How to hit the right buttons

June 1, 2007

E-learning is a dynamic mixture of different methods, approaches and technologies. Many young learners are conversant with communication technologies and expect to find them used in their studies, but mature learners may be new to them. Lecturers must understand and be able to apply e-learning so that all students can use technology confidently and appropriately. Here, Alan Clarke offers his ten tips for success

1. Blend e-learning with the best of traditional methods. Good results can often be achieved by integrating e-learning with traditional methods. Providing a forum for students to continue to discuss what they learn in face-to-face lectures, for example, or using voting systems to encourage classroom discussion can extend and enhance the learning experience.

2. Give choice. E-learning can give individuals incredible freedom to learn when, where and at whatever pace they wish. For these benefits to be achieved, a course has to be designed to maximise these possibilities. For example, set up a system by which assignments can be submitted electronically, and make sure that everyone can use it.

3. Make it accessible. Technology can make it possible for disabled learners to participate in education. But it can also be a barrier if it is not designed well and used thoughtfully. Take advice about accessibility - for example, from TechDis, the advisory service for accessibility and inclusion funded by the Joint Information Systems Committee.

4. Strive for collaboration and co-operation. Although virtual learning offers huge potential for people to learn together, it can be a good idea to launch an online group with an initial face-to-face meeting to break down barriers and kick-start communications. If this is not possible, allow time and offer structured online exercises to encourage group working.

5. Good communication is essential. E-mail, conferencing, blogs, wikis and other communication channels can be powerful tools, but all interactions must be sensitively and supportively moderated and facilitated to ensure that all participants contribute to and benefit from the experience.

6. Make it appropriate. The key to success is to match the e-learning approach with the learning objective you seek to achieve. For example, e-portfolios are an exciting tool to help people learn and also to assess their learning.

7. Keep it simple. Expensive systems are not always required. Straightforward low-cost approaches can be very effective and easy to implement. For example, interactive documents can be created using Microsoft Word. You could start by using technologies with which the learners are already familiar and consider devices and technologies they use regularly in their everyday lives, such as digital cameras, MP3 players and text messaging.

8. Arrange technical assistance. Probably the issue that causes most problems for students and lecturers is equipment malfunction. Readily available technical support is vital.

9. Teach the skills. E-learning is a dynamic subject. Lecturers have to work continuously to enhance their expertise, and learners need to develop appropriate learning skills to benefit fully from e-learning's possibilities. Students must manage their time and accept responsibility for their learning. The course should allow learners to enhance their e-learning skills.

10. Promote creativity. Encourage students to use technology to create materials (for example, a podcast). This can help them to develop the skills of working with others to solve shared problems or complete tasks.

There are many new developments and sources of good practice, including organisations such as Jisc, BECTa, Niace, LSN, the Association of Learning Technology, NILTa and TechDis. These offer publications, websites, conferences, training programmes and research reports to assist the development of e-learning. There are also many research centres considering aspects of e-learning, and universities (including the Open University) offer e-learning courses for teachers and lecturers.

Alan Clarke is the author of e-Learning Skills and IT Skills for Successful Study (Palgrave Macmillan). He works as a part-time tutor for the Open University and is associate director at the National Institute for Adult Continuing Education.

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