E-learning for Lawyers, Explained

Online courses, webinars and other digital media open up a wide range of convenient, cost-effective training options for busy professionals. But there are a lot of options. Myriad combinations of technology, platforms, content and classrooms sometimes make the selection of a course as challenging as learning new subject matter.

Holly MacDonald of Spark + Co.

How can you tell which choice is right for you? I interviewed e-learning strategist Holly MacDonald to find out. Macdonald is the driving force behind Canadian e-learning innovation consultancy Spark + Co, where she creates strategies and program development for clients including Fortune 100 corporations, technology firms, public institutions and non-profit organizations

Q. What exactly is e-learning?

E-learning refers to any type of learning facilitated via electronic media. There are two main types of e-learning:

  • Synchronous – where you access and participate in training at the same time as others – scheduled live webinars, videoconferences with practice groups in other regions, etc.
  • Asynchronous – where you learn on your own schedule. Examples include self-paced online modules like Khan Academy, a time-bound course for credit or a subscription model, where you access weekly online “lessons” until the course is complete.

Q. What type of e-learning works best? 

If you want to build community and cohesion, a synchronous model is best. Consider if the topic requires discussion, involves time-sensitive information or fulfills a one-time need. Use this when:

  • A small group needs to discuss how to integrate new knowledge into their practice
  • Determining how to apply new rules/requirements to specific tasks
  • Collaborating to creatively solve a problem, with the help of training material

If you’re training individuals to understand hard or soft rules or use new products, try an asynchronous model. It helps avoid information overload. This works best when:

  • Orienting new employees to your company policies
  • Training people to understand new concepts
  • Encouraging adoption of new work processes

Blended learning – a combination of e-learning and live training – offers the best value in many cases. It’s also the type of training I’m asked to help with most often. Common combinations:

  • “Flipped webinar” – you complete a self-paced e-learning module about a topic and attend a webinar with others to discuss its impact or group questions
  • “Flipped classroom” – you complete a self-paced e-learning module about a topic and attend an in-person class to practice the skill
  • Classroom + self-paced e-learning – you attend a face to face session and access a self-paced e-learning module for additional training and/or reference after the class.
  • Embedded collaboration – you participate in a self-paced e-learning module, but along the way you can stop and collaborate in an online forum
  • Weekly online coaching based on self-paced work from a manual or textbook

Q. What should busy lawyers look for in an e-learning course?

If your group is learning together, avoid situations where you are passively listening to a webcast. Instead look for sessions that engage everyone using polls, discussions, group work and other means to encourage facilitated discussion. And remember that it is difficult to stay focused on a webinar after 60 minutes.

Self-paced e-learning prepares you to do something new. It should offer a mix of multimedia and allow you move through the course in the way that makes the most sense to you (e.g. skipping some sections or moving ahead, rather than forcing you to follow a linear path). Self-paced modules work best in increments of 30 minutes or less. Good curricula will start with a “challenge” or pique your interest, so that you see the immediate benefits.

Q. How does e-learning support behaviour change (i.e. moving from theory and knowledge to applied learning)?

Behaviour changes when there are three basic conditions:

  1. Motivation – you want to do the right thing
  2. Knowledge – you know how to do the right thing
  3. Trigger – you know you are doing the wrong thing and can change to do the right thing

E-learning alone can’t change behaviour. But it can help. Tapping into intrinsic personal motivation orients you towards the course content (knowledge) in a positive, productive way. Triggers can be simple email reminders, follow up sessions (e.g. webinars) or self-created tasks that stem from the e-learning module.

My interview with Holly MacDonald will continue next week, when we’ll discuss how to design e-learning programs for in-house training – including the most common mistakes made by organizations and trends to consider, such as gamification.

*The original version post was published by Natasha Chetty on the Canadian legal blog, Slaw.ca on May 27, 2015.