E-learning engagement: Compelling content

Engaging e-learners is ever-more important, but it demands more than a flashing screen and online quizzes. The experts say how it should be done.

Many of us have become addicted to interactivity on the internet. If it moves, blinks or flashes, we have an irresistible urge to click on it.

Such elements have made the web a much more interesting and compelling place to be. It is similarly the case with e-learning. It’s no longer about having to absorb large chunks of inanimate text. Learners can do everything from undertaking a short online quiz to immersing themselves in a 3D simulation.

But Lars Unneberg, chief executive of e-learning publisher Mohive, fears there is a danger that learners merely engage with the interactive bells and whistles rather than the content itself.

Interactivity risks

“The key challenge facing many e-learning developers is to focus the interaction on what matters – the actual subject matter,” says Unneberg, who has just written a white paper on interactivity.

“I’m a very strong believer that interaction can enhance learning and help us use learning to change behaviours and the way we do things. But you have to ask: ‘what do we want the learner to learn?'”

Of course, any e-learning provider worth their salt would never put technology before learning, but it isn’t just down to the providers to take responsibility for ensuring this doesn’t happen.

Geoff Stead, technology director of the learning and publishing business of the Tribal Group, says there is a danger that learners are wowed by ‘flashiness’, but believes they are quite savvy about this. He argues that the problem is more evident at the purchasing or commissioning stage.

“Purchasers want to see ‘flashy’, and see this as a measure of learner benefit, while in reality the real benefit is about interacting with the subject matter, not the interface,” he says.

Unnecessary gimmicks

Lars Hyland, director of learning services at e-learning developer Brightwave, believes there is still too much e-learning created with unnecessary techie gimmicks, but feels this will change as attention moves away from training towards ‘performance support’.

“As long as the design provides an actionable model for the learner to support their job performance, then there is no danger the interactions themselves become self-serving,” he says.

So how can providers ensure that interaction itself presses the right buttons for the learner and draws them into the content? Clearly, adhering to some good old-fashioned learning principles helps developers stay on the side of right as far as the use of interaction goes, and Jeremy Blain, joint managing director of learning and development provider Cegos, says “pedagogy is the golden thread” that should run through all programmes.

“We’ve never thought technology is the be-all and end-all,” he says. “The learner and learning goal must be at the heart of it.”

Learner focus

During an e-learning programme, Cegos says it maintains the learner’s focus by getting them to interact and do something every 30 seconds. It also backs up all learning activities with a series of steps, including a validation and summary stage.

Brightwave takes a similarly holistic approach, and Hyland says it’s important to make sure the context is relevant to a learner’s real world so they can immediately see how it is put into practice. He adds that the chances of engagement will also be increased if employers and e-learning providers prepare people to learn by getting them to answer questions such as ‘why do I have to do this?’

Unneberg agrees and says learners must be made to reflect more on the learning activity. If an online questionnaire is used, he says, the questions asked should be more open. “They should make the learner reflect and think before they answer and explore different alternatives,” he says.

Unneberg adds that one of the ways he believes e-learning will be made more effective and engaging is by empowering those closer to both the learner and the content to create it themselves.

Nobody can pretend to have all of the answers on how interactivity can best be used in learning programmes, and there are doubtless more challenges to come. The gaming generation currently entering the workforce has grown up with interaction and is not only likely to expect it in any screen-based training but also be more discerning when it comes to its usage.

Interactivity tips

Lars Unneberg, CEO of Mohive, has five top tips to inject interactivity into your courses.

  1. Don’t tell. Ask? Good interactivity means creating a dialogue with the learner. Asking questions that the learner does not necessarily know the answer to will encourage engagement.
  2. Interactivity isn’t testing. Interactivity ensures the learner strongly engages with the subject matter. Testing is something else entirely and should be separate from the content learning stage.
  3. Skip the script. It is very difficult to inject interactivity into a Word document. Always try to write directly into a rapid solution with templates.
  4. Tell a tale. Adding storytelling makes it much easier to write interactively and ensures content is presented in relevant context.
  5. Don’t get lost. Avoid creating unnecessary content. First, identify the learning objectives, then use these to help pinpoint where interactivity should be in course.

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