Thursday, February 10, 2011

E-learning's biggest mistake

In this weekend's New York Times, author and professor Randall Stross wrote an article raising two concerns he sees facing education. First, that he and his fellow professors will be out a job if education is boiled down to the bare essentials of an automated program that a computer can run like an MP3 file.

Stross's larger point is that we need to keep human instructors involved in online courses, stating that fully automated courseware cannot do what real live instructors can do. "Those relationships -- with humans in the flesh -- help students to persevere. Online courses are notorious for high dropout rates."

I'd like to take Randall's argument one step further. The problem I see with fully automated courseware is that it far too often takes content out of context. When you take content out of a classroom or other learning setting, you take it out of the context in which it's intended to be learned.

When a student needs help understanding a concept, for instance, they usually seek out their teacher and talk to them. That's how knowledge is traditionally transferred. It happens within the context of the situation or problem.

This concept extends to business. Here's how.

E-learning's costly error

If you want to learn how to do something related to your job, you probably seek out a coworker that's done it before, and ask them about it. However, in business, our efforts to learn fall flat when we try to transfer knowledge or collaborate using only a document management system (such as SharePoint or Documentum). This is because we are taking content out of context.

Knowledge sharing and collaboration are not simply a knowledge repository. They are processes that require a place where you bring up documents from knowledge repositories, and instructors, SMEs, KOLs, etc. bring context to that content.

Now, I'd like to draw a distinction between courseware used for online education -- where the fundamental purpose is to allow students to learn over distances -- and e-learning tools used in business to train salespeople and other employees.

E-learning in business has historically been used as a cost-cutter. SMEs can slap content on a wall and let learners look at it and consume it in whatever way they like. They often are not present or available when learners are looking through the content, nor are learners' peers.

In these situations, learners don't have context surrounding the content they're seeing. They don't know what they're really looking at, or what they should be getting out of the content. They don't know what their peers are thinking. There's no dialog. No back-and-forth banter that's crucial to sharing knowledge, thinking critically, and creating new ideas.

So while Stross in his New York Times article was referring to students and online curricula, his points are relevant to the business world, and e-learning in particular.

Just as Stross says, "computer-aided instruction ... has lacked a human touch," so too do many e-learning programs. In fact, I think removing the human instructor from e-learning has been the industry's biggest mistake.

The most important part of learning is the instructor. They bring context to content through the knowledge they provide, insights they impart, and experiences they share. It's about the passion they exude, the inspiration they ignite, the opinions they foster. That's how we learn.

This cannot be replicated or replaced by clicking through slides on your own time, or by listening to a voice stream over your computer speakers as you sit in an online session. We need to add the instructor back to e-learning. You probably know where I'm going with this. The solution is to use avatars.

Avatars fill the gap

Avatars, coupled with 3-D learning environments, is not just the obvious way to support better e-learning today. It is also among the most effective ways to provide the context, engagement, and interactivity needed for successful knowledge transfer and collaboration.

Learners walk into a classroom. It's a place, not a screen, where they can see their instructor and peers, sit and talk, debate ideas, and work on documents and projects together. This can't work in a Web conferencing modality where learners are just names on a list and content is being pushed to them in a broadcast manner.

Our online courses should mirror what works with our real-world courses. We should leverage instructors' historical capabilities and know-how in managing the right-sized classrooms with the right activities and break-out sessions, and transfer it to the online realm.

Learners should be able to talk to the people sitting next to them, as well as the instructor. The instructor should be able to manage break-out sessions where students gather in small groups and bat around discussion topics and points of contention.

The knowledge and ideas that are surfaced during these sessions should be able to be captured, stored, and referred to long after the session takes place.

What works in real life works in a virtual environment -- and should. And that should be the model from which we develop our e-learning programs for the future.

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