The general way to look at tools and determine how they would meet your requirements has been described as asking, "Do you want it better, faster, or cheaper?" The “better” part of the equation has had a very small place in the picture.
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Because it’s easier to measure tools in terms of how fast you can create a solution, at what price you can purchase the tool, or how much money you can save using this tool, the “faster” and “cheaper” pieces have long been the standard for business reasons that organizations use. We can save such-and-such an amount in travel costs by converting to e-Learning, and we can develop Web-based training faster by using this rapid tool.
Most organizations today are developing competency models that have defined proficiency levels for specified jobs and career paths. You can look at these, in conjunction with the methods and tools for e-Learning, and start making better decisions that will help learning to advance business goals.
Competency models and proficiency scales should be defining the performance of the workforce and giving us methods, or at least good clues, as to how we can measure performance. That means that training professionals should have a better opportunity to train toward better performance. In this article, I’m only addressing online learning, but I’m sure the comparisons to other learning environments will be clear.
There is a wide variety of e-Learning tools and systems available on the market today – and it could be only the beginning. In one sense all these tools make it easy to go from classroom to Web-based instruction. However, like any building project you will want to make sure that you are using the right tool for the right job. Usually, the ultimate goal for a learning effort is to generate some change in performance.
In a very broad categorization, we have six types of instructional products or settings:
Passive Informational – This is a generally a passive presentation of information. Learners click to advance to each slide or screen, and there is no interaction among learners or a live instructor. There is usually pre-recorded audio.
Basic Instructional – This is also often a screen-by-screen format, which is generally more involved and is comprised of more than 1 module or lesson.
– Live Instructional (also known as the Virtual Classroom) – This is usually either a screen-by-screen presentation or an online demo, but under the control of a live instructor. In this format, learners may be able to post questions to the instructor or to other learners, and even interact virtually with features such as being able to “raise their hand” in class. Audio may be available one-way over the internet, or two-way over a conference call. If the tool used goes beyond just a basic online meeting, students can also be put into small groups in “breakout rooms” to conduct an activity, and training sessions can be recorded for later access.
– Collaborative Learning (sometimes referred to as a Course Management System) – This learning environment is more comparable to the traditional classroom environment than any other. Universities frequently use such a format. Learners can go to the online “school” to interact with the instructor and other learners, get and turn in assignments, work on group projects, etc. Classes are often several days (or weeks) long. An instructor leads the class, and interaction level has the potential to be very high with the use of a variety of synchronous as well as asynchronous tools such as discussion forums and wikis.
– Immersed Simulation – Simulation places a learner in a performance situation as close to the real thing as possible for training purposes. Simulation can be 2-D or 3-D, or even text-based if appropriate to the learning content. Online simulation can be based on isolated tasks such as operating a piece of machinery, or on a more all-encompassing context such as investigating an accident (which can include inspecting the scene, interviewing witnesses and survivors, conducting analyses, etc.).
– Mobile Learning – “M-Learning” is the delivery of learning functions/tools on mobile or hand-held devices. This can include traditional presentations that fall into the passive informational category, or brief Podcasts. It may be a bit of a misnomer, in that, at the highest level, its application can be that of a performance tool rather than a traditional training event.
These first two online learning options are arguably very similar in basic construct, and are usually what most people think of when they think of “e-Learning.” They involve no instructor, and are generally a screen-to-screen format. The main difference is in the interaction (or lack thereof). #1 is generally the online “briefing,” that is, simply, a PowerPoint-style slideshow that one may or may not consider “formal” training. #2 will be more complex in that it will conform to a training format that contains multiple lessons and human-computer interactions beyond clicking links and the Next button.
Options 3 and 4 offer the ability to work with an instructor during online learning. These can allow for a more effective use of instructors by letting a human instructor teach learners across different locations. The main difference between the two is that #3 is synchronous interaction and #4 offers a blend of synchronous and asynchronous interaction.
While there is some degree of progression in terms of what the learning in a given category can accomplish, no category is defined as being globally better than another. This simply provides one way to select the appropriate e-Learning category for the task at hand. In this case, the main connection to selecting the category is by examining the competency model best aligned to the task.
Competencies, proficiency, and learning
The proficiency scale on a competency model provides a broad yet attainable learning goal. Each training and performance situation should always be examined separately, although some general statements can be made about the abilities of the various e-Learning tools and environments and how they can attain the different levels of proficiency for the workforce. This may include delivering training in multiple categories to meet differing needs.
Proficiency scales usually have at least three levels starting with a basic (or even zero) proficiency going up to advanced or expert proficiency. These scales, when applied to a competency model, should provide performance behaviors that indicate someone has achieved a level of proficiency in a given competency or skill. When developing learning for an audience, part of the analysis of that training should include objectives that can be matched to the competency and proficiency level required by that audience.
Meeting proficiency with e-Learning
Assuming that just any e-Learning method (even traditional methods) can be used to meet any competency and proficiency level without such analysis can be detrimental to a learning effort; not all e-Learning is created equal. The categories range from basic Web-based presentations to collaborative, engaging learning events. The widespread availability of information, and the need to access information efficiently as it changes, characterizes the pervasive use of the Web as a resource. However, the business demand for high-level performance and problem-solving skills extends beyond the simple act of effectively retrieving information for mission-critical objectives.
This is where the use of the competency models can link into the analysis of e-Learning. If developed correctly, the business needs of the organization are reflected in a competency model that accounts for functions performed by different occupations. The model should include the proficiency at which those occupations are required to perform, and possibly different levels of occupations (for example, junior/senior, manager/non-manager, etc.) with their performance requirements.
Figure 1 is a basic representation of how the e-Learning categories can map to a proficiency scale. If a given audience has a competency requirement that is fairly low, one of the lower category tools for e-Learning can sufficiently meet that task. On the other hand, if a competency requirement is high, a more robust type of e-Learning should be examined.
The e-Learning Category Selection Table
Table 1 can serve as a decision-making tool to help in selection of an e-Learning tool or category. The table categorizes broad e-Learning environments and methods, and explains how and at what proficiency level you can best apply these environments. In this table, the lower level methods of e-Learning generally lean toward information dissemination while the higher level methods incorporate more performance and higher-order thinking.
This is a broad generalization in terms of proficiency scale and learning media since scales can range and learning media have a wide variety of tools available. In most cases, the different capabilities of tools that fall into the categories enable it to span the scale. For example, Category 2, Basic Instructional, may fall into a low level of proficiency if only tools on the left-hand side of the column are used in the training or medium level if tools from the right-hand side are implemented.