elearning over face to face learning

I cut my teeth almost twenty years ago in the training industry as a Dale Carnegie Trainer Trainee. I stumbled into the position by chance, and as it turned out going through almost three years of training just to become qualified to teach one course was a life-changing experience.

Training is About People, Not Machines

Everything we were trained to do was connected to being able to see something positive and constructive in each participant that would hopefully be an ‘aha’ moment for them as they discovered new things about themselves and slowly and consistently built on them. I can still remember during our final ‘accreditation week’ for that initial course, if during any of the training and coaching sessions, we gave half hearted feedback to the learner like “that’s great” or “fantastic” without backing it up with a reason, the assessing facilitator would literally throw the book at us – and it hurt. In my mind, whether it was communication training, presentation training, leadership training or customer service, it was hard-wired into my belief system that training was a personal and even intimate interaction with someone that had to be done face to face.

At that time, e-Learning was in its infancy and although I am a technophile, I believed that there was a time and a place for technology – and it wasn’t the time nor the place to take training into the heartless world of the digital teacher. I suppose it’s probably important to tell you now that I felt the same way when a company called Microsoft announced that they would launch a product called ‘Windows’ in the early 90’s. I thought to myself at the time “Who in their right mind would want to use a graphical user interface like that? Computer owners had everything they ever needed in the DOS prompt”.

Times Change – And So Does Bandwidth

Over the past 15 years, I have seen the world of online training grow and change. These changes have put the whole concept of online learning in a new place of good stead with me however there are several pre-requisites that I would require before I believed that online training was a viable substitute for face to face training.

There have been two major technical issues that have plagued the world of online learning as it has been evolving over the past twenty years. The first is the tools and technology used to create learning content.

In the very early days of e-Learning, whoever was creating the content also needed to have a degree of technical and often coding expertise to be able to create the learning modules. When Adobe’s Flash came along it was a Godsend to content creators, however even with authoring and animation tools like Flash had quite a steep learning curve and to even contemplate making something of real substance by a teacher was daunting. The result, if a content-creation project was actually seen through until the end often ended up as sub-standard content that underwhelmed learners that just couldn’t compare to the real face to face learning experience that a learner could have with a dynamic teacher / training / facilitator.

If a good piece of content could be created, schools and training departments faced their next problem – bandwidth. As course content development tools started to improve and course authors started to create much more aesthetically appealing content using tools such as Flash, Adobe Captivate and Articulate Storyline, the learners’ experience was rained upon due to the excessive time it took for these media rich courses to load.

Standardisation and SCORM

In the late 90’s e-Learning content was being pumped out in all different forms and formats by learning institutions and more importantly, the US government. To try and bring some cohesion to the whole situation, pushed along by the US government, there was a push to bring some standards to the industry. In the 2004 after a couple of earlier iterations, the SCORM (Sharable Content Object Reference Model) 2004 standard was established and really started to make online learning a viable option. With SCORM, as long as the content was created to be SCORM compliant, learning content of all different formats and created with any kind of content creation tool could be run on a common Learning Management System (LMS) in a school, university or company’s training department and information about the learner and how they learned could be tracked and stored. SCORM allowed organisations to see whether a user had started a lesson or not, whether or not it was completed, what their score was if that lesson had a quiz and whether or not they had passed or failed that lesson.

Customising Learning to Individual Learners

SCORM has been the standard for many years now for online learning content. The most recent developments in technology however mean that truly amazing things can be done with e-Learning and it’s these latest developments that have bought me over and made me a new ‘believer’ in e-Learning.

In 2013, ‘Experience API’ or ‘Tin Can API’ was announced as the latest official offshoot of SCORM. In a nutshell, Tin Can API allows creators of learning content to create truly interactive content that develops real skills and tests real knowledge of learners, all the while tracking whatever aspect of the learning experience that they believe is something of value to educators. As learners go through and ‘experience’ the learning content, messages about their learning in an ‘actor-verb-object’ structure can be stored in a Learning Record Store or ‘LRS’. Those messages might be things like:

  • Mary read the first chapter of ‘World Class Customer Service’
  • Mary watched the first 12mins of the video clip ‘Guest Registration Procedures’
  • Mary passed her exam ‘Introduction to our Hotel’s PMS System’ after 3 attempts
  • Mary has a weak learning area in Credit Card procedures

You can see how much more powerful this kind of learner information can be. As the learner ‘experiences’ learning, a customized learning path can be delivered to them depending on what they are required to learn and where learning strengths and weaknesses are identified. If a weakness is identified for a particular learner, they can be delivered extra content that helps them become more proficient in their weak areas.

Don’t Fall into the PowerPoint Trap

We are only now reaching a time where bandwidth has caught up with the technology course authors are using to create and deploy e-Learning. There is a delicate dance going on right now. As technology gets more advanced, content becomes much more rich but the downside is that it also means larger files need to be delivered to students. At the same time, as learning is moving onto mobile devices, trying to compress the size of these files is also a priority as smaller files with limited mobile data bandwidth will make delivering learning content to much larger audiences much more viable.

Another thing is happening that is going to be potentially harmful to the industry. You might remember back in the 90’s when Microsoft PowerPoint was introduced into workplaces. All of a sudden, the ability to be a great presenter played second fiddle to a laptop, LCD screen and slide after slide of cold, text laden, mind-numbing slides – that on occasion would have ‘buzz’ and ‘woosh’ sounds with every inconsistent slide transition. I have even heard people gauge the quality of a presentation by how many slides it has –

“How is the presentation preparation going?”

“Oh great, this one is a 50-slider!”.

How did we end up measuring the quality of a presentation by the amount of PowerPoint slides rather than the quality of the delivery by the presenter?

A similar thing is happening now. There are now some amazing tools out there that allow anyone to create rich online learning content with interactivity, quizzes and SCORM and Tin Can API tracking capability. The down side is similar to what happened back in the 90’s with PowerPoint. People are not being trained on best practice of how to use these tools resulting in awkwardly put together courses that in some cases, look and feel like something that only a mother could love.

It seems that as we head towards mobile-friendly content and as Adobe Flash is in its death throes, the ‘slide’ based concept of e-Learning and presentations are on their way out and a more fluid, scrolling, responsive design model is gaining popularity. There is an open source e-Learning content framework that looks very promising called Adapt that allows beautiful, responsive, SCORM and Tin Can API compliant learning modules to be created and deployed to suit any device and screen size.

Other websites are touting their e-Learning capabilities, but only really deliver one way ‘video’ learning experiences and if you’re lucky you might get a quiz at the end to test how well you can remember the one-way communication you have received.

I personally felt that if I was going to support the concept of e-Learning, then I may as well do it wholeheartedly. Over the past three years, I learnt how to use many of the technologies that are out there and even built with my team a SCORM compliant platform that allows me (and other authors) to run their content and track how it is being used along with the learners’ progress. I personally pushed myself to the limit trying to not only imitate the face to face learning experience that I would have delivered in the class room, but use technology to improve it. One of the wonderful things that we have using e-Learning rather than face to face learning is time. Rather than having to be limited to access to a trainer during the limited time of the training sessions, now activities can be created where learners can drill themselves over and over again until they develop a degree of mastery in a learning area.

Larger hotel chains nowadays have their own centralised e-Learning solutions for their people, but the smaller hotels don’t have that luxury. Many of those hotels are either just satisfied with providing on the job peer training, or perhaps subscribe to some one-way video based training so that they can tick the training compliance boxes. I would like to see a world where great content is being created by the best minds in each industry and then brought together and made available to all levels of business – not just the five star hotel chains. Hopefully we can play a small role in helping to facilitate that happening.

I would encourage anyone in a position to make training decisions for your hotels and organisations to look at e-Learning and ‘Blended Learning’ where face to face learning whether in a class room or via a webinar, Google Hangouts or Skype is combined with rich, interactive, experiential learning content. From my own experience, you can not only match the quality of training with face-to-face training, but in many cases now exceed what had been capable in the past.