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Talk to me
discussion is the key to engaging online courses

By Lisa Neal / December 2002

TYPE: OPINION
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I have an idealized view of life in Europe: a limited workday and unlimited cultural enrichment. When leading a workshop in Berlin in late November, I was surprised to hear that while many European countries require by law that training take place during the work week, most people take their online courses evenings or weekends, just like my colleagues and I do. "Too much else to do during the day," "Too many distractions and interruptions," and "I learned more at the off-site courses" were the familiar refrains.

However, I heard some tales of great experiences with these online courses, despite the off-hours. The common thread in all these stories was the presence of discussion, synchronously or asynchronously. And the people taking the courses after hours didn't mind because they were having fun. They were enthusiastic about how much they were learning.

In contrast, I wasn't raving about my most recent experience as an online student. The course I took used case studies, which, as I learned in graduate school, can be a launching point for discussion—but not in this self-paced, asynchronous course. When I finished the course, I thought about how much more compelling it would have been to analyze and discuss these cases with collegues. To make matters worse, the answers to the course's quizzes were obvious—unlike in real life, where problems tend to be complex and difficult to solve. Overall, the course simply didn't engage me.

With the current focus on cost reduction, corporate trainers sometimes forget that no student will learn without being engaged. (Additionally, an engaged student is relatively unconcerned with when learning takes place, such as on a Saturday afternoon.) The self-paced, asynchronous "catalog courses" that dominate online training may be inexpensive, but they are not the best way to learn. What I heard recently from a number of Europeans was that they miss not only discussion but also informal learning and networking when they take self-paced courses. Traditional off-site courses and well-designed online courses facilitate the structured discussions that enrich and provide context to learning, and that makes learning enjoyable. We must remember that successful workplace learning is necessarily social.

In theory, catalog courses give students unlimited opportunities to learn. But learners need motivation. What better way to achieve this than by making sure everyone enjoys the learning process? If a course will help someone perform better at work, it is worth the investment to design or redesign that course to incorporate discussion. The result may be an enjoyable, engaging, and successful learning experience.



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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. Learning from e-learning
  50. Storytelling at a distance
  51. Q&A with Don Norman
  52. Q&A with Diana Laurillard
  53. Do it yourself
  54. Degrees by mail
  55. Predictions for 2004