The popularity of online learning and training has exploded in recent years. Due to the increase of online learners, it is important to ask whether our instructional approaches have evolved from face-to-face settings. If not, we need to ask what’s needed to implement new instructional strategies to effectively engage online learners.
How can we structure online learning environments, including workplaces, to meet the unique needs of our current generation of learners? Technology-savvy learners are entering the workforce with digital expectations and are constantly seeking information and connecting with others through online platforms. And it’s not just new entrants to the workforce. Online learning environments are becoming more attractive to students at all levels of formal and informal education and to employees who want to further their professional development skills. The rise of user experience, or UX, as a core principle of digital design has added more urgency.
With the advancement of technology, we can now gain new expertise at any time in any place. Meeting the needs of our digital learners goes beyond simply providing didactic or instructional lectures to technology-enhanced approaches. Many companies can’t use online approaches such as recorded lectures but they want their employees to be able to apply their new skills instantly to their current jobs. This is particularly important in fields such as information technology and medical professions that are constantly evolving and have limited time or resources to develop or revise their materials and workshops. Online training is becoming more popular since it is easier to quickly disseminate updated information and resources in a cost-efficient manner.
The Rise of Online Learning
The internet has provided students and employees with an amazing opportunity to gain knowledge, skills and expertise from the comfort of their homes or offices.
The “Digital Learning Compass: Distance Education Enrollment Report 2017” reports about a third of higher education students are taking at least one online course. Students in online courses are more likely to be graduate learners at public (68 percent) or private nonprofit institutions (18 percent). Also, these individuals are most likely to reside within the same state as their institution (55 percent). These are interesting and somewhat surprising statistics.
Companies have also observed upward trends in the popularity of online training. Docebo, an e-learning solutions provider, examined worldwide e-learning market projections. Their “E-Learning Market Trends and Forecast 2014-2016” report found online learning technologies help to keep the workforce aware of job functions, aims and goals and the necessary skills and expertise needed for employee promotion. Furthermore, they found that online training helps to reduce overhead costs and results in higher rates of employee retention.
Online learning is no longer a new phenomenon but how we engage in online instruction may still be a relatively novel concept to many educators and trainers. Novice online instructors may erroneously believe online teaching is easier than face-to-face instruction. Due to its popularity, the focus of online learning has to be on designing and implementing educational environments that actively engage learners.
This is of utmost importance for industry leaders who are responsible for the design, implementation and continual enhancement of a company or program. CEOs, CLOs and COOs need to understand how to select curricula, promote leadership and professional development in this area, and maintain a culture of excellence through up-to-date organizational development approaches.
Practical Techniques to Improve Online Learning
Online training has become more popular across a diverse range of fields and organizations. Companies that have implemented online training programs have found employees who complete e-learning may learn up to five times more material and may need to invest 40 to 60 percent less time in workshop attendance.
Additionally, companies may experience higher levels of revenue and believe they have a competitive advantage since employees are able to keep up with industry changes. The use of online training has become so popular that there has been approximately a 900 percent increase in these types of workshops since 2000. However, the effectiveness of online learning is dependent on learners’ active engagement in the course or workshop materials and their willingness to discover the new information that they are acquiring.
Psychologist Jerome Bruner described discovery learning as occurring when learners construct their own knowledge. He proposed that learners construct knowledge by organizing and categorizing information. This approach leads to the learner creating a coding system in which they are able to discover new information rather than simply being told it by a more knowledgeable person. Courses and training that incorporate discovery learning may include simulations, problem-based learning or exploration.
The increase in e-learning training can be found in fields such as banking, leadership workshops, education, human resources via recruitment and retention, and administrative leadership focused on developing business analytics.
Emerging educational technologies have also provided an easier and more feasible way for organizations to move to online learning platforms. Organizations can use training through already established online training platforms such as Coursera or create their own workshops through businesses like Udemy.
Whichever path they take, administrators, course instructors and training facilitators need to consider carefully how they develop and deliver their classes or workshops. In comparison to face-to-face learning contexts, online learners may feel disconnected from their course instructors, colleagues or peers. To ensure that learners receive meaningful and engaging online experiences, instructors and trainers can:
- Provide personal touches in which they connect with learners prior to or at the onset of the class or workshop through video self-introductions or audio/video feedback on weekly assignments and activities.
- Create a virtual presence for classroom community, be active in the course site and provide continual learner support.
- Keep learners up to date by creating open lines of communication, such as daily or weekly email or video messages outlining course or workshop expectations.
- Enhance interactional opportunities to increase instructor-to-student and student-to-student interactions so learners can share relevant resources.
- Use multiple forms of learning technologies integrated directly into the course or workshop site.
- Consider multiple forms for viewing content and accessibility for a variety of smartphone, tablet and computer devices to ensure students have immediate and constant access to course and workshop materials.
The Psychology of Online Learning
Another important component of successful online instruction is understanding how unique learner characteristics impact the learning environment. The field of educational psychology can provide instructors a more in-depth understanding of learning and how emotional, cognitive and social processes impact learners. For example, be mindful of how learning conditions, backgrounds, course materials and learning tasks can all affect learning outcomes. Learners’ levels of motivation, autonomy and self-regulation can strongly influence their performance in online environments.
Learners need to be active and reactive throughout the entire learning process and have the opportunity to construct their own knowledge of course or workshop content. They need to have cooperative learning experiences, which can enhance their collaborative and metacognitive skills.
Gaining an understanding of learner preferences can also be beneficial when designing, implementing and revising courses and workshop materials. By better understanding their learners, instructors may be able to implement more efficient instructional processes that effectively enhance how learners absorb and retain new information.
Given the current generation of digital learners’ desire to have technology-enhanced learning experiences, organizations will most likely continue to observe an increased demand for online educational and training opportunities. The role of educators, instructional designers, administrators and industry leaders is to ensure courses and training are developed based on high standards and are taught by professionals who understand the uniqueness and complexity of online learning contexts. This may require instructors and instructional designers to complete advanced degrees or training on development, implementation and continual enhancement of online learning.
Because potential employees are more likely to consume, connect and seek out information online, it’s important to determine how to provide more effective online learning and workplace training opportunities. This can enhance employee satisfaction and retention and provide companies higher return on training investment.
Learning is a lifelong process. Instructors and trainers need opportunities to continually hone instructional skills to meet the unique needs of learners. Using educational psychology approaches will help us better understand how to train our instructors and educate learners in a technology-enhanced world that is evolving and changing.
Kelly Torres is the department chair for the online campus at The Chicago School of Professional Psychology. Breeda McGrath is the dean of academic affairs online at The Chicago School of Professional Psychology. They can be reached at editor@CLOmedia.com.