Content is king

Poor content is frequently blamed for the high drop-out
rates in e-learning, but things are beginning to change. Sue Weekes looks at
four programmes that manage to get the balance right and ensure that…

How to make content compelling’ appears as a subject on nearly every
e-learning conference that takes place these days. And quite right too, since
it is a big issue and one that was paid too little attention in the early days
of e-learning when courses were sometimes little more than hurried html versions
of what existed before.

E-learning content has to work even harder than traditional content as it
cannot rely on having a talented tutor or inspired trainer to engage the
learner. With this in mind, the overall look and feel, structure and navigation
are as important a part of content as the meat of the content itself.

Online collaboration with fellow students and tutors in web chat rooms or
via bulletin boards is also a vital part of the content of many e-learning
courses, partly because it simulates the classroom scenario. But in many ways
it goes one better than the classroom as it allows learners to have exchanges
with those on the other side of the world and facilitates continuous and
networked learning which can generate and feed in new content.

Where e-learning has found most success is when it has been tailored to the
user’s requirements from the ground up. We look at four e-learning programmes
that work hard to engage the user.

Sheffield Hallam University
MSc Postgraduate Diploma/Certificate in e-learning, multimedia and consultancy

Aim

An international Masters programme focusing on the pedagogical,
technological and cultural aspects of open and flexible learning environments.
The programme is aimed at education and training professionals and teachers in
schools and further and higher education.

What form does the learning take?

A combination of local study (face-to-face sessions with colleagues and
tutors, workshops and tutorials), independent study (literature reviews,
independent project work and research) and web-based learning, which brings
students together with colleagues in other countries. This is supplemented by
local video-conferencing sessions, which enable students to talk to other
course members and discuss work directly. The programme can be taken full-time
over one to two years or part-time over three to six years.

Content

The overall online content is short and interactive but Professor Brian
Hudson, programme leader at the university’s School of Education, says what makes
it compelling to the user is the collaborative aspect facilitated by online
chats and video conferencing.

"We started off by using video-conferencing because it was a tool there
to be used but by the end of it, it was a necessity," claims Hudson.

"It certainly stimulated the students and there was a depth to
contributions we wouldn’t necessarily have got with pure face-to-face meeting.
Often in classroom situations you want to make a contribution but the
conversation moves on and you miss the moment – this doesn’t happen in a
virtual environment such as a chatroom as you can always make the
contribution."

Hudson cites one case of them showing students a photograph to examine the
notion of myth. "It provoked a rich interaction that was captured online,"
he says.

How is it for the user?

The first graduates won’t complete the course until later this year but
feedback to date has been positive. "The virtual learning environment
really works for me," says Sally Seymour, commissioning co-ordinator at
the University for Industry and LearnDirect. She is taking the course because
she hopes it will help her to understand and produce effective e-learning and
has already completed the first module. "It is very interactive and
involving, mainly due to the learning community I feel part of," she says.

The course is held in collaboration with Arnhem-Nijmegen University of
Professional Education, where she especially enjoys the interaction with
international students. "They can have a completely different take on things,"
she says.

Avis
Reservations agent induction programme

Aim

The training package is for all new call centre staff in the car rental
firm’s new pan-European call centres in Manchester and Barcelona. The opening
of the two centres generated a need for consistent training in different
languages and cultures. The intention is to simulate the job and job skills, as
well as the customer’s experience. The main objectives were to increase the
effectiveness of training and reduce the time taken for a new reservation sales
agent to achieve competence from three down to two months.

What form does the learning take?

The programme, created by e-learning provider AdVal, uses a combination of
face-to-face, video, multimedia, paper-based material and coaching, backed-up
with an assessment of individual competence. The overall package comprises
seven modules with a total of 10 hours training in five languages. It is
designed to integrate into the three-week training for new reservation sales
agents, which includes supervised handling of customers in live situations.

Content

The programme uses a rich mixture of text, graphics, audio and video, and
AdVal has built-in a number of interactive devices to keep the learner
involved. This includes the facility for the user to listen to a clip of a
customer making a call and then to interactively record their responses before
hearing the next piece of conversation from the customer. It continues until
the user has completed a specific part of a transaction with the customer and
they have the facility to playback both sides of conversation before assessing
their own performance.

Other devices include a video presentation made in the style of a television
holiday show to appeal to the target market and extensive use of a voiceover
artist to minimise the amount of on-screen text and allow more space for
graphics.

How is it for the user?

"On the ground, the system works excellently," says Rob Field of
Avis Europe. "We have been able to integrate the soft skills while not
losing sight of the hard measures. Our call centres’ talk time, conversion
rates and time-to-competence all needed to be improved. To assess these
programmes, pilot programmes were run and in one test (with one week less
training) all the learners in a group using multimedia achieved better results
than compared to the classroom-based group.

"In both of our call centres, conversion rates are now several per cent
higher than 18 months ago. Good multimedia learning has added profit as well as
value."

GemPlus
Product lifecycle course

Aim

GemPlus, a world leader in providing solutions based on smart card
technology, wanted a training programme that would homogenise the procedures
used by its worldwide research and development teams, giving all staff common
knowledge, work methods and message.

The e-learning programme has to be both a training tool and a reference
manual for working methods.

What form does the learning take?

A five-hour web-based e-learning course devised by e-learning provider Icus,
divided into five modules. The training programme is modular and integrates sequences
of knowledge assessment. It also allows time for an exchange between managers
and tutors so the course can be embedded into daily working practices. In
future, the course will be linked to a knowledge base for all its employees.

Content

The course was designed as a low-bandwidth global programme so eschews the
use of rich media such as video. In order to involve the learner from the
outset and ensure they could relate to the training, Icus tied it in directly
with GemPlus’ employees daily working experience.

Everything about the training was designed to echo aspects of their work,
including the overall look and feel of the training on screen, which includes
smart card and PDA graphics and imagery.

"There were lots of familiar touches they could relate to," says
Christiaan Heyning, senior business development manager at Icus. Such an
approach also demonstrated how completing the course would benefit them in
their work: employees could learn in the morning and put it into practice in
the afternoon.

Typically, an R&D member may need to know what the quality assurance
requirements are for a new product and can find this out direct from the
training on the spot, with information presented accessibly and simply with
flow diagrams.

The programme is complemented by online collaboration via a bulletin board
and on-the-job coaching by GemPlus itself.

How is it for the user?

"In our business, being able to use common work procedures is essential
to being able to claim that we have a global approach. This is even truer in
R&D, which is by its essence a global solution, and for everything that
deals with quality.

"We see e-learning as an efficient tool for the deployment knowledge
which is frequently updated," says Jean Marc Julia, vice-president
software engineering at GemPlus. "Employees using the training say that it
transfers notions in a simple way and at their own pace."

GemPlus is already increasing its e-learning portfolio, citing the main
benefits as less travel and organisation fees, less disruption for staff as
well as deploying training to remote locations.

As participation in e-learning becomes widespread, the company believes more
tangible and intangible benefits will accrue, particularly the growth of
internet-savvy learners who can actively build a knowledge sharing community
across the network.

Football Association (FA)
The FA’s Soccer Parent, Soccer Coach and Soccer Kid programme

Aim

The overall programme sets out to promote good practices by parents and
coaches to heighten and encourage children’s involvement in and enjoyment of
the game. It is intended to work on three levels, targeting FA coaches, parents
and children.

What form does the learning take?

A web-based programme designed by e-learning consultancy Fuel, which can be
accessed direct from the FA’s site (video and resource packs have also been
introduced). The homepage sets out the three target areas and users click the
one relevant to them to enter the training.

Content

In its pitch to the FA, Fuel suggested a demo of an interactive quiz based
around a penalty kick game – if the user answers a question correctly, they
score a penalty. This fun, interactive theme is carried to the final learning
programme. "It was important that it was highly engaging and didn’t come
across as a lecture," says Chris Campbell, co-founder of Fuel.

In one section, when an individual gets a question right, they see David
Beckham score the World Cup qualifying goal against Greece, and if they get it
wrong, its Andy Cole with his head in his hands.

For all three target users, the approach is highly graphical with text in
bite-size pieces at all times. For coaches, the training is more information
heavy but presentation is still graphical.

Campbell estimates coaches will probably spend 15 minutes accessing the
training. And he claims video has been a big hit in the training, especially
when it comes to conveying behavioural practices – there is a section on
coaching behaviour where the coach clicks a number of scenarios of bad
practice. If coaches successfully complete the course, they can print their own
certificate, which is recognised by the FA.

How is it for the user?

"Football is a very sexy, high-profile sport. This comes across in the
training programme but what’s so good about it is that it works at a grass
roots level and upwards," says the FA’s national club development manager,
Les Howie. "We have had tremendous feedback and people like it because
it’s fun, but it also has a very a serious message."

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