Jolly Holden: Expert Insights Into Distance Learning and Webinars
With COVID-19 leading to increased distance learning throughout the U.S. and world, the I-Connect007 editorial team spoke with Jolly Holden, Ed.D., who is an expert on distance learning (and also Happy Holden’s brother). They discuss what distant learning is, how to do it well, what not to do, differences between academic and job skills training, and much more.
In 1995, Jolly co-founded the Federal Government Distance Learning Association and currently serves as its executive director. Further, he has been a member of the Board of Directors of the United States Distance Learning Association (USDLA), where he has served continuously since 1996 as a past president and former chairman of the board; in 2001, he was inducted in the USDLA Hall of Fame. Jolly is also an Emeritus Industry Fellow to Ball State University’s Center for Information and Computer Sciences.
For the past 25 years, Jolly has been actively involved in researching and promoting distance learning throughout the federal government and corporate community. Currently, he is an associate professor in the School of Education, American InterContinental University, for its online Masters of Education (MEd) degree program in instructional design and technology, where he has taught for over 17 years.
Barry Matties: There are some real silver lining benefits being realized by many of the shelter-in-place orders throughout the U.S. and world. Distance learning is one of those. Kids are home from school, as are millions of others from the global workforce. Distance learning is your expertise, so we're seeking your advice.
Jolly Holden: It went from being a novelty to being acceptable by higher education to being the only choice you have for however long this lasts. In the state of Georgia, they dropped the term "online learning" and went to "remote learning" because much of the learning is not online. What I teach is 10% online; there are still textbooks students need to have, articles to read, and videos to download and watch.
Matties: What are your thoughts on live webinars?
Holden: People don't always have the time to attend a live chat or webinar. It's discretionary time, and people only have so much time for work, family, etc. What's left over, which is very little, may be set aside to study and learn something, but if they have to be there at that specific time, that puts a burden on the time management.
Research shows that there is no statistical difference between taking a live classroom or the lecture that's been recorded. Thus, what's the difference between a recorded lecture and a live lecture? One word: rewind. I can't rewind while an instructor is teaching in a classroom, but I can rewind when it's recorded. If I didn't get what they said, I can rewind and listen again.
That's not a new concept. In 1984, National Technological University—a consortium of 50 distinguished universities—offered 15 graduate engineering degrees, computer science, and project management, all at a distance. They did lots of studies and found the students working in an engineering environment or at an engineering company scored better than the in-class students. They were more mature and had an opportunity to discuss information with other engineers to get a better understanding of the topic.
Matties: We have always recommended using prerecorded webinars for a variety of reasons. The argument for live webinar is that you can run participant polls and have live Q and A. How do you address those concerns?
Holden: I recommend anticipating questions about complex statements or concepts, and then providing answers for them. If you’re recording a live webinar and only have so much time to share information, you can anticipate what questions are going to come up based on experience. Instead of explaining that when half of the audience, if not more, know the answer, move on. Provide a link to follow-up resources afterward; then they can read it in their own time.
When you're looking at live webinars and have lots of people, the person providing the webinar can't monitor the chatbox and present at the same time; they think they can, but they can't. We're not multi-taskers. Neuroscience has proved that we can't multi-task. They're going to miss a lot of questions, which leads to the audience saying, “You didn’t answer my question. Am I not important?” You can bypass that by directing them to an FAQ resource where you anticipate most all the questions. If you miss one, add it and include it after.
The problem with live webinars from a presenter standpoint is that even if people want it live, they don't know if it's live or not. The only difference if it's live is the presenter has the ability not only to ask a question but to have an answer for it. If you don't answer it, why do it live?
Matties: When you look at attention span for webinars or distance learning, what guidelines would you recommend for on-screen time in webinars?
Holden: People’s attention spans are all over the map—anywhere from one to three minutes. In the Air Force, when we had teleconferencing, I researched the impact of bandwidth on the video. I had some video people from the media center there assess the quality of the video, not thinking, “If the video is bad, this is going to affect my target audience, their perception, and whether or not they learned.”
To that point, I had a Ph.D. professor who explained neuroscience for 30 minutes, and it was fascinating, even though he was nothing more than a talking head. I started the bandwidth at 30 frames a second and got down to five frames per second. That’s pretty poor video quality, but the audience didn't pay attention to the video because he was so interesting. We heard everything he said.
When I was in General Electric, the chief learning officer, Dr. Steve Kerr, reported directly to Jack Welch. I had an hour-long teleconference. I had about 150 people there, and he was dynamic; he talked for an hour, and people didn’t have any questions at the end. Afterward, I asked the people what they thought of it, to which they responded, “It was highly interactive and engaging.” I responded, “What do you mean? You never asked a single question,” but they liked his personality and speaking presence.
From a learner perspective, the Q&A portion doesn’t make the difference; the quality of the speaker and their content knowledge does. It’s important to show that the presenter knows what they’re talking about because they're an expert in the field. Very little interaction goes on in webinars. Convenience is also important. Learners are very agile. Research out of the Air Force Academy found that 70% of the variability in learning was due to two factors: prior knowledge and intrinsic motivation. If you're motivated, those distance learners are going to learn.
That said, not all adults are that motivated, and they access courses out of convenience. With K–12 basically shut down right now, they have a technology problem. Many teachers are using Zoom and want to see the students, which has eaten up so much bandwidth. Many schools’ management systems can't handle it, and these video services can't handle the demand.
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.
Matties: Interesting. And what about the amount of data that you put on one image?
Holden: Now you're getting into what I teach. That is called cognitive load, and it came out in neuroscience in the ‘50s and ‘60s. Human’s brains have bad short-term memory. Think of an Apple II with 48K, and that's where we are in the brain: billions of cells of long-term memory. With our short term memory, we can only hold three to five concepts for 30–40 seconds before the brain discards it if it’s not reinforced. The brain discounts 90% of all the information our eyes take in—meaning sensory input—before it gets to our short-term memory or input into long-term memory (Figure 1).
Figure 1: How the brain learns—cognitive information processing model.
Matties: The amount of data on one image should be very focused and limited to that immediate point.
Holden: Yes. In the U.S., we read left to right, so if you have text in an image, it should be close together with the image to the right of the text. In my presentations, I may have something that's complex with hidden text and pop-up windows. I’ll introduce one paragraph on a concept, make sure the students understand, and then open up another text box and close the other one out. I have them focus on one concept for 30–40 seconds because I know if that's not reinforced, it's never going to make it to long-term memory.
Further, there’s a difference between attention and retention. First, get their attention. Then, cognitive load is about retention. There are lots of different techniques to get people’s attention. This concept is called chunking—small bits of information. Remember, cognitive load is all about three to five concepts for 30–40 seconds to be reinforced. Therefore, you introduce concepts to them and chunk it into a few points or a paragraph accompanied by a visual aid. Then, the brain will create neurons linked to the text, audio, and visual image, which is retention—moving information from short-term to long-term memory.
I have what's called a "knowledge check." After about three slides, I say, "Here are some questions for you.” That is a question stem, and the answers reinforce what they already knew, hopefully. But if they didn't, and it's hanging on the periphery of long-term memory, every time you learn something, your brain creates a neuron. Any information linked to that neuron is linked to another neuron and so on. You always try to reinforce prior content because it creates more neurons and triggers activate long-term memory.
Have you ever been in a car listening to an oldies station, and you hear an old song and instantly remember a time and place? You might think, “Where in the world did all that information come from?" That was stored in long-term memory, and it took a trigger [the song] to set it off. Once your neuron and the long-term memory were activated, they were linked to another neuron, which continues. The stronger the response or the input, the more likely it's going to make the long-term memory.
Johnson: In the example of a company choosing to develop job training for their staff, employees are sequestered at home, and management is trying to use this time to build skillsets, and the company put together some training, so the staff comes back from this lockdown better skilled and cross-trained. What are some of the common pitfalls that they will want to make sure to avoid while putting together this rapidly deployed training program?
Holden: One of the things I teach is instructional design. First, what's your target audience? Who are they, meaning their demographics? Can you get them all in one place? If they're spread throughout the U.S. or world, that's going to determine the type of media you're going to deliver the content through.
Second, develop your learning objectives. That's the foundation of anything that you want to design for your target audience are those learning objectives that drive it. What do you want them to learn? Remain focused on that so that you don’t get sidetracked, and then you develop your content based on that.
Human performance, it's a systematic approach. We call it instructional systems design, meaning it’s based on systems engineering. In the education training world, we borrowed a lot from the engineering world and learned a lot from it. Having a systems approach was one of those things.
Matties: How would you measure the success factor in distance learning?
Holden: Two ways. One is the sum of the evaluations. On the educational side, we have to assess learning; accreditation requires this, and there are several ways to do it. You have standardized tests and/or criterion reference tests, as well as authentic assessment. My university doesn’t administer tests, but they have to put together a project similar to a thesis that’s related to the particular discipline. You also have to consider if you’re going to assess learning, and if so, how?
The second is called formative evaluation. What techniques can you use? The most common form is surveys. Was your intent for them to learn or to provide them with information? You need to develop metrics before you put anything together to evaluate how effective the material is. Without the metrics, you're flying blind.
Matties: I agree. You have to know what you're measuring before you release the training to students.
Holden: At a previous company, our team launched a new technology service for the internet. When we first launched it, our call center averaged about 15 minutes for call resolution. As a trainer, they came to the training department and said, "Fix it." I said, "What do you mean fix? What would ‘fixed’ be to you?" They explained that they wanted their average time from 15 minutes to be halved. That established the goal. Then, it was asked, “What metrics are used to measure that time?” They said, “From the time the phone rings to the time they hang up.” Then, I knew where we wanted to be.
It took about three months for that training to be developed, and the goal was reached. They also went from five telecommunications lines down to two or three because they used less bandwidth on the phones than before. That was not part of my metric, but it contributed to their bottom line and saved them money.
Matties: Any closing thoughts?
Holden: There are different definitions of the same term out there; distance learning is a common term, as is distance education. In the corporate world, they refer to it as e-learning, while higher education refers to it as online learning. School districts throughout the United States call it digital learning or remote learning. To paraphrase Shakespeare, “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” All of these terms refer to the same thing.
Matties: Thank you very much for your thoughts.
Holden: Thank you.