By Ethan Edwards, Chief Instructional Strategist
‘Tis the season of snow and cold…and holiday sweaters—each lovingly created with all good intent, sometimes gaudy, sometimes uncomfortable, sometimes utilitarian, but rarely as beautiful as imagined. The same can so often be said about e-learning modules.
We start out with brave intentions to create something uniquely satisfying, but after accounting for strained resources, limited time, imperfect development tools, complex subject matter, and unpredictable learners, we end up with something not quite as beautiful as we’d hoped.
Oddly, many of the problems with these holiday sweaters mirror the problems with failed e-learning.
The Content Dump
This sweater does nothing but deliver the goods…compact and concentrated but no effort to enliven the relentless sequence of too many white stitches. The same thing happens when we agree with subject matter experts (SMEs) that the highest priority is simply getting the information online—importing text-heavy PowerPoint slides or text documents (page 1 of 45 anyone?)—making the learner responsible for creating any meaning out of this relentless uniformity.
The Misapplied Templates
On the one hand there’s nothing wrong with this sweater…pleasing traditional patterns combined into a whole. The problem is, the patterns don’t go together, and the repetition makes what might have been interesting on its own almost unbearable. The same thing happens when question templates are applied indiscriminately and in too great of repetition without regard for the overall impact on the learner. The instructional intent matters and interactions need variety to address the meaningful details in any training problem.
The Talking Head
No one needs a super-sized reindeer on one’s chest. It makes it impossible to notice anything else. The same goes for e-learning. Rarely does a talking avatar or video commentator on its own enhance learning. Instead, it just introduces countless visual elements of negligible importance to distract the learner from the actual purpose of the training. If the head has some specific purpose (as a context-specific coach or a functional guide to provide specific instruction, etc.), then this can be effective. But if implemented just as a generic attempt to add interest to a boring narrative, it usually creates more distraction than focus.
The Misunderstood Audience
Sometimes the knitter is thinking more about themself than the recipient. I’m afraid the goal here was more in the knitting than in the wearing of this item. We can fall into the same trap in designing e-learning courses. The decision to create e-learning is sometimes made without any serious consideration if it would actually be necessary or useful to the learner. Just as this dog might benefit more from knitted boots than a sweater, sometimes learners would be better served by an information resource or job-aid than a rigorously tested e-learning module.
The Mixed Message
Who is this sweater really for? What is it trying to say? Is it celebrating Hannukah? Is it celebrating Christmas? Is it doing neither but trying to cover all bases? There’s no way to know. e-Learning can easily fall into this trap, resulting in a very confused result. Are the compliance modules for the benefit of the company? Are they for the benefit of the learner? Or are they viewed as something that has to be done but which no one really cares for? The intention and meaning of the training needs to be clear and relevant to the learner.
Overwhelmed by the Media
Somewhere along the line, the sweater stopped being about the holidays and became a celebration of the saxophone. I doubt if the creator intended that and was even aware of it. When we invest a lot of time in the design and development of an item, it is easy to become blind to unintended impact. In e-learning, it is vital to use media such as music, narration, animation, and video to enhance the message you want to communicate, but it’s easy for the message to get lost as more and more resources are devoted to maximizing the cool factor of the treatment.
The Kitchen Sink
Whoa! Not sure what you want to include? No problem…just include it all! It takes vision and courage to set priorities and act on them. The easy course is to roll with the status quo and accept everything. This is sweater is certainly not focused, but no one can criticize the designer for being incomplete. That risk is always looming before us in how we map the content structure and sequence for an e-learning module. The SME is almost always urging inclusion of everything, yet by including everything, we make it nearly impossible for the learner to focus on anything. The hard choices involve saying “No, we need to leave that out.”
Copy Cat Mobile Learning
This knitted vest has all the problems of a bad knitted sweater—there’s just less of it. In e-learning the pressure to create mobile learning modules has resulted in tools and projects that indeed run on the smaller devices, but recreate the same problems inherent in their full-featured desktop versions. And they make no allowances for the different delivery constraints imposed on the design by the limitations of a phone or tablet. Most businesses have realized that it is a fundamentally different process of using a browser and using a mobile device and that separate apps, or at least separate web pages, are required. It is surprising how often the training world continues to think that the only parameter to consider in mobile learning is the technical barrier of modules running on the technology. In fact, the bigger problem is reconceiving what a mobile learning experience should be like.
Isn’t this sweater fun?? At any rate, the designer was hoping it would be. But superficial decoration doesn’t change a basic experience. Gamification in e-learning is a hot trend, but it takes more than just characters and colorful elements to create a game. A game needs a believable context and compelling challenge; the user needs to be able to take action to achieve some end, and in doing so receive recognition and then be challenged further. Game failures, like the sweater, happen when game-like elements are applied without integrating them into the content and performance outcomes.
The Boggled Conversion
Just because a design works in one implementation doesn’t mean it works across the board. Santa’s suit needs to be in velvet, the belt needs to be leather, the white trim needs to be fluffy. This sweater is more effective at communicating how inadequate it is than in communicating the essence of Santa. The same thing happens when existing training (usually ILT) is thoughtlessly converted to e-learning. Asynchronous e-learning is a fundamentally different process than group classroom instruction. It’s impossible to directly recreate a successful classroom experience into an e-learning experience, yet it is attempted all the time.
This sweater presents a lot of images. But it adds up to nothing, or at best, it adds up to confusion. Just putting these images together doesn’t really give any impression at all. It is all delivery with no thought to content. Training departments can fall into the same trap as they implement an LMS. Often the LMS was selected and purchased through a torturous, lengthy, and expensive process. Once that happens, one would like to see some immediate benefit. Unfortunately, the LMS doesn’t do much except organize learning events. The hard work of successful training still must be designed and built into the individual learning elements. Don’t let over-complicated LMS protocols interfere with the actual instruction.
What’s to be done?
Are holiday sweaters bad? Should we avoid them at all cost? Of course not. But we shouldn’t settle for that which is highly flawed. Just like with sweaters, we need to strive to do better with e-learning and not fall into these familiar traps. We should become deeply familiar with past traditions, noting those elements that are successful and those that fail, looking to our learners to understand emerging trends that might affect the acceptance of our training modules, stretching our own technical knowledge and design creativity to insert new elements into the work we do, and continually questioning our work as we move forward that we might continue to achieve output that is, in a word,…
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