Ten Ideas for Making E-Learning Work

At the .LRN Foro Hispanico in Madrid last week, Rafael Calvo
presented some thoughts on how to evaluate, holistically, whether a
course that includes an online component is being delivered
pedagogically and logistically in ways that will be successful.

That got me thinking, and I scribbled down the following list:

1. Subscribe and reply to bulletin boards and forums by email. 
OpenACS / .LRN support this.  It’s extremely cool and useful to be
able to participate but never have to actually visit the website. 
People live in email. So smart developers and admins will go to where
they live.

2. “Structured Collaboration” (based on the story of the binge-o-matic). 
Most people freeze up when presented by blank space and asked to write
into it.  They need prompts.  If you want a group of people
to discuss a book online, give them a form that structures what you’d
like them to cover.  When they see how their thoughts and ratings
compare with others, they will be stimulated  to comment. 
“Did I miss something?  why am I the only person who thought this
book sucked/ was great?”  Side benefit: structured data from many
people is much easier to analyze.

3. Seed content.  People react better than they act.  So put
the ball in play.  This is in fact how blogs work, and why they
work better than bboards — someone writes a post, and people react to
that post.  In theory these reactions could be threaded, which
might combine useful features of both.

4. Auto-tag content contributions by context.  If I upload
document X into folder Y, Document X should be presumed to inherit
whatever metadata is used to describe folder Y for search purposes.

5. Optimize user group size and structure to maximize affinity; take
advantage of user profiling to validate affinity.  This is a fancy
way of saying that people will interact within groups they feel
comfortable in, and much less beyond the scope of such groups.  So
get the group size and structure right, and then provide enough
information on group members so people can feel comfortable they’re in
the right group.

6. In-line benchmarking.  The idea here is instant feedback. 
When you take an online survey, you’re much more likely to be engaged
if the results are presented back to you immediately comparing how you
answered questions with how others did.  We’ve deployed this for
the .LRN-based Compass application run by the 3E Project at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government with great success.

7. User portraits. With each contribution of content, whether a bboard
post or a document upload, or whatever, when there is attribution to a
user the user’s name could be accompanied by a thumbnail
portrait.  To manage page size, this might be restricted to the
first post a user makes in a thread.  But I think this little tip
(which I haven’t tried yet, but have seen proxies for) would do a lot
to warm up what can be a sterile experience, and help keep the flaming

8. Personalized syllabi.  Again, another innovation we’ve deployed
in the 3E Project’s Compass application.  Based on how you answer
certain surveys/ diagnostics, you get a personalized syllabus before
you come to a 3E exec ed program.  Saves you time and you’re much
more likely to read the material if you know it will be relevant not
only to the course, but to you.

9. Class Notes Blog.  For each class in which there is a
discussion as part of the learning experience, someone should be
assigned to “blog” what was said.  Again, we’ve done this with
success at 3E with the Compass application, where each class instance
is set up as a subsite with multiple associated application modules
(surveys, forums, but in this instance also a weblog module, which
OpenACS/ .LRN provides natively)

10. Active moderation.  Don’t bother putting any technical means
of online collaboration unless someone is assigned to stimulate,
moderate, and maintain it. 

What do you think?

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