aLearning Blog

Online Learning for Trade Associations

In Defense of the Course

Posted by Ellen on January 24, 2009

Jeff Cobb at Mission to Learn has got me thinking that it’s time for a sensible defense of the old-fashioned “course.” Jeff usually gets me thinking (thanks, Jeff!) his blog entry, “Learning Set Free” begs a debate.

Don’t get me wrong. I love and buy into the entire sensemaking approach — we actually use it in one of our programs. Anyone who reads this blog knows I’m keenly supportive of active learning. Etc. etc.

But there’s a time and place for the conventional “course.” Like everything else, we need to know when a course is appropriate and when sensemaking and other approaches are better choices.

Here’s a real-world example of when individual instruction is the best choice.  A few months ago I attended an orientation to Second Life. Thinking I’d get ahead of the game a bit, in an attempt to make sense of it on my own, if you will, so I could be a better student during the group session, I created my avatar, and jumped into SL. Suddenly I was immersed in a very foreign place, and was grateful for the SL “launch pad” that gave me a space to learn to walk and fly and get dressed. But then I hit the wrong button (okay, the right button for something, but the wrong button for me at that moment) and transported myself someplace very strange.

Surrounded by odd signs, freaky-looking (okay, they were to me — to each his own) avatars that were almost scary that bumped past me, I suddenly just wanted out. So I exited SL.

I only went back because of the orientation class, for which I had a clear destination and knew someone would be there to guide me.

Here’s the thing. At least a half-dozen people attended this orientation, and the organizer — one of the most patient people I’ve met since my driver’s ed days — guided each person through entering the room, walking, sitting, flying, etc… But it took so much time! As the organizer helped others, we pretty much stood or sat around, waiting.

Each of us needed individual attention and help. One at a time. A “course” is a lousy match for this type of situation.

So when is a course a better choice than individual instruction? Every association staff person who’s seen committee members and faculty/facilitators come and go have experienced what it’s like to repeat the same steps and processes every year or two. Creating a mini-“course” or tutorial to cover things that just don’t change much — like “What To Expect as an Education Committee Member” — and following that up with individual Q&A is the best use of everyone’s time.

Courses are ideal when they deliver content that needs to be consistent across all the learners. When you need to know that each person who attended (live or asynchronously) heard and saw the same policies explained or learned to perform specific procedures in the same way.

Sometimes we need conformity (though we really don’t want to admit it). And sometimes a “course” isn’t just efficient for the trainer — sometimes it’s a more efficient approach for the learner as well.

5 Responses to “In Defense of the Course”

  1. Jeff Cobb said

    Great post, Ellen. I don’t disagree at all that there are times and places – plenty of them, really – where traditional courses still apply. Having come recently from a company that does a lot of compliance training, I know that a “sensemaking” approach would not have flown very well with clients trying to defend, for example, their HIPAA compliance. Still, I do think there is more of a need for the sort of “mindset” that goes with sensemaking than has ever been the case in the past. Even in course situations, the best instructors will (as they always have) encourage learners to go beyond confines of the curriculum/syllabus, and the best learners (as they always have) will strive to develop their own abilities to learn more and better. Perhaps its just the nasty economy breathing over my shoulder, but the stakes on this seem higher than in the past. – Jeff

  2. gboulet said

    We hear and read everywhere that the course is dead. I just wander if I would fly with a self trained pilot oe be operated by a surgeon who got his medical degree reading blogs and wikis. Lets make it clear, yes we can learn a lot of stuff informally and sometimes more efficiently than through a course(you’ll learn more about pain if you’re hit by a car than sitting in a classrom discussing it), but some things just need to be taught and supervised by experts, expecially when error is not an option.

  3. Ellen said

    Jeff — Thanks for the comment, and for your shout-out on the AList Bloggers Network!

    Guy — Absolutely! We all have the “Hudson River Miracle” to point to now as an example of how lots of simulations and real-world practice (even not with the exact situation) can lead to learning success.

    My newest post adds additional thoughts on this topic. Thanks for following this blog!

  4. […] « In Defense of the Course […]

  5. […] Update: Be sure to read Ellen Behrens response in defense of the traditional course. […]

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