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Knowing your learners

Introduction

One of the first principles when developing any teaching or training course, whether for online or face-to-face delivery, is to understand your audience.

This section focuses on the different ways in which you can get to know your learners in online settings in order to make your training more responsive to their needs and situations.

Understanding your learners’ characteristics

Understanding who your learners are is always key to delivering good training. Through your existing monitoring and evaluation activities you probably already know quite a lot about the people who usually attend your face-to-face training sessions.

For example, you may know:

  • their ages, genders, ethnicities, and any disabilities
  • their professional or working backgrounds, or the life experiences they are likely to have had
  • why they attend your training sessions and how they usually respond to the different components.

  

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It is important to keep collecting this kind of information in online training so that you can continue to use it to improve your courses, and also so that you can discover any differences between who attends your online training and your face-to-face sessions.

It is fairly straightforward to move your existing monitoring and evaluation activities online, using a free survey or quiz tool such as Google Forms or SurveyMonkey. Building in time in a synchronous session to fill in the forms usually works better than leaving people to fill in forms afterwards.

Online learning needs

When you move to online training, you also need to know other things about your learners:

  • how confident and familiar they are working online
  • what technologies and online tools they are already familiar with (e.g. video conferences, webinars, social media)
  • how easy it is for them to get internet access
  • what devices they are using to get online (e.g. phone, tablet or computer)
  • whether they need any extra resources to make online training accessible to them, for example screen-readers or writing tools.
Activity: Learning to train online
Timing: Allow about 10 minutes

Watch the video where Charlotte Chishava, who works as an international development consultant, talks about what happened when they moved their training online as a result of Covid-19.

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Now answer these questions:

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By reflecting on their new knowledge about the volunteers’ online learning needs, Charlotte and her team were able to redesign the course so that it worked much better.

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Ensuring online training is accessible to people with disabilities and those with additional needs is particularly important. Online training has the potential to be much more accessible than face-to-face training, because participants do not need to travel to training venues and with asynchronous training they can study at their own pace and at a time that suits their needs.

Barriers to online learning

Difficulties with technology or internet access can be very frustrating barriers to learning, so it is important to have a good understanding of the challenges that are likely to occur in your context, and to choose the online tools you use accordingly. It is often better to use a simple tool that is already familiar to your participants, as Charlotte did when she chose WhatsApp, than something more complicated with which they may struggle.

If your training takes place over several sessions you can start off with a simple tool and then carefully introduce more complicated technologies later if they enable you to do particularly important tasks. Adding questions to your monitoring and feedback forms about technology familiarity and any problems with access will help you to improve future sessions.

Further resources

If your online training takes place in low resource settings, such as places where access to the internet is limited, you can find advice on appropriate technologies in this blogpost from the World Bank, which also contains links to other resources. For example, video uses a lot of bandwidth so using audio only can make resources more accessible and creating downloadable resources helps learners with intermittent access to the internet.

Reducing barriers to online learning

Many learners encounter cultural and psychological barriers to online learning as well as practical and technological ones, as the following case study explores.

Case study

Fakhri has worked for 10 years for an international non-governmental organisation which supports disadvantaged young people to become entrepreneurs. She has regularly attended face-to-face training sessions lasting anything between half a day and four days. In 2020 she was expecting to attend a three-day training event on safeguarding, a topic that she is particularly interested in.

However, because of Covid-19 the face-to-face training event had to be cancelled and moved to a series of half-day webinars with some required pre-reading. Fakhri had endless difficulties undertaking this training, despite her commitment to the topic. Initially she was very anxious about the video conferencing software used for the webinars, although in the event she found it fairly easy to learn to use. She never managed to do the pre-reading because whenever she thought about doing it there always seemed to be something more urgent that she had to attend to. In addition, the long, dense text looked intimidating.

She found the webinars rather dull and found it hard to stay focused – there were lots of people talking through PowerPoint slides and very little opportunity to talk to the experts or her peers. She missed one of the webinars completely because her line manager called her just beforehand to discuss a complicated issue, even though he could see that the time for the webinar was blocked out in her diary.

Activity: Reducing barriers to online learning
Timing: Allow about 10 minutes

Fakhri encountered practical, technological, cultural, and psychological barriers to online learning. What could she, her line manager and the people organising the training have done to improve her experience?

We have suggested some barriers in the table below, but you may wish to add others from your own experience in the bottom rows.

BarrierPossible ways to remove or lessen this barrier
Unfamiliarity with software
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It always felt as if other work was more important than doing the preparatory reading before the webinars.
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The preparatory reading looked intimidating.
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The webinars were dull.
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There was little opportunity for interaction with peers or experts.
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Her line manager did not respect the time she had blocked out in her diary to attend the webinars.
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Discussion

Here are some possible answers, but you may have thought of others.

BarrierPossible ways to remove or lessen this barrier
Unfamiliarity with software

The trainers could have arranged an initial optional session introducing the software.

Perhaps Fakhri could have asked a colleague or friend for help

The trainers could have chosen a piece of software with which people were already familiar.

It always felt as if other work was more important than doing the preparatory reading before the webinars.

Fakhri’s line manager could have helped her to identify that this work was just as important as attending a face-to-face training and so needed to be prioritised.

Fakhri could have blocked out time in her diary to do the preparatory reading and defended it as a priority task.

The preparatory reading looked intimidating.

The trainers could have improved the look of the reading – simple changes like adding colour, pictures and bulleted lists can make a big difference to how intimidating text appears.

The trainers could have replaced some of the reading with videos to watch or audios to listen to.

Perhaps the trainers could have reduced the amount of preparation that needed to be done by thinking again about the learning outcomes of the course as a whole and only including essential materials.

The webinars were dull.The trainers could have shortened the sessions, or they could have kept them at half a day but used a structure of shorter presentations interspersed with private study or opportunities for interaction.
There was little opportunity for interaction with peers or experts.

The trainers could have built in more interaction and opportunities for collaboration, e.g. by using breakout rooms for small group discussions.

Fakhri could have set up an informal discussion group with colleagues also attending this training.

Her line manager did not respect the time she had blocked out in her diary to attend the webinars.

This would require a cultural change within the organisation, so that online training is understood as important in people’s diaries as face-to-face training.

If the webinars had been recorded, Fakhri could have caught up on them later.

While participants can encounter barriers to online training, of course there are also many advantages to learners. As already mentioned, online training can be more accessible to people with disabilities and it can also enable people with significant caring responsibilities to participate. Asynchronous online training can be particularly accessible because of the flexibility it offers as to when you learn.

Online training can potentially reach many more people than face-to-face sessions. While producing good quality online training in the first place is not cheap, it can be scaled up at relatively little additional cost because there are no costs for fuel, accommodation, or venue hire.

Online training spaced over several weeks or months can suit some participants because it does not take them away from their ordinary work or other responsibilities for long periods of time.

Another possibility that benefits many learners is using a blended approach – this is where some of the training takes place online and some in a face-to-face setting. Participants can access materials such as videos, recorded presentations and readings online, while face-to-face time is reserved for activities that are best done in a face-to-face group.

The more you know about your learners and their previous experiences of training in general and online learning in particular, the better you will be able to design your sessions to enable them to benefit from the advantages of taking your training online.

Using learner profiles in online training

One way of thinking about different types of learner and how to design your online training materials to meet their diverse needs is by creating learner profiles that identify a range of key characteristics of people who are likely to attend your course. This kind of activity is often referred to as generating personas, meaning you are creating descriptions of the sorts of people you expect to be training.

You start by thinking about the kinds of learners who usually attend your training sessions, drawing on the monitoring information you collect, the feedback they give and the training evaluations you undertake. Then you imagine a kind of composite or typical person who is like many of these learners. For example, if you were a trainer trying to improve Fakhri’s online safeguarding course and thought that she was typical of many other participants, you might base a persona on her:

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Further resources

This version of the personas form focuses on online learning and on the topic of the training, but you can adapt the issues you consider in each box to suit your purposes. You could add or replace boxes for anything else you think is important to consider such as demographic characteristics, political views or attitudes to the topic, or previous educational experience. View some other versions of this form.

Once you have created one persona you repeat the exercise once or twice for a different kind of learner who perhaps less frequently attends your training but is typical of another group of people you would expect your training to reach. You can also create a persona for an unusual type of learner, perhaps someone your training does not currently reach but who you would really like to include, or just a type of person who does attend but is always in a minority.

Once you have generated these personas, you use them to think about the characteristics you have identified and consider how they could influence the design of your training.

You might think about some of the following:

  • What barriers to their learning are they likely to encounter and how can you reduce these barriers?
  • What topics or activities in the planned course are they likely to find most engaging?
  • What online tools are likely to be most accessible and appropriate?
  • How can you ensure that the course reflects social and cultural diversity?

Activity: Applying to your context

Timing: Allow about 20 minutes
Creating your own learner profiles

Fill in the personas form for some training you are involved with designing, thinking about the most typical or common kind of participant that you train.

You may find these further questions helpful in filling in the form:

  • Why are they taking part in this training programme?
    • Is it voluntary or compulsory?
    • As part of a professional or volunteer role?
    • Do they have a particular interest in the topic?
  • How good is their internet access?
    • Can they always get online with a good connection?
    • Do they use a phone or a computer?
  • What previous experience of online training do they have?
    • How comfortable are they working online?
    • Have their previous experiences been mostly good or bad?
  • What previous experience of training in this topic area do they have?
    • Have they attended a similar workshop in the past?
    • If so, how long ago?
  • Are there any other details to be considered?
    • Are there topics that are likely to be particularly difficult for this person?
    • Will they need additional resources, such as a screen reader or transcripts?

Complete the interactive form below.

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Then consider the following questions and make a few notes in the text boxes below them for your chosen persona. As an example, you can click on ‘Save and reveal discussion’ to see possible responses relating to the ‘Fakhri’ persona.

By signing in and enrolling on this course you can view and complete all activities within the course, track your progress in My OpenLearn Create. and when you have completed a course, you can download and print a free Statement of Participation - which you can use to demonstrate your learning.

If you have time, you could create one or two different profiles for other possible types of participants and compare them. You could consider questions such as:

  • Are there any differences between their needs and preferences?
  • Are they starting from a similar enough understanding and experience of the topic so that your course will be useful to them all?
  • Does it look as if the same online technology will work for all the groups?
  • Might it be useful to offer different versions of your training for different groups?

You may also want to share your profile(s) with colleagues and jointly consider how you might design your training to meet the needs of this and other specific learners. You might encourage your colleagues to create one too, then comment on each other’s profiles.

Now choose your next section.

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End-of-course survey

If you have finished exploring the different sections of this course, please do the end-of-course survey before you leave the course.

This survey gives you the opportunity to tell us about your experience of studying Take your training online and what you plan to do with your learning.

The survey should take no more than 5 minutes to complete.