Practical information about e-learning: course building

12-Sep-2012

This article will focus on design problems specific to e-learning courses and it is assumed that the reader is familiar with regular course design principles. When talking about course design in connection with e-learning we have to differentiate between blended learning and distance learning courses. Blended learning courses aim to complement face-to-face sessions while distance learning courses function on their own. First, let us talk about blended learning courses.

The standard approach to blended learning language classes suggests that receptive skills; writing, and grammar, should be done individually. Meanwhile face to face classes should concentrate on speaking and necessary explanations that support the individual’s learning. Course designers need to be aware that less-experienced teachers will start to panic: how can I do the same amount of work with fewer face to face classes? Of course when they become more experienced and understand the key concepts of blended learning they start tailoring courses according to the above mentioned rationale i.e. they become capable of separating materials for class discussion and individual work. Up to that point the course design should support them in their decisions by clearly stating which part of the course material should be discussed in class and which part should be done individually by the learner.

A corporate client of ours wanted to cut costs and decided to change regular English courses to blended learning courses. Typically this can result in reducing the costs by up to one-third (they pay for fewer classes plus the cost of the Virtual Learning Environment – Macmillan English Campus in our case). A course was designed, keeping the before-mentioned rationale in mind and the classes started. But the first course evaluation, which was done in the form of a questionnaire after the tenth class, yielded disappointing results.

What went wrong? You may ask. After analyzing the problems we found the reason for dissatisfaction was the lack of a proper needs analysis. The company management wanted business English but as it turned out learners wanted non-ESP English so the completion rate of the online materials (business English mostly) was very low. They also felt that their individual needs were neglected. Most of them had a vague idea of what skills or systems they would like to develop but the primary course plan did not allow for that. In conclusion, without a proper needs analysis even well-designed courses could be a flop.

Luckily, blended learning is quite flexible. In the above case we added regular English materials on the English Campus platform besides business English and at the same time we asked teachers to assign learners material on the English Campus according to learner’s needs. Survey answers at the end of the course were far better.

Thus, to achieve the best results and maximize student interest it is not enough to have well-prepared and professional teachers but the course material should be as unique to each person as possible. Also at the same time administration load has to be kept on a sane level.

Assuming you are using the Macmillan English Campus, a good way to achieve this balance is to create courses that focus on separate skills or ideas: for example on listening, reading, language practice, vocabulary and pronunciation. Note that one course can be assigned to a lot of learners by putting it into a class and assigning learners to that class. This method also lifts off some load from the teacher so they have more time to assign other materials according to needs that come up during the course.

When level testing, mark learner weaknesses and assign extra courses on the English Campus according to that. You can also have learners fill in a questionnaire about their own opinion on what practice they need. Teacher feedback is important so the extra materials can be altered depending on the development of the learner.

In other words the vital parts of course design are: needs analysis, tailoring according to those needs, feedback and further tailoring according to the feedback. The above personalization of materials makes learners more eager to do their work and it is also easy to check.

Distance learning packages are similar in tailoring but one has to consider the absence of face to face sessions and teacher guidance. Typically when a distance learning package is sold learners tend to do some work at the beginning and later forget about the whole thing. This way they will never prolong the subscription because they did not feel the benefit. There are several ways to overcome this problem.

Try to remember yourself how difficult it was to sit down and study for hours and how tempting it was to do anything else. Regular feedback, at least once a month gives a feeling of support and achievement to the learner. This can be done in the form of e-mails. Include the amount of work they have done in the past month or just send them their progress report with a short comment.

It is also easier to complete exercises in smaller portions. Therefore, it is good practice to cut up courses and send them to learners in bi-weekly or monthly chunks. Again, learners have a regular feeling of success and it keeps them from giving up and abandoning the material. Assigning courses in chunks can be done automatically on the Macmillan English Campus platform. It takes a relatively large amount of work at first but it requires much less later on; not to mention that once you have created the chunks you can use them as many times as you want.

All in all if we want to summarize blended learning course design in one word, it would definitely be tailoring. If we wanted to do the same for distance learning we would have to use three words: dividing up and support.

And now the moral of the story. Some individual learners or companies tend to opt for blended learning only to cut costs and treat the online material as an unimportant annex to the course. Before learners do a test in class I sometimes ask them to write next to their names the amount of time they have spent studying and the results they are expecting. This way they might realize that if they study less their results tend to be worse. As obvious as it is learners are not always aware of this fact. The same stands for blended learning: learners (and company managers) have to understand the nature of blended learning and the importance of the online material. They have to appreciate that without doing the relevant online part they will not achieve the desired result. By applying the aforementioned suggestions there is a greater chance that learners will perform well and will enjoy their work.

Béla

 

 

 

Additional articles in the ‘Practical information…’ series can be found here:

Introduction

Recruitment and training

Statistics and reports

Future plans and ideas

 

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