By Juan Felipe Guerrero

New York, NY, United States

Many people, even those involved in the online education industry, are unaware that its origins date back to 1960. The first computerized eLearning system to be designed and built was called PLATO (Programmed Logic for Automatic Teaching Operations), which was funded by the National Science Foundation, a government agency of the United States, in conjunction with the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. PLATO was part of a new focus on science and engineering education in response to the launch into space of the first artificial satellite in history, Sputnik I, by the USSR.

PLATO was the first general computer-assisted system. The revolution in personal computers was in the pipeline at the time, and eLearning was not far behind. It was the start of a working relationship between computers and online education; one that has not only evolved considerably, but also has somewhat devolved.

With 33 years’ experience in the industry, Joe Ganci feels he is entitled to express his concerns about eLearning, despite the fact that he still loves working with customers to help them get on right path with their learning initiatives. Ganci had his first contact with virtual education when he started university in 1978. In his first-year English class, students were invited to take an English evaluation test on specialized computer systems called TICCIT. Those who passed the test were automatically exempted from the semester-long course and received a passing grade. “The TICCIT lab where they conducted the evaluation had around 30 different ‘dumb’ terminals (they had no processing capacity or storage capacity), networked to a minicomputer in the back room. The terminals were used to teach many different subjects and were in constant use by the university students,” Joe tells me. He passed the test and was sold on the idea of using computers to assist in teaching and testing.

Subsequently, while still an undergraduate, he was hired to help design and then to program an extensive course to teach Italian on TICCIT with Dr. Sante Matteo, a professor at the university, and worked closely with Dr. Matteo and with Harold Hendricks, the supervisor of the lab. He found out then that TICCIT was the second computer system funded by the NSF, after Plato, in 1967. In the 1970s, it already boasted many of the features that would not be available on microcomputers for the home for years to come.

Having graduated with a Bachelor of Science degree in the field of Computer Science, Joe subsequently worked at several companies before starting his own, which he did in 1998.

Joe believes that today, while there are many features we can include in our eLearning that were not available to us in the past, we have lost sight of much of what made eLearning work so well in the 1990s. “At that time there were powerful tools that let us create any type of virtual learning we wanted. We could have a specific instruction design that worked very well for particular content areas and audiences, even though some programming knowledge was required, but at the end of the day we had a very good product.

The problems arose later, around the end of the same decade. Many authoring tool vendors realized that they could make more money if they could convince companies that they would save money if they bought what their company was offering, a way to create eLearning cheaper and faster with results that were as high a quality or better. With a sales pitch that was as smart as it was naive, the tool vendors declared that their tools were so simple to use that with a little instructional design knowledge, their customers could cut out the programmer or developer. Even if the end result was not great, the tool vendor had already sold the tools to create the learning. They didn’t lose much, but learner did.

The best approach is to focus first on the learner’s needs, then on what the content will include, and then design the best approaches possible. What you will probably end up doing is creating real life scenarios that will help the learner to practice real life activities.

It’s not a question of taking anything away from the work of the instructional designers. Instructional designers are very creative, but most know little about programming, and so the tools had to be made simpler to use, with fewer features (because too many features always makes a product more complicated). “No tool vendor can claim that its tool is both the most powerful and the simplest to use. It’s impossible. It’s always a balance between power and ease of use,” concludes Joe.

This new trend resulted in eLearning becoming simplified, and hence in most cases less effective. In 2007 and 2008 the debacle worsened, because now there were companies pitching the idea that their new tools were even simpler and no longer were neither instructional designers nor developers needed. Their claim was (and still is) that a subject-matter expert can now create a course directly. But Joe Ganci, and anyone who understood the industry, knew that this was crazy. “The fact that someone is an expert in a field doesn’t mean that he’s automatically good at teaching it. Then, even if the expert is good at teaching groups of people in a classroom, she may not be at all well-versed in how to design lessons to be delivered online asynchronously. ” The result? A lot of very boring, slightly warmed over PowerPoint files are being delivered. When’s the last time you took a really engaging eLearning course, one which you couldn’t wait to return to when you had to stop for the day? It’s rare that anyone will tell you that they love the eLearning offered in their organization. Joe estimates that 80% of eLearning being created today is not very good, and that translates to loss of productivity of company employees and fewer profits.

Therefore, with some exceptions, the efficacy of eLearning seems to be plummeting. A lot of time and money is invested in creating online learning that is not effective and is not helping people. But what would the ideal scenario be? Joe believes that there is a need to “carefully consider who the audience is, what the content is like, and how it will be delivered. The best approach is to focus first on the learner’s needs, then on what the content will include, and then design the best approaches possible. What you will probably end up doing is creating real life scenarios that will help the learner to practice real life activities. Have them solve problems similar to those they encounter on the job. Make it engaging and interesting. Don’t feed them a lot of information and follow it with a multiple-choice test and think it’s going to work. Challenge them from the start, and keep challenging them. People love to solve challenges. It feels good. It feels like a real accomplishment. Essentially, eLearning should be about solving problems.

One of the most notable stories from the more than three decades Joe has spent in the online learning industry was when in the late 1990s he worked on a large eLearning project for the US Army, the biggest branch of the United States Armed Forces, whose principal responsibility lies in the field of military land operations.

A platoon is a military unit consisting of roughly between 10 to 30 men, depending on various factors. In each platoon, there is at least one soldier who carries first aid equipment, although he or she is not a nurse or doctor. These soldiers are called combat lifesavers in military jargon, and their principal mission is to prevent the wounded from dying on the battlefield by evaluating the condition of soldiers who get wounded, controlling bleeding, and requesting medical evacuation. Their role is especially important because, generally speaking, the main reason why soldiers who fall in battle die is because they are not given prompt medical attention; most do not die immediately.

Joe’s work with the Army consisted of creating real life scenarios, situations that could probably arise in a combat situation. Essentially, “the idea was to train the combat lifesavers so they would be able to keep their platoon colleagues alive as long as possible when they were wounded, until they could receive professional medical attention,” he tells me. “We proposed and conducted most of the practical scenarios that could occur in a war: bullet wounds or wounds caused by explosive waves, loss of limbs, broken bones or damaged muscles, wounds that compromised each of the organs, severe bleeding, and even evacuation techniques.

This is just one example of how eLearning can be useful. There are still two stigmas that people in the industry have to fight against. First, virtual education is not just to meet the academic needs of universities and colleges, because it has broader actionable capabilities. And secondly, fewer theoretical courses and more practical ones.

*Joe Ganci – President of eLearningJoe, LLC, a consulting and training eLearning company

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