Education expert Bernard Bull once said, “In order to create an engaging learning experience, the role of the instructor is optional, but the role of the learner is essential.” A massive increase in online education over the past decade has revealed the truth of this observation. According to eLearningIndustry.com, the learning management system or LMS market—producing software for the administration, documentation, tracking, reporting and delivery of e-learning—is expected to grow from $2.55 billion in 2013 to $7 billion in 2018.
Why does virtual education continue to grow dramatically? The answer is simple—it’s usually a good deal for everyone involved. Worldwide, organizations have discovered for themselves that the benefits of e-learning include:
- Lower training costs,
- Rapid deployment of training content,
- Improved knowledge retention, and
- Quick and convenient training updates.
After the Why… How?
Knowing the cost-effectiveness of online training, however, doesn’t make you an expert in creating an effective curriculum. To help managers of small and medium-sized enterprises embarking on their first e-learning program, I’ve put together the following five important components of a successful virtual training model.
1. CLOUD-BASED LEARNING MANAGEMENT SYSTEM (LMS)
A cloud-based LMS program means that the software and data is installed and stored offsite in a shared pool of networks, servers and other resources. This means that your learners access the program online through a secure portal that is maintained and managed by the LMS provider. Features of a cloud-based LMS may include:
- A virtual classroom for virtual facilitation.
- SCORM management for e-learning—SCORM (Sharable Content Object Reference Model) technical standards help e-learning programs work with other e-learning programs.
- Social networking for learners to communicate with one another.
- Robust reporting for attendance, completion, assessments and learning.
A cloud-based LMS is more secure, more streamlined, more device-friendly and generally more cost-effective than traditional installed software. You can often test the program with a free trial, purchase access through licenses for a set number of users for a defined period of time, and forget all about hardware, installation or upgrade headaches.
Working closely with your vendor is important to ensure the suitability of the product as your platform for learning theory, design and reporting. A reputable LMS provider will conduct a needs analysis of your training program and will not want to waste their time or yours on an LMS that doesn’t fit.
2. MODEL OF INSTRUCTIONAL DESIGN
A successful model of instructional design focuses on learning creation, implementation and evaluation. Although the method for implementation may vary between a brick-and-mortar classroom versus a virtual classroom, a solid model of instructional design is essential for both of them.
The ADDIE model is a staple in training literature. ADDIE stands for Analysis, Design, Development, Implementation and Evaluation. In the development phase of a brick-and-mortar model, instructional designers may write a module with examples and activities that will take place physically in the classroom. In the development phase of a virtual classroom model, instructional designers build activities and software simulations within an e-learning creation software.
There is a great deal of literature explaining how to adapt models of instructional design to a virtual setting. Rather than reinventing the wheel, your training team should research other similar programs and crowdsource as much good material as possible to create your model.
3. STRONG TECHNOLOGY PLAN
E-learning and technology are inseparable, and in every virtual training there are technology failures. The question is, how will you deal with them? Common technology problems fall into three categories:
- System access
- User restrictions on computers
- User error
Each category needs to have an action plan and a responsible party assigned to each one in order to reduce the impact of technology-related slowdowns and downtime.
Questions to ask yourself are:
- Who owns this tech problem category?
- Are they available during the hours of training?
- What is the process for communication with the responsible party?
- What is the learner to do when experiencing an issue?
- How to mitigate user error?
For the last question, I recommend taking a page from aviation and conducting a “preflight.” In a preflight, learners connect with a facilitator before they begin working in the program. Ideally, participants meet using a conference software that allows them to share screens. Together, they walk through a predetermined checklist for software and access testing. From my experience, this reduces user errors dramatically.
4. TRACKING ATTENDANCE AND ENGAGEMENT
While some e-learning is completely automated and self-paced, many programs use a live facilitator or instructor. One of the biggest challenges to a facilitator-led virtual model is the ability to track attendance, engagement and participation, as participants may not be visible to the facilitator. Two guidelines I always follow are:
Bob Pike’s 90/20/8 Rule: Sessions should be no longer than 90 minutes without a formal break, a trainer should teach/lecture for no more than 20 minutes, and the audience should have the opportunity to be involved every 8 minutes. By following this design rule, the learners will find it easier to stay focused, and the facilitator will have frequent opportunities to measure engagement and adjust the lesson as needed.
Ask your LMS provider about tools for tracking attendance and measuring progress. Most software enables attendees to confirm their presence and participation by checking a box, completing brief polls or quizzes, or other digital exercises.
5. LESS IS MORE
We can’t cover e-learning without mentioning “cognitive overload,” which can be a persistent problem in virtual classrooms. A facilitator with a vast amount of technology at their disposal can easily overwhelm learners with too much material and media. This is why the concept of “less is more” is so important to remember. Peripheral material and media should only be used to supplement learning objectives, not replace them.
Imagine a learner’s mind as an empty bowl and information as liquid. The ability of a learner to process information is limited by volume. Don’t waste teachable space with unnecessary graphics, videos or links to external material unless each one performs an essential conceptual or illustrative role in the lesson. There is a limit to how much any learner can absorb in a given session, and all good instructors build lessons around these limits of attention span, memory and cognitive overload. Once that limit is reached, there may not be room for key concepts or points. Take time to critically evaluate every piece of content that is introduced to the learner to make sure that all of it contributes to the knowledge end goal.
- All training programs require a strong model of instructional design.
- Determine your technology issues and assign key players who are responsible for each issue.
- Ensure that your LMS vendor completes a needs analysis for your organization.
- Determine a method for tracking attendance and promoting learner engagement.
- Less is more. Design your lessons and curriculum to respect your learners’ limits and avoid distracting or overloading them.