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Potential Pitfalls of Online Learning: Part 2

Last week we discussed the potential pitfalls of on-line learning design when one does not carefully consider the business needs, the learners’ needs and how to match those needs with an appropriate technology solution.  This week we discuss underestimating the cost, time and resources.

Pitfall #4: Underestimating the value of a live trainer/facilitator

Some people are surprised by the significant upfront and maintenance costs associated with online learning because they forget the qualities brought to training by a good trainer or facilitator. A well-seasoned facilitator with charisma can often bring stale training materials to life.  If the material is not connecting with student s or if there are changes that need to be made to the curriculum, the face-to-face facilitator is often able to adapt on the fly. In the hands of an experienced facilitator, even the most boring curriculum can be effective.  Experienced facilitators also are able to provide multiple approaches to the same concepts to adapt to different learning styles, such as providing illustrations, pointing out reading materials, or using analogies.

Online learning is unable to adapt on the fly the way a real person can. Therefore, it takes a lot more up front work to make sure the training is connecting with students. There needs to be multiple pathways of learning. The price of not putting in all this time may result in stale or unpolished interaction model where students feel disengaged.

There also needs to be a budget for updating the material and incorporating the user feedback. A trainer does these updates as part of their work, but with online learning, this step needs to be explicitly performed.

By underestimating the value of a live trainer, many people run into:

Pitfall #5: Underestimating the amount of time it takes to create online learning

When considering the cost of flying a person to Nairobi (plus hotel and living expenses) to conduct a training every year, the return on investment for online learning seems clear.  However, it is important to understand the upfront cost and time you need to invest. While a face-to-face training with an experienced trainer can take up to 10 hours to prepare and deliver one hour of training, it is estimated that online learning takes from 50-125 hours (depending on the complexity of the interactions) to produce one hour of learning.  Why?

The elements that go into developing an online learning course include:

This increased cost is because of the need to build into the system the flexibility that a live human offers to meet the learners’ needs. Building into your design a lot of user testing is critical, since you don’t have a live facilitator to visually gauge how the materials are being understood (or when students’ eyes glaze over).
You also need to make sure the entire course delivery has been tested on similar technology and infrastructure that the students will use. For example, will they be sharing a computer in a public location or on a tablet they own?  Will everyone have the same brand/operating system? Will bandwidth be an issue?  Your course may be fine if one person is taking it, but 30 – or 300 students in the same computer lab may cause issues.  Are there restrictions on downloading or installing extensions or accessing certain pages on the internet?  (This is very common in government or school computer systems.)  Do you need to follow accessibility requirements (if funded by a government agency) such as American Disabilities Act (ADA) Section 508 compliance?

And even if you get it right in the first design iteration, another major pitfall is…

Pitfall #6: Not planning for maintenance, such as periodic content updates, hardware and software improvements

Even when enough effort has been put into design of the online learning materials, it still needs to be reviewed and updated. Content can go out of date quickly. Technology invariably needs to be updated. We often recommend an annual re-evaluation of the content based on user feedback and performance metrics with a full redesign every three years. If that sounds like a lot, revisit your return on investment numbers.
Hardware and software also need to be reviewed annually, as technology changes very quickly. What was once the cutting edge is after three years dull and old fashioned. New functionality becomes expected (just think of how social media has invaded everything these days!). Bugs creep into systems, security patches need to be deployed, and hard drives fill up or crash. At the very least, you need to cover the costs for hosting, backups and archives, as well as addressing security issues.

 Stay Tuned for parts #7-9!

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