Does E-Learning Provide a Social Atmosphere? You Bet!

E-learning Misconception of Social Interaction

I’ve heard a number of times that e-learning’s main weakness is the lack of social interaction. I would like to attempt to dispel this common misconception.

Social interaction in any setting is dependent on the structure of the course. A live training can have little to no social interaction if the instructor does not foster discussion.  A live training may be so packed with information that an instructor simply cannot allow discussion in an effort to stay on time.

If anything, a properly structured e-learning course can create an atmosphere of deeper discussion.

Let’s use an example of the EnergyLogic Academy HERS Rater Training. In the screen shot below you will find our structure for each module in our training,

E-learning Module Structure from EnergyLogic Academy

Let me do a brief run down on the module structure. First, each module is worth 100 points. Each module has 4 distinct sections. Each section is worth 25 points.

  • Learning Resources – These are SCORM compliant narrated flash files with interactivity. These are designed to educate the student on the topic being discussed. In this case, domestic hot water.
  • Activity – In our course we have activities around the topic. These range from glossary construction, uploading work files, research, and in this case our class project. The class project is the creation of a from-plans rating. In this section we work through the REM/Rate entry of water heating systems.
  • Social – This is where we foster social interaction. As you can see we have 14 unread posts in this Rater training. This is where the rest of our discussion will focus.
  • Quiz – Each module finishes with a quiz.

Social Interaction

Let’s focus on the social interaction in our course. We foster discussion. In fact, to pass our course we require social interaction. It is important to note that we focus on structured social interaction. Each social will have a set of instructions for that particular topic. For example:

Social Interaction Menu on EnergyLogic Academy Course

As you’ll notice the last instruction is that each person is responsible for starting a discussion and responding to a colleague.

Now let’s look at the discussions:

E-learning Discussions for ELA Course

 

You’ll notice we have seven distinct discussions. Each of those discussion has at least one reply. And you’ll notice on the right the last person to comment. This is a great example because Mark Jabaley is a very experienced Rater, an EnergyLogic partner, and in this course as a guest instructor. In addition, our lead trainer Scott Doyle has weighed in.

Now let’s dive into one of the discussions.

 

Discussion page on EnergyLogic Academy Course

The discussions can include links to more information, videos and images to help describe the topic.

Our teaching style is social constructivism. The idea is that students work together to build knowledge of the topic based on discussion and activities. What we have found is that students will go as deep as they want. We give them the basic instructions but find that willing students will bring back great information. In fact, I’ve learned a lot from these students. It’s truly a remarkable thing to watch as our students become champions of the course and seek to help their colleagues to learn the material.

Please don’t tell me that social interaction is not part of e-learning. As educators, we require it!

Matt Thornberry
Deputy Director of Energy Professional Services
EnergyLogic Academy

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.

EnergyLogic Academy BPI Hybrid Launch

EnergyLogic is very pleased to announce the availability of BPI Building Analyst Hybrid training.

Combining the very best of eLearning, see our last blog post, and the best of hands-on field training; prepare yourself for success in the residential energy industry.  EnergyLogic is an industry leader in training and innovative delivery of services across the nation.  We are committed to helping you get started on the right foot.

Our eLearning environment covers the bases of learning types and stays fresh and relevant throughout.  When combined with our guaranteed small class size field training, it doesn’t get any better.

 

Early Results on EnergyLogic Academy Launch

When we set out on the adventure of building the EnergyLogic Academy, little did we know what we were getting into!  The objective was to create “online” (a reviled adjective in our office for what we’re doing) pathways for all of our classroom trainings.  This eLearning effort in combination with our existing field and live trainings comprise the EnergyLogic Academy.

We had several objectives for this initiative.  The first was to improve the quality of our product.  The team was optimistic about the prospects for addressing a number of challenges that face trainers in our industry (and other industries).  There is a ton of literature and debate on learning styles and teaching methods to address different learners.  Regardless of the debate, we knew intuitively that not everyone learns best the same way.  We also know that the Bataan Death March of PowerPoint presentations are a poor delivery method no matter how enthused the presenter or students.

eLearning encompasses the breadth of techniques and includes the spoken word, visual delivery, continuous feedback and social interaction as key components.  The amount of time and effort that it takes to craft thoughtful, complete trainings on this type of platform is truly daunting.  We’re really glad we stuck it out, but whew!  The initial results have been better than even the most optimistic of us had hoped for.  For example, this comment is from Brenda Hungerford, a student who had taken HERS Rater training in the past and needed a refresher:

“I actually think this course is better for long term retention of the material than a one week classroom session. I believe it will make better Raters. Having said that, I would also like to pass along that this is an excellent course.  I have been submerged somewhat in building science for a few years now and I can tell you this course has taught me a lot of new things and reinforced things that I have learned in the past. I also believe the social interaction is what puts this course over the top from a learning standpoint. Please pass along my thoughts to everyone on the EL team.  Good Job!!”

The process right now is to have students who’ve completed the eLearning portion, go ahead and sit for the national test.  This means they’ve never been to the field.  Staggeringly, we now have a 100% pass rate on the test (full disclosure, this is a small sample thus far)!  This was not necessarily our objective, let me explain why.

Our Prime Objective is to produce graduates who can succeed in the industry.  Whether on their own or as a staff member in an organization; their overall competence is the measure of our success.  Over the past several years, we had reduced the amount of material that we delivered in class in order to align it more closely with the test.  This grated on us as we considered the material important to the overall knowledge base for a competent HERS rater or BPI Building Analyst, but we felt compelled to do so as we had to get our students over the hurdle of the test before they could move on.  The amount of time we had in class was limited.  Something had to give.   We’ve now been able to add that material and even more back in.  It’s not there to pass the test, but it’s important. What we used to deliver in 20 hours now takes students 40-60 hours to complete.  Provided this platform students dig deeper and become more engrossed in their learning experience.

Perhaps the most gratifying thing to see has been the student response to this new approach to our training.  We’re seeing a level of sharing that exceeds what happens in “live” training.  The sharing is actually at a higher technical level and has the added benefit of creating a durable, “living” foundation for our students to build on as they go forward in their careers.  I couldn’t be prouder of the work that my staff has done on this.  It’s reflected in the pride I have in the experience that our students are having as they move forward with us in this industry.

And we are far from done. We are committed to continued improvement. We are very proud of where we are and incredibly confident about the path we are headed down.

-The EnergyLogic Energy Professional Services Team

 

EnergyLogic Training Philosophy

This post was begun on the RESNET-BPI group on LinkedIn.  The original post was asking for advice about training in Ohio.  The ensuing discussion ended up focused on training approaches.  There was a concern that some “sales pitch” had crept in, I think that’s fine if it’s obvious or declared.  So, here’s a big fat disclaimer: this is a sort of a sales pitch in that it’s about our philosophy, read no further if that will bug you…  It’s also a bit long…

We’ve been conducting HERS training since about 2000 as instructors and since 2006 as our own provider.  We’ve been doing BPI since 2007.  We’ve done it old school that entire time; sit in class while we regale you with endless hours of PowerPoint. Then, we take you to the field for, at best two days of field training.  Then you test.

We’ve made it a point to not teach to the test.  There is too much to know to be successful that the test doesn’t even begin to touch on.  In the beginning, this all worked out pretty well.  We had experienced and/or highly motivated people who did quite well and our pass rate was about what we were looking for mid 80’s or better.  We’ve never believed that in that environment, everyone would pass the test.  If we wanted to teach the test I’m sure we could get it up into the mid 90% range without any trouble.  However, back then especially, most of our students were indeed going on to start their own businesses, we felt strongly that we would be short changing them if we didn’t prepare them for the “real” world.

 

As time has gone by, we’ve seen a slow decrease in our pass rate.  We continually work to get better, so we don’t frankly think it’s us per se.  On the other hand, it is us, as we need to respond to a changing student demographic.  Students now (in general) are less experienced, less motivated by vision and passion, and more likely to have funding support (i.e. they have less or no skin in the game).  This has been a huge challenge to us.  We allow anyone in, but we have every student go through a pretest to assess their readiness for the class.  If the pretest says the student is weak on basic construction, we give a variety of ways to remedy that before training. I could go on in this vein.

To address this, we’ve changed our philosophy in a dramatic way.  Over a year ago, we began an initiative to address our weaknesses, improve our training, meet students where they are and up our game to meet the realities of today’s market.  We’ve come to believe that classroom training is good for some students and really poor for others.  The various learning types are not all served by the classroom approach.  We’ve spent a lot of time and money thinking and developing our training for the online environment.  It is important to us that we continue to do as we’ve done, and not teach to the test.  We are adamant that we must do the best to train people for success in the industry, not just success on the test.  Yes, the test is the first hurdle, but we’ve had far too many folks come to us for HERS Provider services that simply weren’t ready for prime time.

Our eLearning environment is self-paced within the context of a cohort of other students (in other words, you still have a class group to keep up with, but there is enough time to make it convenient).  This is also important as we believe strongly that our andragogy (that’s a big ass fancy word for adult education as opposed to pedagogy, which is a big ass fancy word for child education) needs to have a social aspect.  Our classes include class projects, social interaction, and the creation of something “real”, another important feature of effective learning.

I’ll leave the discussion of the eLearning aspect at this point and turn to the field portion.  I hope that we’d all agree that field training is incredibly important.  Of course, it’s also required, but again, we’ve had folks come to us who never actually touched the equipment in class.  That’s just wrong.  So, we are now delivering our classroom online.  The field remains the field.  Students can either come here to lovely Colorado or to one of a number of locations around the country via our Training Partner network.  What’s that you say?  Well, we can’t be everywhere at once (aka Training Mill approach and they obviously can’t be everywhere at once either see my blog post on this ) so we’ve worked with a number of our best and most trusted friends to create a network of people that can deliver the field portion of the training in their region.  This also deals to a large degree with the regionality issue which I believe is a valid one.  Our long term objective is to be able to offer field trainings that can be as small as three students.  That, in our opinion, would enable the level of quality that we all would like to see in the field portion. One requirement that we have is that a student will never leave our field training without demonstrating competency with the diagnostic testing equipment.

We’ve got a long way to go, but this outlines our approach.  It’s sure to evolve as we and the industry grow.  Thanks for hanging in there for this lengthy post.  Comments welcome, but discussion will be on the Residential Energy Professional Training group on LinkedIn.

-Steve