The benefits of online learning have been long established in the learning industry. To add to the changing learning landscape, technology has helped support and develop online learning environments in ways that were not possible in the past. While changes are happening rapidly, the skills needed to leverage online learning - as learners and instructional designers - are not developing at the same speed.
In this context, it is important to begin developing online learning skills by appreciating digital pedagogy and how the principles, practices, and profession of teaching apply to the digital world. Whether on paper or on-screen, the adult learning theories and principles that guide training design and development continue to remain the same. However, online learning allows us to design training interventions in a self-paced yet collaborative environment and this requires specific design considerations and rethinking about how the theory of learning can be applied in this new space.
I have been both - an online learner and an online facilitator. Having had the chance to be on both sides of the table, I can recognize and appreciate the skills required for making online learning a success. I am not saying that online learning/teaching skills are completely different from learning/teaching in a classroom. However, there are significant nuances of online learning that expect learners and facilitators to focus on some skills more than others. In that context, it is important to prepare yourself for online learning and facilitating.
Learners in an Online Environment
All learners, irrespective of whether they attend online or onsite training have to be motivated and committed to the learning process. However, as online learners, we need more than that! Based on my experience, here are some points to consider:
- Understand and read more about how online learning is different from classroom learning. Get comfortable with the idea of a ‘faceless’ instructor and the absence of printed handouts! And understand that these are just minor differences; there are several more.
- Gather the required technology-related skills for online learning. If you can’t figure your way through a course outline or a website menu, you can’t learn much and will end up frustrated. It won’t be easy for folks who are used to handouts and books, but it can be learnt.
- Learn to read and follow instructions. Do not be afraid to ask when you don’t understand. There is no other way that a facilitator can know if you are uncomfortable about an idea or a concept.
- Plan and manage your time. Since all learning is self-paced and online, it is easy to be distracted. Plan and schedule your time through the course. Keep time aside for reading, participating in discussion forum and chats, and completing exercise and assignments.
- Participate and engage with the facilitator and other learners. Be a part of the community and help support the learning culture. Post your feedback and views about the discussion topic. Be honest to yourself and others. Start a dialogue with fellow learners so that you can continue it beyond the online classroom.
- Learn to learn by yourself. It is challenging to not be able to ‘see’ other learners around you but remember that they are around you! Develop your skills towards independent study and the skills to collaborate in the digital world without meeting face-to-face.
- Keep yourself motivated. Always keep your learning goal in your mind and recall it every time you start to ‘drop-out’. While the facilitator will provide you necessary opportunities to engage and stay motivated, this is something you really have to do for yourself. Find what works for you – the time and money you invested, the hat and degree in the hand, a better job, a higher salary.
- Be self-disciplined and committed. Submit exercises and assignments on time. Participate and collaborate with other learners. Give and take regular feedback. Remember that you are responsible for your success in any learning program!
- Stay engaged. Stay connected.
Facilitators in an Online Environment
Assuming that there is a solid training course utilizing sound instructional design principles, online facilitators need far more than technology-related skills (LMS/LCMS/Webinars etc) to become successful. Based on my experience, here are some points to consider:
- Take an online course to understand how it is different from a traditional classroom. Your own experience as a learner is far more powerful than any other training related to facilitating online.
- Read, discuss, and ponder about specific techniques and methods to make online learning a success. Even if you are an ace instructional designer or facilitator, this will not come to you intuitively. Connect with other facilitators who have done it before to get their perspective.
- Develop your writing skills. Giving the right instructions using the written word is a ‘make or break’ skill for online facilitating. Be prepared to communicate entirely using writing.
- Understand and integrate the specific methods and strategies used for online training. Be comfortable with the use of technology (chats/tweets/discussions/lms) and incorporate them in the right way within the learning process.
- Address the fears and apprehensions your learners may face about online learning. Encourage them to discover and explore. Use examples from your own experience. Don’t be afraid to learn along the way.
- Be disciplined and expect the same from your learners. Commit the required time and schedule all interventions appropriately.
- Create enough opportunities for learners to participate, collaborate, and learn from each other. Ensure knowledge exchange between the learners and lead the process from the front. Develop the community and understand that you are a part of it.
- Interact and engage with learners in a consistent, continuous manner. Contribute more than they expect. Give feedback on time. Be flexible with learner needs yet maintain a momentum for the course.
- Take feedback from learners during and after the learning process. Don’t be afraid to rethink and redesign the training program based on the feedback and your own experience. Evaluate yourself as an online facilitator.
- Face the reality. You may have been a successful classroom trainer but that does not guarantee the same success online. Don’t be hard on yourself. Rejoice that practice can make you perfect!
I don't believe there is a perfect recipe for online success. But the points above were some of the ingredients from my own experiences. It wasn't perfect but it was all worth it!