Elearning Modalities

A model that categorizes elearning into modalities is useful when developing new curricula. You can use it to analyze a proposed curriculum and determining what types(s) of courseware to develop. You can also use it to clearly communicate what type(s) of courseware an elearning course uses when the curriculum is put into production. There is a wide variety of ways elearning is delivered and, without specifying a modality, it can be unclear what someone is referring to when they just say “elearning.”

I teach a class about elearning instructional design. In the class, I present a model I created based on the assumptions that:

  • the model covers only formal elearning, not informal.
  • each modality in the model is discrete from the others.
  • combined, all the modalities comprise all types of formal elearning.

The model has three modalities. Two of them are asynchronous and two are instructor-led.

Asynchronous learner-directed

This is what is most frequently thought of when someone thinks of elearning. It is the modality most commonly used in the business environment. Asynchronous learner-directed elearning has the following characteristics:

  • Delivered via Web application
  • No instructor or facilitator
  • Learner can study at any time or place with Internet access
  • Learner progress tracked by learning management services (LMS)
  • Interactivity implemented with multimedia
  • Supports adaptive learning
  • Typically AICC and/or SCORM-conformant

Asynchronous instructor-led

This is perhaps the least common of the elearning modalities. However, it’s the most widely used modality in academic institutions of higher learning. The instructor often is as much a curator as he or she is a facilitator in this modality. Asynchronous instructor-led elearning has the following characteristics:

  • Typically a mashup of content formats
  • Constructed with LMS
  • Learners access content at any time or place with Internet access
  • Instructor assigns deadlines to learning activities
  • Recorded lecture (i.e. slide deck with instructor voice-over) on-demand
  • Threaded discussions held asynchronously
  • Reading assigned per lesson

Synchronous virtual classroom

A synchronous virtual classroom service is typically used to deliver what is commonly called a “webinar.” However, interaction is often very limited in a webinar, so they’re typically more of a lecture than a seminar. Therefore, I prefer to call them a “wecture.” That said, some classes are delivered very well in the synchronous virtual classroom when they’re designed for the modality and leverage the full suite of virtual tools available. The synchronous virtual classroom has the following characteristics:

  • Virtual classroom is proprietary application (e.g. Cisco WebEx, Citrix GoToTraining)
  • Learners and instructor meet virtually in the classroom at the same time
  • Slide deck presented live
  • Learners speak with instructor in real-time
  • Whiteboard or computer applications can be shared with learners
  • Should be much more than a webinar when used effectively

The most common feedback I get about this model is in regards to blended learning. Many people think it should be an additional modality in the model. However, I define blended learning as multiple modalities combined into one curriculum, not a modality unto itself. Identifying a curriculum as blended learning says nothing about whether it combines synchronous with asynchronous or learner-directed with instructor-led. This is not clear until the modalities that are blended into the curriculum are identified.

This model works quite well for the asynchronous learner-directed and synchronous virtual classroom modalities. But asynchronous instructor-led learning does not hold up as well to the first two assumptions I list above. You could make the argument that asynchronous instructor-led learning is actually blended learning rather than a distinct modality.

I’m also uncertain if the model fully meets the third assumption when considering some of the tools and tactics in emerging use with learning. Therefore, I’d love to get some other ideas about modalities, or a model for them, that I can incorporate into the class I teach. Please leave a reply below and share your thoughts if you can suggest a model that fits the assumptions I listed above.

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