On-line teaching: The important issues and what I am doing about them

By Dr. Stephanie A. Burns



First distinction I want to make is that the issue we need to pay attention is not really on-line learning, instead it is on-line teaching methods. The quality of learning for the participant is a given if the teaching methods work. This would be no different than if we were discussing any other teaching model. However, on-line learning is the catch phrase of the day and I will use it here until the perspective in the industry is caused to shift.

Getting on-line learning right is important because I believe that the Internet can, if used properly, provide an unprecedented level of educational opportunity.

I believe that poor quality learning is NOT better than no learning. It can have insidious, debilitating effects on motivation and confidence in adult learners. Adult learners blame themselves and become resistant to engaging in future on-line learning opportunities - even if the next one is good.

The more poor on-line learning courses adults are exposed to, the harder and more expensive it will be to bring them back to the table when good quality events are made available. Excellent trainers and consultants have confronted this throughout their careers (the "I've already done a leadership course and didn't learn anything phenomenon"). The difference with on-line learning is that we can switch off millions of people in one fell swoop!.




"The most salient feature of my on-line learning experience in the "Who's Driving the Bus" course has been the way in which daily learning experiences can be effectively woven into my very hectic schedule.

I am a psychologist with a very busy private practice and organisational consulting business which often leaves me with little time for self reflection and learning about myself.

The methodology of the "bus" style of on-line teaching provides an initial brief concept and focus for the day that can be integrated into whatever I am doing. Directions from "the tour- guide" then compels me to reflect in a space of time that is realistic.

I can't think of another way of learning that I am able to so efficiently integrate into my lifestyle. I've also found that I've had a few laughs as well as a few moments of feeling quite challenged."

Paul Martin

My plans

Doing design projects for the sake of advancing my own knowledge has kept me very busy since 2000. When I reach the end of this phase of study I plan to dedicate time to writing a book centering on human behaviour and the Internet and tackling this issue of on-line learning and teaching. The topics below form a small part of the Table of Contents for this new work.

Experiential learning on-line - surely you're joking!

Most definitely I am not. True experiential learning (real-time, real-life) can be the highest form of learning - and most certainly very few trainers or training designs have mastered a form of teaching that leads to the quality of behavioural change that can be achieved in experiential learning. I am driving true real-time, real-life experiential learning in two of the current on-line programs. It can be done and it can be controlled. We can now really begin to think about 'transference' of new competencies on to the job and into life.

Powerpoint presentations are NOT learning events!

Not in classrooms and most definitely not on-line! Just because you can do a lot of something doesn't make it worth doing! We are seeing stacks of poor quality design passing itself off as on-line learning. Learning requires movement through time. If you are not compelled to move through time, taking specific actions that relate to what it is you are trying to learn, then no learning will occur. Content by and of itself is rarely that compelling and no matter how nice the slides are prepared, they do little to add to the stimulation needed to hold people's attention and get them to take action.

Managing student behaviour in the on-line virtual classroom environment.

On-line students have a huge range of behaviour that turns up in the virtual classroom. It is more vibrant than anything they would do in a 'live' environment. I have been confronting some rather interesting myths about 'live' classroom learning. It seems that with the emergence of a possible new technology those who do not want to engage in it, argue - but often with not well thought through ideas.

For instance, I have heard on more than a number of occasions that you just cannot get the same quality interaction in an on-line event as you do in a 'live' event. I keep asking "what on-line and 'live' events are you talking about?" The courses I am conducting rip the foundations out from under this argument. There is more and higher quality interaction in the on-line environment (and I am NOT using chatrooms, discussion group, or conferencing technology!)

Virtual classmates - a great asset to on-line learning.

Have you ever wished that your one wonderful student would turn up at every training to show the way of good learning to other students? I have and now I have a way of making that happen.

Overcoming abandonment in on-line learning.

Getting people through the tough times is one of the things that a great teacher does. This is what we need to do on-line. You cannot just leave people alone to take learning actions. It doesn't work for all the reasons discussed in the Goal Achievers program.

Asynchronous communication is the better method in most cases than synchronous communication events (i.e. chat rooms, on-line conferencing, discussion groups).

Everyone is so excited about synchronous learning and it is highly problematic. This is one of those myths, that people like to interact with others. No, only some people like to interact with others and often times though they like do it, they do gain a lot from the experience. Methods must be considered in light of outcomes, not in light of preferences. Synchronous communication methods have a place in learning, in some contexts, for some content, but not all and not even most. They can slow the learning process down and move half the adult population away from on-line learning that uses it.


"I love coming in to work in the morning and looking at the day's assignment, there is that sense of anticipation every time. I also enjoy the convenience of "coming to class" when it suits me, i.e.. get onto the website when I have the time, and then leave when I've got the information I need. Communicating learning experiences through the driver's manual is very comfortable: you can go over what you typed until you're happy with it. As a result I find I'm being a lot more open than I would be in a traditional classroom.

And I'm surprised how easy it is to do the assignments. I've tried correspondence, self-paced courses before and found it quite difficult to do whatever exercises I was given. Oh, and I love the little funny bits, like getting lost, being on a navy ship and now the canoes."

Anna-Marijke Gerretsen
Choice Corporation



How to teach more, faster, better on-line.

On-line I am getting more learning per minute than I have been able to do by using any other methods. That doesn't make it the right method for all learning, but for many it is a great tool. Of course, we are still limited by the fact that we are working through the human's 5 senses and all the cognitive blocks, barriers and inefficient strategies - but getting it right on-line means paring it all down to the essentials - nobody's ego in the way. Just a true, get in - get it - get out approach to learning. It won't get faster till maybe one day when "neural implants", "carbon memory", or "neural recording and playback" methods (or something like them) become a reality. But I am impressed with the increase in performance using the new methods.

Methods and strategies to hold the attention of on-line students and getting them to do things.

All we have to do is remember we are dealing with human beings and design based on that knowledge. Geez, I think some designers must totally deny their own experience as a human to release some of the junk that is passing for on-line learning.

The importance of 'voice' on-line.

We have had many thousands of years in which we have become responsive to the voices of other people. These responses are automatic and the voice in the writing should be considered an important tool in any on-line design. Participants need to hear a voice!

Video streaming IS NOT the way for most on-line learning course outcomes.

With the exception of the rare content expert that people are inspired by when seeing 'live', there really is no value in video streaming. Video performances will never be as fast or rich as text based performances. Also, do you really want to encourage all those poor presenters who put you to sleep in the 'live' environment to be lecturing via video to your employees?

Creating a virtual teacher

Modeling the best of what we do 'live'. Goes without saying - that's what I am learning to do.



on-line learning


"I'm really enjoying the experience of on-line learning the way you are doing it. I can do it in my own time, there is plenty of time for me to think about my answers to questions or write about what I've done or think about things so my brain doesn't go blank like it can in a classroom type situation when having to think and answer on the spot.

For me personally, I have probably contributed more than I would ever have been able to in a classroom situation and have liked the opportunity to say what I want to say, how I want to say it, in the time I want to say it without any restrictions of time or opinions. Equally, being able to read my co-traveller's comments, thoughts and experiences has enabled me to see this learning from so many different angles, which I think adds more depth to the learning.

Lastly, although I've been pretty religious in my reporting in each day, I also know it is no big deal if I can't one day and can catch it up. At the same time, the way we get the info of what to do in the morning and then report back at night has really suited me. Doing it in chunk's is so much easier, this again takes the pressure off. . . . . "

Sue Rogan

What's next

I am right now (early-2003) in the process of delivering the first training to teach other trainers how to design courses using the methods I have developed. The success of this program may see it offered to others in the 2nd half of 2003.

I also plan to continue to apply these methods to my own content. Next on the list is tackling the Training To Train materials.

In closing ...

This is just the tip of the iceberg for me on this subject.

I am still having fun as a teacher in this new environment. For all the wonder of a 'live' event, I always missed feeling part of the participant's experience. Now I feel I am right there with every student. I do not just hear the comments or questions from the few students who happen to raise their hands, or for whom I have time to call on. Every student on-line communicates every day. I touch everyone of those communications. I know what is happening at the time it is happening.

I am becoming a better teacher! How about that!



Information about any aspect related to Stephanie's work in the area of on-line teaching or on-line design can be found in the Design Service subsite which is accessed via the Crystal Ball. This includes information about upcoming training events where Stephanie teaches the principles of on-line teaching to others.

You may use the image below to be taken directly to the Design Service subsite.



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