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Sparking learners’ motivation is one of the hardest things to do in online education. How do you engage individuals sitting alone at a computer? How do you get them to tackle new information and challenges?
One way to motivate learners is to immerse them in an online community. After all, it’s the social connections and interactions that make learning engaging. Community is the glue that holds your online class together. It allows learners to give opinions, share ideas, provide and receive feedback, and collaborate on issues and answer questions.
Creating this kind of participatory community doesn’t happen automatically. In this article, we’ll share the secrets of success in creating just such an online community of more than 16,000 users. Monarch Media’s client, pepnet2 (pn2), a national nonprofit that provides support to students who are deaf or hard of hearing, has developed a thriving site where users learn and support one another. Here are some of the best practices that Monarch incorporated in building pepnet 2’s online learning community:
Enable Diverse Interactions
With a learner base of more than 16,000, providing diverse resources was necessary to address all members’ needs. Monarch developed different kinds of interactive eLearning resources and support systems, including courses, webinar integration, QuickClasses, and communities of practice (COP).
Individuals seeking self-paced learning can turn to the asynchronous interactive courses, which include videos, assessments, and other activities that maximize learner involvement. This self-directed model allows students to set their own learning schedule that meet their individual needs. Although learners work independently on these courses, they can share their progress and achievements with the community by earning badges and certificates.
The QuickClasses support a more collective learning model through scheduled instructor and group collaboration. Rather than working individually, QuickClasses bring small groups of students together to build community, foster creativity, build leadership skills and encourage greater progress.
Finally, pn2 facilitates informal resource and expertise sharing through the communities of practice (COP). COPs consist of groups of people who share a common passion or interest and engage in collective learning within a shared domain. At their core is an ongoing discussion forum where they can post questions, weigh in on conversations, share resources, or learn from archived dialogue.
Make Usability Effortless
The success of eLearning depends heavily on how user-friendly it is. While pn2 was successful in creating various eLearning resources to cater to their diverse learner base, the designers had to work out a way to bring these resources together for the learners.
Usability is an essential ingredient for fostering user interaction. For pn2, a customized eLearning dashboard was critical. Through a single sign-in, learners have access to a fully customized dashboard that’s a one-stop access point for all resources offered. Learners can exchange ideas and knowledge by participating in QuickClasses, interacting with webinar content, connecting to colleagues through COPs, or learning new skills in an interactive eLearning course.
The dashboard is also a place to broadcast community news and to connect members with upcoming opportunities. Its effectiveness and efficiency helps connect learners to resources and to each other, engaging them in a satisfying experience.
Highlight Student Progress
Not only can members of a learning community work together to solve problems, they can also support and motivate each other by celebrating successes. An online community allows users to share their progress, collect badges, reflect on completed courses, and even share achievements through social media integration.
One way students can share their work is through ePortfolios, which are personal online spaces to save and display collections of digital work. These ePortfolios allow learners to share work they’ve completed and their accomplishments with peers, instructors, and potential employers.
Be Mobile Compatible
Another key to keeping learners engaged is making learning resources accessible on mobile devices. Smart phones and tablets are now the primary devices for Internet access, so making it easy for learners to engage that way only makes sense.
Follow Up with Your Users
A final word of advice is to learn from your users. Find ways to solicit direct feedback. Your site analytics will also give you insight into where people are spending their time and where they may be losing interest. Investigate the data and use it to inform your community development efforts.
Monarch Media’s team collaborated with pn2 to provide the learning design strategy, instructional design, graphic design, and programming needed to develop robust learning programs. With nearly 20 years of experience in eLearning consulting and development, we can help your organization build a successful online learning community that focuses on engaging and motivating your audience.
To accommodate the nationwide demand for nurses with a bachelor's level education, Monarch Media collaborated with Wolters-Kluwer to develop an innovative RN-to-BSN curriculum that can be used for distance learning or in a hybrid classroom environment. Distance learning programs give students the flexibility to learn during the time that works best for them and the ability to review material at their own pace, while enabling publishers to scale educational programs.
WWF works with businesses to improve the production of commodities that affect the environment. Monarch Media collaborated with the fund to create a training module for its employees who are working to transform businesses and markets to operate within the planet’s limits.
Cengage Learning's Criminal Justice modules are designed to teach students situational crime prevention, a theory of criminology that attempts to reduce the opportunity for crimes to be committed. The goal is for students to understand the basics of situational crime prevention upon completing the learning modules.
Cengage decided to update the modules because they were coded in Flash, a technology that isn't compatible with some mobile devices, such as iPhones and iPads. Flash also can create problems with passing data through to learning management systems. Finally, Cengage wanted to update the design and layout of the modules to make them more attractive and user friendly.
Monarch Media developed a modernized version of the learning objects in HTML5 to play on both Flash- and non-Flash
compatible browsers effortlessly. Media queries allow the styles and layouts to adjust to fit the width and height of the
screen of the desktop computer or mobile device, making the course clear and easy.
Industry - Nonprofit microfinance
Challenge - Find a cost-effective way to deliver a successful leadership development program to staff members and partners on four continents.
Solution- An eLearning course developed by Monarch Media that can be delivered over the Internet and on CD-ROM
- Users can learn asynchronously, taking the training at the time and place most convenient to them.
- Cost savings thanks to reduced international travel requirements for trainers.
- Ideal for a blended learning environment in which additional educational materials can be provided via emails, webinars, and in-person trainings.
- Allows ACCIÓN to reach all staff members instead of a smaller subset of employees.
- Learners can permanently access all materials and have the flexibility to revisit applicable information when faced with on-the-job challenges.
ACCIÓN International was founded in 1961 to promote international economic development and alleviate global poverty. Since 1973, the organization has focused on microfinance, providing small loans to tiny businesses founded and run by individuals living in poverty.
Because they often lack substantial collateral and only need to borrow small amounts of money, traditional banks have generally refused to lend to these business owners. Therefore, their only option has been loan sharks who charge exorbitant interest rates. ACCIÓN and its partners are changing this dynamic by offering an alternative source of funds, small loans (as little as $100) at commercial interest rates provided to micro-entrepreneurs for investing in and growing their businesses.
In 2009, ACCIÓN was operating on four continents and in 25 countries. With its partners it served 3.3 million active borrowers.
ACCIÓN’s leadership development program consists of 10 modules that have traditionally been delivered via in-person, small group training sessions. They are a critical part of promoting the organization’s culture and identity internally. They help employees grow a shared sense of mission, vision, and values, as well as define and practice good leadership skills.
As a global organization, however, cost and time constraints have made it difficult for Lynne Curran, who heads ACCIÓN’s human resources and training department, to provide the leadership development program to everyone in a timely manner. “Our biggest challenge is reaching remote staff,” she says. “We’ve only been able to present the first module in person to about a third of the organization.”
“It was an amazing experience to work with the Monarch Media team. They got what we were looking for and got what we needed. They created an eLearning course that’s simple to use, but tackles some really challenging content.”
— Lynne Curran, head of Human Resources and Training
To overcome this challenge, ACCIÓN has begun using eLearning courses that allow its staff to access educational materials on their computers. Leadership development, however, has traditionally been difficult to present online. “Leadership training involves trying to orient people to share a common language and exercise an ability, rather than simply gaining some knowledge,” says Claire Schneeberger, CEO of Monarch Media. “You’re not just trying to get people to understand the definition of leadership or to grasp and memorize new factual information. You’re really trying to develop and practice some pretty advanced skills.”
Because the leadership development curriculum provides so much value to ACCIÓN’s staff, Curran wanted to see if the challenges of turning it into an eLearning course could be overcome. She decided to start with the program’s first module, which sets the stage for the other nine. “It really helps people become aware of what they’re doing and why they’re doing things the way they are,” she says. “It helps them understand and better work with others, which also improves their leadership abilities.”
Creating the Course
When presented in person, the first module of ACCIÓN’s leadership development program includes participation in a DISC (Dominance, Influence, Steadiness, and Conscientiousness) assessment, a psychological inventory that examines how individuals behave in their environments. DISC assessments are frequently used in workplaces to help employees understand their own and their teammates’ work styles and preferences. The module also included substantial time for participants to discuss their beliefs and feelings about leadership.
Feedback from training participants has shown that these two activities are the ones that provide the greatest value. But they are also very difficult to accomplish in an eLearning environment. “I thought it might be impossible to put this course online because of the self-awareness pieces,” Curran says. “How do you include them without doing it in the classroom?”
Schneeberger points out that in most eLearning courses, developers can recreate some of the feeling of classroom discussion by using Web-based community tools, such as discussion boards and blogs. But because some ACCIÓN staffers don’t have regular access to the Internet and must take eLearning courses on CD-ROM, Monarch Media’s developers couldn’t use these tools.
To overcome these challenges, Monarch Media’s team of instructional designers and Web developers created a virtual discussion group as the first activity in the training. They used a diverse team of voiceover actors to record dialog taken from various sessions of the in-person leadership development training. This allows learners to gain insight by hearing the perspectives and thoughts of other ACCIÓN employees, just as they would during a face-to-face discussion session. “We tried to bring in real voices,” recalls Schneeberger. “We’re capturing and simulating that experience of being in a room with 10 other people. “
Monarch Media also used a number of interactive exercises that help course participants conduct self-assessments based on DISC methods. “The training asks a lot of people,” says Schneeberger. “It’s very reflective and asks a lot of questions. It asks people to demonstrate their knowledge of the DISC framework.”
To create these segments and assessments, Monarch Media’s team used Articulate’s suite of eLearning authoring tools. This software allows developers to rapidly build interactive, Flash-based pages and activities. By leveraging these tools, Monarch’s programmers were also able to keep development costs low.
Although studies prove that most eLearning provides good return on investment, organizations often fear that the start-up costs of launching an online course will be prohibitively expensive. But this doesn’t have to be the case. For ACCIÓN’s leadership course, Monarch’s team used what Schneeberger calls “guerilla eLearning development” to keep costs low.
For example, rather than sending the voiceover actors to a recording studio, Monarch captured their dialog using the company’s voicemail system. The course developers also used traditional Web technology to provide engagement, rather than relying on the heavy use of video. “You can engage people by creatively using still images and dialog versus having video or other relatively high-end types of media carry your message,” says Schneeberger.
Having a good curriculum ready can also make a big difference in containing costs. “ACCIÓN had a really clear and well-developed curriculum already in place,” recalls Schneeberger. “They already had the outline and they had a complete sense of their objectives from an instructional design point of view. That allowed us to jump in and think about how to convert it into digital format.
“One of the things I see that makes eLearning start-up costs expensive is when organizations haven’t thought about their learning objectives before they launch an eLearning project. Having the client come in and say, ‘We’ve done this training in person and we have these supporting materials,’ that definitely makes it much easier to do the multimedia and programming work.”
Curran believes the completed course will make a big difference in helping ACCIÓN achieve its training objectives. “Our biggest goal is leadership, management, and supervisor development,” she says. “It was an amazing experience to work with the whole Monarch Media team. They got what we were looking for and got what we needed. They created an eLearning course that’s simple to use, but tackles some really challenging content.”
Curran foresees using the course in a variety of ways, both as a stand-alone eLearning module and also as the kernel of a larger training program. “We’ll work with specific groups to build a program around it,” she says. “For specific programs or units, we can have participants all take the eLearning module and then do a face-to-face training or a webinar.”
Others have taken note of the course as well. In March 2010, Monarch Media was named a finalist in the eLearning Global Giveback Competition. The contest is co-sponsored by the eLearning Guild and Learning for International NGOs (LINGOs), a consortium of more than 45 international humanitarian organizations.
More importantly, however, is that the course makes learning about leadership skills engaging and fun. “I love going through the training myself,” says Curran. “Monarch thought creatively and came up with a great solution.”
Many organizations are exploring ways to reduce hunger and improve economic development in Africa. But few have the depth of learning content and expertise that 4-H offers or the reach of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
Getting this knowledge into the hands of the people who need it, however, can be challenging for anyone. Rural parts of Africa often lack both physical infrastructure and computer-based Internet access, making training material delivery and network building difficult. What more and more people do have access to, however, is a mobile phone.
To reach these people, 4-H turned to Monarch Media to build an online Global Knowledge Center specifically tailored for mobile browser access. The result? An mLearning portal pilot project that delivers training and community-building tools to Tanzanian 4-H leaders.
Research shows that public school teachers who receive skills training for sexual health and safety curriculum are most likely to achieve positive student outcomes. Online training offers low cost, easily accessible, skill-based trainings that are needed to meet the growing training demand of schools.
The RTRworks! elearning course models critical skills through relevant and impactful video examples, offers social learning opportunities, and delivers real classroom simulations. Read the case study [PDF].
The Iowa Alcoholic Beverages Division (ABD) took over the Iowa Pledge Program in 2000. This program asks Iowa’s kids to pledge that they will not use tobacco products; retailers to pledge to not sell tobacco products to underage users; and law enforcement to pledge to enforce the state tobacco laws.
The goal for providing a Web-based training program is to support voluntary compliance of Iowa’s tobacco laws by offering education and backing it with enforcement. This training allows employees at retail locations that sell tobacco products to sign up, participate in the interactive class, and take a test to become Iowa Pledge certified. Utilizing the Sakai learning management system (LMS) and Articulate authoring tool, Monarch Media developed the current Web-based training system. In addition to offering Iowa Pledge certification, the platform has built-in query tools that allow administrators and the general public to look up the status of vendor or employee certification at anytime. This tool directly supports Iowa communities by making outcomes transparent to everyone from parents to law enforcement.
Currently one of the only courses of its kind in the country, employees of tobacco retailers in the state of Iowa are required to complete the training and certification every two years to remain Iowa Pledge certified. Read the case study (pdf)
Agile is a software development methodology known for allowing ultra-fast turnaround. Monarch Media believes in Agile done right, which means ongoing dialogue with our clients. This approach brings laser focus to the goals at stake, so that development effort can be applied with maximum precision.
The flexibility that Agile allows is especially essential when a client begins development with a general idea of what they want, but not necessarily an itemized specification. Monarch Media partnered with Autodesk last year to take an Agile approach to redesigning the company's Digital STEAM Workshop, an interactive website aimed at providing students resources to help them master science, technology, engineering, arts, and math skills. Read the case study [pdf]
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Today, organizations regularly face challenges involved in creating and implementing an online training project. So where should you begin? Monarch Media has designed a toolkit for taking your training online which will lead you through the key considerations to help you start developing a plan to achieve your goals. This toolkit includes an assessment of your learning needs, an opportunity to identify action steps, and ways to support you and your organization in the strategy, authoring, design, and implementation of your project.
The approach you take to managing a project can make it or break it. Agile methods have grown increasingly popular as a proven approach to successful project management. In this toolkit, you’ll find the answers to some common questions we get about how to effectively manage an eLearning project using the Agile approach.
Download the toolkit here.