Designing e-Learning – Key Choices

The Internet is a global many-to-many communications network impacting billions of people in countless ways. A major aspect of this impact is the availability and delivery of knowledge and education, where the term ‘education’ implies a guided journey through some set of knowledge. Not only does the ‘net provide numerous opportunities to learn, but also opportunities for virtually anyone to teach anything. Education delivered via the Internet is widely known as e-learning.

A number of key dimensions must be considered in the e-learning design process, some of which are described below. For each case there is no single right answer, rather the most appropriate answer for a given context.

Curated v Custom Content

The Internet contains a proliferation of quality content on just about any subject imaginable. In designing e-learning the question is therefore whether to use (ie curate) existing content, or to develop a new version.

Does content fulfilling the aim(s) of the course already exist, either fully or partially?

There is currently a need for an independent catalog of pre-assessed educational resources (‘learning objects’), therefore curation, the process of identifying and quality assuring content can takes significant time and effort – potentially more than would be expended on producing custom content (which might turn out to be yet another version of something that already exists!) NB: crowdsourcing in the form of view counts and comments can serve as a guide to the quality of a resource.

Given that appropriate pre-existing content can be located, designing a satisfying educational experience requires adding suitable ‘glue’ around this content, ie informing learners what they should take from the content, checking understanding, highlighting key learning points and filling any gaps.

Prescriptive v Constructivist

Traditional education follows a prescriptive syllabus, effectively delimiting a subset of knowledge to be covered by a course, this is the typical ‘course in a box’ style of delivery. An alternative is the constructivist approach in which learners construct their own knowledge via a personalised journey. The instructor’s role in the former model is as ‘sage on the stage’ while in the latter it is ‘guide on the side’.

In terms of MOOCs, the prescriptive type are termed xMOOCs, while the more costructivist (connectivist) MOOCs are termed cMOOCs. The vast majority of current MOOCs offered by providers such as Coursera or edX are xMOOCs (terminology courtesy George Siemens, MOOCs are really a platform

While constructivism is likely to create deeper and more meaningful learning, many learners feel more comfortable with a more prescriptive approach. This may be due to prior learning experience, or may simply reflect the need to learn ABC in a limited time.

Free v Paid

The Internet is widely viewed as a humongous source of free, quality, content. Recent years have seen a proliferation of free education in the form of MOOCs (massive open online courses) provided by prestigious universities. Such offerings may serve to raise the profile of institution and/or professor, and/or encourage students to pay for verified certification and/or enrol on paid courses.

To get people to pay for something online requires an expectation of quality, in the case of e-learning this would for example be delivery by or association with a respected institution. Alternatively the product (ie knowledge), eg:
* must be both unique and in demand
* must provide access to expert tutorial support

Open v Closed Access

Is there a need to enrol, or can anyone access materials and/or discussions etc? A compromise would be public availability of content, but a need to ‘enrol’ (paid/free) in order to access extras such as participation in forums and assessments.

Open v Fixed Duration

A course of fixed duration has a definite start and end point, material may be released periodically throughout this period, eg weekly/monthly. During this time support may be focused on the current topic, eg via discussion forums and/or live online (or even physical) meetings.

An open course, once published, is available in its entirety in perpetuity. This is more challenging in terms of support, with a potential solution being grouping participants into discrete cohorts.

Synchronous v Asynchronous

Is the course delivered in real-time or can learners participate when (and where) it suits them? A key benefit of e-learning is its 24/7 availability. That said, the ability for instructor-student and student-student interaction in real-time can add value and help make the learning more like traditional face-to-face delivery.

Where synchronous components are included these should ideally be recorded and made available to those learners who weren’t able to participate in the live event. For a global course that consists of a number of live events times should be staggered to give as many people as possible the opportunity to participate in at least some.

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