10 Ways to Encourage Participation in Distance Learning (DL)
By Tess Robinson, Director, LearningAge Solutions
Technology now affords so many more options to learn new skills without being physically present, but how can we ensure that participants are kept engaged and motivated when they’re not sat in front of us? It’s a constant challenge and one that we haven’t yet completely cracked but we’d like to share some things here that have worked for us…
If the learning is taking place within an organisation, get yourself a champion at senior level. Choose someone who is respected and liked and who has influence. If learners can see that the learning is valued by the organisation, they will be more inclined to commit to it themselves.
If you are a company providing distance learning to a wide and varied audience, be aware that your reputation impacts heavily on the perception of the distance learning you have produced. For example; if you are an award-winning company, if people have been involved in the design who are well-known and well-respected in the sector you are likely to be perceived far more positively than a company who does not have this track record or involvement.
Consider accreditation. The fact that an external body has validated the learning can be very reassuring. Also consider whether the learning could lead to a qualification or provide credits – people do still love to collect ‘official’ things for their CVs.
Make sure that learners understand what is expected of them. They will need to know what the learning outcomes are and what the purpose of each element of the distance learning is, before they start to use it. For example; this could be in the form of a course guide that is emailed out in advance. It’s also important that learners are aware of the technical spec that they will need to run the learning and that they have the opportunity to install any relevant programmes, apps or upgrades before the learning starts in earnest.
Whatever DL intervention you offer, it should always aim to be rewarding, involving, engaging and enjoyable. Participants also need a very clear idea of what is in it for them. The learning outcomes and their benefits need to be stated at the outset.
Even if you get all the emotional motivators right, a badly designed intervention will soon put learners off and their motivation will take a rapid nosedive. Consider how learners will access the learning; one or two clicks is far better than wading through pages and pages to get to what you want. The choice of technology should be appropriate, relevant and aligned to the characteristics of the audience. If you have a few different elements, the purpose of each should be made clear at the outset.
Make sure your content is concise and to the point – think ‘more quality and less quantity’. Make it interesting, engaging and memorable. Use humour or try something a bit different, such as setting it in a fictional world or using story-telling to make your points.
Anyone who has ever undertaken distance learning knows that it can be lonely. Designing in elements of collaboration, peer review and tutor interaction, assignments and deadlines can help draw learners in and keep the pace of the course going. A ‘live’ element such as a webinar or ‘live chat’ can also help with engagement and to maintain interest.
5. Goal setting
At the outset, encourage learners to think about their goals in relation to the learning and beyond. On a simple level this can be achieved through reflection or, if you want to make it a more substantive part of the learning, through integrating goal setting technology into the course. These goals can be linked to performance review if necessary or can be stand-alone goals for the individual. They can also be tied to workplace transfer to ensure that what is learnt is put into practice.
Learning by experience is not a new concept. Reflection can be a powerful way to improve motivation, skills and confidence by allowing the learner to take a step back to consider and understand their experiences. It gives them space to think about what they might do differently next time, to challenge assumptions and to consider the positive as well as the negative. This can be done through a learning blog or wiki, or even privately off-grid. If you have a collaborative element to your learning, it can be very useful for learners to be able to see and comment on each other’s reflections. The success of this does, however, depend on your audience and the culture in which they are embedded.
7. Tutor skill
A skilful tutor can make all the difference to the success of distance learning. It is the tutor’s job to set the ball rolling, set the tone for the course and to maintain momentum, for example; through setting assignments. The tutor can also facilitate collaboration by asking questions and encouraging others to ask questions of him/her and each other.
The tutor is most effective when they maintain a presence. This might mean regularly clocking-in to the course, providing surgery times and responding to queries in good time.
8. Peer support
Giving a human face to participants encourages interaction. At the beginning of the course, learners can be asked to upload photos of themselves, to introduce themselves and share their goals for the course and beyond.
Peer review is an interesting and potentially very valuable tool. As long as participants can use it honestly and constructively, it encourages knowledge–sharing and provides a network of support alongside the tutor. This is particularly good for distance learning where the audience is spread globally, as learners can get feedback or ask for advice and get a reply from someone, be it peer or tutor, at any time of day.
9. International awareness
If you have a global audience, be aware of cultural differences, language barriers and time zone differences all of which can have a significant impact on participation. Review where your learners are coming from and schedule ‘live’ elements at times when most people can make it. Vary the times if necessary and always record it so that those who cannot attend can watch later.
10. Feedback/ problem reporting
There is nothing that makes you want to switch off more than if something isn’t working or you don’t understand what is being asked of you and you have no mechanism for feedback. Clearly, in most cases, the tutor cannot be available 24:7. It may be that peers can provide the answer but, if not, make sure that learners have access to a log, messaging facility, email address and/or phone number. Clear instructions on how to use these should be given at the outset along with expected response times.