We beg to differ – eLearning can work

We recently saw and read the Op-Ed piece in the New York Times “The Trouble With Online Education” by Mark Edmundson and I’m afraid we must beg to differ. Since deploying our online learning platform at the EnergyLogic Academy (which does have both live and online training), we’ve been blown away by how much more effective our overall training has become.

  •  Students are more engaged, not less
  • Retention is radically better
  • Test performance is radically better

When we directed our energy and resources on creating an online platform for our trainings (starting with RESNET and BPI certification courses), we set out to create the best eLearning experience in the industry. I think we’ve achieved that. (Not that we’ll rest–e are at our core, a continuous process improvement company and that informs our training efforts as well). We know that there are a lot of crappy online classes out there and we wanted to ensure that we weren’t going down that road. We studied the literature; we ate up best practices; we learned a lot by trial and error as well.
Mr. Edmundson feels it’s not possible to have an engaged experience with an instructor in an online environment. He’s wrong. We are a testament to that; we are in a real-time learning experience with our students. The chats, quizzes and iterative experience based learning that our students both do and encounter gives us a far better picture into how much they are “getting it” than we ever had when we stood at the head of a class and lectured.
From the article:

With every class we teach, we need to learn who the people in front of us are. We need to know where they are intellectually, who they are as people and what we can do to help them grow. Teaching, even when you have a group of a hundred students on hand, is a matter of dialogue.

That’s what we’re getting via the variety of technological and engagement tools that we use in our trainings.
To be fair, we also couldn’t agree more that “canned”, “taped”, “static” online learning is no better than traditional death by PowerPoint. In fact, it’s almost certainly much worse. There is likely a dark place down below for anyone who’s ever inflicted a straight video feed on an unsuspecting student body and called it “learning” of any kind. The monitor is probably still warm when the retention level for such a course drops to zero.
How best to learn?
We don’t know the “best” way to teach every student as they are all different. A really good eLearning system works to deliver material in a variety of ways and with as much interaction and progress measurement as is necessary to ensure the message is being retained. We used to conduct our classroom training in the conventional way, stand in front of the class and go through innumerable PowerPoint slides (we do technical training, so I do understand the difference between that and a more academic and liberal arts setting). As the demographic of our student body changed and became more career shifters and less folks with industry experience, we found ourselves with increasing challenges in successful outcomes. What you may ask is a successful outcome? For us, it’s someone who, when they leave our training has not only achieved the learning outcomes, but is ready to use them to increase their success in our industry and their career. As the experience level of students entering our courses grew more diverse, we weren’t getting there with a traditional classroom approach.
Immediately on shifting to the eLearning platform we saw dramatic and sustained improvements across every metric that we are able to measure– test scores, level of understanding, field readiness and career preparedness.
Again, from the article:

Learning at its best is a collective enterprise, something we’ve known since Socrates.

That too, we achieve in our trainings as students interact with each other as well as the instructor. They participate in chats, they create class wiki’s and glossaries, they work together on a class project. They are absolutely engaged in a “collective enterprise”. In fact, we require it to pass through the training. I’ve never been either student or teacher in a class in which I was so certain that everyone was participating and engaged.

What is this called in fancy pants terms?

From Wikipedia:

Social constructivism is a sociological theory of knowledge that applies the general philosophical constructivism into social settings, wherein groups construct knowledge for one another, collaboratively creating a small culture of shared artifacts with shared meanings. When one is immersed within a culture of this sort, one is learning all the time about how to be a part of that culture on many levels. 

That’s a mouthful for sure, but just see it for what it is: teamwork.  With every training we do via eLearning, a team is created.
A few other things that we’ve seen that are perhaps just as important:

  • Just as all students don’t learn in the same way, they also don’t learn at the same pace. Instead of either getting left behind or disrupting the class, the eLearning student takes it at their pace and goes over a topic or point as many times as it takes to “get it”.
  • Our lives are busy and complicated. eLearning allows many who would otherwise either be unable or find it difficult to get training, to do so.
  • If a student can’t keep up for whatever reason, personal, work related, etc. they can easily slip back to another class session.

In short, but we feel that there are a number of ways to teach. Thoughtful, well considered eLearning is absolutely one of them.