assessments and provide automated feedback during a course, rather than limiting assessment and feedback to the end.
3. Measurability: The effects of e-learning must be measurable, not just in terms of how well learners do on a particular assessment but also on the overall learning outcomes for the course or program. For self-paced e-learning, measurability is arguably more important than for other forms of instruction, as learners are responsible for their own progress through the course. Measurability is also essential for instructors, who rely heavily on learner success to evaluate the course itself because they are not involved in active facilitation.
Measuring the effect of an e-learning course starts with developing measurable outcomes and using these outcomes to inform both the content and the assessments used in the course. The ABCD approach is a popular method to write measurable objectives and outcomes:
- A is for actor or audience: the learner, or the person expected to meet the goal.
- B is for behavior:the desired behavior or activity.
- C is for conditions:the conditions in which the behavior will take place.
- D is for degree:the degree of accuracy, or the criteria by which the behavior will be judged.
For instance, after completing X course, the learner (A) will be able to identify the 50 states and their capitols (B) with 100 percent accuracy (D), without using a map (C).
These three factors — usability, interactivity and measurability — provide a useful framework for educators, instructional designers and others who design, develop and evaluate self-paced e-learning courses. Implementing best practices within this framework will be even more essential as both the market for on-demand e-learning and the range of available tools and technologies expand in the coming years.