Friday, February 06, 2015

Interview with Don Tharp, COPAS: Leaders in E-Learning Series

Quickly changing environments pose special challenges for training and education developers and providers. The regulatory environment can be in flux, as well as the economic, political, and physical contexts. Being able to meet the challenges is of particular use, and it is gratifying to be able to talk to a professional who has successfully developed and implemented training and assessment in many challenging and rapidly changing environments. Welcome to an interview with Don Tharp, Director of Training and Education for COPAS (Council of Petroleum Accountants Societies).

1.  What is your name and your relation to e-learning?

Donald “Don” Tharp
Council of Petroleum Accountants Societies (COPAS) - Director of Training and Education

I spent 28 years in the United States Air Force involved with training, education and operations whether it was for my needs or my brothers and sisters in arms. I worked at the United States Air Force Academy twice with a stint at University of Northern Colorado completing my Educational Technology Ph.D. Think about the mid to late 1990s and the educational changes taking place especially regarding Distance Learning, Technology advancement and integration, and growth of Learning Management Systems (LMS).
Don Tharp, Ph.D.

The military was continually trying to develop ways to integrate technology to further education and training especially for those of us continually heading over to the “desert” for combat operations. This opportunity provided a chance to work on both sides of the process as a developer, user and integrator.

Don Tharp while deployed in Iraq
As I retired and departed the military I was fortunate to start work with Lockheed Martin as a training manager, holistic systems designer, business development and technology integrator. Working with engineers, partners and customers provided the basis for my vision of e-learning focused on life-long learning and learner engagement. I received an opportunity to return to academia and educational technology designing, developing, integrating and evaluating coursework for my courses and our schools’ faculty and staff. I had come full circle in e-learning and was ready to take on a larger project working in the same field as the rest of my family members, petroleum.

 I started work at COPAS May 2014 with the responsibility of updating and adding new educational courses. First goal was to breakdown what education and training we currently had available and establish a strategic plan to maximize e-learning and technology integration. I developed our 3-5 year strategic plan focusing on shifting from 8 courses consisting of PowerPoint with text and a few pictures and even less video to courses and modules that are objective driven. The key is to establish active learning for engaging our learners to entice them to become life-long learners focused on their own professional development.  With that thought in mind, our analysis showed we could use technology to enhance and triple our courses using a LMS for online learning, communities of practice, collaborative engagement, and instructor growth.

 My current mantra is building up our network of instructors and subject matter experts who are willing to engage e-learners and their own learning. We are moving ahead with year one of e-learning that will include online with an instructor monitoring, webinars, virtual instructor training and face-2-face classroom using a variety of elearning methodologies.

2.  What do you think are some of the main issues facing individuals who need training to maintain their professional credentials?

There are a few issues facing individuals needing to maintain or even grow their professional credentials today. We need to get away from always calling it training when most of the time we’re engaging our learners educationally. Additionally, if you look online at the variety of professional education opportunities they are boring. They are either 8 hours of PowerPoint with tons of text spewed by the all-knowing instructor to the learner or Webinars spouting instruction or self-paced courses that just don’t turn the learner on. Sometimes we add in audio, video and/or graphics (pictures, clipart etc.) thinking we’ve expanded our learner engagement by hitting more senses. While that is a good start, it is far from what is needed for learner to become excited about learning. We need to get the instructors to become more engaging and “guides on the side” and not “sages on the stage.” Worrying about instruction time and not learning has trapped us. It is time to go back to step one in the design process and remember to include our learners and instructors during the analysis phase. Then decide on the appropriate media to get learning opportunities to the students.

Additionally, during the media selection process each designer gets locked into the tools they know and fail to use more modern and up to date instructional tools and media. Take Flash for example; while a great tool and has its place too many designers are still using it for every educational course they design. What about using social media (this is a tough one to use but things have changed), additional web resources, short PowerPoint (completed appropriately) snippets, micro-learning segments or even the old question and answer periods used by master teachers? We need to engage our learners actively.  Active learners become more willing to believe and use professional development to grow themselves maintaining and expanding on their professional credentials.

3.  What are some of your favorite tools?

As an Educational Technology believer and user, I believe in using a wide variety of technologies especially to reach as many of my learners as possible. Some of the items aren’t considered technology – collaborative/group learning and projects, communities of practice and peer-2-peer learning. What technology can do for us is expand our reach and assist us using those learner centric tools. Putting the focus squarely on the learners. To help me get there I believe in Learning Management Systems that are responsive and adaptable like Moodle or Blackboard. We’re going the Moodle route through a Moodle Partner in order to keep our costs down but also allow us to have better access to bringing in learner requested toolsets like: Video streaming (Kaltura), Communities of Practice and Portfolios (Mahara), Virtual Instruction and office hours (Adobe Connect and BigBlueButton) and lastly adaptable learning modules where I can use Social Media, Active Learning and a variety of evaluation techniques and types to avoid boredom and keep the elearning responsive. So whatever software and hardware can help me engage the learner via simulations, problem-based, case-based learning, and collaboration we’re trying to use it if it is cost effective.

4.  If you have to launch a new program, how has your approached changed from how you did it in the past?

Since we are actually launching a new program for COPAS and our Societies I will tell you, yes my approach changed from my military and corporate days. I believe having been involved military training and education, corporate training and education and then returning to higher education allowed me to finally understand we can engage our learners by working a mixed instructional design process.

 While using normal ADDIE (Analysis, Design, Development, Implement and Evaluate) gets great results we need to work faster and get more students and instructors involved earlier. This requires bringing in rapid prototyping and mixing it with ADDIE. It makes it easier on the Subject Matter Experts (SMEs) to work with instructional designers and stakeholders. Once I can show them a variety of ways to engage the learners they become much more interested in adjusting how to get facts and thoughts to the learners. They are becoming believers of life-long learning. Once you adapt the thought process "everyone continues to learn across his or her lifetime," you realize you don’t have to jam everything in one learning module. You can start thinking out of the old “sage on the stage” box and start guiding the learner towards their desired path. It is then the process gets fun and very interesting.

5.  What are some of the new directions that you find most interesting?

How learning technology is the be-all today tends to get way too much focus. I love technology and we need it to reach more learners and provide those engaging learning environments but it is only a tool. I do love how others are starting to think outside the box and focus more on learners and not learning styles. We need a mix of media opportunities to reach every learner but we need to do it correctly. 

All that being said, I am intrigued on pushing Moodle, its building blocks and outside modules to build a system that can provide learners multiple learning opportunities from: Webinars that engage, Virtual Learning used collaboratively, Communities of Practice, Badges and Portfolios, Instructor Development (as important if not more so to learners success as any technology or course), and lastly engaging material all focused for the individuals lifetime of learning. That is a quest worthy of pursuing.

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