According to the American Society for Training and Development s State of the Industry Report 2001, United States firms reported a 117 percent increase in the use of e-learning technologies between 1999 and 2002.
As e-learning technologies have improved and their use has become more widespread, instructional design methods have been refined and practices have evolved. Self-directed computer-based training content has been combined with online communication and face-to-face initiatives in what is now called "blended" learning.
Blended learning can feature any combination of face-to-face initiatives, online learning and online collaboration using conferencing, email and threaded discussion.
Research undertaken by learning and technology elab The Maisie Center in the United States suggests most companies implement an e-learning portal to "create an online community with access to subject matter experts and peers to assist in the learning process".
This is a positive development for instructional designers in the knowledge age because people learn best when they collaborate with others. We call it a "social context" for learning.
A social context increases people's ability to learn. Research shows that collaborating with others as part of the learning experience improves everything from critical thinking and communication skills to recall, course completion and a positive attitude toward learning.
If you've ever had experience of distance learning with little or no interaction with other people, contrast it with your experience of learning as part of a group or class.
But how do you create a social context for people learning online? A good place to start is by looking at how a social context works in the classroom and incorporating the same elements in the design of online learning.
Social context online
Some examples of positive dynamics that result from a social context include:
* Team spirit
* The "show-off" factor
* War stories (cross learning)
Classroom instructors sometimes intentionally facilitate the introduction of these dynamics. Sometimes they emerge as a natural consequence of people coming together.
In an online environment an instructor needs to deliberately facilitate the introduction of these dynamics.
When people get to know each other, they're likely to keep in touch if there is some mutual benefit in the relationship. Face to face, people connect professionally and socially. Sometimes setting up informal networks, perhaps staying in touch by email or phone.
In an online course it's possible to facilitate this connection by encouraging people to share personal information and information about their work. Help identify the ways people can mutually benefit from networking. Encouraging people to keep in touch by email by setting up distribution lists can help this process.
Nancy Williams, an e-learning professional with Booz Allen, a US-based consulting firm that fosters online communities as part of learning, found "a simple step was sharing photographs of participants--at their job. "Participants were from all over the globe working in different jobs. The first session everyone was quiet and engaging only when requested. One of their evening assignments was to provide a picture of themselves at work and to share with the group a little about their job. Having done this the dynamics of the group changed as people were able to connect with each other. A simple activity that reaped great rewards."
Synergy happens when a team achieves results that are more than the sum of their individual skills and experience.
Again as Williams puts it: "Commonness--if there is such a word--or a likeness is important. …