Putting a fish in a birdcage

Why online and face to face learning need a different approach.

Having been a lecturer in post-compulsory education at colleges and universities over 2 decades, (if you are interested in a whistle stop tour of my career, the highlights are below*) I think I am allowed to say that picked up a few skills when it comes to creating an effective learning experience. Trust me, teaching a group of sleep deprived 18-year-olds on the morning after student night in the union bar tends to make you concentrate on engaging content.

So, let me tell you one of the most important things I learned in 20+ years of teaching. Then I will tell you how, in my opinion, it applies to creating courses for online training. Ready?

No matter how pretty the fish is you cannot keep it in a birdcage!

See? No? OK, let me explain.

One of my roles used to be verifying standards for BTEC courses. One of the problems I often came across was actually the result of very dedicated people creating incredibly good content. Unfortunately, what the failed to consider was the environment around the delivery. So, they put a lot of work into the wrong type of content. Content that while great on paper simply didn’t work for the learners.

Is online training less effective than face to face?

I have been asked this a lot over the years by online course content creators. My answer is always the same; the question itself is pointless. If you are creating content for a digital environment, why compare them at all?

The truth is that online courses are a great learning tool if used correctly. Your approach should be to give the best learning experience possible and avoid shoehorning material in that doesn’t fit the online environment. So, my point here is that comparisons are not helpful.

Rather than fretting about the things that are hard to do online, focus on what you can do, and do that really, really, well. Online and classroom settings are different ways of reaching your learning aims. Comparing them is like saying driving and going by train are both methods of transport, then complaining because your Uber car didn’t have a buffet trolly. Both get you where you are going, but they operate differently.

A few tips about the approach to online training

When you are writing courses for e-learning platforms such as Tovi, always integrate the key features of the system and unique environment of learning online. Play to the advantages and opportunities e-learning presents and you will get a much better course. Here are a few thoughts on how to do that.

  • There is more time for the learner – They are not pinned in a classroom so you can work in short, easily digested sections, no matter how complex the subject.
  • It’s not about you, it is about the learner. Remember you are likely to be teaching a subject you love, they may not love it as much, so keep to the point.
  • Test, test, test. It’s particularly worth getting someone who doesn’t know the subject to test it. See the previous point for why. Honest feedback only though. Your Mum will only tell you how clever you are, so ask someone impartial who won’t spare your feelings.
  • Complex things can be made less complex. For the online learner there is no pressure, no clock watching and, best of all, no need to worry about looking bad if they don’t understand it the first time around. So, break things down as much as you need to. They have plenty of time and no bell is going to ring to end the session.
  • Rewind and relearn is available easily. Imagine if one had the ability to rewind time in a face-to-face training session. Anyone who didn’t quite get it could go back to a previous lesson, relearn something, then join you back in the room. Wouldn’t that make life easier for them? Well, they can pretty much do that online. Insert little prompts to review prior learning. Nudges to refresh understanding such as, ‘as we said in the last lesson’ or ‘we learned about doing ‘skill X’ in lesson 2, so now may be a good time to go back and review that’ really help. They are great ways to ensure prior learning is refreshed when it is needed.
  • Really go for it with the video and visual support. This is one place where the online course scores hugely over any other way of learning. Linking to external information, video materials and other visual support and downloads is where the magic really happens with online training.
  • Learning outcomes are the focus so start there. Try deciding your content by going backwards from what you want to achieve with the learner.

I’ve borrowed a couple of cardinal rules from programmers and software developers over the years. Those rules really help you take a structured approach to content creation. ‘Output – process - input’ is one of the best pieces of advice I ever got.

Start from the desired end result ‘I want my learners to learn ‘skillset X’’. This is your desired output.

So, what online based materials and content will facilitate that? This is what your process needs to be for the learner.

How do I create those materials? This is deciding what you need to input to create the process to get the learner to the outcome.

Another good lesson from the tech world is the acronym G.I.G.O. It stands for Garbage In, Garbage Out. No matter how much effort you put into creating your wonderful content, if it isn’t suitable for online, it is not going to work as well as something that is.

Forcing a fish into a birdcage just makes things difficult for everyone!

These days I make my living as a media producer and copywriter rather than an educator, so I produce a lot of online material. Whether video, text or multimedia, the material always works better when approached as being specifically for online rather than general use. The same is true of your course materials.

So, going back to my birdcage analogy, although a birdcage and a fish tank both do the same job, in that they provide a place to keep a pet, you wouldn’t call them interchangeable. Your online courses are the same. If you don’t create courses specifically for online use, you are trying to convince a fish to live in a birdcage.

Even if you manage to get it in there, it really isn’t going to be a satisfying experience for anyone. It’s certainly going to be pretty disappointing for the person presented with the dead fish when they wanted to see the singing birds.

Write your courses specifically for online. You will get a much better result for the learner.

*During my career I taught a plethora of levels and subjects, from promoting key skills to disaffected learners through to working with graduates on award-winning final productions.

I’ve written, amongst other things, access to HE courses, curriculum layouts and quite a few online training courses. I was also a mentor and observer for other lecturers, an examiner, I helped to re-write the international specification for a BTEC subject and been a visiting National Standards verifier. I mention all this not to blow my own trumpet, but to give you some background and to let you know that someone, somewhere along the way, must have thought I knew what I was talking about when it came to lesson content.

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