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Learning from e-learning

By Lisa Neal / October 2001

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I watched the news about the terror attacks on the morning of September 11 from a hotel lobby in Golden, CO. Instead of returning to Boston that afternoon following my business meeting, I was stuck in Denver for three days waiting for airports to reopen. While this was not like losing a loved one, it was difficult and frustrating for me. Moreover, it was a terrible time to be alone. My eLearn magazine colleagues were even more affected because their offices are located in New York City. One of the most immediate effects of the tragedy on the staff of eLearn magazine was that we decided not to attend this year's OnLine Learning 2001 in Los Angeles, where we were scheduled to have a booth. Along with many other organizations that have postponed professional gatherings, we're just not ready to travel.

Many who fear more terror attacks share our concerns about travel; others feel that now is a time to remain close to family. In light of the changes that are occurring as the World Trade Center ruins still smoke, the e-learning community has something valuable to share: the lessons we've learned about successfully communicating and collaborating at a distance. Even before the attacks, people cited air travel's high cost and inconvenience as reasons they wanted to move online. Now, there are more reasons to "attend" business meetings, conferences, and seminars online: anxiety about safety and security-related inconveniences. Effectively applied, e-learning's techniques, methods, and processes for conveying information and facilitating interaction are directly transferable to meetings and events and can enable organizations to carry on their normal practices.

E-learning, when done well, can be as good or better than being in the classroom. It offers students a rich, compelling, and motivating experience. Effectively crafting meetings and events, though, requires an understanding of how to select technologies and maximize their effectiveness. It takes expertise about introducing, facilitating, and supporting technologies so that participants feel engaged and connected as they virtually join their peers. Digitally mediated meetings can be successful, and some will be better—more subtle, more substantive, and more conducive to thoughtful interaction—than their traditional, face-to-face alternatives. In other cases, virtual meetings may not live up to the "real" thing, but, for now, the convenience and safety may outweigh what is lost.

If you're thinking about an online meeting or event, here are some of the most crucial questions to ask:

  • What types of communication and interaction do you want to facilitate?
  • What are the constraints to these communications and interactions?
  • Which technological and non-technological interventions will make it successful?

Education and training can be viewed as a unique type of communication: with a common goal and there is a teacher who helps participants achieve their goal. Given the characteristics of many face-to-face gatherings, where focus and structure may be lacking, we need to ask how people can meet, network, mentor, and exchange ideas effectively at a distance.

  • How can participants have an appropriate level of awareness of each other's presence and activities?
  • How is a meeting impacted by topic, culture, time zones, bandwidth, and other constraints?
  • How will the effectiveness of the facilitator, materials, and technologies be evaluated?
  • And what incentives are in place for participation?

Two specific modes for virtual meetings are audio and video conferencing. Both are increasingly popular ways to reduce or avoid travel. Even though it lacks the visual richness of video, audio conferencing can be surprisingly effective. Drawing upon e-learning practitioners' experience, here are some of the most important factors to consider in planning an effective audio conference: group size and cohesiveness, technological capabilities and constraints, participants' and leaders' prior experience with audioconferencing, and the use of supporting materials.

Generally speaking, a large group will need more protocols than a smaller group to minimize disruptions and maximize productivity. A smaller group may need more awareness indicators: who is there, who has stepped out for a minute, and who has a question. Participants in a group inexperienced with audioconferencing might need incentives to participate and some guidance or practice to increase their comfort. Creativity is often needed to devise and introduce techniques that enhance communication without overly constraining participants.

Many e-learning tools provide some of the more sophisticated features that support facilitation, interaction, and awareness. Some of the products that do this, such as Centra, PlaceWare, WebEx, HorizonLive, and NetMeeting, offer a set of capabilities—to see a list of participants, chat casually with other participants, indicate that you have a question, or participate in a poll—that allow for richer communication than audio or video alone.

In a face-to-face situation, we are adept at reading and displaying cues such as confusion, boredom, or comprehension. The features in e-learning technologies can help facilitators better understand those reactions without face-to-face interaction. But to enhance meetings or events at a distance, there still needs to be an in-depth understanding of meetings' purposes and goals, along with thoughtful design and orchestration to achieve those goals.

All of this is to say what many of us in the discipline of e-learning have thought for a long time: There are many applications beyond education for the technologies and methods we're developing and using. Our work is really about providing the enabling structures for people to meet, talk, learn, and even play. And that's what meetings and events—the ones that people may now avoid because of terrorists' unpredictable and unreasoning violence—are all about. Let's use our e-learning prowess to empower people to continue exchanging knowledge, sharing experiences, and inspiring each other.


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    Lisa Neal
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