What are Your Three Biggest Lessons Learned in Online Learning?

I was at a university recently facilitating a workshop with a group of very keen and dedicated faculty members and online course developers. We were brainstorming big-picture concepts about the things that contribute to an excellent online learning experience. And we were also grappling with identifying some of the nitty-gritty strategies and approaches that can be used to achieve deep learning and high levels of student engagement.

It was a great interchange of ideas and experiences. Inevitably, I learn as much as the participants during such events, and come away recharged and re-dedicated, with a boatload of ideas and approaches to try on my various online learning development projects. (What a great gig: getting paid to do what you love and learning valuable insights in the process. It doesn’t get better than that!)

Near the end of the workshop a faculty member, who was being connected to the proceedings remotely from another location via Skype, asked me a question that left me slightly flummoxed. She asked, “Having been in this field for so many years, what are the three biggest lessons you have learned?” I must have looked like a deer in the headlights when I got this one. It should be a fairly easy question to answer, but I hesitated for a long time and thought deeply about this. Where do you start? What have I learned after all these years? How do you identify just three top lessons?

After a long pause, I blurted out an answer. But I don’t really remember what I said at the time because it had been a long session, I was starting to fade because of an all-day adrenaline rush, and my head was spinning like a hard drive trying to find the right files. And there is a lot of pressure in such a question. It is like asking “what are your fundamental beliefs about what you do every day.”

I don’t think I embarrassed myself too much with my answer, but when I got back to my office the next day I deliberately took some time to ponder my three biggest lessons so I would be ready next time someone asked this question. Also, answering this question is a good exercise in reflective practice. Here is what I came up with in the end.

Lesson #1: Always Put Yourself in the Learner’s Shoes

When designing a course and when a facilitating course, you should always try to see things from the learner’s perspective. Imagine yourself doing the activities in the course and imagine yourself completing the assignments. Would you feel engaged? Would you feel challenged? Would you want to dig deeper? Would you look forward to logging in and working on the course? Would you give it your best effort?

If you answer “no” to any of these questions, then why would you want to subject others to such a learning experience? Looking at things from the learner’s perspective sounds like such an obvious thing to do, but we generally do not do this. We tend to focus more on how we design and teach a course than on how learners experience it. And for many faculty members I have worked with over the years, adopting the learner’s perspective has been revelatory. It changes the way they teach, both online and in person.

Learners can see when there has not been a lot of thought or care put into a course. They are very perceptive. If you don’t put your heart into, neither will they. And why should they?

Lesson #2: Pedagogy Trumps Technology

I have been in the eLearning field, in one capacity or another, for a very long time. The one constant throughout all this time is that I have come across far too many people who think that there exists some technological “silver bullet” that will solve all their problems. Whether talking about eLearning authoring software or virtual classroom technology or learning management systems, there is this constant search for the new next best thing. What such people forget, at their peril, is that these technologies are just tools. If you do not have skilled people wielding these tools, the results are awful, no matter how good the tools.

Any organization that is producing top quality online learning is spending most of its money on skilled personnel (trained faculty, instructional designers, HTML programmers, graphic artists, multimedia programmers, etc., etc.), and a fraction on learning technologies. Those that devote the majority of their budget to learning technologies and hand them over to their faculty after a crash three-hour workshop on their use, are doomed to failure.

Lesson #3: Context Trumps Content

I continue to see far too many educators and trainers focused on teaching content as if we were still in the middle ages. There is still too much focus on low-level learning objectives centred on having learners remember and recall information. It is as if information is some sort of scarce commodity to be treasured and doled out. And it is as if the information is the end in itself.

However, via a five second Google search, anyone can find more information about any given topic than he/she will be able to process in a lifetime. Content is not the problem. Context is the problem. What does all this information mean? What is relevant among all this information? What is signal, and what is noise? How can I apply this information to solve problems? In other words, how can I develop the skills to change information into knowledge?

This should be the focus of education and training. We should be moving beyond low-level learning objectives focused on memory recall of facts toward higher level learning objectives that focus on application, analysis, synthesis, and evaluation (i.e. higher up the scale of Bloom’s taxonomy of learning objectives).

So, well after I was specifically asked about them, these are my three biggest lessons.

What are yours?

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