What I’ve learned about designing e-learning.

As is the case with most adult learners, the opportunity to work in an authentic environment has the most appeal to me. For that reason, I chose to work on a project that could actually be deployed.

My first topic was to be an asynchronous course that teaches basic information regarding the function and structure of Chesterfield County ordinances. Unfortunately, that topic and the limited environment available for its development and distribution did not allow the use of many opportunities available for online learning. Not only would that project not allow me to incorporate the components needed for successful completion of the final project, it would limit me from experimenting with alternate ways of utilizing technology for law enforcement education.

The result was a return to the drawing board and a new project. I chose to develop an online supplement to a face-to-face 40-hour instructor development course. This topic interested me because I believe that a blended approach to instruction can utilize the best of the two worlds that 21st Century educators and students live in, face-to-face and online.

Although intimately familiar with the content of the face-to-face course, packaging it in a way that effectively would use online components was more difficult than I’d imagined. Echoing the sentiments of many of my colleagues, I didn’t want to use technology for technology’s sake, but rather only when it could achieve the course objectives at least as well as, and preferably better, than not using technology.

A quick reflection here, in my first stint in graduate school I taught a class to teachers on using technology – of course in 1978 that involved showing movies, slide/tape programs, filmstrips and making overhead transparencies. We’ve come a long way, baby! Or have we really? Is PowerPoint really any more than a slide/overhead show? Is showing a video on a computer really that much better than showing one on a 16mm projector? Well, for one thing, computers can make editing faster but I believe that technology it’s only an improvement only if the quality and appropriateness of the content is better and supports learning. Is posting class handouts on Blackboard really that much better than handing them out in class? (Well, it might be for the people who don’t attend or who lose things easily . . . )

But I digress (as usual).

Now I had a topic, I needed a plan and a platform. The basic design would mirror the face-to-face class. The content would probably be either identical or pretty darn close.

Because we didn’t have any way to deploy a course that uses interactive components, I opted to design on CourseSites. I chose this for several reasons:
1. It supported the activities I planned to employ such as discussions and collaborative writing
2. It is made by BlackBoard and there is a chance that any of the students who may have taken college courses online would already be familiar with it
3. It’s free
4. It was a good excuse for learning about authoring in BlackBoard, something I have little experience in but a skill that I believe to be valuable.

Now it was time to jump in with both feet.

Another side bar – CourseSites, while fairly intuitive, still has a considerable learning curve. While I have been able to set up a basic structure, I know that I’m not even scratching the surface of what it can do. However, I’m determined to let the content drive the technology and not the other way around. As I find an activity that I think would be effective in the online component of the class, I’ll work to research and learn how to use that part of the CourseSites system.

After setting up my CourseSites account, I began to construct the organization of the online portion of the class. Would it be linear? Would it be discoverable? Would I allow students to look at it before the class began? Do I care if they jump ahead?

If I truly mirrored the face-to-face class, I would reveal the content as they class went on, allowing the students to build on the knowledge of the previous day. But wouldn’t it be wonderful if someone actually wanted to get a head start? It’s well known in law enforcement that general instructor school students must construct a two-hour lesson. What if they got some of the basic information out of the way before then came to class? Well, after thinking about it, if this was truly to be learner centered (as is totally appropriate when working with adults), then I owed it to them to put it all out there and let them choose whether or not to look at materials that had not yet been covered in class. For that reason, I chose to organize the class by topics rather than sequentially.

Once that decision was made, it began to get easier. I was able to look at the traditional course materials and consider which ones would be better suited to an online environment. For example, in the face-to-face class, we would build behavioral objectives in class with one person either writing on the board, on flip paper or on a computer. A more efficient system would be for the students to collaborate on objectives on a wiki and once finished, present the product to the class. This way more students could be engaged simultaneously.

Another consideration is the use of other instructors. In the face-to-face class, I bring in a member of the Command Staff (rank of captain or higher) to teach classes like instructor ethics or liability. Their presence is used to highlight the importance of the topics, however, I often would think of what a waste it was to have them present the material and leave. Getting those instructors to participate in an online discussion on the topic with the students after the class, will keep the dialogue going long after the class is over.

Student participation in the online portion of the course will be optional but I feel confident that these students will give it a shot, pun intended. After all, they are police officers and risk taking is part of who they are. My role as facilitator is to create the safe environment that will encourage them to step out of their comfort zones.

So, what have I learned about designing elearning?
1. It’s not easy
2. It’s very time consuming
3. It’s challenging
4. Nothing goes they way you planned the first time (did I mention that I’m still have trouble getting my wikis set up?)
5. Done right, it can provide a wonderful learning experience
6. It has to be done right. Bad online learning not only doesn’t meet the objectives but can negatively influence the students’ opinions of online learning.
7. Let the content drive the technology, not the other way around.
8. I like it!

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