e-Learning in a Nutshell
Among the dangers of writing about e-Learning is having to grapple with tons of information. To condense all these into digestible pieces, if a nutshell were at all digestible, sounds much like the purpose of e-Learning - chunking content for easier understanding. With that in mind, we welcome you to the brave new world of e-Learning.
What is e-Learning?
In recent years e-Learning has exploded into a plethora of definitions. We could probably discover as many definitions as there are e-Learning practitioners. Kevin Kruse of e-LearningGuru.com admits that "e-Learning can be a confusing topic in part because of the alphabet soup of acronyms, technology related buzzwords, overlapping definitions, variety of delivery options, and the converging histories of the two disciplines of technology and training."
Financial advisers saw enormous potential in e-Learning and attempted to define it.
Bank of America Securities' take is that "e-Learning is the convergence of learning and the Internet."
Goldman and Sachs goes further to propose, "e-Learning is an emerging industry that utilizes high technology to provide and administer corporate training, higher education, and K-12 education. Its rapid growth is propelled by the Internet and the enormous opportunity embedded in global education."
From the hallowed walls of WR Hambrecht & Co, Cornelia Weggen declares, "e-Learning is the delivery of content via all electronic media, including the Internet, intranets, extranets, satellite broadcast, audio/video tape, interactive TV, and CD-ROM.
e-Learning gurus do not disagree with these wizards.
Brandon Hall says, "e-Learning is instruction that is delivered electronically, in part or wholly - via a Web browser, such as Netscape Navigator, through the Internet or an intranet, or through multimedia platforms such CD-ROM or DVD. Increasingly - as higher bandwidth has become more accessible - it has been identified primarily with using the Web, or an intranet's web, leveraging the Web's visual environment and interactive nature."
Elliott Masie of The Masie Center defines e-Learning as "the use of network technology to design, deliver, select, administer, and extend LEARNING."
Kruse himself ventures to say, "e-Learning is the latest, in vogue, all-inclusive term for training delivered by a number of means. In the past, these have included the use of mainframe computers, floppy diskettes, multimedia CD-ROMs, and interactive videodisks. Most recently, Web technology (both Internet and Intranet delivery) have become preferred delivery options."
Kruse forecasts, "In the near future, e-learning will also include training delivered on PDA's (e.g., Palm Pilots) and even via wireless devices like your cell phone. This new, mobile form of education is called, predictably enough, m-learning."
We're getting ahead of ourselves though. Let's leave the last word to Jay Cross of the Internet Time Group, who concludes for us, "e-Learning is learning on Internet Time, the convergence of learning and networks and the New Economy."
Have we already 'experienced' e-Learning in some form or other?
Having defined the term, would we now be able to recognize e-Learning when we see it? Or has it passed us by without our noticing? What are its most common forms?
The more 'primitive' types are knowledge databases and online support. Falling into the 'advanced' category are asynchronous and synchronous training.
Knowledge databases are not necessarily seen as actual training, yet they comprise the most basic form of e-Learning.
Where do we stumble upon knowledge databases? These databases usually reside on software sites, offering indexed explanations and guidance for software questions, including step-by-step instructions for performing specific tasks. They provide a moderate form of interactivity - you can type in a key word or phrase to search the database, or you can select from an alphabetical list of topics.
We must already have used a knowledge database in our browsing without having realized that it was e-Learning after all. Right?
In the same manner, we must have run into online support, without realizing that it was also e-Learning after all.
Online support functions much like knowledge databases. It comes in the form of forums, chat rooms, online bulletin boards, e-mail, or live instant-messaging support. Online support is slightly more interactive than knowledge databases. It offers the opportunity for more specific questions and answers, as well as more immediate answers.
After breezing through knowledge databases and online support, we move on to the more classical terms associated with e-Learning, asynchronous training and synchronous training.
Asynchronous training is e-learning that involves self-paced learning. It may be CD-ROM-based, Network-based, Intranet-based or Internet-based. It may include access to instructors through online bulletin boards, online discussion groups and e-mail. It may be totally self-contained with links to reference materials taking the place of a live instructor.
Synchronous training is real-time e-Learning. A live instructor facilitates the training. Everyone logs in at a set time and can communicate directly with the instructor and with each other. You have a cyber hand which you can raise. You can even view the cyber whiteboard.
Synchronous training lasts for a set amount of time -- from a single session to several weeks, months or even years. This type of training usually takes place via Internet Web sites, audio- or video-conferencing, Internet telephony, or even two-way live broadcasts to students in a classroom.
How e-Learning works
Ok, we'll see what makes e-Learning tick, but first let's answer the more basic question, how do we learn?
Marshall Brain of HowStuffWorks.com explains that learning requires attention. Our brain has neural systems involved in the learning process. These neural systems control attention and store information as memory. However, these systems appear to be very fickle. They tire easily, requiring rest every three to five minutes, or they become less responsive to training.
Training has to work with this pattern of quick fatigue and boredom to make a person learn efficiently. It has to stimulate the neural systems effectively, or lose them to other stimulation not in the form of the training being presented.
The goal of training is to form memory in each neural system. To provide the most effective learning model, information must be designed in a way that moves from one neural system to the next. Neural systems respond best to patterns that involve interweaving different types of information and using different areas of the brain.
To illustrate, let us consider these three sets of information: Listening to a fact. All-purpose flour, when mixed with eggs, can be mixed with other ingredients to make delicious yet nutritious chocolate cake.Relating a concept to that fact. Foods that are high in carbohydrates help the body generate energy.
Visualizing the two together. School children need the quick energy that can be provided by carbohydrates, so they could have chocolate cake that would meet their energy needs for schoolwork and play.
These sets of information are interwoven. Using them one after the other stimulates different neural systems or areas of the brain, the better to form memory and achieve more effective learning.
How can e-Learning can supercharge the learning process?
Enter e-Learning, which adds value to the learning process. In addition to stimulating the neural systems, e-Learning energizes a regular classroom experience by providing interaction, imagery and feedback. These make learning anything - new material, new processes or new programs - infinitely more fun and interesting.
As e-Learning practitioners, we reinforce learning by using these basic methods:
Introducing variety in types of content. We could use images, sounds and text to build memory in several areas of the brain and enhance retention of the material.
Creating interactive activity to grab attention. We could concoct games, quizzes or simply require the learner to manipulate something on the screen. These activities build more interest, which in turn lead to better retention.
Providing instant feedback. We could tailor our e-Learning courses to respond with immediate feedback that corrects misunderstood material. We should program for quick reflexes, because each step of learning builds upon the previous step. If feedback is ignored or not given at all, the learner moves on to the next step and build upon a mistaken interpretation.
Motivating learners to communicate among themselves and with their online instructor. Let's offer chat rooms, discussion boards, instant messaging and e-mail. These do a good job of taking the place of classroom discussion. If we build an online community, we significantly influence the success of our e-Learning programs.
As we move along our brave new world of e-Learning, we will witness more sophisticated approaches and combinations built upon these basic methods - all with the purpose of stimulating neural systems and enhancing memory.
Benefits of e-Learning
The more obvious benefits of e-Learning have to do with flexibility and convenience. How else could users proceed through a training program "at their own pace and at their own place" and access the training at any time and only as much as they need, or "just in time and just enough" - yes how else except through e-Learning?
The other benefits of e-Learning pertinent to the school environment include increased retention and grasp of the subject matter, reduced learning times, reduced overall cost, consistent delivery of content and ease of update. There appears to be no end to the benefits that e-Learning could bring, yet these are the more relevant ones to our situation.
1. Increased retention and grasp of the subject matter
J.D. Fletcher in Multimedia Review conducted an independent study that shows that e-Learning improves retention by an average of 25 percent over traditional methods. The student gets a stronger grasp on the subject because the e-Learning experience combines many elements to reinforce the message, such as video, audio, quizzes, interaction, etc. Learners are also able to revisit or replay sections of the training that might not have been clear the first time around. Try that in a crowded auditorium!
2. Reduced learning times
With e-Learning, Brandon Hall noted that a student's learning time is cut by an average of 40 to 60 percent. The report "Return on Investment and Multimedia Training" also points out that the actual time required for training by computer averages about 50% less than that of traditional classroom training.
These tie in with Jennifer Salopek's observation in Training and Development magazine that e-Learning courses progress up to 50 percent faster than traditional courses. Salopek attributes this partly to the individualized approach used that allows learners to skip material they already know and understand and move onto the issues they need training on.
3. Reduced overall cost
Organizations consider this the single most influential factor in adopting e-Learning. How do we realize cost savings in a school environment?
Lower production costs. If we use authoring software to produce our own asynchronous training programs, we get virtually free resources once we reach the break-even point. Synchronous programs will have continued costs associated with the instructor managing the class, but will still cost lower than traditional courses.
Inexpensive distribution. We do not need a separate distribution mechanism because e-Learning can be accessed from any computer anywhere in the world, keeping delivery costs low. We can go paperless -- no materials need to be produced or printed.
Travel cost. We would incur no travel costs for bringing students to a centralized online workshop. The cost of meals and accommodations is also eliminated, particularly in situations that would require the costlier and more time-consuming alternative of field trips to broaden learners' experiences.
4. Consistent delivery of content
5. Ease of update We can introduce changes to the program after the original implementation. We can make these on the server that stores the program and everyone can instantly access the update. Online e-Learning sessions are especially easy to keep current by the simple expedient of uploading the updated materials to a server. CD-ROM-based programs may be slightly more expensive to update and distribute, but still come out cheaper than reprinting manuals and retraining instructors. Yes, that's e-Learning in a nutshell - what it is, how it works and what it offers students, educators and parents.
5. Ease of update
We can introduce changes to the program after the original implementation. We can make these on the server that stores the program and everyone can instantly access the update. Online e-Learning sessions are especially easy to keep current by the simple expedient of uploading the updated materials to a server. CD-ROM-based programs may be slightly more expensive to update and distribute, but still come out cheaper than reprinting manuals and retraining instructors.
Yes, that's e-Learning in a nutshell - what it is, how it works and what it offers students, educators and parents.