Online courses must die!

A touch dramatic, isn’t it?

Now that I have your attention, please bear with me. There’s method in my madness…

The myth of rapid authoring

The proliferation of so-called rapid authoring tools over the last few years has coincided with an explosion in the number of online courses developed in-house.

In the bad old days, technically challenged L&D professionals had to pay exorbitant fees to development houses to produce simple modules. These days, however, everyone seems to be creating their own online courses and distributing them via an LMS.

In tandem with this trend, though, has been the increasingly familiar cry of “It’s not interactive!”. Critics rail against boring page turners – and rightly so.

Woman bored at the computer

But you know what? Even when L&D professionals consciously integrate interactivity into their online courseware, I usually don’t think it’s all that engaging anyway. Increasing the number of clicks required to view the content does not make it more interactive. It just makes it annoying, especially for time-poor employees in the corporate sector.

Yes, I know you can embed real interactivity into courseware via games, branched simulations, virtual worlds etc, but hardly anyone does that. It requires time – which you don’t have because you’re too busy building the online course – or dollars – which defeats the purpose of developing it in-house!

So what’s the alternative?

Frankly, there’s nothing most online courses do that a PDF can’t. Think about it: PDFs display structured text and pretty pictures. Just like a typical online course, without the fancy software or specialist skills.

Anyone (and I mean just about anyone) can create and update a PDF. Suddenly SMEs are back in the game… Write up a Word doc and convert it? Easy. Update the Word doc and re-convert it? Easy.

Now that’s what I call rapid.

The best of both worlds

If we dispense with online courses in favour of PDFs, how can we incorporate interactivity into the learning experience?

Enter the Informal Learning Environment (ILE).

Occupying a place on the continuum somewhere between a VLE and a PLE, an ILE is an informal learning environment that a facilitator manages on behalf of a group of learners.

Essentially, an ILE is a space (like a website or intranet site) that centralises relevant learning resources in a particular domain. The site may host some of those resources and point to others that exist elsewhere.

So your PDFs can go in there, but so too can your audio clips, videos, puzzles, games, quizzes and simulations. Don’t forget podcasts, RSS feeds, slideshows, infographics, animations, articles and real-life case studies. Not to mention blogs, wikis, discussion forums and social bookmarks.

Unlike a VLE, an ILE is strictly informal. The learners can explore its resources at their own pace and at their own discretion. No forced navigation, no completion status. In this sense, the pedagogy is constructivist.

Unlike a PLE, an ILE is communal. It exists to support a community of practice, whose members can (or more accurately, should) incorporate it into their own respective PLEs. In this sense, the pedagogy is connectivist.

But that’s not to say that the pedagogy of an ILE can’t be instructivist either. The facilitator should provide a learning plan for novice learners which defines a sequence of study, identifying specific resources among the potentially overwhelming array of options.

The sky’s the limit

An ILE is a scalable and flexible learning environment. If we view each resource within that environment as a learning object, we can appreciate how easy it is to add new content, update old content, and remove obsolete content.

Four marbles

It’s incredibly inefficient to use up the precious time of an L&D professional to build, publish, test and upload an online course, only to edit, re-publish, re-test and re-upload it later, just because a few words need to be changed and a graph replaced. Instead, the SME can create and update the object via Word.

If you are keen on creating interactive tutorials, games or virtual worlds, now you can go for it! You have more time, and new tools are coming out that are making these kinds of thing easier to do. The finished product can be added to the ILE as another learning object. Again, if it needs to be updated later, there’s no need to edit, re-publish, re-test and re-upload a whole course – just that object.

If you commission an external developer to build a smokin’ hot immersive scenario, guess what: you add it to the ILE as another learning object. When it needs to be updated, you pay the developer to work on that object and that object only.

In this age of iPhones and Flip cameras, why not encourage your learners to generate their own content too? It’s another rich source of objects to add to the mix.

All these examples illustrate my central premise: when content is managed in the form of independent learning objects, it remains open and flexible, which means you can keep it current, relevant and organic.

Rockin’ role

Under the ILE model, the role of the L&D professional finally evolves.

The SME is empowered to produce content, which frees you up to apply your own expertise: instructional design. This may involve a greater focus on engagement and interactivity.

The responsibility of learning is assigned back to the learners, which frees you up to guide, scaffold, encourage, discuss, prompt, probe, challenge and clarify. In other words, facilitate learning.

Your value in the organisation goes through the roof!

Take the ass out of assessment

I claimed earlier that there’s nothing most online courses do that a PDF can’t. I glaringly omitted assessment. Please note I left it out on purpose.

There are just some things that the company must know that you know. You get no argument from me on that.

However, how we assess that knowledge is bizarrely old fashioned.

A donkey

While it’s convenient to wrap up some content and a quiz into a single package, I just don’t see the point from an instructional design perspective. Forcing someone to register into a course, just to pass a dinky quiz at the end, doesn’t make a lot of sense to me.

It is widely acknowledged that the vast majority of learning in the workplace is informal. From exploring an ILE to chatting around the water cooler, there is a myriad of ways that people learn stuff. Assessment should represent the sum of that learning.

This is where the LMS comes in. In my view it should manage assessment, not content. More specifically, it should deliver, track and record standalone tests that are linked to particular competencies.

When the LMS is used in this way, the L&D model aligns more closely with the learning process. The employees learn informally all over the place, using an ILE as their central support resource, then (if necessary) they record their competence. The focus of measurement shifts from activity to outcome.

This unorthodox approach makes many people nervous. Their primary concern is that someone can jump straight onto the test and pass it immediately, without ever “doing the course”. In response, I make these three points:

  1. You can jump straight to the assessment in most online courses anyway.
  2. If someone bluffs their way through the assessment and passes, clearly it wasn’t robust enough. That’s your fault.
  3. Conversely, if someone passes the assessment because they already have the knowledge, what’s the problem? You are recording competence, not making people’s lives difficult.

Of course, this kind of nervousness isn’t confined to the corporate sector nor to e-learning. For example, many universities have a minimum 80% attendance policy for face-to-face lectures. I don’t see the point of turning up just to fall asleep with my eyes open, but that’s another story!

The method in my madness

Online courses must die because they are unsustainable in the modern workplace. They aren’t rapid, flexible or scalable, and they usually don’t take full advantage of their medium anyway.

So unlock your content and manage it in the form of individual learning objects in an ILE.

Shift the bulk of the content to PDF. In the age of e-readers, no one will notice much difference.

By all means invest in authoring tools, but only in ones that will help you create interactive and engaging objects – easily.

Exploit Web 2.0.

Use standalone tests to record competence on your LMS. They cover all sources of knowledge.

Informalise learning. Formalise assessment.

20 thoughts on “Online courses must die!

  1. Hey Ryan,

    I like it. This is what I have been thinking for some time but you have put it into words much better than I ever could have. I am trying to enourage my workplace to replicate some of these ideas right now and I see the Intranet as the domain of the ILE. These guys still need to do their compliance training etc but I think that timely and appropriate facilitation could be the answer to many of their other training, knowledge management and OD needs not to mention a place to hold those water cooler conversations in a “safe” place.

  2. Thanks Rhys.

    It’s a bit “out there” I know, but perhaps where workplace learning should be heading. Major paradigm shifts like this never happen overnight and perhaps they shouldn’t. Culture needs time to change.

    I have been thinking about compliance and other regulated training, and while logic dictates that robust assessment should be enough, when is it ever logical?! In such cases, forced navigation and SCORM interactions may remain to cover the company’s backside. Whether or not the learning is effective, well that’s a different issue.

  3. As someone who has recently been exposed to alot of courses that you describe as being forced to register for, just so I can pass a quiz this resonates with me. I would love to be able to go access information elsewhere, and then just do the quiz online… infact, I think that sometimes segregating the assessment from the materials could be very beneficial as I can choose to organise it how I want, and not have my notes hidden from me during the assessment component (unless I’ve taken some by hand, an archaic practice for me) -a practice which in this day and age seems irrelevant.

    I think, for this to be constructivist, that the materials that learners are accessing need to be constructed by other learners – this would also feed the connectivism area later.

    Can the ILE be constructed over time by people who are at a more intermediate level – can the SME receive learning credit for their contributions, and can learners vote for the resources that they find more useful. Could an administrative process be applied to this? (I think they need to be redesigned to suit the upsidedown model)

    I think we need to remember in our learning design that learning, assessment, and administration are not the same, no matter how much we want them to be… there needs to be a happy medium.

  4. Thank you Ryan. Do you think of your ILE as bounded by the organisation’s resources, or would it pull in expertise wherever in the world it exists? And does the social learning extend to the assessment phase – for instance, once I have answered an OHS quiz, can I compare my attempt with the best answers from predecessors working with the same gear and risks?

  5. Thanks mollybob and Penny. The additional ideas that you both have suggested are excellent, and my short answer is: I don’t see why not.

    While your L&D delivery model can be as sophisticated as your budget allows, I feel an ILE would remain a central component regardless, even if it were very simple.

    One extra point that I would like to make is, just because a formal assessment is managed via an LMS, that doesn’t mean it must be a quiz. It could be a role play, or an OTJ observation, or an authentic simulation, or whatever. (I realise neither of you were suggesting otherwise, BTW.)

  6. I like the idea of using the LMS for assessment and making the content freely available without having to be assigned to a particular module, instead of SME’s updating a word doc -> pdf, I would see this as still being web based that could be accessed from anywhere but still allowing someone to print to pdf if required, but the back end would be database with the entire process, system etc. with each SME updating their particular part/record within the database.. where the learner/user can just select the part of the process system etc. they want to know, that way it could be used for assessment and experiential learning.

  7. Cheers Gary. Yes, the bulk content could certainly be web based rather than PDFed, managed perhaps by a CMS.

    I would question the likelihood of the SMEs updating their respective parts in the database. It would require new skills, perhaps basic to you and me, but new none the less.

    Whatever the approach, it must remain rapid, flexible and scalable. In a nutshell: easy.

    If you can get the governance of such a system in order, plus the buy-in of the SMEs, then I can see it working.

  8. Hi Ryan,

    You’ve hit the nail on the head! Use the LMS for assessment, and assessment only. Everything else should sit outside.

    Brilliant idea.

  9. An excellent post Ryan. When running courses on how to create engaging eLearning (concentrating on the self-study module) we concentrate on designing, as Cathy Moore puts it, experiences. To me it’s a total waste of time reposting the information that already exists somewhere on the intranet in a pdf. As you say, a waste of resources when L&D’s expertise as learning consultants (which is what we are) can be put to better use creating those skills based activities that will test application rather than regurgitate facts and figures. Unfortunately, the blame (if we have to lay blame) lies with the increasing need to tick boxes. It seems that if we just point people in the right direction for the information we can’t be sure they’ve read it. So we think the solution is to type it all up again in shorter chunks and ask them a load of questions which only tests immediate recall.

    If it’s eInformation / eReference that’s needed, that’s fine. We can make that more visually appealing and easier to read on screen. We can even make it more enjoyable to view in the form of videos or podcasts. Where the real learning takes place is in the analysis of the material in relation to a specific work-based problem. A problem that the learner is likely to face in the workplace.

    An example I use is the mandatory fire safety course. It tends to be boring when done in the classroom where facts upon facts about the fire triangle are poured into learners’ heads. If they’re listening carefully enough they might be able to answer some questions on the fire triangle and what constitutes fuel, heat and oxygen (I’m still not sure if I’ve got it right). Tell me, in a fire how many people will be standing there pondering on the fire triangle. Really what would do us more good is to either assess realistic risks, or evacuate safely in the event of a fire.

    Encouraging more of a user-generated and peer-to-peer learning environment may not be to everyone’s taste so a VLE such as Moodle will give more control. But L&Ds real and untapped value will be in the nurturing of learners, working with SMEs to provide digestible chunks of information, designing bite-sized resources and providing study guides and recommended personal learning plans so learning becomes more individual and task based.

    Definitely, why force individuals to go through the same mandatory content year after year when all they may need is a yearly, skills based assessment. If that assessment highlight skills gaps then a more flexible learning programme will make sure individuals learn only what they need not what they don’t.

    It’s no longer about what we know but more about where to find the information and apply it to tasks.

  10. Thank you for sharing this Ryan! I totally agree with you on keeping the assessment and learning process separate. Today, there is lot more informal learning happening than formal learning. Just keeping people glued to their seats is not going to help!

  11. Wow, thanks for sharing! It always seems like the educator’s biggest dilemma is drawing the (often blurry) line between assessment and actual knowledge acquisition. Its a little surprising though how formal some of these seemingly informal interfaces become! I’d check out some of the elearning conference websites to see their take on it.

    Anyway, great resource, I’ll definitely be bookmarking this website.


  12. Thanks for your comments, Josh, Dominic and Chuck. Much appreciated!

  13. Great article Ryan, thank you. Am working on mapping this ILE model into a complete rework of my organisation’s L&D delivery via PDF, Moodle, selected tools, assessment. Objective is the 70% on-the-job informal learning model.

  14. Some great perspectives in your post and some really good comments. I have been in this business for some 50 years in both higher education and the corporate world, and the exciting attitudes and ideas of our learning professions of late are refreshing. My focus over the years has primarily been the professional development of medical professionals and oil and gas geoscientists and engineers. In medical continuing education we have long been at the forefront of using technology to assist the transfer of knowledge and skills. The same goes for geoscientists and engineers. Some of the better learning events utilize models that approach what you are describing, and the challenge has always been to keep the content up to date, as well as clear and concise. Often we are concerned with the processes (finding oil and gas, or diagnosing diseases) and this allows us to assess skills acquisition, rather than knowledge retained. So much exciting learning goes on during the team problems/labs and presentations. We do this sometimes in a virtual setting (because of the global workplace), with significant degredation of peer-to-peer learning, but I suspect that the younger folks entering the workplace now have that virtual world so ingrained in their behavior that results will improve dramatically. I do see that already.

  15. Ryan, great post and a position I have largely advocated for some time now. Assessment on the LMS, flexible access to resources – interactive or otherwise – elsewhere where a community of best practice can evolve.

    That said, there are many situations where a well designed guided learning experience is needed to get the learner to a base level of confidence and competence to be able to participate effectively in the informal model advocated. Good design is the critical factor and I’m afraid many SMEs lack the communications skills to capture and relate their expertise effectively. That’s where professional learning designers can make a powerful difference.

    A related observation is to encourage a break away from the single event “course” to an extended chain of activities, or “campaign” design. I talk more about this on my own blog – The current obsession of “rapid” seems to extend into reducing the time spent learning too. This ignores how we actually learn – through sustained, repeated deliberate practice in a relevant, real, actionable context.

    Thoughts on this?

  16. Lars, I 100% agree.

    I am a big believer in the role “experts” play in guiding “novices”. It’s old fashioned these days, but I sincerely believe that experts can provide an overarching cognitive framework for novices, raising their awareness of key concepts and explaining the socio-historical context of the domain. That’s not to say that constructivist learning principles and PBL etc shouldn’t be applied – quite the contrary – but you have to start somewhere.

    Indeed, many SMEs lack the communications skills to share their expertise effectively, and yes this is certainly where the L&D professional steps in. I see the SME as the producer of the content, and the L&D pro as the facilitator of the learning process, partnering to make it work.

    Using an ILE as an example, there would be very little value in SMEs simply dumping bucket loads of content into a repository. Careful thought must be given to structure, sequence, user experience, aesthetics, language, currency, relevance… the list goes on.

    I really like how you describe how we learn – through sustained, repeated deliberate practice in a relevant, real, actionable context. I think shifting our mindset from training to performance support has a lot to do with this. I am a fan of your blog… I look forward to reading more about it!

  17. My post has been criticised recently by people who really dislike PDFs, usually for the reasons articulated by Jakob Nielsen:

    Please don’t get hung up about this. At the time of writing this post I was thinking in terms of learning objects, and I was using PDF as a vehicle to make my point.

    These days I’m more supportive of centralising content onscreen – whether it be an intranet, wiki, website or some other repository – to facilitate search, exploration and discovery.

    I pursue my ideas further at “How to revamp your learning model” –

    I’d love more comments about that one!


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