E-LEARNING The Secret to Successful e-Learning Make it Social

According to the American Society for Training and Development’s State of the Industry Report 2001, United States firms reported 117 percent increase in the use of e-learning technologies between 1999 and 2002.

As e-learning technologies have improved and their use has become more widespread, instructional design methods have been refined and practices have evolved. Self-directed computer-based training content has been combined with online communication and face-to-face initiatives in what is now called “blended” learning.

Blended learning can feature any combination of face-to-face initiatives, online learning and online collaboration using conferencing, email and threaded discussion.

Research undertaken by learning and technology elab The Maisie Center in the United States suggests most companies implement an e-learning portal to “create an online community with access to subject matter experts and peers to assist in the learning process”.

This is positive development for instructional designers in the knowledge age because people learn best when they collaborate with others. We call it “social context” for learning.

A social context increases people’s ability to learn. Research shows that collaborating with others as part of the learning experience improves everything from critical thinking and communication skills to recall, course completion and positive attitude toward learning.

If you’ve ever had experience of distance learning with little or no interaction with other people, contrast it with your experience of learning as part of group or class.

But how do you create social context for people learning online? good place to start is by looking at how social context works in the classroom and incorporating the same elements in the design of online learning.

Social context online
Some examples of positive dynamics that result from social context include:
* Networking
* Synergy
* Attitude
* Team spirit
* The “show-off” factor
* Accountability
* War stories (cross learning)
* Fun

Classroom instructors sometimes intentionally facilitate the introduction of these dynamics. Sometimes they emerge as natural consequence of people coming together.

In an online environment an instructor needs to deliberately facilitate the introduction of these dynamics.

When people get to know each other, they’re likely to keep in touch if there is some mutual benefit in the relationship. Face to face, people connect professionally and socially. Sometimes setting up informal networks, perhaps staying in touch by email or phone.

In an online course it’s possible to facilitate this connection by encouraging people to share personal information and information about their work. Help identify the ways people can mutually benefit from networking. Encouraging people to keep in touch by email by setting up distribution lists can help this process.

Nancy Williams, an e-learning professional with Booz Allen, US-based consulting firm that fosters online communities as part of learning, found “a simple step was sharing photographs of participants – at their job. “Participants were from all over the globe working in different jobs. The first session everyone was quiet and engaging only when requested. One of their evening assignments was to provide picture of themselves at work and to share with the group little about their job. Having done this the dynamics of the group changed as people were able to connect with each other. simple activity that reaped great rewards.”

Synergy happens when team achieves results that are more than the sum of their individual skills and experience.

Again as Williams puts it: “Common-ness – if there is such word – or like-ness is important. Once people link through common area of interest, situation, problem, likeness – they begin to build social context. The rest of what happens like networking and synergy will enhance the social aspect and provide some context for exploring.”

A way to achieve this online is to organise learners into teams and assign group projects.

Greg Kearsley, an online instructional designer and e-learning expert with the Walden Institute in Florida, recommends setting up class presentations and group projects as they are powerful learning experience.

Learners can collaborate on projects using email, threaded discussion and exchanging files. They can present jointly using conferencing application.

He believes that in some ways online communities have an advantage over physical ones. “I believe that you can create much richer social environment in an online class than most face-to-face sessions because of the possibility for everyone to contribute and because it provides time for people to reflect,” says Kearsley.

People develop attitudes partly from seeing them role modelled by others. Particularly people they respect.

A good practice for both online and classroom learning is to combine diverse range of people in groups and facilitate an exchange of opinions using both synchronous and asynchronous communication to positively develop attitudes.

Team spirit
An important element for developing team spirit is feeling “included”. Recent research suggests that people in online communities who feel like they “belong” learn and participate more than those who feel like outsiders.

Use as many techniques as possible to foster sense of inclusion. It is particularly useful to set up projects that require collaboration and communication amongst learners. Group size is important to foster inclusion. Too small and they lack diversity and dynamics, too large and they become impersonal. Groups of about six to 10 people seems to be optimal.

The Booz Allen experience is: “Using simple approaches to build communication are your best bet. Trying fancy, multimedia games, or technology that requires time-consuming setup will only complicate the process. Social development is natural process encouraged by simple events that create common bond amongst people.”

The “show-off” factor
People are motivated to improve their performance when performance is assessed relative to their peers. In classroom setting people want to demonstrate to the instructor and their peers that they are learning or have knowledge. People strive to be at least as good as, if not better than, their peers.

In an online setting the same dynamic applies.

The best way to promote this positively in an online setting is to openly recognise good work by drawing other learners’ attention to it. The instructor can send out an email to the entire group of learners suggesting people read an individual’s work or comment made in discussion forum/email. Give specific reason why you think the work is good.

Find positive elements of all learners work to comment on. It’s important not to miss anyone out. Online instructors have found that people respond to this kind of recognition by raising the standard of their work to the extent that the instructor will comment on it. People love recognition.

Where an individual develops relationship with an instructor and other learners sense of accountability ensues. For example people would feel accountable for meeting deadlines for work or other agreements.

Trade New Zealand developed and used instructor-led online synchronous/asynchronous training. Lia Mattei, training consultant with Trade NZ believes “a social context is important for any learning because of the nature of human beings”. The trick with e-learning is to mimic the face-to-face experience. Set up common focus, challenge or desire to bond people.

By setting up common focus and challenge for learners, you will be setting up an environment where people depend on each other. This typically results in increased accountability. It is also important to understand that people have accountability t

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