It’s becoming a widely accepted fact that eLearning platforms are as effective as—if not more effective than—traditional in-person learning environments. But that doesn’t mean that eLearning course design is easy. In fact, improving learning effectiveness is one of the top challenges facing training and development professionals today. But don’t stress—there are a number of design elements in your online course that are proven to increase learner retention and learning outcomes. Today we’ll talk about three.
Traditional classroom-based structures incorporated many elements of interactivity organically. Class discussions, instructor feedback, and peer group work all stimulate learners to become active learners and offer immediate responses to their own growing understanding of a concept. Research shows that interactivity is a key ingredient to effective learning, but online courses have to be more strategic about how this element is woven into asynchronous, largely unsupervised environments in order to get the best learning outcomes.
There are three types of interactivity that are necessary for successful courses: interactivity with content, with instructors, and with peers. So check to see that your course has all three by asking these questions:
- Are learners engaging with the content actively through gamification or interactive video? (One study found that interactive video led to significantly better learning outcomes and learner satisfaction than non-interactive video or traditional in-person classrooms.)
- Do learners receive customized feedback for their choices, through branching activities or individualized assessments?
- Is there engagement between the instructor and the learners, such as synchronous discussions on a platform like Google Hangouts or instructor-led videos?
- Are learners given the opportunity to engage with one another both socially and constructively, for example through a course Facebook page or blog, or group projects that require them to contact one another?
2. Interleaved practice
New research has revealed that the order in which learners practice new skills has a tremendous effect on their ability to retain information for later use. Blocking is a traditional form of learning in which learners master one skill at a time (e.g., a young ballerina might finesse her plié during her first lesson before moving on to pirouettes in her second), while interleaving mixes skills together (e.g., the ballerina alternates practicing pliés and pirouettes in her first lesson). The second strategy has significantly higher rates of learner retention than traditional block-style learning.
How might you apply interleaved practice in eLearning? First, figure out what skills you want to impart—let’s say, skills A, B, and C. Then structure the lessons and assessments so that learners are regularly shifting from one new skill to another (ABCBCACB). Rosetta Stone, the language software program, is a good example of interleaving—learners review vocabulary, grammar, and conversational skills in varying patterns that keep their new skills fresh. The odd note about interleaving is that learners typically perform more poorly in those original practice sessions than those using blocked lessons, but their final testing scores are significantly higher. And it’s those final testing scores that matter, because they indicate long-term retention.
3. Course coherence
You have your topic, you’ve gathered your content from SMEs, and you just purchased a slick authoring software to integrate with your LMS. Now, you just throw it all together and the eLearning magic happens, right? Wrong.
No matter how fascinating your content, how sophisticated your technological prowess, if your course doesn’t have a sense of overall coherence, your learners won’t retain a thing. By coherence we mean the thoughtful integration of course objectives, learning outcomes, presentation of content, assessment, and evaluation. Throughout every stage of the design and implementation process, there should be a thread connecting everything together. Questions that prompt this kind of integration include:
- What are the learning objectives for this course?
- How can these objectives best be presented for this particular audience?
- What type of assessment(s) should be used?
- How can we evaluate the effectiveness of this course?
- How will we follow up with the results of the evaluation?
All three of the ideas presented here circle around the same basic idea: that there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to course design. All learners are different, content varies from lesson to lesson, and instructors have a wide variety of approaches and strengths. Knowing your particular needs for each particular course will greatly improve their effectiveness.