Monday, November 30, 2009

Self-Paced Elearning: How long is just right?

This course will take approximately _____ minutes to complete.
How many minutes, hours, days do you think should be entered in the blank above. If you were sitting at your desk, how much of your day would you like to spend taking an online training course?

How Much Time?
This is a question that the elearning team I work on tried to answer and, to be honest, I'm not quite sure we've figured it out yet.

Like many before us and many after us - our first elearning courses were very long. Like over 3 hours long. Overkill. There's only so much you can take in while staring at a screen. Most recently, we decided that no course would be more than 20 minutes. Which was a nice try, but not quite realistic. To accomodate more content/practice we decided to "string together" 20 minute courses by having a main hub for a course. Which works in theory, yet due to technology and tracking course completion, it only caused a distracting mess for the student when finishing a "sub" course and beginning a new one. Which brings us to our current understanding: courses can be longer than 20 minutes, but 2 hours is too much. Very flexible.

Timing Considerations
Here are some of my thoughts on determining how long a course should last. Some are hard-earned practical considerations I've learned, others are more textbook repeats.

Also, please note that I'm not saying that you pass a decree that all courses should be a specific length. It's more about making sure that students aren't spending too much or too little time on a single course.
  • Audience - It may be obvious, but you might ask the potential students how long they would like to spend on the topic.
  • Managers - This can swing either way. If the manager believes it to be an important topic, they might think it requires a long training session. But in our whirlwind time and push to produce and work like crazy, the manager might put strict limits on the time they can afford their staff to be away.
  • Spaced Learning - This is one of my favorites and not one that I've successfully built on yet. But I really like the idea of giving students small chunks on a regular basis until proficiency is achieved. For example, 20 minute course/activities every Monday for three months.
  • Real Time - Not real time as in synchronous all-togther learning, but analyzing how much time workers (aka students) really have. If they only have 30 minutes, then work with that, otherwise they will do the dreaded "multitasking" (which we know is synonmous with "not really paying attention") while taking the course.
  • Practice & Content & Testing - Do you plan to have all three? Following ADDIE helps ensure retention and means that you should usually have all three, but it also means that you will be battling bulging course times.
  • Extras - Balance is key here. Extras can include job aids, manuals, video clips, even graphics. The more you load into the course, the more you load on the student (i.e., cognitive load) and the more you load on to the time to complete the course. Beware of text dumps. Beware of glam. 
  • Single Courses vs Multiple Courses - This builds on some of the things above. Does everyone in the audience need the same thing? Maybe smaller courses can hold things that aren't in common across the board. Does the worker need everything today in order to do the job tomorrow? Maybe give them the basics today and "advanced" or additional information later. 
I'm sure there's a lot more, but these are some things to think about when analyzing a future or existing elearning course and deciding if it beats the clock.

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