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Go Beyond Sizzle & Fizzle: Create Learning that Delights

by Ethan Edwards, chief instructional strategist | @ethanaedwards

Ethan Edwards

We’re just a few days away from the Independence Day holiday here in the United States. For most, this is a weekend full of celebration, with parades, barbeques, ice-cold watermelon, family outings, and fireworks. While I enjoy all these things to a degree, I’m sort of neutral about fireworks—I don’t mean the great big civic fireworks shows, but the ones you’re supposed to enjoy in your own yard.

I know that this mild aversion is directly related to my own experiences. I grew up in a home that was decidedly anti-fireworks. For one thing, fireworks were illegal in Illinois, and we were taught to disapprove (correctly, I believe) of our schoolmates who would cross over into Missouri to bring home fireworks to set off in flagrant disregard for law and order. But my brothers and I would beg for fireworks anyway. I can’t even say what I hoped to gain if we had access to fireworks, but the appeal of what everyone else is doing was hard to resist. 

My dad was a chemist. One year he thought up a grand compromise. He would take us to his chemistry laboratory and, in place of setting off fireworks, he would oversea our mixing of gunpowder. We were a decidedly pacifist family and so my prior experience with gunpowder of any sort was non-existent, but Dad assured us that gunpowder was a primary ingredient in most fireworks, so it would essentially be the same thing.

Well, we mixed up a very small amount of sulfur, charcoal, and potassium

nitrate, took the mixture home, and in the evening of July 4 wrapped up little packets of the black powder in tissue paper, took them out to the driveway, placed each on a brick, applied a match, and (from my 8-year old perspective) waited for the magic. There was none. We just saw a very bright flame burn for a few seconds accompanied by the gentlest sizzling sound. I think my Dad thought we had done something quite wonderful; to me, it was a huge disappointment.

Sizzle & Fizzle

Fast forward 20 years or so: Celebrating July 4th away from home, I was with some friends (clearly of a different upbringing) who had purchased a mixed selection of incendiary devices with the most exciting of names: Flaming Parrots, Pyro Machine Gun, Super Sonic Warheads, and even the misleadingly gentle-sounding Willows Among the Palms. So I experienced a full dose of what I had craved for so long, and found myself equally disappointed. There was a great deal of sparkle and sizzle, but it really added up to nothing. The cumulative effect of these experiences is that I don’t really look forward to fireworks displays, but rather view them as an annoyance to be endured as part of the overall July 4th experience. 

Now you needn’t care about my personal grievances with fireworks, but I’m sharing this story to perhaps shed a new perspective on why much e-learning fails to connect with the learner. I think we’re sort of trapped in one of two camps: 

In the first, many organizations seem to approach e-learning like my father approached fireworks. They recognize that others are jumping in to an exotic technology and want to join in. But because they are in the serious business of training, they don’t want to vary too far from what is essential. So the training is no-frills, content-laden, testing-focused, no-nonsense. The gunpowder had all the essential ingredients of fireworks, so why shouldn’t that be good enough? Similarly, page-turning presentational e-learning has content and interaction--and maybe even media in the form of narration and video—so that should suffice. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work because it fails to create a satisfactory user experience.

The other approach to e-learning is parallel to the people shooting off the Flaming Parrots in their back yard. Lured by the appeal of the grand million dollar civic displays, individuals try to recreate the same thrill without the means or skills to do so. I see a parallel with how in recent times everyone wants to jump on the gamification wagon to improve e-learning, motivated by the fact that young people seem to find online gaming irresistible. Many people forget that the most successful games are accomplished through million dollar investments and thousands of working hours. It’s a little foolish to expect similar results with the limited resources that are typically available for e-learning development. But like the backyard fireworks, even after trying to insert mind-blowing media or gaming aspects into the e-learning, the user is ultimately disappointed anyway. It may be a startling experience for the user but it’s unclear what the desired outcome was. 

I like to think that the correct choice lies somewhere in between. That the user’s experience should always be at the center of designing e-learning. Content alone is ill-suited for delivery via computer; the basic elements need to be woven into an experience that the learner controls and values. On the other hand, designs need to stay focused in pursuit of a specific purpose. Media misapplied is just as big a waste as a void. But appropriate pizazz, integrated seamlessly and intelligently with a specific performance outcome in mind, can be the perfect learning experience for the learner. 

Last year my neighbors invited me over for a little July 4th home grown pageant their kids put together. There were some actions to depict the Revolutionary War and other “great moments” in history, culminating in a display of a small Statue of Liberty, around which were arranged some inexpensive sparklers. It was perfect…not the dour seriousness of gunpowder burning on a brick nor the pointless abandon of Flaming Parrots or Willows Among the Palms waving in the air. I wish the e-learning that companies invest in could achieve a similarly delightful balance in creating their user experiences.

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