1.   Terminology: e-learning, online learning and distant learning/training

There are differences between the three terms, although they are tightly connected.

E-learning/training involves the use of a computer, or an electronic devise (e.g. a mobile phone, CD-ROM, audio or video tape, satellite TV) to provide a training or educational material. The training or education program is delivered electronically, led by an instructor, or without an instructor (e.g. “self-support learning”).  E-learning applications and processes include mainly:

  • web-based learning;
  •  computer-based learning;
  •  virtual classrooms, and
  •  digital collaboration.

Acronyms like CBT (Computer-Based Training), IBT (Internet-Based Training) or WBT (Web-Based Training) are used as synonyms to E-Learning.

–  Online learning/training involves using mainly the Internet, or in some cases also an Intranet. Other electronic devices can also be used to provide learning materials.

Distance learning/training methods rely on a variety of information technologies to deliver course materials and instruction to students. These include the use of multi-media online activities, print materials, web, e-mail, Internet, CD-Rom, computer software, audio/video conferencing, audio/video tapes and TV or radio. Any particular course might use a combination of delivery methods.  Distance learning usually combines e-learning methods with “offline” seminars and lectures.

–  “Supported open learning” is a concept used by Open University London. “Open learning” means that students are learning in their own time by reading course material, working on course activities, writing assignments and perhaps working with other students; and “supported” means support from a tutor and the student services staff at the OU Regional Centers, as well as from centralised areas such as the Library of the Open University Students Association.

The common learning/training methodology in all three groups is the following:

Usually courses packages are sent out to learners (are at disposal to learners) before the start of the course. E-learning, online learning and distance learning requires access to vast amount of resources which should be available to learners – usually these are online libraries and resources centers, as well as “electronic reading rooms” where learners can access background materials online. During the course, learners may interact with tutors (instructors, lecturers) and other learners by different media – via phone and/or computer – email, forums, conferences, etc. There are interim and final assignments which can be submitted either by regular mail or electronically via website.  Assignments are then marked and returned to learners in similar fashion. The final decision on passing the course by each student is in the hands of an individual tutor, or a Board/Committee, running the program.

All these methods of learning require self discipline and a significant amount of reading, writing, reflection, interaction, and completion of activities and assignments by the students/participants.

The current document refers to the term “e-learning/training”, considering that the training will be done mainly online, using a combination of electronic devises and distant learning methods.

2. Virtual classroom: ingredients

A core of most of the e-learning platforms is the Virtual Classroom (VC). This is a web-space, designed for real-time classroom teaching, moderated and led by a trainer/instructor. It provides opportunities for trainers to deliver training materials and sessions, and for participants to have access to them, as well as to attend course sessions.  The main objective of VC is to improve access by allowing remote participation and to increase collaborative mode of learning.

Virtual classrooms can be of two main types:

–  Asynchronous:  when classes are conducted through email correspondence, forums, and newsgroups.

–  Synchronous:  conducted with the use of chat rooms, whiteboards, teleconferencing and other tools. These online methods give students the chance to interact with their virtual classmates as well as with their mentors in real time.

The research looked at different types of virtual classrooms and their usability. Important ingredients of any virtual classroom are identified as:

–  Course outline: a summary and curricula of the course covering the main objectives, the topics covered by the course, the methodology of teaching/learning, the methods of evaluation (interim and final), Course outline is prepared by the trainer for each course and approved by a Training/Academic Board (if there is one assigned).

–  Course materials (resources): These are structured resources ( articles, books, publications, documents, online libraries and links), as well as multimedia parts, which are collected by the tutor and are at disposal to the trainees. The materials are provided electronically and can be viewed online.  E-libraries become very popular not only for higher education students and schools. Companies and organisations also convert their libraries and piles of documents to e-libraries which allow more books to be stored and leaving physical space for other purposes.

Interactions between students and between them and the tutor (e.g. discussions of problems, solving exercises, case studies, review questions, etc.). This part of the classroom allows the use of electronic media and web 2.0 tools, like a discussion forum, blog space, chat room, voice mail, e-mail, etc. :

  • Real time discussions: they allow students to interact with each other at the same time. In international training, this type of communication is not widely used due to difficulties to organise timing and access from different geographic areas.
  • Video conferencing allows students to create verbal communication, but the cost of software and hardware may be a barrier to making it popular.
  • Some courses have been converted to podcasts in order to make toe course more accessible, as students can download podcasts at any time to their mp3 players or smart phones.

–  Homework assignments and interim evaluation: Learning process requires regular homework assignments which are normally submitted electronically. Tutors help where needed by an online help desk, Q/A online sessions, email, personalised communication or other methods.

–  Final exam: It is usually done in a form of a final test, project to complete, writing an essay after reading texts, or other methods.

Depending on the methodology and preparation of the course materials, courses can be: mainly text-based, video-based, audio-based, textbooks-based or peer-to-peer courses.

3. Important ingredients of e-learning/training

The experience of experts participating in the targeted survey and technical developers interviewed shows that starting a new online program is a multi-layer process, which requires a serious consideration in advance of several key areas and answering of the following questions:

Content and methodology

Learning methodology has to combines principles of:  project management, online learning specificities, visual aspects and good design to ensure that online learning is engaging, and involves interactive experience that meet the desired learning outcomes. Questions to consider:

  • Subject matters: Are the training topics suitable for online training?
  • Level of training: is this going to be a basic program, or an advanced one?
  • The number of courses offered and their content: What is the overall concept for the training and how the content is split between different courses?
  • The content structure: How the content can be organised in a clear and understandable manner, with all logistics details?
  • What is the planned combination between online and offline learning methods: The research shows that a combination of e-learning tools with face-to-face contact, study visits, etc. is the most effective.
  • Duration:  What is the duration of the each course, as well as the duration of the whole program? Too short courses might look unserious and not sufficient, too long courses/modules are difficult to implement for busy professionals.

Participants’ number, skills, attitude and background

  • Is the training for young people or for adults?
  • Are the  students professionals in the field, or beginners?
  • How many trainees are expected to be involved in the e-learning process? This is an important question, as available technical tools and software for e-learning (packages and prices offered) depends on the number of people participating in the training process .
  • What is the geographic spread of the participants? Online learning is as more cost effective as larger the number of the participants is, and the greater the geographic spread is. ON another hand, involving more than one country in the e-learning process creates other problems, incl. language barriers and increased costs for translation.
  • What is the attitude of potential students towards using online spaces for learning, especially in terms of what kind of additional information skills they need to acquire to enroll in the training?

The training teams

  • How the training team is formed and on what principle?
  • What are the requirements for selecting trainers?
  • What are the skills of the trainers in using online tools for e-learning?
  • How much time and efforts are required for training the trainers in using the chosen software for e-learning?

The technical platform

  • What are the main criteria for choosing a technical platform?
  • How to choose between the open software options and ready commercial products?
  • What set of online tools is necessary for running the e-learning platform considering the aims of the training, the content structure and the profile of the participants?

Capacity/capability to develop online learning: This aspect concerns the ability of the organisation to develop: the e-learning content/methodology, the training teams, and the technical platform, as well as to administer and coordinate the e-learning process. Usually a combination between “in-house” solution and outsourcing parts of the training is preferable.

4. Advantages and disadvantages of e-learning/training

There are several main advantages of e-learning:

–  Increased access: overcomes timing, attendance and travel difficulties:

–  Easy access from different spots across the world. Courses can be accessed from a variety of locations.

  • Eliminating or significantly reducing travel and accommodation costs for participants in the training: both students and lecturers.
  • Covering a large number of people in a short time.

–  Faster delivery cycle in time than traditional classroom based instruction. Students can subscribe for several courses at once.

–  Very scalable and therefore suitable for professionals: Training can be undertaken when people are available, rather than having to make sure participants are available when the training is planned. Learning sessions are practically available all the time and learners are not bound to a specific day or time to attend classes.

Flexibility: The content can be updated, modified and changed in a flexible and fast manner.

Re-use and modularization: learning objects learning materials can be reused.

–  Higher freedom for participants: The trainer/tutor is usually a coach and facilitator rather than a traditional lecturer.

–  Advances competences in new technologies: Help students to understand and to cope with new technology and online tools.

–  Affordability: It’s easy to reach economies of scale: the greater the number of participants, the greater the probability that economies of scale will make e-learning an attractive proposition from a cost perspective.

–  Better, faster and cheaper administration than classroom training. Due to the online technologies, one coordinator can handle significant amount of courses and students enrolling.

–  Improved performance: Results of numerous surveys show that online education students in general perform better than those in the offline learning.

Together with the advantages, e-learning platforms and tools are sometimes frustrating, and not always efficient. The research identifies the following weaknesses and risks:

–  Users” resistance to changes: Introduction of new methods and technologies always creates frustration, especially in people who have more “conservative” mindsets in relation to training and education.

–   Strong requirement for self-discipline:  Not all users participating in online courses are disciplined and can spare time for studying on their own. E-learning requires a higher level of responsibility in the hands of the participants to plan their course participation and preparation.

–  New communication technologies improve rapidly all the time: Today’s developments are already outdated tomorrow. Every on technical development and implementation requires a significant amount of time and investments, and the results could be outdated soon.

–  Synchronisation is difficult: For some e-learning methods, like webinars, online conferences, etc. where students need to participate simultaneously, it is difficult to synchronise their schedules to attend at the same time. This is especially an issue when e-learning process covers two and more countries with time differences.

–   Internet connection:  The use of many technical applications in the e-learning process (webinars, podcasts, video materials, teleconferences, etc.) requires a high speed internet.  This is a problem in developing countries where Internet infrastructure is not well developed and uploading and downloading processes are very slow.

–   Copyright on the training materials: E-learning platforms need to consider that trainers are not willing to post free in the public domain their articles, papers and training materials.

Language barriers: Training in countries where spoken languages do not coincide with the main languages of developing software for e-learning programs is an obstacle. In training environment where trainers are international consultants and experts, costs of the project might drastically increase due to the need for translating all language materials into the local language.

5. Success factors in e-learning/training

There are several key factors which influence the level of success in implementing e-learning programmes:

  • Interactivity and engagement. The most effective learning occurs when learners are actively engaged. Interactivity involves active participation by the learners: answering questions, interacting with others, uploading content, reflecting on course materials, providing feedback. Whatever tool is used, it is important to engage students from the start, because immediate engagement builds self-esteem, and gives the courage to go ahead.
  • Customisation: The content and the design of the courses should reflect the needs and interests of the target group. The tone, level of content, and interactivity should be appropriate to the culture and training methods of the participants.
  • Usability of the content. The content should be developed in a way that participants come to it multiple times as they should be the one to control the timing and flow of content.
  • Visualising. It is important to use rich media elements (photos, graphics, animations, simulations, videos, and sounds.
  • Evaluation methods. There are many ways for interim and final evaluation in online learning programs. The most popular are:
    • Tests
    • Doing a case study (preliminary prepared by the trainer, or initiated by the student, following up certain requirements).
    • Solving a practical problem based on a theoretical framework.
    • Writing an essay.
    • Doing a practical project and  analysing the project in a preliminary set up grid.
    • Evaluation of the level of participation:  engagement in online classes, chat rooms, information flow.
    • Easy to understand content and evaluation techniques. Comprehensive and structured way of presenting course material is a must. Reading the summaries and highlights in the course material is sometimes more important for the students than reading the whole package.  The students’ performance need to be evaluated with easy-to-understand evaluation techniques during the whole course.
    • Balancing the content and the visual presentation. Both are equally important in any types of e-training. Visual images help learners to retain attention and maintain their interest. Gadgets (e.g. pick-n-choose button for choosing the right answer; coffee mug icon for break-time, or a guru icon that gives out hints) give a sense of a human touch that makes learners feel more engaged and attentive. Unless very important, background music and sounds should be avoided because they usually overload the working memory.
    • Combining theory and practice. Irrespectively of the students’ background, the courses have to allow them to relate the content to their own experiences.
    • Providing ongoing feedback. Many learners are afraid of failures; therefore ensuring sufficient feedback is an important factor for success. The methodology need to also secure providing feedback from the students for each trainer and for each course at the end of the training.

E-learning is the future, but it has to be elaborated with care as it requires different methods and methodologies of teaching and learning. A cost-benefit analysis is a must before deciding on implementing an e-learning module or program. To be successful, e-learning should be based on a collaborative mode between partners involved in the training.

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