The World Bank designated education and training as the first of four “requisites for a country to be able to fully participate in the knowledge economy.” The proliferation of e-learning has enabled a transformation across many industries, redefining how information is acquired, retained, shared and acted upon by 21st-century consumers.
L&D professionals are spearheading this shift on a global level. Developing, deploying, nurturing and measuring the efficacy of learning solutions is a tall order in any setting, but it comes with a unique set of challenges when the audience is remote, scattered and engaged primarily (or exclusively) via technological mediums. This paradigm has come to characterize the distance learning ecosystem today.
Incorporating three key elements into distance learning initiatives can humanize the learning experience and empower learners to succeed as individuals.
All distance learning environments have one thing in common: A geographic distance separates learners from instructors and, in many settings, one another. Although it may seem that this setting is a difficult one in which to provide agency to students, it actually lends itself well to establishing learner autonomy and the expectation that the instructor is a facilitator, counselor and resource. Within this framework, the roadmap for knowledge acquisition is one in which the learners build, modify and iterate by setting their own goals and metrics for success.
Learners could design their own curriculums in a multi-stage process, first by working individually, then collaborating in small teams to share ideas and finally proposing them to an instructor for approval. The instructor and learner could decide on a few checkpoints during the course of study to ensure that the learner is making meaningful progress.
How could autonomy be advantageous to learners studying remotely? For one, it fosters independent engagement and a “roll-up-your-sleeves” attitude to accountability, putting the learner in the driver’s seat of the learning experience. Research suggests that learners who are granted autonomy have higher intrinsic motivation, perceived competence and self-esteem.
There is no one-size-fits-all approach to training, and L&D professionals must always contend with variability in learning profiles. Despite these variations, organizations should give all learners equal access to the learning experience. Universal design for learning (UDL) principles provide three guiding principles that all distance learning programs should incorporate:
- Provide multiple means of engagement.
- Provide multiple means of representation.
- Provide multiple means of action and expression.
For example, if your content is text-heavy, UDL principles would support building a text-to-speech capability that enables learners to listen to an audio recording if desired. For videos and multimedia, ensure the availability of captions as well as downloadable transcripts. When creating assessments, provide learners the option to showcase their knowledge visually. The more accessible the design, the higher the likelihood of its meeting the diverse needs of distance learners.
The digital marketplace of e-learning tools is growing each day. When pursuing a particular technology solution, evaluate how adaptable it is to the changing needs of learners and how successfully you can deploy it with minimal effort. In some instances, a combination of platforms could offer the best value for distinct activities, such as video conferencing and file hosting. Take the time to diligently research whether third-party integrations are available to make management an easier task for instructors and administrators.
Validate assumptions on how these moving parts will come together to build the learning experience for distance learners. Resource-hungry applications may thrive in areas where a strong internet connection is taken for granted but suffer in areas where the requisite infrastructure is lacking. Bear in mind that the technologies themselves may require tweaking or replacing if the learning experience begins to deteriorate, which can result from inefficient (click-heavy) workflows, slow response times or clunky user interface, to name a few of the most common culprits.
Provide distance learners with the capability to share feedback to identify gaps and enhance the learning experience as often as is feasible. This feedback will make scaling to more users an informed process, one that will enhance the overall quality of learning (and facilitation) across the board.