Part of the essential appeal of eLearning is that it so often takes place in locations that don’t physically exist: software learning platforms, virtual studios, or “classrooms” hosted on a hand-held device.
The creation of these virtual environments for eLearning poses a challenge for course designers, instructors, and facilitators.
In this article, we’ll look at how some of these challenges may be met – and how virtual settings that truly encourage learning may be developed.
The Virtual Classroom
A “virtual classroom” is one kind of online learning environment: typically, a Web-based platform where several course participants may listen to webcasts, watch video clips or presentations, communicate and interact with each other, and gain access to resources for research, further study, and collaboration.
Courses may be instructor-led – in which case the classroom is designed so that the course tutors may have “broadcast access” to all their students, and the ability to interact with them in a one-on-one setting (e.g. through an Instant Messaging system, video link, or by email).
Massive Open Online Courses or MOOCs use this principle to make formal education available to a world-wide audience of millions, but virtual classrooms may equally be deployed for much smaller groups of learners.
Augmented Reality and the Virtual Environment
The virtual classroom is a broad interpretation of the virtual learning environment. At its simplest level, a classroom might consist of an online whiteboard (a kind of self-contained educational website), to which students have access via a dedicated email link or Web address. Lessons, assignments, and feedback forums could be posted onto this board, as the method by which training proceeds.
But there are more literal interpretations of the idea. For example, the University of Huddersfield has been developing a 3D virtual Ramsden workshop (RW), using 3D gaming and modelling technology. The project consists of a virtual workshop space, complete with to-scale furniture and fittings. It’s intended as the first stage in developing a range of learning tools based on gaming technology and game logic, and has already been used to test Health and Safety protocols.
Whether through augmented reality techniques or more basic software, virtual learning environments need to meet certain standards, to be true facilitators for online learning.
Show and Tell
Using the Internet as the medium of delivery means it’s possible to incorporate multimedia elements like video, podcasts, animation, and live links into your course content. So there’s every reason to couple your demonstrations of subject matter points with annotations and text, to fully explain what’s being discussed.
The resources available on a virtual platform may also be archived or recorded for future use, such as when learners are offline and wish to review what they’ve just learned. This is to be encouraged, and the course should be designed to allow access to material that has been previously covered – as well as the opportunity for it to be discussed with other learners, or the course tutors and facilitators.
The Message and the Medium
Learners may be using the virtual learning space in a lecture setting, during office hours, or at their own leisure, via their mobile devices. Whether they’re on a traditional desktop, tablet, or smartphone, the course material should be designed to be clearly visible and accessible at a range of screen resolutions, and on various devices and operating platforms.
And your objectives for the training will influence the kinds of multimedia that you use to complement the course material.
Engagement and Interaction
It’s the Holy Grail, for eLearning content: engagement. If your course material encourages the learners to actively participate in their training, if it gets them excited to talk about it with their peers, then their chances of acquiring the desired new skills and retaining what they have learned are greatly improved.
Creating scenarios which speak to the everyday lives and working conditions of learners is a great way to promote this, and virtual environments are ideal for bringing these scenarios to life.
Some Design Best Practices
- Take some time to analyse your objectives for the training: what skills you hope to impart to the learners, what impact the training should have on their performance at work, etc. Then develop your course content, to align with these goals.
- Consider the limitations and opportunities of the virtual platform you’re using – and the multimedia content you hope to associate with it. This should inform the choices you make about appropriate course materials, their format, and how they’ll be delivered to your learners.
- Try to keep each training session down to an hour or less. If you have a lot of material to cover, consider breaking it down into bite-sized modules that can be consumed as self-contained exercises.
- Provide ample opportunity for collaboration, discussion, and feedback. And actively encourage the learners to participate in all of these.
- If you have instructors and facilitators for the course, make up a guideline for them on how each training session should be steered, to achieve the learning objectives that you want.
- Do a test run of the course in a controlled environment, to see how smoothly it goes – and to help identify any potential hitches, before they occur during the main session.