Jolly Holden: Expert Insights Into Distance Learning and Webinars

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Dan Feinberg: I've been asked to do a number of computer and technology classes for SCORE, and I've been doing it for years, but we can't do it in person; we have to do it online. They are going to Zoom for meetings, as is a board of directors that I’m on, because it's a roundtable where you can see everybody. They want to know that you're there, listening and paying attention instead of wandering around the house.

Holden: You're absolutely right. Teachers say the same thing: “I have to see my students.” And younger students want to see their teachers too, which is why it's called affective domain. For a roundtable discussion, you have to look at your objective. If your objective is for everybody to see each other and carry on a conversation, that's great. In a distance learning course, the objectives are different; the objective is to learn this content. As an instructor, I don't care if I see you because you don't need to see me to learn this content. The only time you use a video is if they have to see you demonstrate something. If you do that, don't do it live; make a video.

Feinberg: How you structure it depends on the reason for the meeting.

Holden: Exactly. You do the same thing when you meet someone for lunch. For one person, you may wear jeans and a T-shirt, but for another, you’ll wear a suit; it all depends on the purpose of the meeting, and who it is. As you mentioned, people are starting to say, “Turn your camera on,” in meetings, when I asked someone why, they said, "We want to make sure everybody's paying attention to the meeting."

Matties: I think it goes to your point. Sometimes—especially right now—people feel disconnected. Seeing someone creates a connection, but, as you said, it depends on what you're doing. If they're there for education, they don't necessarily need to see your face.

Feinberg: One of the technologies that I've been following is extended reality. I can see some huge advantages in some cases. For example, if you're trying to show someone how to do something, with XR, you can stand next to them and say, “Push this button,” or, “Take out this screw.” Can you see XR taking part in what you're talking about?

Holden: I was first exposed to AR/VR in 1988 when I was in charge of educational technology at the Air Force Institute of Technology, and they were experimenting with it. A Ph.D. student did his dissertation on it, and he used a scuba mask. The idea was to have an aircraft flight formation; these were crude stick aircraft, but the idea was there. VR is big in the training world, especially the military, as a simulation.

However, VR is too expensive in higher education. Those devices cost a lot of money, and universities aren't going to buy that for their target audience. The same is true of virtual worlds. When Second Life came out, higher education considered it and thought it would be revolutionary for education, but there are a lot of problems with it. There’s no interoperability, and it costs a lot of money—even more than a classroom. Students also didn't learn any better in a virtual world than they did in a classroom, so it wasn’t worth it.

These technologies can be over-hyped. There's a silver bullet. The virtual world is not going to solve all our problems. It is good, but it's focused on training for specific environments and not education. The military has embraced that. I'm on the program committee for a conference in August; one of the main tracks/simulations is VR because you can do things that you cannot do in the real world. You can also reboot and start it again, over and over. It’s a very similar application to when I was a flight simulator instructor in the Air Force.

Nolan Johnson: We’ve been talking about education so far. Our readers who are investigating distance learning are also focused on job and skills training. Are there any fundamental differences in how you approach distance learning—whether it’s training a skill or providing academic education?

Holden: Not at all. It comes down to learning objectives. The first thing whoever is in charge of creating the course or module does is identifying the need or knowledge gap. Where is the target audience, where do you want them to be at the end of this course? Then, they develop learning objectives.

Again, the difference between the meetings as alluded to before is the objective was to see each other and dialogue. In the academic world, we create learning objectives that drive everything; they’re the starting point. Then, you consider the best media to use. Can I use prerecorded audio or video? How about adding some simulations? It all comes down to what you want them to learn.

Johnson: How do you compensate for not being able to see students’ body language?

Holden: That’s a great question and is one reason why instructors in higher education were so reluctant to go from the classroom to online. However, that myth was busted years ago through research; you can’t tell if someone is learning or not based on their body language. In my undergraduate days, I worked night shifts, and I could sleep with my eyes open through a lecture. Interpreting body language can help determine if a person may be lying or not, but not whether or not they understand content. Research says that it is not a variable in learning.

Johnson: Does that apply to motivational speakers, too?

Holden: Yes. Tony Robbins, for example, moves up and down that stage. After listening to and seeing him, many people think the presentation was very engaging and interactive. The perception of interactivity is more important than the act of interactivity.

Feinberg: When I teach computer technology material, I'll ask the audience up front if they’re new to it or consider themselves experts. That makes a real big difference as far as attention span.

Holden: Absolutely. If you convince the audience that you're interested in them, they're there to find out something that they don't know, so they're already motivated. The thing is that you want to show them that they’re each important and you’re there to help. All of those techniques help.

Years ago, at a conference, I had the opportunity to beta test student response systems through keypads that you could interact with wirelessly and put up polls. Everybody could anonymously interact, and you capture what the audience knew about a particular topic. It was valuable because I could instantly see what they knew and what they wanted to learn, and then I could start to elaborate on it.

Matties: When you're putting together a PowerPoint slide or a visual aid, how critical is the use of color in retention?

Holden: It’s very important. The university where I teach is currently in the process of designing a new graduate degree on learning sciences that will be a multiple-disciplinary approach. We're integrating a little bit of neuroscience and cognitive science; neuroscience is the physiology of the brain, and cognitive science is how the brain learns. Humans are easily distracted, so any movement on a screen will gain our attention. For instance, if I use an unrelated animation in my presentation slide, it might seem like a cool thing, but it's very distracting. Your brain sees that and thinks, “That must be important. I'm going to pay attention to that.” You don't want that. But if you add a related video that aids in teaching, that will help them learn.

Also, because of the way our eyes interpret red, that color sends a signal to the brain that something is important. When you want to emphasize a word or a phrase, highlight it in red. When that slide comes up, the first thing they're going to do is focus on anything in red. Knowing that, I let them focus on it, I emphasize it, and then give more information on it.


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