E-learning: link to the outside world

Loneliness haunts the online learner – but not for much longer. Video conferencing technology is set to revolutionise e-learning and bring that all-important human touch.

The loneliness of the online learner is one of the major downsides of e-learning. Sitting at a computer screen clicking through exercises can be dull, and was largely responsible for high dropout rates in the early days of e-learning. But an end to the online learner’s solitary existence is looming.

Increasingly, organisations are introducing a live, human element to their e-learning programmes via video conferencing. The technology has existed to link fellow learners and tutors for several years, but the tools available had not yet reached a point when they were suitable for common use – until now.

Changing times

Much of the technology used to facilitate live face-to-face e-learning stems from video conferencing. Major growth in this sector has been predicted for years, but never quite happened.

Faster and cheaper video and web conferencing hardware and software, the availability of real-time communications, the widespread adoption of broadband and the emergence of the internet as an always-on global channel, has made the concept of video conferencing more accessible than ever. With just a laptop and a webcam at either end, and the appropriate video and audio compression and meetings software, we can all stage a conference.

Big things are expected for this market, with video conferencing predicted by analysts to be one of the fastest growing areas of the computer industry.

“It can be used on a much more ad hoc basis than previously,” says Tom Sloan, managing director of Wired Red (WR), which provides real-time communications solutions. “It can run on the desktop as a relatively inexpensive option or on a bigger scale,” says Sloan. “It’s up to you whether you use a £20 webcam or a £5,000 camera.”

Distinct advantages

Kassy LaBorie, synchronous learning expert at US company InSync Training, believes that live online learning brings distinct advantages over the traditional classroom.

“Concurrent collaboration took on its truest meaning once we worked out how to really train online,” she says. “When given the opportunity, all participants can build on the same concept, idea or solution on the same whiteboard. This wouldn’t occur in the same way in a face-to-face classroom, given the logistical nightmare of too many people at the board trying not to bump elbows.”

Bob Lee, senior product marketing manager at WebEx, which supplies on-demand web meeting and conferencing tools, has also witnessed the evolution of video conferencing into a valuable learning medium. He has designed and taught more than 200 online classes as an
e-learning consultant for IBM.

“As people become comfortable with technology, we’ve seen an increased degree of interaction,” he says. “In some executive training, for instance, we’ve seen more interaction than in a traditional classroom because learners are less inhibited.”

And LaBorie fires a warning shot at those in the training industry who still don’t see the importance of such tools. “A working knowledge of synchronous training technology needs to become second nature to anyone seeking a training position within most organisations today,” she says.

Certainly, any organisation that needs to deliver learning across multiple sites should already be exploring the possibilities of using video and web conferencing tools – if they aren’t already. For many, the whole area still needs demystifying. How does it work? What do you actually see when you hook up with someone live? Is it just a talking head, or can you enter a live lecture theatre?

Get interactive

The availability of software such as WebEx’s Training Center, Macromedia’s Breeze and WR’s web conferencing software, e/pop, give both trainer and learner a highly interactive experience.

Users can adapt their screen to see the faces of other learners in their class, or the tutor, and can share and even annotate applications and documents on another area of their screen. Alternatively, some live events are broadcast from a theatre and the learner sees and hears the tutor at trainer in situ.

We are still at the early days of delivering learning by this medium and no-one should pretend it is all plain-sailing. Common mistakes include lecturers being unaware that they have gone out of view for the online audience because of the position of the camera. Question and answer sessions can also pose a challenge, as good audio management is vital. “You have to decide how you’re going to take questions and how many microphones you’re going to have open,” says Sloan. “I’ve seen some sessions go into a disastrous freefall at this point as too many mikes have been left on.”

Users of Wired Red’s (WR) software include e-Skills UK, which stages ‘guru lectures’ broadcast live as part of its Information Technology Management for Business (ITMB) degree, and the University of Loughborough, which uses it to hook up with students on their placement year.

Recently, it was used to deliver Tutoreasy, an online education service that offers the opportunity to learn or teach any subject live, online.
WR’s software is designed to enable tutors and learners to see and hear each other and share documents in real time. Lectures or courses range from psychology to Russian politics to Welsh, and it has increased its number of e/pop licences from £25 to £100 in the past six months.

“Through implementing e/pop, we have managed to create a market and offer a service that would not have been possible 12 months ago,” says Edward Brooks, chief executive of Tutoreasy. “We wanted to give our users a platform on which they could teach and learn with minimal training and no requirement for local technology investment.”

Ease of use

The technology to facilitate this type of learning has certainly become easier to use. WebEx already offers a ‘breakout session’ facility, which Lee says “closely emulates the traditional environment”, and a Hands-on Labs feature, which assists learning by letting the trainer take control of a number of machines within an organisation – wherever they are in the world.

WebEx’s software includes mechanisms that help the trainer engage with the learner. These include a voting facility, which checks whether participants are absorbing the information. It has been used successfully by several customers, including US-based global marketing and strategy development consultancy StratX. It implemented WebEx because it wanted to develop an e-learning arm to its services to customers, but felt any distance learning should still be instructor-led.

“We understand the importance of teaching marketing in an action-oriented manner,” says Delphine Parmenter, StratX director of e-learning solutions. “If you want to retain someone’s interest on screen, you have to get them to interact with the consultant every five minutes. We adopted the polling aspects of the WebEx technology to complement this experience-based teaching methodology.”

Parmenter says while, usually, 70% of users complete the e-learning course, 92.5% of those using WebEx software StratX achieve completion.
One of the keys to making live e-learning work is embedding the use of video or web conferencing technology into the company’s day-to-day work. Few have managed this better than Polycom, a developer of a range of voice, video and data integration equipment. It says 99% of its 1,636 employees use some form of video conferencing technology at least once a week, and others two or three times a day.

“The telephone is a great ad hoc tool and video is moving the same way,” says Ray McGroarty, director for solutions and product marketing at Polycom. He uses the technology for both formal and informal learning.

Polycom recently slashed the training times for a new product by using video and web conferencing in place of visits to sales teams in 10 countries. “It enabled us to get the product to market quicker,” McGroarty says. “When it came to the final presentation of the product, we sent out invitations via e-mail to two live sessions on the web, which sales people around the world could attend – or if they couldn’t, they could see a recorded version later.”

Fear factor removed

Employees at high-tech companies such as Polycom tend to live and breathe the technology, so will be more receptive to such high-tech learning methods. What it demonstrates to everyone though is that once the fear factor is taken away and the technology becomes everyday, this type of learning has a real place on the training landscape.

Jane Bozarth, a master facilitator at InSync, describes it as the great ‘leveller’. “Quieter, more reflective learners can use the chat feature to post comments, while more verbal participants can speak aloud,” she says. “There’s something for both auditory and visual learners and facilitators.”

She adds that the central state training office of North Carolina has replaced its classroom programmes with online synchronous training sessions. This may be too radical for the UK, but online learners can look forward not only to an end to the loneliness – but a more level playing field, too.

by Sue Weekes

Tips for live online training

  • Don’t expect it to be ‘plug and play’. The technology isn’t going to do all the work for you. Ensure the programme has been properly designed for the online environment and that it meets your training needs. This means time and resources must be allocated, just like you would for a traditional face-to-face event.
  • Don’t assume a good classroom trainer will excel in an online environment. Organisations need to invest in their trainers’ professional development. Trainers need to know how to use the tools, and how to facilitate effectively in this new environment.
  • Learners must be prepared to learn in this way. Create in them the expectation of collaboration and interaction.
  • For more tips download InSync’s 101 Ways to Motivate the Online Learner at www.insynctraining.com


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