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Meeting Online Learners Where They Are: e-Learning during a time of pandemic

By Ana-Paula Correia, Sean Hickey, Traci Lepicki, Alicia Willis / August 2021

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For decades, blended and online learning has been interrupting and redefining the classroom and the training room—transforming teaching and learning. With its expertise in learning and training development, The Ohio State University’s Center on Education and Training for Employment (CETE), as a translational research center, serves a key role in this transformation [1].

For more than 55 years, the center has analyzed needs, proposed solutions, and implemented interventions—translating research into innovation. The center thrives on a legacy of keeping pace with the evolving nature of work and the systems necessary to support an ever-changing workforce landscape. As technologies emerge and mature and as human behavior shifts, so do the center’s processes and approaches. For more than two decades, the center has remained focused on enhancing learning and training to include in-person, blended, and instructor-guided online experiences. The speed of change accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic intensified the urgency to provide an expanded collection of learning experiences, offering opportunities for flexible, self-directed, on-demand, microlearning as well as extended online learning experiences. 

In 2020, the center launched its most recent endeavor. It leveraged its expertise in project management, learning design and development, and marketing and communications to initiate an online learning collection in response to growing interest in online experiences and expanding access to and comfort with online content. In addition, many learning and development professionals, teachers and trainers, and human resources professionals are under increasing pressure to produce and manage distance and online learning. The center’s efforts are geared to address these raised expectations.

With these parameters in mind, the training collection—Go Digital—supports the design, development, and delivery of online learning based on learner characteristics and engagement, proven instructional strategies, and systematic processes. In particular, the collection targets elements of design: interactions, pacing, and alignment; monitoring and assessing learning in the distance and online environment; and important considerations for delivery within the online space. Additionally, a crucial factor affecting the collection is how to teach online during a time of crisis. In an environment where it is no longer safe to learn in person, how do you quickly pivot to supporting learning at a distance? As the COVID-19 pandemic rippled through every aspect of life, making training virtual became a necessity. 

The Problem

One of the major barriers to implementing effective technology-supported education among adult learners was the lack of digital skills combined with access to their own computer and internet services at home [2]. A possible way to overcome one of these barriers is by using a smartphone to access educational content. Eighty-five percent of U.S. adults own a smartphone and many of them access the internet with their phones [3], which makes having high-speed internet less critical to access online content.

Another barrier is the lack of instructor experience in developing materials specifically aimed at the online learner. This inexperience can lead to an ineffective use of learning technologies, with instructors treating online spaces as simple repositories for presentation slides and video recordings of in-person trainings, providing little to no value to the learner. From their pre-pandemic research into the transition to online learning, Schmidt et al. found most novice instructors experienced some level of apprehension when it comes to delivering content online [4]. For most educators in their study, the shift to digital delivery was overwhelming. This brief, initial period of upset was followed by a three-phase progression in which instructors first struggled with the mechanics of online delivery, then began to focus on the instructional process, and finally entered a stage of continuous refinement of their online teaching practices.

While focusing training materials on the first phase described by Schmidt et al. [4] might appear to be an appropriate solution, further research indicates this might not be the case for several reasons. First, instruction related to specific, individual technologies can quickly become outdated [5], and it is impossible to know exactly which technologies an instructor will have access to when developing their online course or training materials. In addition, novice instructors can easily become overwhelmed by the mechanics of online instruction when presented with either too many tools or too many details related to a specific online learning tool [4]. Further, in their examination of “digital transformation” in higher education, Mahlow and Hediger found conversations too narrowly focused on specific technologies were often ineffective at shifting paradigms of instruction, perpetuating one-way, face-to-face models of classroom discourse, even in online learning [6]. As a result, for specific guidance on which technologies to use and how to use them in the delivery of content, educators are likely to avoid online learning materials and instead engage with colleagues and coworkers [4].

It is the next phase in which the greatest opportunity exists to provide support and affect change. Once instructors feel comfortable using the technology available to them, they are then free to focus on their own professional development in order to explore effective instructional practices and understand the nature of online learning [4]. At this stage, novice instructors need guidance on how best to engage with learners. While conversation and connection come easily in face-to-face settings, online instructors need to find ways to have conversations with—and receive feedback from—their learners [7]. Learners are not likely to engage with each other in an online course unless they have opportunities to connect and build rapport [8]. Successful online instructors focus on building connections with and between learners [4]. Finally, educators and trainers transitioning to online instruction need help in recognizing key differences with online instruction compared to face-to-face. For example, modern online learners are used to finding information from several sources, which means part of the work of the online educator is identifying and curating content and making it accessible [5].

The center has recently launched a collection of flexible and self-paced fully online learning modules designed for professionals with a growth mindset and organizations interested in leveraging institutional expertise in order to enhance existing online training materials and develop tailored and effective professional development programs for their employees. By utilizing a fully online approach, this collection of modules allows flexibility for the intended audience and simultaneously demonstrates best practices when it comes to creating asynchronous online learning materials (see Figure 1). This strategic initiative responded to needs of adult learners who faced the challenge of taking training online amid the pandemic.

Figure 1. Asynchronous Online Learning Materials.
Artwork adapted from a diagram created by Jenae Cohn, Ph.D., licensed under Creative Commons [BY-NC-ND 3.0/]

[click to enlarge]

The Solution

The product of this initiative was a fully developed system consisting of a collection of interactive online modules—Go Digital—which collectively offer a learning-on-the-go approach particularly suitable for adult learners who encounter frequent barriers to studying and attending on-site classes. The interactive modules are accessible anytime, anywhere through the center’s web portal. They were created following a responsive design approach that supports optimal view on mobile devices, such as smartphones and tablets. The following paragraphs describe in detail the characteristics of this solution.

Target audience. These modules can be beneficial for anyone who is interested in learning more about designing instruction for distance and online learning. The content was developed with the following job roles in mind:

  • Learning and development professionals. Anyone who works in fields related to employee learning and professional development needs to understand how learning takes place online, and how that learning is different from face-to-face instruction.
  • Trainers and teachers. Both classroom teachers and workplace trainers understand processes of learning when it happens face-to-face. Online learning involves a shift in perspective, both in how content is delivered and in how the learner interacts with the content. Taking instructional materials designed for face-to-face instruction and preparing them for use in an online environment is difficult and requires thinking about motivation and engagement in new ways.
  • Human resources professionals. As more and more workplaces embrace flexible work hours, nontraditional workplace environments, and an increasing percentage of remote workers, online training is becoming the norm. Taking legally mandated or industry-specific compliance training online can be a daunting task. HR professionals need to know how to measure the effectiveness of the training both to keep employees safe and to ensure organizations stay in compliance with industry standards and state and federal laws.

Mobile learning in adult education. The term mobile learning has become popular and much has been written about its benefits [9]. One benefit is the fact that mobile learning is flexible and supportive of self-paced learning by providing a personalized learning environment where learners can engage with the content freely, anywhere, and at any time [10, 11]. Simultaneously, the ubiquity of mobile devices has an impact on how learners interact with content and on feelings of anxiety and the fear of being away from their smartphones [12].

Allowing adults to utilize devices for which they are already comfortable and find easily accessible (e.g., smartphones) can increase engagement and provide opportunities for social learning to take place. In this regard, Vanek cautions the allocation of effort and resources to be used in developing new platforms or online courses that may be too expensive or not as easily accessible for most adult learners, but rather utilizing systems that are already in existence, like smartphones [13]. Concomitantly, smartphones are an excellent device to support self-paced learning, meaning at the learners’ own pace and driven by their interests, and to yield high levels of learner satisfaction [14].

What makes self-paced learning effective for adult learners? Self-paced learning allows for learning independently with a high level of interaction between learner and content [15], and online modules can be used to offer training and develop work-related skills [16]. A recent study conducted with adult learners in a workplace setting showed significant relationships between learners’ motivation, self-regulated learning, organizational contextual factors, and training outcomes [17]. The benefits of using self-paced instruction (e.g., mobile-based interactive modules) among adult learners include: (1) fitting into adult learners’ schedules, which tend to have high work and life demands; (2) allowing adult learners to move at their own pace through the learning experience, according to their interests, pace, and schedule (i.e., convenient); (3) supporting the direct transfer and retention of knowledge and skills [18] and application to novel situations [19]; and (4) permitting adult learners to use materials and resources to customize the way they learn a particular topic.

The positive impact of self-paced learning on studying practical concepts online has been reported in previous studies [20, 21]. Even though similarly, when analyzing data subsets by course characteristics (e.g., delivery type, content, course format, course level, gender, GPA, class standing), Lim recommends learner control and self-direction to be included within online courses to increase the probability of the learner’s successful completion [22].

The Design

A content analysis was conducted with subject matter experts and target learners to establish content and sequence for Go Digital training collection. Four self-paced, interactive modules compose the collection:

  1. Making Training Virtual” offers an overview of online learning and gives learners the tools they need to take their in-person training online. In addition, it provides valuable expert-curated resources that can be used to transform in-person training into an online learning experience. 
  2. Designing Instruction for Distance and Online Learning provides an overview of the differences in types of online learning, pacing, and online interactions. It guides the learner through how best to develop a community of learners and microlearning units.
  3. Monitoring and Evaluating Progress for Distance and Online Learning” introduces the learner to different types and examples of assessment used to monitor and evaluate learner progress at a distance.
  4. Delivering Instruction for Distance and Online Learning walks the learner through the steps of designing instruction for distance and online learning. Best practices and selected resources for designing distance and online instruction are provided.

Evidence-based design components. The Go Digital interactive modules collection is modeled on seven evidence-based design components drawn from cognitive learning theory [23], multimedia learning principles [24], and related theoretical underpinnings. Follow these key evidence-based design components in all online learning modules or trainings.  The following key evidence-based design components were considered when designing the online learning modules and trainings:

  • Include interactive scenarios to give learners a real-world context in which to connect with what they are learning to make associations and construct generations to stimulate information recall [25].
  • Increase efficiency and effectiveness of learning by providing content through audio and video as well as text and images [24, 26]. Segment content into smaller chunks to help learners improve learning retention [24].
  • Reduce learners’ cognitive load by providing working examples early in the learning process [27, 28, 29] and additional resources the learner can reference at a later time to increase their knowledge beyond that required in the training [29, 30, 31].
  • Provide learners with multiple methods to check their comprehension of concepts as they progress through an online module [32].

The extensive use of mobile devices is coupled with tremendous technological advancements in multimedia production. The use of multimedia, along with text, decreases the overwhelming nature of the text and supports learners in managing the cognitive load, which intensifies retention [30]. At the same time, activation of prior knowledge is engaged quickly with visual analogies, and mental models are created as diagrams, which can enhance understanding of how a concept works [24]. The modules feature videos, practical exercises, real-world scenarios, and frequent assessments.

Interactive scenarios. An interactive scenario is a learning activity that presents learners with situations closer to real-life for them to experience free of the fear of making mistakes or facing consequences. A text-based scenario is used to introduce an avatar who guides and supports learners during their self-paced learning journey. An avatar that resembles the audience fosters an emotional connection between themselves and the character [33]. The avatar’s role is of a peer on the same level as the learner and trains right along with them (see Figure 2). Dialogue-based conversations are used to introduce different content and engage learners, simulating synchronous discussions.

Figure 2. An example of an interactive scenario. The avatar, which resembles the audience, fosters an emotional connection between the character and the user. The bottom image illustrates how the learner interacts with the avatar.

[click to enlarge]

Multimedia components. A combination of images, sounds, videos, and text is carefully integrated into the modules. For example, animations, clickable graphics, double-sided flashcards, and sorting activities are included as well as animated introductory videos. Meeting interaction design requirements, these elements effectively attract and keep learners’ attention. Additionally, infographics are used to illustrate specific work experiences (see Figure 3), and videos provide examples of how the center has implemented methods taught in the modules.

Figure 3. Examples of multimedia components included in the series of online learning modules.

[click to enlarge]

Formative assessments.Throughout the modules, knowledge self-checks are provided (see Figure 4). The goal is to support formative assessment and opportunities for explanatory feedback. When learners choose the correct answer, their answer is confirmed with encouraging words. In contrast, when learners choose the incorrect answers, comments are offered to motivate the learner to try again and provide a hint to facilitate their learning. Regardless of whether the learners answer the questions correctly, the feedback always maintains a respectful attitude and a friendly tone. This helps to enhance the learners’ confidence when completing the formative assessments. We believe frequent opportunities for self-assessment will support learners’ intellectual growth and life-long learning [35].

Figure 4. Throughout the online learning modules, knowledge self-checks are provided.

[click to enlarge]

Accessibility and development tool. To ensure content was as accessible as possible, the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.1 (WCAG) were followed. Web content refers to the information in a web application, including text, images, videos, and sounds as well as code or markup (e.g., Alt-text for images and keyboard-accessible navigation). Adherence to WCAG standards was verified using the Web accessibility evaluation tool from The web-based e-learning development application from Articulate, Rise 360, was used to develop the training collection.

Practical Implications

In practice, the Go Digital training collection serves both as learning content on how to create online and distance learning opportunities as well as examples of quality online and distance learning modules. For example, in the “Monitoring and Evaluating Progress for Distance and Online Learning” module sample rubrics were provided to illustrate how to effectively evaluate learner progress for each type of formative assessment discussed. In the “Designing Instruction for Distance and Online Learning” module the principles taught were also implemented. Interactive scenarios, such as interactive dialog with an avatar, and multimedia components (i.e. videos and animations) were used to provide content on how to use those activities and features.

By designing the online modules in a way that demonstrates how to implement the components being taught, the online learning module collection provides hands-on examples to those who complete the modules. Since instructors should provide scenarios and formative assessments to help their learners monitor their learning progress, the modules have them complete the same interactive experiences the modules instruct them to implement.

Throughout each module, carefully curated resources help participants extend their learning beyond module content. These resources include sources used to develop module content as well as examples of how the center has implemented the recommended tools, methods, and processes. This provides instructors with a toolbox to reference in the future when designing, developing, and delivering their own online learning opportunities.

When developing online training for instructors, it is essential to not only provide the knowledge of what they should do and why they should do it, but to also provide examples and practice opportunities to show them how to do what you are instructing them to do. The Go Digital training collection was developed with a focus on translating research into practice that highlights practical implications and can be applied to e-learning settings.


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About the Authors

Ana-Paula Correia, Ph.D., is a Professor of Learning Technologies in the Department of Educational Studies at The Ohio State University. Dr. Correia is also the Director of the Center on Education and Training for Employment. She has more than 25 years of experience in learning design and instructional systems technology. Specifically, Dr. Correia has expertise in distance education, online and mobile learning, collaborative learning, and entrepreneurial education. She has presented more than 150 academic papers around the world and published more than 90 refereed articles and book chapters.

Sean Hickey, M.A., is the Lead Curriculum Developer for the Assessment Program at the Center on Education and Training for Employment at The Ohio State University. He is an award-winning instructional designer with more than 20 years of experience creating workshops, classroom instructional materials, e-learning modules, and workplace training programs. He has presented at several national and international conferences on a wide range of educational topics, including gamification, developing multiple-choice assessments, and inquiry education in STEM. Hickey is also a Ph.D. student in learning technologies at The Ohio State University. His current research interests include professional identities among instructional designers, learning through communities of practice, and the development of noncognitive skills in adult learners.

Traci Lepicki, M.A., is the Associate Director of Operations and Strategic Initiatives at the Center on Education and Training for Employment at The Ohio State University and leads the center’s Curriculum and Training Program in developing, implementing, and evaluating professional development. She leverages expertise in career pathways, transitions, and workforce development as well as over 20 years of experience in designing standards-based education, developing curriculum, teaching, and evaluating instructional programs. Lepicki has written and presented extensively on various adult education topics, and her current research interests include needs assessment, experiential learning, and competency-based instruction.

Alicia Willis, M.A., is the Instructional Development Specialist at the Center on Education and Training for Employment at The Ohio State University. She provides curriculum and instruction recommendations, development, and guidance for center and client programs. Her 15 years as an instructional designer began designing and developing textbooks and online career-technical education programs while earning her M.A. in education with a focus on curriculum and instruction.

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