The proliferation of massive open online courses (MOOCs) has prompted many discussions about what education is, what it means, and how best to deliver it in the current digital environment. While the debate continues on whether MOOCs will eventually lead to degrees, the knowledge gained from the first year and a half of these huge online experiments is changing the perceptions and practices of education both online and in the classroom. These lessons are especially valuable for corporate training and continuing professional development programs, which companies are rapidly moving online to lower costs and increase efficiency. Over a series of articles, we will explore what MOOCs have taught us about the best ways to design, deliver, assess, and recognize learning online. This first article highlights MOOC methods for delivering training content in a way that leads to real engagement and mastery, and ultimately to better job performance.
MOOCs have focused the spotlight on how teachers teach and students learn, and many of the assumptions that form the foundations of education and training are being challenged. The first idol to fall has been the lecture. Lectures have been staples practically since the beginning of training programs. The problem is that unless the goal is to put people to sleep, lectures just don’t work. Studies going back to the 1970s have shown that people simply can’t pay attention and retain information over long periods of time. In fact, most people can pay attention for only very short periods of time and then they need to use the information somehow or it will vanish from their working memory. This is because the brain’s working memory capacity is limited – if we don’t apply information immediately to consolidate it into long-term memory, it will disappear to make room for new information.
The attention and memory problems are solved in MOOCs by doing away with the long lecture altogether in favor of a brain-friendly method of delivery called “bite-sized learning.” Bite-sized learning (or as elearning expert Susan Smith Nash calls it, “snack” learning) involves dividing course material into very small chunks, interspersed with activities such as short quizzes, mini-research projects, or questions for reflection and discussion. These small chunks make it easier for learners to absorb information and give them the opportunity to reflect on it and consolidate it into memory before moving onto the next chunk.
In MOOCs, content delivery can take many forms, including videos, documents, slide shows, audio podcasts, whiteboard animations, and even live virtual webinars with real-time commenting and participation. When designing these learning resources, think about how to divide the course content into chunks of no more than 10 minutes, with an activity at the end that either tests declarative knowledge or provides the opportunity to apply practical knowledge. Rich multimedia content is much more engaging than just text, and even videos can be interactive, for example, with quiz questions and reflection prompts inserted at various points. Ideally, the chunks should contain three main elements – content, activity, and review – so that each mini module is a complete learning experience.
Bite-sized course materials are not only brain-friendly, but they are also much more suited than standard lectures to the needs of today’s learners. One of the major advantages of MOOCs is that they allow learners to be mobile. Few people who are not full-time students have the time to devote hours every night to coursework. This is actually a good thing – our brains can’t absorb hours of coursework at a time anyway! MOOCs allow people to access their course materials on the go. For businesses, this convenience can represent huge savings in terms of both time and cost. Rather than spending a whole day in a seminar learning very little, employees can access training materials in their downtime. Organizing material into small chunks allows people the freedom to learn how and when they want to, as well as increases training efficiency – using bite-sized, mobile elearning, your employees could learn more in the 10 minutes it takes for a seminar to get started than in the entire rest of a standard training day.
In a recent blog on the Lectora site, elearning and social media expert Kristen Marshall identified 10 components of online courses that can easily be presented in bite-sized chunks:
- Podcasts and screencasts
- Group discussions
- Outside resources (i.e., articles, blogs, forums)
- Questions for exploration
- Real-world examples
The formats of many of these components, such as podcasts and infographics, were developed for online consumption in the first place, meaning that they are designed to present complete ideas in small pieces that are easy to digest (and in the case of infographics, easy to visualize).
On her Elearning Queen blog, Susan Smith Nash offers some excellent suggestions for engaging workplace learners in bite-sized learning. First, she suggests telling learners in advance that the lessons will be short and sweet, such as by naming them “Lunch and Learn,” or “Breaktime Learning.” This will discourage learners from procrastination by letting them know that they can complete a full lesson in a short period of time. She also emphasizes that the learning must be “pain-free” so as not to lead to performance anxiety. Strategies for relaxed learning include using an intuitive user interface and allowing a limited number of choices. Finally, Nash stresses the importance of using multimedia to engage and keep the learners’ interest as well as ensuring that the content works on computers as well as mobile devices.
The real disruptive power of MOOCs has yet to be realized, but at the very least they have led instructors to think differently about the goals and processes of education. Bite-sized learning is one of the few MOOC elements that most people agree on – this form of content delivery allows learners to engage with course materials in ways that lead to real understanding and mastery, rather than just seat time.