It is increasingly difficult, with jam-packed workdays and busy personal lives, to dedicate time to growing our skill sets. More and more, we are turning to online training or "e-learning." With time at a premium, it is critical that once we do dedicate the time to e-learning, that we gain the most we can from the experience. You can't just click through and hope to magically improve your knowledge and skills. I mean if you are going to take the time and effort to enroll, shouldn’t you engage and maximize your experience?
In my career working with adult learners and technology platforms I have noted a few characteristics that separate the high-achieving student from the just-clicked-through-every-slide student. I'll share a few best practices here.
This may seem like a simple thing, but it’s really the most important and often overlooked thing about learning. The truth is, no technology or faculty member can wow you into doing something you are not committed to, no matter how dynamic and eye popping the content. So, before you begin, set yourself up for success by asking why this course is important to you and your life/career. If you aren’t convinced that it is something that will improve you, your skills and your life, you are certain to fail to get the most out of it before you even start. One of the main advantages of the online platform is time saved from avoiding travel, so you have already “created” the extra time to fully embark on the learning journey. Use that to your advantage. However, if you think that e-learning is a chance to multi-task and be a super hero, you will just be failing at multiple things at once, so dedicate yourself and focus. Additionally, remember that quiet, distraction-free zones for learning are not only important, but necessary. Communicate with your boss, co-workers, partner and family, and let them know that this is your time for learning time without distractions. Otherwise, you're just wasting time, money and effort.
Another thing that learners fail to do is to reflect on the subject, before, during and after the course material. We all have previous life experience, perceptions and assumptions about topics even before we start to “learn” new material. One thing that all online students should do before the class begins is to write three lists; what you know, what you don't know and what you hope to learn. Don't assume you can't create the list because you have no prior knowledge about the topic. The fact is, while you may not have “formal” instruction, you have a perception about what the topic is about or an assumption of what the course will cover and this is important. You need to write and reflect before you even see the course material, to help you focus and pay attention to what you need to learn. This activity takes time, but should be done before and after each learning session as a way to create a personal learning agenda or a plan for improvement. The fact is that no one else has your experiences and only you can reflect on them and more importantly determine where you want your learning path to lead in the future.
I think one of the main misconceptions for e-learning is that you can “just get through it.” Learning is an active sport not a passive one, so get your mind around the idea that this is work and that engagement equals success. Remember that while the instructor or faculty member is there to stimulate and present challenges to your existing knowledge base, you must actively discuss, synthesize and use the materials. A 2014 study found that active learning increased student results by a full letter grade no matter the delivery type, so make sure that you are an engaged contributor to the discussion boards. Yes, that means going beyond the “required” assignments and reading ideas and thoughts about the subject posted by your cohort. Additionally, use the class material as a starting point to do your own research and see how the field/industry is using and discussing the topic. Finally, whenever possible look for problems that exist in a real-world context and see how your knowledge and experience relate, then challenge yourself to think of solutions. Engage your classmates in a discussion and work to push yourself to “be in control” of growth for your own learning.
Technology is the tool, not the content
There are many forms of technology to enhance learning. We have moved beyond the Web 1.0 formats that were static and boring to an environment that is not only dynamic, but interactive. These days everything from audio, video and interactive sessions make the e-learning experience exciting, and strategies such as “flipped classrooms” have made the discussions even livelier and more engaging. All of these approaches have been designed to involve the learner more fully—the more you think, talk and engage with the material the more you learn and want to learn. Not only is learning a social activity that involves sharing and communicating, it is also addictive in that the more we learn the more we want to learn and know about a new topic. If you are looking for the technology to “move” or “persuade” you to learn, you are taking the wrong approach. Think and reflect on the content and how it relates to your work and what knowledge and skills you already possess. While Learning Management Systems are the vehicles that deliver the material, it is the content itself that should engage you to drive your knowledge. Remember that even though not all instructors have a technology background, they ARE the subject matter experts and can help guide you to truly understand what is important, so push yourself—and them—to deliver.
The course is only the beginning
Spend time researching your newfound knowledge outside the scope of the class. Remember the course is the beginning not the end of your educational journey. We all have different learning styles and preferences. Online courses are designed to cover many of them, however if you are more of a visual learner, spend some time looking for images or presentations to help grow your knowledge base. Make sure and review your three lists to see how far your knowledge has progressed, what questions you still have and if any gaps in your understanding exist as you not only go through the course but also in your career. Learning is never something you finish, this is not like a game that has a defined start and end point…it is a lifelong adventure. The course itself only provides the basic parameters of how one should start thinking and considering the subject. Finally, after you have completed your course, research “experts” in the field and reach out to them to continue to grow your understanding. While they may not have time to formally “teach” you, they can provide resources that will continue to push you into a more complete understanding of the area.
I think that with these five tips for active participation and learning engagement you will find that your time and experience will be more rewarding. As technology continues to evolve, communication and access to more information will become easier…but it is only when we engage with the material that we enhance our environment. Seek to be a reflective learner that is active in communicating with others, seeking to push personal boundaries and looking to solve complex real world problem to take your e-learning experience from just a “participation trophy” level to one that has you exceling and becoming a thought leader in the space.
For more on adult learning, visit SIG University
Guy Hanna has nearly 15 years of higher education management and college teaching experience at various institutions in the southeast. Guy’s responsibilities have included faculty development, student retention, compliance and operations. He has worked in curriculum development, learning assessment and program evaluation and has a strong IT and data background. His experience has included positions as faculty, chairperson and Director of Academic Affairs and he has a passion for helping students succeed in the higher education arena. Guy is currently completing his dissertation on Institutional Effectiveness and Organization Culture perceptions of faculty at colleges in the State of Florida for his PhD in Leadership and Higher Education from Barry University. Guy holds a Bachelor’s and Master’s degree in Information Science from Florida State University. Follow Guy on Twitter @IEdoctor or connect with him on LinkedIn.