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Crafting an Online Learning Strategy

Online Learning

Over the past several weeks, I’ve been involved in a number of conversations with a variety of organizations about overall learning strategies, and the role that online learning should play in a more comprehensive strategy. Following are my thoughts on components that need to be considered when developing a more comprehensive strategy for online learning:

Role of eLearning: This is often where conversations about online learning strategies start, yet eLearning is just the tip of the iceberg. “eLearning” itself if a broad term that means many things to many people. For the purposes of this post, we’ll define elearning as a structured approach to professional development that is delivered online. A combination of the following should be used in a comprehensive online learning strategy:

  1. Asynchronous (self-paced) modules: Typically housed within a Learning Management System (I’ll write more about the LMS below), these are stand-alone courses that can be developed by an outside vendor or in-house using rapid authoring tools such as Articulate Storyline. One essential note about asynchronous modules: boring modules will kill people’s enthusiasm for online learning and thus will kill your brand. Just because you can convert old PowerPoint decks into eLearning modules for people to click through… should you? For some examples of what engaging, meaningful eLearning can be, check out the Articulate Community or Allen Interactions for a variety of free demos.
  2. Synchronous (real-time) online learning: Typically called webinars, synchronous online learning is instructor-led and uses a platform such as WebEx, Adobe Connect, GoToWebinar, etc. Webinars are a great way to connect an audience scattered across the country or around the world to a speaker, in real time, in order to share information and present content. The catch with webinars is that if they’re not well designed, then the audience will easily find other things to do with their time (like check email, Facebook or cat videos on YouTube). Here are a few tips on crafting more engaging webinars.
  3. Virtual classroom: This is very much what it sounds like: offering learners a classroom-like experience, online. It could include virtual workshops (webinars), individual eLearning modules, posting to discussion boards, completing assignments and posting them online, or simply accessing a variety of resources. Often this is implemented as a cohort-based model and is facilitated within a larger platform that houses all of these classroom experiences in one location.

Role of Informal Learning and Social Media: One enormous problem of developing an online learning strategy solely around structured eLearning courses is that it ignores the world of knowledge and experience that exists beyond the L&D department. In fact, Towards Maturity released a study that concluded only 7% of employees are influenced by an L&D department when it came to filling their professional development gaps. In light of that, here are several considerations for a broader online learning strategy:

  1. Self-directed use of social media: It may make some uncomfortable to allow (or even encourage) employees to use Twitter, LinkedIn, YouTube or blogging sites during work, but the fact is that there is a lot of great (free!!) content people are creating and sharing every day. Instructional videos on YouTube, Tweet Chats on Twitter and a wide array of articles about trends and best practices on LinkedIn are all examples of how controlled, structured online learning strategies that rely only on in-house-approved content can fall very, very, very short of the mark.
  2. Communities of practice: It can be a lot easier and less anxiety producing when learners know that they’re not the only ones trying out new ideas. Hosting an online community of practice can be helpful (the Articulate online community is an example of a high functioning community of practice). However, sometimes people don’t like to have to go to yet another platform to engage, so finding ways to integrate online learning and community support into their every day lives can be helpful. My organization uses a WhatsApp group to continue conversations beyond the formal training environment.

Organizational Technology: David James, former Director of Talent, Learning and Organizational Development for The Walt Disney Company recently wrote that in the 1990s, the office was where you found the most up-to-date technology and speediest Internet connections. In contrast, today people carry the most up-to-date technology around in their pockets or backpacks. Office technologies (and accompanying policies) lag far behind what’s possible. Here are a few ideas to mitigate this trend:

  1. Learning Management System (LMS): There are a gazillion of them out there. Craig Weiss writes a lot about LMSs on his blog and has a ranked list available for purchase. I’ve played with Litmos, LearnerNation, Moodle and Canvas – all of which come equipped with features that can help provide structure to your overall online learning strategy. Keys to a useful LMS include: easy to navigate for learners, easy to track learner activity and generate reports for administrators and just enough bells and whistles to meet your goals. Oh, and be sure your IT department is involved in any conversations about selecting an LMS. Something that seems like it should be easy to implement for you may not actually be so easy when it comes to technical requirements.
  2. Videoconferencing (and telemedicine): Sometimes someone just needs an answer to a question, but it takes a little more than a phone call. Medical professionals have been using telemedicine strategies to assist remotely for many years, and it’s a strategy that non-medical professionals could be using more often.
  3. Bring Your Own Device (BYOD): When staff are in the field, it’s helpful to develop learning opportunities that can be digested via phone or tablet. Sometimes this will mean an eLearning module with responsive design. Sometimes this could be checklists or other job aids. Train-by-Cell offers a service by which someone in the field could text a question and receive an automated response with the correct answer.

Measuring Impact and Effectiveness: A course completion metric can give you a little information (is anyone even using your eLearning modules?), but it’s a pretty low-level metric. Here are some other ways to measure impact and effectiveness (much of it follows Kirkpatrick’s 4 levels of evaluation):

  1. Learning: Pre- and post-testing is probably the easiest way to measure this and there are a number of online tools available to design knowledge assessments.
  2. Transfer of learning to the job: Too many course designers award certificates to people upon their completion of a course. If the goal of a learning program is to change behaviors or introduce new skills, then awarding the certificate should be deferred until a supervisor reports seeing a change in behavior or until a learner has submitted a work sample.
  3. Impact: The thing about measuring impact is that you need to start thinking about this measure during the design of your learning program. If you identify specific business metrics that should improve as a result of a learning initiative, then you’ll be able to measure business performance before and after an online learning initiative has been rolled out.

Marketing Learning Offerings: One final thing to keep in mind is that you can’t just build it and expect people to come. Marketing the “what’s in it for me” of a learning program to your intended audience is at least as important as the development of the actual program itself. I’ve used short eLearning modules to generate enthusiasm for larger learning programs. I’ve also seen tools like PowToon used to create short promotional cartoons announcing the arrival of new learning opportunities.

Have you found other elements crucial in creating an online learning strategy? Let’s hear about them in the comment section.

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