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Research Reveals Five Imperatives for Effective
Web-based Instruction

by Frank Troha

 
   
 
   

In the end, evidence trumps intuition.

Whether designing Web-based instruction from scratch or purchasing courseware off the shelf, many challenging questions are sure to be raised: "What's the optimal mix of self-study and live, instructor-led study?" "Should the instructor's role be primarily directive or facilitative?" "How important is it for learners to be able to interact with one another?" "If we integrate mentoring, can it be accomplished effectively via e-mail?" Too often, such questions are being answered intuitively, without the benefit of relevant research findings.

This article is a distillation of such findings published from 1995 to the present. Culled from numerous studies sponsored by government agencies, foundations, associations and universities, the findings are based on both anecdotal and empirical evidence. If applied to your particular circumstances, the conclusions presented here should help ensure that your investment of time, effort and money in Web-based instruction returns healthy dividends.

As you review the following list, four imperatives for effective Web-based learning should become apparent: learner-centered, instructor-guided (as opposed to instructor-directed), interactive and peer-collaborative. There is one more imperative, cost-effective, which is a given in today's bottom-line-oriented work environment.

Summary of Research

  1. Learning is enhanced when instructors see themselves as active guides to learning and learners perceive themselves as owners of their learning, actively analyzing, questioning, discussing and developing ideas, guiding principles, processes or techniques.

  2. Giving learners control over when and how they develop knowledge and skill tends to increase the individualization of instruction, a sense of personal responsibility for learning and learning efficiency. (However, until learners are able and willing to take control, expecting them to be self-directed is likely to hinder rather than enhance learning.)

  3. Web-based instruction can and should enable the delivery of course content tailored to each learner's particular learning style and preferences.

  4. Learner-centered approaches should be extended to team-centered activities whenever a learning activity lends itself to a group effort (e.g., learning cannot or should not be accomplished by individual effort, or the learning objectives pertain to communication, teamwork or some other group-functioning skill).

  5. An effective orientation to Web-based instruction enhances three types of interactivity required for optimal learning: learner-to-instructor, learner-to-learner and learner-to-instructional material. The orientation should consist of instructor's welcome, learning objectives, course outline, types of learning activities to expect, how learning will be evaluated, course schedule, instructor's expectations, contact information and next steps (e.g., learners are to communicate their own expectations and complete an ice-breaker assignment).

  6. Explaining to learners the importance, means and desired frequency of interaction at the outset of a course increases the amount of interaction.

  7. Completion rates of online courses are substantially improved when participants are provided with a comprehensive orientation to online learning, timely and personalized feedback from the instructor, high-level technical support and well-designed, instructor-mediated learning activities.

  8. Online collaboration improves learning effectiveness by allowing learners to reflect, present individual positions, debate, construct new paradigms and otherwise interact with each other. Additionally, anxiety levels tend to be reduced as a sense of community is developed.

  9. Mentoring of participants by the instructor, course graduates or other qualified individuals enhances learning and can be accomplished successfully via e-mail.

  10. Learners tend to be highly sensitive to system response time. If perceived as slow, it can seriously impair the effectiveness of instruction. Findings include:

    • To maintain participants' attention, they should be informed when any download requires more than a 10-second wait.

    • When directly manipulating objects on the screen (e.g., disassembling a piece of equipment represented in 3D), the time between moving the cursor and seeing the result on the screen should be under 0.1 seconds. (If slower, the lag time becomes a source of frustration.)

    • When clearing a spreadsheet or turning a page, for example, a lag time of up to one second is acceptable. However, waiting more than one second tends to discourage learners from exploring options they otherwise would (e.g., supplemental material).

  11. The most effective blending of live instruction (synchronous) with self-paced learning (asynchronous) appears to be one hour of live instruction for every four hours of self-paced learning.

  12. Though often underestimated, asynchronous learning strongly supports a collaborative learning environment by enabling every learner to contribute when, where and at a pace that is personally preferable. Additionally, the quality of learner contributions made asynchronously (and expressed in writing) tends to be higher than those made during live sessions.

  13. Real time chats on a topic generate more responses per learner than asynchronous discussions. However, asynchronous discussions foster deeper analysis and evaluation of ideas.

  14. For online instructors to be effective, they need to have input into anticipating and addressing likely learner questions and issues during course design, be responsive (e.g., provide learners with timely feedback on coursework), create a psychologically safe learning environment, be conversational in tone, confirm that all online and off-line activities are clearly explained and understood, actively guide learning (e.g., pose timely questions, correct misconceptions, focus/refocus discussions), encourage learners to go beyond assimilating existing knowledge to creating their own personal and group knowledge, and foster a sense of community with and among learners.

  15. Learners should be encouraged and given every opportunity to interact with peers, instructor(s), guest experts and the instructional material itself. However, it is vitally important to provide clear instruction and guidance on how to do so within the context of available Web-based learning tools and techniques.

  16. Determining whether a sense of community truly exists among learners requires evidence of learners knowing one another, discussing common interests, disclosing personal information, sharing tasks, helping one another, contributing towards the accomplishment of common goals, respecting each other and taking risks.

  17. To help ensure the participation of all learners, learning activities need to include verifiable interactions with course materials, other learners and the instructor (e.g., reporting results upon completing independent and team-based activities).

  18. Integrating teamwork on actual projects with online learning activities further engages participants and thereby enhances learning. Such collaboration can be accomplished through video and computer conferencing, e-mail, sharing of documents, etc.

Taken collectively, the above findings reliably indicate Web-based learning needs to be learner-centered, instructor-guided, interactive and collaborative, if it is to be truly effective. Taken individually, the findings warrant the following caveat. Today's available research on Web-based learning is more anecdotal than empirical, and most of it is adult education-based rather than training-based. Consequently, certain findings listed above may well apply to many Web-based professional education and training courses, but not necessarily to yours or mine. That said, the digest of findings above should nevertheless serve as a valuable quick-reference aid - a sounding board of sorts - useful when making crucial decisions within the context of your Web-based learning initiative.


     
   
     
   

The Author

 

Frank J. Troha, Ph.D., is an independent corporate learning design consultant, instructional designer and author. He is also adjunct associate professor of instructional design at Fordham University Graduate School of Education, New York City, where he teaches corporate human resource and training professionals. His e-mail address is: frank@franktroha.com . Web: www.franktroha.com .

     
   
     
   
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Copyright 2002 by Frank J. Troha. All rights reserved.

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