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Successful online learning – the five Ps


This feature was contributed by Jim Flood, Director of Learning at COROUS.

Many of you will be familiar with the three (or more) Ps of marketing and even if not, as trainers or teachers you are likely to have used mnemonics as an aid to retention and recall. Mnemonics are especially useful when you need to get the key points to ‘stick’ in the minds of your audience. With this in mind I offer you the 5 Ps of online learning: Presentation, Pedagogy, Promotion, Preparation and Props. What I offer is not new; in fact much of it results from the eleven years of online teaching and learning at The Open University, the £22 million it has spent on research and evaluation 1, and the worldwide community that have been sharing experience in recent years. You can therefore consider these 5 Ps to be a convenient re-packing of the information and experience that can be found in abundance on the internet.

Good graphic design appeals to the subtle process by which the brain processes information and, as a result, we decide if we like the ‘look and feel’ of a visual environment. Part of liking this ‘look and feel’ is the way the text and pictorial layout can appear inviting and encouraging – a vital aspect of any online learning environment. Another aspect of presentation is how the text reads in terms of engaging the learner and introducing the story to be told – as well as being written in clear and concise English.

When browsing through books we tend to feel that we have a right to roam around and to dip in to whatever catches our interest. Online courses need to offer this same facility through intuitive navigation and iconic signalling – and even more so if the course is to be retained as a source of reference.

When multi-media designers stop feeding the frenzy of the people who market online learning, we might begin to see some appropriate use of it.

I look forward to the day when there is a collective realisation of how extremely limited (and contradictory) most of the current educational theories really are. We can be certain of very little when it comes to an understanding of how people learn. What is emerging is that effective learning is much more a function of the emotional response to a learning environment than the techniques and structures that it is based on. For learning to be effective the learner needs to feel Included, Individual, Interested and Inspired. How much online learning have you seen that manages to achieve these 4 Is?

Long ago in the early dawn of online learning (about 1995), there was a widely held belief that this new form of computer-mediated learning was so wonderful that people could not wait to take part. Those of you old enough to remember will recall that it was described as a ‘killer application’ 2 – which, given the number of learners ‘killed off’ by online learning (about 70% who take part 3), turned out to be a highly prescient descriptor. Many organisations who are now re-launching online learning realise the importance of ‘marketing’ it to their potential consumers. This includes the planning of rewards and incentives as well as managing the expectations that might prove to be too high, too low or ill informed.

The study skills and mind-set required for online learning are very different from the conventional learning environments that most people have experience of. The shift from being an unselfconscious learner, dependent on the directions and approbation of a teacher, to that of a self-conscious independent learner having to take on responsibilities, is a considerable one. These responsibilities include the development of intrinsic in place of extrinsic motivation, and for nurturing a self-learning ability. Add in to this what, for many, is an alien screen-based environment, preparation then becomes essential to achieve the exhilarating transition to empowered self-managed learning. Successful Open University students have all discovered that learning to learn is a key skill for ensuring progression.

Online learners need props (props as in supports). Rather than identifying people who will offer support, say in the role of mentor, tutor or e-moderator, think about what is required in terms of the total support system that fragile learners (and all new learners are fragile) will need. For example we know that learners who experience hardware or software problems when trying to access their learning materials, tend to blame themselves for the errors - and consequently suffer a blow to their self-esteem. They rarely return to the scene of their humiliation and could account for a significant part of the 70% who get ‘killed off’. So technical support, especially in the early stages is essential.

Also essential is the support of colleagues – both those taking part and those who are providing ‘cover’ while the learning takes place. Any discussion environment whether real or virtual needs to be one in which the learner can have trust and confidence – and this is where skilled facilitation can help. Learning to learn from others and becoming an effective member of a learning community, gives access to the tacit knowledge that is often more valuable that the explicit content in the learning materials. So think about ‘props’ in terms of the 3 Ts: Technical, Trust and Teamwork.

The five areas outlined above are closely interdependent and require an integrated approach to designing a system in which online learners are more likely to flourish than to perish. Designing and implementing an appropriate blend of these 5 Ps should enable learners, and their host organisation to achieve the elusive sixth P of online learning – Praxis – the practical application of learning.

2 John Chambers, President and CEO of Cisco Systems, quoted in The New York Times in 1998: "The next big killer application for the Internet is going to be education. Education over the Internet is going to be so big, it is going to make e-mail usage look like a rounding error."

Jim Flood
[email protected]


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