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A Publication of WTVP

A young professional sits at home with her laptop open and a cup of coffee, some books, a notepad and her children sitting next to her doing their homework. She smiles into the camera and says she is pursuing her degree while juggling the demands of being a working mother by taking courses online.

This is a familiar scene that plays out in homes across our region. People are streaming to online learning in record numbers for courses that range from the fun to the serious, for personal growth or career development, taking a single course or completing an entire degree without stepping foot on a college campus. The latest survey report from the Sloan-C Consortium states, “Over 4.6 million students were taking at least one online course during the fall 2008 term, a 17 percent increase over the number reported the previous year.” Busy, working adults need education and training that is flexible, that works into their hectic schedules but still provides an engaging learning experience.

Online learning is more convenient and cost-effective. In its report, Association E-learning 2009: State of the Sector, the Tagoras market research firm found that nearly 90 percent of the trade and professional associations they surveyed are using eLearning for education or plan to within the coming year. Budget cuts for travel is one factor driving the growth of eLearning for educational events.

“That’s an important short-term driver,” said Tagoras Managing Director Jeff Cobb, “but there are also more fundamental, long-term factors like the growth in ‘green’ thinking, the fact that eLearning technologies have gotten so much cheaper and easier to use, and of course, the rise of generations that are comfortable doing pretty much everything online. Associations who are not offering eLearning will need to start. Those who are will need to grow the quantity and the quality of their offerings.”

For instance, it would be hard to think about learning to scuba dive online. But the Professional Association of Diving Instructors, the world’s leading scuba diving training organization, provides all of their course work through eLearning because it’s easier for individuals to do the course work on their own schedules and then gather at the pool or water’s edge for practice and certification. This is just one association that is using the advantages of eLearning to improve services to their membership.

Using technology in teaching is not a new concept. Back in the 1930s, lectures were broadcast over the radio, and in the ‘60s, telecourses became available. The ‘80s saw computers in the classroom, and with the advent of browser software and the birth of the World Wide Web in the mid-‘90s, eLearning became the “new” technology. Research and best practices have promoted improvement in the effectiveness of online offerings and learning environments. Projects such as the Quality Matters course review program (qualitymatters.org) have provided guidelines that have improved the quality of online learning. Additionally, more people are choosing online learning because it supports their learning preferences and they feel they can learn better in a flexible, online environment. Increasingly, educators are finding that they can present content and design learning activities for the online environment that just aren’t possible in physical classrooms.

eLearning—Instruction and information that is delivered by electronic technologies.

Learning Management System (LMS)—Software systems used to manage student data and records for online and classroom learning. May be combined with integrated learning modules to provide a complete online course.

Instructional design
—The process by which instruction is improved through the analysis of learning needs and systematic development of learning materials. Instructional designers often use technology and multimedia as tools to enhance instruction.

Threaded discussions—Using electronic programs such as listservs or online discussion forums allows a person to follow one particular subject in a series of messages posted to the discussion. In a threaded discussion, all messages are grouped by topic, making it easier to follow a single line of discussion.

Asynchronous
—Communication not at the same time or place. Communication with a delay that allows participants to respond at a different time from when the message was sent or posted.

Synchronous
—Interactive communication with no time delay. Communication at the same time but not necessary in the same place.

Advantages of eLearning
John Feser is the managing partner of the Learn Practice Area for the Iona Group, a corporate communications company located in Morton, Illinois. “eLearning provides a type of learning that can’t be done in a classroom,” said Feser. “For example, a learner can actually experience what can happen on a job site.” Simulations can be built to function with different scenarios that respond to the input provided by the learner. Some simulations can be simple, providing correct or incorrect answers, but others can become more complex, game-like scenarios that operate through a decision tree that gives a true cause-and-effect experience to learners. “Simulation gives us a way to visualize what’s going on in ways that can’t be accomplished with a whiteboard,” Feser adds.

Gaming, which has long been viewed only in the domain of entertainment, is now being used in educational venues with good results. And why not? Ask any avid gamer, young and old, and they will, with great enthusiasm, name all of the characters, their characteristics and powers, the paths and traps in the various levels of the games, and the techniques needed to “beat” the game. Teachers can only hope that their students would exhibit the same exuberance and knowledge of content. In fact, the Iona Group is proposing an educational game on the justices of the Supreme Court that will hopefully produce this type of excitement and learning.

Methodist College of Nursing is offering an RN-BSN degree fully online through a combination of synchronous and asynchronous learning activities. Although the majority of students enrolled in this program are local, they are not required to come to campus; the library and student services are available to them online. This is conducive to the varied schedules of the students who are all practicing nurses working varied days and shifts, most of whom have family responsibilities.

Two Peoria-area hospitals are finding eLearning to be an advantageous solution to ongoing needs to educate healthcare personnel who have varied and hectic schedules. Nancy Neal, clinical nurse specialist at Methodist Medical Center, says the organization is using eLearning in nursing orientation and education, as well as organization-wide safety/compliance training. The Critical Care unit is using an eLearning orientation program called Essentials of Critical Care Orientation 2.0, which was developed and delivered online through the American Association of Critical-Care Nurses.

Methodist nurse educators are using an Adobe program called Captivate to create interactive, hands-on, scenario-type eLearning modules. Neal says this type of learning environment meets the needs of a variety of learners and provides flexibility for busy schedules. Assessments are graded online, allowing the trainee to get immediate feedback. They can take the assessment again until they pass without requiring personnel to oversee the program. Additionally, employees can use online learning modules as a just-in-time knowledge resource to answer questions or to refresh knowledge as needed on the job.

Lois Bentler-Lampe, director of professional development at OSF Saint Francis Medical Center, reports that although they started out on a small scale with eLearning, it is now their favored way of providing education and training. “We are probably doing about 20 percent of our training through eLearning, but it’s definitely growing.” Bentler-Lampe sees two advantages: flexibility and oversight. It is difficult to “get everyone into a classroom when they are all working at different times on different days.” She points to the Preceptor Course, which starts with a one-hour, on-site classroom session and then moves online, where learners go through weekly assignments and participate in online discussions. Bentler-Lampe feels that the discussions are key components of these courses as the mechanism that allows them to explore their learning in interaction with nurses from other areas, which broadens their perspectives beyond their own areas.

The Challenges
Although many organizations are experiencing success with eLearning, there are challenges. Feser has seen this first-hand when working with companies. “eLearning is a result of first looking at business goals and identifying gaps between current behaviors and desired behaviors, and then coming up with a good solution to fill the gap. Many try to throw eLearning at a problem without the analysis.”

Neal has had to redesign some of the eLearning modules that were created by content experts who have no background in education or instructional design. “They were very wordy and didn’t use adult learning principles at all,” she said. “You really need to have someone who has a background in education working on eLearning projects.”

A similar trend was observed a little over a decade ago as higher education institutions started putting courses online. Using a technique that came to be known as “shovelware,” instructors were taking the PowerPoint presentations and lecture notes they used in their classrooms and “shoveling” them online without considering the differences between the physical and online classrooms and the unique advantages offered by the online environment. These first attempts at online learning often met with high drop-out rates and students who felt isolated, disconnected and disappointed. The past decade has seen practitioners and researchers discovering best practices for course design and interactive teaching methods that enable both instructors and students to thrive in the online environment.

Current Trends
Both Feser and Bentler-Lampe point to increased interactivity with content as being the trend in eLearning. Learners are no longer satisfied with the page-turners commonly seen in computer-based training and early eLearning courses. Feser also points to mLearning, or learning through mobile devices, as having great potential for immersive, just-in-time, interactive learning as well as performance improvement tools on the job. The functionality of the new smartphones and technologies such as Apple’s iPad have opened up new possibilities for learning in all areas.

eLearning has come of age. It is a viable and advantageous option for working adults who need to juggle family, work responsibilities and geographic limitations. eLearning will continue to mature as technology advances, best practices are adopted, and organizations and educators embrace its full potential. Organizations can take advantage of this potential. It is important for them to utilize experts in adult learning, instructional design and best practices in eLearning, in partnership with content experts, to develop truly effective online training and education. iBi

Eli Collins-Brown, EdD is director of instructional technology and faculty development for the Methodist College of Nursing.

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