Momenta Learning

A blog on topics related to Elearning, online education, and instructional design.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

What Is Really Chunking?

I have seen many posts on the “so and so numbers of things that instructional designers or elearning professionals must do”, and many include the “chunking of information”. But what do they really mean by that? Displaying on the course lesson page a maximum number of words out of the total? Displaying a whole section? Making short videos? Short audio bites? Or just as many word as you can pack on the page? It can get confusing (at least to me) as to what really chunking means.
It has been proven for a long time that we can retain in working memory a number of “items”, which really mean concepts. In order to learn a new concept, it is important to first see the big picture of what we are learning (top-down), and not to worry about the details at that point. Then we can learn the interconnected concepts (the chunks) that serve as the foundation for what we want to learn so that, at the end of our study session, we are able to put the pieces together for the big-picture chunk of information (bottom-up). The point where these small chunks meet with the big picture idea is called the context where we are learning. Every time we need to remember that particular concept, we will recall this whole chunk of information, including the details, so that we would not have to use rote memory to remember all this information.
In terms of content for elearning, the above explanation applies to both text and media. A long video erodes attention the same way a long page with text does. We can only concentrate (focus our attention) for a few number of minutes (it varies but it could be between 15 - 25 min), then it becomes difficult to maintain concentration on the content. And this is the way I conduct my course design: presenting one idea as a chunk belonging to a bigger picture in the form of one lesson, section, page or whatever you want to call it, then as the learner move across the course where more chunks are being covered, this learner will arrive to the point where the context is presented and the learning of this new concept then takes place.
My favorite example is an online class in statics (because I am an engineer) where you want to cover the big picture subject of static equilibrium. Of course, the large picture is statics, the mechanics of bodies at rest or in constant velocity, but the subject of interest is static equilibrium. Within this subject you need to cover the static equilibrium of particles, then of rigid bodies, and within these two subjects there are a multitude of other subjects that need to be covered in order to understand how to analyze bodies in static equilibrium. The course must provide the context where all these chunks meet so that the learner can understand when to analyze a body as a rigid body or as a particle, when to use a vector approach or when to use a graphical approach to solve for forces acting on a body, and son.
The important point is this: don’t present your learners with two different concepts that they need to understand, present those concepts gradually so that they can master one before moving on to the next one. Also, I would recommend immediate assessment after they have covered the subject so that reinforcement occurs, and add a walk-through example so that they can understand how this concept is applied. In order to provide this context, another walk-through example (or case scenario) can be pertinent and a little more assessment to finally reinforce the material learned.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Blended Learning for Associations

It is true, and has been said over and over, that not all subjects can be integrated for elearning delivery. This is mostly related to the nature of the subject and not limitations on technology or resources (although sometimes, it is). When you manage an elearning program for an association, you need to consider the nature of the training or education being offered.
Most associations currently have a heavy load of onsite courses for training of their members for CEUs or other types of certification. This means that a lot of logistics go into the organization of these training courses. Many have content that is related to hands-on or equipment training, which forces the course to be offered as onsite only. In other cases, the subject matter expert (SME) has taught this course for such a long time that there is some resistance at the idea of making their course elearning available.
Another situation is that the manager just doesn’t know how to conduct an onsite to elearning conversion. It is often the case that elearning managers for associations were placed in that position just because of their managerial skills and not so much for their elearning or instructional design expertise.
The above cases are very good candidates for blended learning implementation. The concept of blended learning has been around for quite some time and has been mostly used in K-12 and higher education settings. The idea is to have learners undertake series of activities, assessments, and content review using both onsite and online tools (not necessarily in equal proportions). For associations, the best solution is the use of online tools to deliver assessments and activities as well as some content in the form of video, audio, or text and images. Then learners take on other parts of the course in a designated site. Hands-on training, equipment features and functionality can be set up in this way. If the certification assessment requires proctoring, then the learner can take this final step at a designated testing site. The same goes for certification that requires the learner to show the mastering of some skill in front of an expert that is grading the performance.
Striking the balance, between what goes online and what is being implemented on site, is the issue with blended learning. As the saying goes, you don’t want to use a lot of either one, but 50-50 is not the answer either. And it is not only due to pedagogical issues what decides what part of the course goes online, it might be economical ones that finally decide that some part of the program is offered on site. For example, creating demonstration videos of equipment, or technical procedures depicted using animations require a large initial investment. Of course, once this investment is made, you will probably have two years worth of content, at which point you will probably need to reshoot the whole thing. If the investment is recovered before the end of the shelf life of that course, then you might want to consider making this investment, otherwise you will be better off making this an onsite requirement.
Ultimately, the analysis of what content to put online and which one goes onsite is one that you cannot make alone. You do need to consult your SMEs, other parties interested, and maybe you could conduct a survey to test membership preferences. What is definitely important is that you consider designing some of your courses in a blended mode, this will not only reduce costs but will make sure the course becomes more affordable to members, since it is the usual case that onsite courses run at a larger tag price than fully online courses or blended courses.

Friday, October 24, 2014

So, what do I need to produce those elearning modules?

In terms of course production, if you don’t have the basic tools, it would be difficult to roll out an elearning program for your association. But you don’t want to break the bank either, production software costs can run in the order of thousands of dollars. My experience has told me that, unless there are special needs for different courses, you should get one production software and stick with it. Morph your courses to accommodate the production software and not the other way around. Or it may be that you can only afford one.
The reason behind this recommendation is that, in my experience, once you get more than one production software, you always end up using one more often than the other (or others). The bad news is that you are losing money because that software is just sitting idle in your computer while you are recovering the investment on the one you prefer. This way, you will never recover the investment of that underused software.
Fortunately, you can download a free trial (most of them let you try out the software for 30 days), give it a test drive, and select the one you like the most. Of course, I am not referring to “like” as meaning “pretty” or “visually appealing” or “wow effect”, but to that one with the right tools for you and your program. There will be advantages and drawbacks of using either option, hence you decision will probably revolve around that option with the minimum required tools at the lowest cost.
Why am I recommending you buy software instead of getting a bunch of computer programmers to create your custom-made courses? Nowadays computer power is cheaper than programmer labor. You are going to spend more money custom-building courses with complex PHP, HTML5, and Javascript pages. You could accomplish the same goal with a production software that publishes objects or web pages that can be embedded or linked in your course web pages. Plus when another round of course improvements comes along, you can do it in less time with the production software, your custom-built pages could be a complicated structure difficult to update, and it may be that only the programmers know where those sections that need modifications are located in the page structure.
But the course production tool is just the main workhorse of your program. You will need support applications that help put together an elearning course. Even though most production software allow for recording of screen for presentation purposes, you may need to edit those videos later on, which is not supported in most of those production applications. Even if you buy stock images for your courses, you will need software to edit those pictures. If you are using recorded webinars as video lectures, you will need a web application tool that supports recording of live webinars. Then you will need a LMS or learning management system. The selection of the right one for you is not an easy task. There are so many options out there with so many features that it could make your head spin. Of course, the option that can support inserting your courses produced with your development tool is always a good contender.
These are only some superficial recommendations and there are many details and cases that I could not cover in a post such as this one. My hope is that this article will make you decide and spend some time researching your options, or you could just get help from others that have done this kind of job.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Dude, where is my mechanical engineering online program?

This has baffled me for quite some time. There are many other majors that have been built completely online. But engineering is behind those other careers. The technology is there, it is true that it may become very expensive to produce online courses for engineering but the investment will be recovered in a medium term and the lifetime of the courses will give plenty of revenue to that institution offering the program.
There are certificate and master programs out there, that is true. But they tend to cater to professionals who do not have the time to attend a classroom or are looking for a career switch or need the certification or the diploma to climb up the ladder in their place of work.
But why is it that all those freshmen coming out of American High Schools would not want to enroll in those programs that are currently being offered (in majors that would not require a lot of lab work, more on that later)? There are certainly online programs in computer science or information technology majors, but even those do not have a lot of enrollments from recent High School graduates.
In my view, I see three reasons this is not happening right now.
  1. Parents and students do not see a degree earned online as valuable as one earned on campus. This is still true all around America. They still see a degree from a mortar and bricks university more valuable (even if that university is not even ranked in the US News Annual list) than one earned online from a highly ranked university. The perception that a degree from an online program was earned through easy courses and not-so-difficult exams has not been erased from the minds of these parents and potential students. This is changing, and rapidly. As universities feel the need to serve as many students as possible, even though the seats available in the classroom are not expanding at the rate that students graduate from High School, these institutions are creating courses that will eventually morph into complete online programs, which have the same or equivalent value that the version offered on campus. They are making sure that is the case, we have to remember that their names are still on that online degree.
  2. The fact that many engineering courses require laboratory work. This is changing as well. Many universities have asked the question of how valuable lab work really is in an engineering program. They are also looking into alternative solutions that can recreate the lab work either online or by asking the students to do the lab work at home.
  3. The complexity of many courses that are needed at the undergraduate senior level. When you reach the final year into the undergraduate program the student needs to take courses that require a higher level of thinking (such as composite materials, or fracture mechanics). These course are highly specialized subjects (in many cases they are elective courses) that may require a lot of web technology for their implementation (which translates into costly courses).
At the end of the day, you need to prove that a graduate from the online program has the same abilities and skills as a graduate from the on campus version, and that is the hardest part of this whole business. In many countries you are required to take an examination or perform original work in order to obtain the degree. This is not a common practice in the US. That might be the solution, you can create a final assessment that could measure the same variables in students that are graduating from both programs, and both programs must have global goals that map to that assessment in order to guarantee that both graduates have achieved the same level of expertise. This will give an additional value to online programs.
If we are able to overcome these difficulties, I am pretty sure I will be seeing a mechanical engineering online program that is as valuable as the one offered on campus in that higher education institution.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

So you want to do some elearning?

OK. If you are a director of training or you are in charge of any aspect of onsite courses for your association, you know your game. You have developed your skills to make the best training for your organization, and they are pretty happy with the program. It has brought revenue to the group and has become one of the main products. Not only that, you have built a reputable brand that is recognized in your professional area. That is good news to you.
But wait, during the last year you have been following a steady decrease of revenue on the training products, not only that, all the products seem to be catching the same disease, enrollments are dwindling and you are called into a meeting with the association officers to see what is going on. But you already know the answer. There are competitors out there, they have not been serious competitors to your program because they were mainly small-sized companies and their customer reach was very limited. But now they have a new weapon in their arsenal: elearning. Because the internet has democratized access to information, and effectively anyone can build an elearning program on the cheap, they are reaching more customers, many of whom were your customers in the past. A perfect storm has gathered that is threatening your program: competitors offering a more affordable elearning solution, customers making every dime count and who are cutting corners in order to save money on training (which is one of the first items in the budget to get slashed when times get tough), and the fact that your organization has been slow in getting on board with an elearning solution to compete and broaden your product base.
So you exit the meeting with the task of building an elearning program to catch up with the competition. You have years of experience designing onsite courses, this question might pop up in your head: “Am I qualified to supervise the production of elearning courses?” Chances are you feel that creating elearning is a daunting task, that there are so many technology options out there that you just don’t know which one is the best for your case. The first action you need to take is working on a plan (I talked about that in a previous post) because you need to make decisions to move forward. Should you get training on elearning? Should you hire somebody that has the experience? It clearly depends on the timeframe your directors gave you to have the program up and running.
Now, here is the last thing you should be doing: jumping in and doing it yourself, thinking that you will pick up the required skills along the way, or that you can do it after reading your first elearning book. I am sure you will be able to produce something, but I sincerely doubt it will be able to compete with what is already out there. You don't need to add to your problems the embarrassment of creating an ineffective program and dragging your association’s name into the mud, damaging the brand just because you needed something out the door as soon as possible to keep your directors happy.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

So you have the business plan. Now what?

If you have your elearning business plan, congratulations, you are one step closer to your goal of managing that elearning program. But now what? What do I do with this plan? How can I use it? Like I said in my previous post, the whole purpose of working out this plan was to create a full picture of where you want your program to be in the short and middle terms. In order to get there, one of your first tasks should be finding out where you are standing right now in terms of your current resources, and what you can realistically acquire to complement what you currently have.
Take a look around. What is it that you already have at your disposal? Your business plan should have included a list of your current assets. You need to know what you have and what you may need. I have seen many cases where a whole set of resources are thrown away just because the new manager doesn’t like that kind of software, or the brand of computer, or the furniture, or even the elements in the team (layoffs). This is a waste of resources. A manager is not somebody with a license to clean up a whole department (unless the hiring was done with that objective).
You need to adapt to what you currently have. You also need to figure out what you will require in order to achieve your goals. Below I am outlining a few things to consider while you are working out your resource inventory and the wish list that you will eventually present to your boss(es) when you present that report on the current state of your elearning program.
  1. Would you need to make new hires? Take a look at the resumes or CVs of your team. Do they have the skills required to achieve your elearning goals? Is training a viable solution, instead of hiring?
  2. Would you need to purchase new equipment? Maybe another department has what you need and they are not using it, or they might be willing to share it with your department. Will your current technology help you achieve the elearning goals? How old is the technology you found when you took over? Can you repurpose some of the technology available for new tasks?
  3. Would you need to purchase new software licenses? Can you rely on freeware? Will your team learn to use new software in a reasonably span of time? How old is the software currently available? Do you currently have reliable tech support?
  4. Do we have an LMS for course delivery? How old is it? Is there a cheaper solution? Would it impact the program switching to a different LMS? How strong is the web programming team?
  5. What office space do you have available? Would you need more? Would you need to move to a larger site? Can you create spaces for specific course production tasks (like video or sound recording, training, brainstorming sessions, media production, and so on.
By going through this process you will save time and resources, reduce waste, and create a clear plan of future development for your elearning program, based on what you found out during your analysis of requirements and current state of the program.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Shoot! Do I really need that Business Plan?

Let’s say you are the newly minted elearning director, manager, or whatever position they created for you in that association that wants to explore the idea of creating, and packaging, online courses to market to members and other professionals. Well, they are going to ask you: how much will it cost? When will we have our investment back? Will we see any profits? What technology will we be using? And so on.
Have you panicked yet? If this is your first managerial position, you are very concerned. If it is not, maybe not so much. The latter crowd will tell you that they have written reports, summaries, and plans that outline the answer to those questions. In that case, don’t read this post, you are not the main focus of this article. This is meant for first-time managers, recently promoted managers, professional entrepreneurs or freelancers that need some kind of direction to get where they want. In order to answer the questions above, you need a business plan.
Don’t buy that business plan software just yet. If you are a one-man (or woman) show, you don’t need that kind of workhorse. You just need Google Docs or a plain spreadsheet and a word processor. A business plan does not need to be a long document with pretty pie charts and spreadsheets with numbers for the next five years. But it needs to have the information of what you are planning for your enterprise for at least the next year. You need to outline the goals you expect to attain, and they need to be measurable, for example:
  • number of contracts you expect to secure,
  • number of customers you expect to serve and how much revenue will bring in,
  • number of billable hours you would expect to invoice,
  • number of students you expect to enroll in your online courses,
  • and so on.
This also applies for your plan for your association, although in this case you would need a more detailed plan than the freelancer needs. In both cases it is important to lay out what your business will do, what your market is, how are you planning on marketing your services, and other details that will help your company achieve those goals.
One important detail that you need to lay out in this plan is exactly what you are selling. Is it a product? Is it a service? You just cannot say that you are selling elearning, that is a very broad term. But you could say that you are selling an online course on time management, or that you are offering weekly paid webinars on three technical subjects such as energy savings, green buildings, and waste management.
If the market changes, you can change the plan (and maybe what you offer), but you need to have it ready, you never know when that venture funding could show up. Plus it will help your bosses at that association see the vision you have for the task they entrusted you with.