If you are new to online learning, or returning to it after a period of time, it can require some adjustment and practice to get to grips with it. But fear not, because help is at hand. This article will provide you with some important guidance and tips to set you on the right track, to ensure you get the maximum benefit from your online learning experience.
Online learning isn’t really new. It started out as computer-based training back in the 1990s, and then became more widely known as e-learning about halfway through that decade. The good news is, if you’re stepping into online learning for the first time, it’s come a long way from the initial “PowerPoint click next” model.
Let’s get the basic terms straight to start with. Put simply, e-learning (or more broadly, online learning or digital learning) is any form of instruction delivered online to a desktop, tablet or smartphone device. That can cover a multitude of formats, which we’ll break down later.
What are the Benefits of Online Learning?
Online learning has major advantages over the traditional classroom or lecture environment. The following are some of the main features of online learning that set it apart.
- Self-paced: As the student, you are in control. Unlike classrooms or lectures where you go at the pace of the instructor, online learning is self-paced. So you can go as fast or as slow as you need to, and you can go back over any content at any time.
- Self-directed: Related to this, well designed online learning content is not linear, so your experience doesn’t have to be. Do you prefer to work through the theory before you try a task? Or are you more of an active learner who likes to try things out, make some mistakes and learn by doing? Well-structured online learning can accommodate these different approaches and jumping-in points to learning.
- Multimodal: Online learning has come a long way from just being glorified PowerPoint presentations. Good online learning content should incorporate video, animations, graphics, audio as well as downloadable resources and links to live web resources. So whatever your preference is for learning, you will find options in online courses to suit you.
- On demand: With online learning, you’re not tied to instructor or classroom hours. You can access it 24/7. As smartphones have become a ubiquitous device for content access and delivery, of course you should expect your online learning available on your mobile devices too, so you can access it anytime and anywhere.
- Private: Let’s face it, sometimes we don’t want to ask questions publicly or reveal what we don’t know. Online learning can be a private experience, where we work through learning goals without interacting with colleagues unless we want to.
- Communal: There’s also the flip side – sometimes we very much want to share our questions and our insights, and get help from peers and mentors. Much of online learning is now created with a community element. You don’t need to go it alone, as there’s support available to help you with questions and help you put learning into action.
- Environmentally friendly: Traditional classroom and face-to-face methods come with a high carbon footprint: travel, facilities, binders and other physical resources. Online learning has a much lower impact on the environment. A study estimated that online learning has an 85% lower carbon emission rating than a lecture-based approach.
- Badged: Completing an online learning module and passing an assessment will usually lead to a credential or badge that you can display on social media profiles to evidence what you’ve completed. This is beneficial to your online professional brand.
The Varieties and Formats
The online learning world comes with a lot of buzzwords, so it might help to have some terms in mind as you browse what’s available and decide what course and format is right for you.
Here are some of the key learning formats and terms:
- Bite-size learning/Micro-learning: Very short components of learning, often 2-3 minutes and usually a standalone resource.
- Blended learning: The combination of more than one form of learning to create a structured learning sequence, e.g. a tutorial followed by a simulation, with a group discussion in a webinar.
- Courses/Macro-learning: Usually longer, 20-30 minutes on average, with some linear structure, usually including some tutorial content, exercises and an assessment.
- Curated content: Content from a range of web sources, structured and regularly added to a learning experience, to help it stay up-to-date and relevant over time.
- Gamification: The use of gaming elements such as competitions, levels, scoreboards and points to add an element of gaming to a learning experience.
- Learning management system/LMS: A platform for accessing learning content. Usually it will serve up recommendations to you based on your profile and requirements, track which course content you’ve completed, manage access to learning, and maintain records on your progress.
- Massive open online courses/MOOCs: These are open-enrolment structured curricula, with a series of e-learning modules, usually a set of assignments and an assessment. There’s peer review of your work, and sometimes a lecturer or facilitator will review your assignments too.
- Mobile learning: Any form of learning that can be accessed via a mobile device (increasingly this is all forms of online learning).
- Simulations: Think of these as “choose your own adventure” style online modules. You make choices, e.g. deciding what to say to a fictitious client, then the consequences play out, and you get feedback. When these are well-structured, with the right use of video and audio to bring them to life, they can be very effective in enabling you to role play safely and learn from your actions.
- Social/collaborative learning: Learning from others through social interaction, such as discussing a topic in a discussion forum, or a collaborative platform such as Slack or Yammer. This is often delivered as part of an LMS to help students connect and share with each other and facilitators.
- Tutorials: A linear presentation of content, usually accompanied with slides and a set of assessments. They regularly use video and animations to bring a concept to life.
- Webinar: A live virtual group event, usually led by a facilitator or an instructor to share insights, answer questions and complement an online learning experience.
Getting the Maximum Benefit
Given all that terminology, stepping into online learning may seem a little daunting at first. So here are some tips for making the most of the experience to help you achieve your goals.
- Try different styles and formats: How do you like to consume content? You may be more of a video/audio learner, or you may prefer more structured text-based tutorials. You may prefer to read recent and relevant web-based content before diving into a course, or you may want to go straight to the assessment or simulation to see how up-to-speed you are on a topic. Try a range of online learning styles and formats to see what suits you best. Most of us use a range of styles in our study and working lives, so one size may not fit all.
- Make it personal: Well-designed online learning should afford you a degree of personalization. Some online learning programs will ask you questions about your role, level, experience and preferred ways of working and learning to help you answer that. Or you may need to share that information with course providers so they can make the right suggestions for you on where to start. Online learning can consume a fair amount of time if you’re building new skills, so be sure you’re starting in the right place.
- Pace yourself: One of the advantages of online learning is that you can go at your own pace. However, just like all learning, you can’t cram it. Decide what the right pace is for you and build a habit from there. A good way of doing this is to anchor your new online learning habit to an existing one that’s already part of your routine – for example, after your first cup of coffee, spend 15 minutes working through an e-learning module. Most online learning clearly signposts its duration, so you can choose a section or short course that matches your time and attention span.
- Space it out: Research by Hermann Ebbinghaus shows that we have an inbuilt “forgetting curve”. This states that what we learn today is most likely to be forgotten in five days unless we revisit it or put it into practice immediately. The concept of spaced learning is helpful to reverse that curve: make time for a little online learning, but do it often, and put it into practice. That’s the best way to internalize learning over time, whatever format it is in.
- Work out loud: Don’t have an opportunity to immediately put your learning into practice? Then make notes. Actively reflect on what you’ve learned, how it’s changing your understanding or challenging your assumptions. A lot of social learning is about doing just this. “Working out loud” is what Beth Kanter calls it – just sharing what you’ve learned with your peers and colleagues, and engaging them in a discussion. If you build this habit into your online learning, you’ll build a great resource for yourself, and you’ll learn more about the formats and styles of online learning that work best for you.
- Seek support: While online learning can often be a private, user-to-computer experience, it doesn’t have to be that way. Seek out peers and facilitators who can help you with questions, and challenge you to make progress by set deadlines. This may be offered as part of the online learning experience you sign up for, but even if it isn’t, you can build your own groups using Slack or Yammer, for example.
- Look beyond the course: Even when you’ve finished your online learning course you haven’t finished learning. Every topic develops over time. For example, in the area of content marketing new trends around using data and AI are in their early stages. One of the challenges with online learning is that it needs to be constantly updated to stay relevant. So look for providers who regularly maintain their content, or better still, complement it with curated content from around the web on the topics you want to track. You can build your own habits around this too by checking social feeds and following topics in various tools (my company Anders Pink is one of these).
Just get started! Online learning is very low-cost compared to classroom and lecture alternatives, and there’s a lot of great free content to sample. So pick a topic, get your goals clear, and jump in.
Video Interview: Online Learning Insights with Stephen Walsh