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Keep it simple
use low-tech methods for better results at low cost

By Richard Seltzer / May 2003

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Once we get involved in e-learning we often end up over-emphasizing the "e." Because advanced technology can do so much, it's easy to lose sight of what the simplest tools can do if combined in interesting ways. We sometimes go overboard with enthusiasm for all-encompassing, totally integrated solutions—super platforms that can do everything for everyone—when we'd get better results more quickly and cheaply by kludging together tools that everyone already owns and understands. We should remind ourselves that though the Internet is a useful tool, and a good way to connect people to people, it's just one of many tools that can be combined to get just the right mix and accomplish our educational goals while keeping costs to a minimum.

Each fall, people involved in distance learning around the world connect with one another on Global Learn Day to share their progress and discuss recent challenges. John Hibbs of the Benjamin Franklin Institute of Global Learning ( and his team reach a broad worldwide audience by using multiple diverse means to deliver this event—Web, text chat, voiceover IP, telephone, and even radio. For instance, for delivery in countries such as India, the Web-based streaming audio signal is picked up and broadcast by traditional radio stations to reach a much wider audience.

Rather than leasing satellite time or paying for access to an existing worldwide network, the Global Learn Day team sets up an ad hoc, volunteer-based network which is "multi-media" in the true sense of the term: meaning not just voice and video, but rather many different modes of communication. Their efforts are a prototype for delivering educational events to large worldwide audiences. The team takes advantage of free and low-cost media to facilitate discussion, thereby moving beyond the corporate-dominated world of traditional mass communication.

Similarly, many businesses (but surprisingly few schools) deliver training by telephone conference calls known as "teleseminars." They use the Internet as a supplement—a way to deliver related materials, give participants a way to ask questions or comment, and offer follow-up discussions. Some of these teleseminars are really marketing events—a way to get people to sign up for expensive face-to-face events by giving them a foretaste of the content the scheduled speakers have to offer. In other cases, the teleseminar is the main delivery mechanism for a paid series of lessons.

In other words, simple applications, like email and instant messaging, used in coordination with an ordinary telephone concall, can produce very interesting results.

If you run a school or an e-learning business, you may want to encourage your customers to interact with one another as part of a community. Or you may want to showcase your teaching staff, giving potential students a foretaste of classes they might want to enroll in. For those purposes and also for online delivery of actual courses, you may be tempted to use full-blown educational platforms, with real-time video and audio, PowerPoint presentations, etc. But it's quite possible that simple text chat will serve just as well at far less cost and with far less hassle.

Under the umbrella of "Business on the Web," I've held regular chat sessions for nearly seven years (on Thursdays, from noon to 1 PM Eastern Time). I schedule volunteer experts with interesting topics, and I act as host. If few people show up for the live chat session, the discussion takes the form of an interview. If half a dozen or more active participants show up, then the discussion can go in valuable and unexpected directions. Sometimes the best contributions come from the experienced and knowledgeable audience rather than the expert.

In either case, the transcript then serves as raw material from which to generate interesting content for a Web site or a newsletter. And I do all this using plain old text chat—no fancy platform with video and audio. The same approach would work just as well with your teaching staff as guests, using chat to market your school and courses. And those marketing chat sessions would also be an opportunity to wake your staff up to the potential of text chat as an instructional tool.

Often our habits lead us to seek high-tech, high-priced automated solutions to our business problems, and we lament the fact that budget constraints prevent us from doing all that we wish. But the most important barrier we face isn't a limited budget, but a limited imagination. We need to focus on our objectives, rather than getting too enamoured of the flashy high-tech e-means that tempt us. We need the open-mindedness, the humility, and the courage to seriously consider the bare bones, labor-intensive approaches to education.

For more information about teleseminars, check my recent article on the topic.


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