Achieving tenure is a peak experience in academia, and it was no different for Brenda Sugrue when she became a tenured associate professor of instructional design and technology at the University of Iowa last year. Only she left the school soon after. "The desire to build my own business and have the freedom to create something that is entirely new started creeping up on me as I was finishing the tenure track," Sugrue says. "I love teaching and I may return to academia, but starting my company was an opportunity to really apply everything I've learned along the way to the growing industry of e-learning."
Sugrue's personal mission with eLearnia is to improve the quality of e-learning content by moving the emphasis from information design and delivery to a focus on what she calls authentic activities. "Most of the e-learning content out there is informational and most of the methodologies are about chopping up that information and tagging it so it can be shared and assembled in different ways," Sugrue says. "What has taken a backseat is practice and feedback, which support the second stage of learning in cognitive terms."
With eLearnia's methodology, learners are forced to engage in a sequence of decisions that are repeated in multiple cases. "These small, modular activities take a critical decision or problem that is encountered on the job and gives the novice multiple opportunities to practice that particular subskill or decision," she says. "So when they go back on the job, they have experience and confidence, and their errors have already been corrected. This allows their supervisors to focus on higher levels of performance."
Sugrue, who grew up in Ireland, came to the United States in 1986 after receiving a Fulbright Scholarship. She chose to study at Iowa State University because at the time it was on the leading edge in the development of computer-based training, particularly simulations. From there she went to ucla to work at the National Center for Research on Evaluation, Standards and Student Testing. She also taught at the University of Southern California and the University of Northern Colorado before returning to Iowa, this time to the University of Iowa.
One of Sugrue's strengths is her ability to integrate ideas from numerous fields and create new theories and applications. "I taught my students the 'party line' of instructional design, as I call it, but I also taught them other ways of looking at learning and instruction based on cognitive psychology, research on intelligent tutoring systems, and the larger framework of human performance technology, so my students were always applying innovative approaches to performance analysis, instructional design, cbt and wbt. Several of her past students now work for eLearnia.
Looking to the future, Sugrue believes that content will become everyone's focus in e-learning. The issues deviling people today—dealing with infrastructure, system management and integration—will all be resolved, while content will be more flexible, more dynamic, and if she has her way, more activity-based. "Right now, people are learning at their desks, logging on to do a course or to attend a live e-learning event, and then logging out. It's a separate activity from their jobs. I think as e-learning becomes more integrated with online performance support systems, it will be possible to quickly find a piece of information or a practice activity that will be just what you need right then," she says. "It will be seamlessly linked to job performance."