Getting the Most from Online Learning

The opportunity to participate in online learning continues to grow as the tools we have available to develop and deliver online learning become easier to use and more readily available. More educators at all levels—K-12, colleges and universities, or continuing education—are using these tools to help meet the needs of their students, whether through stand-alone courses or by creating resources to supplement classroom instruction.

I’ve been involved in developing online professional development for teachers and school leaders for more than ten years now. I’m currently interviewing people who have led the development and delivery of online professional development programs across the country and beyond for a book on the subject. What is interesting are some of the similar challenges we have all faced in our work, often without knowing others just like us were going through the same thing. Better yet are some of the strategies these innovative leaders have used to create successful programs.

Online learning holds great potential to connect and support teachers of world languages and their students. Online learning in its many forms can be supported by technologies that are available in most classrooms and many homes. However, it’s been my experience that when many educators move to creating online learning, whether formal classes or less-structured learning opportunities, these now common technologies that allow us to quickly create audio, video, and web pages can overwhelm the most critical aspect…the learning.

In order to help you if you plan to develop your own online learning or even if you are evaluating online learning developed by others for your own use, I’ve put together a short list of tips. These are drawn from my experiences and my initial thoughts from the interviews I’ve been conducting. These five tips are a starting point, and I look forward to hearing from you about strategies you’ve used to make online learning more successful.

Tips for Developing or Evaluating Online Learning

Guide the learner. Much online learning is accomplished asynchronously. In other words, many online learners go through content on their own time and pace. While there are many opportunities for synchronous interaction, this asynchronous mode predominates in online learning. Therefore, online learning should provide explicit directions and cues to guide the learners with whatever technologies being used. Navigation systems for web sites and other media should be obvious. Follow common protocols for links and use standard buttons and interfaces to start and stop videos.

Online learning should guide the learners through good pedagogy, as well. It should have clear learning objectives or learning targets for the learners that tells them what they are going to learn in language that is easily understood. A good rule to follow is tell the learners what they are going to learn and be able to do, provide the content, then tell them what they should have just learned (and what to do if they didn’t). This is especially true with video, because videos provide so much information at the same time that learners have to be guided to look for the information you want them to observe. Very often, learners can’t raise their hands online and get guidance from a live teacher, so sometimes you may feel you are being overly descriptive. But chances are some learners will appreciate detailed guidance while others can just ignore it if they don’t need it.

Don’t restrict the learner. Learner control is a big concern in online learning and receives significant scrutiny in instructional design research. Often in my initial meetings with clients they want me to ensure that every users reads every screen and views every video and sits in front of that computer screen exactly as long as they would in a classroom. In reality, we all learn differently and come to learning situations with different levels of interest, motivation, and knowledge and skills related to the content. I may like to print out pages and highlight them while you just skim through them. You may watch videos over and over while I just go to the transcript.

Too many novice designers try to restrict users as if they can impose their own brand of learning on them. Learners are forced to watch a video before they can go on to the next screen. Information is presented in only one way, such as a narrator reading information on the screen rather than having a transcript the learner can read on their own. Learners can’t navigate to different areas of the content but are locked into a prescriptive sequence. Ultimately, your learners do have ultimate control regardless of how we may try to restrict them, because if they don’t like the instruction, they’ll just turn it off.

Give feedback. For me, I learn through interaction. I like to try new things out to see how well they worked and I need to know how well I did. In a classroom, teachers can give feedback about student performance almost constantly. In an asynchronous online course, it can be more difficult. But remember, giving feedback about a student’s performance is good teaching, and good teaching trumps the technology.

Feedback can be provided in asynchronous online learning by including examples and non-examples, encouraging self-reflection that relates to past learning, and through quizzes and other self-assessments. Your examples and non-examples should include guidance as to why they do or don’t represent a concept. Too often, I see questions for reflection that have no supporting guidance and make it easy for students to generate misconceptions that they then believe are true. Many online quizzing and survey applications also allow you to link back to the content for questions the learner may have gotten wrong.

People often give the best feedback, and it’s easy to connect people through technology rather than trying to replicate people with technology. We all don’t have access to intelligent tutoring systems or artificial intelligence engines, but we do have access to technologies that connect learners with other learners, with teachers or content experts, and with others that can serve as guides, mentors, or who can practice with learners. While a lot of online learning happens asynchronously, consider the benefits of using synchronous communications tools, such as chat, video- or webconferencing, or even a telephone to connect students with other students or with teachers to provide feedback and check for understanding.

Content is still king. This is derived from a phrase often mentioned in the early days of web design, but it is still appropriate today. When working with people who want online learning I often hear the words “interactive” and “engaging.” My job is to make sure it promotes learning. Very often interactive and engaging translate into action, animation, video, bright colors—what we experience in movies and video games. Learning requires explicit instruction, high-quality content that is relevant and engaging on its own, and opportunities for practice and feedback.

You can strike a balance between engaging media and engaging content, but as I’ve heard time and time again and experienced in my own work, if the content is not good, it doesn’t matter how engaging the media is. And poorly designed media can ruin even the best content. Start with good content and strong pedagogy and find media that supports it.

Learn from the pros. This is a codicil to the previous tip. Because online technologies do support a range of multimedia, it does provide us an opportunity to create more engaging learning environments that go beyond simple presentation of text. With that said, just be careful of technology used for technology’s sake. A saying I often use is, “just because you can, doesn’t mean you should,”

It’s very easy to create videos using iMovie or MovieMaker, but there’s a reason why television shows and movies are engaging. They have people trained in filming who use the right equipment to record, edit, and produce their videos. That still doesn’t prevent us from turning them off or going to another channel when the content is bad or the acting is poor (see, content is important in entertainment, too). You can improve the media in your online learning, though.

Watch news clips or channels like the History Channel to see how the pros use still images, voiceovers, and text to augment videos. They still get factual information across, but they often do it by making it engaging and interesting to watch. You’ll see very few “talking heads” on entertaining shows.

And this goes for other media as well. Find web sites with engaging graphics and color choices and try to determine what you like about them and how you can use similar strategies in your own online learning. Perhaps the most important suggestion I’ve picked up recently came from Matt Huston at the EdLab Group in Washington State. He said to be able to develop better online learning, be an online learner first. Go take an online class. Become an ePal. Participate in a webcast or a webconference. Find out what works for other people and see how it can support your own needs.

As you review these tips, don’t forget that you should always work from your understanding of what you know to be good instruction. Just because you’re using a digital video, or a wiki, or you’ve created an avatar in a virtual world, the technology should promote that good instruction and not overwhelm it. Ground your technology use in what you do best…teaching. Consider how these tools best support good teaching and learning, and justify your technology choices from this perspective. I look forward to your feedback on these ideas and learning more tips from you.

Please note: This blog entry is cross-posted by permission to the February 2010 newsletter of the National Capital Language Association.