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Going Online: How to Build an e-Learning Institution

This article was specially written for the e-Learning Centre by Joe Bray, Stream UK


Introduction

Many institutions have a wealth of resources, but few are able to successfully convert this into an accessible online learning experience. In this article we look at the basis of a successful e-learning institution and examine a functioning example of best practice.

One of the main causes of expense is an insufficient brief, which leads to unwarranted and unnecessary work being performed. Stream UK has developed a reflexive acronym for developing an e-learning institution from scratch:

Set your goals
Target your audience
Record your information
Encode your information
Make the interface publicly available
Assemble the interface
Update your site regularly
Know your results



Set your goals

The first stage in any project is the establishment of an agreed goal.This goal can be framed by asking:

  • What information will be included?
  • What is it about the information to be presented that is attractive to the online viewer?
  • How will the site develop in the future?
  • Are resources available for a high or low maintenance site?
  • What results are expected and how will these be measured?


Target your audience

The next and most important variable to be defined is the target audience. This decision drives the entire development of the site including the frequency of updates and the degree of interactivity.

  • Who is the intended audience?
  • What should the target audience be doing whilst interacting with the site?

Each individual within an organisation will have an individual learning style.For online learning this is compounded by differing levels of computing skill Since e-Learning is essentially self-study, the goals and motivations of the project must accord with those of the learner.In many cases, support from a respected mentor is also needed to provide feedback and a sense of progress.

The delivery conditions must also be fully appraised and contended with.Despite the continued predictions of a ‘Broadband Explosion’, if the vast majority of the audience are on 56K modems, then the learning portals should be optimised at this connection rate.



Record your information

Quality recording of information is an essential ingredient.It is most critical for video recordings when bad framing, bad lighting, or bad sound can seriously impair the experience.

Textual material and still images also need to be carefully assessed; hard copies should be digitalised using the best possible equipment.If in doubt, commission professionals to perform the process.



Encode your information

Encoding is the process of turning offline information into data that can be delivered digitally. Again the main bulk of encoding will be for the video and audio parts to the e-learning where the choice is determined largely by your target audience.

Windows Media Player and Real Player are the two major contenders for media players with large and approximately marke penetrations.However if you are communicating with Mac users they will probably prefer Real, at least until the new Mac Windows Media Player becomes established.



Assemble the interface

The interface dictates the type of interaction with your users.It should always be as simple as the required functionality allows.

The best interfaces can be customised as the user becomes increasingly familiar with the process, rather than ambushing an unsuspecting novice with a vast array of unintelligible features.How skilled is my audience (PC skills/multimedia skills/educational skills)?

  • How much feedback is expected/desired?
  • What media formats do I want to be able to incorporate?
  • How will I build redundancy into the delivery?


Make the interface publicly available

The interface will normally be available by CD-Rom, DVD or online. Each has its own advantages and disadvantagesThe main considerations are shown in the table below.

Format Pros Cons
CD-Rom
  • Portable and (almost) universally accepted
  • Cheap, reliable and easily tested
  • Excellent delivery of high-bandwidth material
  • Platform specific (PC or Mac
  • Relativelylow storage if video is being used (640MB)
  • Hard to update
DVD
  • Higher storage than a CD (over 7 times the capacity
  • Excellent delivery of high-bandwidth material
  • Not universally accepted but becoming increasingly so
  • Relatively expensive to develop and copy
  • Hard to update
Online
  • Easy to update and maintain
  • Accessible on demand
  • Interactive
  • PC or Mac accessible
  • Bandwidth limits quality of delivery
  • The cost is ongoing and related to success

Update your site regularly - Critical to maintaining the sense of interest and involvement is to keep the material current and to include feedback.

One of the key advantages to an online portal is that it can include the very latest information (new lessons, company message, results, latest findings) without having to be redesigned and distributed. The development of a database-driven site will make the inclusion and indexing of new material seamless.



Know your results

A lot of activity on the Internet escapes the slide rule applied to other expenditure.This should not be the case. The initial project specification should include specific, quantifiable goals.

For online learning, the main way of assessing the achievement or otherwise of your goals will be a thorough statistical package, supplied by your professional e-learning partner. These reports should be tailored to your requirements.



Case Study – Gresham College

The Holborn-based Gresham College has been providing free public lectures for over 400 years and last year moved to make its resources freely available on the internet. The two-stage process began last year with the College putting in place a permanent Webcasting studio that allows lectures to go out live. This year the material from 20 lectures is being combined in e-learning portals that include slides, lecture transcript, chapterisation and the facility to discuss the issues raised.

Gresham College has the freedom to offer information as a resource, but with this freedom comes problems.

An intuitive interface was required with accessibility of prime concern. In order to maximise the potential audience, the complexity of the portal had to be minimised.

Stream UK also stressed that attention had to be paid to the two of the most frequently neglected areas in the development of the e-learning experience:

  • The underlying psychology of the learning experience
  • The substantive delivery conditions of key elements, most notably streaming video.

Each individual within an organisation will have an individual learning style. For online learning this is compounded by differing levels of computing skill. Since e-learning is essentially self-study, the goals and motivations of the project must accord with those of the learner. In many cases, support from a respected mentor is also needed to provide feedback and a sense of progress.

The delivery conditions must also be fully appraised and contended with. Despite the continued predictions of a ‘Broadband Explosion’, if the vast majority of the audience are on 56K modems, then the experience should be optimised at this level.

To solve Gresham’s delivery issues, Stream UK worked to develop an interface according to three agreed principles

  1. That the critical audio track should be prioritised if connection problems start to squeeze transmission;
  2. That redundancy should be inbuilt in the form of transcript and slide back-up to the audio stream;
  3. That moving images should be crisp and clear rather than large and woolly

The final stage in the development was to create a flexible database that would allow the inclusion of new material an the indexing of existing material. A format was decided upon that would group the encoded footage by subject and display those groupings on a central index page (see www.gresham.ac.uk)




For a free consultation and advice on how to create streaming based e-learning systems please phone Stream UK (www.streamuk.com) on 0207 843 4339 or email elearning@streamuk.com

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