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FOCUS - Interactivity in a Distance Learning Environment

Karen Mantyla, President
Quiet Power, Inc.

Let's start with the learners, always the best way to start anything in distance learning! What do learners think about when they get ready to learn via distance learning? Take a quick survey of learners getting ready for their first distance learning experience (and also try to remember back when you were doing it for the first time). Ask them:
1) "What is your understanding or perception of how you will be interacting with others in this distance learning course or event?"
2) "How do you think that your participation during the learning experience will be different from a face to face classroom experience?"

And, then take a quick survey of those learners who have already taken several distance learning courses. Ask them:
1) "Did you expect to actively participate prior to the learning experience?"
2) "How did you feel about your level of personal participation during the learning experience? Did you feel self-motivated to participate? If so, what were the benefits to you? If you did not actively participate, why not?"

The answers to these questions are very telling and provide excellent feedback as we work to create the best distance learning experience for our learners.

Based on my own experience as a distance learner, I sure did not realize how important my own participation was to my successful outcome(s) of the course or event. My own initial perception was that I would sit back and listen (or, read, or, watch), take some notes and go home, or, if I was home, put the notes away and go make a sandwich. I really was not sure how I would participate, or even if I wanted to! I initially thought of distance learning as a passive learning

I found out in talking with many distance learning students that many of them had similar perceptions. After I took several distance learning courses, I saw for myself, in addition to watching and talking with hundreds of learners, the vital role that interactivity plays in the success of any course delivery.

The importance of interaction simply can't be overstated. Adult learners, just like K-12 learners, need to be actively engaged in learning activities in order to help maximize their understanding and real-world application of what you are trying to offer to them.

Success of any distance learning course, event, or usable knowledge object is measured by the remote students. If they like it and learn, you have achieved success. As it relates to interactivity then, how can you, as an instructor or designer, help the remote learner have a successful experience?

Interactivity is a key component in getting learners to participate in an active learning event. The key word centered around all of this is the word "active". When I took the Distance Learning Certificate Program at UW-Madison, I remember reading over and over again:
1) Design for short segments of 10 or 15 minutes
2) Design for a minimum of 30% interaction, and preferably more towards 50%, (that is, a program should devote 30-50% of the time to interaction)

Sometimes veteran instructors have a challenging time taking their hours of lecture and "interactiveizing" it. Yet, it must be done if we are to be of help to the learner. We are facilitators of learning and need to find creative ways to weave interactivity into every 10 minute chunk of learning content.

Adults do what adults do, that is, we need to understand and be able to actively apply what we have learned to our present situation. Theory is good and has it's place, but the "how to's" and application to our real world scenarios are the bottom line and answer the "what's in it for me" aspect of learning.

How many learners perceive that they are less likely to be called upon to contribute their comments, findings, suggestions, etc. to others in a distance learning environment? In working with many learners across the country, there is still a perception that they are less likely to be called upon or have to contribute to these optional ways of learning. It's simply a mindset perception and one we as educators can help change.

Here's a framework to think about as you make the transition to designing, developing and facilitating successful interactive distance learning activities. This framework is an excerpt from my book "Interactive Distance Learning Exercises That Really Work" presented to you with permission and published by the American Society for Training & Development, © 1999 Alexandria, VA. This book is designed to explain how to convert classroom
exercises that will be delivered via different distribution methods, such as, videoconferencing, satellite, web based, CD ROM, audio, etc. However, the framework that follows can be used as a foundation for any distribution method or blending of methods that you may use.

Getting Started - The process begins by selecting the audience you want to reach and the exercises you want to teach. Following are some of the key steps in the process:

Understand the Differences Between On-Site Interactivity and Distance Learning - As you plan your distance learning activities, carefully think about the ways learner perceive the differences between on-site interactivity and distance learning. Following are some important differences:

Focus on the Learner - Because of the differences in perception, you'll want to do the following:

Prepare Instructors for the New Interactive Experience - The following three guiding principles will help you when you are going to train the trainer:

Distance learning instructors can be most effective if they do the following:

Because you must find ways to connect with learners you may never see face-to-face, be sure to develop formats and strategies for interactive exercises and create the following:

Ask yourself key questions to help adapt your exercises for distance learning:
1) Can the learners complete the exercises on their own without an instructor or facilitator?
2) Will the learners:

Put yourself in the learner's seat and look at how you can create successful learning outcomes. When the learner succeeds, everyone wins.

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© Copyright 2006 Board of Regents, University of Wisconsin
Last Updated: January 2006