Balancing Self-Directed Learning And Interactions
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Combining Interactions And Self-Direction

One of the biggest benefits of a Learning Management System (LMS) is the opportunity for self-directed learning. Learners can not only choose their own learning paths, but they can also access course sessions at the times that best suit them and go through the training content at their own pace. However, when online learning is a purely solo activity, busy employees can easily rationalize putting it off until they’re too far behind to meet the course deadline or they completely lose motivation.

It’s well-proven that interactions with an instructor and interactions with other learners both contribute to keeping learners engaged. Additionally, participating in group activities such as in-depth discussions or project work helps learners better understand and retain information. While many learners prefer synchronous communications, (e.g., live chats), asynchronous interactions (e.g., discussion threads) allow them more time to reflect on training content as well as their responses to questions and ongoing discussions. Plus, asynchronous communication is more practical when it comes to accommodating conflicting work schedules and time zone differences.

However, facilitating interactions of any sort requires adding structure in the form of time constraints that somewhat reduce learners’ autonomy. In order for interactions to be meaningful, learners have to log in to the LMS and participate in the chat or discussion at a certain time or at least within a certain time frame. The challenge is to provide enough structure for interactions that will build engagement while also allowing enough freedom for self-direction.

The 3 online learning models below combine flexibility (in the form of asynchronous participation) needed for self-directed learning with some form of interaction: asynchronous Instructor-Led courses with mandatory discussions, learning chatbots as virtual coaches, and instructorless collaborative learning.

1. Asynchronous Instructor-Led Courses And Discussions

Many companies now opt to have Instructor-Led courses delivered via an LMS to make it easier for learners in diverse locales to attend. In the asynchronous online course format, as long as learners meet the deadlines for assignments and activities set by the instructor, they can work on the course at whatever time best fits their schedule. However, participation in discussions is mandatory. Learners interact via an asynchronous threaded discussion, and instructors monitor the discussion threads to see who has and who has not left comments. If a learner has not been participating, the instructor sends a prompt reminding them that participation counts toward successful completion.

Mandatory participation in discussions is designed to generate the two types of interactions (learner-learner interactions and learner-instructor) that encourage feelings of community and engagement. Additionally, in order for learners to feel really supported by instructors, an LMS may offer private discussion forums or live chats for one-on-one discussions with instructors.

2. Learning Chatbots

Learning chatbots have been serving as training assistants for the last couple of years and producing very positive effects. Learners have shown increased engagement and follow-through when interacting with a chatbot during a course (and even afterward when the chatbots give post-training prompts). Chatbots have the advantage of being available 24/7, and modern language programming enables them to answer many questions in a natural, conservational manner that puts users at ease.

The reason that chatbots are included here is that the technology for these Artificial Intelligence tools has improved to the point that they’re actually evolving into virtual coaches or trainers. In the early part of 2020, one vendor released a version of their LMS featuring a virtual coach that can proactively suggest learning paths or materials that suit the particular needs and interests of each learner and also remind them about completing courses.

3. Instructorless Group Learning

Research has found that learner interaction alone can also cultivate engagement. For example, in 2018, the International Review of Research in Open and Distributed Learning published a study of 21 self-selected teams of adult learners involved in problem-based learning. The teams that worked together successfully were the ones that communicated clearly and fully about how members would work together and what their expectations of each other. Additionally, teamwork was most effective when members encouraged each other and reached a consensus on how communication would flow within the group.

However, the absence of instructors often made the learning process less efficient. Without an instructor to model and encourage communication and collaboration methods that would produce co-creation as well as in-depth discussion that would result in collectively-developed insights, many of the teams simply compiled members’ individual contributions. In this instance, self-direction may have been something of a disadvantage, particularly for those unfamiliar with online learning. Consequently, this mode of learning tends to be best suited for experienced individuals.

Striking The Right Balance

The typical eLearning format of video lessons and quizzes causes learners to passively consume facts rather than actively engage with peers and instructors. Modifying a course from the typical format to one that encourages interactions can be challenging. But creating the right balance between learning autonomy and interaction enables learners to reap the full benefits of LMS-delivered training.

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