Online Instruction Strategies Require Close Examination

January 2000
By Maryann Lawlor
E-mail About the Author

Distance education specialists agree that learning has never been a place--it has always been a process.

The smell of fat crayons, the snap of three-ring binders and the crack of book spines as they open for the first time bring back memories of those old school days. Students today, both in the classroom and on the job, are more familiar with the hum of a hard drive and glow of a monitor screen. One thing, however, has not changed--the up-front expenses for an education rarely reflect the final cost.

Organizations planning to engage warp engines into cyberspace for their personnel training programs can expect to encounter harsh realities as they rev up to offer online courses. Hardware platforms and software programs will be their first investments, but they surely will not be their last ones, online education experts agree. Continuous instructor training and ample technical support are ongoing, though hidden expenses. Marketing costs, expenditures not typically associated with training programs, are critical to influencing people to try distance learning. While these line items will add to the total cost of distance learning, they should not prevent organizations from initiating programs that will benefit the employees and ultimately the company, education specialists say.

Mail order correspondence courses, around for several decades, are the predecessors of today's distance learning effort. While the information age brings with it a life-long learning requirement, it also furnishes the means to deliver curricula directly to the home or office desktop. Companies quickly recognized the benefits of the technology-enabled technique, which allowed them to train hundreds of employees without the cost in time or money to send workers to remote locations for instruction.

Distance learning has continued to evolve during the past 15 years. Increased access to satellite links allow teachers in one location to instruct students at multiple sites around a city or around the globe. Compact disc technology facilitates the distribution of course material much like traditional correspondence courses but at a fraction of the weight. But when instructors began using the connectivity of the Internet to combine the two approaches, another distance education style emerged--online learning.

Experts agree that, as a teaching and learning method, online education is still in its infancy and is giving participants all the surprises, uncertainties and pride experienced by new parents. How organizations address the issue now will determine if this new arrival on the pedagogical scene will grow into a strong contender for corporate training dollars.

The elements of a classroom will play a key role in how online education matures. Like the traditional setting, the virtual learning environment includes teachers, students and course material. Also as in the conventional classroom, an interactive dynamic and one-on-one assistance is critical to the learning process.

Online instruction resembles the traditional educational process in another way. Both involve asynchronous and synchronous components. Standard learning environments operate in the asynchronous mode when teachers deliver lectures or students read assigned textbook material on their own time. The synchronous component occurs during discussion periods when teachers answer students' questions or class participants break off into smaller groups to talk about the material.

In the cyberenvironment, asynchronous activities include reading or listening to lecture material. Assignments also are generally worked on independently. To facilitate the synchronous portion of a class, bulletin boards or chat rooms are set up or students communicate through e-mail, videoconferencing or teleconferencing. These techniques offer the added benefit of anonymity for class participants. Supervisors and subordinates alike are more inclined to ask questions when they are not afraid of appearing foolish in front of each other if asking remedial questions or offering unpopular opinions.

In addition, because online communication requires students to be effective in communicating through writing, some corporate supervisors have found that they arrive in the work place with better writing skills than new hires who have acquired their degrees through the traditional classroom.

Because of the differences between actual and virtual learning environments, instructors must tailor their course material to the online environment, offers Vicky Phillips, chief executive officer, geteducated.com, Waterbury, Vermont. However, it is not just a matter of taking the information that was prepared for the classroom and putting it online. "If there's not a lot more going into it, then there's something wrong," she says. Unfortunately, this message is not being conveyed to many online teachers, which results in bad experiences in online learning for students. "Teachers need to change their format and build an online learning community. Teaching online changes the entire role of faculty. It unbundles the role of teachers," she adds.

Dr. Brandon Hall, editor, brandon-hall.com, Sunnyvale, California, agrees. His company helps organizations develop and evaluate online training programs and materials, assisting them with current programs and providing information about the hundreds of currently available tools. "If instructors take existing course material and hurl it online, people will react accordingly," Hall says.

Elliott D. Masie is president of The MASIE Center, Saratoga Springs, New York, an international think tank dedicated to exploring the intersection of learning and technology. He believes teachers must create an experience in the online classroom that is equivalent to the traditional setting. "There needs to be innovation and imagination, and we're just at the beginning of that road," Masie says. He compares it to the advent of television when one camera and a "talking head" were considered a revolutionary advancement. "Arthur Godfrey looked good, but later the show's creators wanted him to move around and wanted to use more than one camera so they went to using three cameras. But now we have evolved to using what, 38 cameras to cover a football game? In three years, we will get there É to the point where online learning has evolved to be more than just reading online," he explains.

Phillips and Hall agree that the way to bring about this evolution is by training the trainers on how to present material in a new way. The online student body requires collaborative, well-organized material, but tremendous confusion persists among people who are trying to provide online learning, Hall says. "There is a new way of communicating through this new medium. It is designing interactive presentation," he adds.

Bringing order to this chaos is a lucrative venture for companies interested in selling solutions. According to Hall, the estimated worldwide expenditures for online education are $2 trillion--$740 billion in the United States alone. Government and corporate work force training account for $90 billion of this total. In addition, while only 10 percent of all employee training takes place online today, current projections are that by the end of 2002, 50 percent of all work-related training will take place in the cyberclassroom.

Improvements in delivery mechanisms is one factor sure to contribute to this growth, according to Dr. Alan Chute, director, Center for Excellence in Distance Learning, Lucent Technologies, Cincinnati, Ohio. "In the past, organizations had to implement separate systems, but now, with Internet technology, it is easier, and they don't have to build infrastructure to deliver training to the desktop. We're on the precipice of launching broadband multimedia services. This presents the opportunity to offer enhanced learning environments through video and audio. Things are changing. It used to be that you were tied to phone lines and their capabilities. But now we have things like DSL [digital subscriber line] and ADSL [asymmetric DSL] that can deliver great transmission speeds for about $40 a month. We also have cable modems that are being put into place É and things like low-earth-orbit satellites like Iridium and Teledesic that will provide access to those people who don't have access to DSL or cable," Chute explains.

This increased use of cyberspace to deliver educational material can have beneficial effects for the traditional classroom, according to Dr. Lynne M. Schrum, associate professor of instructional technology at the University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia. "The key is for the teacher to look at what can be done to ensure the success of online learning. If a person is willing to start with a zero base and say, ÔWhat do I want my students to learn?' the students are happier and the teachers do better. If they did this for the classroom material, it would probably have the same effect. The good news is that traditional classes are far superior once the teacher has done the online preparation," she explains.

Cyberspace also makes it easier to hold instructors accountable for providing effective learning material in classes. Because lessons are readily accessible, school or training supervisors can scrutinize them and quickly weed out below average presentations or address the problem with the instructor.

The benefits of online instruction do not come without a cost, however. While many organizations are touting the savings in time and money that distance education generates, Schrum warns that determining the bottom line is not so simple. "The institutional thought is that online learning is worth the outlay of funds since the outlay one time works in many settings. But it doesn't work that way. You need a lot of tech support and people expect 24/7 support technically. The teacher is also expected to give 24/7 attention. Then, if something goes wrong, you have to back up and figure out if it was the technology that was causing the problem or the way the material was presented," she offers.

Phillips agrees that the technology itself is no small piece of the online training puzzle. "There are more than 250 choices of software out there, and this has created a nightmare of options, and I mean a nightmare. It's nothing to say $250,000 in start-up costs, and [offering] synchronous is even more expensive. Synchronous gives you advantages, but they may not be the advantages you need, so you have to look at it. Also, the programs have about a three-month life cycle, so you need constant support, testing and upgrades. I want to forewarn anyone who gets these tasks," Phillips says.

Additional and perhaps continuous training for instructors will be another expense tied to delivering online education. In addition, as teachers are required to develop not only new material, but also new ways to present it, they expect additional remuneration for their efforts.

This is a reasonable expectation, according to Dr. Robert W. Tucker, president, InterEd Incorporated, Phoenix, Arizona, a company that provides research-based intelligence and assessment services to colleges, universities, training companies, corporations and government agencies. In addition to expanded duties for individual teachers, the cyberenvironment requires that more instructors become involved in distance learning. Trainers determined that large class sizes, while acceptable in lecture halls, were not conducive to learning in the virtual environment. Professors soon realized that the individual attention students expected could not be delivered unless fewer than 10 students were in a course section.

He also cites another unanticipated cost of online learning--marketing. "You save on the physical plant costs, but you add the technology and people costs. You pay many times more than that in marketing costs because previously colleges just marketed to the surrounding area. Now you have a worldwide audience or customer base to advertise and market to. In 1992, a college might have spent a half million dollars on marketing the traditional school and $4 million marketing the online offerings because it had to get the word out. So the cost per lead was enormous," Tucker offers.

Hall maintains that online training program success also depends on extending a marketing effort past the sign-up stage. Statistically, 50 percent of students who enroll in online classes drop out before completing the course. In a corporate environment, marketing campaigns that encourage employees to not only register for courses, but also complete them, must come from top management. From the beginning, employees must be kept informed about available training and how it will be delivered. By communicating its support for online learning and offering incentives for completion, organization leaders demonstrate their commitment to this training method. In some situations, advancement within a company can be tied to completing certain training classes. Or incentives can be as simple as awarding T-shirts or coffee mugs to graduates or putting their pictures on a "wall of fame," he says.

The experts agree on several other critical elements for setting up online training within an organization. Chute contends that success depends on focusing on people, processes and technologies. Despite the relatively immature level of some technologies for distance education, this is still the right time to begin developing programs because organizations still must deal with people and processes issues, he explains. The right mix between asynchronous and synchronous components must also be determined. In general, an appropriate combination is 80 percent asynchronous and 20 percent synchronous; however, the ratio differs depending on the subject matter, he says.

Hall offers additional advice. "First, congratulations. You're doing the right thing. Second, do research. Find out everything you can about online learning and products and programs. Third, go online and experience it yourself. Take a class. Fourth, mandate it from the executive level. It has to be shown that this is important. Fifth, start small by using technology to supplement in-class lessons. Then, when you're ready, expand the effort."

Learning through technology is here to stay, Chute predicts. "The older generation is accepting it, and the younger generation is expecting it," he says.