Many people dread eLearning and online courses because they are picturing hours of PowerPoint slides and clicking the “Next” button. It doesn’t have to be like that! eLearning can and should be more than text on the screen that the learner sits and reads or listens to. After all, that work could be done equally well by sending out text documents and having people read them. Our goal in designing eLearning should be to make it more appealing, more engaging and something that learners want to do. Yes, we need to present the pertinent information, but how we present that information can be much more than we usually see.
There are many great ideas and approaches to accomplishing this, but some ideas come up again and again. Let’s look at a few of the big ideas in eLearning, which we can broadly fit in three big categories: a conversational tone, short learning “pieces” and, the biggest of all, using scenarios and stories.
Make Your eLearning More Appealing
Make it conversational
Learners doing an online course often miss the human element of traditional teaching methods. What do they mean by the “human element”? Think about the difference between reading the instruction manual for setting up a new kitchen gadget and having your friend come over and show you how to use it. The manual might give you the same information, but it only presents dry facts. Your friend, however, will talk to you like a person. They’ll be funny, they’ll be warm, and they’ll relate the task to things you already know. They’ll ask what you want to know—What’s confusing about the set-up? What do you plan to use it for? What problems do you foresee? Both methods will hopefully result in your device working the way it should—but only one seems like a chore!
We can do this in eLearning as well. Writing in a conversational tone is the simplest way to do this, because the learner immediately feels like this is another person relaying the information to them, rather than a robot. Good writing sounds like it’s coming from a person. It’s readable, clear and often fairly simple. It’s the kind of writing that doesn’t require the reader to read the same sentence multiple times in order to figure out what it means.
Conversational doesn’t necessarily mean casual and “hip,” either. We’ve discussed before finding the right voice for your writing, and any of the examples presented there could be described as conversational. After all, we have conversations at work that are professional and factual without using baby talk or internet slang. Forced “coolness” isn’t the same thing as conversational tone, and actually often sounds more robotic than the densest legalese! One excellent trick for making your writing sound more warm and human is by reading it out loud. You’ll naturally find the spots that sound awkward or forced by literally putting it in a human voice.
Keep it short and focused
Long course length is another big enemy in eLearning. It’s very difficult for a learner to sit in front of their computer and focus on a course for an entire day; even a multi-hour course is a stretch if the content is mostly informational text. Breaking the content into very small blocks is a great way to combat this and has the additional benefit of making it easier for the learner to refer back to the training later. If your learner later needs to check on a process or a fact, they are more likely to open up the two-minute course as a refresher than try to find the relevant information in an hour of content.
Even if you’re starting from previously-developed training, it’s possible to break a long document or training program into microlearning, which we discussed previously here. Paring down a long course into manageable bits makes it less daunting for the learner and gives them a sense that they’re making progress because their list of what’s completed gets longer much more quickly. Using “bite-sized” pieces of learning also helps the learner understand the distinct tasks and skills involved in their training, because they are presented as an array of options to explore rather than a linear series of instructions.
The most common suggestion for making eLearning more appealing can be summarized in one word: scenarios. Well-designed, engaging training doesn’t simply present information—it asks the learner to apply the information. Think back to your friend coming over to help you set up your new kitchen gadget rather than reading the instruction manual. If your friend sat down and read the manual out, they wouldn’t be doing much to help! Your friend will probably use scenarios without even realizing it, by getting you to picture yourself using the device for something specific: “When I use this for rice, I like to start by rinsing the rice in cold water.”
Following the logic and problem-solving of a scenario is how human beings like to learn—we like a narrative! There are some interesting academic articles on the neurological processes that happen in the brain when humans are presented with narratives, but suffice to say that stories light up our brains. When we’re told factual information, the language centres of the brain are active, but nothing else. When we’re told stories, whole new areas of the brain are involved, from the motor cortex when we imagine actions to the emotional areas when we picture ourselves in the situation.
Scenarios train people how to use the information we’re presenting, which is almost always the real goal of learning. Following steps, troubleshooting, deciding on a course of action, asking questions, parsing relevant information, coming up with alternatives–this is what we want learners to be able to do. Letting them practice these skills while they are also learning the background information does double duty. They’re more likely to understand the content, the experience will be more pleasant for them, and they will retain more of it.
There are many resources available that talk about improving your eLearning, from academic articles to lists to examples, and they all have ideas and suggestions you can adapt to your needs. Browsing these resources can give you a sense of the common threads that appear over and over again, three of which we discussed here: conversational tone, short pieces and scenario-based learning. These are all broad categories, and it’s worth looking into some of the nuances within them. If you’d like to read more to get additional details, here are some great resources: