For many people, the public image of education is the classroom: a building with teachers talking, with learners intently listening and taking notes. Learning is regulated by both the biology and the ecology of the individual. The classroom has always been a critical, and costly, component of this ecology.
People learn best when they are able to use all their senses and when they are motivated to learn what is being taught  as it makes sense to their needs and desires.  When they are in communication with a machine they can often lose a lot that they need: gestures, body language, facial expressions, tone, pitch, smell. All of these things they experience in a face-to-face interaction with a trainer or teacher. But 

it is all to often assumed that a trainer/teacher can see immediately when someone doesn’t follow and can intervene and tailor the content to the learner and unfortunately only the very best trainers/teachers are able to do this and the more students there are the harder it is to achieve. Of course learners, can signal if they have issues, but most drift along in the middle somewhere. Online, monitoring an individual is much easier to achieve providing the assessment model is effective as it can track each step however many students there are in the group.

There is also an issue in exploring what is to be delivered on each medium.  Skills, Knowledge and Understanding are often grouped together as if they are interchangeable which they are not. Added to this research on education is full of disappointing findings about what learners can’t do, don’t know, don’t understand, or misunderstand.

On line learning can be very successful, but only when designed correctly, for the correct purpose and with the end users needs in mind. First one has to consider the fundamentals of “what is the problem you are trying to solve and what is being delivered?” Once that question is answered, and we know the “WHAT”, we have to be diligent in understanding the audience and “HOW” they will use the content and for what purpose.

Whilst the assumption has been that face-to-face training — with a human being actually providing the training — leads to greater interaction than computer-based training, and as a result, leads to greater success, this assumption is not based on fact. Interactivity and new technologies have changed the way interaction can take place even in the conference room where technologies such as handsets are used. True e-learning can provide many, if not more, opportunities for interaction than traditional instructor-led training.  Most people today use the internet for their knowledge not a teacher, but a web-search does not on its own deliver true understanding in terms of application of that knowledge in context.

From a conceptual perspective, e-learning is a holistic view. Designing effective e-learning tools requires stepping back and evaluating what the aim of the learning is about AND the support the learner needs before, during and after the point of delivery. The resulting e-learning solution can include many of the traditional attributes of training and performance support as well as several new components enabled by technology.  But it is a new media.  Simply adding old materials to the new media can never work.  It requires a considered integrated (and blended) approach with an underlining structure that differs from traditional pedagogy.

The following depicts a blended e-learning scenario that includes a high degree of interaction:  To begin his learning experience, the learner logs onto a self-paced web-based-training program to familiarise themselves with basic concepts. The content is presented in modularised segments or chunks that are easy to absorb, and there are plenty of engaging interactions requiring input including joint on-line projects with fellow learners.  This is linked to a traditional learning system where one-to-one communication can be offered both virtually and in person by a teacher/tutor/employer where appropriate. Presentations, short video and a selected of choices to suit the learners individual needs are offered. The learner receives effective feedback immediately from the system on their progress and are also given the opportunity to go back and review material if necessary. If they have a question, they can browse the “frequently asked questions,” explore the more detailed online support or click a link to initiate a live chat with an expert. A physical training venue is also available for some of the aspects of learning, for example providing specialist equipment and machinery.

 As can be seen, a blended e-learning solution doesn’t prevent interaction from taking place. In fact, e-learning can actually increase interaction as it shifts the participant from a passive learning role to an active learning role. It also provides both the participant and the instructor with tools to measure real-time retention of information and allows for corrective measures to be made accordingly.

Face to Face On-Screen On-Line
Benefits Immediate feedback and support

Social aspects

Immediacy of feedback

Easy to see performance

Easily scalable

Possible to customise to individual needs

Easier tracking and assessment

Easier standardisation

Potential for increased participation

Incremental cost is lowered when spread over wide audience

Immediate feedback and support

Mentoring or coaching over time is possible

More cost effective

Challenges Teacher may be to busy to notice individuals needs

Requires a physical building

Usually linear, more timebound

Participation is limited by available time and need to “cover” content

Travel greatly increases cost

Not easily scalable

More costly

Boring when not enough consideration is given to interaction needs

May be challenging to use due to technology needs

Delayed or nonexistent feedback and support is common

May feel “remote”

Non-standardised quality

Can be time-consuming

May need to limit practice

Learner may be overwhelmed

By taking a holistic approach, a deliverer can arrive at a training process that is more engaging, more tailored and more effective than any traditional face-to-face learning.  Moves towards filliped classrooms have started the debate about what is best taught in what environment.  Maybe delivering knowledge in a physical classroom is not the best place for the activity, but delivering specific skills on specialist equipment does require a physical trainer.  The chart above assumes there is not a blended approach between all these delivery methods. This would deliver all the benefits of the different approaches at a more economical cost and is thus be a better business model. With the focus on the participant, blended e-learning can ensure learners fully master the content in sizable and relevant chunks. Segment the training to fit the segmented diverse audience.  The needs of the users matched to content that is properly designed with specific objectives.

Often organisations focus all their efforts upon the delivery message rather than considering the suitability of the asset structures for mashups across delivery methods and differentiated learner needs.  Having a blended learning approach is critical in the 21c. One great thing about virtual training is that it enables the learners to gain an extended learning experience right at their own choosing even in the middle of their work day or late in the evening. It is important, therefore, not to dilute that benefit by trying to cram 2 hours of training into an already hectic schedule. Virtual classes are at their most effective when they are focused, brief (1 hour or less) and interactive. Tailored and “chunked” into manageable pieces that match the individual learners needs. Logical break points in content and asset “chunks” made up of smaller, more focused segments and suited to a blended approach are vital.

Steve Cushing