Moving from e-training to e-learning

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Maryke Snyman is a Learning Consultant at OIM International (Pty) Ltd.

So how can learning professionals bring about change and turn e-training into e-learning? In my experience, there are some practical ways of ensuring that your design is an e-learning, not e-training, solution. These include:

  • Conducting a thorough performance and learning needs analysis before you design anything. Typically we don’t understand the target audience and performance challenge before we start designing. We get our brief and get told which subject matter experts (SME) to talk to; then we spend most of our time acting as scribes, valiantly trying to word the content in an enjoyable, engaging way. Layers of graphical ‘magic’ are applied before sending it out for review. The SMEs tell us it’s brilliant (it’s their content after all), but when learners interact with it we find that they experience our solution very differently (with a lukewarm response at best).
  • Understanding the delivery environment. We don’t understand the work reality of the learners, nor the organisation, and make both technical and practical assumptions that prove fatal. Not only do we often assume that learners have the time to complete our e-modules in a quiet place with sufficient allocated time, but we also assume that the environment can handle large media files which require specialised media players. E-learning is ultimately meant for the workplace (not formal classrooms), and therefore our delivery assumptions must be tested upfront.
  • Targeting concepts and principles, not details. As learning professionals, we are challenged by our own perceptions of what learning should and shouldn’t look like. In the past, learning has always been content heavy, so it feels unnatural to trim the content down to the essentials (the concepts and principles) that the learner actually needs. What I have learned over the years is that less is indeed more when it comes to online learning.
  • Building in extensive performance support. Rather than trying to cover everything in an e-module, why not focus more on building performance support tools that allow learners to access the detail when they need it? This allows you to focus the e-module content on the essential concepts and principles, and shift the workshop activities to integration exercises. For example, a course on the Financial Advisory and Intermediary Services (FAIS) Act should only cover the concepts and principles related to FAIS, and should allow the learners the opportunity to apply these. The rest of the information, like policy documentation, should be available to the learner in an easily and intelligently searchable format from their desk. The learner should be shown how to access this information from the available knowledge banks at the point of need, and not be expected to absorb all the detail upfront.
  • Structuring content around performance outcomes, not concept categories. We tend to be bullied by the content experts, and end up packaging content along concept lines (much like book chapters). What I have learned over the years is that performance-centric design (i.e. focused on a specific performance activity or outcome) is far more effective than content-centric design; because people ultimately are completing a module to do something, not to theorise over it.

So how can learning professionals bring about change and turn e-training into e-learning? In my experience, there are some practical ways of ensuring that your design is an e-learning, not e-training, solution. These include:

  • Conducting a thorough performance and learning needs analysis before you design anything. Typically we don’t understand the target audience and performance challenge before we start designing. We get our brief and get told which subject matter experts (SME) to talk to; then we spend most of our time acting as scribes, valiantly trying to word the content in an enjoyable, engaging way. Layers of graphical ‘magic’ are applied before sending it out for review. The SMEs tell us it’s brilliant (it’s their content after all), but when learners interact with it we find that they experience our solution very differently (with a lukewarm response at best).
  • Understanding the delivery environment. We don’t understand the work reality of the learners, nor the organisation, and make both technical and practical assumptions that prove fatal. Not only do we often assume that learners have the time to complete our e-modules in a quiet place with sufficient allocated time, but we also assume that the environment can handle large media files which require specialised media players. E-learning is ultimately meant for the workplace (not formal classrooms), and therefore our delivery assumptions must be tested upfront.
  • Targeting concepts and principles, not details. As learning professionals, we are challenged by our own perceptions of what learning should and shouldn’t look like. In the past, learning has always been content heavy, so it feels unnatural to trim the content down to the essentials (the concepts and principles) that the learner actually needs. What I have learned over the years is that less is indeed more when it comes to online learning.
  • Building in extensive performance support. Rather than trying to cover everything in an e-module, why not focus more on building performance support tools that allow learners to access the detail when they need it? This allows you to focus the e-module content on the essential concepts and principles, and shift the workshop activities to integration exercises. For example, a course on the Financial Advisory and Intermediary Services (FAIS) Act should only cover the concepts and principles related to FAIS, and should allow the learners the opportunity to apply these. The rest of the information, like policy documentation, should be available to the learner in an easily and intelligently searchable format from their desk. The learner should be shown how to access this information from the available knowledge banks at the point of need, and not be expected to absorb all the detail upfront.
  • Structuring content around performance outcomes, not concept categories. We tend to be bullied by the content experts, and end up packaging content along concept lines (much like book chapters). What I have learned over the years is that performance-centric design (i.e. focused on a specific performance activity or outcome) is far more effective than content-centric design; because people ultimately are completing a module to do something, not to theorise over it.

When I reflect on the solutions that I have gotten right, they tend to be those that were content light, and principle and application heavy. And they also tend to include significant workplace performance support; to prevent people needing to memorise facts. One such example was a solution targeted at a financial sales consultant role, serving small to medium-sized enterprises. The aim of the e-module was to help learners rapidly understand the various business-entity structures so that they could deal with these when they arrived at a branch, and offer relevant financial solutions. We created a simulation in which the learner found herself at her desk in the branch, with a queue of customers waiting to be served. The challenge was to first understand what type of business the client ran, and then to successfully match a product to their needs. During the simulation, there were positive and negative consequences to their decisions (aligned to their work reality), and this gave the game a realistic flavour. We also supplied the learners with online performance-support tools to aid them in identifying the correct business entity and appropriate product match; the learners were then allowed to play. They essentially learned through error, and were exposed to multiple client situations and scenario complexities. Learners found the simulation effective and engaging, as they were applying knowledge to solve real problems, not reading endless theory and trying to memorise it. The focus was application – not memory – and the results were amazing. Within just four hours, learners were able to tackle challenges that had traditionally taken them over a week to learn!

With the rapid rate of change that our learners are faced with on a daily basis, we need to ensure that we equip them with the meta-skills they need to effectively solve challenges and add value to their organisations. We can only do this through changing our own perceptions and adopting new views on e-learning. We need to stop producing content-laden e-training manuals, and start delivering solutions that target the ultimate learning outcome: improved performance. To achieve this we need to apply learning – not training thinking – to our application of online media.

Knowledge Resources has arranged the Online and eLearning Conference to explore the latest trends in eLearning solutions. Join us from the 29-31 July 2014 to get the real stories and engage with the leaders of the online and e-learning industry in South Africa. Click here to learn more.

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