Online learning – getting it right

In a few weeks time (14th November 2012) I will be presenting at a conference organised by Sector Training on ‘‘The Future of Blended and Distance Learning in Further Education and Training’. This conference really excites me, as the target audience for this are the senior decision makers in FE organisations. One of the problems with my area of work (learning technologies) is when events or training is arranged – you often get the in house learning technologist attending, who often know the key points of the message being presented, or aren’t high enough up the decision making food chain to get the strategic and financial backing that is required. Hopefully this conference will be different, as Sector Training (and Beej Kaczmarczyk in particular) is so well respected with the higher echelons of FE organisation management structures, that we will get some of the people that I have so desperately wanted to present to on this topic attending.

So why am I so keen?

learning technology (also known as ILT, eLearning, ICT, TEL……) has been around for many years, and within FE there has been some really impressive work (often on low budgets) to make huge differences to the learning experience of lots of traditional face to face learners, however in the main FE hasn’t engaged with the online learning market as much as HE has. In recent years though FE is starting to talk about this more and more, as the realisation that financially there is a very strong case for online delivery. Ideologically I would rather that organisations engaged with online learning because of the potential benefits to the learner, but I know realistically the purse strings always present the stronger case, and this is where my worry creeps in. Some organisations that I have worked with see online learning as a ‘cheap’ form of delivery, and many are jumping on the notion of ‘the flipped classroom’ as a way of ‘selling’ this to their staff. From my experience online learning is not a cheap solution – in the first year of running it will almost certainly make a loss, probably a loss in the second year, and then on the third time of running it may start to make a profit. The financial benefits come from attracting different markets (e.g. learners not able to attend face to face provision), economies of scale, and reducing the cost of providing buildings that are only used for 20% of the time.

If organisations try to do this ‘on the cheap’ they will probably run some very low quality provision, which won’t help recruit future learners and won’t reap positive returns overall (as well as letting down the learners involved). Saying this, it doesn’t have to be overly expensive – if you do it right. Here are my 5 top tips to ‘getting this right’.

1 – Get external help early and regularly
If an organisation is starting in this area of work, then it is unlikely that they will have the level of expertise in house to get this right first time, and a lot of time and money can be saved not making the same mistakes of others. This area requires full senior management support and commitment and often they will listen to an outside voice better than an internal one, especially if a few uncomfortable home truths need addressing. This external help does not have to be expensive – start with a single day, if the consultant hired is good then use them again and again as and when needed.

2 – Clearly identify your target market(s)
Not all subject areas or courses will work with this method of delivery. It is important that the people working on the courses, know who the learners are going to be and why they will be learning by this method, and what the unique selling point is. Research to see who else is running similar courses as there is no point competing with an established provider unless you do something significantly different.

3 – Invest in staff not technology
A mistake made by many, is there is often huge investment in tools but no or little investment in the person (e.g. the tutor) using them, which results in poor returns on investment. Staff need to be given high quality, appropriate and timely training. They then need time to practice and hone their skills and a supportive CPD mechanism. This again doesn’t have to be expensive it just needs to be strategically and carefully planned into the process.

4 – Online learning is not about content but interaction
During the dot com boom about 12 years ago, some HE organisations thought eLearning was going to be this wonderful cash cow where they could create content, and then sit back whilst the computer taught, assessed and supported the thousands of students with minimal involvement of an expensive human being. This wasn’t the case; education is not about content or resources (otherwise we would just read books) but is about interaction between tutor & student, and student & student, and this is still the case with online learning. Students need to be taught by a (human) teacher, not a computer or a (cheaper) assessor. The teaching staff need to be given proper time to carry out this teaching. It would be better for a teacher to have more time and less resources than full blown resources and no time. The Internet is full of useable resources. A good teacher can just guide and signpost learners to these resources, asking challenging questions and providing good feedback as part of the learning experience.

5 – Get the infra-structure right
Running online provision means that learners need to have access to content 24/7 and 365 days a year, and the access has to be reliable. Having system that fall over regularly isn’t an option, and we lose the ability to switch everything off for 6 weeks over the summer whilst servers and systems are upgraded. This doesn’t just refer to technical infra-structure, we also have to think about things like the enrolment processes, learner support, exams, authentication of evidence, internal observations etc. many in house systems need tweaking slightly to work with online learners.

I hope that these points provide some food for thought to organisations, and I can help people to realise the potential that online learning offers, without wasting huge amounts of money, or delivering sub-standard cheap education.

4 Responses

  1. Thanks for this Dave, and your thoughts resonate well with my findings in the independent school sector. You are so right about there being plenty of resources available; indeed those that have made it a mission to find and tag all the resources of the internet have rather missed the point that finding a few, highlighting the good bits, the dangers and the need to attribute correctly requires teaching staff to talk to their students and work with them, to interact as a guide rather than either a fount of all wisdom or a custodian of resources.
    Establishing best practice that raises achievement and that keeps learners engaged is where I am currently working, basing much of my efforts around free tools such as Google Apps and broader web 2 stuff.

    • You have hit on a key point there James – as you say there are many tools out there allowing us to identify and ‘tag’ resources, and many people go down the route of go over the top with this – so there are hundreds of such resources, which doesn’t help the learner to find the information that they need. A case of less is sometimes more.

  2. All true for higher education as well

    • Agree – is all true for HE. The main difference is that HE has been doing online for a while, whereas FE is only really starting.

      Where FE struggles, is they really need the expertise of people who have worked in HE, but they don’t want to pay for it and most HE people don’t understand FE. This is where my skill comes in, as I have worked and taught at both levels do understand both sides of the fence,

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