Creating an engaging, effective e-learning experience can be a daunting task. There are many considerations, the LEAST of which is the technical delivery which most folk normally latch on to. The tools are an enabler, for sure, but the ability to communicate – in words, in pictures, with meaningful interaction, with clarity – is much more important. However, this ability appears to be in scarce supply. Too much of what people experience as “e-learning” makes poor use of the medium, even to the extent of obscuring the key learning messages it intends to convey.
This is a shame as poor perceptions mean that people can come to an e-learning experience already expecting to be bored, uninspired and desperate to secure their “tick in the box” as quickly as possible. It doesn’t and shouldn’t have to be this way. It is hard to hold attention, granted. Distractions abound. Learners can, quite rightly, simply click away if the experience we design fails to offer a compelling enough proposition to stir the necessary self-motivation needed to stay focused or return when circumstances allow. Mandating completion is not enough. We have to persuade and engage – and that takes thought, consideration, creativity and care. It is a false economy to ignore the steps to good design practice. You can, with some guidance, learn to design e-learning that has real IMPACT.
Over the past few months – at both conferences and webinars – I have been describing a model that can be used to successfully audit existing and planned e-learning projects, and become embedded within a e-learning development strategy. The IMPACT model provides a structure for considering six key aspects of effective e-learning design:
Let’s take a brief look at each one in turn:
Interaction is what makes e-learning different from other media. It should be purposeful, bringing the learner into the content, bring alive a key concept and immerse them in believable scenarios. It is not just “click next to continue” or “click to reveal more information”. Too much e-learning relies on this alone and wonders why it loses its audience’s attention at virtually the first screen.
Good examples of interaction include dynamic models that let you play and explore with variables so you can quickly see the consequences of your actions. This does not have to be complex and expensive. For one organisation, to explain how pensions work, we designed a simple real time graph that allows the learner to change important factors that affect the eventual value of their pension including length of service, contributions and investment performance. Visually simple, the dynamic nature of the interaction quickly demonstrates the effect these have on retirement (frighteningly for many people!). Note that this learning could not easily be achieved any other way than with a good interaction. That’s a good indicator that you are including interaction appropriately and not just to add unnecessary barriers for your learners.
E-learning can draw on any digital asset you can care to mention. Yet we typically settle for text, stock images and clip art. Often there are technical constraints that preclude the use of video and audio. Indeed, there are also learning design reasons why the use of media is inappropriate. For example, for those audiences working in contact centres where the telephone is the primary form of customer communication, it would be good practice to design customer care scenarios that are audio only to provide a model of practice that can be more readily transferred to the work environment.
Where possible though, using video can be emotionally engaging and can realistically replicate real world situations when combined with well constructed interaction. Simulating elements of a job, whether this is real video, 3D animation or an immersive world, or simply photo sequences can provide a meaningful and applied framework for the learner.
If the message is too generic, bland or full of alien language that is patronising to your intended audience, it is unlikely to resonate. Context is crucial and writing clearly in a tone that fits your organisation’s culture, values and specific work practices makes a huge difference in learner’s taking ownership of the experience you present them with.
Equally, personalising the content to their specific needs, such as their job role, their accessibility requirements (low, high bandwidth option, screen-readers etc) and preferred media can ensure the learner feels in control and can concentrate on the key messages rather than the tool they are using to access them.
Introducing social media can further personalise the experience through access to other peers and expert support where available.
Too much training and learning focuses on abstract policies, processes, systems and idealised situations which lack the real hooks and context that allow learners to apply new skills and knowledge back in the work place. The very fact they have had to leave the workplace – physically in the case of traditional classroom training, and cognitively in the case of abstract e-learning content – makes it difficult to transfer the learning experience into practice. You can bridge this gap by closely simulating the work environment in which they need to apply the new skills and knowledge. One example of this is a simulation within a travel agent which trains new staff to sell foreign exchange. This brings together all aspects of the role – operating a computer system, understanding currency, regulatory policy, customer service, sales skills and rapport building. By mixing these activities in a way that mimics the actual job, transfer of the virtual practice is much much easier than if these elements were separately trained.
Too much e-learning is too simplistic. It fails to challenge its audience either in its treatment or the difficulty levels of its assessment. There’s almost an unspoken conspiracy that lulls trainers, managers and staff into a false sense of security because they all “pass”. Never mind if any lasting change in performance is seen in the workplace. Challenge the expectations of the learner and provoke an emotional response. Take a stance, use your writing style to set an attitude, create surprise, laughter, fear, whatever is appropriate for your subject matter and audience. Don’t make your interactions too obvious and easy – it’s good to make the learner think carefully before they act or answer. But that’s not to say we want to frighten learners way – the challenges can be structured to support failure positively and use it as a learning experience to move forward. But foremost the learning must be stimulating, cognitively stretching and memorable.
Game designers have evolved highly sophisticated models that make challenges fun, addictive and memorable for it. In particular casual games, with their shared leaderboards, multiple levels, and regular achievements/badge collecting can be used to great effect in learning about product features/benefits, policies, processes and other knowledge heavy areas where repeated exposure improves long term retention.
Repetition matters more than we like to think. Too many training courses – either in the classroom or as e-learning sessions – are deployed as single events that are completed once and we expect our audience to be trained. The fact is we forget most of what we experience with this one-hit, sheep-dip model. E-learning provides a unique opportunity to structure more frequent, spaced exposure to learning that is interwoven into work practices. This increases learning retention and transfer massively. Thinking in terms of a “campaign” rather than a “course” will change how you design every learning solution towards a smaller, fluid, blended experience. It may have less visible Big Bang, but it will be more effective in building the intended performance change in your audience.
Make an IMPACT
The IMPACT model can act as a useful framework for a more in depth review of how to design more effective e-learning. Anyone of any level of experience, resources, budget can benefit from applying this model to their design activities. While the quantity of e-learning will continue to rise, I’d like to see quality to rise too so that e-learning can really deliver on its promise. We all have a part to play in demanding good design – it makes all the difference.