Consider creating online instruction for the following purposes: transitioning from one email client to another; teaching managers to write legally defensible performance reviews; facilitating use of common project management tools. In high-quality classroom instruction, hands-on activities allow learners to practice achieving certain results. How do you do these same hands-on activities online? Think it’s hard to do? It’s time to get unstuck!

When we design instruction, we want learners to be able to DO something, not just look at content or answer basic (and often not especially useful) questions about it. In a project management course, is it more important that people learn to use project management tools (Gantt charts, for example), or that they be able to recall definitions for tasks, duration, milestones, and dependencies (which they can easily look up as needed)?

Let’s look at the three proposed instructional modules for a moment and pull out a few learning outcomes we might hope to achieve. (See the table below.)

If we truly want learners to achieve these and other performance-based outcomes, we need to provide instructional activities that involve learners in using the content as it is used in real life. Answering a multiple-choice question that asks the learner to pick the menu in which the attachment options are located does not meet this test. A drag-and-drop exercise to match performance language with the correct policy, or to pair up Gantt chart column heads with the correct definitions, doesn’t go far enough either.

If these instructional situations were classroom-based, the desired outcomes would be achieved with realistic hands-on practice activities and plenty of opportunities for meaningful feedback. I have never heard a good instructor respond, “Incorrect. Try again.”

How do we DO hands-on online?

Quizzes, drag and drop, links...are those the main activities we can do in online instruction without advanced programming skills and mega bucks? No! Some folks think real hands-on activities can’t be done in online instruction, or can be done only at great expense and skill, but that kind of thinking results in anemic and ineffective online instruction. We have to be able to allow people to practice, not just think about the concepts, or what’s the use of the instruction? If we really can’t do that in online instruction, or have to spend a fortune to do it, online instruction doesn’t have much value. The truth is that it’s the thinking that’s a problem, not the online learning.

Here are two errors in thinking that result in online instruction containing few, or less meaningful, activities.

  • Error 1: Hands-on has to cost a lot to build and requires loads of multimedia programming expertise.
  • Error 2: If the course is online, ALL the activities must be online.

In the classroom, most hands-on activities involve practice, questions, sharing, and feedback. This can also happen in e-Learning: online, using discussion and collaboration tools, and offline, in field experiences away from the computer, or on the computer but not necessarily inside the course.

I especially appreciate the ability to create simple application simulations using a tool like RoboDemo that allows learners to try applications. Users can also open the application itself, and while inside the actual application they can use performance support tools and job aids. They can post questions for a designated expert in a discussion forum. If they get stuck they can go ask the designated advanced user down the hall. These kinds of hands-on (but not necessarily online) activities could help people learning to use the new email system.

How would you deliver these online?
Proposed instruction Selected desired outcomes
Transition from one email system to another. Move contacts and mail to new format. Send email.
Write legally defensible performance reviews. Write legally defensible language. Apply ratings that follow policy manual guidelines.
Use common project management tools. Build a Gantt chart for a project. Determine the effect of delays

Most critical hands-on activities can easily occur, but not necessarily online. In the case of the performance review training, why not allow learners to write a real review for a real person and have a human resources expert provide online feedback (through email or a discussion board) or in person? The same approach would likely work for project management tools training. Let learners build a Gantt chart, for instance, use it, and debrief their use with others and with content experts. These debriefings could take place online in a discussion forum or other collaborative environment, or in small group meetings.


Getting unstuck

In most cases, hands-on activities happen easily with blending. Blend what the computer does well with what the person does well. Blend performance support and real applications. Blend conceptual instruction online with real life coaching in person.