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Up the Down Escalator: A Case Study for an Online Course

By Lisa Neal Gualtieri / November 2008

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The first escalators were installed in Coney Island, New York and London's Harrods department store in the late 1800s. My earliest memory of escalators is of going up the down escalator with my brother in Filene's department store in downtown Boston. Many of the estimated 50,000 escalators in the U.S. are aging, including, undoubtedly, the ones my brother and I played on. So there is a need for engineers to understand how escalators built more than 20 years ago can be updated, renovated, or replaced. And that's where e-learning comes in, to provide this education.

My hobby, taking free online courses, is one that I don't indulge in often. It is arguably the best way to sample and evaluate e-learning design. It has the added benefit that I can learn fascinating things that increase my ability to make small talk at parties. But the course on escalators left me thinking about what constitutes a real online course.

This particular course was adapted from an article in Architectural Record. The course included five pages of illustrated text, three learning objectives, a link to a test, and sponsorship by a company, KONE, that considers itself "Dedicated to People Flow."

I decided to take the test in the beginning to see if my knowledge of escalators from daily life was enough to pass it. (I understand this is common practice among people taking compliance courses.) However, I encountered a registration form that I didn't feel motivated to complete at that time.

After deciding not to register, I started reading. I have trouble even saying "taking the course" since it really was a well-written and illustrated five-page article. I learned about the history of escalators, the components, escalator geometry, and the safety features (none of which prevent children from running up a down escalator.) I also learned about the increasing problem-given the many aging escalators-of how to address new safety codes and the lack of replacement parts.

Modernization, the process whereby a new escalator is installed in the existing truss, was described in a sidebar. (If you want to learn what a truss is, take the course.) Conveniently, KONE provides modernization services. I wondered if they were the vendor for the award-winning George Washington Bridge Bus Station escalator modernization project described in a sidebar. Thanks to a search, I found out they were, and learned about some of their other worldwide modernization efforts, many in locations where disruptions in service would clearly inconvenience many people.

Now that I completed the five pages, I was more motivated to register than I was before. And re-register. I checked that all required fields were filled out. While using my real name and email address, I created a persona who would be likely to register for such a course (an architect, etc.) I kept getting errors and gave up.

Test or no test, without question I know far more about escalators that I ever did before. I ended up doing a few searches while writing about the course, such as to learn about the George Washington Bridge Bus Station project. The course itself had no links; in fact, there was some questionable characters in the text leading me to wonder if it had been proofread after being put online.

Curious about what else there is to know about escalators, I turned to Wikipedia. Wikipedia's entry included many facts, such as that 90 billion people ride escalators annually in the U.S., and some lovely photographs, including ones of escalators I have been on: a wooden one retrofitted with metal steps from Macy's in New York and a tiny one in London's Harrods. There is also extensive information about safety features and guidelines (that didn't include not going in the wrong direction). This is informal learning, typically self-motivated and self-directed. Online courses, in contrast, provide greater structure to guide and reinforce learning.

But an online course should be more than just an article. In fact, adding a few learning objectives, a sidebar or two, and a test to the Wikipedia entry would have provided a richer course than the one I took, if only due to the greater detail and the references and links which can incite further guided learning.


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