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Talk to me
discussion is the key to engaging online courses

By Lisa Neal / December 2002

TYPE: OPINION
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I have an idealized view of life in Europe: a limited workday and unlimited cultural enrichment. When leading a workshop in Berlin in late November, I was surprised to hear that while many European countries require by law that training take place during the work week, most people take their online courses evenings or weekends, just like my colleagues and I do. "Too much else to do during the day," "Too many distractions and interruptions," and "I learned more at the off-site courses" were the familiar refrains.

However, I heard some tales of great experiences with these online courses, despite the off-hours. The common thread in all these stories was the presence of discussion, synchronously or asynchronously. And the people taking the courses after hours didn't mind because they were having fun. They were enthusiastic about how much they were learning.

In contrast, I wasn't raving about my most recent experience as an online student. The course I took used case studies, which, as I learned in graduate school, can be a launching point for discussion—but not in this self-paced, asynchronous course. When I finished the course, I thought about how much more compelling it would have been to analyze and discuss these cases with collegues. To make matters worse, the answers to the course's quizzes were obvious—unlike in real life, where problems tend to be complex and difficult to solve. Overall, the course simply didn't engage me.

With the current focus on cost reduction, corporate trainers sometimes forget that no student will learn without being engaged. (Additionally, an engaged student is relatively unconcerned with when learning takes place, such as on a Saturday afternoon.) The self-paced, asynchronous "catalog courses" that dominate online training may be inexpensive, but they are not the best way to learn. What I heard recently from a number of Europeans was that they miss not only discussion but also informal learning and networking when they take self-paced courses. Traditional off-site courses and well-designed online courses facilitate the structured discussions that enrich and provide context to learning, and that makes learning enjoyable. We must remember that successful workplace learning is necessarily social.

In theory, catalog courses give students unlimited opportunities to learn. But learners need motivation. What better way to achieve this than by making sure everyone enjoys the learning process? If a course will help someone perform better at work, it is worth the investment to design or redesign that course to incorporate discussion. The result may be an enjoyable, engaging, and successful learning experience.



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ADDITIONAL READING

    Lisa Neal
  1. "Spot Learning"
  2. When will e-learning reach a tipping point?
  3. Q&A with Saul Carliner
  4. "Deep" thoughts
  5. The stripper and the bogus online degree
  6. Five questions...for Tom Carey
  7. Learner on the Orient Express
  8. Five (or six) questions...for Irene McAra-McWilliam
  9. How to get students to show up and learn
  10. Blended conferences
  11. Predictions for 2002
  12. Learning from e-learning
  13. Q&A with Don Norman
  14. In search of simplicity
  15. Five Questions...for Christopher Dede
  16. Want better courses?
  17. Designing usable, self-paced e-learning courses
  18. Just "DO IT"
  19. Senior service
  20. Formative evaluation
  21. Blogging to learn and learning to blog
  22. Predictions for 2007
  23. Not all the world's a stage
  24. Five questions...for Seb Schmoller
  25. Do distance and location matter in e-learning?
  26. Why do our K-12 schools remain technology-free?
  27. Degrees by mail
  28. The Value of Voice
  29. Predictions for 2006
  30. Five questions...for Shigeru Miyagawi
  31. Five questions...
  32. Five questions...for Larry Prusack
  33. Five questions...for Karl M. Kapp
  34. Music lessons
  35. Learn to apologize for fun and profit
  36. Advertising or education?
  37. Of web hits and Britney Spears
  38. Predictions for 2008
  39. Serious games for serious topics
  40. Back to the future
  41. Predictions For 2003
  42. Q&A
  43. Storytelling at a distance
  44. Q&A with Diana Laurillard
  45. Online learning and fun
  46. Everything in moderation
  47. eLearning and fun
  48. The basics of e-learning
  49. Is it live or is it Memorex?
  50. Five Questions... for John Seely Brown
  51. 5 questions... for Richard E. Mayer
  52. My life as a Wikipedian
  53. Five questions...for Elliott Masie
  54. Five questions...for Lynn Johnston
  55. Five questions…for Matt DuPlessie
  56. Do it yourself
  57. Predictions for 2004