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Potential Pitfalls of Online Learning: Part 1

With more than 18 years of experience designing learning in a digital format dating back to clunky desktop applications (CBT anyone?) and CD-ROMs (when server space was scarce and connectivity slow) to riding the wave of mobile and cloud-based performance support applications, Siobhan and I have come to understand some of the intricacies in designing online learning.

We have designed online learning from Uganda to Fairfax County and as technology changed along with our hair color, we gained some lessons along the way. In this blog series we will share potential pitfalls you want to avoid when designing and delivering learning online.

 Pitfall #1: Starting with the technology instead of the need.

I guess we should never be surprised by the allure of shiny, shimmering technology. However, when we hear “we are not sure what it will look like, but we are sure that we want to use a mobile app,” or “let’s create a community of practice,” or even “we want our site to use gaming technology?” we raise a red flag.

These are all examples of where a client has started with the technology solution rather than the learning or performance need. We get it; technology can be cool and there is a lot of pressure to be collaborating, blogging and sharing online. It can feel like you are being left out if you don’t get your own app. Or you are worried that you are stuck in the last century if your learning solution doesn’t use gaming and simulations.

However, this approach is putting the cart before the horse. A learning solution needs to be tied to a business or performance problem. Once this is defined and articulated along with the demographics of your learners, a timeline, budget, and other factors, then we choose the most appropriate technology.

A mobile app can be incredibly valuable, if your learners have smartphones or tablets, broadband data access, and have a strong preference for learning on the go. However, we find mobile apps are better for a small subset of tasks that happen while you are away from your main machine; apps are great for data capture, quick look ups during meetings or short instructional videos.  They are considerably less useful for thoughtful analysis and anything that requires typing in long chunks of text.

Gaming and scenario-based learning can very powerful, but let’s unpack what exactly you want your learners to know before making that investment. The worst mistake when trying to do use gamification on a shoe-string budget is using a metaphor common in gaming (e.g. a puzzle or dashboard) without thinking through the functionality, content and goals of your learner. Also beware of overuse of skeuomorphism(We will discuss that in another blog post.)

Pitfall #2:  Assuming your business needs for the learning solution are the same as the learner’s needs.

Fundamentally, online learning is an investment with a goal – you want to change behavior in your learners in a fundamental way that will lead to a benefit for your organization. But, in order for online learning to succeed, it also has to meet a need of your learners.

And the worst part? Your business needs and the learner’s needs are usually not the same.

Understanding what THEIR needs are is key to designing a solution that will be effective. Some examples of learner’s needs may include:

To design effective online courses or performance support tools, you have to know what your learner’s needs are and figure out what success looks like to them. If you can link their needs to your business needs, the more effective your learning solutions will be!

Pitfall #3: Assuming online learning is the only solution.  

We have found that a new online course or instructor-led training can often be used as a bandage for a much larger problem of organizational culture. When a cultural or behavioral change is required, online learning, or any training, will be insufficient to bring the change required. For example, if a company wants to increase staff’s utilization rates, an online course in time management may not fully address the problem. If a company wants to increase diversity of their staff, even a well-designed diversity module may not cut it.

Instead, online learning tools can be designed as part of the package of interventions to support behavior and organizational change. We are big fans of blended solutions that utilize instructor-led training, online tools and online resources.

We also find that web applications can be stealth change management tools by providing guided processes for employees, as well as tracking performance. Web-applications based on business needs that also take into account learner’s needs can provide appropriate data at decision making points in an employee’s work processes. As a result, employees can make better decisions or take new strategies and approaches into account. By limiting the number of choices available, and through timely reminders of new processes, new policies can be implemented throughout an organization. And finally, by making these tools easy to use (or at least easier than doing it the “old way”), the transition can be easier.

Read for Pitfalls #4-6 related cost, effectiveness and impact.

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