by Ethan Edwards, chief instructional strategist
A couple weeks ago I had the privilege to travel to Shanghai to speak at the Online Learning China Summit presented by the Leadin Group in partnership with Training magazine. It was great to be able share design ideas with training specialists from all over China who are at various stages in implementing e-learning solutions within their organizations.
I don’t know if this should be encouraging or disheartening, but the industry there is struggling with many of the same issues we do here in the United States: frustrating authoring tools, IT departments controlling training decisions, SMEs who demand too much content in courses, challenges of applying gaming principles to e-learning designs, and, of course, avoiding boring training. It’s important that we share progress around the globe to bring the whole field forward.
While the conference was wonderful and enlightening, I’m writing about a different lesson I learned while in Shanghai. In planning for my trip I had read about the custom tailor services that are readily available in Shanghai. I was intrigued, so with some trepidation I went to the fabric market area to see if I would be brave enough to commission some clothes.
First a little background.
Shopping for clothes is not an activity I have ever relished. It mainly involves trying on ill-fitting clothes that were intended for someone with an entirely different body than mine, and then buying them out of desperation. But this experience was entirely different. The process began by the tailor asking me lots of questions:
- What style did I like?
- What type of fabric appealed to me?
- What special embellishments might I desire?
- How did I intend to use the clothes?
And then he took an extensive set of measurements of my body. I didn’t try on anything that had been constructed for someone else. I came back a couple days later and then tried on the garments that had been created for me. And guess what? Everything fit. For the first time I knew the feeling of clothes that matched my specific characteristics rather than feeling like I was the problem since I couldn’t fit into the clothes that were available.
So much of the tradition of typical instructional design is based on the idea that we attempt to create an optimal learning experience that is applied in a standard way to all learners—not because that is necessarily best—but because the constraints of traditional classroom training made it very difficult to individualize the experience. But with e-learning, we can change that. We have the opportunity to customize individual experiences for each learner.
Of course the immediate reaction is, “But it is impractical to create a unique lesson for each person.” Actually it’s not that hard. Think back to the tailor. Experience has provided him with skills, a number of standard patterns, a wide but defined array of available fabrics, and systematic ways to adjust a garment as needed. So he didn’t start from scratch. The suit made for me has a million things in common with every other suit he has made and maybe five things that were adjusted specifically for me. But those five things make all the difference in the world.
So when I talk about customizing e-learning, what do I mean?
I don’t mean to design an individual approach for each topic for each learner. Our experience teaches us what kinds of exercises and presentations are likely to be successful. We can create a structure that supports that approach. But we should leave a few key areas open to be customized as each learner dictates.
Here are 5 tips for creating learner-centric designs:
- Allow learners to choose a path rather than forcing all learners down single the path you dictate
- Use learner performance to select what should come next. (e.g., if a learner demonstrates proficiency in an area, skip ahead; if a learner is struggling, provide more detailed feedback and more practice.)
- Honor a learner’s preference to learn by exploration or learn by systematic reading
- Allow elective use of media when it is not central to the experience
- If the learner population is divided into identifiable groups, perhaps use the same interactivity but use content that is relevant to each group (e.g., in a medical organization, the support staff probably has a very different focus of interest than the doctors and surgeons, yet they all may need diversity training. Create the same interactions, but populate them based on the audience. Have scenarios that involve problems in administrative or maintenance settings for the first group; have problems that exist in patient care or medical procedures for the second.)
I don’t know about you, but I find this metaphor very powerful. In fact, while I have understood and valued the individualization principle from an intellectual point of view for a long time, I feel empowered with a new appreciation for the emotional impact of learner-centered design. Experiencing custom-tailored clothes that fit changed my whole perspective on shopping. After that first garment, I immediately ordered some more—just because I finally experienced clothing that fit. I know we can have the same impact—creating learners that are eager and willing to engage in online learning programs—if we commit to creating e-learning that fits.
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