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History of eLearning: “E” is for “Evolutionary”

TimelineBlogLarge ILGeLearning—also known as online learning, educational technology, computer-based training (CBT), and web-based training (WBT)—has roots deep in the early decades of the 20th century.

What does the e in elearning stand for? It’s not just electronic anymore. The elearning pioneer Bernard Luskin says it represents “exciting, energetic, engaging, extended learning.”

We’d like to propose an even better meaning: e is for evolutionary.

The biggest difference between the elearning of the 20th century and where we are today is that it’s evolved to become an enhancement of learning, not a replacement. (There’s another e-word!)

Where did it all start?

The First eLearning Devices: 1924

“There must be an industrial revolution in education in which educational science and the ingenuity of educational technology combine to modernize the grossly inefficient and clumsy procedures of conventional education.”

– Sidney Pressey, 1924, inventor of the Automatic Teacher, the first electronic device used in schools

The Automatic Teacher was essentially a primitive Scantron/bubble-sheet testing machine. The cost was about $15—half the amount required to educate a student for a whole year during that era. The machine worked by requiring children to answer each question correctly before going on to the next one.

But it was not to be. “Pressey’s ‘Automatic Teacher’ is a rich example of failure in the midst of modernist commitments to scientific and technological progress,” says Stephen Petrina in his article “Sidney Pressey and the Automation of Education.” Although Pressey’s intention was to give actual teachers more time with their students—and not replace them with a machine—only 250 were ever produced.

BF Skinner’s “Teaching Machine”: 1954

30 years after Pressey’s invention, BF Skinner created the “Teaching Machine” to promote self-management—or how students think and respond to stimuli in their environment. It was a mechanical device programmed with questions and rewards for correct answers. The machine gave students immediate and regular reinforcement designed to keep them engaged with novel material.

This video shows Skinner himself describing its use. Fascinating!

The goals of the “Teaching Machine” that BF Skinner describes are similar to our modern interpretation of online learning:

  • Immediate feedback
  • Self-paced learning
  • Ability to align with student’s level
  • Ability to cover more material in less time

 From Mainframe to Mainstream

Throughout the 70s, 80s, and into the 90s, computers continued to shrink in size while offering exponentially greater power. Not much innovation took place in business elearning until the 1980s, when employees gained access to personal computers. Floppy discs and CD-based videos were gaining popularity in training. By this point in academia, the Open University in the UK began offering Internet-based courses, which were incredibly popular with 2,000 students enrolled during the first year.

 Modern eLearning: Collaboration

Thanks in part in part to Moore’s Law and our increasing access to the Internet, today we’re immersed in computer-supported collaborative learning. CSCL relies on technological innovation to improve teaching and learning. Think “eLearning 2.0,”—social, collaborative, networked environments where learners work together on tasks and share information and knowledge. The tools of CSCL are virtual classrooms, wikis, blogs, podcasts, and virtual worlds. (Hey you’re reading this online, aren’t you?)

The past decade has been especially monumental for elearning. It’s all about connectivism—the perspective that knowledge exists in the world rather than in an individual’s mind. Opportunities to connect are found everywhere. YouTube. Twitter. Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs). ScoopIt. iTunes U. Skype. Any number of topic-specific blogs. We could go on and on!

(By the way, if you’re having trouble keeping up with the nomenclature of learning, you’re not alone. Check out this great infographic, which breaks down learning lingo.)

So, readers, does “elearning” still have to be a thing? Is it still so novel that we need to differentiate it from “regular” learning?

How do you see learning continuing to evolve? Please leave your comments below.

IdeaLearning Group Case Study: Vestas – Three-Phase Training Program

Vestas is a leading international wind energy company headquartered in Denmark. For the past 30 years, Vestas has installed more than 46,000 turbines in 66 countries. The company’s mission is to enable energy independence demanded by the world’s largest and fastest-growing economies by building wind energy innovations as a natural alternative for finite fossil fuels.

IdeaLearning Group partnered with Vestas to develop a robust three-phase training program that focused on electrical safety and the control of hazardous energy. More than 20,000 people needed training with a tight timeframe for development. Our “train-the-trainer” program was designed to educate Vestas master instructors, who in turn trained their teams. We also designed an internal Vestas brand logo and templates, which are used throughout the company.

The training program included several goals: address identified behaviors; promote consistency and safety throughout the company internationally; highlight change management tools and strategies; and incorporate hierarchical technical components. Our learning curve was steep and our time was short, but we were determined to deliver a substantial program with measurable positive results.

Phase 1: Master Training Rollout

The purpose of the first phase was to partner with master trainers and subject matter experts during face-to-face work meetings in Germany to finalize content for the electrical safety and lockout tagout training program. IdeaLearning Group staff developed an instructional video and supporting materials that focused on simple, complex, and group lockouts. We also created a three-part energy control coordinator course that included eLearning, pre-work, a teacher’s plan, and support materials with a focus on technical and soft skills development. The role of the energy control coordinator was a new one in Europe, and we worked carefully with Vestas in the US to define best practices and develop the materials outside the Unites States.

Phase 2: Global Rollout of Electrical Safety Training

During this phase, IdeaLearning Group finalized all electrical safety and lockout tagout materials for master trainers for the rollout of the seven-course series, which included a PowerPoints, teacher’s plans, and participant guides. We also travelled to Denmark to facilitate the soft skills course for master trainers.

Phase 3: Global Refresher of Electrical Safety Training

IdeaLearning Group created eLearning modules to refresh technicians’ knowledge on electrical safety and lockout tagout procedures.

As a result of partnering with IdeaLearning Group for the large-scale training program, the program manager for Vestas in Denmark called IdeaLearning Group “my go-to vendor” and continues to collaborate with our company on additional projects. “It’s rare to find a stress-free, no-drama, let’s-get-the-job-done vendor,” he said. “IdeaLearning Group was extremely easy to collaborate with. They quickly got up to speed, and the creative juices started flowing. I knew I was in good hands, and I didn’t need to check in constantly. I felt very confident we were dealing with absolute professionals. It literally went that well.”

Creating a Productive Learning Environment

“Learning is experience, everything else is just information.” – Albert Einstein

 When we learn something new, it doesn’t usually happen on purpose. In fact, learning is often a result of observation, experience, or failure. Organizations can’t always plan for formal learning to take place. Employees must feel motivated and free to apply the information they’re exposed to in order for true learning to occur. The best way to encourage learning is to set up an environment that actually supports it.

Brain-based research tells us that pre-exposure to information, also called “priming,” makes subsequent learning proceed more quickly. At IdeaLearning Group, we recommend creating an environment at work that’s conducive to formal and spontaneous learning by making sure relevant information is accessible, based in a context that makes sense, and also easy to share with peers.

Ready, Set, Learn

We call this first phase of learning “Ready, Set, Learn.” When learners are immersed in a productive learning environment, they:

  • Are armed with techniques and resources to maximize their efforts
  • Understand the scope of their commitment
  • Start with the same baseline knowledge
  • Have the support and involvement of their managers
  • Can draw a clear line between course objectives and their professional success

According to an article published by Training magazine, “A productive learning environment must address the physical, cognitive, and emotional elements in that environment.” The article goes on to recommend, “Organizations also need to consider who is involved in employee training, as interaction and support are critical and play a direct role in learning uptake.” You can give people a stack of information with instructions to learn it, but they will likely never absorb the information without the appropriate context and support.

Create A Culture of Learning

On his Brain Rules website, Dr. John Medina discusses our natural inclination to learn through exploring. “Babies are the model of how we learn—not by passive reaction to the environment but by active testing through observation, hypothesis, experiment, and conclusion,” he says. “Babies methodically do experiments on objects, for example, to see what they will do.” So when you’re building a learning program for your organization, you can’t expect to force learning, but you can create a culture that encourages learners to experiment and apply information.

Try these best practices for tapping into your organization’s zest for learning:

  • Engage your learners immediately. Use stories, scenarios, and examples that speak directly to your organization. Learners should understand what’s in it for them right away.
  • Make blended methods of learning easily accessible. (Go way beyond PowerPoint.) Create a learning library, and encourage staff to explore and experiment with the material.
  • Appeal to a variety of senses. Use video, online learning, and audio along with traditional printed materials. Make it easy for learners to explore and share.

On his blog, informal learning expert Jay Cross sums it up this way: “Training is something that’s imposed on you; learning is something you choose. Knowledge workers thrive when given the freedom to decide how they will do what’s asked of them.” We couldn’t agree more.

Tracking Trends in Adaptive Learning

Adaptive learning is a hot topic in the field of education and training, from children’s classrooms to corporate learning programs. As data becomes more abundant and easier to aggregate, the possibilities are growing for truly customized learning.

The overall purpose of adaptive learning is to allow learners to explore at their own pace, giving those with greater knowledge or skills the ability to move faster and those with fewer skills to take their time. The belief is that personalizing content according to what each learner needs empowers learners to take control of their education and to increase their efficiency and breadth of knowledge.

According to a recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, the modern-day concept of adaptive learning evolved from psychologist B.F. Skinner’s 1950s-era “teaching machine,” which he developed while working at Harvard University. Students were given questions from a mechanical box, and they were rewarded with “fresh academic material” after answering a question correctly. Today, new technologies make it possible to track student progress to a previously unimaginable degree. Learning management systems track development of skills, provide tailored feedback, and make customized help available depending on how well they master the content. Adaptive learning is still evolving, especially in schools. But new technologies are making it possible to develop highly interactive, game-like interfaces—certainly a step up from Dr. Skinner’s mechanical box!

At ILG, we’re tracking the trends and tuning in to the amazing possibilities adaptive learning offers for business professionals. In a traditional face-to-face learning environment, everyone is exposed to the same content. It’s not always clear to the instructor where people are on the knowledge spectrum. We believe the most powerful application of adaptive learning is a blended approach, combining classroom instruction and a robust elearning solution that offers a self-paced flow, a robust resource library, the ability to go down a custom path of discovery, and other engaging ways to explore material on demand. Students report feeling more motivated and challenged with this blended learning.

The market is reflecting the intense interest in the potential of adaptive learning. A new company called Knewton just raised $33 million in venture funding for its personalized learning platform. (Forbes magazine likens it to Pandora for the learning world; no two people see the same content, because no two people have exactly the same background.) The non-profit Next Generation Learning Challenges recently awarded more than $10 million in grants to 29 colleges and organizations to develop programs around technology that relates to adaptive learning.

Colleges, as well as businesses, are adding highly interactive elearning to their education programs that are inspired by the evolving technology made possible by adaptive learning principles.

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