4 Ways to Make Synchronous eLearning Dazzling

We’ll be back in the near future with more on our short series of social media tips. For now, let’s talk about synchronous eLearning.

Synchronous eLearning (Distance Learning) was a hot topic at 2011’s DevLearn conference. Today, I want to talk about how to actually design synchronous e-learning courses. There are many elements of course design that need to be taken into consideration for synchronous e-learning. However, here are just a few questions to consider:

1. Technology

  • Is there someone who can act as a “host” on the session and manage technical issues and questions?
  • Is the technology that we’re using stable and robust enough to allow for interaction?
  • Is the technology intuitive enough that it is a help and not a distraction to facilitators or participants?

2. Facilitators

  • Are the facilitators comfortable using the technology?
  • Can the facilitators offer feedback to participants on activities in real time?
  • Are facilitators willing to take the additional time needed to practice and prepare for a synchronous e-learning course?
  • Do facilitators have clear instructions on how to facilitate the activity? Below is an example of a duel facilitator guide we created for a client recently. In this situation, the course will be taught both face to face and online. Facilitators make the choice on how to facilitate based on their situation.

3. Participants 

  • Have participants been given enough time to practice using the technology?
  • Are participants given opportunities to interact with each other, not just with the facilitator?

4. Content

  • Have I avoided the temptation to make synchronous e-Learning more about lecture than exploration? While it can seem “easier” to take this route, in reality synchronous e-learning requires MORE interaction and opportunities to ensure that participants are engaged.
  • Is the course chunked into management bites? As much as possible, shorter modules are preferable in synchronous e-learning to avoid the dreaded multitasking of participants!
  • Is the course designer/writer familiar with the technology? Has she/he ensured that what is written is actually feasible?

What do you think of my list? What’s missing that you always consider when developing synchronous e-learning?

Give Them Permission to Learn

In live facilitation we often remind folks to shut off their cell phones, we select an appropriate learning environment, schedule the time – it’s a training event. Just as Gayle indicated in her recent post that it’s important for learners to apply good business practices when taking e-learning, it’s also important for the organization to give the learners permission to do so.

In some work cultures or due to personal bias a learner may feel that they aren’t really “working” when attending training. This may feel particularly true for distance learning, when they can easily distract themselves with their “real” job. So give learners permission to learn and restrict their activities while taking the course. Remind them that their development is important to the organization. Ask learners to block the time on their calendars for training. Prompt them to limit distractions (mute their phone, close other windows on their desktop, sit in a quiet area, etc.). Recently I saw an example of an e-learning course that also reminded participants to ensure they were set with any beverages before they begin the course. It was great as it helped enforce the idea that the training time is valuable. Give learners the message that it’s “ok” to put their usual activities on hold for awhile so they can focus on their development.

Of course, you must follow up with interesting valuable content so that you don’t lose people along the way, but that’s another story.  Provided you have an excellent course, how do you set the scene in your organization for distance learning?

Welcome to Synchronous E-Learning Month

One of the things I love about working at BLP is that we’re never afraid to change it up! And we’re making some significant changes to our Lessons on Learning blog! So, whether this is your first time visiting (welcome!) or your 100th, here’s what’s going on:

Starting today – we will be focusing on one topic per month. The blog posts and the podcast will all provide a depth of discussion on a topic rather than just a few sentences. Each month you’ll hear from one BLPer more than the others as we lead the blog. And lucky you, I’m kicking things off!

July’s focus is on Synchronous e-Learning, better known as distance learning. We’ll explore:

  • The business and training case for using this facilitation method,
  • How to design and write courses to work best in this format, and
  • How to use it in conjunction with other methods.
  • Our podcast this month focuses on facilitation tips once you’re actually teaching the course.

Synchronous E-Learning Defined

You may or may not be familiar with synchronous e-learning. It’s simply a form of distance learning in which both the instructor and participants are in the session “live”. It’s different from asynchronous learning where participants access materials on their own schedule. From the eLearning Guild’s Handbook (which is a great FREE resource), synchronous e-learning includes things like:

  • instant messaging
  • online chat
  • live webcasting
  • audio conferencing
  • videoconferencing
  • web conferencing

Throughout the month of July, we’ll talk about how we can best use these technologies to facilitate learning. Why?

The Business and Training Case

It’s exploding in the business world as virtual web meeting technologies become more prevalent and easy to use. Businesses have the technology already at their disposal, and it makes sense that they use these low-cost and easy to use formats. According to the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics, 31.6% of U.S. workers participated in a distance learning course in 2005. That’s the most recent year that data’s available; I can safely assume that the percentage has only increased over the past four years!

Synchronous and asynchronous e-learning aren’t just growing in the business world. 62% of 2-4 year post-secondary educational institutes offer distance education. And here in Indiana, our most recent budget includes funds for the development of pilot virtual charter schools that will serve up to 500 students within two years. That means that middle and high school students will be able to take their entire curriculum virtually!

It’s fairly easy to make a business case for synchronous e-learning and see how it has exploded in the culture, but what about the learning case? When does it make sense to teach a course online? Here are just a few reasons that come to mind:

  • You want real-time interaction with not just the facilitator, but also with all participants, but cannot physically be together.
  • A blended approach gets better results. The results from this study (which is a longer, but interesting read) seem to indicate that “Instruction combining online and face-to-face elements had a larger advantage relative to purely face-to-face instruction than did purely online instruction.”
  • To support the chunking of material. We know that learners retain information when it’s taught in smaller chunks that they can then apply. It is often difficult to have short 1-2 hour face-to-face training sessions; however, that is very doable using synchronous e-learning technologies.
  • Building community. I completed my masters program online. Most of the work was asynchronous. However, we did have class chats and some synchronous activities. During these sessions was when we got to know each other much better and felt like more of a community, even if we never met each other in person.

There are also reasons NOT to develop courses in a synchronous e-learning format. And my contention throughout the month is that a PowerPoint deck delivered via a web meeting is not learning! Designing and writing synchronous e-learning courses requires just as much thought as any other course, if not more.

I’m looking forward to exploring this topic with you further throughout the month! What questions do you have about synchronous e-learning? What do you like/dislike about it?

Cool new tool for distance learning: polling via Twitter or web

As I was reading Mashable, the blog that identifies anything and everything connected to social media, I came across a cool polling tool that has some huge applications for either distance learning or even conference-style presentations and meetings. The tool is called Polls Everywhere and it makes it easy for you to set up polls that respondents can reply to via Twitter, texting, or the web. So…you can ask a question in an audience of several hundred people, folks can text a response, and then see an immediate (2 to 5 seconds) update of the results. Here’s the video demo:

Anyone who has taught a distance learning class or session knows that audience participation is key to the success of the session. Polling offers a great way to engage people – during the live session or in between live sessions. This tool makes it easy to generate these polls and provide immediate feedback to respondents.

I wanted to try this out so I signed up for a free account with Polls Everywhere so I could test it out.  You can only have 30 respondents on the “free” account; after that, you have to pay a monthly fee to get more responses. You’ll have to decide if this monthly plan is worth it for you.

If you’d like to take a poll to try this out, here’s the question I came up with:

What kind of blog reader are you?

You can respond in three ways:

1) Text a response to 99503 and enter one of these response codes:

  • Daily reader (CODE: 34508)
  • Weekly reader (CODE: 34509)
  • Only read them when I am researching a specific topic (CODE: 34501)
  • Occasional reader (checking in 1x or 2x month to see what’s new (CODE: 31739)

2) Use Twitter, and tweet a response to tweet@poll, along with one of the above codes.

3) Use the web. Click the web link and select the response you want.

Happy voting. I’ll post a graphic with the updated results as we go. PollEverywhere allows you to download a PPT slide that you can insert into your presentations on the fly as results come in.

If this turns out to be a dud tool…I’ll let you know that too!

Results Thus Far

Rules, Shmules – Structuring eLearning and online collaboration

As a general rule, I’m very pragmatic. My questions tend to be “how” – How will we accomplish that? How does that impact our other initatives? That’s why I really like it when we can condense lots of thoughts into a few key points.

Cath Ellis recently posted her “Ten Commandments of eLearning”. As I read it, I realized that it’s really about collaboration spaces and/or distance learning. She offers several good tips and things to consider when creating interactive sharing and learning portals. I really appreciate her emphasis on how learners will use it, rather than focusing solely on instructional design. There are a few that I’d add to her list:

  • Don’t have too many rules. I completed my masters degree through distance learning and I found the best learning happened with the instructor left us to our own devices to fight out an idea or philosophy. It was also during those conversations that I was most engaged.
  • Except if the audience needs them. Considering the audience really makes the determination regarding the amount of structure I’d put in place. Learners who are more experienced with the kinds of conversations the course requires will need fewer boundaries. Inexperienced learners will need more.
  • Add an element of “fun”. It can be lonely working on a course or intiative without having verbal interaction with others. Make it ok for learners to use humor in their posts.

What do you think? Would you add to the 10 eLearning commandements?