Beyond the Blackboard
Considerations when designing or specifying an on‑line learning environment.
For many organisations, the provision of training to staff and customer represents a significant cost. As the processing power and network bandwidth available to desktop PCs increases, the performance and features of on‑line learning systems have improved to the point where the delivery of training via a computer has become a viable option.
While on‑line learning is not an appropriate solution for all training needs, it does provide an effective training delivery mechanism in the right circumstances.
This article discusses some of the issues involved in creating an on‑line learning environment, viewed from the perspective of the different interest groups involved. The information and concepts shown here are not definitive; you should carefully consider your own specific requirements before implementing any computer system.
Since the earliest days of the widespread use of computer systems on‑line learning has been used as a training delivery method with various degrees of success.
The first generation of on‑line learning tools were custom application which had to be installed on each PC. Functions were generally limited to viewing predefined, usually static content.
Later developments provided reusable content authoring systems which simplified the creation process and supported additional content types and user interaction features.
Many current generation on‑line learning systems use standard web servers to deliver a wide variety of dynamic content to the end-user. Server-based systems also allow for interaction between students and teachers as well as monitoring and controls over access and functions.
Stakeholders and Interactions
In any on‑line learning system there are many different groups of stakeholders involved, each of which will interact with the system in different ways.
Each type of interaction should be considered in terms of both business rules (who should be allowed to do what and when) and mechanics (what sort of software and hardware might be required).
The Electronic Campus
This section describes a theoretical on-line university which delivers courses to students in remote locations.
Although this model is unlikely to match the requirements of most organisations, it provides a framework in which to consider your particular requirements.
The Student / Learner
The student is the target consumer of your course content. They will typically interact with the on‑line through a web browser. They need to:
- Find the courses that meet their needs. This may require a course preview or summary that does not require any enrolment.
- Authenticate to the system and enrol in courses. You may wish to allow anonymous access to some of your courses but typically students must identify themselves to the system with a user ID and password. These details may need to be taken from another system, such as a corporate directory.
- View the course materials. Some combination of text and images, possibly including sound or video.
- Interact with the teacher and other students. Allowing fairly independent collaboration between students can improve learning outcomes beyond those achieved though only student-teacher interaction.
- Take tests, receive and submit assignments and other tasks.
The Course Content Creators
Creating effective course materials for use in on‑line learning is a critically important process.
The effort required to produce good course content can be significant however, the quality of the learning experience is a major driver of the success of any on‑line learning initiative.
The structure and flow of good on‑line content is different to that of a normal textbook or static information source. You should not expect to simply copy existing training materials into your on‑line learning system without modification.
Course creators need to:
- Create course content from scratch
- Import images or other files created off‑line
- Reuse content from other courses
The Teacher / Presenter / Facilitator
In many cases, the teacher of a course may be the course content creator, but this is not always the case and should not be required by your on‑line learning system.
- Are assigned to a course
- Need to know who is enrolled and possibly control enrolments
- Interact with the students and perhaps control or monitor the interaction between students
- Set tests, assignments and mark the results
The Campus Administrator
The administrator of the on‑line learning system may not be a teacher or course content creator and is more likely to have IT skills rather than educational skills.
- Configures system features including access controls and permissions.
- Controls who can create courses
- Assigns teachers to courses
- Manages authentication and enrolment methods
- Monitors system usage
In the corporate environment the neat functional divisions of the university are rarely applicable. However, the same types of users and actions are still required and must be considered in the context of current systems and procedures.
In can be helpful to consider the potential training requirements of two different groups.
Internal users are generally employees or contractors who are on-site and have access to other corporate systems and network resources.
On‑line learning may be effective for:
- New employee induction
- OHS procedures 
- Product training
- Software training, especially for in‑house systems
External users might be your customers, resellers or remote representatives. They will generally not have access to the corporate systems and access the on‑line learning system through the internet.
For external users, on‑line learning is more appropriate for product training.
Costs and Benefits
The current generation of on‑line learning systems are sophisticated pieces of software which are not trivial to install and configure. Once installed, these systems will require on-going administration and maintenance.
Creating good course content is difficult and may take longer and cost more than you imagine.
So why bother?
In the corporate world, the main benefits of on‑line learning are in the flexibility and accessibility of the training materials.
- Training can be available are any time instead of relying on the presence of a trainer.
- There may be a reduced requirement for training facilities.
- Training can be made equally available to all employees regardless of their location and without any need to travel.
As for any new computer system, a proper requirements analysis should be completed before implementing an on‑line learning system.
Think about what you want to achieve with the system and how it will fit into your broader systems infrastructure.
Creating On‑Line Content
Creating effective content is essential if you are to see positive results from any on‑line learning initiative.
Two of design issues which can easily cause difficulties are designing material for adult learners and the benefit or otherwise of different ways of interactive with the material.
Education for Adults
Knowles’[Knowles] work on how adults learn “andragogy” (as different from pedagogy or childrens’ learning) has prompted discussions about how and why people learn, along with challenging the assumption that adults’ brains are not able to learn continually throughout life.
Andragogy makes the following assumptions about the design of learning:
- adults need to know why they need to learn something,
- adults need to learn experientially,
- adults approach learning as problem-solving, and
- adults learn best when the topic is of immediate value.
If these assumptions seem artificial, consider the difference between a school environment, where the students are children, and a university, where the students are mostly (young) adults.
The educational pyschologist William Glasser [Glasser] has described the effectiveness of different modes of learning:
- What we read 10%
- What we hear 20%
- What we see 30%
- What we see/hear 50%
- What we discuss with others 70%
- What we experience 80%
- What we teach someone else 95%
Although much of the material used in an on‑line learning environment will necessarily be read and seen, this research shows that:
- Adding sound wont help much (and will annoy anyone near any student taking your course)
- Giving students the means and opportunity to discuss the course and, where possible, to experiment with the materials can dramatically improve learning outcomes.
The basic content of your course should include text and images but should also be supported with collaborative and experiential materials such as discussion groups and interactive tools.
When to use on‑line learning
On‑line learning systems are an excellent solution for many training deliver requirements, but they are not the best choice in all cases.
On‑line learning is good for:
- Technical training which conveys detailed information and factual content.
- Distance education where the students may be remote or otherwise unable to attend a normal classroom.
- Ad-hoc delivery where the training materials need to be available at short notice to individual users.
On‑line learning is less good for:
- Teaching soft skills where direct teacher‑student interaction is required.
- Practical training where physical presence is required.
In the right situations, on‑line learning can provide a cost-effective solution for training both internal and external users.
Key success factors include:
- Proper requirements analysis
- Understanding different approaches to learning
- Ensuring that sufficient time and resources are available for creating good on‑line content.
 Also known as CBT (Computer Based Training), eLearning, on‑line education, VLE (Virtual Learning Environment) etc
 In many places, OHS training must be carried out by certified providers. You should with check your local authorities.
 Assuming that there is an adequate wide-area network.
[Knowles] Knowles, M. (1984). Andragogy in Action. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
[ADL] Advanced Distributed Learning www.adlnet.org
[LOM] Learning Object Metadata, IEEE Learning Technology Standards Committee www.ltsc.ieee.org
[Glasser] William Glasser Institute www.wglasser.com