I feel somewhat lucky and privileged to be working in online training and education right now with all that is going on the world today. The undisputable fact is that almost all educational establishments and training operations are now forced to transition to some form of online or digital education model eLearning is now firmly “centre stage”.

The digital transformation of education is nothing new and it has been ongoing for many years, albeit often only despite significant resistance and challenge by educators and learners alike.

The ability of educators to engage online learners and achieve the desired learning outcomes is now of paramount importance. However, our past performance indicates that this is something we’ve struggled with for many, many years, and the completion statistics for many an online learning programmes leave much to be desired!

Can we use the current global lockdown and reliance on remote working to grasp this nettle once and for all? Can we provide our new or experienced online learners with online programmes that truly awaken their natural curiosity and desire to learn? Not, I fear, if we follow in the footsteps of the perceived wisdom that has gone before.

I read an interesting piece of research recently that has prompted this piece and my ramblings here. The research was carried out on a small group of university students in Australia who were studying a 13-week online programme. The research method was to interview each of the volunteer students every two weeks through their study period.

The results were thought-provoking and offer important insights into how we should be seeking to engage and motivate online learners. Let me summarise the key research findings, as follows:

Simplistic measures just don’t work! Students find that forced measures, such as being required to publish a specific number of posts or give feedback to other students, do nothing to deepen their learning. They are seen as more ‘busy work’ that adds nothing to their learning journey and just bogs them down in wasteful activity. This is even more so when such activities are duly completed only to receive no feedback or recognition from the recipient audiences, which is often the case.

Focus more on engagement and less on measurement. When educators are less focused on their ability to measure and more on achieving the goal itself then they offer more valuable, meaningful and desirable experiences for their learners. Examples of positive engagement activities include the following:

  • Encouraging learners to collaborate with their peers on other, non-measured platforms, such as Facebook, Messenger, or other social media.
  • Offering additional learning resources such as TED Talks, YouTube, or other curriculum resources.
  • Learning activities that require thought and creativity, and ideally contribute to any final assessment.
  • Learning design that utilises a diversity of learning approaches in the online format.
  • Well designed, thought-provoking, and challenging assessment tasks as opposed to simple and obvious multiple-choice questions.

The important take-aways for all of us, as learning professionals, are three, as follows:

Let us forget measurement and focus on outcomes. This is sometimes easier said than done when we work in organisations for which performance measurement is so deeply engrained. We need to be somewhat courageous and brave and be prepared to challenge the ‘bean counters’ and evidence our success through the positive business outcomes of our learning programmes as opposed to the delivery stats of the learning function.

Work harder to create and enable meaningful engagement. It takes relatively little thought or planning to create the simple engagement tools that are proven to fail. It takes much more commitment, critical thought, as well as learner guidance and encouragement to do the things that will really work.

Embrace the wider world of learning. Allow our learners to continue their learning journeys outside the ‘walls’ of our educational or corporate academies.