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Learning from e-learning

By Lisa Neal / October 2001

TYPE: OPINION
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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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ADDITIONAL READING

    Lisa Neal
  1. Predictions For 2003
  2. "Spot Learning"
  3. Q&A with Saul Carliner
  4. When will e-learning reach a tipping point?
  5. Online learning and fun
  6. In search of simplicity
  7. eLearning and fun
  8. Everything in moderation
  9. The basics of e-learning
  10. Is it live or is it Memorex?
  11. The Value of Voice
  12. Predictions for 2006
  13. Five Questions...for Christopher Dede
  14. Five Questions... for John Seely Brown
  15. Five questions...for Shigeru Miyagawi
  16. "Deep" thoughts
  17. 5 questions... for Richard E. Mayer
  18. Designing usable, self-paced e-learning courses
  19. Want better courses?
  20. Just "DO IT"
  21. Five questions...
  22. Formative evaluation
  23. Senior service
  24. Blogging to learn and learning to blog
  25. My life as a Wikipedian
  26. Five questions...for Elliott Masie
  27. The stripper and the bogus online degree
  28. Five questions...for Lynn Johnston
  29. Five questions...for Tom Carey
  30. Not all the world's a stage
  31. Five questions...for Karl M. Kapp
  32. Five questions...for Larry Prusack
  33. Five questions...for Seb Schmoller
  34. Do distance and location matter in e-learning?
  35. Why do our K-12 schools remain technology-free?
  36. Music lessons
  37. Learn to apologize for fun and profit
  38. Five questions…for Matt DuPlessie
  39. Back to the future
  40. Serious games for serious topics
  41. Five (or six) questions...for Irene McAra-McWilliam
  42. Learner on the Orient Express
  43. Of web hits and Britney Spears
  44. Advertising or education?
  45. How to get students to show up and learn
  46. Q&A
  47. Blended conferences
  48. Predictions for 2002
  49. Storytelling at a distance
  50. Q&A with Don Norman
  51. Talk to me
  52. Q&A with Diana Laurillard
  53. Do it yourself
  54. Degrees by mail
  55. Predictions for 2004