The Heart of the Matter: Finding Ways to Connect

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A common misconception is that an online course basically runs itself after it has been launched. When this view is taken, course facilitators see themselves as only needed when learners encounter difficulties, e.g. some confusion or technical problem. They believe that online learners have all the resources they need and that learners can turn to their peers for clarification as needed.

However, an interactive online course is much more than a library of resources and peer interaction, although these elements are significant. Online courses do allow learners to work more independently, but learners still need the inspiration and guidance provided by an involved instructor:

  • Learners enjoy hearing from the experienced instructor, the expert in the class.
  • They expect their instructor to challenge their thinking and offer resources tailored to their interests.
  • They appreciate reminders and ongoing advice on how to meet the challenges posed in the class.

Some instructors may feel like they can’t really get to know someone in an online course. Other instructors have the heart of a teacher and find ways to bridge the distance gap; they think about the best ways to connect with their learners ongoing so they can get to know them, and assist with their struggles and interests. These instructors put the time in; they schedule time to engage in online class discussions and plan for when they will provide feedback to learners. The learners in these classes get to know their instructor and don’t feel disconnected just because the class is online. After all, an online course isn’t a remote island that is hard to visit. You just turn on your computer and there are all your learners — just waiting for you to encourage them and help them on their journey.

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Training – What is THE GOAL?

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I recently finished a business book called The Goal by Goldratt and Cox. The ideas presented are timeless. In this book, a manager is trying to figure out how to save his production plant. Things keep going wrong at the plant and product delivery is frequently late. Eventually, the manager learns how to identify the constraints, which are preventing the plant from achieving its highest efficiency. At first glance, this book may seem to only apply to manufacturing. In truth, any system can be improved when the book’s steps are followed: 1) Identify the true goal of the system and 2) Identify the constraints that are impacting the achievement of that goal.

So, what is THE GOAL of training? Some might say the goal is defined by the instructor, e.g. I have knowledge about X.  Some might say the goal is determined by organizational management, e.g. We need to instruct about X. However, neither of these approaches address what the learner hopes to gain from the training experience. The true goal of any training experience must be meaningful learning for the learner. Did the learners feel like they obtained some piece of learning that was personally meaningful to them? This is the question to focus on. If the learning is meaningful, learners will feel the experience was worthwhile and will retain what they learned.

The most beneficial training aligns the goals of the organization, the instructor, and the learner. During goal alignment, the goals of the learner must be given primary importance:

  • What likely is the learner hoping to get out of this class? (better yet ask them)
  • What does the instructor know that can be shared and useful to the learner?
  • How can the organization benefit from the learner’s increased knowledge?

This bottom-up approach ensures that learning experiences are built around the learners and more meaningful for them.

Identifying Learning Constraints

Constraints are the things that slow down a process and get in the way learning effectiveness. So, what are some training constraints? Here’s a short list:

  • Irrelevant examples (poor design)
  • Boring activities (poor design)
  • Learners’ lack of time and energy  (learner support)
  • Poor instructions and scaffolding (learner support)
  • No sense of classroom community (poor design and/or learner support)

As an instructor, you must address constraints because they get in the way of meaningful learning.
It’s not easy because we are dealing with learners who are complex and diverse.
Still, it’s possible to design training in such a way that:

  • Learners provide/select their own relevant examples
  • Activities are varied and hands on
  • Learners are provided with time management tools and/or actual time for learning
  • Instructions are written with clarity and conciseness, models are provided
  • Classroom community is built around frequent instructor-learner interactions

What do you believe are some constraints to meaningful learning?
Ask yourself:  What needs to change? What will you change to? How will you get there?

Incorporating “Cool” – Is it Worth the Risk?

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When designing online courses, selecting the right “technology mix” requires careful planning. There are several factors to consider: 1) the type of learning activities needed, 2) the trainer’s comfort level with technology, 3) the feature set of the Learning Management System, and 4) learner concerns of motivation and engagement.

Finding the Right “Technology Mix”

Lower Risk, Lower Engagement  ———– vs ———–  Higher Risk, Higher Engagement

– LMS Feature Set                                                                – New & Emerging Technology
– Little Practice                                                                     – Practice Required
– Activity is Proven                                                                – Activity is Experimental
– Typical & Possibly Boring                                                    – Adds Variety & Keeps Attention

The Type of Learning Activities Needed

Technology should never be used for the sake of technology. For example, trainers should never create a learning activity just because they want to somehow incorporate that cool new app into their course. Effective learning is the Number One concern when considering which technologies may be appropriate for an online course.

Trainer Comfort Level

Trainers should select technologies they are personally comfortable using. For example, if a trainer isn’t confident using a free tool from an outside vendor, then he or she shouldn’t use it.  However, trainers should be willing to explore new technologies from time to time. Through proper preparation and practice, a trainer can increase their comfort level with newer technologies.

The Feature Set of the LMS

The technology factor does play a role in helping keep learner engagement high in online courses. Learners like variety. Learners don’t like to be bored. Using newer technology can make an activity more interesting for learners – IF they are not distracted by technological problems or confusing instructions. Many trainers like to stick with the LMS feature set, but let’s face it: most Learning Management Systems do not offer highly interactive web tools, simulations, or games. Outside vendors are often more innovative and provide their tools at low or no cost.  Not only that, many learners who sign up for online courses are very comfortable with technology. Given the opportunity, they would love to play with new technologies as they learn.

Incorporating “Cool” – Increasing Learner Motivation

From an instructional design perspective, there are two creative ways to bring in technology that creates technologically interesting courses, without overwhelming learners. The first strategy is to introduce a new technology to increase learner engagement, but also provide low risk ways for learners to experiment with the new tool. For example, allowing learners to use the tool initially in low risk situations; for example, initially during an activity where learners are not being evaluated. Once learners are comfortable, the new tool can continue to be used throughout the course.

The other way to increase learner engagement through new technology tools is to give learners technology options. Some learners may be willing to experiment with new technologies, while others prefer to use standard software, e.g. Microsoft PowerPoint. During activities where learners are creating or curating content, a variety of technology tools options can be offered to the learner for use. In this way, the learner can choose how much they wish to experiment with new technology tools. Learners can deliberately try out a new tool or stick with a tool they are already comfortable with for their project.

Using newer technology in online courses brings both risks and benefits. When technology is incorporated in instructionally sound ways that provide learners with opportunities for practice and clear instructions, the benefits can outweigh the risks.

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Let’s Get Personal

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With fewer resources and tighter deadlines, trainers may be tempted to adopt a “one-size-fits-all-learners” approach to delivering training. However, we are doing learners a great disservice if we fail to consider the needs of individual learners. What comes easily to one learner may not come easily to another. What one finds fascinating, another may find dull. What one can relate to, another cannot. When looked at from this perspective, a “one-size-fits-all-learners” training approach will be at best inefficient and at worst will miss the mark completely.

Let’s face it – learning is a highly individualized, personal process. At first this seems problematic for trainers – how can we create and facilitate training that appeals to many individuals, all of whom are unique? The answer is that any training program must be both inclusive and responsive to individual learners. Refusal to acknowledge that learning is personal will only create disinterested learners who are “just going through the motions.”

Last month, I blogged about my personal training philosophy. My philosophy is composed of four instructional strategies that have been proven to help intrinsically motivate learners. Below I’ve added the word “personal” wherever it applies to my philosophy:

  1. Active, experiential learning – personal participation, personal experiences
  2. Self-directed learning – personal choice and personal responsibility for learning
  3. Social learning – personal connections, personal network
  4. eLearning – personal access to learning

The key, unifying element that leads to higher learner motivation is, in fact, personalization. Trainers create the framework that allows for personal exploration and connection. Learners participate in ways that are meaningful to them. Trainers offer guidance and support ongoing.

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And the result of training that is personalized? Learners will be surprised at how much they enjoyed the training. They will feel like they got so much out of it. They will feel like the training was created just for them, even though the training was offered to many.

Flexible Training that Inspires Learners

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Over the last month, I have spent some time reflecting on my personal training philosophy. Said simply, I believe in flexible training that inspires learners. Initially, selecting strategies to motivate learners may seem like a relatively straightforward task. But, the truth is, external forces cannot make someone truly want to learn. Learners will decide for themselves how much time and effort they want to invest in learning.

Creating training that inspires learners begins with intrinsic motivation, that is, the desire to learn without promise of external rewards. John Keller developed the ARCS model for motivation and suggested that instructional design should be evaluated based on motivational outcomes as well as learning outcomes. In other words, we need to consider these questions: Did the course inspire the learner to actively want to participate (motivational outcome)? – AND –  Did the learner complete the course satisfactorily (learning outcome)? Well-designed training utilizes instructional strategies that encourage intrinsic motivation.

Unmotivated learners may do just what they need to get by or drop out of a course all together. In online courses, learner motivation is a key concern because learners are physically separated and have competing demands on their attention. An important question to ask learners is: What do you hope to learn from this course? And then listen to what they tell you. Relevance is one of the key drivers of motivation; if learners feel the course topics are tailored to what they want to know, they will be more motivated to actively participate in the course.

So, if you want to design inspiring training experiences, step one is considering motivational factors. Without intrinsic motivation, learner participation will be limited and obligatory. The following instructional strategies have been shown to inspire intrinsic motivation on the part of the learner:

  • Experiential, Active Learning:  Learn by Doing. Learners examine what they learned and actively engage in activities using what they have learned.
  • Self-Directed Learning:  Learn By Exploring. Learners are given freedom to freely explore the elements of learning that are most interesting to them.
  • Social Learning:  Learn in Community. Learners are encouraged to learn from each other and society at large.
  • eLearning:  Learn Anywhere, Anytime. Learners are given opportunities to learn outside of the restrictions of physical location and specific time.

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The first two strategies, experiential/active learning and self-directed learning, encourage learners to take ownership of their own learning. Research has shown that when learners have at least some control over the choices and format of their learning, they are more intrinsically motivated. The second two strategies, social learning and eLearning, help capture learner attention and address learner satisfaction concerns. Research has shown that social learning helps learners feel connected to a course and that learners enjoy sharing ideas with one another. eLearning increases access to learning by allowing the learner to select the best times and places for learning. In addition, eLearning can help support active learning and self-directed learning by putting learners in the decision-making “driver’s seat.”

When these strategies are used together, a learner may be motivated to participate in a course on many levels, e.g. they find the content relevant, they have some input into the learning process, they can network with peers, and they can access the course anywhere, anytime. Content is king, but that content won’t even be looked at unless learners are motivated to participate in the training.

Will Your Training Change My Life?

Will Your Training Change My Life?
By: Jessica Rebstock

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I was talking to someone the other day who said he didn’t blog anymore because keeping up on all the trends was already too time consuming. I understood, but I also felt a bit sad. We are all so busy reading, reading, reading but what are we doing with what we read?

This conversation made me really think about how easy it is to just sit back and read about what other people are doing. With a cup coffee. And maybe you click that [thumbs up] button a few times to “participate” in the conversation. You added your approval. The writer knows that someone out there cares. But, think about it – that level of interaction is just observatory. We are becoming a world of observers. Look at what that person is doing. Do you like it? Yes/No.

This is something for training professionals to consider seriously: Are we trying to create a sleepy awareness or are we actually trying to influence change? If we are trying to influence our learners, we need to strategically plan how to inspire real conversation and action on training topics. Our learners should not just be taking in information casually.

It’s a tall call – INSPIRE. CREATE GENUINE INTEREST.

So, how do you inspire people to care about what you are training on?

  1. You make it memorable.
  2. You make it relevant to them.
  3. You make it social.
  4. And, most importantly, you ask them to take action using what they learned.

What if you logged in every day and your company had a list of training topics that changed based on what you might need to do your job most excellently? Wouldn’t that be fantastic?? Unfortunately, our computers aren’t that good at reading our minds (yet). So, instead, training needs to be structured in a way that gets learners’ attention, allows them to personalize what they learn, discuss with others, and, finally, make a plan to take action using what they learned.

That’s real engagement. This makes just reading a newsfeed with a cup of coffee sound pretty boring and forgettable. Sign me up for the training that changes my life.

Use the Medium (A Spork Doesn’t Work That Well)

Use the Medium (A Spork Doesn’t Work That Well)
By: Jessica Rebstock

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When taking an online course, most people are expecting certain things. A website with well organized sections, buttons, and links. Some graphics. Content that’s interesting and relevant. That pretty much covers most people’s basic expectations. An organization’s training modules must look as good or better than any other professional website people visit.

But, does a well organized website create a rich learning environment? Not necessary. Ideally, all online course content should be “born digital.” This means that course content and activities were created for digital display and fully use the advantages of the online environment. You can zoom in on content, you can search, you can watch videos, you can manipulate items on your screen, and you can easily send your classmates messages. Now, your course has that “interactivity” that everyone is always taking about. Your students have the ability to experiment and create. Your students are given the opportunity to connect with anyone, anytime.

Online course content should be different than the same training given in a classroom. Why? Because you should be using the distinct advantages one medium provides over the other. In classroom training, participants should be engaged in that physical space – the content presented on projection screen, the classmates sitting next to them, the instructor right in front of them. Participants can immediately ask questions and get feedback. This face-to-face time should be used wisely and purposefully. And the online medium? Trainers should consider the advantages of the online medium as well. Online learning environments should encourage participants to stay connected to one another through technology, create opportunities for safe practice, and allow participants to have extra time for reflection on course content.

Sometimes training professionals are under pressure to single source training content. Or, we have our favorite training methods and always want to use them regardless of the medium. The medium matters. A lot. You don’t use a megaphone in your house (usually). You can’t read the newspaper while you are driving (please don’t). These things matter.

Consider your medium. Build for that medium.