E-Learning by Example

for Inside Learning Technologies Magazine, Conference edition, January 2008

Jane Hart of the Centre for Learning & Performance Technologies, presents 10 of her favourite examples of e-learning, explains why she has chosen them and suggests some ways that they could be used for creating your own e-learning.

Here are 10 of my favourite examples of e-learning. They are all free to access, but more importantly they demonstrate the use of a wide range of learning technologies for both formal and informal learning as well as for performance improvement and support. They are also easy to emulate as I explain how …

  1. Blood Typing – In this educational game from the Nobel Prize website, you have to blood type 3 patients and give them a blood transfusion to save their lives. This is a great example of a simulation where you can apply and test your knowledge in a safe environment. These are very useful for situations where you don’t want people practising on real systems or people! Hence the popularity of tools like flight simulators. Games and simulations are also very useful for boring or complex subjects and are especially valuable for the so-called Net Generation who have been brought up on video games and would otherwise find traditional linear based learning uninspiring. Although games and simulations like this can be quite complicated to design and develop for specific situations, ready-made role playing and strategy games are available for a variety of generic business situations, like applying the laws of demand and supply to running a successful business.
  2. Makedocuments look good in Word 2007: This is a demonstration from Microsoft to show you how to use Word to turn a plain-looking document into one that looks professionally designed. This short software application demo, also known as a screencast, is a handy way of finding out how to carry out a software task by simply watching and listening to how it is done. Microsoft also provides some textual instructions which you can print out to have by you when you attempt the task yourself. How much more useful it is to get the information you need to carry out a software activity when you need it, rather than to have to wait to take a complete course that covers all its functionality – and possibly forget what you learnt by the time you need it! Screencasts like these are therefore invaluable performance support resources. People can just reach for them when they need them. Screencasts of generic software are freely available, and if you use custom software in your organisation, then they are quick and easy to produce.
  3. Learn to play the piano – As in the previous example, there’s nothing quite like watching how something is done, and this example demonstrates the power of video. It is clear from the popularity of sites like YouTube that video is a very compelling medium. It is therefore a very useful format for resenting information or providing instruction. This might simply be a senior manager delivering a company briefing or a product demonstration from a sales person, or it could be a lesson where observation of a skill is essential. In all cases video adds that extra dimension, and if the presenter is charismatic, it will undoubtedly be very engaging. Only a few years ago video on the Web was pretty impracticable, but now it is very easy not only to record it, but also to host and deliver it widely.
  4. Expresso Shots of Business Wisdom: Sometimes full-blown video is not a necessity, for example if you want to present a number of theoretical points or if the topic is not easily filmed. A set of images or textual pointers may be all that is required. However, slides on their own are not sufficient – even if they are visually appealing; a voice-over is really essential to make sense of them. This example is a short (5 minute) narrated presentation that makes a couple of significant points and provides some effective slides as visual aids. Narrated presentations like this can be successful e-learning resources if well designed and executed. “Death by PowerPoint” can be avoided if some basic design principles are applied. The voiceover also provides a personal touch.
  5. HBR IdeaCast: This is a free podcast series from Harvard Business Review that features “breakthrough ideas and commentary from leading thinkers in business and management”. You can either listen to the audio on the website itself using the embedded player or subscribe to the podcast series using your RSS reader or via iTunes. This means that you get the new podcasts sent to you when they become available. There are a number of reasons why this an example of effective e-learning. Firstly, it demonstrates that in some cases audio is all that is required, in other words that presentation slides or video aren’t always essential. Secondly, it shows the versatility of audio as the podcasts can either be played on a computer or an iPod or other MP3 player. This means that it is up to the listener to decide when to play them and on the device they prefer. It might be at the desktop, in the car or even whilst jogging! Thirdly, RSS technology means that a regular stream of content arrives automatically, with very little effort on the part of the subscriber. From a training perspective, podcasting is therefore a very efficient way of “pushing” both informational and instructional content to employees on a regular basis in a
    flexible format.
  6. iNatomy: This
    example demonstrates further how valuable mobile devices like iPods are for learning. In this case, an iPod can be used for storing and reading anatomy facts in bite-sized notes, as interactive flash cards. Mobility is an important factor to consider nowadays; we are all moving around a lot more, in fact it seems that half of all employees now spend up to half of their time outside the office. There is also quite a bit of evidence to show that people would like to make use of this “dead time” more productively. What is more mobile devices are now ubiquitous, which means they are always “to hand” (unlike a computer) and can therefore be used for a variety of purposes. They might be used for formal learning purposes as in this example or for performance support, that is for delivering information and support just-in-time. For instance a sales person could use their iPod to store bite-sized notes about products and services as aide-memoires when dealing with customers.
  7. The Diary of Samuel Pepys: This example is a presentation of the diaries of Samuel Pepys, who lived in London in the 17th century. The interesting thing to note about this site is that it uses the blog format to publish the diaries each day over the course of several years. Like all blogs you can either read the site by going to it daily, but it is much easier to subscribe to it and receive the daily entries via RSS or by email. This is therefore yet another great example of how to deliver a continuous drip-feed of information or instruction to your people. Within a corporate context, blogs can be used for a variety of purposes, but one significant way is to use them to provide a communications channel to others in the organisation about what is happening, e.g. in product development, in sales, marketing and so on. Many traditional training situations could be avoided if employees were just kept up to date with developments in other parts of the business that impact their own working lives.
  8. WikiHow: This is a collaborative writing project to build the world’s largest, highest quality how-to manual. The important point to note about this example is that this manual is being created by many people working together sharing their knowledge; it is not the work of a few so-called “experts”, who control the content. The principles of collaborative working and writing can easily be applied in your business. For example, employees could share information and resources and collaboratively produce an Employee Manual to provide the type of information newcomers really need to know when joining a company.
  9. SoZiety is a language learning social network designed to help people to improve languages. SoZiety describes itself thus: “you may think that we are some kind of language academy, but that is not the case. What soZiety wants is you to enjoy learning, and thus you want to continue learning. Instead of taking a lot of boring lessons we propose you to learn or improve a language the natural way: speaking with other people. Okay, not with any other people, but with people sharing your same interests.” SoZiety is a fine example of how “learning” isn’t always about
    content, but as much about people coming together to help and support one another. This principle can work in an organisational setting too; individuals can build a community to assist one another, e.g. a large, distributed sales team might set up a social network where they can support one another by sharing sales experiences and know-how. There is another key feature about Soziety that is noteworthy and that is that the members of the community use Skype to communicate with one another. Members choose when to make themselves available, so that others can see who is currently online and ready and willing to chat.
  10. Powerful Performance Management: Finally, this example is at the other end of the spectrum from the first one. It is very low-tech but yet still very effective. It is an email course where classes start every week and run for four weeks. You receive the weekly study guide on the same morning on which you signed up to have the course delivered to your email address. You can take the course at your own pace, but you still receive the emails every week. With an email course, the course materials might be embedded within the email message or they might be an attachment in the form of a Word document or PDF file, but they tend to be less sophisticated materials in terms of their format. However, they are very useful for people who simply want to get at the “meat” of the content, without what they might consider gratuitous graphics, animation or video. They are very useful for self-motivated people who require little support and intervention from others. Email courses are simple to design and deliver and may well be appropriate for the needs of some of your people.

So these are what I consider to be 10 great examples of e-learning – in its widest sense. Although I could have included many others, these are ones I felt were very representative of the use of existing technologies. You will have noticed that I haven’t included any interactive, multimedia online courses in my list. There are two reasons for this:

  1. I wanted to show how the most effective e-learning solutions can often be the simplest ones. In my opinion too many e-learning solutions are over-engineered. The moral here is: Don’t use a hammer to crack a nut!
  2. A “course” is not the answer to every learning or performance need or challenge. The most appropriate solution will depend on a number of factors not least the people involved, the technological infrastructure in place, and your budget – but selecting the most appropriate solution will undoubtedly be the key to success. As the saying goes “one size doesn’t fit all”, so you need to have an armoury of different solutions at your disposal – from which to select the right one at the right time!

If you would like to see further examples of e-learning or need some guidance on how to create these and other similar e-learning solutions, take a look around the Centre’s website: If you would like some personal help or support in doing so, please contact me at [email protected]