COVID-19 has changed our lives seemingly overnight. Perhaps the hardest-hit group of all has been face-to-face businesses. Many were forced to adapt rapidly or close their doors and hope for a fast resolution to this crisis. As the CEO of SilkWeb Consulting & Development, an eLearning company based in Scottsdale, Arizona, I was curious to find out how non-instructional designers approached the challenge of custom eLearning development and what lessons we may be able to learn from them. I was also interested in learning how eLearning, now implemented in so many new places, may permanently change how these businesses operate, and in the process, expand opportunities for instructional designers in the future. I looked at three organizations—a karate dojo, a real estate brokerage, and a youth theater company—to examine how they are using eLearning to keep the doors open.

Martial arts at a distance

I began by interviewing Tyler Warren, who, along with the founder Ray Hugh are martial arts instructors at Scottsdale Martial Arts Center (SMACUS). I watched them design and develop their curriculum in just a matter of days, never missing a single class—an astonishing accomplishment for people with no previous eLearning design or development experience.

Tyler explained to me that they had a lot of challenges at the beginning. They had no written content and almost no idea where to start, and a reasonable level of fear. They knew that they needed to start with the bigger picture for each class. Tyler began by developing specific, measurable outcomes for each lesson. Many of their students are very young. He knew that he needed to keep the technology simple, both for the students and for the parents. They rapidly developed a series of instructional videos that they hosted on YouTube, guiding students step-by-step through exercises.

Tyler immediately realized that it was more challenging to maintain student focus online, especially for his younger learners, so he implemented a microlearning strategy, thereby shortening the length of online lessons. He provided individualized, formative feedback to students, and saw immediate improvements in engagement and progress.

He sees feedback as one of the most critical tools that he uses to teach and even more vital in the online environment. Students perform exercises using Zoom in one-on-one settings, which are critiqued by the sensei in real-time. Tyler is also using Zoom in group settings, where the class as a whole can practice various moves and positions.

Tyler understands that communication is critical. He uses daily emails to keep parents and students in the loop on what is going on and what students should be doing each day.

Tyler explained to me that this is part of a larger business model that is continuously adapting. As part of this adaptation, he recently adopted SPARK: software developed explicitly for the martial arts industry for managing billing, marketing, attendance, and content. He hopes this new tool will help tie everything together, making it easier for students to learn while helping him to better track participation and progress in this new environment.

His idea of what the school should look like continues to evolve as he finds better ways of adopting the existing technology to meet his student’s needs. He relies heavily on student and parent feedback to refine the model each day. Tyler sees a blended learning approach as the future of his industry, and it has been his goal for quite some time to integrate eLearning into his dojo. Now, COVID-19 is speeding up the realization of that goal.

Teaching realtors to do virtual house tours

HomeSmart (HS), a national real estate brokerage based in Scottsdale, Arizona, also adapted their business model to the pandemic using eLearning. A big part of what HS does is education. They must keep their brokers and agents current with changes in real estate law and market conditions and give agents the tools and resources needed to educate buyers and sellers. Although real estate is considered an essential business, and as such, HS can keep their doors open, they also must consider the safety of their agents and customers. With that in mind, the company completely revolutionized many essentially in-person business activities. HS posted tools and resources on their employee portal, educating agents on how to continue business virtually. Their strategies include hosting Facebook Live events, and using Google Meet and Zoom. HS has harnessed the power of social learning to educate and engage its agents and customers. They were already offering several online classes to their agents but now they have dramatically expanded the selection of online courses available to agents.

Open houses and showings have mainly been replaced by 3-D virtual reality tours (VR tours) that are pre-recorded using unique 3-D cameras and produced to be interactive. Prospective buyers can click through the home, examining every angle and corner of each of the rooms, as if they are physically in the house. Users that have 3-D glasses gain an even more immersive experience.

Virtual open houses also provide prospective buyers with an opportunity to look around a property from the safety of their own homes. Selling agents can schedule virtual open houses using the Multiple Listing Service (MLS) in the same manner as planning a traditional open house. Different from VR tours, virtual open houses are real-time and not available in 3-D. Prospective buyers join the presentation using a link and can participate using their device, typically a phone or tablet. The agent hosts the open house onsite, usually using Zoom. The listing agent follows the requests of the buyer while walking the property. Anyone who joins the meeting can ask the agent questions, giving buyers many of the same benefits of being in the home in real-time but without the risk of contracting COVID-19.

As buyers begin to use these technologies, the real question will be if they will continue to use them after the crisis is over or return to in-person showings. I spoke to Jean Collins, an agent about her experience using the technology. She mentioned that at first agents and buyers alike were hesitant to make the change and skeptical about the value of the experience. Now that they have begun to use the technology and are becoming comfortable with it, they are finding it a suitable replacement for in-person showings.

Blending singing, dance, and acting lessons online

I also examined Phoenix Youth Theater (PYT). They offer singing, dancing, and acting classes to kids of all ages. I spoke with Steve Giles, one of the founders of PYT, who described the pandemic as a crisis that pushed him and his partner Jacqueline Dunford to fast track methodologies that they had been envisioning for a while. As Steve explained, out of necessity this emergency has opened up the doorway for eLearning in their market, and now customers are widely accepting it.

Although Steve and Jacqueline were already offering some one-on-one classes online, it took a substantial investment in resources and time to get the rest of their operations online. Like SMACUS, they started offering a combination of live and recorded web-based lessons. They use Zoom to present the live lessons and Vimeo to host the recorded content. They also utilize Bluebrry to host MP3s and a restriction plugin to control their content on their web site.

Very early in the conversion process, they learned that an online lesson requires a substantially higher time investment than the face-to-face equivalent.

Steve also realized that structure would be critical and that they would need to completely rethink the flow of content to maintain learner growth and engagement. They began by rewriting their lesson plans for online delivery. For each item on the lesson plan, they had to ask themselves the question, "I can give students value as long as ___ ?” Completing the sentence requires a measurable learning outcome. For each item on the lesson plan, they also needed to decide exactly what resources the students would require and what learning methodology would best meet that need. Next, they decided what tool to use. Would video, audio, text, still image, etc. be needed for the item? Should this be live or recorded? Can they accomplish the outcome in a group setting, or should this be completed one-on-one? Like SMACUS, they quickly understood that chunking content, a strategy based on cognitive psychology, made the content digestible, and improved learner outcomes. These new challenges are making Steve rethink his definition of what it means to be a teacher.

For Steve and Jacqueline, changing the business model overnight did not come without its challenges and setbacks. Their heavy reliance on so many new tools naturally resulted in ongoing technical fires that they needed to extinguish, all part of the growing pains of starting an online school. One of the first major issues that they encountered was a caching problem on their website. Then, the entire Vimeo platform went down for almost six hours. They also had to consider and patch security gaps. They must continuously monitor and improve the new online model every day to keep it up and improve eLearning's value for their students.

Despite some setbacks, Steve sees some of the innovations that they have recently implemented, becoming a permanent fixture of their business model in the future post-pandemic world. Like SMACUS, they continue to see the high value of face-to-face learning in their industries. Still, a blended approach may be a better option for many students and busy parents, especially a methodology that uses eLearning for review and remediation.

Dropping the "e"

eLearning, first conceived in the 1990s, is no longer just knocking at the public's door. It is breaking it down and in our homes, and likely to stay. For many businesses like SMACUS, HomeSmart, and PYT, the lessons learned and innovations made today will not only keep their operations going now, but will give them a leg up in their markets tomorrow and beyond. eLearning will make it possible for them to engage and connect with their learners like never before, while removing location and mobility obstacles and, over time, improve retention. They may find new uses for micro and adaptive learning methodologies and existing tools as ways of strengthening existing instruction. While eLearning companies like mine may be at the start of a new golden age of eLearning, where education technology services and technology become synonymous with learning, we no longer see the need to differentiate eLearning from learning, dropping the "e" permanently.