Monday, February 08, 2010

An Introduction to e-learning

"Online learning will rapidly become one of the most cost-effective ways to educate the world's expanding workforce."
--Jack Messman

Online learning, also known as e-learning, is fast becoming a preferred training mode in industry and academia alike. In this blog post, we will look at some of the basic concepts, advantages of e-learning, and explore the use of technology in e-learning.

Online learning can be asynchronous. Being asynchronous means that learners determine when and how to access online learning content. This is in contrast with the synchronous model of training where learners generally move through content in a pre-determined sequence.

Another characteristic of online learning is that it is available ‘on demand’ and ‘just in time’. Online learning content is often customized and personalized as per preferences of the learner. The ‘just in time’ delivery model allows the content to be continuously updated resulting in content relevant to the context.

Online learning is learner controlled. This implies that the learner has the option to pause and play content at the learner’s pace. This also allows the learner to reflect on content learned before moving on to later modules.

The content used for online learning is designed to be re-usable. ‘re-usable’ in this context means that basic units of content can be re-assembled to generate different types of content, suited to different needs of the intended audience.

Online learning is also designed to be platform independent. Content can be transformed into a variety of formats like XML, HMTL, PDF, e-book, etc., resulting on the same content being easily available across different platforms.

Online learning also allows learners across the globe to collaborate in real time resulting in a highly interactive learning experience. Online learning when used for distance education enables trainers to interact with a large number of trainees at multiple locations in real-time, resulting in cost-effective training programs.

Moving on to technologies used in e-learning, the online learning industry initially tried to replicate the class room experience online. Later, the industry was guided by the fact that technology is only the delivery mechanism and the industry has focused on the best method of online content delivery that is most comfortable to learners.

The earliest of the e-learning courses were computer based training and web based training. In computer based training, learning content on CD-ROM or other media was distributed to students and the in the case of web based training, content was delivered over the Internet. In both cases, the course was meant to be taken by trainees as an asynchronous, self-paced course. Web based training allows content to be easily updated and if the trainer and trainee are online at the same time, this mode allows interaction. The disadvantages of web based training include requirement of Internet connectivity and if the connectivity rates are high, it can be an expensive option in the case of large multimedia files.

Most of the computer based trainings and web based trainings are structured in a linear fashion where the trainee is expected to follow a single path through the course content. Some courses allow the learner to navigate based on needs or interests. There are also sophisticated courses, in which the path is customized as per trainee need and the progress the trainee makes in the initial stages of the course.

The technologies used for delivering asynchronous e-learning include e-mails and discussion forums. E-mails provide a faster means of traditional correspondence course. E-mails also act as a support medium in the case of learning management systems that allow uploading and sharing of content. Discussion forums provide a mechanism for discussion on specific course topics as well as informal exchanges related to course delivery. ‘Threading’ is a feature, which allows discussions to be grouped together, making it simpler to find related postings and responses. Threaded discussions are often also collapsible and expandable to allow students to manage the number of posts shown on the screen at a time and to facilitate browsing groups of posts.

Audio conferencing (using telephone or VoIP [Voice over Internet Protocol]), electronic white boards, instant messaging, text chat, video communication, and web casting are some of the technologies that support delivering synchronous e-learning courses.

Audio conferencing allows a group to interact in real time by sharing voice accompanied by slides or text. Audio quality is often a bottle neck while using this mode of delivery since poor audio quality will lead to a poor classroom experience for the trainees. The length of audio conferencing sessions, similar to traditional classroom lectures, need to be restricted to 1-2 hours. The rest of the technologies we are going to discuss below are used together with audio conferencing to enhance the classroom experience for synchronous e-learning courses.

An electronic white board typically consists of an electronic version the dry-erase boards found in conventional lecture rooms. They are used for free hand writing and drawing, and range from simple graphical editors to sophisticated versions incorporating slide show and other applications.

Instant messaging and text chat allows short and frequent messaging between participants of a synchronous e-learning program. Instant messaging typically involves pairs of individuals whereas in text chat a group of individuals is involved. Instant Messaging and chat tools vary in complexity from simple messaging to complex ones with built-in file sharing and private messaging.

Videoconferencing extends the capability of audio conferencing by the addition of video. Videoconferencing enables instructors to either stream video or enable videoconferencing, between instructors and students, between students, or between multiple classrooms. As in the case of audio, video quality has to be maintained for this mode of delivery to be successful. Streaming video is becoming more widely adopted and is often replayed rather than live.
Web casting involves combining one or more the technologies that we discussed above to delivery synchronous learning experience to students.

Before we conclude this blog post on e-learning, let us look at a learning related quote in the context of organizations.

"An organization's ability to learn and translate that learning into action is the ultimate competitive advantage."
--Jack Welch

And e-learning will help organizations learn what they need to know, when they need to know. 

~ Sunish

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