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Tips and Tools for Fostering a Creative e-Learning Class

By Susan Landay / September 2009

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Despite the effectiveness of e-learning, online learners remain notorious for losing focus, getting bored, checking email, chatting, texting, sorting through piles of neglected mail, or tuning out altogether. It's not their fault.

Work space We trainers haven't equipped our online learners with an arsenal of tools and toys that will help them stay focused. Knowing what we know about the effectiveness of brain-based learning (also called active learning or accelerated learning), it's up to us to apply our best practices in live, classroom training to enhance the effectiveness of the online learning experiences we conduct.

Indeed, online learners are entitled to enjoy the benefit of the balls, toys, visual stimuli, icebreakers, discussions, and interactive exercises that have become standard in most live training sessions.

Here, we will look at some popular classroom methods of addressing the kinesthetic, visual, tactile, and interactive needs of learners, and explore some low cost ways to help our online learners make the most of their remote learning experience.

Make kinesthetic learning tools available
Classroom learning gurus talk a lot about the need to create a stress-free and emotionally engaging learning environment. To do this, face-to-face trainers "color" their training rooms with signage that sets the ground rules and expectations, they play music, and set tables with tent cards, colorful markers and fiddle toys (to help kinesthetic learners better focus).

Why not set the same goals for the online learning experiences you initiate? Currently with online learning, the balance seems to shift to auditory and visual learning. Why not equip online learners with a tangible stress ball or "fiddle" toy to occupy their hands while their eyes and ears are busy?

Though it may be counterintuitive, doodling is another way to enhance learners' focus. A recent study on doodling showed that retention of facts was 29 percent higher among doodlers than it was for non-doodlers. So, go ahead and encourage doodling. Before you begin ask online participants to grab a blank sheet of paper on which to doodle. Or, better yet, send them a "doodle pad," which has grids, geometric shapes, and free space for doodling.

Foster a sense of community
Classroom trainers frequently open a session with an icebreaker. Icebreakers typically accomplish three objectives:

  1. they introduce people to one another
  2. they reduce stress by bringing people together and giving them an opportunity to participate in low-risk experiences and
  3. they enable information sharing, as the facilitator and participants share goals, interests, and concerns regarding the learning event.

In online learning too, we ought to be taking this lesson to heart. Sure it's harder to do so over a conference call or in a webinar, but introductions and icebreakers can really warm up the environment and give folks an understanding of who else might be participating remotely.

If your web-conferencing tool has a chat feature, depending on the number of participants you have (and your time constraints), here are a few ways you might ask people to introduce themselves.

Twitter icebreaker. Request an introduction using no more than 140 characters.

Trading places icebreaker. Ask, "if you could change places with one person, who would it be and why?"

Two-truths-and-a-lie icebreaker. Ask participants to share two truths and a lie about themselves, and have colleagues try to identify the lie.

Create additional visual stimuli
Imagine sitting in a class and looking around the room. You'd see the gestures and facial expressions of the instructor, the whiteboard and projector screen, responses of other students, and possibly even the trees blowing outside. During a classroom-learning event, our eyes wander, our emotions kick in, and our brains process the entire experience. In fact, brain researchers and learning experts tell us that the greater the number of senses engaged in learning, the more memorable and successful it is.

Alternatively, consider the visual stimuli available to online learners—computer screens—and maybe their familiar office or a colleague passing by the door. For our speedy brains, accustomed to drawing in multiple sources of data, the progression of narrated slide transitions in a presentation often leave time for our minds to wander. Even if trainers created stunning multi-media productions, it wouldn't necessarily optimize the learning experience.

A better way to offer supplemental visual stimulation during an online learning experience would be to provide some type of eye candy, something that doesn't require much focus or attention, like a spinning top or a mood ring. Tools such as these would function much like doodling, whereby they engage the subconscious mind in an activity that doesn't distract the conscious brain from the learning at hand.

Sweet sensations
Remember those pitchers of water and little bowls of hard candy found in many learning rooms, training centers, hotel conference rooms? They're not just for show. Food and water fuel the brain and keep learners refreshed.

In keeping with this important classroom tradition, why not encourage your online learners to grab a glass of water or a piece of fruit before you're scheduled to begin. Better yet, tantalize their taste buds by sending a tea bag, a packet of Gatorade powder, a few candies, or some Poprocks. Ask them to have those readily available at their computers before you start the session. By sending a few such items, you will also set a welcoming, friendly tone for the session.

Block off space
When learners attend a live training session, they leave their office and enter a new space with new faces. Colleagues, family and friends know they should not be disturbed, email is inaccessible, and phones are turned off or silenced, all creating some mental space for the learners, so they can focus on the here and now.

Try to do the same for your e-learners. Encourage them to create for themselves a similarly refreshing "virtual learning environment." It can be as simple as a hand-made sign on their door or cubicle that says, "I'm in training," or it can be a playful road sign that says "Quiet. Online learning in process," or "Don't bother me . . . I'm learning," or something humorous: "Don't even think of interrupting my online learning session."

Emotional content
Trainers often integrate stories and humor into their delivery. The stories and jokes are effective because they add emotional content and bring the lessons to life. They also relax the facilitator and the participants and contribute to a stress-free, learning-friendly environment.

Don't forget to do the same for your e-learning sessions. A couple of photos, cartoons, or "bad" jokes that accompany your story can go a long way to keeping people engaged in the e-learning experience.

Participation and interaction tools
A critical aspect of Accelerated learning in classroom environments involves learner participation. In live training sessions, this happens in the form of questions and answers, conversations, group work, games and exercises.

You can also ask the group questions in a webinar. As in a live training session where only a couple of folks raise their hands, you may only hear a handful of throaty attempts to pipe in. That is okay. Remember, too, to pause to wait for answers, and tell the group you will do so, to give them time to think and process the information in their heads.

In addition to voicing questions in real time, many products and tools available today enable two-way communication during online learning experiences. Some can be a bit pricey, but they don't have to be. Following is a snapshot of a few of the tools you might look for:

Tools for asynchronous communication (learners online at different times)
Circulate a list containing participant emails, so that learners can be in touch with one another.

Initiate a LinkedIn group, so that participants can pose questions and post comments for one another to see.

Establish a Twitter account, where learners can share brief comments, questions, tips and/or share links.

Start a blog that allows readers to comment on articles or contributions.

Tools for synchronous communication (all learners participating at once)
Initiate a video conference or teleconference, whereby participants are linked by phone and are all viewing a host's computer screen. There are a great many service providers for this, which offer different features (chat, polling, screen sharing, recording), at a variety of prices. Some popular ones are GotoMeeting, WebEx, Skype, Microsoft Live Meeting, ReadyTalk, and AT&T Connect.

During your meetings, keep it snazzy and interactive: dress up presentations with cartoons, graphics and games that keep it interactive. Here are some easy-to-use, cost effective tools:

All Play Game Show. Students can buzz in with an answer to your questions. You can share results and easily toggle back and forth between a PowerPoint presentation, and participatory questions.

PowerPoint Games. Games like Jeopardy can transform a static session into an interactive one. Even if players can't "buzz in" with an answer, you can encourage them to jot their answers down in a notebook.

Yawn-buster. Bring alive your PowerPoint slides with group activities such as audience polls, games, group exercises and competitions, which can be embedded right inside PowerPoint.

Raptivity. Raptivity contains a library of "interactions" that you can use in presentations and e-learning modules, including learning games, flashcards, puzzles, flip-a-book, diagrams, surveys, and more.

Final Thoughts
So much of learning has to do with the participant's state of mind when they get to "class." Although your students may not be physically sitting in front you when you begin a learning session, consider the range of ways you can control the environment and the experience with a pre-session package that sets expectations about the goals and content to come. If you ever went away to camp or college, remember the excitement of a care package coming your way.

One last care package item might be a printout of The e-Learner's Bill of Rights.

E-Learners Bill of Rights
I. Freedom of speech. E-learners have the right to be heard. Learning is a two-way street.

II. The right to bare arms. There is no stated dress code for online learning.

III. No imposition of unreasonable quarters. Online learners shall not be forced to remain seated in front of their computer for the duration of a learning experience. They should be invited to stand and stretch to keep the blood flowing and their attention focused.

IV. No unreasonable searches and seizures. While facilitators may search for a right answer on online survey questions, learners have the right to make mistakes. If one is unable to answer a question correctly, the instructor will not cause embarrassment.

V. Exemption from self-incrimination. If you didn't do a pre-session assignment and can get away with it, good for you. But you may pay the price later!

VI. The right to a speedy trial. You have the right to try new things and put learning to use as quickly as possible either in online simulations or real-life situations.

VII. The right to a jury of peers. You are entitled access to a group of peers who have experienced the same online learning module. Among this group, you will not be judged, but will be supported when faced with new challenges that require input or discussion.

VIII. No cruel and unusual punishment. E-learners shall not be subjected to interminable lectures, excessive homework nor scorn by the instructor or fellow students. Poor attempts at humor, deemed painful to some, shall be exempt.

IX. Equal treatment of all. All should be treated respectfully regardless of computer speed or size of monitor.

X. The right to have fun. E-learners have the right to laugh, play, and enjoy the learning experience in an interesting, stress-free environment.

Remember that saying, "no matter where you go, there you are," made popular in the cult classic movie Buckaroo Banzai? That's how it is with e-learning. Although online learning is conducted remotely, the learner is present wherever they are.

Using what we know about the importance of setting a lively, stress-free, learning-friendly classroom environment, take steps to make e-learning environments similarly engaging, so that we can maximize the effectiveness of online and blended learning.


  • Sun, 15 Nov 2009
    Post by Laraine Hofmann

    Your thoughts on engaging online learners is very true when you are working with folks who are long distance or offsite. Many of your suggestions I've used in classroom environments. It is difficult to engage online learners if there isn't much interaction and doodling going on. I like to play games to warm up the class before it begins and I have used the Jeopardy game to do this as an example. I have also used Jeopardy in my web-based training that I have developed in Captivate. I found the game on the Captivate Exchange on the Adobe sight. I think my learners enjoyed it as both a pre-assessment and assessment. I have to admit I never thought of having a spinning top or mood ring type of visual stimuli to display during the class, but it is certainly a thought. I really enjoyed your eLearner's Bill of Right especially number VIII. Thank you for a wonderful article.

  • Mon, 21 Sep 2009
    Post by Jill Duffy

    Author Susan Doctoroff Landay has posted a list of new resources in response comments left on her article "Tips and Tools for Fostering a Creative e-Learning Class." Please see the Addendum on the article. Thanks!

  • Thu, 17 Sep 2009
    Post by Susan Knoer

    I taught a reference class through Blackboard for a college, with their assurance that BB was accessible, but they couldn't say how. I made my "lectures" available on BB, downloadable as RTF files, and the intro lecture downloadable as a WAV file (with sound effects), which I would have loved to do for all of them, but server space was strictly limited. By the last year I taught, we worked out of BB as much as possible - watch this You Tube video, read a story (your pick) and then watch the movie and write about it (the popcorn week), post your answers to this wiki/webpage. It gave me more accessible options and a chance to use more graphics/movies and screenreader-friendly sites, asz well as offering everything in text files.

    I've heard good things about Moodle, a free LMS. I haven't tried it yet, though. I'm looking at whether there's enough functionality in Google Sites and G Documents to do a workshop - no bells and whistles, but lots of space!

    I'd love to have more tips, too.

  • Tue, 15 Sep 2009
    Post by Becky

    I love this article. It has given me some ideas for future training programs. However, many of our staff, including myself, have visual disabilities. I have difficulty figuring out how to make online and e-learning fun and interactive, but still accessible for all of our trainees. Any suggestions would be greatly appreciated.

  • Tue, 15 Sep 2009
    Post by Robin Coury

    LOVE this article - but need help finding more online learning platforms or software to use to create online courses. Does anyone know of any?

  • Tue, 25 Mar 2008
    Post by Kevin Handy

    I''m a student in the College of Education at Walden University. Seems like the teachers I talk to seem to get this glazed look that falls over them when we talk about e-Learning. Some of it is driven by the fact that e-Learning has been tall on promises and short on delivery. I share my own predictions: the impact of Web 2.0, how roles will be broken out: content authoring, instructional design, facilitation, graphics design, multimedia design and development - and it is as if I am speaking Greek. The fact is that 2008 is going to be seen as a big yawn for e-Learning - but will serve as a foundation for the work we will all do towards 2018. Web 2.0 will be succeeded by Web 3.0 and e-Learning will take that ride. Instituations: K-12, universities, corporations - will need effective ways to manage learning - and whether folks like that or not some kind of web-based application is going to house all that. We may deploy learning through the classroom, through M-learning or other delivery mechanisms but keeping it all straight - managing it - making sense of it will require simple applications to help people manage it all. Whether that''s a virtual school or university or whether it''s a corporate human resource information management system - reality is the e-Learning world will move faster not slower and this year and the next several are going to be spent teaching people to adapt. Luckily we have a generation of people who are in opposition to change who will soon retire - what remains - I hope are folks like us who believe in the future and want to be part of it now - rather than rejecting it - and trying to maintain the status quo.

  • Tue, 29 Jan 2008
    Post by Christie Mason

    Hopefully this is NOT the “Year of Video/VR/M-Learning/Blog/Wiki/Next Big Idea that the rest of the world has already been doing for a long time or has already stopped doing/etc". Hopefully, this is the year that trainers/teachers begin to LEARN, experience, and explore what technology tools are available from outside the confining, barrier erecting, less functional, more expensive, non-compliant training/educational specific applications and "standards" that are being accepted today. Hopefully, this is the year that trainers/teachers learn how to judge vendor and application quality, instead of selecting the Flashiest presentation. Hopefully, this is the year that trainers/teachers learn how to blend different tools and techniques to support fluid communities of learners.

  • Sun, 27 Jan 2008
    Post by Peter Fadde

    2008 should be a breakout year for video in e-learning. Technology breakthroughs in distributing video along with the breakdown of gatekeeping "broadcast quality" aesthetics through YouTube should embolden teachers, trainers and instructional designers to make, use and share instructional videos. After many years of working around video, e-learning can now embrace it. Key is to avoid the professionalized model of client/producer (which often results in "paint by numbers" educational and training videos) and take charge of the video production process. The 2008 challenge is to learn how to make and use video most effectively.

  • Sun, 27 Jan 2008
    Post by Jeremy Hall

    The first prediction from Richard Mayer resonates. Having designed computer business simulations for nearly 40 years. And, most importantly, in the early days run them in the classroom, I find an understanding of participant and group behaviour and learning process a key part of my design process. A process that I view as a systems dynamics process where codnition, affection and workload are interacting dynamics that can lead to good learning with satisfied learners or bad learning with dissatisfied learners.

  • Sat, 26 Jan 2008
    Post by Vicki Davis

    I think it is very important to include classroom teachers in these discussions. I was bothered that no "experts" of that nature were included. So, here is my prediction. The grassroots movement of teachers to connect will become more pronounced in 2008 with administrators, researchers, and consultants having to take notice. Teachers will wonder why they need "facilitators" when it is more efficiently done themselves and districts will realize that teachers need time to be "teacherpreneurs" as they create and collaborate on projects with their colleagues around the world. E-Learning will become an integral part of the face to face classroom with students learning to collaborate not only with their seatmate but with teammates from around the world. Please, when you talk about elearning, remember the K-12 teachers on the front lines.

  • Wed, 23 Jan 2008
    Post by Tony Karrer

    More predictions can be found from various bloggers at:

  • Wed, 23 Jan 2008
    Post by Brent Schlenker

    In 2008 the fallout of web2.0 tools and technologies within corporate walls will begin to hit. By this I mean old school management will freak out and blame the tools for causing chaos. As Jay Cross states it, the hierachies will continue to crumble. This will throw clueless middle management into a tailspin as they lose control and watch employees get work done around and without them. Its the human issues that will surface in 2008 more so than the tools themselves. Security concerns, legal concerns, and other issues will become more imortant than the tools. Some organizations will adapt and others will fall apart in an attempt to maintain control. ALL tools and applications specifically devoted to learning/elearning will begin to see a decline. With YouTube, why do we need a TeacherTube? Isn''t it possible to simply tag a youtube video a certain way, or embed the youtube file for display somewhere else? I don''t see the need to continually copy successful webapps and change the name to something more "academic". God help us if someone is currently creating TeacherBook, or Fleacher, or LinkedTeacher. While 2006 was the year of YOU, 2008 will be the year of US and how the empowerment of the individual impacts the collective whole.