Media Selection Principles Part Two

One you’ve decided to deliver some content electronically, as opposed to the classroom, the next choice is whether to deliver it with a live instructor or not (self-study). At least at McGladrey, the choice is really between synchronous web-based learning with an instructor (webcast) and self-studies; asynchronous instructor-led courses are not yet part of the mix.

The inherent advantage of a webcast is that, thanks to the presence of the live instructor, learners can ask questions. They are also generally cheaper to produce. However, they are inflexible in terms of timing (learners have to attend when they are offered, just like the classroom) and pace.* Self-studies** allow learners to take the course whenever they want. Because no instructor is present, more thought has to go into the narration and the interactions, which is part of why they are more expensive to produce.

The presence of a live instructor suggests that webcasts are better for complex open-ended topics where it is hard to anticipate the questions and discussion. Self-studies, on the other hand, allow learners to slow down, skip, review, and so forth–they have much more control over the pace, suggesting they are a good choice for a diverse audience (in terms of needs or background knowledge) where one size doesn’t fit all.

The table below summarizes the factors separating webcasts and self-studies.

Lean webcast if your course… Lean self-study if your course…
The content is ill-defined. The content is well-defined. Ill-defined content means that the content is open to interpretation. By virtue of having a human instructor, webcasts are a more natural choice for dealing with interpretation (though not as good a choice as classroom, where conversations can flow easier). Self-studies fare better when answers can be judged as clearly right or wrong.
Features relatively simple content. Features relatively complex content. Webcasts move at one pace, in one direction. There is no opportunity to slow down, pause and ponder, or rewind a few steps. Note that complexity and definition (ill-defined or well-defined) are independent; content can be well-defined but complex and vice versa. Complexity is also audience-dependent. Something that seems complex to a novice may be simple to an expert.
Is aimed at a relatively homogeneous population. Is aimed at a relatively heterogeneous population. Self-studies offer the possibility of self-pacing and branching. The more heterogeneous the population (whether in terms of background knowledge, culture, needs, or whatever), the less one-pace-fits-all.
Is aimed at a relatively small population. Is aimed at a relatively large population. Self-studies are more expensive to produce, making them less feasible for small audiences. Likewise, the larger the audience, the greater the number of webcasts that will need to be scheduled to accommodate everyone, so at some point you might as well just create a self-study.
Has a long shelf life. Has a short shelf life. The extra expense of building a self-study makes them less appealing for content that is quickly outdated.
Features content that has a natural linearity, or where learners need all the content. Features content where learners might only need certain pieces. Self-studies offer the possibility that learners can get in, grab the particular piece of content they need, and then get out again.

None of this is to say that innovative designs can’t overcome some of the limitations of a given media.

* Of course, webcasts can be recorded and viewed any time, which means learners can listen to them any time (and at their own pace), but without the advantages of a live instructor nor the interactivity of self-studies. Plus, in the CPA world, it’s easy to get CPE credit for attending a webcast or completing a self-study, but not for listening to a recording.

** Self-study is defined as a self-paced course delivered electronically that includes judged interactions (typically multiple choice) with feedback. The rules for what qualifies for CPE credit in the CPA world are more specific for self-studies than they are for webcasts or live classroom-based learning. Self-studies, for instance, require that learners pass a final exam in order to receive credit. No such rule is in place for webcasts or live classroom-based courses. Developing a good final exam is another cost that makes self-studies more expensive for developers (and more time-consuming for learners).


2 thoughts on “Media Selection Principles Part Two

  1. Ellen

    Interesting and well-written, Bob–no surprise there. But I think you need to take a look at this sentence and see if you find a contradiction: “Self-studies, for instance, require that learners pass a final exam in order to receive credit. No such rule is in place for webcasts and self-studies.” Deleting the last two words will fix it.


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