While taking a course on how to create a secure commerce network, Mike scrolled through Web page after Web page. He found himself getting bored and wondering how he was going to remember all this new information. When was he going to be able to apply what he was reading?

Mike’s story is a prime example of ineffective online training that doesn’t engage the learner. Imagine, instead, an online course that mimics a real computer network where Mike can work through a Web-based simulation to diagnose a network problem. In this scenario, he is applying his new skills in a real-life context. Then, imagine an online learning community where Mike can talk to experts in the IT field, access job aids, and e-mail questions to a course mentor or tutor.

The shortage of technical training has sparked the implementation of online training to meet the growing shortage of technical workers. However, as illustrated above, “page turners” do not promote effective learning. Engaging the learner in an online environment requires interactive strategies and creative instructional solutions. The challenge for the online instructional designer is to make sure the online course content is motivating and instructionally sound.

In traditional classroom courses, an instructor can promote discussions, but in an online course, interactivity has to be designed into the software. Trainers and instructional designers have two different roles, but ideally they should work together to ensure the integrity of the material and to provide ways for the trainer to interact with the students in an online community.

New responsibilities for instructors
An instructor needs to understand how his or her role has changed. An online course is only as successful as the participants feel it is in bringing them together in a social, online learning community. Enter the online instructor who is prepared to guide the learners through e-learning environments.

When I attended the International ASTD conference in May, I kept hearing that participants want social interaction that online learning doesn’t provide. Well, it can provide this interaction, if the instructor teaches with a learner-centered approach rather than a traditional lecture format. Online learning has the ability to provide the multimedia aspects of a lesson, combined with human interaction through associated, password protected e-learning environments.

The keys to online interaction
Interactivity in an online course needs to include the following two components:

  1. An instructor who can provide context and support.
  2. Software that requires frequent feedback from the student.

An engaged instructor
For online learning to be successful and interactive, it must include an online facilitator who can provide one-on-one coaching and consulting. If the basics of a course are covered online, a trainer can spend more time working with individuals on the job or through e-mail correspondence to answer individual questions. One possible solution for complex training is to provide introductory training online and more intense, follow-up training in person. This allows the learners to come to the follow-up training at the same knowledge level.

I have experienced several online courses facilitated in a variety of methods, including conference calls, online synchronous discussions, and e-mail. The most effective training has established an online community among participants and experts in the field, letting the individual know that there is a human who can answer questions on the other side of the e-mail address or phone number.

The Internet provides an online virtual conference room with the ability to conduct online meetings and coaching sessions. If only one person is training in Alaska, e-mail can be the human connection to that remote training location. Suddenly someone taking the same course in Australia doesn’t seem so far away.

Unfortunately, e-mail may become one-sided unless the instructor recognizes the need for communication. Some instructors overcome this obstacle by agreeing to answer participant’s questions within 24 hours of posting, or by setting up a virtual office time each day to answer questions. The instructor should also understand the online course administration system and be able to track each person’s progress and foresee any problems with accountability.

Software that requires student input
If a course is self-paced, this interaction needs to occur through the second component of interactivity: programmed instructional strategies. These strategies are activities built into the software, such as drag-and-drop questions, multiple choice questions, matching exercises, and mouse-over definitions that require learner interaction for the course to continue.

One of the best ways to motivate learners to finish an online course is to make sure they are moving their mouse through instructional activities every 10 seconds, and to supply learner feedback opportunities as well. On the simplest level, allowing the learner to control the pace of the course as well as operate a mouse provides immediate interaction.

Learner interaction also occurs through a variety of questions that require user involvement. Multiple choice, true/false, matching, and short-answer questions can be used in the training program. The responses can also be stored in a database and tracked for the course administrator to review for completion requirements.

Role-plays are another example of building in learner interactivity. For example, create a scenario where a lead character has to build a company network. What are some of the obstacles that this individual might run into? What are some of the tasks that she needs to complete to finish the request? Each scene can offer four to six choices where the learner chooses one and continues down a multi-layered path. Whether or not the participant successfully meets the requirements for a particular job depends on how the series of questions are answered. This type of questioning is not only interactive, but is based on real-life problem solving techniques.

Customize the learning to fit the learner’s needs
Another benefit of online learning is its flexibility to adapt to different skill levels. Online training can be set up to pre-assess the learner’s skills and knowledge so that he or she doesn’t have to take repetitive training. A course can be designed to test an individual’s skills and determine which modules should be completed for job performance competency. In an age of having to constantly update skills on the job, employees don’t want their time to be wasted in non-applicable training.

Another helpful online instructional feature is the ability to provide additional questions that are different if the learner gets a review section wrong and needs more instruction to learn the concept. This way the learners are not just clicking through the course to get done, but are accountable for their learning. Feedback is an important aspect of the learner’s interactivity. When designing a response to a question, the instructional designer needs to think about how to reiterate the question as well as how to let the learners know if they have the correct answers.

Regardless of the medium, the way humans learn doesn’t change. Discovering who your learner is, in terms of learning styles, educational background, and expectations, is still a primary key to effective instructional design. The Web allows instructional designers to offer a variety of methods to keep the learners’ attention and individualize the experiences.

Laura Summers is the managing partner of instructional design at Alva Learning Systems. She is also completing her doctorate in instructional technology.

If your company offers Web-based training, how do you make sure learners are learning? What kind of interactivity do you build into your training software? Send us a note with your best interactive activities.

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