by Nicole Mellas, Instructional Designer
“That training was great! I clicked through it in 5 minutes even though it was supposed to take 30.”
“I loved that training! I could keep working while the audio played, so it didn’t interrupt my day.”
As Instructional Designers, the odds are pretty good that we’ve heard a “compliment” like this once or twice. It’s the kind of feedback that clients and stakeholders might not mind getting, because at least it sounds positive! But for those of us trying to create learner-centric training experiences, this kind of feedback tells us that most likely we didn’t accomplish what we set out to accomplish.
“Wait,” the devil’s advocate (or your key stakeholder) might say, “the learners said that they like it! Doesn’t that mean that our training is learner-centric?” There are two answers to that question. First of all, because so many learners have been exposed to terribly boring e-learning, “liking” it and “not hating it” are pretty much synonymous. But we can do better! We want to move beyond training that presents a minimal inconvenience to learners and into engaging learning experiences that actually improve a learner’s day-to-day job experiences. Secondly (and more importantly), “liking” the training is really only half the battle when it comes to putting the learner first.
If there’s one thing that all learners have in common, it’s that they don’t want training to take too long. That’s why learners tend to rate a training more favorably when it’s short. Well-meaning stakeholders tend to assume this means training shouldn’t be difficult or challenging in any way so that learners can “just get through it.” But the truth is that what a learner defines as “too long” is intimately connected to the value they see in the training. Learners are willing to spend more time in a training that is obviously beneficial. The only way for you to ensure that training is beneficial to the learner is to put the learner at the center of your design (not the center of your decision for how long the e-learning course should take to complete).
To do this, close your eyes and imagine that you are your learner. (Well, maybe don’t close your eyes so you can keep reading.) Have you put yourself in your learner’s shoes? If so, then answer these questions:
1. What do I have to do?
The answer to this question determines the type of interaction you create. Do you need to be able to create a certain dish in a restaurant without looking at the recipe? That’s a very different activity than being able to explain the same dish to a customer when they’re trying to decide what to order. Once you are very clear on the “do”, the activity becomes a little more obvious.
2. What do I need to know to get started?
Note: This is a very different question than “What do I need to know to do it perfectly?” Think back to the last time you learned a new game. Chances are, if someone started explaining all of the strategic nuances to you before you even cracked open the box, you would tune them out. Keep that in mind and only give learners enough information up front to allow them to try out the first challenge. Then, give them access to resources so learners who prefer to get some questions answered before taking a risk can (but learners who prefer to jump in and make a few mistakes can do that too!).
3. What helps me do it better? How can I avoid mistakes?
The answers to these questions belong in the feedback of your activity. As the learner, you are primed to receive this more nuanced information after you have already used your existing knowledge to take a risk and make a choice within an activity. Think back to learning that new game. All of the nuanced information your friend wanted to provide before you started didn’t make sense to you, so it wasn’t memorable. Once the game has started, however, you have a framework to make sense of the tips he/she was trying to impart.
Is seat time important to learner-centric design? Of course! However, respecting a learner’s time doesn’t simply mean shortening the course. Five minutes spent blindly clicking a page turner is wasteful. Fifteen minutes spent practicing a behavior in an interaction that simulates your work environment is not.
Five minutes spent blindly clicking a page turner is wasteful. Fifteen minutes spent practicing a behavior in an interaction that simulates your work environment is not.
Are you ready to put a design to the test?
Try this: launch an e-learning course, and then just start clicking. Don’t bother reading the content, questions, answer options, or really anything on the screen. Just click. Can you get through the course? If you could, then your learner definitely did. And even if it only took them five minutes to do so, it was a waste of their time.
This does not mean disable the next button until the audio stops playing. That doesn’t ensure attention (but it does ensure frustration). Rather, come up with activities in which actions have consequences beyond “that was right” and “that was wrong.” As soon as your learner realizes that actually learning a behavior is the best way through the e-learning course, they will offer the gift of their attention. And once they realize the training isn’t a waste of time, they won’t just like it. They’ll love it.
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