How's <i>Your</i> eLearning?

About two years back, I asked a friend if his institution was doing any eLearning. He said, "Oh, yes, we have an LMS and we are doing all sorts of eLearning stuff." I said, "Having an LMS d'es not necessarily mean that you are creating meaningful eLearning." He asked, "Meaningful eLearning-what do you mean?"

I explained that an eLearning system should be meaningful not only to learners, but also to all stakeholder groups, including instructors, support services staff, and the institution. For example, an eLearning system is meaningful to learners when it is easily accessible, well designed, learner-centered, affordable, efficient, flexible, and has a facilitated learning environment. When learners display a high level of participation and success in meeting a course's goals and objectives, this can make eLearning meaningful to instructors. In turn, when learners enjoy all available support services provided in the course without any interruptions, it makes support services staff happy as they strive to provide easy-to-use, reliable services. Finally, an eLearning system is meaningful to institutions when it has a sound return-on-investment (ROI), a moderate to high level of learner satisfaction with both the quality of instruction and all support services, and a low drop-out rate.

My friend said, "Ok, but what d'es it take to create meaningful and successful eLearning?" I answered that each stakeholder group has its own set of issues and concerns about eLearning. And they are critical! We must pay attention to these issues if we want to be successful in implementing eLearning. If you cluster these issues, they fall into eight eLearning categories: institutional, pedagogical, technological, interface design, evaluation, management, resource support, and ethical.

My friend said, "Wait, how do I identify these issues?" I told him, "As you know each eLearning project is unique. I encourage you to identify as many issues (in the form of questions) as possible for your own eLearning project from the eight categories. One way to identify critical issues is by placing each stakeholder group (such as learner, instructor, support staff, and so on) at the center and raising issues along the eight categories. This way you can identify many critical issues and answer questions that can help create a meaningful eLearning environment for your particular group. By repeating the same process for other stakeholder groups, you can generate a comprehensive list of issues for your eLearning project. As examples, let me raise some issues within the eight categories:

Would I be awarded the same credit for the development of an Learning course as I would receive for the publication of an article in a professional journal or magazine?
Developing a well-designed online course requires a great deal of time and effort. Non-tenured faculty would probably be more interested in publishing than developing an online course if the course development d'es not provide any impetus toward tenure and promotion. This is a type of question a faculty member would ask when focusing on issues relevant to academic affairs section of institutional category.

D'es the course make an effort to reduce or avoid the use of jargon, idioms, ambiguous or cute humor, and acronyms?
To improve cross-cultural verbal communication and avoid misunderstanding, we should refrain from icons, symbols, jokes, or comments that might be misinterpreted by others. In Bangladesh, thumbs-up sign means to disregard someone, but in other cultures it means "excellent or job well done." A pointing hand icon to indicate direction would violate a cultural taboo in certain African cultures because it represents a dismembered body part (this is also true for a pointing finger that indicates a hyperlink). A right arrow for the next page may instruct Arabic and Hebrew language speakers, as they read from left to right, to return to the previous page. This is a concern for learners with different cultural backgrounds. This is an issue relevant to the page and site design section of the interface design category.

How often is dynamic course content updated?
In designing eLearning, we need to consider the stability of course content. Content that d'es not need to be updated can be categorized as static (e.g., historical events, grammar rules, and the like). Content that has the potential to change over time can be considered dynamic (e.g., laws, policies, an so forth). Because dynamic content needs to be revised from time to time, it is necessary to identify such content in a course and establish an ongoing method for timely updating as needed. It would be very frustrating for learners if they would find outdated or obsolete information. This is a concern that a student might have. This is an example of an issue relevant to the content analysis section of the pedagogical category.

Are all learning objects created for the course reusable and shareable?
If your institution creates learning objects by following the international interoperability standards (such as IMS, OKI, IEEE, or SCORM), they can be reused and shared by various courses within your institution and beyond. Reusable and shareable learning objects not only save money but also promote collaborations among eLearning partner institutions. This is a type of issue that an administrator would be interested in seeing included in the infrastructure planning section of the technological category.

Are students actually doing the work? How do we know we are assessing fairly and accurately?
These are the types of questions that will always be in the minds of online instructors and administrators. Assessment of learners at a distance can be a challenge. Issues related cheating are of major concern and an institution offering eLearning should have a mechanism in which a learner can be truly measured and not cheat. This is an issue relevant to the assessment of learners section in the evaluation category.

D'es the course have encryption (i.e., a secure coding system) available for students to send confidential information over the Internet?
No institution is immune from hackers. Academic networks can be targets of hackers if they lack security. This is a concern for network managers, which falls under the security measures section of the management category.

Do technical and other support staff receive training on how to communicate with remote learners in difficult situations?
When students encounter repeated technical difficulties, they become very frustrated. It is not easy for technical support staff to deal with learners in such situations. Technical staff needs training to improve their communication skills. This is a concern for technical or help line staff. This is an issue relevant to the online support section of the resource support category.

Is the course sensitive to students from different time zones (e.g., are synchronous communications such as chat discussions scheduled at reasonable times for all time zones represented)?
This is an example of a question that a learner can ask in the geographical diversity section of the ethical dimension. As we know, scheduled chat discussions may not work for learners coming from different time zones. In the U.S., there are the six time zones. Therefore, you should be sensitive to diversity in geographical time zones (i.e., all courses where students can reasonably be expected to live in different time zones).

As you can see, there are numerous issues that might be of concern to your stakeholder groups. My friend said, "I see there can be a lot of issues in eLearning. But, how many of these issues must I really address?"

I responded, "Well, it all depends on how open and flexible you want to be. Do you want your eLearning programs to be marketable beyond your campus to a larger global audience? As you venture into the global market, your scope of operation is extended. With this extended market, you have more issues to address for geographically diverse learners. In any given context, we may not be able to address all the critical issues within the eight categories. But we should explore ways to address the issues with the best possible means that we can afford."

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