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The problem with e-learning – lack of design skills


Brian Holley, Managing Director of Sherpa Integrated Learning Ltd, continues our exploration of where and why e-learning is underperforming.

The fundamental problem with e-learning is the lack of learning design skills among those who produce it. Using the term ‘TBT’ (Technology Based Training) as a generic term for all kinds of electronically delivered learning, the Department of Education and Employment (now DfES) report, ‘Authoring for CBT and Interactive Media’, published in the Spring of 2000, says:
"A typical TBT author will not have received specific training in the many skills required for TBT development, such as analysis skills, instructional design, writing aims and objectives, question techniques and answer analysis."

Often you only have to click through a few pages of a demonstration to realise that 'death by text' is an appropriate term. However, outside of the rather expensive conferencing systems we are nevertheless restricted to text and perhaps voice. Text delivery isn't so much the problem as how that text is presented (layout and volume per screen) and what learners have to do with it.

The poor quality of interaction built in to most stand-alone programmes is due entirely to the reliance on hardware instead of humans. The e-learning that works best is that which is designed to incorporate a tutor whose role is to provide challenging feedback on exercises submitted by learners, encouragement and support in terms of proactive contact, running chat rooms and forums (less expensive than conferencing) and carrying out the general administration of the course.

Add to this an in-house mentor and you really can get good results. The mentor's role is to allocate time and resources so that the learner can take part in the course, and to provide face-to-face encouragement. Few people are good a self-managing learning. The more support there is available, the more likely your investment will be protected.

Research has shown that e-learning which prepares people for classroom sessions, in an integrated learning approach, works much better than either e-learning or classroom learning alone.

All this infers a changing role for trainers. Trainers have to become 'learning facilitators' and deal with individuals during the e-learning parts of an integrated programme. There is also a role for a 'learning designer' to plan integrated learning programmes. Cobbling together parts of a CD from the Resource Centre with some classroom material is not going to work as well as designing a whole programme so that each component does a specialist job and contributes to the others.

E-learning offers great opportunities, but what are the real obstacles? What restricts or undermines all that potential? Post your own comments below, or email us.


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