Embracing the New Frontier of Online Learning

online learningImagine you’ve been asked to dip your toe into online learning by delivering a CLE course virtually. Congratulations, you will soon be a vILT (virtual instructor-led training) instructor.

Sure, you’re excited about the opportunity, but with all the other work on your plate, you don’t have time to develop a new PowerPoint. Fortunately, you already have one from an in-person CLE you presented on the topic last year. Now, all you have to do is change the title, remove the name of the old provider, and send in the materials. In other words, you have to digitize the in-person content.

Yes, throwing your PowerPoint up on Zoom and talking through the content for an hour is an education style (i.e., lecture) and meets the ‘letter of CLE law’ requirements. However, if the purpose of CLE is to help each participant become a better attorney and a little more confident in a topic, you may want to rethink your approach to consider the ‘spirit of CLE law.’

The Way Things Were

To start, take your mind back to a time when we could interact with others in the same room – 2007, I believe – and specifically to an event you really enjoyed. Maybe it was a meeting, panel discussion, or bar association networking event.

What was it about the event that you enjoyed? Though the subject matter may have been enlightening, I would bet your enjoyment was in large part due to the presenter and people in attendance. Whether it’s an off the cuff remark, interesting discussion, or the general atmosphere in the room, we gain a lot from the physical presence of others.

Now, bring your mind to a (perhaps) more recent time when you’ve entered a web-link rabbit hole. This happens when you start with the intention of reading one article, click on a link within it, then click on a link within that. Before you know it, you have seven tabs open and you’ve forgotten what the original article was about – although you’re now an expert on the appeals process in 19th century Belgium.

The enjoyment of these two learning experiences stem from the nature of each environment. The first is derived from how the talents of others enhance our experience, which is often subtle, immediate (no lag), and supported by non-verbal cues.

The second is the almost unlimited nature of content online, the contextual references immediately available, and the autonomy to guide learning based on our personal preferences.

Remote vs. Online Learning

Ignoring the fundamental difference in the nature of these two learning environments is where presenters and facilitators can run into trouble.

When in-person courses are simply digitized for online venues – in other words, a presentation is essentially kept the same but broadcast as a lecture – it is not online learning as a fully realized concept, but remote learning – a distance facsimile of an in-person event. This practice elevates the weaknesses of both environments and minimizes their strengths.

As it stands, online webinar tools are still choppy and delayed, with laptop microphones unable to distinguish well between background and foreground noise. This means that a cough is as good as a comment and discussion can be frustrating in large groups.

Additionally, even the most charismatic speakers don’t have the same power when presenting on a small screen. Quick hands up – who looks around the room for a friendly, nodding face when asking a question in an in-person CLE? Yep, that is gone as well.

Alternatively, if you want to include resources in an in-person course, they have to be added to the participant materials. And, it can be just as frustrating turning to Appendix IX, Subsection B. Research and deeper dives into topics are either referenced and ignored or so watered down that presenters essentially spoon-feed conclusions to participants.

Embracing the New Frontier

At the time of writing this post, it seems that in-person CLE is a long way away and may never come back at the same volume. I encourage you to embrace this reality and think about online learning as a new frontier for educational innovation.

What does that look like? Here are some things to consider when developing a live online course from the ground up:

  • Use the internet while on the internet. The strength of the virtual format is that participants have access to the greatest repository of research, data, and (mis)information ever collated. Use it. Encourage them to access it during the course for practical activities, case studies, and supporting content. For example, do you have a brief scenario in your PowerPoint? If so, add a link in the chatbox to real-world examples that participants can investigate and discuss. This can also help minimize the amount of text on your slide.
  • Embrace small groups. Most webinar software platforms have an option for dividing participants into smaller breakout groups for discussion. Make sure yours is enabled, get comfortable with it, and use it prodigiously. More people are likely to contribute when they’re in smaller groups. Plus, embrace the 10/5 Rule.
  • Go beyond the linear PowerPoint. Use your PowerPoint presentation as a launchpad for interactive and supporting content such as quizzes (e.g., Kahoot, SurveyMonkey, etc.), branching scenarios (more to come on that in a later blog), investigatory research, and so much more.
  • Capture participant contributions. Most of us are familiar with Google Docs or similar collaboration software. Instead of asking the breakout session groups to report their discussion topics back to the larger group, consider linking to a shared folder and asking each group to capture their thoughts in whatever form they would like. Then ask the class to take 5 minutes to look at each groups’ work. It’s like walking through an online gallery.
  • Release control of the content. With the wealth of information people have access to, consider giving up some control over the content. This can be done by starting the course with a question or problem to solve. For example, “How can John the lawyer better manage his well-being?” The course could start with an overview of John’s persona and an average week. The session proceeds as a series of subsections, researching and addressing specific tools participants think would help John manage his work and personal obligations. The facilitator would serve as the guide.

These suggestions may not work for everyone, but none of them are too complex or require a steep learning curve. I encourage those developing online learning experiences to give them a try and see what other ideas they spark.

My final comment is this: be fearless and make mistakes. To highjack a quote from the British writer Osbert Sitwell, “Poetry [Teaching] is like fish: if it’s fresh, it’s good; if it’s stale, it’s bad; and if you’re not certain, try it on the cat [your colleagues].”

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