E-learning continues to grow in popularity. With the increase in popularity, comes a growth in rapid development tools and a wide range of quality of product. Needless to say there is no lack of poorly built E-learning. So how do you measure good E-learning from the bad, or the excellent from the average? How do you size up a course for quality or a lack of quality? Does lots of graphics, audio and/or game elements guarantee good training?
Let’s look at eight aspects of good E-learning. These can serve a standards or benchmarks of quality: clear learning objectives; an intuitive interface; easy navigation, user controlled pace; appropriate and relevant graphics; appropriate audio material; interactive points or places (including quizzes and checks); and, sufficient learner support.
Let’s drill down into these qualities.
- All learning and/or E-learning begins with the question “what are learners supposed to do with the instruction in they receive?” In other words, how does the learner know they’ve succeeded or not (i.e. defining exactly what the learners are supposed to do in a real world context)? Good training involves clear learning objectives (i.e. after this course you’ll be able to arrange the parts in order for assembly). This even applies to the all too boring regulatory or legal courses. Learning objectives or learning goals are statements that describe what a learner should be able to do as a result of the learning process.
- Secondly, is the content displayed in an intuitive interface? Essentially, a learner should quickly recognize where to begin and end. Items on the main page of the course should be self-explanatory (or a minimum complimented an audio introduction and/or a directions sub-page). To this end, text should be limited and complimented with appropriate graphics. Overly dense pages of text disorient learners and overwhelm them. The 6 by 6 rule may be guide (6 lines of 6 words maximum per page).
- In addition to an easy and intuitive layout, is easy navigation. Can the user quickly see the relationship between different sections of the course, and move around freely between modules? Many interfaces or dashboards follow the layout of everyday environments (instrument layouts in cars, familiar pieces of software, common signals or signage, etc.). One navigational feature that is included in many courses is a side bar or drop-down menu that allows the learner to jump around from section to section. Note: Segmentation or “chunking” relates to the overall layout of a course and the placement of modules. The average person cannot digest, let alone retain, large quantities of information. Thus, the content needs to be divided into appropriate selections or “chunks,” often separated by points of review or interactivity.
- Because people learn at different paces, a good E-learning course should give the learner command over the user controlled pace. Can the user start and stop at will? Can they skip a section or review portions at their own pace? In many cases, this is as simple as including a play and pause ribbon on each page.
- Hand in hand with an intuitive interface is appropriate and relevant graphics (i.e. job-related, graphics or animations). Courses and modules should feature the normal, everyday visual images that the learner encounters. Moreover, the visuals or graphics should not be overpowering and gratuitous (images that only serve the purpose of grabbing attention). In other words, the graphics should not be overly busy (e.g. a hyperactively visual web site). Rather the graphics should be complimentary and serve to offer quick explanations for complex matters and/or to emphasize real world application (e.g. a demo on how to do a particular task with in a piece of software). Note: The course designer, instructional designer, and/or developer should take the time to create a sketch of the typical course participant. This sketch or context analysis will serve as a reference point and act as a means to keep the content highly relevant to the specific context of the work.
- Much of what has been said about appropriate graphics can also be said of audio material (narration and sound effects). Narration and audio enhance the learner’s ability to visualize a given work situation or scenario. However, care must be taken to insure that the tone of voice and cadence is appropriate to the content or material (e.g. a face paced voices suggested as fast paced activity). A conversational tone or style enhances employee engagement. Sound effects can simulate an actual environment.
- To avoid the trap of being a boring electronic page turner, good E-learning should including interactive points or places. This keeps the learner engaged (not merely a passive observer). Typically, we’re talking about some kind of activity, exercise or game. This is aimed to give the user the opportunity to put into practice what they are learning. A common form of interaction is a “check understanding” piece at the end of a module (i.e. a quick quiz on the module or selection). This gives the learner and opportunity to practice the knowledge that they have incorporated (a means of maintaining engagement and reinforcing learning). Interactivity in the form of quizzing and checks, sets up the user for a final assessment of their learning and/or development. A final assessment often stands as a measure of competency and overall proficiency. Interactivity serves a purpose beyond engagement. It provides the learner with immediate feedback on the knowledge and/or skills they are developing.
- The last quality measure is found in learning support. This comes in the form of participant guides, user manuals, job aids, videos, and other documentation. It also comes in the form of real-time, person to person support (instant messaging tools, forums in which questions can be posted, and people to phone). Support provides a means of clarification as well as another avenue for feedback on the learning.
Poor Quality E-Learning
From a negative perspective, and as a means of review, here’s how poor quality E-learning can be described:
- No job aids, resources or means of support
- Few opportunities to interact
- A lack of appropriate audio material
- No opportunities to check your understand and no final assessment
- Confusing visual material
- Graphics that are neither relevant or complementary (i.e. out of sync with real world work environment)
- Too much text and too few graphics
- Material is that too long, or dense, and not segmented to chunks
- Inability to control the pace or review previous sections
- Poor navigation cues and a confusing interface
- Unclear or non-existent objectives (and outcomes)
In the end, the proof of quality is found in whether the learner can perform the learning objectives, to a set level of proficiency, within the usual context in which the tasks are performed (field or shop environment, piece of equipment, apply soft-skills training in a specific situation, etc.). Quality is essentially measures by outcomes, proficiency and improved performance.