Ten Essential Components of Great e-Learning

Shane Hill-100There are many components that go into making great e-Learning. Ultimately the measure of greatness of an e-Learning program, or any learning program, should be a direct reflection of the level of improvement in educational outcomes as a result of the program.

Put simply; the more a program lifts educational outcomes, the better it is.

E-Learning programs tend to fit into one of the following categories:

  • Electronic Textbook
  • Productivity / Creativity enabler
  • Curiosity enabler
  • E-Reader
  • Simulators and manipulatives
  • Skill builder
  • Expert modeling
  • Research facilitator
  • Shared learning tool
  • Class management tool

There are some excellent examples available of all of these types of e-Learning programs. Each category will have a different set of criteria in the key components to make them great. For this blog, I'm going to focus on the category of Skill Builders - I believe these have the largest potential to directly lift educational outcomes.

1. Fun and engaging, but not distracting

Without question, making a program fun and engaging is the most important component. Without this, everything else becomes irrelevant. It's true there are some children who do not require an e-Learning program to be fun and engaging, however they are in a significant minority and tend to be the students who least need help from the programs. If you genuinely engage the child over an extended period of time then amazing outcomes are possible.

I have found that multiplayer games are a particularly powerful way of engaging children. It's amazing how much more excited and motivated children become when they are playing with each other.

A critical balancing act occurs when children are immersed in highly engaging learning environments. It's important the fun and games elements do not become the dominant focus and ultimately distract from the learning. They need to be carefully blended to ensure they support the learning as opposed to simply being a game with some learning thrown in.

2. Simple to use - The "it just works" principle

Never underestimate the value of keeping things simple. It's better for a learning program to do a few things really well, as opposed to lots of things poorly. Apple has proven how powerful creating wonderful devices that "just work" can be. Therefore the key objective is to make a program that is exceptionally powerful, but super simple to use.

3. Motivating reward systems

It could be argued that this should come within fun and engaging, however I believe it's worthy of its own section. There have been some highly interesting studies under the topic of game theory in designing reward systems to best motivate actions. In a learning context we are trying to encourage appropriate use over an extended period of time. We do not want children to use the programs obsessively for a few weeks and then never again. Therefore the reward system needs to encourage lots of short sessions over many months and years. It should reward genuine effort for each child, as opposed to simply excellence which may be unattainable for some students.

For the rewards system to be effective the children must covet the rewards. Rewards need to be specifically tailored to the target age group of the program.

4. Teachable moments – Immediate feedback and support

Every parent and teacher knows there are certain moments when a child is most receptive to feedback and support. Great e-Learning will intervene at precisely those moments! Immediate feedback and support aids self-learning, the most powerful form of learning there is. It's also valuable for the support system to be scaffolded in such a way that it becomes less prominent when the child no longer requires it.

5. Opportunity to make mistakes… including some consequences!

This is actually one of the most critical elements in making effective e-Learning, yet it's surprisingly one most often missed. By saying opportunity to make mistakes I mean creating an environment where there are some consequences to making a mistake. It is amazing that at least 50% of e-Learning programs have no built in consequences for the child in relation to mistakes. They simply provide options such as "click again" and the child often randomly clicks through the various possible answers. I would contend very strongly that this approach does not aid learning. You need to create an environment where the child feels comfortable with making mistakes (as these are great learning opportunities), but ultimately wants to rectify those mistakes so that they do not continue to be impeded by them.

6. Fast paced - build automaticity

We have found that most children learn best when placed within a fast paced learning environment. The explanation to this is that working at a rapid pace aids engagement, whereas if questions are presented too slowly then boredom sets in.

The aim is not for the child to become a speed reader or an incredibly fast mathematician, it's simply to build automaticity at these core skills. A slow reader will struggle with comprehension since so much of their attention is directed to decoding. A fast paced learning environment is also highly efficient with children typically answering more than 400 questions over a 30 minute period.

7. Adapts to the child and chooses just the right curriculum

Presenting the child with just the right question at precisely the right time is the hallmark of a great e-Learning program. By definition this will be a unique pathway for each and every child, which fully accounts for individual strengths and weaknesses. There needs to be just the right balance of new content with revision content… again this will depend upon the individual.

8. Flow of data to teacher and parent

E-Learning programs will work best when they fully involve teachers and parents. Good e-Learning programs amass a tremendous amount of data. Of greatest value are detailed reports to teachers and parents that highlight specific strengths and weaknesses of the individual child. Tremendous benefit comes from teachers and parents recognizing wonderful achievements by the child; equally parents and teachers need to be alerted as to when their support and guidance is needed.

I believe learning apps that do not share a child's results with the teacher and parents are limiting their educational benefit by at least 50%. Sadly, of the more than 10,000 learning apps available for the iPad there are only a handful that share their data with teachers and parents.

A further extension of this is the ability to better blend online work with offline. A major area where I believe we will see considerable expansion in the coming years is e-Learning programs using their data to generate better printed materials for each individual child.

9. Learn by doing - not simply watching!

"Tell me and I’ll forget; show me and I may remember; involve me and I’ll understand." - Chinese proverb

There are some wonderful e-Learning resources out there which show you how to do almost anything. The best ones provide expert modeling of the task. In order for these to be truly beneficial they must also spur the learner to action, letting them practice the skill.

10. Makes full use of various learning channels

E-Learning programs are able to utilize visual, auditory and kinesthetic learning channels. Printed mediums such as workbooks are limited to simply visual approaches through text and static diagrams. Their effectiveness is also heavily dependent on a child's reading ability. E-Learning can use highly interactive visual and audio material to aid learning. One of the great advantages of tablets such as the iPad is that they are able to provide a more tactile learning experience in comparison to the traditional desktop.

One key area that I've omitted from above is "anywhere, anytime" as I have taken that as assumed. The last decade has seen us move from CD-Rom and network based programs to web applications and now to the most accessible mobile applications. E-Learning programs that maximize the "anywhere, anytime" principle will also maximize learning opportunities.

These are the fundamental components we have spent the last two years incorporating into Skoolbo Core Skills. We also believe that in order for e-Learning to fully change the world it must also be free and in so doing allow every child the opportunity of a first rate education.