Extension Engine

Building Innovative Corporate Online Learning One Step at a Time

Chances are you are dissatisfied with the eLearning at your organization. If so, you’re not alone. According to a 2016 study by the Brandon Hall Group, the highest score survey respondents gave to their online learning equated to a C-. Another study by the MASIE Center indicates that only 32 percent of employees will start an online course if it isn’t required, that’s how excited they are about the prospect.

But you’re not stupid. You know intuitively that more compelling online courses are possible. You’re aware that learners, like TV watchers, are far more engaged when content is presented in a fun and interesting way on a platform with a simple, inviting and intuitive interface that helps prime them to enjoy the course and learn more.

And you’d like to give them that. You can almost smell the potential that online learning can offer. But how do you bridge the gap between the eLearning of your imagination and the reality that appears on the screen?

For many organizations, the stated obstacle is budget. They operate under the misguided notion that providing state-of-the-art learning experiences takes substantial resources — and they just don’t see how they will get a positive return on that investment. This is especially true if they already have made an investment into earlier versions of online learning — you know, the ones that look like a textbook on the screen and make you either want to cringe or nod off.

We have one word in reply to that notion: Nonsense

If that seems a bit harsh, it’s because we feel strongly that designing and developing amazing learning experiences are now possible for every organization, if you take advantage of some tools and innovations developed over the past few years.

There are some really good reasons to move in this direction. A 2014 study in the Global Journal of Business Research revealed that eLearning can produce increases in job performance, job satisfaction, and job commitment. And the Brandon Hall Group study noted above concluded that “learning technology has a strong correlation to improved KPIs, such as revenue, productivity, engagement, costs, and turnover.”

Then there are the external opportunities. Some large and prominent organizations have discovered that offering training to prospective customers is one way to enhance their own branding efforts — for instance, healthcare companies offering training to surgeons. Consumers taking these courses become prospective customers.

But how successful will any of these efforts be if the courses are the online equivalent of chalk, blackboards and multiplication tables?

One fact of the 21st century is that it takes more than a mandate to engage the modern day learner. A little web surfing reveals that users’ brains, minds, and hearts have become accustomed to ease, convenience and golly-gee-wiz graphics and animations. Anything less and their attention wanders well within the three seconds most users give a webpage to engage them before clicking on something else.

Why would eLearning be any different?

It’s our mission at ExtensionEngine to help organizations create courses that effectively engage today’s learners by taking advantage of what science, academic institutions, and industry have learned over the past decade about instructional design and online learning. In many cases, that means updating and upgrading learning systems that were once new and innovative but now feel as tired as an old black and white movie.


How the Status Quo Evolved

We have to forgive the early designers and developers who gave eLearning the reputation as a yawner. After all, they were doing the best they could with the inherent limitations of a new technology. Flip-phones didn’t let you tweet, and early learning management systems did not allow for much pizazz.

Think about it. Whenever a new technology has hit the market, the initial designs have been based on what it replaced — the known. Early Fords, for instance, looked like and had all of the comforts of the horse and buggy without the horse — a far cry from today’s Tesla.

And so it was with early eLearning. The first designs took the known — textbooks, handouts and lectures — and placed them on the Internet. Creativity was limited to changes in appearance allowed by HTML tags. Lessons and assignments appeared in a long, cumbersome list. The only gee-whiz factor was that the lesson titles would change color as the user completed them. Glitzy stuff for the times.

The first eLearning videos were cameras trained on lecturers. As it became apparent that this was about as interesting as watching the snow fall, developers moved the lecturers into the studio to get better sound and a close-up of the speaker – the “talking head” version of the same lecture, perhaps spiced up with the occasional B-roll cutaway to illustrate.

This is the type of learning the first learning management systems (LMS) were designed to support. The LMS afforded a way to uniformly manage and present content, track quiz scores, and report student results. Students read the text, watched the boring talking head videos, and took multiple-choice quizzes.

Because considerable investment went into the choice and implementation of an LMS and developing the courses to reside on it, this has remained the state of eLearning for all too many organizations.

But meanwhile, the innovators have been having their way with those platforms and with content authoring systems that offer more interesting and interactive ways to present material. With that innovation has come new ways of thinking about how people learn and how to best facilitate that learning.

Some of that innovation is familiar to most everyone. Fast-moving, graphical videos that punch key points are commonplace on the Internet, as are Flash and HTML5 interactivity. You no longer have to read about what happens inside, say, a joint replacement, for instance. Animated graphics give a close-up glimpse of the entire procedure. These types of innovations in the content presentation have been finding their way into online learning as fast as LMS platforms could be updated to accommodate them.

But some other innovations are not that obvious, even though they have a real impact on the success of a training or customer outreach program. The operate more behind what the learner sees on the screen, radically changing how they manage and interact with their own learning.

What’s Out There

Here are a few of these innovations — and by the way, as expensive as they may seem, there are cost-effective ways to achieve this on your own turf. We’ll get to how that’s done in a bit.

Personalization. Working one’s way through a course was once a follow-the-dots step-by-step process. If a learner already knew the material, too bad for them; they still had to plow through the text and videos and take the quiz.

Personalization provides paths through the material that are nonlinear and based on the learner’s responses and retention. No two people are likely to experience a personalized course in exactly the same way.

Social learning. As convenient as online learning was from the outset, one element could not be transported from the classroom: real-time discussion. Early eLearning mimicked classroom discussions with forums that presented comments asynchronously. A standard assignment for many lessons was to participate: “post three comments in the forum and respond to three others”.

Webinars now make it possible to get everyone in the same space at the same time for real-time collaborative learning. Beyond that, social learning software provides the means for employees to reach out to others in their circle as needed. An employee might belong to any number of communities, each with its own messaging capabilities that make it easy to get quick answers to questions from more experienced colleagues.

Micro-learning. Gone are the days where a learner would have to sit down at a full-sized computer and log in to trudge their way through an extensive course. More and more training departments are designing content in digestible bite-sized chunks that learners can access with smartphones and tablets while on the run. On the subway or waiting in line for gas at the big box store? It’s just the right amount of time to run through an eLearning module or two on a subject you need to know more about today.

Retention reinforcement. Studies show that 90 percent of what is learned is forgotten within a month if it’s not refreshed. Today it’s possible to track completion dates and offer learners an opportunity to review each module on a schedule that will enhance retention.

Learning at the “point of need”. Easy accessibility on multiple devices encourages learners to log in when the need arises. If an employee runs into an unusual situation on a process, for instance, they can get the answers they need on the run. Simple and intuitive LMS interfaces make it easy to pinpoint the exact information needed.

Continuous learning. More an innovation in training philosophy than technology, continuous learning recognizes that employees and customers need ongoing training to stay engaged and to meet the demands of ever-changing environments. 24/7 access to a catalog of relevant courses (rather than only a few that have been assigned by a manager) encourages employees to stretch and customers to stick around.

Talent Management. Today’s LMS can track employee strengths and weaknesses, offering courses that will reinforce strengths and address weaknesses. Some platforms even track changes in employee job titles and locations. If a person receives a promotion or makes a lateral move, the LMS can potentially suggest courses and learning modules appropriate for the new position or location, taking into account the employee’s profile and courses they have already completed.

Analytics. Early analytics recorded little more about a learner than quiz completion and results. Today’s LMS platforms provide much more feedback about courses that is helpful to both the training department and to the individual learner: completion times, individual learner progress, learner proficiency, and personalized metrics. Analytics can even flag where learners lose interest or get stuck in a module so that design issues can be identified and addressed.

This is Nice, But...

A lot of training departments immediately recognize the advantages of these features. But hanging over them is the question of cost and ROI. In the past, customizing LMS features — if it could be done at all — was expensive and required significant amounts of hacking and coding.

Today, it is actually possible to innovate one step at a time without having to commit all at once. Numerous organizations have been experimenting with this idea, gathering proof points to support these new approaches to online education. Their experience indicates that taking a few innovative steps can be well worth the time and effort while costing far less than one might think.

The Secret to a Step by Step Approach

It takes a little research and imagination, but it’s possible to significantly change the look, feel and functionality of online courses without a massive upfront investment. There are a number of approaches and tools that work with existing LMS platforms and require minimal coding expertise, if any, to implement. For instance:

Modular design. This requires no more than a shift in thinking at the design level. How can learning material be organized into shorter, self-contained chunks that can be consumed in a nonlinear order? This kind of design supports personalization once that functionality is made available in an LMS. While you may still have a need for a more linear basic → intermediate → advanced flow, the modules within each level could be consumed in a more random order. This allows learners to skip modules they already know and head straight to those modules they need to learn or want to review.

The shorter modules also pave the way for moving courses to a mobile world where courses display on tablets and smartphones. This is important because, according to a study by softwareadvice.com, 58 percent of employees said they’d be more likely to use eLearning if the content were broken up into smaller, multiple chunks.

Shorter modules are also desirable in areas of the world where there are constraints on bandwidth, a major consideration for multinational firms.

Thin UX Layers. It is surprisingly easy to provide a user experience that is inviting and easier to navigate than your average offering. It’s possible to create a simple and compelling look is achieved through a bit of additional coding that “sits on top” of the LMS interface. A clean, simple and intuitive UX interface is more than a matter of looks; it mentally prepares the learner to interact with upcoming content. An interface that is cramped, hard to read, and that takes real effort to find a module promotes a “dang, training is no fun” mindset. Knowing how important attitude is to learning, why not have one that telegraphs how simple and engaging the upcoming content will be?

Small companion apps. These free-standing apps drive the thin UX layer while relying on the LMS to do most of the heavy lifting. A companion app interfaces to the LMS through an API (Application Protocol Interface) in the same way the apps on a smartphone or tablet interface to the phone’s software. It also drives custom interface elements and handles custom integrations such as ERP systems, adaptive engines, and third-party applications.

LTI apps. LTI stands for Learning Tools Interoperability, a standard developed to integrate outside apps with LMS platforms. LTI makes it possible to integrate third-party tools with your LMS without leaving the course space. For example, you might want to include an Excel or CAD file so the user can “learn by doing”. This is a highly desirable function for much corporate training. Another third party tool called hoot.me uses LTI to make it possible for students to collaborate via messaging or on Facebook. The use of LTI tools can really spiff up an otherwise dull and dragging course without the need to develop these functions from scratch.

XBlocks. It’s no secret that we believe Open edX is a great solution for many. We find this platform to be flexible and easily customizable, and it figures prominently in many projects we take on. XBlocks are snippets of code that can be inserted into Open edX to provide specific functionality. For example, the Adventure XBlock creates a “choose your own adventure” simulation. The GoogleDrive XBlock allows you to embed a GoogleDocs document or Google Calendar into your course. Because XBlocks, like Open edX, is open source, the only cost to using them are the resources needed to install them.

Off-the-shelf Components: These add-ons provide the means for interactions that just weren’t possible earlier, like chats, video conferencing, document collaboration and video hosting. Some examples are Brightcove, Connect, Google Apps and Zoom. As with the companion apps, these components give you the ability to integrate these functions into the LMS without having to leave the course space.

How to Get There From Here

The most effective approach to giving your eLearning a face-and-functionality uplift is to develop a plan that involves implementing a series small, innovative, sexy, efficacy-improving, learner experience-centered experiments based on a broader roadmap.

But to create the roadmap, don’t start at the present. Start in the future.

Step One: Visualize what your ideal learning solution would be

Choose a reasonable time frame, say, three years. Imagine what the ideal online course environment for your organization could be at the end of that period. In the best of all possible worlds, what would you want your eLearning to:

Look like?
Act like?
Tell you?

Throw out all of the current methodologies and back-end thinking. Focus on the learner. What kind of experience would maximize their time and the fun factor? That is the kind of experience you want to provide, one that makes learning slide into their minds almost effortlessly.

As you create a vision for the most dynamic, scintillating and effective learning experience you can think of, adopt the mindset you wear when you walk into the movies: suspend your disbelief. Don’t edit your wish list based on what you think can be done or you can get sign off for. Instead, assume there will be complete and enthusiastic support from upper management, as well as the resources needed.

In short, we are giving you permission to leave “reality” behind in favor of your imagination. Did you see something mind-bogglingly (or even mildly) impressive done by another business or academic organization? Include it if you think your learners and organization would benefit from it.

Are you yearning for a solution to a recurring problem? Include that too, even if you don’t know what the solution is just yet.

Are there analytics you wish you had to help track students or measure efficacy? Include those as well. The analytics side of this is as important as the look and feel because it is the analytics that will help you justify future budgets.

Step 2: Come back to earth and take a close look.

Chances are, many of the changes in UX and functionality would be easier to expedite than you once thought, thanks to the cost-effective tools and approaches described above. Many of the features and functions you’d like to see in three years are probably already available in some third-party packages, apps or XBlocks.

At this point, it’s a good idea to make an assessment of your current LMS. How easy will it be to add code or to integrate third-party learning tools? If your LMS is resistant to customization, you may want to consider switching to something more flexible (like Open edX).

Step 3: Prioritize the features and functions into phases

The phase-in plan should be based on the old joke: How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.

Choose the bites carefully. You might be tempted to go for those sexy analytics first, but you will probably need to gain buy-in from upper management as well as your learners to complete this project. If so, it’s smart to make your first changes those that have the most impact on their experience — like a sleeker UX or shorter, more engaging modules. The visible excitement this generates will help you move the project to the next phase.

Then balance the impact, cost, and difficulty to phase in the other features and functions on your list, leveraging your existing systems but tactically upgrading them.

Once you accomplish these three steps, you will have an innovative learning roadmap that:

  • Fits within your budget
  • Differentiates your eLearning from run-of-the-mill training
  • Improves efficacy and results
  • Improves the learning experience, and
  • Creates something you can be genuinely proud of.


Taking Action

All you need to do is to execute the plan...easier said than done right? If only there were a company with years of experience building remarkable online learning platforms for companies like Johnson & Johnson, and Microsoft that you could partner with.

Luckily, there is.

Our staff of over 200 experts works with clients on each aspect of building a custom learning experience, including project management, instructional design, UX/UI, development/QA, hosting/support, and learner acquisition services. We operate on a fee-for-service basis, which means the IP and revenue are yours to keep.

Want to learn more about how we can help you deliver innovative, industry-leading corporate online learning? Schedule a free consultation with us now.

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