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The Art of Aligning Business Expectations with Learning Effectiveness

By Chris Jennings / December 2013

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Editor's Note: Chris Jennings, an instructional designer at Google, has more than 10 years experience in educational technology and instructional design. This is the first in a series of articles about building a scrappy (but effective) online training and certification program based on principles practiced at Google.

His upcoming articles will look at:

At Google we strive to do what's right for the user. It's something to be mindful of in this MOOC moment where it's easy to sidestep important pedagogical principles in favor of quickly pushing out content to a mass audience. Simply putting up a series of talking-head videos or PowerPoint slides followed by a quiz may be low overhead for content creators, but it does little to engage learners, as evidenced by the high attrition rates in many free online courses. For course completion, you must build content that entices learners and motivates them to actively participate. If organizations don't have a strong online learning culture already in place, you must secure the time and effort needed to build engaging content by first setting expectations around the benefits and challenges of eLearning.

For many organizations, the benefits may seem obvious. eLearning scales well to mass audiences, saves trainers preparation and delivery time, provides the convenience of 24x7 instruction, and saves brick-and-mortar costs. Courses built with thoughtful interaction and self-direction in mind, can also engage users more specifically than a traditional classroom where the pace and content of lectures are based on the class aggregate. The opportunities to incorporate different kinds of media on demand can appeal to users with shorter attention spans and provide opportunities for scenario-based learning and gaming elements. The web also makes it easy to facilitate peer learning, discussion, feedback, and review.

But scaling a business through eLearning comes at a cost. I've seen numerous online courses that consist of a few PowerPoint slides followed by a self-graded quiz or a series of passive videos that don't require any interaction whatsoever. They launch with an initial burst of traffic before declining dramatically; leaving managers asking what went wrong. Contrary to the assumptions of the uninitiated, engaged eLearning is extremely challenging to build. It requires a generous allotment of time and personnel with experience in instructional design. It will require (among other things):

  • performing an in-depth audience analysis
  • articulating learning goals with measurable outcomes
  • structuring content that builds on levels of foundational knowledge
  • opportunities for students to be active participants in their own learning
  • designing a diverse array of interactive content that intrigues learners
  • incorporating alternative communication channels like discussion boards, video chats, or dynamic feedback when appropriate

What will also surprise many stakeholders is course development doesn't end when the course launches. Developers should monitor student feedback in order to iteratively improve the course going forward. The business will also need to support regular technology costs that could include hosting content and student data, supporting communication technologies, or building dashboards to easily communicate course effectiveness. In other words, eLearning is a huge, long-term investment.

Your organization might not be prepared for the tremendous effort involved, but to skimp on any aspect defeats the purpose of building online courses in the first place. If you choose to slap up PowerPoint slides that don't engage users and don't fundamentally accomplish your learning objectives, you won't be doing what's right for the user and you will waste time and effort on a program that won't ultimately align with your strategic training goals.

For organizations new to eLearning, these ideas of engagement and interaction can all sound very abstract. To prepare stakeholders for what's needed, build out a few sample pages or an entire module/chapter with examples of what engaging content looks like; and demonstrate how users can be more hands on with course content than in a traditional lecture-based class. You'll find there's often an "ah-ha" moment when stakeholders actually interact with online learning for the first time. It also makes it easier for them to describe the proposal to others and garner widespread support.

At Google, we make decisions based on hard data whenever possible. Bolster your demo with a data-driven proposal for FTE (full-time equivalent) savings. Decide what metrics you'll use to show engagement such as unique traffic, average time per session, return rates, assessment attempts, and completion rates. Also, decide how you'll measure student learning, whether through online participation, assessment, peer review, etc. Propose a follow-up case study that compares your online learning metrics to live classroom training, so stakeholders can clearly weigh the advantages and disadvantages, and better articulate the learning or business impact. In the end, this will not only provide a business case to scale your training program, but also do what's right for the user.

(Next: Assembling your team and technology)

These opinions expressed herein are solely the author's and in no way represent the opinions of Google.

About the Author

Chris Jennings has more than 10 years experience in educational technology and instructional design, having previously worked at The University of Texas System and New York University. He is currently an instructional designer at Google where he has led the DoubleClick Training Team in building a cross-product, online certification program for advertisers that has increased attendance from live classroom training 200 percent year over year with comparable satisfaction rates.

Permission to make digital or hard copies of part or all of this work for personal or classroom use is granted without fee provided that copies are not made or distributed for profit or commercial advantage and that copies bear this notice and the full citation on the first page. Copyrights for third-party components of this work must be honored. For all other uses, contact the Owner/Author.



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