Think of the most engaging asynchronous course you’ve ever experienced as an online learner at work. Can you picture it? Remember the interactivities, practice opportunities, and challenges included in the learning experience? Now ask yourself: Did you use a keyboard? Maybe you typed a password that enabled you to launch the course. Or, you entered your name to “personalize” the course (that’s not really personalization, by the way). Other than that, you most likely only interacted with the course by clicking or touching. You were probably not asked to write anything.
Now, think of the work emails you’ve composed this week. Can you picture them? Remember the explanations, justifications, and clarifications you painstakingly detailed? Now ask yourself: did the composition of your emails or the completion of the online learning experience require deeper thinking? Most likely: the emails. That brings up three questions:
Why is the act of writing such a powerful learning experience?
As I said in an earlier post, writing promotes reflection, increases creativity, builds networks, and more. Perhaps the greatest benefit is that writing helps clarify ideas. The process of writing this very post is a great example — I’ve written and rewritten these paragraphs multiple times as I’ve sharpened my thoughts.
What is it about writing for an audience that is so powerful?
Wired recently included an excerpt from Clive Thompson’s new book, Smarter Than You Think, that explains this phenomenon. It’s called the audience effect — the shift in our performance when we know people are watching. When a person is asked to communicate an idea to someone else, they focus and learn more. For most people, the size of an audience doesn’t matter. Thompson argues that “the cognitive shift in going from an audience of zero (talking to yourself) to an audience of 10 (a few friends or random strangers checking out your online post) is so big that it’s actually huger than going from 10 people to a million.”
Why don’t we ask our online learners to write more often?
Perhaps the most common explanation is that it’s difficult to track online learners’ writing. The SCORM standard doesn’t make this easy. In theory, a SCORM package could tell an LMS, “Hey, Joe Blow wrote the following paragraph…” However, SCORM packages have a finite number of characters that can be stored and communicated to an LMS. So, depending on a variety of technical factors, one could ask learners to type short responses to a handful of questions that are then reported to the LMS. But, unless someone is going to read all of the responses submitted to the LMS, no one is going to be able to verify that they were sufficiently written. Besides, writing for an audience of one (i.e. the LMS) isn’t very motivating.
Despite the challenges associated with providing writing opportunities during an asynchronous learning experience, it’s possible. Here are a few ideas to get your started:
Early in the design process, send a survey to your target audience asking for their thoughts on a topic. Then, include a sampling of those responses word-for-word in the course.
Ask learners to respond to questions outside of the SCORM package. Link to a discussion board where learners can write their thoughts and read posts written by others. If tracking participation is important, provide a numeric code on the “Thank You” screen that appears after a post has been submitted. Learners could then enter that numeric code within the course to demonstrate completion of the activity.
Based on a learner’s performance within the formal learning experience, assign them to one of two groups: experts and up-and-comers. Then, pair a member from each group together and ask them to connect via e-mail.
However you do it, try to stop ignoring the keyboard when designing asynchronous learning experiences. Pointing and clicking can make for great learning experiences, but writing can make them even better.