6 Ways People Can Learn Online

adult learning course design learning retention Dec 08, 2020
Blog title people can learn well online. Addressing the elephant in the room.

Let's address the elephant, the question so many of us are asking ourselves quietly:

Can people actually learn when they're being taught online? Does this work? Is it realistic? Or are we all just wasting our efforts?

Yes, I just asked the un-askable question. The question that students, teachers, professionals, and educators of all sorts are asking themselves right now. The question that we're all scared to answer honestly when students worldwide from the youngest of elementary to the oldest of professional continuing education have no choice but to convert to this online model of teaching.

I know I've heard a lot of complaints that online learning isn't working. Complaints that it's not engaging, that it's too much screen time, that it's hard to handle, and that it's ineffective. Professionals complain, parents complain, teachers complain — 8-year-old screen lovers complain.

The truth is: online learning can work, if done right.

I have a lot of experience as an instructional designer and learning consultant, specifically in the realm of virtual delivery and online learning. I know that online learning can work — and people can actually learn well in virtual settings. But I also know the importance of good course design — we're not just talking pretty visuals— in making virtual learning palatable, maybe even enjoyable, but definitely learn-able.

Controversial, I know. So let's dig in:

The Promises (and Pitfalls!) of Online Learning

Learning in a virtual setting has a lot of pros and cons. Pro: you can't get a virus virtually (a huge advantage right now). Con: setting up a virtual learning space takes more effort than setting up the right number of chairs.

Think of building your virtual learning setting less like setting up the small details of a classroom and more like constructing the entire classroom itself. While that may sound intimidating, I promise it's doable and entirely worth it for both you and your learners.

I've been working in this space for a long time and there are some incredible things I'm seeing being taught or practiced online right now that even I wouldn't have believed were possible a few years ago. Making non-traditional learning work takes creativity and commitment to the principles of effective learning design.

Keep these two core ideas in mind and there's a lot that can be done to create engaging, meaningful, and practice-based learning opportunities, even online.

High-Level Structures: Common Models of Learning Delivery

Let's take a step back and reconsider some different methods for delivering online learning. Think of this as the large-scale structure of your virtual learning setting. Some common structures include:

  1. The Group Model — this model involves a teacher facilitating live as a webinar or on-video call, to any size group of students.
  2. The Elearning Model — individual or series of learning modules that are created to track learner progress, check for knowledge and deliver information. The diversity in eLearning and digital learning experiences can vary from the "death by click next" learning to mind-blowingly engaging digital experiences.
  3. The Video Model — this uses prerecorded video components. You'll see this a lot in lectures, especially when demonstrating something specific. For inspiration, just think of YouTube where you can demonstrate and explain what seems like literally everything. Video recordings can be a person talking, an animation, screen recordings, or a combination.
  4. The Practice Model — this type of model uses role-playing working with scripts and actors. The benefit of a role-play or other practice-style model is that learners get the opportunity to deliberately practice something hard in a safe, supportive, and constructive space. This model can be especially useful for professional settings where a skill needs to be practiced until it's done properly and bonus, it's all done over the phone or video.
  5. The Coaching Model — this model uses one-to-one teaching and mentoring which translates quite well to online settings. Tutors, executive, business, music or other special skills, especially have taken to using this model because it's live, individualized learning.
  6. The Automated Model — this model is the hands-off model that involves creating primarily or fully automated learning programs. This includes automated communications, prework, reminders, goal-setting, reflections, assessments, worksheets, exercises, and other activities that people can do entirely on their own time. This model often appeals to adults and other professionals learning on their personal time amidst a busy schedule. Don't let the name deter you, this model still involves applying adult learning principles, just well automated to reach a larger audience.

These models don't always exist quite so distinctly. Often in online learning, these models overlap to compliment each other and fit your specific needs and limitations. Once you've decided the best-fitting model based on the gaps of your learners, and the outcomes you want to achieve, then you can get specific about how to structure your learning for the best online delivery. I'm going to share how to do this in Part 2 of this blog post.

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