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An Asynchronous Learning Network (ALN) is a people network for learning that is largely asynchronous. It combines self-study with substantial, rapid, asynchronous interactivity with others. In ALNs learners use computer and communications technologies to work with remote learning resources, including coaches and other learners, but without the requirement to be online at the same time.
By this definition, a Web-based workshop that requires frequent online conferencing and collaboration with others is an ALN. So is a text- or computer-based training course that requires learners to use email to discuss assignments with each other and with the coach. An ALN also encompasses a proctored examination at a specified time and place, or occasional synchronous chat or lab sessions for close-proximity learners, or an in-person kickoff meeting.
By this definition, distance education based primarily on a synchronous audio or video presentation or conference is not ALN because these constantly require learners and instructors to be available at the same time. A videotaped course or mail-based correspondence course or computer-based training is not ALN because these do not include substantial and rapid interactivity with others, even though the learner might mail in a paper or test and receive a reply days later.
My work includes development and evaluation of computer- and Web-based tools for learning and performance support. While much of the work is in technical areas, I also apply the learning strategies to developing interpersonal coaching skills. One study found that methods that combined computer, video and instructor support provided significantly higher learner performance with 1/3 the instructor time, in comparison to traditional methods with classroom delivery .
I will share with you here some of our current thinking based on a Web workshop we are offering, in which over 1000 people have enrolled. Related information is readily available, along with a sizable body of current ALN knowledge and tools, on the ALN Web site at http://www.aln.org
ALN includes strategies where learners are separated by time and space but joined by common interests and electronic communication with each other and with coaches. Computers, random access audio and video, and the worldwide web afford the opportunity to use learning strategies like individualized tutorials, group projects where members are at a distance, and simulations. A worldwide course might allow learners and coaches to collaborate using web pages and a conferencing system. Required postings and projects can be submitted electronically.
ALN can be helpful for working adults, to develop and maintain knowledge and skills. As described below, it may also improve learning, decrease learning time, or decrease costs. However there are considerable problems. Users may not realize promised results, as when low course completion rates cancel out improved performance. These larger issues must be addressed by looking at impacts of learning programs.
The overall strategy is to first provide challenges and projects that are authentic for a given content area and learner ability. Next offer learning opportunities, mentoring, and collaboration with others to help learners meet the challenge. Here are other strategies:
There are many sources for evaluation methods [2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8]. Kirkpatrick  and Phillips  describe several levels of evaluation:
Most evaluations of distance learning currently use self-reports and qualitative evaluations. For example learners may be asked to rate how much they liked specific aspects of the ALN, and trained observers may record what happens while learners are working. A few evaluations will track grades or other course performance measures, then ask the instructor to say how students in this years course compare to students in prior years (an opinion). Fewer will use the data from a comparison group (e.g., another section in this years course). Only a very few people attempt experimental evaluations of ALN .
Evaluation may initially use self-reports and anecdotal information to rapidly and inexpensively gather information about the effects of an ALN program. End-of-course rating sheets are an example of self-reported opinions. Anecdotes and problem descriptions about what works and what doesnt can be very helpful in a formative evaluation.
Another method is a qualitative or descriptive evaluation. Descriptions and analyses may be especially important to understand how to scale up a program. You may gain more insight into intervention effects using a qualitative evaluation than an experimental evaluation. However, initial promising results may lead you to use an experiment to test the links in a suspected chain of causes and effects.
Evaluating Costs and Benefits for Customers and Providers
We want to identify factors in decreasing cost and improving learning and organization impact. We attempt to identify factors associated with lower cost for ALN than for classroom-based courses, where the level of learning is equivalent or better. Cost to providers includes direct, indirect, and subsidized expenses (e.g., from state governments to their colleges, and grants to individuals). Cost for learners includes their expenses for the course, travel, housing, meals, and related materials. The value of learner time may be included as a cost if a company, subsidy, or scholarship pays for it.
Costs are of two types: development/maintenance and incremental costs per learner. The former costs are concentrated in the design and authoring phase. The latter costs are incurred for coaching support, equipment operation and maintenance and related items having to do with supporting learners. ALN costs are often higher at the front end than for typical lecture courses, but these costs may be distributed among a larger group of learners.
The economic key is to spread development and revision costs over large numbers of learners, and to drive out ongoing costs. This can be accomplished by incorporating much of the learning support in tutorials, simulations, and online responses to frequently asked questions (FAQs), and by using very capable but low cost coaches (e.g., working professionals in the field who enjoy coaching).
To evaluate effectiveness, we identify factors associated with higher learner performance (e.g., number of people passing a certification test on the first try, or final exam grades) and better organization impacts (e.g., lower accident costs after a safety training program, or increased enrollments for a school). In an academic environment it is difficult to assign a monetary value to performance gains. However from a larger view -- for example of a state supporting higher education -- complex evaluation is justified to investigate the effect of improved capabilities in the labor force on attracting new business and decreasing welfare costs. At the corporate level, it is quite feasible to attach monetary value to improved performance outcomes by those who have completed a performance program. See Phillips  for strategies and examples.
The goal here is to cut cost for equivalent or better learning. In rough terms a 15-week academic course with about 45 contact hours that already exists in lecture format can be converted for Web delivery for about $15K - $20K by an academic team. This does not include expenditures for equipment. That is an exceedingly low figure in comparison to development of a new training program for business and professional use, which can cost $35K per contact hour.
Development of new courses varies with the application. An academic course is likely to be priced lower than a professional course where complex technical skills and simulations are involved (note, however, that every lecture at a top university may cost as much as a Broadway play). We do not yet have much experience on costs for new courses. There is a tradeoff between comprehensive automated interactions (e.g., automatically graded simulations) and personnel costs to support the course. At one end is computer-based instruction that provides information and multiple-choice questions, with no interaction with others. At the other is an individual tutorial with extensive simulations.
Evaluations of asynchronous computer-based learning and interactive video indicate that these methods can decrease learning time or improve learner performance by approximately 30 percent [11, 12, 13, 14]. In two experimental studies  we have found that even for complex interpersonal skills a combination of classroom and collaborative computer tutorial can decrease the amount of facilitator time required by two-thirds, for equivalent or better performance. This can decrease cost per learner.
Where learners are paid, their salaries are usually the most expensive part of training. Decreasing learning time can produce large savings.
Value of Evaluation
Assessment of learning can guide and direct instruction , so learning is focused on what is most important. This is especially important with Advanced Placement courses in high school and certification training classes for professionals. This focusing function of assessments can contribute to improved learning efficiency.
We have conducted a preliminary analysis of three ALN studies at Vanderbilt that used experimental designs. These studies indicate that learners using an electronic laboratory simulator on their own time in lieu of physical labs were able to solve problems on physical equipment as fast or faster than those who took physical labs. In addition, the written lab tests were equivalent between the two groups. Use of the simulations permitted Vanderbilt to drop all night and weekend labs in the course, and thus to reassign a Teaching Assistant to work with students at night when they were doing their homework and had questions.
Mayadas  reports on several important ALN studies:
Those who are just learning the language in which instruction is presented or who are shy will often take a more active role in ALN discussions than in a classroom discussions. ALN may equalize dominance in online discussions because it gives all participants an equal opportunity. It also puts the focus on content, not the sender. This may contribute to lowered learner anxiety and a greater sense of empowerment. These issues can be further investigated.
ALN programs have been evaluated with positive results. It is now possible to extend these evaluations to comparisons of performance gains, to impact on organizations, and to cost/benefit analysis. The most important impact will likely come through formative evaluations that provide feedback to course designers and sponsors about the relative effectiveness and cost/benefit ratios of various learning strategies.
Note on the Web of Asynchronous Learning Networks: Anytime, Anywhere Learning Networks
The Sloan Foundation has provided funds for us to maintain a central clearing house of web-accessable ALN information. The objectives of the ALN Web are to:
The ALN Web contains the Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks (JALN), the ALN Magazine, news posting areas, workshops, interactive discussions, and other features directly or indirectly related to ALN. If you are involved or are contemplating involvement in leading edge learning and development programs you will find a wealth of resources here.
This article is adapted from a presentation at the Society for Applied Learning Technology Orlando Multimedia conference .
J. Olin Campbell, President of
Performance Mentor (615) 665-9105, and
|Would you like to offer some thoughts or add to the dialog? Responses of general interest may be posted below. Send your comment to . IMPORTANT: Make sure the subject line of your message contains: Comment on Guest Speaker 5/98.|
From: (Rick Dove) Date: Fri , 22 May 1998
Olin -There is a lot of new thinking about "multiple intelligences" and the belief that people have a variety of different learning styles. I know that some formal education environments and some corporate continuing education programs are experimenting with different ways to reach different people in a learning activity. Everything I have heard so far makes heavy use of the face-to-face interaction to discern when a different learning style must be accommodated with a different delivery approach. Have any of the ALN programs you are aware of addressed this "custom delivery" concept?
The course that I taught using CourseInfo was an MBA capstone course. I teach this course on campus in a traditional classroom. The class meets once a week, on Tuesday evening, for three hours. There is no distance learning component. It is a traditional seminar, with about twenty students in the class. Students typically organize themselves into about five teams. I do not use a textbook. Instead, the reading consists primarily of journal articles and one or two supplementary books. I make extensive use of Harvard Business School cases, both for discussion and for written assignments.
For each class, all five of the student teams prepare to present the discussion case. Then, in class, I select one team at random to actually present the case, and a second team, also at random, to critique the presentation. There follows a general discussion of the case and the assigned reading material. The mid-term exam is a team take-home case. Also, each student writes a four-part paper, called an Individual Project, during the semester. In this paper, they analyze their current work situation and develop a plan for their company and for themselves.
CourseInfo is a class management set of webpages. It appears to work with any browser, including AOL's, although Netscape communicator and internet explorer 4.0 appeared to be the ones most commonly used by my students. The site consists of a number of different online modules, and I used it in a number of different ways to support the student learning experience. The announcement feature on the homepage was a good place for general information and for an information backup to general email. Of course there's the standard page to set up the syllabus and course description. I noticed practical advantages to being able to communicate with individual students, a group of students, or all of my students at any time, without having to wait for the next class meeting.
I had students upload all of the papers that they submit, and I graded them and sent them back. Because we were not tied to submitting paper, I offered students the option of turning in drafts of their papers early (via CourseInfo) so that I could give them preliminary feedback. For any given assignment, about half of the students took me up on my offer. It definitely improved the quality of their learning experience, judging from the improved quality of the papers. This early feedback also gave them more control over their grades. For me, grading a paper the second time was much faster than grading one from scratch, so I'm not sure that I put in much, if any, extra time doing this for my students.
A related benefit was my ability to
manage the students' workload. For example, this class
met once a week, on Tuesday nights. But because students
were submitting papers by uploading them rather than
turning in hardcopy, I wasn't limited to having Tuesday
night due dates. Students had the ability to submit
papers at any time. In practice, they frequently opted to
have papers due on Sunday evenings or first thing Monday
The discussion board was the most active single feature, so far as I could tell. Because there were twenty students in the class, classroom discussions generally left several people out the shy ones. Initially, I decided to remedy this by using the discussion board as an extension of the classroom discussion. Thus students who were not as extroverted as others were able to participate actively in 'classroom' discussions. To energize the discussion board, I would usually seed it with a few cryptic comments of my own about the next class's reading assignment and what that might have to do with the assigned case. This made the discussion very relevant for the upcoming case presentations. As you can imagine, the discussion board took off. It became the 'hot' spot on CourseInfo. In addition to accomplishing its intended purpose of including shy students in the discussion, it emerged as an ongoing daily dialogue centered around course topics. By the third week of the semester, the quality of the written and oral case presentations shot up, and it stayed higher than I've ever seen it for the next twelve weeks. This, in turn, energized the in-class discussions.
The grading module allowed students to use their password to access their grades at any time. This had a number of advantages over other approaches. First, it kept the students much more informed about where they stood with regard to their grades. This saved me time answering individual questions. Again, it further reduced the amount of paper with which I had to deal. Instead of walking into class carrying thick folders full of student papers and grading materials, I would just bring the night's discussion case nothing more.
Putting this all together, the total impact of using CourseInfo was greater than the sum of its parts. At least for this class, CourseInfo radically changed the nature of the learning experience. Students were used to having a one-night a week class 'meeting,' with maybe one outside team meeting every two weeks to prepare assignments. The addition of CourseInfo metamorphosed this more traditional experience into an ongoing, interactive community of learners literally active on a daily basis.
I personally had more fun teaching this course than I've had in a long time. Comments, thoughts?
We and many others are investigating whether there is anything about ALN that makes it better or worse than a classroom learning environment. Early data suggests equivalent performance, higher dropouts, and more interaction between learners and faculty using ALN. I believe one solution to this problem is to focus on assessments of outcomes (e.g., learners' knowledge, skill, and attitude), rather than the inputs (e.g., peer reviews of faculty, facilities, and curriculum for accreditation).
Certification that focuses on what learners can do is becoming standard for information technology (IT) professionals. How you develop yourself is up to you. You can pay for private tutorials, read a book, take a class . . .
With certifications we need not fear new approaches to learning. There is competition among providers to deliver the most learning for the money, and learners can choose a method and provider that suits them. In such an environment, Pell-type grants might be awarded backward: as you are certified in each small area, you get paid, regardless of what approach you or a provider used. If you can learn on your own instead of paying a provider, you pocket the money. If you need just a little help, you split it with a provider.
A problem with this approach is that learners need a way to make intelligent choices about providers. They need a consumer guide that rates providers along several dimensions (e.g., how many of their graduates pass the certification exam on the first or second try, how expensive is each provider, how much tutorial support do they provide).
There is much to learning and personal development that is difficult to assess directly. Part of education is confronting new ideas, developing friendships and contacts, examining yourself and the world around you. Some providers, such as small colleges, might choose to focus on these areas, and import courses developed by world experts from other organizations.
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