e-Learning meets Online Learning

Over the last eight years I have worked primarily on e-learning projects for organisations in the private and public sector. Almost universally the definition of e-learning in this market is pretty limiting. It involves the delivery of learning content via a SCORM module accessed via an LMS. In most cases the SCORM module is developed in Flash (so that it supports ‘learner interactions’), includes a quiz to test understanding and is usually around 30-40 minutes long (just enough time to squeeze it in at the start or end of the working day or over a long coffee break maybe). Provided the pass mark is attained in the embedded test the learning is marked as ‘complete’ and you move onto something else. I now refer to this type of e-learning as packaged e-learning. This type of e-learning is very popular with large organisations because it is very efficient:

  • It’s available 24/7
  • It’s consistent
  • It’s quick
  • It’s very scalable
  • It’s easy to manage
  • It’s easy to track

Clearly for large organisations this efficiency has enormous benefits. If you need to make sure that all your employees are up to speed on the latest information security policy then packaged e-learning is a no-brainer.

packaged SCORM e-learning

Packaged e-learning does work (from www.spongeuk.com)

But is it very effective? Sometimes yes. If you need your employees to learn something simple quickly then it’s hard to beat a well designed SCORM module but if you need to do something more significant, something more inspirational something that involves real learning then you need something more powerful.

Unpacking e-Learning

So what other types of e-learning are there? Well in the higher education sector the definition of e-learning is substantially different. Here e-learning is used primarily in support of face-to-face lecture delivery. Entire courses are constructed in a virtual learning environment (VLE), the equivalent of the corporate LMS, and used to engage with learners before and after face-to-face lectures and the occasional seminar. Most of the core ‘teaching’ is still delivered offline while the VLE acts like a learning resource centre with each course organised as a structured hierarchy of topics. The VLE is also used as a communication platform with discussions, profiles, calendars, and blogs shared between learners and between learners and tutors. Sometimes VLE’s will also include packaged SCORM modules but this is the exception rather than the rule.

VLE’s are by their very nature more social than a standard corporate LMS. They manage not only learning activities and resources but also a range of communication channels between learners and facilitators. These ‘social’ communications include:

  • e-mail
  • discussion forums
  • instant messaging
  • blogs
  • wikis

To get value from these communication channels of course you need to be learning with others. In most educational situations this is the class or cohort you are learning with and that cohort will be supported by the course tutor.

Online learning path

Online Learning Path in Pathway (from www.willowdna.com)

Cohorts are rarely created in corporate LMS’ because they undermine some of the key benefits of the self paced approach.

Convergence is Coming

The two types of e-learning described are both valid in their own way but we are now seeing a degree of convergence between the two types. In the corporate world there is a lot of interest in encouraging learners to interact with each other and to add a social dimension to their e-learning. In the education sector there is a revival in online distance education where the VLE acts not just as the learning resources centre but as the primary platform for learning delivery. Lately universities and colleges have recognised that there are potentially large numbers of additional fee paying students beyond the physical campus and the VLE is a key enabler in delivering learning to these virtual students.

These shifting requirements are creating demand for new types of learning platforms and existing platforms are being used in innovative new ways. Corporate LMS’ are getting more social while VLEs are increasingly using multimedia assets such as video and interactive SCORM modules.

These are interesting times for learning technologists.

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