e-Learning: Over-engineered for information transfer, under-engineered for learning

I’ve seen some really good examples of self-study e-learning in the past few weeks. First when I sat in for a day judging for The E-Learning Awards and second during the Demo Fest at DevLearn 2011 here in Las Vegas. These were programmes that delivered on the promise. They tackled a topic that for which e-learning was an appropriate solution and they didn’t compromise in making sure that there was a successful learning outcome for the learner.
On the other hand I’ve seen some terrible stuff over the past twelve months, and I’ve met plenty of people outside the ed-tech community who have admitted to me that they can’t stand e-learning. This should not be the case, at least not on such a widespread scale. After all, we’ve been doing this for at least 30 years now under various guises. We should know what we’re doing.
There seem to be two problems. We over-engineer for information transfer and we under-engineer for learning.
Let’s take the first. Cammy Bean did a great job in her session yesterday, called Clicky, clicky, bling, bling, of drawing attention to the absurd lengths to which we sometimes now go supposedly to engage the learner. It’s gloss. It’s razzmatazz. Sorry, but for me it’s a turn off. Extravagant, glitzy graphics don’t entice me to pay attention; they signal that I’m about to be presented with a commercial. It’s time to put the kettle on.
Mostly, the developers of these programmes are going to these lengths because they know that they’re really just passing over information. They feel embarrassed about this, so they want to compensate with all sorts of extra goodies. But surely all that matters is that the information is relevant and useful. If it’s not, why are you delivering it at all? If it is, aren’t there simpler ways of putting it across? What’s wrong with a nicely written and well illustrated web page or PDF? When I’m looking for information on the web, I don’t complain if I get presented with simple web pages or YouTube videos. In fact I’m really happy with these. Equally I don’t complain when the books I read are full of words. Surely that model’s worked well now for hundreds of years.
The second problem is that so many e-learning programs simply don’t take people far enough on their learning journeys. Yes, they present the underlying facts, concepts and processes. Yes, they may include some modest case study or scenario, perhaps just some sort of quiz. But it takes a lot more than one superficial practice activity to build a skill. Usually our first attempt at any new skill serves only to alert us to its difficulty. It’s a case of conscious incompetence. It takes repeated practice with realistic challenges and personalised feedback to build the confidence required to go to the next step. Designing this stuff is difficult, but then no-one said instructional design was easy.
Perhaps what I’m saying is this. Do less formal e-learning. Use other, much more straightforward media instead for information transfer. And the e-learning projects that we do undertake we should do more thoroughly, making sure that our learners really do achieve the required competence. Don’t over-engineer, don’t under-engineer. Get the balance right. 

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