March 19th, 2018 Business

Skill-based online learning helps learners put their knowledge to use.

Have you ever considered the difference between a course that teaches knowledge versus one that teaches skill? For most of us, the distinction may not seem all that important, but it actually has a significant impact on how we teach an online class.

Some courses are inherently skill-based. Imagine taking a coding course in which you were never required to write a line of code, or a French course in which you never spoke a word of French. Sounds pretty useless, right? That’s because coding is a skill most of only learn by doing.

Others, especially humanities course, place a greater emphasis on knowledge. These courses tend to follow more traditional class structures, with an instructor imparting knowledge in a lecture and then quizzing learners to measure how much of that knowledge they retained.

However, there’s no reason a subject with a knowledge focus can’t incorporate skill-based elements into the learning experience. Doing so helps learners focus during a lesson, retain information, and apply it in real-case scenarios. As a result, skill-based learning leads to learners who are better able to use their learning in a real-world environment.

Knowledge provides context, but skills are about application. If you’re looking for ways to add most skill-based learning to your course, here are a few ways to start.

Identify the skills you want your learners to acquire.

If I were teaching an online course in American History, what skills would I want my learners to know by the end of the course? Most of us might automatically think of knowledge-based objectives, such as what caused the Great Depression or why the Hoover Dam was built.

However, a skill-based objective might require learners to evaluate an original source document. When was the document written? Who wrote it? Why is the document important? What biases does the source have, and can we take what they say at face value? That’s a critical thinking skill that someone interested in history has to develop if they want to make sense of original source material.

Similarly, an economics course might ask learners to interpret a data set and explain their conclusions. Linguistics students might work through a series of language samples to identify sound patterns.

If you work professionally in a field, identifying the skills your learners should gain from your course is no more difficult than identifying the ones you use most frequently in your work.

Create real-life scenarios.

Several years ago, I spent a couple semesters in culinary school taking baking and pastry classes. The class usually began with 30–50 minutes of instruction in different types of flour, or the various consistencies of heated sugar, before moving into the kitchen for 4–5 hours of baking.

Given the hands-on nature of baking classes, you wouldn’t consider them a great candidate for online learning. And yet, you can find online culinary courses on almost any subject, including an entire online culinary institute.

Cooking courses have real-life application, and it’s very easy for the learner to measure and be satisfied with their own success. This is one of the great benefits of skill-based learning. Because learners can immediately apply their knowledge to a real-life scenario, it’s more satisfying to the learner, and more likely to be remembered.

Include interactive elements.

Even skill-based learning exercises can begin to feel like dull homework assignments if learners have to accomplish them alone on their own time. But an interactive project in which learners engage with another learner, the instructor, a computer, or even real customers in a controlled scenario can provide a more memorable and instructive experience.

By way of example, take chess: if you wanted to run an online chess course, one of the best ways to do so would be through an interactive chess game where you could pose different problems on a chess board, and allow learners to practice finding solutions.

Again, there are several examples of this already online, such as Chess Academy, which even begins with a practice game against a computer to help place new learners.

Language apps are another perfect place to create an interactive experience, and also an ideal way to incorporate gamification, as we’ve blogged about before. Apps such as HelloTalk allow learners to chat with native speakers around the world, who are then able to send corrections back. Others, such as iTalki, help connect learners with online tutors for face-to-face lessons. The real-time feedback helps learners absorb language faster, and mimics the fast pace of an immersive language experience.

Is there any skill that can’t be taught online?

Some training can only happen in person or in a live environment. For instance, skills that require advanced machinery won’t have much of a market online, because learners are unlikely to have access to the right equipment. Also, the higher the stakes, the less likely online training will apply.

But in general, many skills can be taught online with a little creative lesson planning. These days, it’s possible to find courses in skills as diverse as cooking and acting. Vocal coaches offer lessons through Skype, and language programs connect learners from around the world. Paradoxically, communications courses (which traditionally have had a lot to do with in-person skills) are now one of the most popular online subjects.

The reason is simple. A course might be taught online, but the skills don’t need to be learned online. Online instructors only need to find ways to evaluate the skills that are learned in order to teach a successful course.

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