Learning by Design
Thomas Obrey, cofounder and COO of PixelMEDIA—which offers integrated strategy, design, and implementation services for the Web—says content must be interactive. Interactive content engages the user, providing better retention than static content. "If you have interactive content, you don't have someone zoning out," Obrey says. "Training in a classroom environment is very boring."
While he agrees that interactive content provides better training, Brennan says "it's hard to isolate for that" to determine how much more effective interactive content is. According to his research, only 15% to 20% of elearning today is conducted using interactive content.
An elearning program design needs to allow a user to skim or skip content he's already familiar with and go deeper into materials when necessary, according to Obrey. This enables the user to control his learning environment. For example, an elearning program that PixelMEDIA designed for Harvey Industries, a manufacturer of insulated doors and windows, offers different levels of lessons for novices, journeymen, and advanced employees.
Similarly, Pathlore and GeoLearning systems enable a user to skip components that they already know. However, Imagistics' Malay points out that in her experience using Pathlore's solution, she's found that an elearning system must be able to test for proficiency in new employees or to use recorded certifications for existing ones to ensure that they do indeed understand lower levels or easier components before moving on or skipping ahead.
The recording of grades, certifications, or knowledge doesn't just ensure that an employee improves his skills, it also protects companies in some industries, according to Malay. Companies in heavily regulated industries such as healthcare and financial services need systems that record for legal purposes the training employees have received. These systems track, for example, not only that an employee saw a company policy on customer information disclosure, but also that the employee understood (via a quiz) what he saw.
Elearning needs to be flexible so that in-house employees connecting through the corporate T-1 line, traveling salesmen using wireless modems, and employees connecting from home with a slow dial-up modem all can access the program. For example, while the internal employee at Cisco will have more than enough bandwidth to use streaming video, some of the partners don't have the bandwidth and won't be shown the video. Imagistics still provides CDs and DVDs with learning components so that a salesperson doesn't necessarily need to be connected to advance his knowledge.
Just as content needs to be accessible, it needs to produce the desired result, according to Obrey. "Some companies fail to include internal subject matter experts in the design of the elearning program," he explains. "The subject matter experts know what content is important. A properly designed elearning program is a win-win for everyone."
Similarly, if a company doesn't have a clear definition of what the elearning class or module should teach the user, or doesn't test the product prior to rollout and during actual usage, the firm won't reap the full benefits of the training, Obrey cautions. Companies need to have clear metrics for elearning requirements and critical success factors. Obrey recommends testing of elearning components themselves during development and after rollout to ensure they teach what they are designed to teach. He believes that that elearning content should be designed for "the soldiers" (employees) in an organization, not "the generals" (executives), though executives might use high levels of elearning.
Elearning components need to include simple content that enables the user to find their way around the application, Obrey says. The workers at a company like Harvey Industries may not be as accustomed to computers and applications as employees at high-tech companies like Cisco.
IDC research has shown that the subjects most conducive to elearning are hard skills such as occupational safety, compliance, product knowledge, and training, according to Brennan. "There's not a lot in the way of ambiguity." However he has seen that elearning for soft skills, such as customer service training (e.g. "people skills") are starting to gain acceptance. "The leading adopters are the companies with continuous professional development," Brennan adds.