What do we talk about when we talk about e-learning?
In the past, most courses and learning activities fell on one side of a dichotomy: they were either instructor-led or computer-based, either online or off, either synchronous or asynchronous. Today, the distinction is not quite so clear. Although there are still plenty of e-learning-only courses, blended courses are becoming increasingly popular from elementary to corporate classrooms. Even courses that may not specifically be “blended” are incorporating more digital elements and activities. In this new environment, e-learning is becoming less of a special category and more just a way to describe what happens in classrooms everywhere, every day.
Now that computers and mobile devices have become nearly ubiquitous, one of the biggest challenges to the adoption of education technology and e-learning practices is simply not knowing how to implement them. Here are four of today’s top e-learning trends and recommendations for implementing them immediately in your classroom, whether it is face-to-face, online, or a combination of both.
Microlearning is an extension and revisioning of the concept of chunking, which has been around since the mid-1950s, when psychologist George Miller published his famous paper that popularized the phrase “seven, plus or minus two.” The idea is that the human brain is generally able to keep between five and nine things in working memory, after which the information either needs to be converted to long-term memory or it will be forgotten (sounds familiar?). This limitation is widely familiar to e-learning professionals, instructional designers, and kindergarten teachers, but for some reason by the time you reach high school, college, and corporate training departments, educators seem to forget their own experience of spacing out during long, boring lectures and start delivering them regularly to their students. Then they wonder why their own students can’t apply, or even remember, what they were supposed to have learned.
Implementing microlearning can be as complex as transforming an entire e-learning course into flexible, on-demand, bite-sized learning activities that students can access on mobile devices, but it can also be as simple as basic chunking, i.e., dividing content into short, logically organized pieces. Here are three steps for implementing microlearning through chunking. This process can be used in any type of course, at any level, delivered via any modality.
- Create a hierarchy of the information. It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that all content in a course is equally important, but it simply isn’t true. Your students will not remember everything, and since so much information is readily available online, they don’t really need to. By establishing priorities and eliminating what is unnecessary, you can maximize the likelihood that they will remember what is most important.
- Group the content logically. Pieces of content that are similar should go together. This is a simple guideline that is easy to ignore, but grouping related content not only helps learners make relevant connections, but also helps keep both you and your students from getting lost in what can feel like a never-ending sea of information.
- Break it down into bite-sized pieces. The easiest way to do this is to start at the top and make your way toward the center: first break the entire course into themes, then the themes into modules, and finally the modules into individual learning activities. The general guideline is that each learning activity, whether it is a lecture or a mini-quiz, should take no more than 10 minutes.
Last year around this time, gamification was merely a buzzword, but now it is being used to increase learner motivation, engagement, and interaction in classrooms across the spectrum. By definition, gamification is the use of game elements and game mechanics in non-game situations. In practice, this can take many different forms, from using points, badges, and leaderboards (aka PBLs) to creating learning activities that incorporate narratives, quests, and boss fights (i.e., difficult challenges).
Gamification is being rapidly taken up in corporate training and other forms of workforce education, with generally positive results including increased sales and revenue, reduced training times, increased conversion rates, and increased customer retention. In schools, gamification has been shown to help children develop a positive attitude toward math, increase their attention span, and lower the amount of disruptive behavior.
Here are five ideas for introducing gamification into your classroom:
- Gamify the assessment system. One of the easiest ways to introduce game elements into a course is to gamify the assessment system. For example, Indiana University professor Lee Sheldon designed a system in which learners gain “experience points” by completing various learning activities. At the end of the course, their letter grades are determined by the number of experience points they earn.
- Issue digital badges for student accomplishments. Digital badges are micro-credentials that are closely tied to specific knowledge and skills. The research on them is still fairly preliminary, but there is evidence that badges increase learner motivation. Using the Mozilla Open Badges platform, any organization can create and issue badges. Best of all, it’s free.
- Use progress bars and levels to establish goals. Too often in traditional courses, the learning and achievement goals are unclear, and students never really know how they are doing until they’ve taken the final assessment. In games, however, players always know exactly where they are and what they need to do to succeed. Creating progress bars and levels for individual learning activities can allow students to set specific goals, assess their progress along the way, and provide intrinsic rewards for reaching those goals.
- Use role play. Role play in games is an excellent way for learners to develop communications and interpersonal skills, which are two of the top skills companies are looking for in new hires. This idea can be implemented anytime students work in teams. For example, having students fill designated group roles like facilitator, reporter, timekeeper, Devil’s advocate, and runner can improve the effectiveness of the teams.
- Use an online gamification platform. A variety of online platforms offer tools to gamify courses on a larger scale. For example, Badgeville is a gamification platform used by many organizations to increase employee motivation and drive customer engagement.
When you hear the term social media, chances are you immediately think of Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn. Though these are certainly the biggest social networking sites, the definition of social media can be expanded to include any type of online media platform that facilitates interaction and collaboration among learners. Social media can be used to create and distribute content, host online chats, create spaces for learners to share resources, facilitate the development of learning networks and communities, and much more.
Here are five ideas for using social media tools in online, offline, and blended classrooms:
- Have learners create and share multimedia content. YouTube (video) and Audacity (audio) are free tools you can use to create course content, and also to have learners create content. This is a great way for distributed users to share their ideas.
- Use social bookmarking sites for curating and sharing resources. Social bookmarking sites like Delicious and Pinboard allow users to easily curate, annotate, and share resources. One main advantage of using these sites is that the curation and sharing can continue long after the course is completed.
- Create a hashtag for course discussions. Many massive open online courses (MOOCs) utilize Twitter hashtags for both synchronous and asynchronous course discussions and this practice can easily be adopted for both traditional and e-learning courses as well.
- Encourage reflection and interaction through blogging. Blogging is an excellent platform for learners to engage in reflective practice and to share their experiences. Most of the top blogging platforms have private options so that learners can share only with others in the class.
- Create Google+ communities. Google+ is a highly versatile social media platform that offers the benefit of being more professional (and less distracting) than Facebook or Twitter. It also allows learners to easily separate their personal and educational or professional lives. Google+ can be used to share resources, collaborate on documents, and host live interactive sessions (Google hangouts).
Finally, if we had to pick just one top e-learning trend for 2014 (and probably 2015 as well), it would be mobile learning. People are using their mobile devices more than ever—to do more things than ever—and there is no sign yet of this trend slowing down. Students are bringing smartphones and tablets into classrooms, and employees are bringing them to work.
Mobile learning is unique in that it represents both a shift in how education is conceived (e.g., mobile learning is more “pull” rather than “push,” more learner-oriented, and much more flexible than traditional learning) and a platform to support other major e-learning trends (e.g., microlearning, social media, etc.). Here are some quick tips and best practices for implementing mobile learning:
- Create mobile-friendly content. Mobile-friendly content is short, concise, and light enough to not consume too much bandwidth. Mobile learning activities should be even shorter than the 10 minutes or so people can be expected to pay attention on a computer—a recent University of California study found that people working on a device switch tasks an average of every 2 minutes and 11 seconds.
- Introduce spaced, or distributed, practice. For knowledge retention and skill-building, nothing beats spaced practice, and mobile learning provides the perfect platform for introducing it into any course. Use a learning management system or even just a Tweet or email scheduling program to send single-question quizzes, reflection questions, or other mini-activities to students’ mobile devices. In this way, mobile learning supplements what is done in the classroom.
- Make it social. Between texting, social media, and Candy Crush, mobile devices provide ample opportunity for distraction. Make mobile learning engaging by making it an opportunity for social learning and interaction.
- Make it easy. No one wants to type long paragraphs or struggle through difficult site navigation on their mobile devices. If the interface is frustrating, learners simply won’t use it. Thus, the mobile learning mantra is KISS, aka “keep it simple, sweetie.” Many learning management systems offer easy mobile conversion, and social media tools like YouTube are also excellent for mobile. Virtual meeting and virtual classroom software is less conducive for mobile learning (at least on Smartphones), so if learners will be interacting with the course primarily via mobile devices, consider Twitter discussions with hashtags instead.
These four e-learning trends are currently among the easiest and most flexible in terms of immediate implementation. They can be used in any type of class, at any level, and within or outside of a learning management system. As e-learning tools improve, there will be even more ways to implement trends including adaptive learning and big data in more learning environments.
About the Author: David Miller is an educational researcher who has several years of experience in the field of teaching, online testing and training. He is associated with prestigious universities and many leading educational research organizations. Currently, he is pursuing research in online knowledge base software and is also a contributing author with ProProfs.