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Seven Pitfalls of Distance learning

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Stave Off These Seven Pitfalls of Distance Learning

You say you're ready to join the distance-trainer ranks?
Understanding the basic pitfalls can help boost your success rate in
achieving learning objectives, reducing dropouts, and avoiding rework.

Distance learning. Web-based training. Distributed learning. We've
all heard the buzz phrases and variations, but the only thing these
terms indicate is that learners and trainers or facilitators are in
different physical spaces. Trainers who are accustomed to traditional
classroom sessions often have concerns about delivering training
differently. Here's a rundown of some common pitfalls awaiting new
distance learning (DL) trainers.

Pitfall #1: Treating DL courses like traditional face-to-face
courses. Some trainers may be tempted to think that because
objectives and content are the same that DL can be handled just like
traditional training--that only the technology changes. Wrong!
Distance learning requires different media, delivery methods, course
design, evaluation methods, and learner-support structures.

Pitfall #2: Jumping straight to the course content. Let's face it:
Most people are not used to DL. So, when trainers jump directly into
course content, they often have to allot more time to the beginning
activities than originally planned. There can also be a lot of rework

Pitfall #3: Lacking the necessary support structure. Distance
learners have lots of questions and need feedback and reassurance. If
these are missing, you can count on lukewarm participation and course
dropouts. Remember that participants don't have direct contact with
you, so contact must take other forms.

Pitfall #4: Lacking motivation and/or managers' support. Because many
people in DL courses are studying independently, low motivation can
be a problem. Remember that motivation can be intrinsic or extrinsic,
so management support is vital for the latter.

Pitfall #5: Not planning for technology problems. Tech problems are
common. There's always someone who has a previous version of the
program that can't run the application, somebody who can't install
the plug-ins, or another person who doesn't have the right
connection. Sometimes a site doesn't receive the audio signal or
receives it with a delay. So, you should plan enough time and staff
to solve such problems.

Pitfall #6: Failing to consider cultural and regional differences.
Because DL courses reach many people, it's important to take into
account different cultures, races, genders, ages, languages, and time

Pitfall #7: Not planning enough time for discussion and teamwork. If
you think that working in teams at a distance requires the same
amount of time as doing so face-to-face, forget it. Remember that the
work is often done asynchronously, so it takes extra time for group
members to respond to messages and reach agreements.

If DL is new to you as a trainer, remember that you have to
experiment with the technology. And if you make mistakes, don't
despair. We've all made them--probably the same ones! Here are some
guidelines that can help you avoid some of the pitfalls.

Design your courses for DL. Even if your content is the same as a
previous face-to-face course, you must redesign the training. The
learning activities will be different--so will the interactions, the
length of time for each activity, the assignments, and the
evaluations. Don't assume that training with "traditional" methods
prepares you for training at a distance.

Plan all learning activities. Timing and planning is everything.
Activities that aren't well-planned and explained can generate
anxiety in learners. They need to know what's on the agenda so they
can set aside enough time for it.

Use technologies that serve a purpose. Technology is a tool and not
an end in itself. When you select a particular technology for DL,
make sure you're doing so because it's the best way to accomplish
your goals.

Practice. Always test-drive new activities with internal staff first.
If possible, take the place of a learner yourself. You're using a new
medium of communication, so it's a great way to discover what
problems might arise. Also, if you're using a remote-classroom
approach, rehearse. It's never the same talking to people face-to-
face as it is talking to a camera or a microphone.

Train yourself. You need to learn, too, but don't concentrate solely
on the technical aspects. There are human factors to consider. For
example, it's not enough to know how to send an email--you have to
see that the message doesn't offend anyone and isn't aggressive.
Similarly, when using a microphone, you need to know how to
articulate, at what speed to speak, and when to pause, not just how
to operate it.

Develop a learner-support structure. Supporting DL participants is
work-intensive. Be prepared to answer these questions:

1. How will they communicate with the trainer?
2. How will they communicate with each other?
3. Who will answer their technical questions?
4. Who will answer their subject matter questions?
5. Who will grade assignments and evaluations?
6. Who's in charge of feedback?

Allow plenty of time for group activities and discussions. One of the
most-used resources in DL is teamwork. It's an effective method of
learning, but it requires time. When you have a Web-based or print-
based approach, the communications are usually asynchronous (usually
email or postal mail), so bear in mind that it takes longer for teams
to discuss ideas and come to agreement.

Allow enough time for materials delivery. This is especially
important when you use print-based coursework. As a rule of thumb,
always send materials to participants early.

Have tech experts and alternative technologies on hand. Make sure
that your support team has either a group of experts for the
technology being used or quick access to one in case you have
problems (which are common). Also, try to have some fail-safe
alternative to new technologies, such as faxes and phones (in case
there are problems with email), or backup video- and audiotapes (in
case the transmission fails). The most reliable means is--and
probably always will be--the printed page.

Use readily available software and hardware. Before selecting a
particular hardware or software package to use for DL, take the time
to find out what's available to learners and how much it costs.
Always offer at least two software alternatives for emailing
assignments. And, don't send a CD-ROM if you're not sure that
participants have a CD-ROM player!

Use various media. To give learners alternatives, send the
information in different learning media. This not only supports the
theory of multiple intelligences and makes learning more effective,
but it also gives participants easy information access. For example,
you might send users a videotape and a hard copy of materials to
accommodate learning time at home and on the subway.

Allow for mistakes and lateness. Many people are experiencing these
electronic learning approaches for the first time, so be patient.
Especially at the beginning of a course, expect some users to have
problems with the new technologies, to make mistakes, and to take
more time than planned. Your job: to support and encourage them.
Have an introductory course for novices. You can offer new users a
brief course that instructs them step-by-step how to use the DL
technology. Keep it optional, though. There may be some people who
are already familiar with the system.

Give learners motivation, feedback, and assurance. In a DL
environment, participants can get lonely, anxious, and insecure, so
support is crucial. Use a friendly tone and try to encourage people
to assure them they're on the right track. Learners will also need
quick feedback for assignments, evaluations, and questions.
Encourage activities that motivate thinking. It's easy for distance
learners to become passive because they're working independently.
Sending people manuals to read won't accomplish learning, but
activities such as having them discuss topics among themselves,
defend positions, investigate topics, and apply knowledge may work.
Try to encourage and grade active participation.

Develop a diversity policy. Always consider differences in your
audience and establish communication rules, such as standard
Netiquette guidelines. And don't forget culture. Always remember whom
you're talking with and take their slang, customs, practices, and
timetables into account to build rapport.

These brief guidelines are no guarantee that your DL course will be
flawless, but they can help ease your entrance into this exciting
field. Unforeseen problems and snags happen, and you'll have to deal
with them as they arise. But if you plan for foreseeable
contingencies, you can take some of the distance out of learning.


Moises Sheinberg is the commercial development manager for Mabe
Mexico, an appliance manufacturer and distributor in Mexico City. His
background is in WBT and multimedia development. Contact Sheinberg at

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