Taking Your Courses Online
Seven Signs of Effective Design

Tom Spencer                                                                                                                                     Download PDF


Rapid technology advancements and the lure of anytime-anywhere training has prompted many organizations to begin converting their instructor-led courses into online courses. In many cases that's a terrific idea. Computers can more easily provide individualized instruction, frequent assessments and performance feedback than can instructors, especially when the alternative is a classroom with a large instructor-to-student ratio. Course conversion is not without its challenges though. Flaws in instructor-led training can be magnified when converted to online courses if little consideration is given to how the learning objectives will be accomplished, how much and when content should be presented, and how current exercises requiring group discussions and interactivity will be handled. Yet a thorough content analysis and the careful design of instructional sequences can help produce lean online courses that align behavioral objectives with tailored instruction and performance feedback. The following seven target areas highlight how the application of Performance Management principles to course design can optimize the impact of online learning.

  • Streamlined Focus - Offline course developers often pack too much content into courses so that students have difficulty discriminating between "need to know" and "nice to know" content. This greatly reduces the chances that employees will learn or retain what's really important for them to do differently when they return to the workplace. Rapid course development software can make course conversion to an online format so easy that course developers fail to analyze the content for its effectiveness online. The application of behavioral principles to course design prior to going online ensures a streamlined focus in which specific behavioral objectives are aligned with the content and interactivity required to produce desired outcomes.
  • Organization and Sequence of Content - Organization of content into small units is not only critical for the re-usability of that content, but it helps shape performance by allowing students to master content units before proceeding to new content. The proper sequencing of course material ensures that students are presented with new content on a just-in-time basis and only after they have mastered any prerequisite material. This attention to organization and sequencing promotes an environment of errorless learning, which accelerates the students' mastery of the content that matters.

  • Meaningful Interactivity - With most current course development tools, building interactivity into online courses is relatively easy. This can lead less-experienced developers to breeze through this component of course development as fast as they can "fill-in-the-blanks" in a question template. In these cases, they often end up building meaningless, misaligned, or simplistic interaction into their courses. A behavior-based focus on interactivity ensures that the type and sequence of interactivity matches the objective of the content being taught so that what is asked of the student during training is relevant to how the student will be expected to apply the content in the workplace. It also teaches students to make fine discriminations between the critical and non-critical features of the content.

  • Measurement and Instructional Feedback - Specific, differential consequences that reinforce accurate responses and redirect inaccurate responses are critical. Students always should know where they stand and where their performance should be relative to the learning objectives. After training, consider implementing a measurement and feedback system to track and reinforce the transfer of the learning to the workplace. During this transition period, "can't do" performance can become "won't do" (or merely "doesn't do") performance because the work environment doesn't offer enough reinforcement to get the newly acquired skills going or to maintain them when ample reinforcement exists for doing what's always been done before.

  • Mastery and Fluency - Mastery is the ability to demonstrate learning with few or no errors. Fluency is the ability to perform some task quickly and accurately - like experts do. Mastery alone has a limited impact on the length of time students remember information (retention), how long they can engage in the task (endurance), their ability to perform the task without being distracted (stability), and their ability to transfer what they have learned to new and more complex tasks and situations (transfer). Performance excellence in these areas is correlated with the ability to respond accurately and quickly. Fluency building through timed mass practice should be incorporated into learning modules so students achieve mastery and fluency in the core concepts being taught.

  • Generalization - A key measure of training effectiveness is the students' ability to use what they have learned to improve performance in the workplace. This is called generalization of training - the ability to generalize or transfer what was learned to new situations. After content is mastered, generalization can be trained through a tailored series of application exercises that vary non-critical features of the situations such as the issue (behavior and/or result) the setting, the relationships of those involved, and historical information (such as past trends, issues, decisions, or consequences). After learning has generalized, the application of that learning must be reinforced in the workplace for it to be maintained.

  • Motivation - Students need to be motivated to learn and to apply what they have learned to the workplace. An engaging presentation of content with frequent opportunities to demonstrate and be reinforced for learning creates natural reinforcement for starting and completing learning modules. In addition, consider what you can do offline to reinforce module performance, module completion, and the application of course learnings in the workplace. Building in these positive consequences can help you avoid two widespread challenges of e-learning: employees starting but not completing online courses and the lack of sustained knowledge and skill transfer to the workplace.

Although e-learning can be an effective substitute for instructor-led training or can complement instructor-led training in a blended instructional approach, it has its limitations. The nature of some behavioral objectives might make e-learning cost-prohibitive or impractical as the sole learning solution. For example, teaching a manager how to conduct a performance discussion is not easily accomplished through e-learning. While online development of related component skills such as discriminating between effective and less-effective strategies and recognizing what to do or say based on a scenario might help contribute to an effective performance discussion, they don't require the actual verbal behavior involved in leading that discussion. Being able to select or talk about what to do is different than actually doing it. In such a case, practice and feedback is better handled offline. E-learning can be a practical and cost-effective training option, reducing instructor expenses, eliminating travel expenses and offering flexible access to students. However, when converting your instructor-led courses to an online format, make sure that your course design includes the characteristics necessary for learning effectiveness. Check the e-learning course for the behavior-based components listed above, make sure that course objectives are addressed in an instructionally sound way, and consider blending the e-learning strategy with other teaching methods as they apply to your particular workplace and training goals.

Founded in 1978, and headquartered in Atlanta, GA, Aubrey Daniels International (ADI) works globally with a diverse spectrum of clients. We help accelerate the business and safety performance of companies worldwide by using positive, practical approaches grounded in the science of behavior and engineered to ensure long-term sustainability. ADI supports its clients in accelerating strategy execution while fostering employee engagement and positive accountability at all levels of their organization.

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