The Problems with eLearning (and how to fix them)

Don’t get me wrong – online courses are nothing short of miraculous. Now is the best time in human history to learn. The barriers for entry have crumbled down – cost, geography and schedule conflicts have all been banished to the Realm of Solved Problems. Anyone with an internet connection can learn at a university-level at their own pace. Ten years ago, this was a dream, a promise. Today, it is mere reality.

We have solved the impossible problems of delivering education to everyone. Yet, most educators are still stuck on the easy ones.

Let’s take a look at Coursera. On their About page, they say:

“That’s why we designed our platform based on proven teaching methods verified by top researchers.”

Sure enough, the principles they follow are effective. Peer assessment is an especially effective technique when it’s done right. When learners grade each other, it exposes them to different perspectives, new approaches and common mistakes. The course forums are excellent for this reason as well.

So it’s not all bad. But Coursera falls well short of even basic learning principles. I’m going to pick on the Data Science Specialisation from John Hopkins University. Before I do, let me say that the content of this program is excellent. The fact that it is free (or cheap, if you want the certification) is a sign of how incredible technology can be. I worked through most of the specialisation and got a lot out of it, so I say this out of love.

The courses are terrible. They are awful. As good as the content is, I’m amazed anyone learns any of it.

Most of the courses are structured the same. Each week has hours and hours of videos. These videos are a talking head bombarding you with huge volumes of content. There’s the occasional demonstration. In other words, it’s just like those face-to-face lectures you used to dread, now available in your own home.

Sure, it’s a recording, so you can pause, rewind or skip at any time (another miracle of technology). But reviewing the same confusing spray of contextless theory only helps so much.

Adults learn best when we can see the relevance of material, relate it to our experiences, engage with the concepts and share our thoughts with others. This is why you don’t remember anything from those traditional lecturers from university. Lecturers that talked at you until the clock ran out taught you nothing. So why on earth did Coursera import that model to the internet? It’s 19th century teaching over 21st century platforms.

Each week of the Data Science Specialisation ends with a quiz, which is a nice chance to review the content. There’s also a (peer-reviewed) assessment per course. This is great, except half the time you realise you learned nothing from a topic. One that you watched 40 minutes of videos on.

What a waste of time.

It’s true that some concepts are hard to understand. It’s also true that the content has to engage the learner. If the learner has to force their brain to pay attention, the content won’t make any impression. Think about it this way: the learner needs all their mental energy to process and understand new ideas. The more effort it takes to stay focused, the less is left over for learning it.

At least Coursera makes an effort to follow adult learning principles. PluralSight, which needs a paid account to access, is even worse. Most of the courses I’ve looked at are pure theory. A disembodied voice sprays words at you while a PowerPoint presentation plays. Although PluralSight courses have the option to include quizzes and activities, most don’t.

Again, the content is excellent. But who cares when the delivery is neurologically optimised to be ignored and forgotten?

A Better Class of eLearning

On these platforms, some courses rise above the others. Learning How to Learn is an example of a course that teaches. The delivery is well thought out. It’s designed to make the material as memorable and engaging as possible. It’s easy to stay focused during the videos. It’s easy to understand, recall and apply the concepts.

What can we learn from the best of these courses? We learn that eLearning works when:

The material engages your emotions. Maybe you can’t stimulate love for the concepts. Maybe using fear and anger aren’t great ideas. But it can be as simple as a touch of surprise and humour. Representing the formula for acceleration with a skydiving donkey works because your brain isn’t expecting it. Your brain is constantly predicting the future – when something violates that prediction, it pays extra attention.

The material is relevant to your life. We’ve all struggled to learn something. When someone explains why you struggled and what to do about it, it’s hard to ignore.

The material is time-effective. If your course includes five hours of video per week, maybe the learners will watch an hour a day. More likely, they will have to cram during their free time. The only thing this will achieve is stressing people.

We learn by relating new concepts to familiar ones. If a single concept is too strange to us, it can take a long time and a lot of effort to bridge the gap in understanding. Meanwhile, these videos could be barrelling through ten new concepts an hour. Learning becomes futile.

Slow down. Give learners time to process the concept before moving on. If the five hours of video are racing through the concepts, there’s too much content. Slow. Down.

Learning How to Learn is wonderfully paced. It covers a lot of material, yet the videos are short and never rushed. There’s time to assimilate the new ideas before moving on. This is because they focus on the key points and convey them well.

The material engages your senses. With the internet, adding images, audio and video is easy.

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Nothing I have said is controversial. These ideas are well understood in the context of educational theory. Yet how many online courses follow these? Which is why I launched Mindwalker Training. I saw a gap in the training market, both in content and delivery. Mindwalker Training is my mission: to teach the skills that people need in a way that engages the mind.

Support this mission because we can’t leave education in the hands of the clumsy few. When teaching fails, the consequences are worse than most people realise. Time and mental energy – our most precious resources – are squandered. Egos are depleted. Some people give up on subjects, thinking the problem lies with them rather than the educator.

This is what I pledge to solve. If all educators followed basic principles, the impact would be greater than any revolution in the past. It’s time to demand more from those that offer training. It’s time to expect engaging material. If your source of knowledge doesn’t, give Mindwalker Training a visit. You’ll be amazed at the difference.

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You should see my Study Skills course because it helps you learn things – even from badly delivered courses.

From tomorrow, your courses will be better than ever

I’m on the verge of releasing my free Training Program Evaluation Tools. I can tell you – it’s pretty exciting. Developing these was like living in a whirlwind; I saw a great need in the training community and strove to fulfill it. As always, thank you for following me this far.

What I am about to share are a full set of tools for analysing training courses. No matter what you teach or how you teach it, these tools will give you the insights you need. Training program evaluations can be tricky, complex, time-consuming… and often miss the marks. These tools simplify the process and ensure you get the answers you need.

The TPE Tools will be available for download tomorrow. They are fully customisable, allowing you to adapt them to your programs. You can take them, use them and be confident that the evaluation is proceeding well. Each tool guides you through how to use it each step of the way.

The result of all this? Your courses will be more relevant, more data-driven and more justifiable than ever before.

Once these tools launch, they will be freely available to download any time in the future. However, for the first five days only, I will also be including Making Content Memorable – a short guide to creating content that sticks with people. Making Content Memorable will only be available from the TPE Tools page. This exclusive guide will show you how to trigger the brain’s natural learning and retention mechanisms, regardless of your content. Be sure that you don’t miss out by signing up to the Mindwalker Training newsletter.

UPDATE: The TPE Tools are now live. Download them here.

How to use data to drive your courses

Training program evaluations are an important part of the teaching process. It can be a difficult one, though is doesn’t have to be. My last post described my TPE Tools and why you want to get evaluating right. With my free templates and guides to support you, program evaluation is simple and valuable.

Thank you to everyone that reached out to me about this. I find that program evaluation is one of those topics that attract a lot of interest. People are familiar of the idea of using data and evidence to assess the value of courses, and many organisations have their own processes for it. Then again, many don’t, which is why it’s great that so many people have spoken to me about it. Thank you to all of you – and for those of you that are just reading for now.

How do you know whether your training is relevant or not? How do you know what needs improving and what can be cut away? If you make these decisions based on instinct or just learner reactions, you’re living in the last century. Training program evaluations demand evidence. In return, they will reward you with clarity. You will know everything you need about your course – including how to secure more resources for it.

I designed an evaluation process for an organisation that never had one. Like so many L&D teams, they were too busy reacting to act. Courses were changed, then changed back, on the shifting tides of learner sentiment. They knew they had to be smarter about the process. So I helped them. Now, they have an evaluation process that takes almost the same time as their old approach but provides much more evidence. A vital course of theirs had been neglected because the organisation couldn’t see its value. A strong evaluation provided all the evidence they needed to sell it to their colleagues.

The truth is, program evaluations work. The communities of the 21st century are hungry for data. Decisions based solely on someone’s gut don’t cut it any more. Intuition has its place but there’s an expectation for data, for evidence. The value of training can be a difficult thing to quantify. With the right tools, you can.

By now, you appreciate the need to do evaluations not just well, but quickly and simply. My free TPE Tools, combined with your courses, will give you this power. In no time at all you will understand your courses deeper than ever. I will answer all of your questions, including how to access these tools, in the next post. You should subscribe to my email list so that you don’t miss it.

UPDATE: The TPE Tools are now live. Download them here.

Discover your course’s value

How do you know whether your training hits the mark? How can you prove that your courses need more funding when the purse strings tighten? How do you measure something as abstract as a training program’s value?

It’s possible. In fact, it’s simple. All you need are my free Training Program Evaluation (TPE) Tools. I have introduced frameworks for program evaluations to organisations that had none, and I like to think I have it down to a fine art. I have refined program evaluation to its essence and captured this in tools that anyone can use. They are simple enough to work anywhere, no matter your course or community.

Many organisations conduct program evaluations; few do it right. Evaluating is a scientific, data-drive process. It’s tempting to leap in and start gathering evidence right away, but it’s important to take your time. My TPE Tools contain guides and templates for developing your evaluation strategy. Part of the strategy document is a logic map; a means of capturing the key information about the course. Everything from why you run the course to how, all in one easy table. Below is what my logic maps often look like:

logic_map_template

A common objection to evaluations – perhaps the main one – is that they are a complicated waste of time. Assessing a course, sifting through volumes of testimonials and anecdotes, just to write a report that leaders ignore? That does sound like a waste of time. But this objection is wrong on two parts. First, an evaluation doesn’t have to be complicated or a time-drain. With the right tools, you can go from start to finish in days (if not hours). Secondly, a well-run evaluation gathers more than just anecdotes. It provides raw data that is impossible to ignore, with stories to soften the message.

Actually, it’s wrong on three counts because the report is valuable to you, too. The process unearths the details of your training program, revealing all its strengths and weaknesses. It reveals what people like and dislike, and what needs to change. Also, as I’ve already mentioned, it supplies proof of the value of the course – or proof that the training needs to change.

Evaluations are fantastic. If a course you value hasn’t had a program evaluation in a while, then it’s stumbling blindly through the community. You owe it to yourself and your learners to make your courses the best they can be – and to have the evidence to back up that claim.

The next post will go over the flow of training program evaluations. You’ll be impressed by how simple and effective they are. Subscribe to my email list to be sure you don’t miss it.

UPDATE: The TPE Tools are now live. Download them here.

What is purpose?

I’m not sure that it helps to think about your life’s purpose.

I mean, maybe it does. Maybe it has helped you or someone you know live a more satisfying life. Following your life’s purpose is, almost by definition, worthwhile. Even spending a lifetime figuring out that purpose is probably worthwhile.

But.

But your life’s purpose could easily be a trap. After all, you change and grow as a person, don’t you? What drives you today may be eclipsed by something else tomorrow.

The world is changing every day. You might solve your life’s purpose at age 25 – then what? New technology or trends might throw up a new, more meaningful challenge – do you pursue it?

People used to have careers for life. Now, people change careers every few years. To be still is to stagnate. Why would your life’s purpose be any different?

The question of your life’s purpose is too big for most of us. If you think you know it, great. If not, then dial it back a little bit.

What is your hour’s purpose?

Seriously. What is the meaning of this hour? What are you meant to be doing with your time, right now? Forget tomorrow. Forget later today. What is your calling for this hour, right now?

I’m not sure if that’s an easier question to answer or a harder one. If it is harder, it might be mainly from lack of practice. Many people spend a lot of time thinking about what their life is for – how many people ask the same question, focusing on right now?

Linking the present moment to your philosophy of life is a good habit to get into. And you know how to build good habits now. [See? There is a method to my madness – each themed month leads into the next].

You can do a lot with an hour. You can clean a house or fill it with groceries. You can fill a child’s mind with knowledge and heart with laughter. You can do the same to an adult’s. You can share a meal with a loved one. You could exercise, meditate or take a nap.

Which would be the best use of your precious hour?

Now, let’s think a little bigger. If you can do a lot with an hour, what can you do with a year? What is your 2017’s purpose?

Is there anything you want to do with your life that you can’t? Maybe you need more time, money, skills, freedom – something you can’t acquire right away. Is this thing that you want your 2018’s purpose? It doesn’t hurt to start thinking about it now. And preparing.

This is the way out of the trap. You can think about your life’s purpose, that thing you’ll do one day. You have bills to pay now but once those are done, you will get right on that. Yep. Any moment now.

Focus on the moment that is now and you’ll think about it differently. When you realise that you either use this moment or lose it, things seem more urgent. Life is a long time – until it isn’t. A moment is always fleeting.

What is the purpose of today?

Forget your life’s purpose for a minute.

What is the purpose of this moment?

This post is part of Purpose Month over at Mindwalker Training. Join in the conversation – you never know what you’ll learn.